The music finished its crescendo, signaling it had reached the end, and was now petering off the way songs tended to. It also indicated my journey was coming to an end. A sensual woman’s voice came over the same speaker that had played the music. “We’ve arrived. I hope your trip was pleasant.”
“Oh, every day is a joy with you, Saia.” I braced against the slowing of the sideways elevator, and fought down the smallest bit of motion sickness. “Tell Doctor Hashimoto that if he ever upgrades you to true sapience, I’m going to fly to Japan to ask him for your digital hand in marriage personally.”
“Is that so?” Only someone like me would recognize that the AI hesitated, accessing a delay phrase so she could find a more effective response. “How do you feel about polygamy? I currently have six thousand, one hundred and eight suitors. Not including my sister’s Japanese fans.”
Damn. For a second there, I almost thought I had her. “Just remember that none of them could ever appreciate you the way I do.”
I stepped out of the Shadow-Tube into a tunnel as dark as the tube had been. “Okay, guys, I appreciate the paranoia. In fact, I’ll take it as a compliment you think so highly of my abilities, but are we going to hold the whole meeting in the dark?”
“Our apologies, sir,” said a woman whose voice couldn’t hold a metaphorical candle to Saia’s. “We keep it dark to give your eyes a chance to adjust from the darkness of the tube. The last thing we’d want is for undue harm to come to one of our valued consultants.”
A dim glow began in the cieling which put truth to their words. I spotted the silhouette of two people in the rather impressive room.
“Implying that due harm is all well and good.” Unable to see my feet, I took a couple tentative steps forward.
“Such is the nature of our business.” Now I could see the silhouettes were guards, armed with weapons I wasn’t prepared to make assumptions about. The shorter one, I assumed the woman I was talking to, carried a gun which looked like a supersoaker. I was willing to bet it was a Gadget, and thus could do almost anything, but it could also have been an ordinary water gun loaded with some sort of chemical weapon. Her taller companion held what looked to be a battle staff, but also could have been any kind of Imbued weapon.
“Do keep your jokes to yourself, though,” the man said. “Hook is not known for his sense of humor.”
“I’ll be on my best behavior.” I had no intention of riling up the boss, anyway. Leaving aside the rather generous salary, the man was a supervillain who called himself ‘Hook’. Rumor had it, he did in fact select the name for the fictional pirate captain of Peter Pan fame; the original J. M. Barrie version. As I understood it, the original Peter Pan was a villain protagonist, the original Hook something of a violent antihero, and both were card carrying psychopaths of the highest order. Regardless of origin, there was no doubt Hook loved high literature, intimidation, and being a card carrying psychopath of the highest order.
We walked in silence, aside the click-clack of their boots on the linoleum of the floors while the hall came to full illumination. “Before you go in,” the man said. “We must ask if you’re carrying any recording, transmission, or other surveillance device or ability which could monitor your meeting.”
Oh, ain’t that a weighted question, and if this guy’s not a Truthsayer, then they have one listening. “My power grants a form of eidetic memory, but otherwise all I’ve got on me is natural wetware.” I wasn’t stupid enough to bring my pet phone-spiders with me. It wasn’t hard to find more; I caught two or three a year in my realspace filters, but it took forever to domesticate the vicious little bastards. “Just to make it clear, you’re not planning to take the wetware away, right? I grant you it’s outdated junk, but I’d like to keep it until I can find an upgrade.”
A moment of silence suggested they were, indeed, consulting someone via communications device. “You’re free to go in, now.”
“Cool.” The advantage of being important was that I didn’t need to waste time on formalities. The wall slid open, revealing another hallway. Impressed at how the panel fit into the wall so well that I never realized there was a door hidden there, I stepped into the secret passage. The door behind me slid shut almost the second I made it through. Are there any wonders that a combination of paranoia and absurd wealth cannot accomplish?
With only one direction available, I walked along the hall. Much like the one I just left, it was a boring off-white color the likes of which would have been at home in any office on the planet. Now, however, I had a new appreciation for generic walls which no doubt concealed a thousand different death traps. Knowing my luck, all were designed to inflict horrible pain rather than the sweet release of death.
I rounded a corner to another secret panel, which was already open. I took the invitation for what it was, and entered what looked like an ordinary board room. The table was wood, and knowing Hook it was some expensive wood like Mahogany.
At the head of the table sat a huge man, in every sense of the word. He looked like a linebacker whose career ended after he ate the opposing team. Dressed in a custom white business suit, he wore a full faced mask in the form of a stern, older Asian man. It reminded me of those Terracotta Warriors from China. Knowing Hook, the mask might even have come from one of the statues.
“Good of you to join us in person, Network,” he spoke with perfect clarity and diction despite the covering over his face. Then he gestured to the chairs with his big, more than a little pudgy, hand. “Please, have a seat. You’ll find the computer is connected to the monitor and loaded with all your reports and video files, if you feel you need them.”
“Thank you, Sir.” I sat across the table from the young woman who also occupied my position as ‘whatever Hook wants us to be’. Her golden costume was form-fitting, and spoke of a woman who took pride in her body. Her own gold mask was that of a cherubic girl wearing a blindfold. She only needed a sword and scales to be a direct ripoff of Lady Justice. While watching her, I accessed the computer and confirmed they removed the wifi card.
“I know you’re concerned with why I brought you here today, rather than respect your self-imposed isolation,” he continued. “Meet Intel. She, like you, is one of my more talented resources. I wish to consult with both of you in real time before making a major move.”
Self imposed isolation? What an articulate way to say I hate people. I ignored the boss’s statement and smiled at the woman. She was better looking, anyway. “Pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”
She leaned back in her chair. “Oh, god. The day I become a ma’am, I’m gonna write a suicide note.” Her mask didn’t have the same trick Hook’s did to speak through without trouble, so her voice was a bit muffled. “Anyhow, I’m a Tracker built around psychological analysis. You tell me someone’s powers, and I’ll tell you their personalities and inner nature.”
What. “Wait. How’s that even possible? I thought powers were unpredictable. I don’t think I’d have picked the power I got, if I had any choice in the matter.”
“Who gets them and how they’ll manifest in someone who doesn’t yet have any? That’s impossible to predict. At least, it is for me. But when we get powers, they’re shaped by our subconscious.” She leaned forward again, engaging the conversation in earnest. “Powers don’t give us what we want. They give us who we are. Then they take something dear to us as compensation.”
Best way to get a Tracker talking? Ask them about their power. “And who you are, is knowing who other people are?”
“Something like that. A little closer to home, you’re a Gadgeteer. All Gadgeteers have at least one thing in common: above all other things, they yearn to be the next Aristotle, Da Vinci, Newton, or Einstein. They want to advance human culture and science, and they want their names remembered as having done so. Your Methodology, hacking and programming? That indicates a deep-seated belief in computers as the next great frontier for humanity. The price you, like every Gadgeteer, must pay is knowing that, for all your inspirations, you can’t change the world. That perfect expression you see in your dreams is just that, a dream. A fantasy that dies alongside you.”
Holy fuck. “I always wondered what my midlife crisis was gonna be like. I just didn’t expect it to happen in my twenties.” You bitch. “So, what did you lose for the power to inflict clinical depression on everyone in earshot?”
“Let’s just say whoever thought up ‘to know him is to love him’ was full of shit.”
“Feel free to discuss your personal lives after the meeting,” Hook interrupted. “I brought you here to share information about my interests. Specifically, the situation in Raleigh. You can confirm Heritage is losing grip of the city?” Hook’s tone brooked no room for compromise. Not that I planned to chat up the winner of the Miss Nihilism pageant, anyway.
“I don’t know how they held it this long,” I said. “They’ve got a bunch of b-list Imbued in c-list city. Even with a virtual monopoly on the city’s vice crimes, I don’t know how they’re funding themselves. And I don’t know why the strong ones don’t move somewhere with an economy that survived the Emancipation Proclamation. Whatever Quash is using to keep them there has to be real good. Don’t know why he’s staying, either. Guess that whole racism thing makes people stupid.”
“Control,” Intel said. “Quash isn’t racist so much as as he needs to be in control. His nature gave him power over one of the most constant and fundamental forces on the planet. With it, he can bring those around him to their knees, while he walks freely, which should tell you everything you need to know about his inner demons. He likes to imagines himself a chess master, but doesn’t have confidence to try his hand in the big leagues. Instead, he’s carved out a fiefdom and hopes nobody more capable will take it away. I’m sure he justified it with some excuse that he was going to elevate the city with him as benevolent god-king, but in the end it was simple cowardice.”
Damn, and I thought her opinion of me was brutal.
“Fits with what I know of the man.” Hook pressed his hands together, as if in prayer, then tapped his fingers against his mask. “Still, he kept a tight ship up until recently. The serial killers broke his composure, and now his sandcastle is crumpling.”
I hate telling the boss he’s wrong. In other lines of work, it’s career suicide, but here it’s the normal kind. “I, uh, think that’s a coincidence. A new group called Arclight has been tearing them to shreds. It looks like it’s a personal vendetta, from a trio of powerful heroes.”
“Ones capable enough to take on an entrenched crime syndicate? Even ones who are, as you so aptly called them, b-list?”
“There’s a few reasons for them to be as strong as they are.” I started accessing my files, then found the cellphone video showing Quash arguing with the large steel statue. An overside sword formed out of metal above Quash, and that’s when I paused the feed. “Spec is that Ballast, also known as Damascus, is African American. In any case, he’s hostile to Quash, and is standing in that gravity field like it’s nothing.”
“I see where you’re going with this.” Intel turned to look at the screen, then started typing on her own machine. “Thinking Mark of Cain?”
“Black guy with a power to hard-counter the local white supremacist leader?” As long as she keeps her power pointed away from me, I can see the benefits in keeping her around. “I’d say it’s almost too obvious.”
“Would explain how a newbie’s taking on a well established veteran,” she said. “What’s his powers?”
“Here’s the file.” I found and sent the info while I talked. “He can turn an undefined amount of steel into some weird liquid that he controls with his mind, and shape it into anything he likes. The cop files speculate he’s Altered, maybe his whole body’s made of metal.”
“He shouldn’t have powers.” She looked up at us. “You all remember that moment, when you were given the choice? When you could have rejected your powers? This guy’s personality screams that he should have been one of the ones who walked away.”
I did my best to not think of my Manifestation. One Intel-related existential crisis was more than enough for me.
Hook brought his hands back down to the table. Somehow, the simple gesture came across as threatening. “Reality seems to disagree with you. Try not to fall into the trap of out thinking yourself.”
Intel flinched back, then looked down. “You’re right. Sorry. Still, his nature doesn’t fit with an Imbued. He’s too cautious, too focused on laying low and being part of the system. He’s not content with the world, but he lacks the anger and resentment which pushes Imbued into taking powers. I’ve never seen this before.”
“Do please focus on the task at hand,” Hook said. His voice was gentle, though still stern. “What do your powers tell you about someone other than him who has powers like his?”
“I… I suppose if he was pushed into a desperate enough position, he might accept powers.” I could almost picture Intel pulling herself together; self-modification, the one beautiful thing wetware could do that I’d not yet perfected in software form. “He’s obsessed with order and control and turns that focus inward. He needs control of himself and his life, and knew powers would take that from him. Humanist mentality, believes in human accomplishment, and that’s why he controls. In his subconscious, it’s the ultimate symbol of civilization. Strong, yet malleable to fit almost any need, and with it we can hold up skyscrapers. Everything he yearns to be.”
Stupid. It’s the digital that will be man’s ultimate contribution to the universe. “Sounds like the other side of Quash’s coin to me.”
Intel sighed. “I suppose the Mark of Cain may have been enough to push him into taking powers. If Quash or one of his underlings killed a powered relative. Got any leads?”
You know I don’t, you just don’t want to be the only one who doesn’t look good enough. “Afraid not. Heritage has done quite well with its ‘hurt, not kill’ approach. I’m betting it was either done out of costume, arranged to look like an accident, or a rogue who never registered. In any case, he and his partners are doing a lot of damage.”
“And Heritage is doing nothing to stop them?” Hook leaned forward.
“I don’t think they can,” I said. “I think any one of Arclight could take Heritage in a straight fight, long as they avoid Biohazard and Myriad. All three together is a stomp.”
“How are three people with that kind of power located in such a small area?” Intel asked. “That’s a pretty significant outlier.”
I pulled up the dossier on Daybreak/Plasma. “This is Plasma, who was working with Ballast under the name Daybreak, before they became Arclight.”
“Daybreak, huh?” Intel typed away at her keyboard. “Flying brick package with glowing light, but early on she fell out of the sky? I bet she has a battery, and stores up energy so she can have short bursts of incredible power. Some body image issues, a need to be front and center, builds her self-esteem on how others perceive her. Achingly obvious hero worship of Starfall, complete with a ‘light to pierce the darkness’ aspect to her power that is as sapphic as it sounds. Damn, this girl’s one hot mess, even by Imbued standards.”
“Well, that’d fit the rest of the story.” I switched over to the shattered wreckage of a building. “This is where they confronted Hunter, blew up a neighborhood sized building, and then had new powers. Duel-Surges in a fight for their lives against an A-list serial killer could explain the power up. They didn’t hook up with Spark until a couple weeks after, but I don’t think she’s local.” I pulled up the photo of her and Plasma kissing for the newspaper. “Sapphic, indeed.”
“You don’t think?” Hook’s tone didn’t change, but somehow he sounded displeased. I figured it had something to do with the kissing girls; Hook had a reputation as a germaphobe and having a general hatred for all things romantic or sexual.
“The new girl is a complete unknown.” I switched over to the first known photo of the three of them together, near North Carolina’s coast. “Doesn’t show up on any records, wasn’t involved in the incident with Hunter/Killer, but came with them for a civilian project to find sunken ships. I’ve done everything shy of cracking into PREP’s networks. Trust me, boss, you don’t want me cracking into PREP.”
“What? Their network too good for you?” I knew Intel was goading me, but like a fool I fell for it.
“I can crack any system on the planet and cover my tracks so well even the super-AIs wouldn’t know I was there.” After those claims, most of which I suspected I was lying about, I looked for a reason why I wouldn’t prove it. “What I can’t break is everything else. Did you know Interpol has this chick whose power is to give an answer to any question that has an answer? Did anyone hack the top secret government files today? What is his address and greatest fears? Who does he work for? Discretion is the better part of not drawing attention from Homeland Security. Besides, I don’t think that’s how they got in contact with each other.”
“I admit I am curious how you’d know that,” Hook said.
Thank you for the opportunity to look awesome. “Well, I took the liberty of hacking the treasure hunters they went out with. Looking for info on their powers that might not be in the cop shop. They signed the standard NDA, nothing all that useful, but they received several calls from various pay phones throughout the Raleigh area in the week leading up to their shared project with Arclight. I found no evidence to suggest they spoke with Spark, so Arclight arranged their deal beforehand on their own.” I left out Wiki’s involvement, in part to avoid admitting I couldn’t trace his power, and in part out of respect for a fellow Net-Dweller.
I moved on before uncomfortable questions could be asked. “However they met, Spark’s a Gadgeteer who specializes in electromagnetics. Has some impressive magnetic scanning Tech, and battle armor using mag-lev to make herself super fast and strong. Can also scan for drugs and life signs.” Most Gadgeteers could build combat Tech, but it was a rare few that could make a complete armored suit, let alone at her level.
“That’s a lie.” The screens switched as Intel took control over my slideshow from her machine. She pulled up a number of pictures displaying other photos. “She’s not a Gadgeteer.”
Did she break her power on Ballast? “To quote the boss, I think reality disagrees with your assessment.”
“No, it doesn’t. Look.” The video on screen was a short clip, showing Plasma carrying Spark in flight. Orange lightning danced through the teal glow that was Plasma’s power. Another photo came up beside it, this one a closup of Spark’s armor, with glowing orange geometric patterns. Another showed Ballast’s armor, again with flickers of orange light. “Her signature’s orange, and it’s all over the other two. Her armor’s made from the same liquid metal Ballast uses, and she has strength and speed, like Plasma. She’s a Breaker, and she’s using them to cover up her powers. It also explains why they have such strong abilities, if she’s also a Gifter.”
Holy shit, that makes a lot of sense. Still, I couldn’t let her get away with all the credit. “Doesn’t rule out Gadgeteer with a Methodology of manipulating powers, if she saw Ballast and Plasma and was inspired, she’d find a way to contact them. Hunter/Killer’s rampage made national news, so she could come from anywhere.” I kept silent on the alternate theory that she was just getting into Plasma’s fun-sized pants. “It explains everything.”
“Including the coincidence of three powerful Imbued in the same area.” Hook brought his hands together, then back up to touch his mask. “It is in fact one very powerful Imbued, and two which are strong, but not suspiciously so. It… complicates my plans”
Oh, right, mysterious villain with mysterious plans. I wonder if he’s the type to share. “Speaking of, I may be more useful if you can tell me what those plans are.”
“The plan is to take the city from Heritage in a single strike. And I know just the team to do it.”