Every generation experiences moments so powerful they’re etched on their souls. Moments remembered with clarity so sharp that tears come to their eyes when they think about it even years later. Your grandparents can describe every single detail about where they were and what they were doing when Pearl Harbor was attacked. No one can forget where they were when Kennedy or King was shot; everyone remembers the horror of the day the towers fell in New York. It’s not always tragedy, the moon landing, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the Beatles coming to America, the first appearance of Captain Starlight… memories of history good and bad… but just when the last bad memory starts to fade, just when you can breathe again, that’s when the next tragedy is inscribed into the memory of man. Everyone can recall second by second what was happening to them when the news broke about Meredith Falls, Illinois. No one knew the name before tragedy struck, at the start of the day it was just another small town in the heart of America, population 12,342, no major industry, nowhere near anything of significance, never remembered by anyone. Never to be forgotten again.
Roughly one hundred and twenty emergency vehicles converged on Meredith Falls, Illinois. Helicopters, mobile command centers, off road vehicles, ambulances, and several unique vehicles clearly indicating someone with super powers was involved with their operation or design.
In the lead copter the Architect signaled the pilot to stop and hover. The remainder of the vehicles halted with them, this was all planned at their operations center about ten miles north of the town. It was hard to believe it had been twelve hours since the seismic activity was first detected and satellite scans of the area revealed clouds of dust where the town should be clearly seen. He glanced down at a monitor showing a satellite feed from geosynchronous orbit; even now the images from above the town didn’t show a clear picture, too much dust, too many fires.
“Pull up the maps,” the Architect said to a man in a Force Ops uniform standing across from him, the two were separated by a table bolted to the floor of the copter. The uniformed man tapped a few commands into the screen embedded into the flat surface of the table and a map of the area appeared on it, the town indicated with a red circle. Southeast part of the state, not near any strategic targets, the nearest city of any size was Evansville over the border in Indiana. The town’s remote nature prevented rapid response from an organized group but first responders from several local police and fire departments and a group of five heroes, who were able to get here quickly, entered the town within two hours of the event. His brow creased in worry, they hadn’t been heard from since.
An organized response was needed and he was the one to lead it. Unanimous agreement had placed him in charge of the overall search and rescue operation. He wasn’t a hero. He had never even applied to any of the HCP programs around the country. He was a veteran of over 75 on site disaster relief efforts and the leader of HOPE for the last fifteen years, he was the most qualified to lead this rescue effort. None of his group were HCP graduates either but no one doubted they were heroes. An international relief group made up entirely of supers, they came on the scene at the start of the millennium, just in time to try and help in New York, for all the good they were able to do there.
Despite being of no use that tragic September morning, they certainly did a lot of good before and after. The group’s active membership had swelled to over five hundred members stationed across the globe. He managed to bring over a hundred of them with him today, all of which had powers suited to dealing with large scale disasters and disruptions. Alongside his people, he had forty-five heroes from the region who were traveling in their own transports or under their own power. Add to those two twenty man battalions from Force Ops, more than twenty teams of PEERS, each with a supervising hero. He recognized most of them as being from Chicago, but Arch was a group from St. Louis and the Big Three were from Detroit, though at this point he thought there were seven of them. He saw two other groups he recognized as being from Los Angeles, even if he couldn’t remember their names. The final PEERS group was Memoriam from New York who hadn’t missed a major event since they were formed in the wake of 9/11. This was the first time any of them were going into such an unknown since then. The last times he had so many of HOPE on US soil were for the big natural disasters, Katrina and more recently Sandy.
Rounding out the group and huddling together in one of the large transport trucks were the volunteers, thirty-seven supers who generally lived normal lives within a few hundred miles of Meredith Falls; they came out to help because the need was there.
“You know, I think there are more of us than the entire population of this town,” joked someone over the radio in a vain attempt to break the tension. It didn’t work; silence was the only response.
“Alright everyone,” the Architect said over the radio. “This is likely the largest gathering of active supers since the tragedy of 9/11. Let’s remember why we are here and just hope we can do more good here than they could there.”
‘It’s late in the day almost sundown,’ he thought, ‘no one will be happy to enter a complete unknown, potentially hostile situation losing the light.’ Yet, he was sure they couldn’t wait for morning either, the population of this town was over ten thousand, just a small town in the middle of nowhere but clearly the target of something that should have passed them by. ‘If we’re to have any hope of saving lives we need to go in now, we can’t wait till morning, people are depending on us. This is what we do.’
The Architect placed two hands on the screen and pulled them apart, enlarging the map and focusing on the area they now hovered over. ‘Yes’, he thought to himself, ‘this area is the best for access and there are flat and defendable places to set up a forward base.’ He looked up from the map and spoke to the man in uniform, “We’ll land here, tell the pilot.”
The helicopters landed letting out the members of the search and rescue group. No sooner where they empty then they were taking off again and hovering to direct scanning equipment toward the burning town that was Meredith Falls. The group stood facing the town beneath the haze of smoke and dust less than a quarter mile away. The buildings here were obviously damaged but mostly intact, flames danced in and among them. Despite the fading sunlight, the town was fairly visible due to the backlight from the areas that were burning. No one saw any movement.
The Architect raised his arm and signaled to a preselected group who advanced cautiously. This group of seven supers had five pyrokinetics including Douse, one of his own members of HOPE who could quench a five-alarm fire on his own. Also with the pyrokinetics was Coordinate, a hero from Detroit, whose power was to bring other supers into alignment to work together. The final member of the seven was Remote, one of the PEERS who could allow anyone else’s power to work at a distance equal to his line of sight. ‘If this was going to work,’ he thought to himself, ‘we are going to have to depend on the metapowers, we aren’t going to be able to do this as individuals.’ It was an interesting contradiction, some of the greatest feats supers were recognized for depended on metas, those supers whose only power was to influence other supers’ powers. Unfortunately for them, they almost never received the glory or the adulation of the highly visible heroes they empowered. Everyone talks about when Omni stopped the Ferris wheel at the Chicago Pier from falling over but no one mentions his teammate RampUp who strengthened his power to the point he actually could. They are easy to overlook and, like healers, it’s almost impossible for them to actually graduate from an HCP. The PEERS groups recognize their talent and snap them up as soon as they can find them. ‘I wish we had more in HOPE,’ he thought, not for the first time.
His attention was drawn back to the lead group. They were starting the first phase of the rescue effort. Fire began to rise up and swirl around them, the five pyrokinetics in a pentagon surrounding Coordinate and Remote who stood in fireproof suits complete with their own breathing gear; this next part was going to be rough on the two of them. The flames began to spin forming a vortex around the group and suddenly, as if the fire surrounding them called to its own kind, the inferno consuming what was left of the town tore away and leapt at them like a jungle cat attacking its prey. The seven of them were suddenly engulfed in a fifty foot high wave of fire. Despite knowing it would happen, it still felt like an attack. It was no attack however; it was the start of the mission. The fire continued to swirl around them, faster and faster, absorbing the wave of destruction from the town, until suddenly it shot upward like a column into the sky. Despite being warned to expect this, the choppers all began to weave and bob; the air suddenly turning turbulent in the wake of the fiery vortex. The fountain of fire shone above the town like the sun itself and for the first time Meredith Falls was fully illuminated. Everyone was left with spots floating in front of their eyes but the extent of the damage could finally be seen. It was the first time anyone outside of Meredith Falls during the attack had seen the crater. Meredith Falls wasn’t large, the town proper only being one, maybe two miles across. The view was still obscured by all the dust and smoke in the air, but fully half the town was engulfed by a jagged tear rent into the earth and no one could tell how wide or how deep it was.
As soon as the fires were extinguished the next team moved into position. Willowbark, one of the most powerful healers next to Harrow himself, and Weary, another member of HOPE who could invigorate people and wash away fatigue, ran to Coordinate and Remote, their part in this wasn’t finished and they needed to be at their best. Three more supers surrounded the two metas as the healers and pyrokinetics pulled back. These were the climatokinetics who could change weather the way the pyrokinetics could control fire. Precipitate from HOPE, and Squall and Forecast, a hero and PEERS respectively. All three were powerful weather manipulators and, with the help of the metas, they brought rain from a clear sky over the entire town to wash the dust out of the air and winds from behind the waiting rescue force to blow the smoke away from the town. As they finished, three hundred twenty seven supers and over a thousand ordinary rescue personnel were given the first clear view of Meredith Falls with the setting sun illuminating it from behind. Not one building stood undamaged. This was a town, not a city, none of the buildings started higher than five stories and there were only a dozen or so that were three stories or higher. Still the vision of what was left of Meredith Falls would haunt those who stood silently for a moment until the Architect started issuing orders.
No one knew what had happened here, what had caused the devastation that lay before them. If it was a natural disaster there were no indications to support that and it there didn’t seem to be anything ‘natural’ about it. That left an act of man or, as the Architect was more worried over, superman.
That worry was why he called his entire team together outside the ruined town instead of immediately heading in to look for survivors. Everyone here knew the laws, knew the rules, and was here to help. No one here was looking for face time on CNN or ten million hits on YouTube. The law was clear when it came to supers, anyone was able to lend aid and assistance in the face of an emergency as long as it didn’t involve combat, especially with other supers. Until it was clear that there was no threat from supers or powered, the first responders going into the town were going to be one hundred percent certified heroes. When he had been chosen to organize the relief effort he chose Tantamount, a well-known hero from Chicago, to take the lead should any super villains be present.
“Tantamount, first incursion into the town is for you and your heroes. Force Ops, form a perimeter around the town, the third transport has interdiction walls for you. Those of you designated to set up the command base begin work here. PEERS teams, HOPE, and everyone else stay ready and let’s pray we can do some good.”
“Alright everyone,” Tantamount begun as the forty-five heroes designated to be first inside Meredith Falls gathered around him, the supervising heroes from the PEERS groups weren’t with them but were ready to head into the town if needed for recovery and extraction. “We don’t know who or what’s in there. We don’t know how this was done, if there are any survivors, or how much help they might need. What we do know is over one hundred men and women from local fire houses and rescue groups went in there ten hours ago and haven’t come out. We also know that Tramp, Faraday, Hard Drive, Maximum, and Boom Box all went in together and none of them have come out either. All of them except Boom Box were seasoned, experienced heroes with extensive track records of dealing with dangerous situations. And Boom Box, well while is still technically an intern; he graduated second in his class, was a Manhattan class power and had finished a stellar year of internship. We don’t know what we are going to face but, then again, when do we? We do know our jobs, so break into your teams and head out. Stay in constant contact.”
Static hissed over the radio for a second and then the voice of Beta from Bedrock, a team of heroes based in New York City, came through rough and distorted. “We’ve found Boom Box and Tramp, or what’s left of them. They’re impaled on a number of metal supports that tore free of one of the buildings.” A big hiss of static burst over the airways before partially clearing again, “This wasn’t an accident; they’re laid out like they were being pierced through one limb at a time. I think they were alive when it happened.” The horror of Beta’s statement was just sinking in when his earpiece was filled with a burst of static so loud he had to grab the radio and rip it from his ear. Tantamount felt the hair on his arms start to rise and caught the sharp scent of ozone in the air. Throwing himself to the side, he came down in a roll to see the semi-human form of Faraday lance into the spot where he had been standing. The other four members of his team weren’t so lucky, they were all near him and they were all knocked out by Faraday’s landing, as if struck by a taser they all shook and then fell down. ‘It was a mistake’, he thought, to not take any durable heroes in his team. Faraday was one of the rare elemental manipulators who could turn himself into his element and his element was electricity. They had worked together before and he always looked a bit like a caricature of a person made up of arcs of electricity but now he looked different, distorted further from the human form. His arms appeared too long and bending at odd angles, his legs too short and thick, his head was almost lopsided. Something even stranger than they expected was going on here.
Faraday spun to face Tantamount. He had spent the time from his arrival to the entry into the town studying what little information they had about the situation. That included the dossiers on the five heroes who disappeared inside the wreckage. He was hoping to find some clue as to what might have happened here. So, while they had never worked together, he knew his file well enough to know that when he attacked he surged at his target, striking like a lightning bolt. There was a moment after he struck when he would be vulnerable, still in electrical form but reorienting from the rapid movement. Tantamount reached out toward Faraday with his power and waited for him to strike. It came suddenly and, if Tantamount weren’t ready, he would have been charred to a crisp with only an electrical pop and the smell of ozone to mark his death. Just as Faraday began to surge toward Tantamount, he froze in place. Tantamount looked at him as he apparently stepped out of time; he never knew exactly what his power, strong enough to graduate him first in his class, would do but it always served him well. He stepped to the side, just a few feet from where he had stood, he could sense the particles in the air ionizing, a pathway forming between Faraday and the ground where he previously stood. He reached for the unmoving Faraday, knowing instinctively, that this was the right thing to do. He made contact and sensed the conduction of electricity through his own body; his nervous system had become a network of superconducting fibers. Just as quickly as he stepped out of time he rejoined its flow. Faraday now stood on the spot Tantamount had occupied seconds before. He was hunched forward in his distorted form. He had his hand gripped around the nape of Faraday’s neck, feeling the energy of his form pulse beneath his touch. He held him tight, allowing him no time to recover. With his other hand he reached out to grab a fragment of rebar sticking out of the remains of a wall. He closed the circuit and grounded Faraday.
The arcs of electricity drained away from Faraday through Tantamount and into the rubble the rebar stuck out from. Tantamount sighed in relief, sometimes his power made fights go as fast and smooth as this one did, other times it was like a tug-of-war between two absolutely matched teams, it kept going till one made a mistake or just succumbed to fatigue. Slowly the depowered form of Faraday became visible, the electricity flowing down his body revealing the organic form beneath that looked as if it was emerging from water. Tantamount swallowed, suppressing the urge to vomit; he expected to see the black costume with a fractal pattern of lightning bolts on it that Faraday wore. The costume was there, torn and stretched over a body that was barely recognizable as human. The reason for the distortion of his electrical form became obvious; the body beneath it was no longer fully human. His neck was twisted at an odd angle. Tantamount had witnessed enough people with broken necks to recognize one but Faraday certainly wasn’t paralyzed. The skin on his face hung down in folds looking like someone had filled his head like a balloon and let the air out. His arms were stretched long and thin and they seemed like they were fractured in several places but the way he was flailing them was more like there were extra joints in them. His stomach pouched out like the muscle holding in his guts was gone and parts of him writhed under the skin and his legs were more like gnarled stumps, the arms may have had extra joints but the legs didn’t appear to have any. As the last of the electricity drained away from the no longer human form he screamed a skull piercing scream that reflected tremendous pain; it went on for what seemed like hours though it was probably only thirty seconds before he ran out of breath and fell to the ground shaking in what was clearly a seizure.
Tantamount had all the basic first aid and combat medic courses but there was nothing he could do by the time he bent down to check a pulse. Faraday was completely still and obviously dead. He was heading to retrieve his earpiece and call for recovery when suddenly the earpiece he had thrown aside than two minutes before began chirp as the locator alarm sounded. Placing it back in his ear, he heard a worried call, “Tantamount, are you there?” Beta’s voice asked in his ear. Now that the battle was over he looked around for additional enemies, not forgetting to look up, a hard lesson learned while he was still in the HCP. He saw Mercy, a flier who had been with Beta, wing her way to him.
“I’m here Beta. I found Faraday… or something that was Faraday.”
“He’s completely distorted, his body isn’t human anymore. He’s dead now, he didn’t survive his power being drained off and I think that might actually be for the best. I’m not sure but I think his electrical form was keeping him alive, when I shut it down his body no longer able to live.” Despite being a veteran of hundreds of battles with other supers, he had never had to take a life. He stopped for a moment, the implications of that washing over him when a thought struck him. “Beta, the bodies you found, are there burns on them?”
“No they are broken, not burned.”
“Broken, are their bodies distorted or twisted?”
“No, not distorted just broken, like most of their bones were shattered.”
“Beta, get out of there I think…” but the warning came too late. Even half the town away Tantamount could feel the shaking from the impact in the direction he had sent Beta and his team. Maximum, it has to be Maximum. “Mercy, get me there now.” She grabbed him beneath his arms and lifted him up. He could have used his power on her but no guarantee it would have let him move faster, just as likely he would have become rooted to the spot. As they approached the area he could see Beta and Warfang facing off against Maximum. Maximum was a strongman with no known upper limit, every time you thought he was going to top out he got stronger. “Drop me off,” he yelled to Mercy, “and then turn around and see if you can get my team up and heading over here. We are probably going to need all the help we can get.”
Tantamount was dropped next to Warfang, he glanced around and saw the other two members of their team down on the ground. He hoped they weren’t dead, ‘I can’t even remember their names,’ he thought, ‘let’s hope I won’t need to read them off in a memorial service.’ He let his gaze stray upward for a second, trying to avoid taking his eyes off Maximum, and saw Mercy heading back the direction they came from. The power he had gained from fighting Faraday was still with him but he doubted it would be a lot of help with Maximum. He reached out toward Maximum with his power. Knowing just how powerful Maximum was, he debated reaching out toward his teammates as well and gaining some extra power but he had his limits. He still didn’t really understand what was happening here and wanted to have options should Hard Drive appear as well. He expected that he would swell up, gain strength, gain durability. His body didn’t change, he didn’t sense any new physical powers, instead he found new sensations. He looked at Maximum and saw him enraged, about to attack. He sensed in him something disturbing his mind, pushing him onward, encouraging him to fight while, at the same time, bringing out a sense of worthlessness, self-loathing, and punishment. It was a blur in his mind, not telepathy, not empathy, just… awareness. There was more to it than just the sensation. He could feel the edges of whatever it was causing the disturbance, he could feel something undefined there, almost shape it out, like a blind man knowing what someone looks like by feeling their face. It was a man, or man-like, he was sure of that. He felt it standing above Maximum but not the hero Maximum, more of… he paused unsure, he didn’t understand it.
It was like this sometimes, his power wasn’t straight forward; sometimes he had to adapt. Maximum charged and Tantamount invoked the power he received fighting Faraday, again stepping out of time so he could sidestep the charge. His mind worked at enhanced speeds amplified by the superconducting nerves he had also gained fighting Faraday. The moment of frozen time gave him ample time to consider what he was sensing though no time would be passing for his teammates and their opponent. He had to work this out quickly given he probably had less than five minutes left of this power. If he faced Maximum without it, he would be just as dead as the heroes impaled on the metal poles. He could still sense the… entity, for lack of a better word, within Maximum. It was stern somehow, punishing, overbearing, strict. There was more, it felt almost divided like there were two aspects there. He sensed Maximum too, but it wasn’t the proud hero he knew. He was hesitant and scared; no not scared, he was terrified. The other was standing over him somehow as if punishing him… no, that wasn’t quite right either. He could change this but he needed to understand it better. It was something to do with Maximum, something… he made up his mind he stepped around a pile of rubble and out of line of sight from the fight before coming back to real time. He reached up to his earpiece and tapped a button on its side. He had to do this fast, he knew to his teammates he just disappeared and he didn’t want to distract them with that. They needed everything they had just to survive against someone like Maximum with no control.
“Dispatch, this is Tantamount.”
“Dispatch here, what do you require Tantamount.”
“Access to secure records, psych profile, application to HCP, and deep background on Maximum. This is Priority Alpha.” He had made similar requests in the past but never for a hero, only so he could learn about villains and possible weaknesses.
There was an unusual pause on the other end of the line; apparently this wasn’t something Dispatch was used to either. “Accessing. There is quite a lot here, what did you need to know?”
“Psych background, anything unusual? Stressors, problems, something in his past? I can’t tell you exactly, there’s something there that’s being exploited. I need to know what, to fix it.”
“He comes from a broken home. There was concern after he first manifested that he was actually a powered. Apparently he beat his father to a pulp, nearly killed him. Neighbors had called in a domestic disturbance, they said they heard crashing and that a china cabinet had ‘flown through the bay window and landed in the middle of the street. When the police arrived they found Maximum huddled in a corner next to the broken body of his father who was luckily enough still breathing. The police didn’t know what was happening but they had the good sense not to point their guns at Maximum, they treated him as a victim and tried to comfort him. He was clearly distraught and guilty over what he had done but he wasn’t simply lashing out at anyone around him. In the investigation it came out that his mother died in childbirth and apparently his father blamed him. His father was abusive, used to lock him in a closet and deprive him of food. He beat him too; Maximum had many partially healed bruises and fractures when he was found. He was placed with his mother’s sister who raised him. He needed years of counseling and even during HCP he had special psychiatric evaluation to be sure none of this surfaced. It never emerged, he never lost control, every psych evaluation, every after action report has indicated that he is adjusted and that was fully put behind him.”
“Well that would explain it, something has brought it out now and Maximum is completely out of control. Thanks for the information Dispatch.”
“You’re welcome Tantamount, this is of course to be kept under highest confidentiality. Now I would suggest you get back to the fight, Beta’s biometric indicators are fluctuating.”
Tantamount turned and, one last time, invoked the time stop. He stepped out from behind the rubble and reentered the fight. Beta was down on the ground with Maximum’s fist heading straight at his face. Beta was tough but this would put him down. He needed to do something. His mind sought out Maximum with the new power and he again saw the frightened version of himself, childlike he now realized. Somehow all the stressors and memories of his childhood had been brought to the surface. The other entity he sensed, stern, unforgiving, punishing; somehow invoking the father who tortured him to the point that when his powers developed he struck back and nearly killed him. He reached out to the other entity and he imposed a change, he didn’t know how he did it only that he could. The entity collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut, he imagined it broken and bleeding on the ground, still alive, though he didn’t really want to include that piece of the description he felt it was necessary.
The effect was almost instantaneous. Maximum stumbled and collapsed, the devastating punch heading toward Beta’s head never reaching its target. Maximum curled into fetal position and began to sob. “No, I didn’t want to hurt you. Why did you make me hurt you? Why couldn’t you love me? No…” he trailed off.
Tantamount approached him calmly, hands out as non-threatening as he could be, remembering what Dispatch said about the police officers who found him. It was easy for heroes to dismiss the contribution of the police or the firemen, he knew better. Thinking about what those officers did for a young boy who they knew could kill them like swatting a fly, he found even more respect than he already had for the police. He was acutely aware of the fact that he had no enhanced durability right now and that Maximum could crush him with his little finger. “Son,” he began, “I’m here to help you, this isn’t your fault. I’m going to take you someplace safe. Your aunt is waiting for you, she’s going to take care of you.”
Slowly the sobs faded but didn’t stop. “My aunt? I don’t need to stay with dad?” The voice was different, it was deep still but it invoked the image of a small child somehow with its tone.
“No Son, you don’t need to ever see him again.” Tantamount noticed Beta and Warfang approaching. Mercy was heading back as well though none of Tantamount’s original group was with her. He turned to Beta and said, “why don’t you get a healer in here,” gesturing toward Beta’s two fallen teammates. “I have a feeling my team will need them too, let me see what I can accomplish with Maximum.” Beta nodded and turned to his fallen companions, Tantamount saw him tap his earpiece and just heard him say ‘Dispatch, this is Beta,” before he walked out of hearing range.
He turned back toward Maximum with Warfang at his back, Mercy he noticed landed with Beta. “Son, we need to bring your friend Hard Drive with us as well, do you know where he is?”
Maximum looked up tears still streaming down his eyes. “I… I do… but he’s… I’m sorry I didn’t want to… he made me… I…” The words broke down into babble.
“It’s alright son, just take us to him, no one here is blaming you for anything. We want to help you and we want to help Hard Drive. Maximum looked up, slowly nodding though the tears never stopped. He got to his feet and led Tantamount and Beta to a collapsed building with what was left of a stairway leading down into darkness. The absolute blackness of the basement made Tantamount realize there was still some daylight remaining, the seeming hours they had already been through was probably only minutes. ‘How long will it seem before we are done,’ he wondered idly.
“Are you sure about this?” Warfang asked. “I mean down there in the dark, he could crush us to a pulp and we couldn’t even run.”
“I know you better than that Warfang,” replied Tantamount, “you never run, even when you should,” he chuckled.
“Well that’s true enough but I always want the option,” he jibed back.
Tantamount and Warfang both turned on their wrist mounted lights. Beta glanced down and realized his wasn’t working, the LEDs being smashed in the fight with Maximum. “Mine will be enough. Let’s follow.” Maximum had already gone down into the basement, they could hear echoes of him moving around down there and Tantamount wondered briefly if Maximum’s power somehow let him see in the dark.
The little bit of light outside from the setting sun was completely gone by the time they were halfway down the stairs. The darkness was absolute and they could only see by the beam radiating from Tantamount’s arm. It was focused on the stairs below them so they didn’t trip over rubble. The stairs let them out into what seemed to be some sort of store room. There were shelves breaking up the area and occluding their view. Tantamount swept the light from side to side but didn’t immediately see Maximum. They could only hear his muffled sobs off to the left. They made their way around the shelves; everything that was on them was on the floor blocking their way. It was easy to see which way Maximum went since there was a rough path where he shoved away anything which was in his way. As they turned a corner, the sobs grew louder. The beam shone out and illuminated Maximum huddled in the corner, hunched over and moaning in anguish.
“I didn’t want to hurt him,” he cried out. “I only wanted it to stop. I… I’m sorry… I needed help… I didn’t want to hurt anyone… I just wanted him to stop…” it kept on like that flowing from Maximum in a continuous stream of sorrow. In his arms was the broken form of Hard Drive, held like a child would hold a teddy bear for comfort. Maximum slowly rocked over the body of the hero.
Tantamount could sense the same horror and shame he was feeling from Warfang next to him in the dark. ‘Last vestiges of the last power,’ he supposed. He reached up to his earpiece and keeping his voice even by a sheer act of will he requested in a monotone, “Dispatch, this is Tantamount, we need an extraction.”
A mile or more away, on the other side of the crater from Tantamount and Beta’s groups, were those led by Coordinate and Fracture. Jet Black was assigned to Coordinate’s group. She was adjusting to the new sensations granted to her from being merged into a group by the meta’s powers. It was disorienting, she was ‘aware’ of everyone else in the group of six. It wasn’t a telepathic connection she couldn’t sense their thoughts but she knew where they were how they were doing and how to ‘align’, for lack of a better word, their powers. Hopefully the advantages gained would offset the distraction of feeling like someone she couldn’t quite catch out of the corner of her eye was watching her.
She had gone ahead; her speed made her the best to scout. The frictionless field that surrounded her, giving her the name she was known by in the world of super heroes, made her nearly indestructible. The link made it even less likely she would run into trouble she couldn’t handle. She was looping wide around a pile of rubble that looked like it had started the day as a car dealership when she realized that though she was less likely to run into trouble, it didn’t mean it was impossible.
She moved swiftly from ruined car to ruined car, anxiously checking for survivors though she was starting to lose hope. She hadn’t found a single survivor yet. More disturbingly, she hadn’t found a single body either. She headed for a large SUV nearly upended and half buried in the one wall of the dealership still left standing. Something ‘feral’ suddenly emerged from within it. She had less than a second to stop and turn to the side before she would have hit it. At first she thought it was a large dog but it was too large and there were tentacles, she was sure there were tentacles coming out from around its head. She turned to look at it over her shoulder but her eyes sort of slid off it, her mind refusing to admit such a thing could exist. Turning, she headed toward the edge of the lot where she saw a bent piece of pipe sticking out of some rubble, probably part of the fence that used to surround the lot. She could grab that, it would suffice to defend herself with. Despite her speed, before she could reach the makeshift weapon, another creature leapt in front of her, this one seemed more catlike but again her eyes couldn’t focus on it. She turned another time only to find a third even larger creature directly in front of her. Her mind tried to tell her it was a giant lizard but her eyes just slid off it, refusing to focus once more.
By this time her teammates, feeling the stress through Coordinate’s bond, were beginning to arrive. Salvo came first and the ground under the lizard erupted in sprays of rock and fire. Salvo was one of the pyrokinetics who helped extinguish the burning town when they first arrived, he was also a terrakinetic able to manipulate rock and stone, the combination of the two was powerful and the lizard-thing winked out of existence like a soap bubble being pricked by a needle.
‘Are you alright?’ The voice came directly into her head. Braindrain, the telepath and telekinetic assigned to their team had arrived. Her range was limited she knew which is why the group wasn’t in constant contact. She apparently had many unique aspects of her powers which Jet Black could sense through Coordinate’s link, if not quite understand.
‘I’m ok,’ she thought back at Braindrain, ‘but something very strange is happening here.’ As she replied her vision started to swim as more and more of the things she knew were there but couldn’t focus on started appearing surrounding her. ‘I don’t know what these things are or what to do about them, Salvo got rid of one but they are coming faster and faster.’
‘What started it,’ she asked as she arrived at the scene levitating herself along swiftly. While not a flier, she was one of the few telekinetics who could actually move themselves through the air. Most can’t do that. Her friend Crane once told her it was like trying to grab your self by the scruff of the neck and carry your own body at arm’s length, it just couldn’t be done. Unless you were Braindrain apparently.
‘I don’t know, I was heading to check out that SUV,’ picturing it in her mind as she said it, ‘that’s when the first of those things arrived.’
Braindrain glanced over at the SUV while lifting and tossing a huge fragment of concrete with one of the things on it. ‘There’s a person in there, his thoughts are racing, disjointed, frightened. I think somehow he’s responsible for those things.’
‘Is he the one who caused all this damage?’
‘I don’t think so but I can’t read him deeply this way, I’ll need to touch him to really get a good idea of what happened here.’ She paused for a moment then looked to the north before her mind voice spoke again somehow seeming louder as if trying to speak with someone further away. ‘Pax we need you here.’
A male voice replied, apparently echoed by Braindrain. ‘On my way, Staccato is bringing me there.’ As soon as the voice stopped, the silence was broken by a sudden series of loud popping sounds. She saw two figures appearing and disappearing rapidly moving closer by about half a football field each time, she felt them approaching through Coordinate’s bond as well, assuring her that they were indeed her teammates. With the last pop, the two of them appeared next to Jet Black and Braindrain. She hadn’t met Staccato or Pax before, the link told her Staccato was some kind of teleporter and Pax, all the link told her about him was he has something to do with other people’s powers.
‘And my husband,’ came Braindrain’s mental voice to her almost a whisper. She looked up at the levitating hero who turned to her and winked. Braindrain continued in her conversational mind voice, ‘someone is in that SUV and causing these creatures or things to appear.’ The area they were in now seemed to be clear of them and Salvo was exploding the ground under any that made their way toward them, but the SUV was now surrounded by at least twenty of the things. They almost couldn’t see the SUV itself when they looked toward it, the creatures encircling it repelled all attempts to focus on them, blurring out the wreck they surrounded.
“I can’t get close enough to do anything with those things there,” Pax spoke out loud, it seemed odd to actually hear the voice with her ears.
“I should be able to take care of that,” added Staccato.
“Can you teleport them away?” asked Jet Black.
“No but just watch. Be ready Pax, I’ll come and get you soon as this is done; we are close enough that I can do it in one jump.”
Staccato disappeared from her view and then reappeared, obscured as if behind a heat shimmer from the milling creatures near the SUV. This time when he appeared there wasn’t the popping sound she had come to associate with his teleporting, this time there was a booming noise so loud she had to look to make sure Salvo hadn’t exploded anything. There was a sudden shock wave near the SUV and then the view of the area was clear again. None of the creatures remained nearby. There was a pop again and Staccato was with them grabbing Pax and then another pop and they were gone reappearing next to the SUV. The creatures were scrambling toward the SUV, distorted images moving like a heat wave over the desert. Then suddenly they were completely gone.
‘It’s OK we can head over now,’ came Braindrain’s mind voice again, ‘Pax has neutralized him. Coordinate is coming over as well we’ll keep the whole group together for the next part.’
Jet Black raced over to the SUV and Braindrain levitated through the air coming to rest next to Pax. “He’s a projector,” Pax said, “images and solid forms, sounds and sensations too I think.” He shook his head, “it’s a raw untrained power, new to him, I think it might have just emerged.”
“Does that mean he did all this?” Jet Black asked, “and how do you know that?”
“No I don’t think he did this, he’s powerful but not on this scale. As for how I know that,” suddenly there were animals all around them, this time the eye didn’t refuse to focus on them, dogs and cats and lizards, as well as numerous others, he smiled and then they changed, the eye wouldn’t focus on them anymore, they still didn’t have the disturbing quality the previous projections did. “I know because it’s my power right now, I took it from him. It’s what I do. I’m no Zero but I’m pretty good at taking out a dangerous super or two.”
“So you’re a mimic? How did that stop him?”
“I’m not a mimic,” Pax said exasperated, it was obviously a sore point with him. “I’m a power thief,” he added and then let all the images fade away.
Coordinate walked up to the group stepping carefully over the loose rubble and bits of car that littered the area. “I haven’t seen a single person,” she said, “who did you find?”
‘Don’t know yet,’ came the mental reply, ‘we were just about to find out.’ Braindrain focused on the SUV and suddenly there was a metallic tearing noise and it split in two. Hovering where the vehicle had been was a young man in torn jeans and a formerly white t-shirt; he looked to be about eighteen. ‘Michael Ross, he was here to buy his first car, definitely not responsible for any of this. Lucky in a way, his emerged power protected him from whatever it was that happened; though I’m not sure he will see it that way.’
“He’s old for a power to emerge, almost every super I’m aware of emerged by shortly after puberty. Every powered too as far as I know.”
‘There are a number of cases where a latent power emerged in response to a stressful, generally life threatening situation. Most cases where a super gains new powers occur that way too.’
“Interesting I suppose,” replied Coordinate. Jet Black was still getting used to conversations that were half speech and half telepathy. “However, in the end, it’s not very important, just this second anyway. Does he know what happened here?”
‘His thoughts are a jumble. If we want to find out what he knows I’m going to need to do a deep probe.’
“Do it,” was Coordinate’s immediate reply. “I think this more than qualifies as an emergency deep probe without consent. Can you relay it directly to my mind at the same time?”
‘I can, but you will be the only one to see it, I won’t be able to see it myself and it will be hard to direct the probe. It would all come at you like a data dump, your mind will need to process it to make sense of it, usually takes a couple of hours.’
“I have an idea Coordinate,” said Pax, “I have his power now and he’s a projector. Braindrain can direct the probe, you can sync our powers, she can send me the images and I can project them for all of us to see. That way we all see it in real time and can all contribute to figuring out what happened here.”
“Good idea Pax,” Coordinate turned toward Braindrain, “let’s do it.”
They lay the semi-conscious young man on the ground as best as they could. Braindrain knelt at his head, ‘I’ll probably be a bit too distracted with this to keep him floating, he might have an ache or two from rocks in his back but that’s better than if I dropped him, or even worse flung him, while trying to pull out his memories.’
“I’ll let the others know to keep watch while we are busy,” said Coordinate. She and Pax stepped to the side, her hand going up to tap her earpiece.
“Are you sure you can do this?” asked Jet Black to Braindrain, “aren’t memories supposed to be hard to get at?”
‘No worries, it’s my specialty; it’s why I took the name Braindrain. Professor Stone always told me she rarely saw anyone with such ability to pull memories out.’
‘The legendary Professor Stone’ thought Jet Black, trying not to project it to Braindrain, ‘that means she’s a Lander graduate.’
‘Yes, me and Pax both, sorry it’s hard to stop reading someone in the middle of a mental conversation. We graduated six years ago, Pax was number two from our class and I was number four. Everyone warned us about trying to hold on to a relationship through HCP, the dangers of not advancing, having our memories scrambled. We didn’t worry; we kept right on with it through all of training and got married as part of the White Cape Ceremony. Zero even gave me away.’ An image flashed to Jet Black, Braindrain in a white dress with a white cape, she looked happy.
“All right,” said Coordinate reentering the area, “Fracture’s team is on the lookout, Dispatch said something is happening with Tantamount and Beta’s teams so we need to get this done and get moving. This boy is the only survivor of the town anyone found so far, though apparently at least one of the first group of heroes to get here is alive if not well. Let’s get moving.”
Braindrain reached down and touched the boy’s head on each temple, ‘his name is Michael’ she reminded herself. Pax came up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders, it was an almost affectionate gesture. Coordinate simply stood nearby, the basic link was already established and she didn’t have to touch them to use her power, she just needed to be in the area.
‘I’m in,’ Braindrain’s mental voice was on projection again, ‘it’s confusing in here, lots of blurry, rapid fire memories. I’m going to go backwards to when he was trying to buy the car. That should be before anything happened.
Pax looked up suddenly, “OK, I’m getting images now, let’s see what happened here.” His eyes began to glow and suddenly they were standing outside of an intact car dealership. The SUV which lay in two halves ten feet from them was whole and new. Michael was talking to a salesman. “I think I can do sound too,” came Pax’s voice though he was hidden within the illusion he was spinning.
“… so this car gets decent mileage, has room enough to carry me and all my possessions to college next term, and won’t bankrupt me?” said the image of Michael.
“It’s a great choice,” replied an older heavyset man in slacks and suspenders. “I still owe your dad one from when he stopped those robbers who tried to make off with all our cash and a couple of cars so I’ll make you a great price.”
“Now Ernest, you know I was just doing my job,” replied a new man in the image, he was about forty, greying at the temples, and looked fit. He wore a jacket with a Sherriff’s patch on the arm and he had a gun holstered at his belt. “You shouldn’t be making any special deals for that.”
“Some of us are appreciative however we can be Pete,” he replied, Michael just looked eager, it was clear he wanted that SUV.
“He would have made a lousy poker player,” came Pax’s voice through the image again.
“Shush,” replied Coordinate, “save the commentary for later, I don’t want to miss anything.”
“What’s that?” Michael’s projected voice asked as his image raised his arm and pointed toward the street that lay alongside the dealership. The group of heroes turned to follow the image’s direction and saw a circular field of light forming in the middle of the street. Several people, half a dozen, maybe more, emerged from the circle of light, one large figure was dragging some sort of metallic canister behind him.
“A bomb?” asked Jet Black.
‘I don’t know, Michael doesn’t know, it doesn’t look like he had any interaction with that man or whatever he was carrying.’
“Why isn’t the image clearer?” asked Coordinate, “I can’t tell how many people came out of that tunnel or get a good description of them.
‘This is his memory, he couldn’t see it clearly so neither can you. More is happening.’
The memory continued to play out in front of them. Michael’s father started to move. “Stay back both of you, I’ll see what’s going on here,” he said as he loosened his gun in its holster.
The image continued to play forward, most of those who came out of the ‘tunnel’, as Coordinate called it, head off toward the center of town but two men came toward Michael and his father. One was wearing what in other circumstance would have been called business casual; slacks, a sport coat and a turtleneck. The other looked more menacing, black leather pants, a shirt that seemed to be made of straps and chains, and a long red leather coat that flared at the bottom. The one in the coat raised a hand as they walked toward them and pulses of light started appearing around the lot, always near where people were standing, there weren’t many people here but looking around now, there were three other customers, a couple and a man, there were two or three employees as well; none of them were clear or distinct in the images.
“This is an awful lot to project using an untrained power,” Pax’s said, you could hear some strain in his voice.
“Keep it up,” replied Coordinate, “any of it might be important.”
From each pulse of light suddenly there came creatures the likes of which they had never seen. The first one was clearly a dog of some sort but with fur in bristly patches that let off smoke, eyes glowing, fangs at least twice as long as could fit in their mouths, and tentacles coming from their shoulders, each tipped with what looked like a stinger. The others farther away looked less distinct but seemed to be other animal forms.
“Those are the creatures he was projecting, or at least trying to project,” said Jet Black, “from the look of them I’m glad he couldn’t quite get them right.”
In the image the two men kept walking toward Michael and his father. The salesman, Ernest, suddenly broke and ran but, at a sharp gesture from the man in the red leather coat, the hound-like creature leapt after him bearing him to the ground as he screamed in terror. The gun came out of the holster, pointed straight at the man in the red leather coat. “I don’t know what you did, but you have three seconds to get rid of those things put your hands above your head and lay down on the ground face down.”
“No I don’t think so,” said the man in the sport coat. Unlike the attack on Ernest, there was no gesture this time to accent this man’s threat. Suddenly Michael’s father’s arm flung up and to the side like someone grabbed his wrist. The gun fell to the ground. His head was forced back as if staring up at the sky and all at once a red line appeared across his neck as the flesh parted like it was cut by a knife. Blood spurted out from the slice and his body fell to the ground unable to even gasp for air.
“Ahh, no elegance to that,” said the man in the sport coat, “no savor, no pleasure…” He turned toward Michael, “don’t worry; it won’t be that quick for you.” He began advancing on the panicking boy.
The image froze suddenly as if someone hit a pause button. Then the man in the sport coat began to move again, the rest of the image remaining still. He turned and looked directly at Braindrain. “It won’t be that quick for you either. You think you can come into his head? Play in my sandbox? Well you can’t and now I’m going to show you why.”
“What’s going on,” yelled Pax, “I can’t stop projecting the image.”
‘Something is in his mind, its manifesting as this character and it has a hold on me I can’t cut the link either. I’m going to have to dig it out of his mind and hope we don’t damage him.’ She let go of Michael’s head and floated up into the air again as if taking a fighting stance.
“Dispatch, this is Coordinate,” she said as she touched her earpiece, “I need additional telepaths to my location ASAP.”
“Again no time!” the image said angrily, “This should not be a rushed thing! This… should… be… art!” There was a distinct pause before the image spoke again. “Ahh, well you’ll have plenty of my masterpieces to bring you wonder. I’ll whip off a piece now to invoke other feelings.”
The figure advanced on Braindrain, Jet Black sped at it to tackle it but encountered no resistance as she ran through it and skidded out of control having expected an impact. “It’s still just an image to us,” yelled Staccato, “we can’t affect it.”
‘I can,’ came Braindrain’s mental voice, ‘I need to drive this thing out, it’s sitting in Michael’s head, driving him mad, invoking and twisting memories, it’s horrible.’
“You can’t drive me out, he is mine, and so are you…” He lunged suddenly and grappled with the still floating Braindrain, there was a tremor in the air, rocks shifted on the ground in response to the impact. Braindrain bringing her telepathy into play to fight this… memory… this after image of the villain, and her telekinesis reacted in turn. On the ground Michael started shaking, as if seizing, froth appeared at his mouth. Coordinate tried to hold him still, stop him from biting off his tongue.
‘I will beat you, I will free him.’
“Hmm you are a strong one. Normally I would take my time and dissect each and every thing that makes you strong and use it to make you weak. But today I don’t have the time. Your friend there already called for help and I have enough of a link with you to know they will be coming quickly. I’m afraid I can’t take the time to play with you.” Michael’s body stopped shaking. “If you or the boy can’t be my masterpiece perhaps Pax can. I think we’ll call it a study in suffering.” The figure floated upward as well and grappled with Braindrain, placing his hands on either side of her head as she grabbed his wrists to try and hold him back. She seemed to be able to touch the image where Jet Black could not.
‘He left Michael’s mind… oh god he’s in here with me… he…’ then she began to scream, both in the minds of those around her and out loud. It was the first time most of them had heard her actual voice.
“Lori!” screamed Pax, in his panic forgetting to use her codename. The image of the man in the sport coat smiled the only word to describe it was chilling. Suddenly his face began to dissolve with leprous patches of light coming through from inside. The image leaned forward and kissed Braindrain then pulled back and began to laugh. The laughter cut off as the image flew apart exploding into shreds of black each one falling with a fading sickly glow until it touched the ground and disappeared. Braindrain looked over at Pax, began to mouth a word, and then fell out of the air like someone had cut her strings. Jet Black caught her before she could hit the ground but she didn’t react to the impact at all. He set her down next to Michael. Pax had fallen to his knees and tears were pouring down his face. “gone… she’s gone…” he was mumbling. Braindrain was breathing but her eyes were open and stared glassily out at nothing.
“Dispatch,” Coordinate said shakily, “we need an extraction.”