Cindy sniffed the air, the scent was the clean fresh smell of pine, the breeze was cool and crisp this high in the mountains. The sun was setting and red light stretched across the open space between the tree line and the log cabin built up against the cliff face in what looked like a natural hollow. To be fair log cabin was a poor description. This exact home had been featured on one of those travelogue shows that people watch, the inheritors of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Cindy couldn’t even guess how many millions of dollars this home cost to build. It was the height of decadence hidden under the rustic look of logs so large it took a construction team using strongmen and telekinetics to place them. The hollow in which the log fortress lay was nestled with streams, private pools, and sculptured gardens made to look like they just grew there. The plants representing all six continents where you could find plants was a dead giveaway that it was anything but natural. ‘And of course there are probably many millions more on defenses and security systems that we can’t see’, thought Cindy.
“We are ready to go,” said a woman coming up silently behind Cindy. She turned to look at her, she was clad head to toe in a black body suit, not even her eyes were visible, only her voice and her shape even let Cindy know it was a woman who addressed her. Behind her stood four others, two men and two women dressed identically, other than differences in their heights and their sexes there was only one distinguishing feature. Each one wore a small pip at their collar with the roman numerals I through V on them.
“Well then,” replied Cindy, “let’s make sure everything else is in place.”
Cindy and the five black clad figures walked back into the trees quickly losing sight of the building. In a small clearing several men in camouflage fatigues and helmets were monitoring some exotic looking electronic equipment. Cindy herself was dressed similarly though not wearing a helmet. They walked up to one of the soldiers who seemed to be in charge, “Captain,” she interrupted. He turned and seeing her saluted quickly. As he dropped his arm, a red and white shoulder patch was clearly visible, it showed a castle over which was seen a wire outline globe.
She groaned inwardly. She was not used to all this saluting and formality, but knew she had a part to play. She could play it as well as anyone. “Is everything ready?”
“Yes ma’am, the interdiction field can go up as soon as you give the word.”
“And how long will we have?”
“Once activated no more than ten or fifteen minutes and the more extreme the force applied to it the shorter that will be. Given the parameters we were led to expect, I wouldn’t go much past five.”
“Number one,” she started turning back to the faceless figure, “will that be enough time?”
“Yes it will,” she acknowledged with no formality and making no mention of rank.
“Alright then, as soon as your team is ready to go, signal and we begin.”
The five figures tapped their insignia and the black outfits began to blur slightly, now they were no longer black but blended into the background. ‘Personal stealth suits, interdiction fields, Jesse and crew have outdone themselves’, she thought, ‘I just hope it’s all enough’.
After less than a minute a green light blinked on the main console. “They’re ready ma’am,” said a soldier manning the console.
“Activate,” said Cindy.
“The interdiction field is up.”
‘Good luck’, thought Cindy, ‘you’re going to need it no matter how cocky you are’.
Three floors beneath the log cabin, in a part of the complex that was never detailed on the TV show, alarms began to sound. A man and woman stood in front of a panel of monitors each showing a different scene around the home. Several were focused on the outside. The largest monitor was placed centrally and showed an image of their front door. It was no longer there. It wasn’t until an explosion tore it off the frame that the alarms had sounded.
“How did they get past the detection grid?” the man asked.
“I don’t know,” answered the woman. “But passive defensives have engaged. That should stop them quickly.”
The two of them manipulated controls and were scanning different areas. As their hands flew over the touch screens the simple matching gold rings each one wore were clearly visible. He suddenly pointed at a screen focused on an outdoor scene. Cindy and her soldiers with their machinery were visible in the muted colors of a low light camera. “There!” he shouted, “god damn soldiers. What are they doing here?”
“I don’t know that either,” she replied with frustration. Her screens were focused on the stairs which led down to the sub-basements. She could see a blurred group of five individuals on the screen, the area they stood in was disheveled, filled with wreckage of expensive furniture, art, and other decorative items. Not to mention the expended bean bags, electro-nets, capture foam, and other assorted defenses that they seem to have come through without being slowed.
She looked up at her husband, she always got lost in his blue eyes and dark curls. She shook herself out of the reverie and said “Whatever this is, it’s not a rival or a robbery so it’s time to pull out. Give this place up as lost and let’s retreat to zone five.”
“Agreed,” said her husband gripping her shoulder. He looked deep in her eyes, the liquid green pools he fell in love with framed by a wealth of blue black hair any model would kill for. “Here we go love,” he said.
The two of them seemed to fold in on themselves for a second, as if turning two dimensional and then folding down as if someone were crumpling a picture of them into a small ball. Then suddenly they were back to normal, gasping for breath and obviously in pain.
“Wha… what… happened…” gasped the woman, straining for air.
Her husband didn’t seem quite as affected but he was still obviously shaken. “It’s my turn to say I don’t know Vicky. Everything was fine but then it was like I hit a wall.”
She steadied herself at the console and pointed to the view of Cindy’s team in the woods. “It has to be them, whatever that equipment it. Why didn’t we see them before? They had to have taken time to set all that up.”
Her husband didn’t respond. Instead, he winked out again but this time disappeared before reappearing right next to her. “I can still move around within the house,” he said, “and like I said, there is some kind of barrier but I think I can tear it down if I have enough time.” He pointed at the monitor where the five assailants were now coming down a straight hallway laden with booby traps and the monitor suddenly enlarged to five times its previous size, the monitors on either side of it bending and twisting to allow it to grow. “And there doesn’t seem to be a problem with folding in general, just moving across the folds.” He took a second to glance up at the progress of the five invaders on the monitor; they had made it past gas jets and an electrified floor halfway down a hallway laden with enough traps to stop a hundred men. “They are heading straight at us. I can keep trying to get through the block but we have to slow them down more.”
“My turn then,” his wife said and reached into a cabinet under the screens and pulled out a belt connected with cables to a pair of gloves and a pair of goggles. She donned them quickly, her eyes no longer visible behind the exotic face wear, she then began making motions in the air with her hands.
On the screens the traps and how they reacted to the five began to change. Belt fed guns dropped from the ceilings and took rapid aim at each of them and quickly began to fire. The five suddenly were in motion each moving perfectly to avoid the bullets coming directly at them. Despite rapid tracking by the cannons, not a single bullet hit.
“That’s impossible,” shouted the woman in the gloves. Those shots were dead on target, each and every one. There was no way they could avoid them like that.
The shooting continued until one of the black shrouded figures pulled his guns and, while moving to avoid the spray of bullets, shot out each gun’s gimbal letting them drop suddenly to the floor.
“How in the hell?” asked the woman even as she waved her arms bringing out new implements designed to impede or capture the intruders.
“Something is going on here, I feel some resonance I can’t explain,” her husband answered the rhetorical question.
“Great, so they’re supers, just great. Let’s see what we are dealing with, those suits need to go.” She moved her left index finger as if sliding a lever and suddenly the floor where the blurred figures stood began to spark with electricity. She hoped it would knock them all unconscious but she knew it should short out whatever was causing the blur effect. On screen, all five individuals jumped at once and were no longer in contact with the floor when the jolt of electricity stuck the area. “Damn it,” she swore, “alright see if you can deal with this?”
As she spoke she moved her index finger again but this time held it there. On screen the sparking started again but this time continued for a full twenty seconds before stopping. The figures leapt again but came down while the electricity was still flowing. Their images on camera wavered and then came clear, their black suits truly visible for the first time. The glove she used to manipulate the field suddenly sparked and she clenched her hand in pain. Her husband looked over at her with concern etched on his face. “I’m alright, had to overload the system to do that. The Taser systems in the hall are fried now and I got some feedback, no worries.”
She glanced back at the monitors, “OK time for some concentration.” She scanned over the five of them and froze when she looked at the one wearing the II on his insignia. “That one,” she pointed at him on the screen, “he’s the lynchpin. Take out that one and they all fall.” As they watched over the five each one in turn became blurry again as if the damage she did was never there. The hallway was still half destroyed and a quick check told her that her systems were still fried, but the figures now looked untouched.
“OK,” her husband said as he glanced at the screen again, “I don’t care what you can fix, it’s infinite stairways for you.”
The figure on screen seemed to twist and fall shrinking as if moving into the distance and then he was gone. But before either of them could react he was suddenly there again. “OK I felt that one,” he said, “he suddenly vanished from the stairs and was back where he started from. I don’t know how they did it.”
“I don’t think it matters, we are going to need to get out of here. The only other choice is to retreat into the dungeon and hope we can outplay them.”
“That’s why we have it,” he said with resignation, “I’d rather run too but I won’t have whatever that thing is blocking me down before they reach the room.”
“In the dungeon we can play keep away until you can get through the barrier. Then we disappear and start planning for the next time they come after us. I have some ideas what to do. I just don’t have what I need to implement it now. This is a potent group, combined well, they overlap the weaknesses so no one move can take them out.”
“Great so they almost negate you.” As they spoke, they were moving through a thick steel door set behind the monitors. The woman was still using the gloves to activate and control defenses but it was barely slowing the five.
“Both of us actually. It’s almost like someone put this group together to be our antithesis.” She shook her head, “I don’t think that’s it I think someone just put together the perfect strike force which happens to be devastating against us.”
“To make the dungeon ploy work I’m going to have to split my focus. It’s going to slow down my ability to break through the barrier.”
“Can’t be helped, if you focused on the barrier I estimate you will break through in four more minutes. If we can’t slow them, they will get to us in three. Once directly engaged, it’s still anyone’s game.
By the time the five came through the monitor room, everything was set. Their enemies moved through the steel door and were confronted with the impossible. The area was huge and seemed to float in the middle of open space. The hallway that led from the door branched more times than they could count and the branches angled off in odd ways, some twisting and heading vertically and others folding over on themselves to go first one way then another. There were stairways as well that led off into odd directions and paths that defied the laws of physics. And above it all the couple stood upside down to the point of view of the group that was after them.
The couple was no longer wearing the ordinary clothes they were when the attack began and she had shed the gloves and goggles somewhere along the way. Now he was in an outfit made of unusual interlocking armor plates, a tessellating pattern that made the eyes water. She was in a sleek outfit, similar in many ways to what her attackers were wearing though without the stealth field, one look at her made it obvious that she didn’t need it. She wore different gloves now, these had sharp metal claws on each finger and ridged ribbing that went up the wrist. Similar modifications adorned her boots and she wore a belt with numerous small pockets and attachments.
They looked above them at the intruders hanging upside down by their perspective and the man in the armored outfit laughed an obviously exaggerated cackle. “There’s a reason they call me Escher,” yelled the man at them. “Welcome to hell!” he shouted in defiance.
Undaunted and silent, the group moved into the warped area and began trying to make their way to them. Escher nodded at his wife and she darted to the side of the platform they were on and through an archway. Suddenly she was among the five striking out at them. Her blows mostly missed, something that still astounded her, but she was able to land some, something she was sure astounded her assailants. Each time they tried to catch her she danced out of the way. She darted down a branching hall and suddenly was standing next to her husband, they followed but ended up standing on the wall on a platform that didn’t appear connected directly to them. In fact, despite stairs and doorways leading off it, it didn’t seem to connect to anything.
“How’s the barrier?” she asked.
“Slowly degrading,” Escher responded. “This is taking most of what I have to maintain. But I have them in the stairway.” He pointed and indeed the five of them were on a series of platforms connected by stairs that formed an infinite loop. Doorways led off the various platforms but each time they entered one they simply exited another. “They’re trapped for now.”
On the platform the one with the guns who had shot out her cannons pulled the guns again and shot at them. The bullets disappeared in mid-air and struck other places around the various platforms, never coming close to them. He then started shooting in seemingly random patterns around the platform they were on. The five then started walking through a passage one of the bullets had taken and emerged on another platform where he repeated the action.
“Damn,” Escher said. “I don’t know how he’s doing it but he’s somehow using his shots to track where the connections are. They’re figuring out the maze and finding the connections I need to leave in place.”
“We’re saying ‘I don’t know how’ a lot. I think they are all affecting the quantum state in one way or another. Their powers are all similar to yours, if more limited, but they’re all using them about as effectively as they can. The lynchpin, he’s how their doing it, damn it took me a long time to get that.” She looked angry now, “I hate things that mess with the quantum state,” she glanced at her husband with a wicked smile, “well, except you of course.”
“All right, even with them figuring their way through I’ll have the barrier down and us out of here with minutes to spare. It takes more than this to beat us.”
He smiled deeply at his wife, they didn’t have to beat their enemies to claim victory, they survived and they prospered. The loss of this house would sting because they actually loved it but the cost? You don’t get as far as they have counting costs of living.
The smile suddenly turned into a rictus his lips pulling tightly back as every muscle in his body contracted. The smell of ozone suddenly permeated the air and his wife jumped backward into a defensive crouch. The view all around them suddenly shifted and the room was just a normal empty room. Their enemies would be on them soon.
Her husband fell forward and there was no one else with them. But she wasn’t fooled. She lashed out with a kick striking where an invisible attacker would have been but struck nothing, she knew she would but in just a second… She grabbed to her side, wrestling an invisible wrist holding the shock glove away from her. A voice from nowhere said, “that’s not possible,” as she pulled the wrist down sharply. There was a sudden spark as it connected with the thigh of her invisible assailant. He went rigid then collapsed in her grip, turning visible.
“It’s nice to hear someone else say that for a change,” she said aloud just as five others entered the room.
Her husband was on the ground behind her, she shifted her grip on the unconscious man and took him by the throat, the claws of her gloves drawing five small rivulets of blood forth as she tightened her hold.
“No further or the start of your butcher’s bill is one invisible man.”
“Easy there Precise,” came a man’s voice, the one with the guns, “you’ve never killed anyone, you’ve never even used lethal force, in more than a decade as highly active super villains. I doubt you are going to start now.”
“No one has ever invaded my home before,” she shot back. “No one has ever put me or my husband in danger. Anyone kills to protect their own lives!” Her mind was racing in overdrive, her power was failing her here, the only exploit was the one she was using, the hostage but, she knew it wouldn’t work, it wasn’t a strong enough advantage. Every weakness she probed covered over, one covered the next, covered the next. ‘Damn brilliant’, she thought ruefully. ‘Damn deadly’, her only hope was to play for time. ‘If Escher would just wake up, this would be a whole different…’, her thought was interrupted as the body she held in her hands suddenly vanished, not invisible, gone, her hand closed on nothing.
“In for a penny,” she shouted as she leapt at the group letting her power subsume her. Each strike fell exactly where it needed to, each movement dodged to avoid attacks and allow counterstrikes, everything about her attack was absolutely precise.
Not one blow hit.
Every time she was about to hit one of them they moved just out of the way. It was like they could see it coming. “Precogs? Really a whole group of precogs?”
“Not a one,” said the man with the gun as he sighted and fired on her.
“Tranqs?” she almost laughed. “No problem,” she said and kept fighting, but the floor seemed to slip away from her feet. Her equilibrium vanished.
“Sorry Precise,” the shooter said, “something new. I’m sure you’ll deal with it but by then… well why don’t you just save yourself some pain?”
Her vision swam but she clearly saw one of the others holding Escher’s body in their arms. ‘Damn’, she thought, ‘You always were my one weakness’.
“Fine,” she said trying to hold up her hands in surrender. “You haven’t killed either of us so you are either here to use us or capture us. Given the power level of your little group I’m going to guess capture.”
She laughed loudly, “So you finally caught Escher and Precise, well, don’t think any jail will hold us, not the best supermax you can design, we’ll always beat it in the end.”
A woman in a black military uniform, Force Ops Precise realized, walked out from the hallway behind the faceless group in black. She recognized her as the woman who was in the clearing in the woods. In her hands she was carrying two silver collars etched with what looked like circuitry. As she snapped the first one around Escher’s neck, he finally started coming around as she did so. He was dazed but awake. He looked over at his wife and gave the smallest shake of his head while silently mouthing the words “no powers.”
“Who said anything about jail?” She almost laughed as she said it. “We wouldn’t go through this much effort just to catch a couple of criminals who don’t pose a public threat.”
“Then what?” asked Precise warily.
“Peter and Victoria Raines,” she said surprising them with their real names, not even the aliases under which they owned this house. “Under the mandate granted by the Second Patriot Act you’ve been drafted.”
Don ran down the alley as fast as he could.
Not to say that was very quick, he wasn’t in the best of shape. Everything was crazy, he had no idea why they were after him or how he was going to get away from them. He only knew he couldn’t afford to get caught by them. Everything that happened in the last five minutes told him that getting caught was a bad idea.
He had been in his bookstore minding his own business when the four of them came in. Little things told him they were going to be a problem. First of all four men in suits in his bookstore just before closing coming in within thirty seven seconds of each other stood out. There were slight bulges under each one’s jacket indicating a weapon. No smell of gun oil or gunpowder residue, but he could sense a slight electrical field from each. Tasers, not firearms, that much was good. He had hit the silent alarm before the first of them was three feet into the store when he assumed it was going to be a robbery, now that there were four he assumed it was something different. When the electrical signal from the alarm didn’t propagate the way it should, he knew the line had been cut.
He could tell by the way they moved down the aisles in his store and what books they looked at that they weren’t there to shop. They were trying to look like customers and checking to see who else was present. ‘They don’t want witnesses’, he thought worriedly, ‘very bad’.
The slight wear marks in their clothes and the scuff patterns on their shoes told him that they ran and fought in these suits. They didn’t have the wear patterns you would see when someone sat all day in a pair of pants. The shoes all had areas indicating impacts rather than simple walking or even running. There was a faint stain on one of their shoes, no one else would have even noticed it. There was the coppery smell of blood wafted from that stain, no more than a week old.
He had tried to act nonchalant, he bent over the store computer as if looking something up on the internet. He pulled up his video conferencing software. He needed to get a call for help out. ‘Unable to connect, check your connection’, flashed on screen.
A sudden scrape from someone pivoting on their shoe, caused him to dive behind the desk just as the Taser wires went over his head.
He ducked into the back room knocking piles and piles of books over to block the path of any who followed him and headed to the back door. There had been three sets of running footsteps coming toward him and the front door to his store had opened just as he reached the back door.
He pulled the back door of the shop open and ducked through, narrowly avoiding another Taser wire. He ran.
He didn’t hear footsteps in front of him down the alley but he did hear a heartbeat. It was different from the man who went out the front, stronger, more even, it certainly wasn’t the beat of someone who had just sprinted around a block. ‘Great a fifth person, I’m screwed’.
Looking around as he ran, he noticed everything, two hundred and fifteen loose pieces of trash, none of which would do him any good. A crumpled piece of newspaper blew by the headline read ‘Which way does the pendulum swing: Terrorist acts and Patriot Acts’. The small piece of the article on the one page went on to describe the new Patriot Act created in response to Meredith Falls and called into question if the government was going too far. The walls were mostly bare, one air conditioning unit stuck out from a window but it was attached far too well for him to pull it out. There were no handholds to let him climb to a window. There was a pipe that ran up one wall but it could never hold his weight. There were rusted weakened joints on that pipe and it was clearly disused. The pipe was right before the turn in the alley which would bring him face to face with the waiting man. Behind him he could hear the books being shoved aside and the other three men approaching the door from his store to the alley.
He grabbed the pipe and observed how the metal stressed as he pulled on it. He shifted his grip and the stress increased, he threw his weight into it and suddenly it snapped off leaving a three foot length of pipe with a jagged end in his hands. It was heavy, he could swing it, but not very effectively. He hoped it would be enough.
He rounded the corner and the man was standing there, casually leaning against the wall. This man was solid all through, six foot two, he had a calmness about him like this was just another part of his day. He was wearing a black suit and, despite it being evening, dark sunglasses. He looked to be in his thirties; Don noticed faint lines around the eyes and one or two hairs that were losing the deep brown of the rest of his hair. He leaned slightly to his left as if compensating for something. His breathing was slow and even, his heart didn’t waver when he came around the corner brandishing the pipe as a weapon.
He looked Don up and down. Don knew he was out of shape, had a paunch, he spent the last twenty years of his life running a book store, he had no training in self-defense. Even escaping this far out of the store was pure luck. ‘What the hell is this about, what did I do to deserve this?’ he asked himself but deep down he knew it had to be his recent postings. With all the excitement over Meredith Falls he had analyzed everything the news had said and everything he could track down on the web. He posted his theories and thoughts but that was just foolishness. None of it made sense, he even said that. Sure there might have been bits that uncovered something here and there. And yes he predicted the passage of the Second Patriot Act before congress had even met to address the issue but that was no great leap.
‘Oh god!’ he thought with sudden clear realization, ‘They must think I’m involved somehow, one of the terrorists or a sympathizer’.
“I didn’t do anything!” Don shouted at the man standing in front of him blocking his path to freedom. “I have nothing to do with them! Just leave me alone!”
The man in the dark sunglasses stood up straight facing him looking down on Don a good six inch difference in height. “Down!” he said sharply and pushed forward knocking Don to the ground.
Don had seen the blow coming, noted the tensing of the man’s muscles but it came too fast for him to do anything about it. ‘That’s faster than possible’, Don thought ‘no one could move that fast except…’ Don suddenly went cold inside, ‘a super’ he finished his thought. ‘Oh my god they aren’t from the government coming after me for my postings, they’re from Far From Noble, coming after me for what I said’.
As Don tumbled to his knees the new man grabbed the pipe from his hands, easily taking it from him. He then stepped past him further into the alley just as the rapid footsteps behind him stopped. Don glanced back over his shoulder and saw three men with Tasers out, ‘rapidly reloadable Tasers’, he incidentally noted, ‘I’m such a dead man’.
All three of the man took aim the point of aim of two of them was at Don himself but the third aimed at their ally who had just knocked him to the ground. ‘Maybe he’s not an ally?’ wondered Don while he was waiting for the sudden shock of the Taser.
The shock never came, he heard the whirring of the spinning pipe before he looked up to see what the man in dark glasses was doing. He could see the pipe spinning though the motion was so fast no one else would have seen anything other than a blur. He moved the pipe first swinging it in front of himself and then down to catch all three of the wires as they flew forward. He could see each on wrap around the metal pipe, it was impressive even if it was crazy, that pipe was conductive, this was going to send the full juice of all three Tasers into him at once, and given the two handed grip he held the pipe in the current was going to arc straight across his heart. He’ll be lucky if he doesn’t go into cardiac arrest.
The three Tasers triggered almost simultaneously. There was the sharp smell of ozone in the air suddenly and he could see the man’s hands clenching tighter on the pipe and he heard the sound of bending metal. He expected to see the man convulse and fall but he simply stood there with all that voltage pumping through him. As the charge ended he pulled on the pipe like it was a fishing pole and he was reeling in a catch. The three Tasers flew from their owner’s hands crashing into the wall of the alley with crushing force. They shattered into between fifty three and one hundred and thirty seven pieces each, the plastic shells splintering under the impact.
“Stand down, we’re from the Nat… urkh…” one of the three chasing him started to say but before he could get the words out, the man in the dark sunglasses, his protector? Suddenly closed the gap between them and Don heard the sharp snap of bone as the speaker had his jaw broken.
There was thirty feet eight inches between where he stood and the speaker he covered it in a tenth of a second give or take. ‘That’s at least ten times faster than the best Olympic sprinter,’ he realized. ‘There’s no way I can get away from this guy and saved me from the others or not I want to get away from this guy’.
The man with the broken jaw was down but the other two popped out combat batons, Don could hear the spring loaded weapons extending. ‘Maybe they can slow him, maybe I can get away’, he hoped desperately. He got his feet under him and ran as fast as he could to the mouth of the alley.
“Wait!” he heard the super call out. If he was going to say more he held back and Don heard the sounds of blows landing on both sides of the fight behind him.
Don was just about to exit the alley when he heard a rapid heartbeat in front of him to the left of the alley mouth. He smelled oil and heard the scrape of metal as a safety was thumbed off. The last man, the one who had run out the front of the store had made it around the block. He was breathing heavy and if Don wasn’t in a state of panic he would have realized he was there long before this.
“You are coming with me Mr. Rawley,” the man said, “it’s a matter of national security.” He gestured him to move forward with the gun as a sedan with tinted windows pulled up in the street behind him. When he didn’t move the man continued, “Now Mr. Rawley! I don’t want to use this but we won’t lose you.” He paused and his face took on an even more serious cast, “if we can’t have you no one can.”
Before Don could do anything he heard a whistling sound from behind coming toward him. He didn’t have any time to react when the pipe he had torn off the wall flew past his shoulder, he could see flecks of blood dripping off it and smell the acrid tang left by the electrical surge as it passed him flying through the air. He heard the jarring impact as it hit the gun hand of the man threatening him. He heard sixteen individual snaps as various bones broke, he heard the click of the hammer on the bullet in the chamber as the man involuntarily squeezed the trigger. He watched the bullet hit the ground in front of him and to his right before it ricocheted into the alley wall and imbedded itself there, flecks of brick forming an unusual pattern in the air for a split second on impact. He heard the clank of the gun hitting the ground and smelled the copper of blood coming from the trigger finger that was torn loose from the pipe’s impact. He counted fourteen drops of blood spattering the ground before the stream of blood erupted from the stump where the finger had been. And he heard the crunch of metal as the pipe embedded itself six inches deep through the rear passenger door of the sedan. He realized from the sound of impact that the car was armored which made it even more impressive.
The now nine-fingered man grabbed his injured hand as another man got out of the car and pulled him back into it before it took off tires squealing and the pipe sticking from its side hitting a garbage can sitting at the curb.
The man in dark sunglasses walked out of the alley beside Don, the slowness of his stride belittled the events that just occurred. He was dragging one of the other men with him, the man was unconscious.
He turned and looked at Don, who had a look of horror on his face. “I hate bullies,” was all he said as he reached over and casually snapped the unconscious man’s right arm at the elbow. ‘That’s going to cripple him,’ thought Don. Then a new thought hit him, ‘Why should I care? They were going to kill me rather than let this guy save me from them’.
“Who… who are they?” asked Don shakily, it was the first words he uttered since begging for his life… was it only fifty-two seconds ago?
The man in the glasses reached into the pocket of the unconscious man, he pulled out a billfold and tossed it to Don. Inside was an ID card indicating he was Agent Derrick Wilkins of the NSA.
‘Oh god,’ thought Don, they were the good guys, government agents, ‘I am so screwed, I was right this guy’s one of the terrorists’.
Don started backing away without realizing he was doing it.
“Easy there, I’m here to help you. Do you think NSA agents are supposed to charge into public places and kidnap American citizens without due process, federal warrants, and such?”
“Umm, the Second Pat…”
“Yeah the new laws, well they don’t remove your protections, you aren’t a super terrorist,” he said emphasizing the word terrorist. It was clear this man knew he was a super too.
“Covert mission, NSA will deny it, but it will be true all the same.”
“Who… who are you?”
“My name is Caleb Martins and like I said, I’m here to help you.”
“Where are you from?”
“Sorry, I don’t do IDs or twenty questions about myself.”
“Why were they after me?”
“Don. May I call you Don?” he asked but continued before an answer could be given. “Don, you and I both know what you can do. I’m sure you know about all the information NSA is sitting on, the big scandal revealed a few months ago?”
“Yeah, but what does that have to do with me?”
“Don, think about it. What’s the biggest problem with having a huge database of information most of which is irrelevant and maybe a small fraction of a small fraction is actually relevant and important?”
Don just looked back at him dumbfounded. The shock was getting to him at this point.
“A database is useless without being able to search, sort, and organize it. Do you think you might be able to do something about it?”
“I… I could sort all the data and find what was needed.”
“Yeah, probably in about a month by our estimates, you could make that huge pile of irrelevancies relevant and meaningful in a month. It would take hundreds, maybe thousands of people years to do what you could do alone in a month.” Caleb paused, “Is it any wonder NSA wants you?”
“And what about you, what do you want?”
“I want you too, but not to sort through data that was obtained in a questionable, possibly illegal manner on citizens of the United States with no criminal record or suspicious issues. We want you in the fight against Far From Noble and others like them.”
“So what makes you any different from them?”
“Not a lot I suppose, from your point of view. We’re both recruiters who want you for similar reasons, your ability to obtain and interpret data. The big difference is what we want you to do won’t be directed at random American citizens. Well that and on a personal note for you, if you say no I’m not going to put a bullet in your head.”
“Then I say no.”
“Of course,” Caleb went on as if Don hadn’t spoken, “if you say no, there isn’t much I can do to stop the NSA from coming back and putting a bullet in your head either.”
“I understand Don. I do. But trust me; I’m your best option here. You could go work for them, you could let them kill you, you could try to run and evade them. Or you could come with me and join Force Ops. You aren’t going to be part of some covert group. You are going to be part of the most public version ever seen. The group that stands up in front of every terrorist and want to be terrorist with super powers out there and say no, you can’t do this because we are here to stop you.”
“Think about it,” Caleb continued, “I figure you have five minutes before those agents send in a bigger group with bigger guns. I can wait around that long.”
Harold stopped to buy a coffee. It was one of his few vices and he loved good coffee, he even loved just standing in the coffee shop and savoring the smells of different blends. In a world with a Starbucks on every corner, it was nice to have Connoisseur’s near his home. He always thought that if you could make a cup of coffee that tasted as good as it smelled the world would be a better place. Every one of the blends at Connoisseur’s tasted better than they smelled.
He stood in line waiting to order his usual. He hated the line but it was a small price to pay for coffee this good. There was only one Connoisseur’s, the owner had refused all offers to sell, expand, license, or go corporate. This was the place serious coffee drinkers came for coffee. It was also down the street from the national mall and a large number of senators and representatives came here or sent their staff to pick up coffee for them. One of the servers called out an order for Lyle, a triple espresso with a shot of hazelnut in it. He frowned slightly, how people could flavor good coffee he would never understand. Lyle came up got his drink and headed for the door, having a slightly difficult time getting through the crowd of people holding both his coffee and the hard leather briefcase he was carrying. The line kept moving forward and Harold was next.
He stepped up to order greeting the barista, “Hi Frank, just my usual today.”
“You got it Mr. Brooks,” Frank replied taking the ten dollar bill Harold proffered to him.
He rang up the order and then called out in surprise, “What the… all the money is gone.”
The manager came up to the register. “What are you talking about Frank?”
“The money, it’s gone. I just rang up a customer thirty seconds ago and the draw was full, now it’s empty.”
Harold looked around; no one was acting oddly, other than people looking at Frank and the loud disturbance he was making. No one was heading toward the door which just swung closed behind the guy with the triple espresso. Making up his mind, Harold said “look Frank, obviously you need to figure this out. Hold on to the ten, I’ll be back for my order later.”
Frank made a non-committal reply, while trying to get the story, short though it was, across to his manager. Harold walked out. He supposed it was technically leaving the scene of a crime but he could deal with that if he needed to. Once on the street he looked around and spotted Lyle walking east drinking his espresso.
He hurried along, realizing yet again that he wasn’t as young as he used to be, until he caught up with Lyle and walked alongside him. He took a good look at him, engraining his features into his mind just in case he needed to be able to describe him: five foot ten, mid-twenties, red hair, pale skin, freckles, slim build, and clean shaven. Harold would do a police sketch artist proud.
“You know Lyle, that’s a pretty minor use of a pretty major talent,” he said quietly as they walked.
Lyle almost choked on his espresso. “Were you talking to me?” he said sucking in air to cool his burning tongue.
“I was just thinking that if I was a teleporter and,” he added stressing the ‘and’, “I was the type to steal for a living that I would probably want to hit a bigger target than a coffee shop. Even one as popular as Connoisseur’s.”
“I’m sorry,” he said nervously while picking up his pace, “I don’t have the foggiest idea what you are talking about.”
“I’m talking about the money sitting in your briefcase.” Lyle looked like he was about to run. “Calm down,” Harold continued. “It’s not like I called the police, though robbing Connoisseur’s is a special kind of crime in my book.”
“It is good espresso,” Lyle chuckled, despite the topic of the conversation.
“But as I was saying, with the ability to teleport objects I wonder why you would bother to rob a coffee shop, a high end coffee shop to be sure, but probably less than a thousand dollars. It seems to me, depending on limitations of course, that there are many more profitable targets. If I were going to risk a crime with super powers, and the punishments that entails if caught, I would damn well want it to be worth it.”
“Well,” said Lyle slyly, slowing his pace down, “hypothetically speaking, “if I indeed was blessed with such an ability, I would know that banks would be a great target but they all have weight based sensors now as well as detectors that look for changes in atmospheric pressure to detect supers removing money from the vaults and even the draws. Jewelry stores may or may not have similar security systems. Hard to tell without risking it and then you would need to fence the jewelry. So for the thief who just wants to live comfortably and not have to deal with others, he’s stuck with small change.”
“Hmm, I can see that could be a problem.” The two of them kept walking along and chatting. No one watching would have realized that they didn’t know each other or just how odd the topic of their conversation actually was.
“You know there are other options,” Harold continued.
“I was wondering where this was going. I’m not interested in joining a gang, paying protection money, or becoming a super villain. I just want to live comfortably, maybe have a few of the finer things in life. I don’t need more, I don’t want fame and I especially don’t want trouble. So if that’s all?” Lyle sped up and moved to cross the street.
Harold walked up next to him once more. “No, I’m afraid that’s not all Lyle, or would you rather I call you Mr. Wagner.”
If Lyle was surprised before he was shocked to silence now. He just stared at Harold jaw open.
“Don’t worry Lyle,” Harold continued, “I have no intention of revealing your secrets… not unless I have to.”
“Blackmail? You’ve got nothing. I’ve never been investigated or accused of anything. There isn’t a shred of evidence linking me to anything…” Lyle paused as if realizing what he was saying and where he was saying it, “hypothetically speaking of course.”
“Blackmail is such an ugly word,” Harold shook his head with an exaggerated sadness. “I would never blackmail anyone.” He turned as if he were going to walk away but then stopped. “Of course it’s my duty as a citizen to report what I suspect to the authorities. Frank, the barista will certainly tell the police that I was a witness to whatever it was. And I certainly want to help them catch the person who robbed my favorite coffee shop.” Harold shook his head again for emphasis, “and Frank, he’s a good kid. He’s working his way through college as a barista in Connoisseur’s, I don’t want to see his job in jeopardy.”
“You still have nothing,” Lyle said and turned into the nearest side street, a narrow pass between two adjacent brownstones.
‘Clearly he isn’t thinking’, mused Harold, ‘he’s heading into a dead end’. Then Harold was hurrying after him, ‘stupid, he’s a teleporter, just because he only teleported money to him doesn’t mean he can’t teleport himself away’.
But Lyle hadn’t left. He was standing in an open area which served as the entrance to the garages for the two homes. He had him off balance, now he just needed to finish it.
“There’s nowhere to run Lyle,” Harold said, “I suggest you listen to me and my offer.”
“Yeah or what old man? I am so out of here!” he almost shouted and moved to push past Harold back to the street.
“That’s not a good idea,” Harold said with exaggerated calmness and moved his jacket back triggering the mechanism to make his sidearm appear. He showed the small silver gun in the underarm holster to Lyle. “I don’t like to threaten but…”
“Then don’t!” Lyle spit back and stretched out his hand. Suddenly the gun was in Lyle’s hand and he pointed it at Harold. They were still ten or fifteen feet apart, but Lyle’s hand was obviously shaking, he doubted he had ever held a gun before. “Now,” continued Lyle, “out of my way old man.”
The gun in Lyle’s hand emitted a high pitched whine and suddenly there was a flash of light and Lyle was lying down on the ground. Harold walked over, hitched up his pant legs and carefully knelt on his heels. ‘The joys of age’, he thought as he heard his joints creak. “Do I look stupid?” he asked the man who was moaning on the ground. “Would you show an object teleporter your gun if it could possibly be used against you?”
“Uhhhhh-mmphh,” was the only reply.
“It will fade in about a minute,” Harold said while carefully opening Lyle’s briefcase to reveal a fair amount of loose bills as well as a number of wallets, watches, and small jewelry. “Not above fencing or pawning some items I see.” He closed the briefcase and shook his head.
“OK Lyle, here is the deal,” he said in an even, matter of fact tone. “First, the money goes back to Connoisseur’s, anonymously is fine but it goes back and so more than one person can see that it’s back at the same time. They are good people but no need to throw that level of temptation at them.
“Arrrrhh,” Lyle groaned in response.
“Now then the rest of it you can keep for all I care. We probably couldn’t figure out where it should go back to anyhow. After that, I have a new future for you. Welcome to the wonderful world of career military. You are joining Force Ops. With that power of yours, you’re a shoe in.”
“Nooooo,” he shook his head and cleared it a bit, though his speech was still off. “I won’t do it. They wouldn’t take me anyway, I’m a thief. They don’t want criminals.”
“Oh Lyle, are you kidding me? Have you looked at the news lately? There are god damned super powered terrorists attacking the heart of America. They will take anyone they think they need to prevent another Meredith Falls.”
“I… can’t… help… against… that…” Lyle replied speech now clear but slowed, he paused between each word as if straining to go on.
“Actually I would bet you fill a hole in their roster. Want to take the bet? How about the remainder of the money in your briefcase? You win and I double it.” Harold stared at Lyle but didn’t get a response this time. “No? OK then.”
“Listen Lyle, Force Ops will take you and you don’t really have another option here except jail. And don’t think they won’t take you. You don’t watch the sports news either do you? They just took a guy with a slew of drunk and disorderly convictions who just destroyed a bar injuring several people in the process.”
Harold continued but now had a sour expression on his face. “A few years ago one division recruited someone who shot and killed three HCP students in cold blood on YouTube for god’s sake. I don’t think they’ll have much in the way of problems with a thief who was never even been accused of a string of what essentially amounts to petty burglaries.”
“I won’t do it,” he said slowly climbing to his feet.
“That’s your choice of course,” Harold said mildly. “Of course if you choose not to I’m sure we can put together a list of burglaries fitting your MO and scan the security footage for you. I know those images are rough but I have a friend who is very good at photographic enhancement. If you aren’t there I’m sure she could find you anyway.”
“So first blackmail then framing me?”
“Oh we both know you will have been there. It’s just whether or not the camera caught you. Plus all that will let them do is get a warrant for a deep telepathic scan. That will prove the crimes and with the number of crimes I’m sure it will find you will be going into a super-max for a long, long, time. Even for such minor crimes. I hear the secret is to find the biggest guy you can and beat him almost to death your first day. But then again, you’re probably a knock, hope someone in there likes you.”
“Screw you man, you’re crazy.”
“A little obsessed perhaps,” he commented introspectively, “but not crazy.” Harold offered Lyle his hand. Lyle looked ready to spit in his face. “Oh come now, be a good sport about it. You might like it and face it you will be doing a damn sight better than going to jail.”
“I can’t believe my luck was this bad to run into a crazy man like you buying coffee.”
“Yeah wrong place, wrong time I guess,” chuckled Harold.
Jesse drove through the ornate ironwork gates slowly. There was a plaque set on the right hand brick column to which the gate was attached. An extra lens from his eyepiece dropped down in front of Jesse’s left eye and magnified the lettering on the plaque. It read “Dignity” and in slightly smaller letters below it, “established 2012.”
The lens retracted and Jesse kept driving. The road twisted a bit leading to what looked like a huge Victorian style mansion with several outbuildings. He pulled up in front of the stairs leading to the front door and parked. He had been here before but not since the changeover, it will be interesting to see the differences.
A man in a physician’s white coat came out from the doors and met Jesse halfway up the stairs.
“Dr. Bonner?” the man in the white coat asked.
“Yes, but please just call me Jesse. You must be Dr. Harper?”
“Yes but likewise, please call me Andrew.”
“Alright Andrew,” Jesse replied in a friendly manner. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been out here.”
“Well,” Andrew answered looking a bit embarrassed, “I hope you’ll find the place improved. We are all ashamed of what happened here in the past.”
“The things that monster did were not the fault of any of you who work here now. It just goes to show you human beings are capable of acts just as vile as any super villain.”
“Look, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Dignity wouldn’t exist except based on a settlement pushed through all the way to the Supreme Court. I find it a little like what they did to the tobacco industry. Fund the group to fix the problems and set things right.”
“Yes, we try to do that. And I assure you none of the residents are anything but people voluntarily seeking aid for their afflictions.”
“Andrew,” Jesse asked hesitantly, “are you under the impression that I’m here as some sort of inspector?”
“Oh my no, they have people much more qualified than I am to do that. I’m sure they are making damn sure the tragedy of Powered Havens and its victims never happens again.”
“So why are you here?”
“Exactly why I said I was coming, to meet Cedric Vega and see if what I’ve heard about him is true.” He looked thoughtful for a few seconds and then light dawned in his eyes. “Oh… Oh I can see how that could sound like we doubted your reports about him and were coming to inspect you. Oh Andrew I am sorry to worry you for no reason. I am here to see if I can help poor Cedric and perhaps give him back a life outside this place.”
“That… that would be incredible,” Andrew said in stunned disbelief.
Jesse nodded, ‘it won’t be easy’, he thought to himself, wishing again he had any idea how the Company pulled off their trick with the kids at Lander. ‘Have to have Harold take a walk over by their labs… maybe, just maybe he…’ Jesse shook himself out of his wandering thoughts. He didn’t have whatever it was they had and he had to do the best he could.
“Shall we go meet Cedric?” Jesse asked.
Andrew led him to an elevator, it was disguised as a closet to not detract from the Victorian aesthetic but inside it was a modern elevator. He hit the button for the fifth sub-basement, the lowest floor there was.
“You’ve expanded I see,” Jesse said in an offhand manner.
“Well we were the first Dignity to open our doors, a large number of people had applied for residence and there were quite a few cases that truly needed our help. The last two floors are meant to contain Manhattan and Armageddon class threats.” The elevator doors opened and the two of them walked out into a well-lit but somewhat oppressive hallway. It was obvious they were underground. The whole place had a feel like a bomb shelter, or the bunker at a nuclear test. It had been years since Jesse had been in such a bunker but he would never forget the stifling feeling of standing in that room.
“Well we do our best to neutralize the out of control powers and to prevent the emotional states or physical events that trigger them but we aren’t always successful. Many of our residents do need safe guards in place.”
“Forgive me Dr. Harper,” replied Jesse stressing his name as he returned to a cold formality, “but that sounds a great deal like what happened with Amelia Jacobson and the rest of the victims of Powered Havens.”
“Must we put the barriers of our titles back in place?” Dr. Harper asked hopefully. Seeing no reply other than a cold stare he continued, “Very well, Dr. Bonner, I’ll let you make your own decisions on that matter. Perhaps you should start by seeing our treatment of Cedric Vega, the very man you are already here to see.” There was barely suppressed anger in Dr. Harper’s voice, the implication that he was like his predecessor here infuriated him. “Cedric is after all our most dangerous resident, no one has more safeguards or restrictions in place then he does. Just remember they are all voluntary and they are all necessary.” He stopped and called over an orderly. “Can you escort Dr. Bonner to Cedric Vega’s room? I suddenly remembered another commitment. If you will excuse me Doctor?” he turned and walked back to the elevator they had emerged from without waiting for an answer.
“This way if you please Doctor,” the orderly said and led Jesse down the hallway and then to another hall that branched to the right. They had to pass through two check points, each with a vault-like door that could be closed at a moment’s notice. There, at the end of the branching hall was a door that made the other two look inadequate by comparison.
He tapped his glasses and on the lens the door was circled and descriptive text appeared. “X-16 level alloy, composition matches synthetic fifteen. Melting point well over two thousand degrees Celsius. Force resistance sixteen kilotons. Thickness of this installation is sixteen inches which will hold against a force one rating above maximum for sixty minutes.”
“Impressive,” Jesse murmured under his breath.
“What was that Doctor?” asked the orderly.
“Hmm,” Jesse mused, “oh nothing, sorry just my mind wandering. Well, let me in please.”
“I’m sorry doctor,” the orderly apologized. “Maybe you didn’t understand. I can’t just let you in.”
“What?” Jesse asked confused. “But the whole reason I’m here is to see this man. Didn’t you understand Dr. Harper? You were to escort me to him.”
“Well yes doctor and I have. But this is his living quarters. I can’t just let you in without Cedric’s permission.”
“Oh,” Jesse added embarrassed by his own actions, “I see, yes of course, Dignity and all that. I apologize.”
When Jesse didn’t make a move the orderly added. “Just knock sir.”
“Right,” Jesse walked up to the door, tapped his glasses again, took comfort from the words ‘Fire suppression system active’, which flashed on his lens, and knocked.
“Come in,” a voice answered over a hidden speaker and the door slid open.
Inside the room it was more pleasant than he expected. It was brightly lit and there were windows to his surprise. When he glanced at the window, his lens displayed ‘X-7 level holographic system, manufactured by Phase Five Systems, patent held by WiJi Incorporated Ltd. There were comfortable couches, a kitchen, and several doors leading off to what must be other rooms. Sitting on an overstuffed recliner was a large man in a t-shirt and jeans who was on fire. The heat shimmer surrounding him made it almost impossible to get a good look at him. Another filter dropped into place of Jesse’s left eye and the man’s face became clear. Dark skinned, black hair, strong features with a slightly bent nose that looked like it was broken but not set right.
Jesse stepped into the room, the door sliding closed behind him. He could feel heat radiating off this man but the circulation in the room minimized the impact on him and when he stepped inside he could feel the flow and currents in the room adjusting to his presence and the heat diminishing.
“Cedric?” Jesse asked.
“Yes,” he responded, even with the lens enhancements he could barely make out the lips moving under the sheath of fire. “You must be Dr. Bonner. I hope you are comfortable, is the heat too much?”
“No, I’m fine for now Cedric.”
“What are you here to talk to me about doctor it was a bit unclear. I’ve seen so many doctors. No one can help. This isn’t really a sickness, it’s a disability sure but it’s not an illness.”
“I’m not that kind of doctor anyway Cedric, and please, call me Jesse.”
“OK Jesse,” he agreed, “so if you aren’t that kind of doctor what kind are you? Not another psychiatrist trying to get me to control my emotions. I know that’s important for many powereds but not for me. They always want me to call them by their first names too.”
“No Cedric, I’m not a medical doctor at all. I’m an engineer. I build things. Devices mostly and I think I can build something to help you.”
“More stuff for the room. I gotta tell you doc, if you built this stuff I’m seriously impressed. Furniture that I don’t burn up, a way for normal people to interact with me, and windows,” he looked wistful through the heat haze and fire surrounding him. “Well not windows but you know what I mean. So what new improvements do you have for the place? If you found a way for me to have a cold beer, I will give you my first born.” He suddenly realized just what he said, “Uhh, I mean, well, it’s just an expression. I know you don’t want my first born, it would just be nice to actually be able to have one.”
“Well Cedric,” Jesse said with a cough to cover his embarrassment over the topic, “I didn’t design any of the devices for your room. I mostly design devices to suppress, control, or amplify powers.”
“Does that mean what I think it means?”
“It means I hope to be able to let you leave this place and be part of society again.”
“Doctor… I mean Jesse, that’s incredible. What do you need me to do?”
“Well, uhh, that is,” Jesse stammered, embarrassed again for what he had to ask of this boy. “Well we would need you to join Force Ops.”
“What?” he nearly shouted, the fire seemed to intensify.
‘His baseline might be independent of his emotional state but clearly excitement increases the flame’, thought Jesse. The fans in the room began to whine as the cooling systems kicked up a notch or two. “Cedric, calm down, no one is going to force you to do anything you don’t want to.”
“Well that’s good,” he said with a touch of anger in his voice, “cause I have no intention of joining the army.” He stood up and started pacing the room, a trail of fire showing the path of his steps, sparks and small wisps of flame shooting off him at random moments. “I mean, how dare you!” he continued, anger starting to overwhelm him, the flames rising higher, the fans starting to rattle as they continued to speed up.
‘Contain, Harper said’, ran through Jesse’s mind, ‘I’m an idiot, of course powereds of this level need a failsafe. I just hope we don’t need it now’.
“Cedric, I’m going to guess you don’t follow the news down here.”
Cedric continued to pace and rant, sweat began to bead down Jesse’s forehead.
“Cedric!” Jesse yelled and was ignored.
He picked up a small carving that sat on the table and through it at Cedric. It was a fireproof material but in this case that was a relative term. The carving caught Cedric in his shoulder and suddenly burst into flame. Cedric finally realized what was happening and stopped in his tracks. He started to take some deep breaths and the sheath of fire surrounding him returned to its previous level. Jesse took his finger off the fire suppression trigger.
“I, I’m sorry doctor,” Cedric looked away, “I shouldn’t have… there’s a reason I’m locked down here… the army, they would just want me as a weapon but I don’t want to be a weapon, I just want to be normal or at least live normally.” He paused and muttered, “Or as normally as I can.”
“Cedric, I’m sorry I upset you. The technology to help you, it’s expensive. If it were mine to develop alone, I would just give it to you. But it’s not mine, Force Ops funded the research and continues to fund the research but they want something back from it. Controlled powereds. You won’t be a super, even at my best I couldn’t give you that. But I could give you control.”
“I think you should leave,” small plumes of steam were emerging from Cedric’s face, tears of a man on fire.
“Cedric, I don’t want to intrude but I need to show you two things before I go. Maybe it will help a bit, maybe it will make things worse.” Jesse considered his next words carefully. “I think you need to see this, everyone needs to see this.”
“See what?” his voice was shaky, it was obvious he was trying hard to hold things together.
Jesse tapped the side of his glasses again, this time calling up his holographic projector. He hadn’t designed the ones in this room, it didn’t mean he never worked in holography. “I’m going to guess you don’t follow the news living down here?”
“No,” he said sadly, “no I don’t. It’s just a reminder of what I can’t have.”
“Be glad you don’t have this. And I’m sorry to have to be the one to show it to you.” Jesse tapped the glasses again and played the video of Far From Noble. It was edited, not the full hour but it did have the same impact. Cedric stared at the images unable to look away no matter how much he wanted to. The plumes of steam returned and this time did not stop while the images played through.
“Why?” Cedric asked several minutes after the images played out, “why did you show me that?”
“You need to understand that Force Ops coming to you isn’t just about recruiting a powerful weapon as you put it. You’ve been here almost since Dignity opened. Did anyone ever approach you before?”
“No. We aren’t heartless, we aren’t cruel, we are men with a job to do. We have a mission to preserve and protect America and all its citizens from the mighty to the meek. We think you can help us with that mission.”
“I… I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.”
“You said there were two things you needed to show me.”
“Oh right, I did.” Jesse pulled his hand from his pocket and tossed a small rectangular shaped object at Cedric, it looks a bit like a thick wallet. “Here, catch,” he said as he tossed it to Cedric, not trying to bean him with it this time.
Cedric did manage to catch it, despite the surprise.
His flames winked out completely other that a small bit here and there which danced across his skin. He stood there in fireproof clothing and for the first time in many years didn’t need it.
“Oh my god!” Tears ran down his face, this time there was no steam, he raised his hand and touched it to his face pulling back as he connected with the wetness. “Actual liquid touching me and not boiling off. Jesse do you know what this means? Do you know how much my diet needs to be altered just so I can eat something other than ashes? So I can drink and not simply have steam escape before I can close my mouth? It’s a miracle. I thought it wasn’t ready?”
“It’s not,” said Jesse. “That block has about another ten minutes of life left in it. The full rig will give about eight hours right now and it’s bigger than that. This is a demo in good faith.”
“Faith. I haven’t had that in years. This place is about Dignity but it’s not about Faith, it’s not about Hope. This,” Cedric said holding the device out toward its inventor, “this is about Faith and Hope.”
“I figured I owed you at least a few minutes of normal for what I put you through.”
Cedric was at one of the hologram screens, he did something to the controls to turn it into a mirror. “This is the first time I’ve seen my face since second grade.”
“At least your power means you don’t need to shave,” joked Jesse.
Cedric didn’t laugh. He just stood there and stared at his reflection. He kept staring until small fires began to erupt on his skin again. He turned to Jesse before his face was completely consumed. “OK Jesse, I’ll do it. If this is potentially what you offer… well, then I’ll be your weapon to earn it.”
Jesse simply nodded. “Goodbye for now Cedric. There will be some fireproof paperwork coming down for you to sign.”
Cedric nodded and went back to staring at what little of his face was left to see in the mirrored hologram.
The door opened as Jesse approached it, he leaned hard against the wall as soon as it closed behind him and let out a breath.
“You actually care?” Dr. Harper’s voice asked approaching from down the hall.
“What?” Jesse asked surprised by the question. “Of course I care, why would I do all this if I didn’t?”
“You’re Force Ops, why wouldn’t you?”
“I never told you I was with Force Ops.”
“No, when we had our disagreement I went up to my office and called down to Cedric. He allowed me to listen in on your conversation… just in case.”
Jesse stared him right in the eyes, “Fair enough,” he finally said. “I take it you have no objections to Cedric leaving?”
“No, I hate that he’s joining the military but if you can really give him even some control over his powers…” he looked at his feet and muttered, “then the price is worth it.”
“Thank you, Andrew,” Jesse said tentatively, “if it’s still OK to drop the titles.”
“It’s fine Jesse.” He offered his hand for Jesse to shake. “I can’t say I’m entirely fond of your methods but you offer something we can’t give him.”
“I was wondering…” Andrew stopped as if thinking the better of it.
“Well, there’s another resident I think might be someone you want to meet, if you think you can help her.”
“Andrew, I reviewed all of your residents before I spoke with you last week. There isn’t anyone else who fits that I can help.”
“She’s new. Got here two days ago and well…” Andrew actually looked mournful, “I don’t think I can help her at all. She’s a bit too traumatized for the normal methods. She’s also a bit too strong for us to contain appropriately.”
Jesse looked at Andrew with disbelief on his face. He just got out of a room designed to hold in a walking wildfire and she is too powerful for them to contain her.
Andrew motioned for Jesse to follow. He led him down another hallway, this one was long and unbranching, the walls were plated with what his glasses identified as an X-20 alloy, ‘that’s about the strongest stuff there is’, he thought to himself. As they got closer to the end of the hall he could see areas of the wall had bent and buckled. ‘What in the hell does she do?’ he wondered. The door at the end of the hall was reinforced and even there it had dings and dents in it.
Andrew pulled what looked like a small retractable projection screen out from an inside pocket of his white coat. He unrolled it and held it against the door and suddenly it appeared to be a window into the room beyond. Jesse chuckled to himself, this one he did invent and owned the patent for. He was a bit surprised they had one here at Dignity. The amount they got to fund this place must be larger than he realized.
Inside the room was a young woman, early twenties, very beautiful but disheveled, her hair was everywhere, her clothes were unkempt. She sat on the floor gripping her knees, rocking back and forth, in the middle of a debris field. As they looked in she suddenly looked right at the door and a tremor went through the hallway, he heard the creak of X-20 allow bending. He turned and looked at Andrew as he rolled the viewscreen back up. He motioned for Jesse to back away with him.
“Her name is Heather Fines, she’s an advanced mind but not like any we’ve really seen before, very powerful but no control. Almost no telepathy, just enough to sense when someone is nearby. Ridiculously strong telekinesis that is almost unfocused. She doesn’t lift things she throws them.”
“How has she been contained till now?”
“Her powers weren’t this strong before. She’s had some sort of secondary trigger. She was found two days ago under a fifty-seven car pileup on the expressway. She was in the middle of a perfect circle of debris none of which had entered her zone.” Andrew pulled a newspaper clipping from his pocket. “She was seen by some of the walking injured from the accident and they assumed she was responsible because she was a powered. She wasn’t, drunk truck driver if you can believe it. But they formed what was essentially a lynch mob and went after her.”
“I can see where this is going,” Jesse interrupted, “what happened to them?”
“Well, let’s just say there were more hospitalized from that then from the accident. Jesse, that’s not the biggest thing. While she was,” he stopped for a second, straining to find the right word, “dealing with her attackers, the pavement of the expressway cracked for a mile out from where she was. In the last day she’s made people across the entire complex think we are having earthquakes.”
“My god, a range like that… telepathy yes but TK?”
“She must have some control on a subconscious level. She didn’t kill anyone, lots of bruises, lots of broken bones, but not one crushed skull or rib cage. In fact no one had anything I would consider permanent damage.”
“Are the holographic systems in there intact?”
“I don’t know. Why?”
“Well if not I will need to come back with additional equipment. If they are I can tap into them and talk to her before I go.”
“Does that mean…”
“Yes Andrew, I think I, and Force Ops, can help her. He couldn’t wait to get back and let the others know, he pulled a Harold with this one. He could just see the look on Caleb’s face now.
‘How many damn cage matches does it take to recruit a Force Ops member?’ Olivia asked herself in a private joke. ‘We already have Muscle Malone, now…’ she almost growled deep in her throat, the man in the seat next to her looked over briefly but seeing her expression turned back to the match.
‘I can’t believe this, of all places, is where Elaine ended up’. This wasn’t an arena, or a stadium, this was a dingy warehouse with ring set in a steel cage set in the middle. Underground cage matches for the patron more interested in blood and guts. She looked over at the one weak ass healer they had. They had just finished stabilizing the last loser, she got up shakily but blood still dripped from various small wounds and bruises still covered her. ‘They wouldn’t heal her fully even if they could’, she realized, ‘It’s not that kind of place, they want to see damaged goods’.
A harsh whine interrupted her thoughts as the announcer started to call the next match, the feedback on the microphone was ridiculous. This was the match she was here to see. ‘Finally’, she thought, ‘get this thing over with, let me grab Elaine, and let me get out of here’.
“Now entering the ring,” the announcer’s voice was amplified too loud for Olivia’s tastes, “an up and comer with a record of twelve and one.” The announcer varied his pitch in a crescendo leading up to her stage name. “The woman… known… only… as…WRATH!!!”
She entered to thunderous applause from all around. She was unmistakable to Olivia despite being in a full bodysuit which covered her face and was laid out with what looked like a stylized fanged mouth set in a rictus grin. ‘Well she’s as tacky as ever’, she compared her to her memories of four years prior, ‘let’s hope she’s as good in a fight’.
Olivia didn’t really pay attention to what the announcer said about Elaine’s opponent. She didn’t care much about her and nothing he said would give her any insight into her powers. Nothing to let her know what sort of challenge Elaine was facing. She simply watched Elaine standing there in the red bodysuit and waited for the bell.
Elaine didn’t disappoint, she was as good as ever, maybe better, at least well prepared for her opponent. The woman she faced, called herself “Fine Vine”, by the chants of the audience, vines snaked up her arms and whipped out to entangle her foe. It probably made her very popular that her outfit, which consisted only of strategically placed vines and leaves, left almost nothing to the imagination.
As the fight started, Elaine never let herself be caught. She dodged out of the way of every blow. She ducked under, sidestepped, or caught each and every vine that shot out at her. Each strike at her led to a perfect series of counterstrikes. Her opponent never had a chance. The match didn’t even go one round before Elaine had her tied up in her own vines.
Somehow she had looped the vines around her opponent’s neck and then flung them over a protruding bar from the cage. She pulled and Fine Vine was dangling in mid-air. She was grabbing at the vine that looped around her neck and held her suspended in mid-air. It was all she could do to prevent herself from being hung.
Elaine paced back and forth in front of the body then raised her hands up to the thunderous applause of the depraved crowd. They wanted blood. When the cheers had started dying down Elaine crouched in front of her opponent who was still twisting in mid-air desperately trying to free herself. Suddenly Elaine leapt up rising higher than Fine Vine and as she peaked in her trajectory and started to descend, she punched Fine Vine right in the face so hard the crack reverberated through the arena, blood and teeth sprayed from her mouth staining the mat. The cheers for this violent act on a helpless foe redoubled and nearly deafened Olivia.
Fine Vine dangled by her neck unmoving. Olivia was about to jump up to the ring when Elaine cut her down and checked her for breathing. She called the healer in and stood over her till Fine Vine started to get up. Elaine prodded at the healer who took Fine Vine’s head in her hands. When she was done Fine Vine smiled at the crowd, from her front row seat Olivia could see she had a full set of teeth again.
‘Good,’ thought Olivia, ‘at least she hasn’t become a complete immoral bitch in here. If she had become that depraved I doubt we could use her. Of course not all the others would agree with that’.
After the ring had been cleared for the next match Olivia got up and walked down to the doors Elaine and Vines had exited through. What passed for security flanked the double doors, two toughs, probably supers who fought here. They actually tried to stop her. She reminded herself why she was here and then decided to have some fun anyway. She continued walking through the doors stepping carefully over their unconscious bodies.
More security personnel flanked the door to Elaine’s combination locker room and dressing room. These guards tried to stop her again, she only smiled at them.
Elaine answered Olivia’s knock at the door. She dropped the guard’s body as she opened the door and smiled at her. She walked in and closed the door behind her and was greeted by a near tackle hug from Elaine, who was in a silk robe now, her loose black curls flowing over a face that was a bit too angular to be called beautiful. One day men would probably describe her as handsome but for now her bubbly personality obscured it all anyway.
“Dean Townsend,” Elaine greeted her as she finally broke the hug. “This is a funny place to see you. To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit? And don’t tell me you just came to see the fights.”
“I haven’t been Dean Townsend for nearly as long as you haven’t been an HCP student Elaine.”
“Really? I hadn’t heard. So are you Knightingale again? I hadn’t heard that you came out of retirement but I don’t really follow the super set anymore.” There was just a touch of self-recrimination in her speech but she did hide it well.
“No, not that either,” she said with mild surprise. “And how did you learn I was Knightingale?”
“Please, all you HCP staff think we can’t figure things out. I might not have been a subtlety major but Shawna was and she was my best friend. And yes she came to me and unfuzzed my memories of her right after I failed out.” She smiled a wicked smile, “what are you going to do? Take away her certification?”
Olivia sighed, “You didn’t fail out, you just didn’t advance. You could have tried again.”
“Sure I could have. How many actually get back in after being dropped from the program? One, maybe two a year, and that’s across all four years and all five schools?”
“I kept telling you that you had more untapped potential, I kept telling you that you could improve.”
“Really, I guess that’s why I was number sixteen going into senior year. What was my final rank in the program overall? Oh, that’s right seventy-sixth, just missed, sorry.”
“Why are you here Elaine?”
“What do you mean why? I have to make a living somehow.”
“Sure, and if cage matches are your thing, you could have joined the ULCL, you didn’t. You joined an underground pit fighting group. It’s a dirty sport, a deadly sport… an illegal sport. So I will ask you again, why are you here?”
“Why do you think I’m here? I’m trying to get better. I’m trying to be that one a year. Damn it, I’m trying to get back in,” she shouted at Olivia in frustration. “I wouldn’t gain anything in the ULCL, too regimented, too many rules. It doesn’t train me for the street.”
“And this does?”
“Better than you did,” she shouted at Olivia, “Better than a program that gave up on me.” She was angry now, fuming over the old insult.
“Yeah well if it’s any consolation you were one of my main motivators for leaving the HCP.”
“I was?” Elaine had genuine shock plastered across her face.
“Yes, you were more proof to me that the system was all wrong.” Olivia started pacing and waving her hands. “Why do we only advance fifteen to the final year? Why do we only graduate ten? Why is there a hard limit instead of a level to reach? The answer comes down to money, insurance companies, and the fear that a level which more supers could reach will lead to lessening of the requirements and ultimately economic disaster.”
Elaine giggled, the anger gone, the shock gone, her capricious nature showing. Olivia shot her a dirty look. “Sorry, it’s just that you used to pace like that with your hands flying through the air when you used to lecture us in ethics.”
“Really? I hadn’t realized.”
“No one would tell you. We called it the Townsend Shuffle. I think there was a video of you doing it sped up and set to music. You can probably find it on YouTube.”
“… students… respect…” Olivia muttered under her breath, but then looked up smiling and with a twinkle in her eye. “Well it being on YouTube is great. I have a friend who should be able to track down the poster in a few minutes. Maybe I’ll be visiting another old student soon.”
Elaine laughed. “Seriously though, all that stuff you were just saying about HCP, is it true?”
“Well, is it absolute gospel?” Olivia asked rhetorically. “No, of course not, but it is fun to argue over a beer.”
“Speaking of beer, would you like a drink?”
“Sure,” she said and gratefully accepted a cold amber colored bottle from Elaine who took one for herself as well.
“OK, you know why I’m here. So why are you here?” Elaine asked taking a swig from the bottle.
“I have a new job.”
“And what’s that?”
“Force Ops recruiter,” she answered and was promptly covered in a froth of beer that shot out from Elaine’s mouth.
“Oh god I’m so sorry. Don’t surprise me like that.”
“I suppose I deserve that,” Olivia continued, wiping the beer from her eyes.
Elaine took another swig and swallowed it this time before speaking. “So you got a swanky new job and figured you might as well use your connections from the old job to find some new recruits?” Elaine actually laughed in Olivia’s face. “Not interested. Even if I weren’t doing well here if I couldn’t have the gold medal I certainly don’t want the booby prize.”
“Step back a second. Yes I am here to see about your interest. No it’s not to make myself look good in a new job. I’ve had this job ever since I left Korman, three and a half years ago. Let’s see you failed to advance what? About four years ago?” She waved her fingers in the air like she was doing math. “Hmm that’s at least three years, figuring for some settling in time during which I could have come and talked to you if that’s what it’s about.”
“So what is it about?”
“Come on Elaine, you aren’t stupid or I wouldn’t be here. What do you think it’s about?”
Elaine squared her shoulders and her face took on a resigned look. “Far From Noble.”
“Give the girl a prize.”
“So now you want me to join? Sorry Dean, that doesn’t make any sense.”
“I failed out of HCP,” when Olivia looked like she was about to object to the wording Elaine continued, “all semantics aside, I failed out. I’ve come to terms with it, accepted it, moved on. So now that there is a threat like these crazy people you come looking for me? If I’m not good enough to be a super hero then I’m certainly not good enough to go after that lot.”
“Why did you fail to advance in HCP?” Elaine looked at Olivia with frustration when she asked the question. “Alright,” Olivia corrected. “Why did you fail out?”
“Let’s see,” Elaine replied with mock strain trying to remember. “Oh yes,” she said, clearly quoting from memory. “Trained reflexes and enhanced physical form make for an excellent power set, well suited for planned missions. However the random nature of hero work makes the need to study one’s opponents prior to engaging them too great an obstacle in the performance of one’s duty. Throughout the first three years of the program you were encouraged to learn new ways to use your powers in order to decrease this dependence and you were unable to. As such we cannot recommend you for advancement to the fourth year at this time. We encourage you to continue your training and reapply for a fourth year spot at a future date if these issues can be resolved.”
“And what?” She shouted at Olivia, “Nothing has changed. My powers are what my powers are. But I am better at using them.”
“Are you? What was your combat ranking at the end of year three?”
She said something under her breath that Olivia couldn’t quite hear.
“Number two overall, right behind… right behind Elan.”
Olivia remembered Elan well, graduated first in the class one year later. Died at Meredith Falls.
“Yet despite the high combat rating the program chose to drop you. Highest combat rating ever dropped going in to fourth year.”
“Thanks for that wonderful walk down memory lane,” Elaine said dripping in sarcasm as she went and opened the door expecting Olivia to walk through it. “Maybe next time you visit we can talk about your last mission, the one that led you to becoming a teacher.”
That last barb stung but Olivia went on, not moving toward the proffered exit. “You were number two against people who trained to fight other supers every day, the people most motivated to train every day.”
“Your point?” asked Elaine, clearly getting annoyed.
“Who is your loss to?”
“Your loss,” she repeated, “the announcer said you were twelve and one, now thirteen and one. So with all your training and the time to evaluate each of your opponents and train your reflexes against them, who did you lose to?”
Elaine laughed so hard she nearly fell over. “That’s going to be your argument, that I lost one fight even though the situation should be perfect for my powers?”
Olivia didn’t respond.
“Oh when you were Dean you would never have been so unprepared. I lost to Menhit, everyone loses to Menhit.”
“Heh right I’m not used to talking to people who don’t follow the sport. She’s the best of us. Takes her name from the Egyptian goddess of war. It translates to ‘She who Slaughters’. She said she was fed up of the amazon references super strong women end up with and didn’t care if anyone knew what her name meant.”
“She’s good I take it?”
“She’s unstoppable,” Elaine said with a bit of her normal bubbly self coming through again. She glanced at the clock and said, “come on, she’s fighting soon. Let’s go to the box.”
Elaine led Olivia down a hallway to a dingy room with a glass window overlooking the warehouse floor. The offices of the warehouse she realized, not much had been done to make it a high rollers box, though a man sat at a desk taking bets from several people waiting for the next bout to start.
“Has Menhit fought yet?” Elaine asked one of the men standing around watching and drinking a glass of Bourbon.
“No, they just announced her match though,” he answered, “should be any minute.” He glanced at Elaine in her robe and leered. Olivia walked up to him reached out with her left hand and he suddenly stiffened. She waved a single finger from her right hand in front of his face in an age old gesture showing he was being a bad boy and then she let go and he stalked away muttering under his breath.
Elaine laughed again at the exchange. “I can take care of myself you know.”
Suddenly she pointed through the window at a competitor coming into the ring. “This will be a good one,” Elaine added. “Raina, that’s Menhit,” she said by way of explanation, “got pissed the other day and ended up challenging the Sisterhood. That’s a group of three fairly high power supers. She’s going to fight them all at once.”
It was a short wait as the Sisterhood entered the ring. Menhit was every bit as good as Elaine said she was. Olivia was of the firm opinion that you could drop her into a fourth year HCP class and she would probably graduate. She was tall, dark, and exotic looking, she blended Middle Eastern with South American, it was the striking look seen on many Hollywood starlets but overlaying a body that showed tremendous strength without actually losing any feminine qualities.
Watching the fight even Olivia was impressed. She had quite obviously trained as hard as any HCP student did and she was incredibly strong and tough. Easily demolition class, better than most strongmen… or women.
She made short work of all three cage fighters who came up against her. For her last opponent she literally twisted the bars of the cage around her arms and neck to hold her while she delivered the coup de grace.
“Why is she here? She would make a fortune in the ULCL.”
“She isn’t interested in money, it’s the challenge she likes. She also doesn’t think much of a fight where you aren’t taking your life in your own hands. I think she’s a bit morbid that way.”
“Elaine, I have to agree she is impressive. I didn’t think anyone in this league could bend the bars like that.”
“Well, the bars aren’t the same stuff they use in the ULCL but… yeah it’s impressive.”
Olivia looked closely at her former student. Was that a bit of jealousy creeping into her voice?
“See, I told you.” Elaine said biting her lower lip and looking slightly wistful. She shook her head no, “I couldn’t have beaten her, not on my best day. Wouldn’t have mattered if I finished in the HCP program or not.”
“Oh, I didn’t say that,” Olivia disagreed. “In fact I always told you that if you could overcome the reliance on training your reflexes to specific opponents rather than styles in general you would have beaten Elan and pretty much all comers your year.”
“So,” Elaine asked mockingly, “are you going to make me HCP worthy again if I join Force Ops?”
“Maybe, though I hope you would find Force Ops worthy of your time over HCP.”
“But even if I couldn’t, we know exactly who we are going after and they supplied us with wonderful video of themselves for you to study and let yourself gain the reflexes needed to fight them. This is exactly what the HCP said you excel at.”
“So what?” she nearly screamed, “I still don’t want to be in Force Ops.”
Olivia ignored the outburst and continued. “I’ll make you a bet,” she knew Elaine could never resist a challenge, it’s how she ended up in cage fighting in the first place. “If you join, in one year you will be able to beat Menhit in a fair fight. If I lose the bet and you lose the fight, and it has to be an honest fight, I will get you an honorable discharge and… answer any three questions you still have burning up your brain about the HCP.”
“OK, let’s say for a second I was willing to entertain this crazy idea. In a year, how the hell am I supposed to fight Menhit if I’m in Force Ops and she is the reigning cage fighting women’s champion?”
“Simplicity in itself, I’ll just go recruit her too.”
Olivia was bone tired. It was so late that there were no other cars in the dingy parking structure across the street from the warehouse. She approached the driver’s side door of her Camaro, a bit amazed no one had tried to steal it and realized just how long she had spent with those girls. But in the end, she was successful. Raina… Menhit… she jumped at the offer to join Force Ops and face off against Far From Noble. She lived for this shit.
In her pocket Olivia had two signed and witnessed enlistment forms. One for Elaine and one for Raina. “Come for one, end up with two.”
“Isn’t that always the way?” a male voice added from behind a pillar.
She started to shift instinctively, she couldn’t believe she was caught like this, when she realized she couldn’t change. A sudden moment of panic hit her and then she realized that she recognized the voice.
“Jeffy? Is that you? Get your ass out here and give me a hug.”
The man walked out from behind the pillar, he was tall and lean, wearing a sport coat with a sweater underneath. Square framed glasses rested on his face and he had a warm smile for her.
“Jeffy,” she said excitedly running over and hugging him, “only you could give me a heart attack like that.”
“Really?” he said with a sigh as he hugged her back, “I wouldn’t want to do that. Are you still going to use that nick name? You know I hate it.”
“Yup, that’s why I will always use it,” it was an old argument. They had it every time they met up. “Don’t blame me that I was able to kick your ass without powers and you were stupid enough to make that bet. If I lost you would be calling me what?”
He sighed again, “Cuddlesworth.”
“Right. So what brings you to visit Jeffy, I doubt you are scouting talent in the fights.”
“No, I’m here to talk to you of course but I’m sure you realized that immediately.”
“I know what you are working on.”
“Alright, I wouldn’t let anyone else know that Jeffy. I trust you. Others don’t.”
“Don’t worry, while I have reservations and concerns, I can’t imagine this not going forward at this point. That’s not why I’m here.”
“Get to the point. I swear every freaking Dean’s conference was just like this. All of us trying to out mystery the others. Just say it straight Jeffy.”
“The point, hmm how novel,” he considered it and moved on. “Right,” he agreed with her desire to get this done, “I have a recruit for you.”
“One of your students?”
“Former student. Protégé you could say.”
“I know how much Elaine meant to you as a student. Why do you think I waited for you here? Luke means every bit as much to me, maybe more. What happened to Lori… well let’s just say I have a number of empty bottles of Scotch that I shared with many friends. Esme was very hard hit by it, she trained her.”
“No, let me finish before you argue.” She waved off and let him continue. “He’s lost, he needs a new focus, and while this may border on a quest for vengeance, I can’t see anything else that isn’t going to end with him dead.”
Olivia looked at his eyes and nodded for him to go on.
“Luke is one of the best. In some ways I saw him as my successor.” He stopped for a second as if it was hard for him to go on. “He needs this. Olivia, I’m asking you as a friend, a former colleague, someone who understands exactly where I am coming from on this. Include him in your group.”
“Are you done?”
“Yes, go ahead and argue now.”
“No argument,” she said handing him a business card. “Send him to this address tomorrow. That’s my California office. I assume he’s still out there?”
He started to laugh, “I flew out here in a coach seat between two overweight smokers who reeked of cigarettes and have to look forward to the same going back, crowded, uncomfortable, utterly annoying. I came here ready for a fight, and that’s it? You just give in?”
“Oh Jeffy,” she smiled a wicked grin, “you know it’s the only way you could beat me in a fight.”