Chapter – XII
Ani-Man was sitting hunched over a bank of computer monitors in the heart of Second City Justice’s headquarters. In his quieter and more introspective moments Anthony Mason wished that he had been just a bit more creative in picking his Hero name. Creativity came part and parcel with the power to animate and control any complex inanimate object, but coming up with a dynamic name eluded him at graduation time.
But right now his vaguely cliched moniker didn’t even rate on his list of concerns. No, he was still consumed with his search for the Trans-Human, the criminal super that eluded him and the rest of his team the previous summer. Trans-Human was a menace, his bio-mechanical implants gave him capabilities that were well beyond human, and he had no qualms about using them to wreak havoc as he fled the hospital. The threat he represented wasn’t all of what drove Ani-Man to obsession.
No, he was tormented by his own failure. As the leader of one of Chicago’s premier hero teams, and a first-hand witness to the attack on the hospital, he was one of the few who knew what actually happened to Danielle Malone. He knew that he failed to protect her, how his failure may have even contributed to destroying her. So he obsessed over bringing Trans-Human to justice, to make up for his failure.
It was these dark thoughts that occupied his mind so fully that he didn’t hear the whisper of steel on steel as door to the monitoring room slid open. But he did know he wasn’t alone when he caught a whiff of perfume.
“Torturing your self once again, my dear Ani-Man?” Her voice was rich and smooth, flowing like warm honey over his ears.
Ani-Man glanced up, catching sight of her reflection in a monitor. For a normal person it would have been a great way to observe without letting his subject know they were being watched. But for Arachne, his team’s subtlety specialist, it was as good as turning and waving.
Without pause or an ounce of humility she strode up behind Ani-Man’s chair, and draped one arm over his shoulder. Her other hand caressed the stubble on his cheek. “Do get up, it’s time for the morning briefing.”
With a sigh Ani-Man shrugged off Arachne’s arms and turned his chair around and regarded the woman who interrupted his obsessing. She was in uniform for the daily briefing, but it looked more like an evening gown than anything a warrior would wear. The midnight fabric clung to her like a second skin, accentuating curves that would be alluring if he didn’t know her as well as he did. But while most such garments would be restrictive, the cutting-edge silk-steel polymer hers was made of allowed full freedom of movement while being tough enough to stop knives and even small-arms fire from piercing her skin. Her only obvious concession to her status as a hero was a mask with a stylized web emblem on the forehead that hid her eyes and framed her iridescent auburn hair.
Ani-Man heaved an annoyed sigh and turned his chair to face Arachne. “Goddammit, stop trying to soft touch me Jen.”
“Whatever do you mean?” she asked, puzzlement dripping form every word. “I’m just concerned about you.”
“Cut the shit, Jen. I’ve seen you in action, I know when you’re trying to soft-touch somebody. Don’t forget, when we met you were a B-cup with braces and horn-rimmed glasses.”
Arachne responed with a decidedly unfeminine snort “Fine Tony, how’s this: Get your ass up out of that chair. It’s time for the briefing.”
“Much better.” Ani-Man responded. “But he’s out there. I know he is, and I’ll find him.”
“First off, that’s my job.” she said, jabbing a perfectly manicured finger in his chest “I’m the one with the web of informants out there, and I designed the search algorithm our computers are using. You damn well know that if Trans-Human’s ugly ass flashes in front of any surveillance camera in the city, we’ll know first thing. And second, one of the twins will take monitor duty as usual. One of them can miss the briefing. You can’t.”
“Fine, fine. You win. I’ll be there in a minute.”
“You pulled another all-nighter again, didn’t you? You know how I know? Because if balls could fart, that’s what you smell like. So why don’t you take thirty, and go grab yourself a shower, a shave, and a clean uniform.”
Tony tried to stifle a laugh, but it still escaped as an unheroic snort. For all her games, Jennifer Ellis really was one of his oldest friends. They had met the first day of HCP, and even now she could make him laugh.
“Fine, fine, I give.” He said raising his hands in mock defeat. “I’ll be in the briefing room in thirty.”
“Damn straight you will be, and you best not be smelling like swamp ass and stale coffee.” And with that she turned and stalked out of the room.
Almost exactly thirty minutes later Ani-Man walked through the door of the briefing room. He was shaved smooth, wearing a fresh uniform and was feeling decidedly more human.
Most of the rest of Second City Justice was already seated and waiting for him. Arachne was at her usual spot, standing in front of her seat at the conference table, closest to the big viewing screen. The seat directly across from her was his unoccupied seat.
To his left was seated Ricochet and Menagerie. They were the team’s close combat specialists. Between Ricochet’s fluid, and incredibly elastic, nature, and Menagerie’s ability to alter his genetic structure to take on the characteristics of animals who’s DNA he absorbed, they made for potent and unpredictable opponents.
One seat on the other side of the table was occupied by Ailia Argyris. Her identical twin sister, Alala, was currently on monitoring duty. The two were never at the same briefing session. They alternated which one had monitor duty because it never mattered what the other missed, because their minds synced when they combined to form the Atomic Hero, Cold Fusion.
Next to Ailia was Checkmate, Arachne’s intern. Jen might not have seemed like the type to take on an intern, but her own struggles in landing an internship motivated her to take on the young Subtlety hero. Besides, his ability to deduce the path to the most advantageous outcomes in any situation, given the available information, was damn useful. He had only been Jen’s intern for a couple months, but he had already proved a capable battlefield strategist and a terrifying interrogator.
“Now that Ani-Man is here, we can begin.” Arachne said. “First up, the Sons Of Darwin, a splinter group from the Sons Of Progress, have made threats against several Chicago based corporations that sponsor PEERS teams. They claim that normal humans holding the reigns of supers is a crime against evolution. These guys aren’t as cuddly and playful as the S.O.P. They believe normal humans are lesser animals and they have no problems killing any innocents nearby. We need to keep a close watch on these guys. I’m working my own web of informants, but all the subtlety heroes in Chicago are sharing info on this one.”
Arachne paused to shuffle to the next note card before continuing. “Next on the list are rumors of a new gang of supers cropping up in a couple neighborhoods near the lake. My informants tell me that they aren’t affiliated with any other gangs in the city, and one saying that they are quote ‘freaky’. They don’t seem to be violent, yet, but we should be on the lookout for establishing territories and escalating crimes.”
She paused one more time as she moved on to the final subject. “That leads me to the final point, the search for Trans-Human continues. The DVA reports no sign of him anywhere, and the my contacts on other teams are likewise silent. However, when I pressed the one informant I have who seems to have had contact with this new gang of supers, he mentioned that a couple supers he thought were members appeared to have technological body modifications. It could be a coincidence, perhaps some other rogue tech genius is selling upgrades, or a local boss is buying some enhancements for his muscle before making a play. Regardless, the potential connection with Trans-Human is there. We can’t assume that he has gone back to whatever rat-hole he climbed out of after his attack on the hospital failed.”
“Thank you for that Arachne.” Ani-Man said when she finished speaking and took her customary seat across from him. “Checkmate, draw up patrol grids, but with the threats made by the Sons Of Darwin, keep everyone as close to home as possible in case we need to react quickly.” The young man simply nodded.
“I’ll forward a notice to Dean Smith over at Sizemore about the possible gang activity near the lake. The semester just started and there are always some “Welcome Back” parties near there. He might want to warn the students to stay in the safer neighborhoods around the school. It isn’t unheard of for some of these gangs to try to abduct students who have obvious variant-human human traits, and force them to join the gang.”
Ani-Man was careful not to mention the potential connection to Trans-Human. The other team members hadn’t seen or heard inhuman when Ani-Man took the nano-bots away. And Ani-Man had no doubts that if Trans-Human even suspected that Danielle Malone had been remade using that same nanotechnology, he would be tirelessly searching for her.
Ani-Man knew the Dean would have taken precautions, but with Trans-Human potentially hiding right under their noses, would they be enough?