Stella was hardly surprised when the ‘lab’ turned out to be an underground bunker that had been created by burying several shipping containers. A fringe Humanity First militia with an underground bomb shelter. It was like they were trying to conform to stereotypes.
“It is predictable isn’t it?” The preacher said. “Even more predictable that my uncle ran a marijuana grow operation down here. It breaks my heart that the only way we can fund our crusade by peddling poison. Soon it will be all worth it.”
Whatever the bunker had been used for before, now it was clearly the lab of a tech genius, though a tech genius forced to scavenge from rural scrap yard. Stella was forcibly reminded of Will, a fellow HCP student from Lander, though the girl who must have been Janey did not. While Stella’s memories of Will were of a strong and confident young man, this teenage girl was obviously beaten down, both physically and emotionally. And while some of her cuts and bruises looked like the abuse of others, many of the visible scars on her arms looked self-inflicted.
Tied to a table nearby was a man in his forties who looked like he’d been through hell. He clearly wasn’t a hero, as he didn’t have the muscular build that most heroes possessed. There were other tables in the room, most of them stained with blood and other fluids. It was at this point that Stella started to struggle, but before she could call on her power her restraints dumped a massive shock into her body, and she flopped uselessly on the ground next to the militia member that had been holding her.
“Daddy,” the girl whispered. “Nobody should hold them with the restraints on.”
“Yes you did tell us,” said the preacher. “Some of our brothers only learn the hard way. I’ve brought this one for you to work on, and I have three more on the way.”
“OK,” The girl mumbled into her chest.
“Is the Sword still broken?”
The girl began to shake and cry. “I’m sorry. Imsorrysorryso…”
Her protests were cut off by a slap delivered by the girl’s father. “I don’t need you to be sorry,” he said. “We need that machine of yours working again.”
The worst part of it was that the preacher showed no emotion about what he’d just done. He acted as if slapping his own child hard enough to leave marks was no more than a household chore like sweeping the floor. To treat one’s own child like that, and give it no real thought or emotion; Stella continued to shudder long past when the electricity stopped coursing through her system.
After they’d strapped Stella down to the table, and most of the militia members left the bunker, she heard a cough next to her. The older man was wearing the tattered remains of a shifter’s suit, and had obviously been tortured. His eyes were blackened, his body bruised, cut, and burned, and his words were mumbled around several shattered teeth.
“I’m guessing that the heroes just charged in and got their asses handed to them. Arrogant idiots. I’m guessing you’re a civilian super. Anyone other than you survive?”
“Are you Vincent Yeager?” Stella asked.
“Yeah, but people just call me Yeager. How’d you know?”
“You were mentioned in the briefings. There was a hero named Abstract who said he had some past experience with you.”
“That bastard,” muttered Yeager. “I can’t say I wish him dead, but I really hope he got a face full of that weapon.”
“What is that thing anyway?”
“You know enhancers right? Well, it seems that Janey here had one to experiment on for a while.”
“Oh my God,” said Stella.
“Yeah, she figured out how to create enhancer energy.” The next part Yeager whispered, so the few Humanity First militia members on the other side of the bunker couldn’t hear. “This bunch had a few other kids with abilities to experiment on. She tried to use her machine to enhance all the other kids more than the one kid could do, so they could escape. Even with a smaller version she overdid it, and killed or crippled them all. She survived, because the more power you’ve got, and the more you use, the more damage the machine does.”
Yeager flushed and vibrated in obvious anger. “If I ever get out of here I’m gonna go get… Well, lets just say these assholes haven’t seen a tiny fraction of what I can do.”
“And how do we get out of here?”
Yeager fell back into his restraints. “I haven’t the faintest fucking idea. Even if there was a big enough machine nearby, these restraints will zap me before I can get into it.”
“That’s your power?”
“Yeah, back in the day the press called me ‘Getaway’, because that’s mostly the kind of work I did. Never did go in for all that masked alter ego bullshit. And you?”
“I can mimic any metals that are within about ten feet of myself,” Stella said as quietly as she could.
“Nice,” said Yeager. “Can you shift into something strong and non-conductive before the restraints take you down?”
“No, she can’t,” muttered Janey, who’d walked up next to the two adults. “They detect a power before it goes off. The more power you try to use, the more it’ll hurt you.”
“You could turn them off though,” Stella whispered. “I’m with child services Janey. I can take you out of here. We can find you a safe place.”
“Safe…” Janey shuddered. “No place is safe. I kill everyone. I’m cursed.”
“I’ve been trying to get through to her for days,” Yeager sighed. “Once you’ve been beaten down enough, failed enough, you’ll do anything your Dad tells you to do. Even when they beat you, they’re still your father, and you still want their approval.”
Yeager glared back at Stella. “Yes. Personal God’s damned experience. It’s why I reported this shit-show to the authorities. For all the good you idiots did us.”
“Bitter much?” Stella asked.
“Yes,” said Yeager, and lapsed into a resentful silence.
Janey had gone back to the work bench, and was working on large and complicated device. She was pulling out burned chunks of electronics, lining them up, and fixing them one by one. Since Yeager didn’t look to be interested in talking any more, Stella tried her luck with Janey. She wasn’t an abuse survivor herself, but had spent a large part of her life helping them.
“That’s quite a machine,” Stella tried. “What else have you made?”
Janey remained focussed on the machine, and spoke quietly, as if talking to herself instead of someone else. “I made a robot teddy bear, but Daddy smashed it.”
“Can you make another one?”
“Sure,” Janey mumbled. “But Daddy said he’d punish me. I can only make weapons and strongsuits. And the Sword…”
Janey started to shudder and curl into herself, so Stella tried to divert her train of thought away from the horrible weapon Janey had accidentally created. “What’s a strongsuit?”
Janey looked at Stella like she was an idiot, which was fine with her, as long as it diverted her. “It’s a suit, and it makes people strong. Mister Yeager told me you DVA people were dumb, but I didn’t believe it until today.”
Stella ignored the suppressed snorts of laughter from all the men in the room, including the one tied down next her. She was getting through to the teenage tech genius. She could feel it. So it was all the more upsetting when the preacher and several of his men carted in Monique, Gerald, and Miriam. All three of them were still unconscious, and also in the same kind of restraints that bound Vincent Yeager and Stella.
“Good to see you working on the Sword Janey,” said the preacher, and the girl relaxed and some of the tension went out of her. “You need to get it running soon, or bad things will happen. You do know that right?”
The tension returned, and the girl mumbled that yes she understood, and began working on the large device again.
Surprisingly, both the preacher and most of his men left the bunker. Apparently, a media shitstorm was starting to happen as the formerly secret operation has been well and truly blown. The few militiamen still in the bunker occasionally cheered to see their compound on camera from a nearby news helicopter, though the bunker was well insulated enough that Stella couldn’t hear any of what was going on outside.
Stella didn’t think she could get through to Janey, but she had an idea. A stupid, dangerous, and desperate idea. If Janey’s inventions scaled up based on how much of an ability one used, and if Stella worked slow enough, and could bear the pain. Maybe there was a way out of this. If she could just concentrate, and use her power in a way she’d never tried before.
She started with her neck, in the area under a thick collar full of electronics. Stella’s jewelry and belt, with their samples of different metals to duplicate, were still on her body, so she could still do the right alloys. Stella’s skin burned, and she bit down hard on her cheek to keep from making any sounds of discomfort. Stella made just a thin layer of skin around her neck, wrists, and ankles into titanium. Stella took it as slow as she could, backing off when the electrical tingle started to get uncomfortable, it was incredibly difficult, going so slowly over such a small area, but it was working.
The collar wasn’t detecting the increase in metal as more power; just how much she tried to change at once. It took an agonizing several minutes, but eventually the tingle went away as the surface of Stella’s skin became less conductive.
Once it looked like Janey and the militiamen seemed most distracted Stella turned her entire body into titanium all at once. Her increased mass immediately caused the table she was strapped to to collapse under her. The restraints to tried to kill her with electricity and sharp blades fired into her neck and wrists, but titanium was stronger than steel. Stella was able to rip the restraints off her body, and leaped up to lunge at the militia members on the other side of the bunker.
“Oh boy,” Yeager crowed at the three militiamen in the bunker with them. “You guys are well truly screwed now. Your boss is going to have your heads.”
One of the militiamen, halfway towards pressing a big red button on the wall, hesitated long enough for Stella to punch him in the skull hard enough to send him flying into one of his friends. After that, it took just a few moments to beat them unconscious.
“That was a good trick; scaring him off of sounding that alarm. Are you sure you’re not a subtlety hero?” Stella asked Yeager.
“Lay off the insults and get me and your friends out of these restraints. I don’t suppose any of your friends can teleport.”
“No one who can get someplace they haven’t seen.”
“Please stop,” said Janey. “He’s going to hurt us. He’s going to hurt us all. It’s all going to go wrong. I know it is.”
Stella turned back to flesh, and tried to comfort the young tech genius, but she flinched away. Too traumatized to be able to trust anyone. In the meantime, Yeager had found a functional phone, an old fashioned one wired into the wall of all things, and started tapping out numbers from memory on the keypad.
While Stella barricaded the doors to the outside, Yeager started his call. “Hey Frank it’s Yeager… Yeah kiss my ass… Yes I’m calling in my marker. You owe me… I don’t care if you’re having dinner with your family…. Well tell your mother-in-law to kiss my ass too. Get your fat butt over here and get me out… Fine… Five minutes.”
Yeager ended the call and ripped the phone off the wall.
“What the hell?” Stella cried. “I needed that to call the DVA!”
“I know, that’s why I ripped it off the wall. Decision time kid,” Yeager said to Janey. “I have some associates that would be very interested in meeting you. People willing to give you all the money and robot teddy bears you want in exchange for services.”
“Don’t you fucking dare,” Stella threatened.
“Look at her kid, already threatening us. Tell you what, if you want, I’ll even destroy this place for you. Wipe it from the face of the Earth. She’s DVA, and they’ll want all your inventions. They’ll definitely want the Sword. They’ll use it too. They’ll create guns that fire that energy to use on people like us.”
“Janey please don’t listen to him,” Stella begged.
“Do you want the Sword?” The little girl asked Stella.
“No!” Stella said, recoiling from the idea of using the weapon that had caused so much harm.
“And the DVA won’t want the Sword?” Asked Yeager.
Stella thought about how the DVA would want such a weapon, just for a moment realizing that yes they really would want it, and in that moment was lost. Janey ran over to Yeager, and at that very same moment a short, fat, greasy looking man with slicked back black hair and a goatee appeared in a flash of yellow light.
He stared around in obvious dislike, and glared at Yeager.
“Just once I’d like someone to call me from a beach in Hawaii,” the greasy man said. Then he did a doubletake. “Jesus man, you look like shit. Where are we?”
To that Yeager pointed at the TV screen on the wall, which was still showing news coverage of the standoff between law enforcement and the Humanity First militia hunkered down inside their compound.
“Beach in Hawaii,” repeated Frank. “Next time you call from a beach in Hawaii, or never call me again. OK, who am I taking?”
“Me and these two ladies,” said Yeager. “I owe this young woman my life, and I at least pay my debts. Frank.”
“Oh screw you Yeager,” said Frank. “Who am I taking you to?”
“You know Benny the Wrench right? And you can bring something big back to one of these guys?”
Frank started intently at one of the unconscious rednecks and nodded.
“Ok then,” said Yeager. “Stella my good lady, toss these idiots outside. I’m going to need some room for when I come back.”
“Wait, what about them?” Stella protested while waving at the other DVA agents. “They need to get out of here too!”
“My debt extends only to you,” said Yeager. “Bar the door after you throw them out, and you can come get them later. I’ve got business with these bastards, and you’re welcome to come back with me.”
“He’s right,” said Frank. “If Yeager’s going to do what I think he’s going to do, this is all going to be over soon.”