Sean laid as still as he could while the ring of light passed around his body with a hum that made his bones tingle.
“We’re almost done,” drifted a woman’s voice from behind a partition. “just a few more moments and we can get you out of there.
Sean didn’t reply- He’d picked up by now that moving at all just made it take longer.
A minute or so later, he, Dr. Mind, and the woman, who went by Dr. Kessler, gathered around a screen to inspected the results of the test. Dr. Mind shifted in his seat and adjusted the lapels of his olive suit.
“The good news is that I don’t see any obvious changes from last night,” Dr. Kessler said. “the bad news is that it didn’t heal immediately either, but given the severity of the injury I wouldn’t expect to see improvement over so short a time. I’d consider stability the best outcome that could be expected.”
“Would you mind explaining what exactly is going on?” Sean asked. He kept staring at the mottled images, uncomfortably aware that they were cross-sections of his own brain.
“Sure,” Dr. Kessler said. She tapped the screen and pulled up a very different looking image of a brain with a much less dramatic color gradient. “What we see here is the brain of a nominally healthy non-metahuman individual.” She pulled up a third image. “And this is a healthy metahuman. This area here,” she drew a circle on the screen and a red circle appeared, “is called the Borden-Hewlett-Dawes area– there’s a funny story behind the name actually. It appears in roughly 80% of metahumans and 2% of non-metahumans, though the expression varies for each individual. In fact, this is the only reliable test to detect metahumans. Now if you look at your brain, you can see that this area is consuming dramatically more oxygen than the surrounding tissue. For whatever reason, your BHD area has become hyperactive even under otherwise normal conditions.”
“But I don’t… feel any different,” Sean said, his brow furrowed.
“You wouldn’t,” she said. “In your case this part of the brain has relatively few connections to parts of the brain responsible for cognition or perception.”
“And remember that this is with the Nullifier on,” Dr. Mind added. “However it works, the Nullifier doesn’t seem to affect brain activity in that way.”
“That’s exactly right.” Dr. Kessler nodded. “Even though your metahuman ability is unable to express itself, your brain is responding as though it’s always active. This would almost certainly have long term side effects if I weren’t going to immediately give you the maximum dosage of denudine I can legally prescribe.”
Dr. Mind looked taken aback. “Is that really necessary?” He asked. Dr. Kessler turned to him and said sternly,
“Given what I saw from your friend’s tests, I could not morally recommend otherwise. He had significant plaque build-up around the BHD area that could cause brain damage and permanent memory loss.”
Dr. Mind looked away and took a deep breath to steady himself.
“So I won’t be able to use my powers,” Sean said.
“It’s probably best to treat this like a normal traumatic brain injury, so that means no power use, yes, and also no bright or flashing lights, no difficult math. Because of the interactions between Denudine and Neuraplast, we can’t use the latter, which means that recovery could take a very long time.”
Sean was silent for a few moments, and Dr. Kessler’s expression softened.
“Normally, in a case like this, if I thought there was a risk of remission, I might investigate the possibility of surgery to remove that part of the brain. You’re very lucky that we already have a way to mitigate the effects while you heal.”
“No, I get it,” Sean said. “It’s just,” He struggled to come up with the words for a moment. “This is who I am. Using my powers to help people is all I do.”
“You are helping people,” Dr. Kessler said, putting a hand on Sean’s shoulder. “This is the first time we’ve been able to study and record this phenomenon. With your help, we could dramatically expand our knowledge of how metahuman abilities are expressed.”
Sean gave her a hollow smile. “I think I’d like to get some rest and do some thinking on my own, if it’s all the same.”
“Of course, take all the time you need.”
Sean left the room and returned to the small long-term suite he’d been moved into. He placed the nullifier he now carried with him on a table and sagged down into a white armchair.
It was several minutes before the thought struck him that he didn’t particularly feel anything. This turned into confusion as he realized he had been simply staring at a wall for some time without any other profound thoughts.
His heart lurched in his chest as a burst of panic gripped at him.
This isn’t right, he thought. There’s something wrong with me. This isn’t right.
Jeffrey glanced at his watch to get the next address and took off running. The world slowed around him as his reflexes accelerated to match his speed. The hospital where he’d delivered a heart for an emergency transplant vanished in a blur behind him. It only took a few seconds to hit his top speed, at which point the cars and buildings around him took on a bluish tint. He glanced at his wrist again and, adjusting his direction a bit, ran into the side of a building. The interior of the building blurred past and in less than a second he was out again.
He reached his destination in just a few minutes to find a woman with graying hair holding a small wooden box. One more glance at his wrist confirmed that the deposit had gone through and gave him her name. She startled a bit as he came to a halt.
“Tamara Clay?” Jeffrey asked.
“Yes, that’s me,” she said. She held out the box to him and he accepted it. He hefted it a bit, estimating its weight. It was about the length and width of his forearm, and fairly heavy for its size. He didn’t ask what was in it- that would defeat the purpose. After checking his watch for the destination, he gave Tamara a nod, put the package carefully into his backpack, and ran. He had to go a little out of his way to build up speed, because the roads didn’t go quite in the right direction, but soon he was able to adjust his trajectory to vector in on his destination. The fastest route would take him through what looked like a pawn shop.
He went through the plate glass window at nearly sixty miles per hour. Shards of glass blasted through the room, lacerating a patron and blinding the clerk. Hearing the noise and the screams of pain, the heavily-armed men in the back boiled out to discover a scene of absolute carnage, like their front business had been hit by a cannon.
It wasn’t for several days that the remains were identified as the super-fast courier who had unknowingly entered the radius of the null-field surrounding the shop.
Graham and I pushed through the double doors into the mess hall. The noise struck me immediately- the large, open room did little to dampen the sound of a hundred or so people eating and talking. I scanned the crowd and vaguely recognized people from Durian Park, but my attention was focused on the food. A short time later, I was seated with a plate containing about half a chicken. My eyes scanned the room, looking for someone who seemed to be in charge. Graham leaned towards me while I ate.
“What are you thinking?” He asked, voice low.
I finished what I was chewing and pointed to a man wearing some kind of security uniform I’d picked out.
“He’s not armed,” I said. “And there’s only one of him for,” I paused and glanced at the people busily eating around the mess, “a few dozen of us. They’re really not worried.”
“Why would they? They’ve got Interdiction on their side,” Graham said.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a woman in a similar uniform to the security guard I’d spotted earlier enter the room and sweep her attention across the room. Her eyes stopped when she met mine and started to approach the table. Graham followed my gaze and, seeing what I was looking at, leaned back and did his best to look disinterested.
“Hello,” she said with a small wave as she got near. “Would you be Shadow?”
“That would be correct,” I said. “You are?”
“I’m Callie,” she said. “I was told I might find you here. Do you mind if I join you for a few moments?”
She sat down roughly across from me, next to Graham, who moved over a bit to give her space.
“I’m going to be giving you a quick rundown of the situation here to get you up to speed. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.”
“Does everyone get a personal briefing?” I asked.
A small smile touched Callie’s face. “Not everyone, no. You’re somewhat of a special case, though, aren’t you? And you were actually one of the last people to wake up,” she watched me carefully, gauging my reaction. I betrayed nothing, or so I hoped.
“Sounds right,” I said. “Alright, shoot.”
“If it’s all the same, I’m going to need you to sign some paperwork first.” She passed me a clipboard with a pen dangling from a string. “We need to speedrun some security clearance levels so you’re not already in trouble, actually. Finish that while you eat and then meet me outside so we can go somewhere to talk a bit more privately.”
I didn’t miss Graham’s jealous look. I accepted the clipboard and scanned the first page.
“Neat,” I said, distracted.
It was hard to disguise how far my stomach dropped. Though the layout was slightly different, the form looked similar to the ones I’d filled out recently for my application for full-time hero status, but in place of the seal of the US Department of Metahuman Affairs were the logos of the UN and the International Threat Assessment Bureau. Background check paperwork, but for an organization much less forgiving of villainous ancestors.
“See you outside,” she said with a smile, then stood up and started towards the exit.
My hand shook for a moment, but I steadied it before I started writing.
When Patricia heard news of the third Nightmare event in Collswell City in about as many months, she grabbed an energy drink from the fridge and set himself up at her battlestation as quickly as she could without spilling anything. It only took a few keystrokes (and one excessively long password) to get logged into the IRC server she was a part of to discuss the ongoing event. After the initial burst of speculation when the news broke, and a second when the first footage was released, the chat slowed down as people realized this was going to be a long one. At some point, Patricia woke up and was surprised that she had fallen asleep. She checked the time to confirm that her energy drink had worn off but she’d only slept for a few hours. The flurry of activity from the IRC server caught her eye. After skimming a few messages for context, she leapt into action.
The footage from inside the event had very quickly become something of a white whale on the darknet. Generally any video that was uploaded to the internet could be found in an archive somewhere, no matter how fast it’s deleted, but it was being erased even from backups of databases, which meant someone was running a very persistent spider to make sure nobody ever found it. But soon enough, it was found.
For her part, as soon as the file finished torrenting, she yanked the ethernet cables out of her computer. Though she knew it was a faux-pas not to seed, it was more important to preserve the file somewhere. She made a few copies to various clean media she kept around (a few thumb drives, a portable hard disk, a backup laptop). Reconnecting, she found that the torrent she had pulled from was already gone.
Somehow, in the time she had been gone, the IRC had accumulated several hundred new messages. One in particular on the admin messages caught her eye:
Matthias: DON’T WATCH IT UNTIL WE KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO ZILOFONE.
As she ran a quick search for the nickname ‘Zilofone.’
Zilofone: Mine’s done. Gonna watch it
Diplomath: Let us know if it’s worth it Zilofone!
Pyotr: Yeah Zilofone lemme know if it’s NSFL
Pyotr: Zilofone you there?
VantaRay: Maybe he died
Cruxx: Yo anybody know Zilofone or Diplomath? I’m getting worried haha
VantaRay: Shit I was joking but what if he actually died?
The list expanded as another message appeared. With a practiced keystroke Patricia exited the search and jumped to the newest message.
Zilofone: holy shit
Zilofone: holy shit you guys my monitor exploded
An explosion of comments quickly pushed Zilofone’s message off the screen, ending with:
Matthias: What happened?
Zilofone: i was using an old CRT. When i played the footage it burned in super fast and the magic smoke escaped.
Zilofone: I had to find a new monitor
Matthias: not anything I’ve ever heard of. Bad luck maybe? @Diplomath?
Diplomath: mine too y’all. Big dead spot in the middle of the screen.
Diplomath: i got three monitors tho cause Im not a casual
Diplomath: still pissed though, why’d it have to be righty?
Cruxxx: That’s some serious shit, wow.
Pyotr: Did you see anything?
Zilofone: not much,
“What the fuck,” Patricia said out loud, shook her head, and set about scrounging through her shelves of spare parts for a disposable monitor. It wasn’t long before she came across an old projector she used to use to watch movies before she got sick of its relatively low quality. It took her longer to find the right series of converters to actually connect to the outdated hardware. She set up the projector and while the bulb warmed up, in a moment of foresight of which she was quite proud, she grabbed her crutches and headed to the kitchen to retrieve the fire extinguisher from under the sink.
She lowered herself back into her chair and cracked her knuckles for dramatic effect.
Zilofone: there was something on the screen. not censorware.
Zilofone: have you seen The Ring?
VantaRay: come on man.
Patricia typed her reaponse:
Vetinari: I’m going to try. Got a circa 2000 projector rigged up.
She dragged the file over to the projector, took a deep breath, and opened it.
It didn’t look like much initially. Cell phone footage, in the evening.
“It’s starting!” Said someone near the camera.
“I’m cold,” complained a young voice.
A pang of sadness struck Patricia as she realized that these people were caught in the event. They had no idea what was about to happen to them.
The screen lit up with the dim light projectors use as black, a grainy grey rectangle hovering in a dark frame. It flashed white, illuminsting the crowd with reflected light for a moment.
An image like light projected through burning film appeared in the off-center rectangle that was the screen within her screen, bubbles of dull brown growing among a field of tiny white specks. One of the bubbles seemed to burst, releasing a beam of brilliant white light that was visible shining from the projector in the night air. No, not shining from the projector. The angles were wrong. Patricia leaned in closer. The beams of light were shining out of the screen.
It was then that she noticed that the boiling, burning effect had spread beyond the screen-within-the-screen to fill a full third of the area she was projecting onto. The faint acrid smell and the whining of the projector were what finally activated her emergency shutdown response. She slammed the heel of her good foot down on the switch on the power strip that powered most of her battlestation.
The power cut out immediately, but before the light from the projector could fade, one of the bubbles burst, and a beam of light raked across her room.
She blinked the spots out of her eyes as she waited for her racing heart to settle down. Even once her eyes had cleared she she could hardly believe what she was looking at. The paint on the wall she had projected on had bubbled up and charred, peeling away from the drywall in flaky, burned strips.
“What the fuck?”
Kevin and wren watched as the red minivan pulled up from their seats atop the chilly chest-high concrete barrier at the edge of the parking lot. Kevin hopped down and waved a greeting to his parents. His mom rolled down a window and called put to him,
“Keviiin!” She waved enthusiastically, and was out of the car almost before it had fully stopped. She rushed over to him and swept him up in a hug, then stepped back and gestured to Wren. He hopped down as well and was on the receiving end of a hug the moment his feet touched the ground. After a moment, he smiled and returned the hug.
“I still can’t believe you both drove all this way,” Kevin said.
“My parents always made me find my own way home. No way am I going to make you go through that,” his father said.
“Hi Dawn, Keith,” Wren greeted the pair.
“Wren, it’s good to see you,” Dawn said. “Kevin told us what happened. I’m glad you’re OK.”
“Thanks.” Wren put a hand on the back of his neck.
It took a few minutes to load suitcases into the minivan.
“I swear to god, I still have no idea how you manage to fit everything in there,” Kevin remarked when they finished.
“I blame Tetris,” Dawn commented.
Keith grinned. “See? All that time was worth something!”
After a brief discussion between Kevin’s parents about who wanted to drive, they all boarded the van and the doors slid shut with a rattling thump.
Wren patted his pockets for a moment and glanced behind his seat towards the trunk.
“Forget something?” Dawn asked.
“Probably not, but I always feel like I did,” Wren said, brow furrowed.
“Well, you’ll remember in a few hours,” Keith said, looking back at them in the rear view mirror. “y’all ready?”
After a round of affirmatives, they were off.
The gate buzzed and clicked open, inviting Jamisson to enter. Kismet glanced around somewhat uncomfortably, out of place in-costume among uniformed adults. The Wardens of Tomorrow had only just returned from Japan, where the political situation was rapidly evolving. The young heroes had been compelled to go through a battery of interviews by a vast array of government agencies, but Jamisson had been able to requisition Kismet for the purposes of interrogating another precog.
“Evening, Sir, Ma’am” a guard greeted him in a tired voice and ushered him inside.
Jamisson looked around as he passed through the gate. Almost all of the guards looked similarly tired- lingering effects of the recent Nightmare event. They had yet to get an official designation from Monitor at the ITAB, which was unusual.
“Director,” the prison warden said. “I need to apologise.”
“No need,” Jamisson said. “You reacted appropriately given the information you had.”
“Thank you.” The warden nodded. “Right this way.”
The broad-shouldered man lead Jamisson down the spartan hall toward the interview room.
“We’ve had him under strict precog protocol as instructed,” the warden spoke with his back to Jamisson. “To be frank, I’m not completely comfortable having two precogs under our roof.”
“Three precogs,” Jamisson corrected him and gestured to Kismet.
“Hm,” the warden grunted. “Good thinking.”
They reached the interview room and were ushered through a set of heavy metal doors by the warden. Randolph Ermen sat in a chair on the opposite side of the interview room, a sheet of thick glass separating them. His suit was gone, replaced with an orange prison jumpsuit with a vertical cyan stripe across the front and back.
“Dr. Ermen,” Jamisson said. Kismet pulled a disgusted face.
“Director,” the prisoner replied in unaccented english. “Warden. I should thank you for the denudine. I find it much more comfortable.”
The warden crossed his arms. “I remind you that precogs are often expert manipulators,” the warden said to Jamisson and Kismet from his position by the door. “And Denudine doesn’t undo predictions they’ve already made.”
“It does not,” Ermen agreed, “but it does clear my thoughts, so thank you.”
“Were you responsible for the recent Nightmare events?” Jamisson asked.
Kismet’s eyes widened a moment before Ermen responded.
“Yes,” Ermen said.
The warden looked sharply at Jamisson, who for his part appeared stoic.
“Why?” Jamisson asked.
“I had no choice,” Ermen said.
“He’s a second-order precog?” Kismet said, looking at Jamisson in horror.
Jamisson gave a small, controlled nod.
Ermen displayed his hands, palms up.“You at least have the comforting illusion of free will, but I do not.”
The vast majority of precogs were first-order precogs who fell victim to the observer effect- that is, the act of observing the future changes their own reactions and thereby changes the future. Because of this they could be caught off-guard, with effort. Second-order precogs, however, could predict events given their own reactions. The only real way to stop them was to put them in a position that was impossible to escape. Classification broke down further into probabilistic and deterministic based on how many possibilities they could foresee. Kismet was classified as a first-order deterministic precog.
“There is only one best possible end to all this. Sometimes there is,” he tilted a hand side to side, “flexibility. But I am a puppet on a wire. Any deviation only makes the future darker.”
“You’re being awfully cooperative,” Jamisson commented.
“The nullifier,” Kismet whispered to Jamisson.
“There is a period of darkness coming into which I cannot see, but sharing what I know now makes the world that comes out of it stronger.” He shrugged, the casual gesture at odds with his serious tone. “I am where I need to be. The world needs to change very quickly if we want to make it through the times ahead.”
“A word?” The warden said, gesturing to Jamisson and Kismet. They leaned in close and he spoke in hushed tones.
“Based on what I’ve heard I don’t recommend interacting with him further,” the warden said. “We’re getting uncomfortably close to Prophecy, which is always risky business.”
“I understand. I’ll avoid further questions on the topic.”
Jamisson turned back to Ermen.
“Tell us about Temple.”
Ermen sighed. “He is a means that I dearly wish was not justified by his end. His unique ability… it also affects himself,” he explained. “The first words he spoke when his ability manifested were ‘I will kill you,’ and this became his singular purpose.”
“What?” Kismet exclaimed, recoiling. Jamisson looked at her in surprise, and the warden drew his handgun and pointed it at Ermen through the glass.
Ermen casually turned his gaze to Kismet. “Look after your friend, Legion.”
“Ned, you know how much red tape I keep off your back,” Mary said, struggling to keep her inflection neutral. “Why now?”
“I know. That’s why it’s not fair to expect you to manage such a large account in your condition,” replied the mousy man on her laptop screen. “This is for the best, so you don’t have to worry about work while you recover.”
“I see. My condition.” Her retort died on her tongue, not wanting to burn this bridge. Goddammit, she liked Black Diamond, even if her agent was an ass. Sometimes professionalism was a bitch. “Give my regards to Black Diamond,” she said, and ended the call.
She stared blankly at the wall behind the laptop for a moment. Looking back down, she paused for a moment at the desktop background– a photo of her and Will hiking in the woods out by Redlake. Will was maybe eight in the picture, she couldn’t quite remember. Before everything fell apart.
It’s still falling apart, she thought darkly.
Pressing her thumb to the USB biometric scanner plugged into her laptop, she opened up her books. Three accounts left, now that Black Diamond was gone. The Wardens’ accounts, especially Paragon had been huge and massively successful. With them gone, more than half of her income stream had evaporated overnight, and without the ability to physically meet with potential clients, her ability to find new accounts was severely limited. Her reputation and experience only went so far when she was confined to bed rest. On top of that, the treatments required to stop the nanites from spreading, unconventional at best and untested at worst, were atrociously expensive, well beyond the point her insurance was willing to cover.
A knock at the door pulled her away from that dark spiral.
“Come in,” she said.
The door opened and a nurse entered
“I thought you might like some food. You usually ask for dinner around this time, and the bistro had broccoli cheddar.”
“Thank you, Howard,” Mary said, forcing a small smile. She closed the laptop and set it aside to make room for the tray of food. Howard slid the tray onto the table mounted over her lap.
“Oh, and your husband dealt with your bills.”
Mary paused, setting down the spoon so she didn’t throw it across the room.
“Did he,” she said quietly, jaw setting.
The detectives agreed that this was a professional job. Meticulously planned and executed, with a finesse rarely seen in this sort of robbery. At 2:03 pm, a rainbow-colored triangular pillar slid silently through the door, past the row of tellers, and into the open vault, sucking up cash like a vacuum. Moments later, it exited out the back of the bank, clearing out the armored car in the same manner. Two shots fired by security, which somehow neatly punctured the tires of both escort vehicles, before the psychedelic prism lowered itself through a storm drain and disappeared. The entire robbery took barely a minute, so fast the alarm wasn’t even sounded until the vault was already empty. By the time the police arrived, all that was left was a crowd of confused civilians and some shaken security officers.
Yes, the detectives agreed, this was definitely over their head.