Adam was no stranger to long rides. One of his earliest memories was getting packed into the family van for the seven hour drive north near Reno to see their cousins in the Pyramid Lake rez. But this was different -- getting jostled through a Megabus terminal at midnight by a huge white guy called ‘Agent Oliver’. There was none of Autine’s baked trout to look forward to either, only a long damn sentence.
It was ten hours on the bus, pressed into the window seat by Agent Oliver’s bulk. A few hours in, Adam dug out a quarter from the well between the seat and the off-color felt interior lining. In his palm, its edges curled together and up into the aluminum coating of a chocolate kiss. Oliver’s meaty paw crushed Adam’s wrist and the man reminded him that cash was not allowed on this trip. The chocolate fell out of Adam’s hand and into the grime filled depths beneath the seats. It bounced off Adam’s red drawstring bag, slumped in the footwell.
Aegis had packed it for him. They caught him on a hot streak at The Flamingo’s hold ‘em tables, and since then he’d been in a holding cell somewhere in downtown Vegas until Oliver came to collect him for the ride, so he hadn’t arranged his own bag. It was mostly essentials: clothes, toothbrush, and deodorant, plus a few packs of cards Adam had left out on his desk. Nothing special, but it didn’t bother him. Possessions came and went too easily for him to get attached. Between his ability and the pawn shop a mile down the road, with a little research, Adam could have whatever he wanted and then sell it off as soon as he tired of it. The only things that really mattered were his leather bound ledger, and the matte blue duffle bag that contained his collected winnings. Both were certainly under lock and key in an Aegis vault, protected by a dozen guys like Oliver.
The rest of the ride proved uneventful. Any questions Adam had for Agent Oliver were met with blunt grunts and eventually threats of more violence from those huge hands. He wondered if every staffer at Aegis would be the same kind of angry meathead. Adam had dealt with the type before, but always in situations where he literally had an ace up his sleeve. It was easy enough to push their buttons and goad them into a big, stupid move. Then all Adam had to do was let the aces fly and send them home with nothing for all their piss and vinegar. But on this bus, Oliver was in charge. He could’ve broken Adam’s wrist, even the whole arm if he wanted to, and all Adam could do was whine about it.
The agent managing the next stop had a sunnier disposition and went by Jones. He was slim, tall, and wore sunglasses under the covered bus platform. Oliver planted Adam at a gray bench with separators socketed every two feet to prevent the homeless from sleeping on it, then sauntered off to discuss the transfer with Jones. There were six guards in a loose semi circle around the stop, uniformed in traditional prison guard garb, complete with dress shirt, tie, and a polished belt full of instruments of abuse. Oliver and Jones were dressed in suits. What separated the ‘agents’ from the ‘guards’? They didn’t seem as experienced. Half of them stared off, bored, into the California heat haze. Then there was a paycheck difference, certainly. Out behind the stop, before the grassy hill rolled up into the rest of LAX, a half dozen cars sat parked on the green. Five were pre-2010 sedans, and one was a brand new Cadillac, as black as Jones’ suit.
Oliver excused himself to the air conditioning of Jones’ Cadillac, and Adam rose from his seat to speak to the agent. Jones was more forthcoming than Oliver, but all he had to offer was a regurgitated version of the center’s virtual orientation video. Jones talked up the amenities and gave him a big smile, but Adam couldn’t tell if Jones’ eyes were looking straight back at him through the sunglasses.
By the time he’d finished with Jones, others had arrived. All seemed exhausted from travel, especially the Hawaiian with hair as long as Adam’s. He carried a huge board, now leaning against the side of the bus stop. Then there was a girl with big hair and a silver pendant who seemed almost pleased to be there, which Adam found disquieting. The last was a blonde, sitting two spaces apart from the others, shrunken into herself. None seemed in a talkative mood, least of all the blonde, who fixed him with a death glare when he walked towards one of the remaining seats. He chose to lean against the bus stop by the Hawaiian’s board instead.
Adam was the last one on the next bus that pulled up. He passed the disapproving blonde from the stop and slotted himself somewhere further back, sliding up to the window and peering out. Jones’ Cadillac was still on, but its engine lay silent, even as the bus lurched forward and peeled away. Oliver would not follow. It took another mile for Adam to believe it and lean back into his seat. His wrist still ached. It wasn’t broken, but a dark bruise was beginning to form. He rested it in his lap and peeked out at the other passengers to distract himself from the feeling.
It was all guards, in terms of Aegis personnel. They didn’t warrant full out agents anymore? Packing more and more metahumans into a bus certainly doesn’t make them less dangerous. Maybe the agents were just the away team. With the jaws of the beast closing around the kids, they were free to leave and grab the next group of hard luck meta brats. Speaking of metas, minus Adam’s fellow LAX transfers, the rest of their number were a boyband reject, a conked out redhead, an excitable asian in green, a brit deep in a book, a blonde in a striped number, and a boy with a shock of white in his hair. Most of them seemed absorbed with their own troubles, especially the boy with the unusually colored hair who stared off into his own little universe. In all Adam’s experience with that pensive sort, especially those sat beside him at blackjack, was that they came in two types. Worriers worked themselves into knots and would waste all their energy away into nothing well before the source of their worry would arrive. Planners thought a little more practically, reviewing their strategies and refreshing the ‘count’ in their minds, and saving their energy when they could do nothing. Which would these kids prove to be?
The next kid to board was an average sort in a hoodie, bopping along to his dated music player. Adam had never thought to obtain an older device. His parents always had such things around when they were alive, but they were some of the many possessions that ended up sold off once they passed. Their taste in music remained in Adam, but their choice of device did not, especially when the latest versions were so easily within his reach.
They were quickly joined by more, a shorter African American boy and a man made out of granite kitchen countertop. From a distance it looked painted on. Then the boy walked closer and Adam could hear the grinding of the stone, and feel the rumble and shift of his weight through the bus frame. The boy was literally and figuratively stone faced. It had to be rough to live with. He certainly couldn’t get around Vegas, too many elevators and moving walkways that would break down under his weight. Adam was glad his power didn’t physically manifest, it was hard enough to sneak around underage as it was, nevermind if he had to hide he was a full ton of stone brick on two legs.
Adam couldn’t bring himself to feel bad for the next passenger, a brunette white girl with huge white wings tucked behind her back. He’d seen too many girls dressed just like it on the strip to truly care. Enough cosplay conventions had come through town where ignorant tourists wore huge, audacious outfits with body mods like those wings and clogged the streets and the Vegas monorail. Maybe things would be different if she could really fly with them, but for all Adam knew, the physics were all wrong. Perhaps she couldn’t fly at all. Would that be a fate worse than rocky skin? To be trapped with a permanent pair of cosplay wings?
He hadn’t time to answer the questions before another stop introduced more passengers. Before long, the bus would be a full house. They were joined by a short girl in a hoodie and a taller girl in audacious red lipstick. There was some commotion with the hoodie girl, who practically jumped into her seat and fussed with a pair of gloves, but Adam was too far to see the inciting incident.
They had to be close now, as passengers were arriving faster by the minute. Two more joined, both perhaps the most haggard he’d seen so far. The girl seemed tired and almost sickly, but the boy looked rough. Adam could make out ugly stick n’ poke tats and the guy passed. Had he done time before? His gaze was jaded enough to fit. Yet there was a jitter and a panic to his motions as he tried and failed to settle in his seat. Maybe he was new to this.
The last addition Adam did not see until it confidently waddled past him on its way to the back of the bus. An otter. Adam blinked twice. He had officially been up too long. He wanted to curl up in one of his mom’s handmade blankets and stop hallucinating semi-aquatic mammals. Before his eyes, it produced an iPod and a full box of cigarettes, complete with lighter. The creature sat on its own, so it couldn’t be anyone’s pet… Could it be another student? Or worse, an agent? It’d be a clever angle. Infiltrate the prisoners with a unsuspecting ‘animal’ that’s actually a meta already under the center’s employ. The otter would be one to watch… Assuming it continued to be an otter once he got some sleep, anyhow.
Soon they disembarked and were sorted onto different ferry passages. Adam went on the second journey aboard the Warden Johnston, along with the remaining kids and guard complement. In all the sixty-six feet of the vessel, Adam was closest to the strung out boy from the bus. He now had the same glazed over, deep-thought expression worn by the boy with a streak in his hair, but with a harder edge to it. His hands twitched with what Adam could only read as anticipation. There was another one to watch.
After the teens were relieved of their things, even Adam’s, it didn’t take long for that poor kid to explode. When they disembarked from the Johnston onto the sun baked concrete of Alcatraz Island proper, Virgil Rowell came out for a speech. Adam had heard of Rowell, but he’d only heard of him from the Center’s official press. From Rowell’s suit and Adam’s previous experience, Adam expected Rowell to have the hard edges of an agent about him, but he spoke with an even-toned kindness Adam had only ever heard from four adults in his life, all of whom had a hand in raising him. If it was a performance, it blew Agent Jones’ clean out of the water. But Rockface Balboa and the rockabilly blonde weren’t buying it. As they spoke up and Rowell took a moment to choose his words, the strung out kid chose his moment.
He dashed and tore a feather from the winged girl, whipping it around in his hand and brandishing it as if it was a wicked knife. The guards acted as ferociously as Oliver had handling Adam, multiple taser lines converged from across the main body of guard and one hit home, planting itself deep in the burnout’s skin and sending him spasming to the ground. One of the girls vanished with a yelp, too fast for Adam to tell who it was. The guards didn’t seem to care who, either, as they blasted the crowds with pepper spray.
Adam was far enough from the action that he only got trace amounts of it, acrid burning against his eyes. He rubbed them furiously and stepped away, almost bowling over another inmate. It was just the same as with Oliver on the bus -- angry bastards in absolute control. What could Adam do? He was half blind, half asleep, and dead out of anything remotely useful in his pockets.
”HOLD!” Rowell’s voice broke the clamor before it could erupt into an all out melee. In his clearing vision, Adam saw that the ‘average’ boy in the hoodie had performed an olympic dash and was now poised to all but bisect the pepper spraying guard. If Rowell had acted a moment later there would have been blood, the guard’s or the kid’s Adam wasn’t sure.
Rowell launched into another speech, but Adam was done listening to him. You don’t manhandle a group of kids out to a maximum security prison and just expect them to play nice about it. Why? Just because you said please? Rowell stopped the guard and that was for sure, but it didn’t erase or even really rectify what had happened. Didn’t fix Adam’s wrist, still as sore as when Oliver squeezed it, now a lovely shade of purple. And it certainly didn’t fix what each and every other kid must have gone through on their own busses, or the cavalcade of abuses that had to be contained inside.
Signing up for this, Adam had determined it was the better option than Juvie. They had him on multiple counts of underage gambling, possession of multiple false identifications, and there was a cabal of casinos competing to see who would fire off the largest lawsuit. The decision seemed simple: be trained in the formal use of his powers at a ‘secure facility’, or spend a long sentence being treated as a dog of the state. It wasn’t hard. Now, with pepper spray tears running uncontrollably down his cheeks, he wasn’t so sure.