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A Spark of Golden Hope: Episode 3
Rivertown District, Detroit, July 7th
Sonya arched one delicate brown eyebrow as the newcomer mumbled out his purpose in entering the building. Green eyes flicked over the state of his clothes and the shy attitude. While she wasn’t actually meant to be at the reception area right now, she had taken over for a moment while the usual receptionist, Kyle, had gone to talk to one of the civilian employees. So now she was stuck in a situation she hadn’t actually wanted to deal with in the first place. One fine-boned hand tapped the pen she was holding rapidly on the glass top of the desk.
“I’m sorry, sir, you said you were at the rally? Does that mean you’re here for the community outreach program?” While her tone of voice didn’t have any malice or patronisation in it, it was cool and emotionless, purely professional.
Everett couldn’t help but give an awkward sort of chuckle - he could just tell this was going to be difficult to navigate. Her eyes gave him no room for error.
… Then stop grinning like an idiot.
“Um, yes, I was very curious! … About the program, I mean, it’s, um… a bit of a long story really?”
He glanced back down at the pamphlet, the ink on the paper having started to smudge and deteriorate into the paper from the nervous rubbing of his fingers and repeated folding and unfolding as the day had progressed. The word “re-affirm” suddenly stood out like a parent at a child’s recital, and he tried to refocus.
“Came over to Detroit lookin’ for ways to build a community. Help people, since, uh…”
He bit his lip slightly, avoiding Sonya’s piercing eyes as he glanced around the room once again.
“It’s a long story, but I think I could do a lot of good! Here! Like this,” he nodded, hand waving a little across the room - the point of his rambling had started to elude him, though he struggled to think about how it might look to others.
“Ah, ahem.” The woman cleared her throat slightly. The tapping of the pen had ceased, replaced by a faint scritching as she wrote something swiftly on a small pad next to her. She motioned the young man to move closer so he could read it without her exposing the script to the glass of the door, and thus outside. It simply had one word, in neat copperplate handwriting: “Meta?”
His lips seemed to still be searching for the words as the tapping stopped.
“Oh, ass, um…”
“How did she know?”
Who can know it, Mansa. Maybe it is a sign?
Signs were good, weren’t they? Better than trying to find your way out of a forest at midnight on your own, anyway.
“... Yes,” he nodded, awkward smile returning into a slightly wider grin, a few yellowing teeth showing through, “it’s, uh, not very… ‘flashy.’,” he winked, “But it is… ‘expensive’?”
The wink was more nervous that time.
Sonya’s entire demeanor shifted, ever so subtly. The eyebrow quirked up again at that ‘joke’, but otherwise she paid it no heed. However, her shoulders relaxed ever so slightly, and she stood up with a rush and purpose. And then she vanished, without a sound. Several seconds went by before she reappeared again, exactly the same.
“Very well, Mr Atut. Follow me, please, and we’ll see about getting you in and checked out.” Without waiting for a response, she took off at a steady, determined stride down the front of the office space, passing a double row of desks. A short man with curly blonde hair rushed past her in the opposite direction, heading for the desk she had so swiftly abandoned.
“Apologies for the necessity, but Miss Richter does require we do this away from the less exceptional employees, and also insists on personally knowing the, ah….quirks of everyone working in the organisation, the better to decide what tasks to assign them.” She turned a corner, down a carpeted hallway. A pair of doors on each side led to conference rooms, one of which was open and what looked to be a design meeting was in full swing. Her hand swung out, touched the door just so, and it swung shut as she passed.
“Of course, you can always refuse, but I’m afraid we’re not going to get anywhere without cooperation, correct?” she arrived at a set of steel doors, shining in the fluorescence of the hallway lighting. She pressed down on a discreet panel to one side, and there was a brief pause before the door opened. For a split second, as the door opened, there were actually two of her, both flickering on a barely noticeable level. And then there was one again. The doors opened onto a landing, stairs leading down into the basement, cool air blowing up from the next floor down.
Everett tried to smile through all of this, though it had to be said the shimmer had caught him off guard a little. First the sudden vanishing and reappearing, now this strange shimmer?
Had she moved them both through space somehow…? Whatever it was, it made the hairs on his arms rise, and he took a deep breath, nodding along as she spoke.
“O-of course, ‘course, that makes a lot of sense, yeah. I’ve been trying to keep on the low- my options, open. Options open. So I was a bit nervous about all this, won’t lie, and…” he glanced down at the basement, fingers fidgeting with the old hat in his hands, “walking down into dark basements isn’t usually, um…”
He sighed deeply, then the sigh became a yawn, and the yawn became a nervous, sweaty rubbing of the eyes in the cool rising air.
“Not usually something I do. But, um, Ms Richter, she… she’s clearly a very well, organized, sort of person, and I think we could both benefit.”
He paused, before then slowly but surely stepping down the stairs, the smell of his clothes drafting behind him.
“I have a lot to offer, it’s, um… in high demand.”
She gave him a sideways glance over her shoulder at that comment, eyes narrowed in calculation, but didn’t say anything.
The stairwell came to another set of doors that apparently required her unusual approach. This one, however, had an open panel next to it, clearly a space where a different security measure would be in place later on. These doors opened onto a brightly lit white hallway, wide enough for four people to walk side by side. It ran for quite some ways into the distance, interspersed with intersections and doors. They came to the very first door on the right, one with a large bay window facing into what looked like a normal studio apartment. There were a few details not quite right, however.
As a living room, it looked quite normal, if a bit run down. Ugly plaid couch, coffee table with a stack of magazines, ceiling fan and light, end table with a lamp and hardline phone, television and what seemed to be a full suite of modern gaming consoles. On second glance, two televisions. The one on the wall was a giant flat screen, but on the floor in front of it was an old twelve inch CRT with an attached VCR. Adjoining space contained what might generously be called a combination kitchenette and bathroom. There was a large industrial tub with a massive faucet, at least, and what looked to be an ancient iron fire-burning stove.
Sonya opened the door and there was a faint whoosh of pressurised air escaping, then held it open for Everett to follow her in.
He nodded and smiled, shaking his hat at her very slightly, and stepped forward… then stopped, just for a moment, his eyes flickering as if listening to someone.
Mansa, one has been thinking, and this seems… unusual.
“... I thought you wanted me to come here.”
One merely noted she had the spirit of a queen, but-
“A bit late to warn me now, isn’t it? I swear you really can be useless sometimes-”
“Shut it, okay? Stop distracting me.”
He blinked deeply, squeezing out the image in his mind’s eye to refocus on Sonya, and followed through with a forced smile, taking in the sights and breathing in the smell.
“This is, um…” he smiled again, this time a little warmer than before… and then he saw the game’s console and the set up, and he had the briefest flash of a memory.
Nothing grand, of course, but the layout of the room was achingly close. How long had it been now… 10 months? A year?
The clock had kept ticking, and in the never-ending chase everything had felt stretched - too much needle, nowhere near enough thread.
… He sniffed, shook his head a little, and tried to re-focus.
“S-sorry, it’s just, um…” he swallowed, “It’s been a while since I was in an actual house, you know that? It’s very nice! An impressive rig, too! My little brother, he, uh-”
His rambling stopped with a jolt, the sound of the heavy metal door slamming behind him. He turned to look at Sonya, her gaze still relentlessly detached and observant.
The wake of the echo was a cold and uncomfortable silence.
Sonya waited for several beats, watching the man’s reaction as he processed what had just happened. Finally, she broke the silence.
“You may have some questions. They will be answered either right now, in my little speech, or afterwards, one way or the other.” She let that sentence hang for a moment before continuing, “Whatever powers you may have, Miss Richter will need to see for herself. This room allows her to do so without fear of either her own safety or yours.”
Another ominous pause.
“Do not attempt to escape. The area this room is situated in is very secure, hence the unfortunate measure of locking you in here. While I would normally point out that there is, in fact, a mini fridge full of refreshments, I do not believe you will have long to wait before she can come down. In the meantime, do not do anything...regrettable.” And with her power’s usual disappointing lack of dramatic effect, she vanished, leaving him in the room to stew.
Huh. Well. Mmm.
He clasped and rubbed his hands together, the sudden loneliness throwing him off, just for a moment.
His face screwed up, just a little, as he tried to think what to do next. This Richter lady would be arriving soon, and she was obviously a very capable and, to Everett’s mind, purposeful sort of person. Not really someone he wanted to make enemies with, exactly.
He had to do something impressive, something really… wow.
“Maybe I could-”
He clutched his stomach, the thought of food having finally caught up with the thought of failure, and now they rested in his stomach like some sort of horrible parasite-baby.
… Okay, okay, fridge first - she won’t mind, right? I can buy a dozen fridges - then plan.
Without a moment’s hesitation he skipped over to the fridge - a straight forward sort of unit, two feet tall, shiny and plastic and chrome. The rubber felt fresh beneath his fingers as it opened, and…
For just a moment, he really could have cried. As a teen he’d lamented the supposedly terrible quality of american snacks, but here they were in abundance.
At first he paused, taking a deep breath, and carefully peeling open the wrapper to a single twinkie.
Just one, he thought, To tide me over. Just one.
But as pillowy cake and soft, fake cream hit his tongue, the deed was done. Like a childishly edgy prank that had inevitably spiralled into lovecraftian horrors, the most basic instinct of all living things had kicked in with a vengeance and he was suddenly much, much hungrier than he had been even just a moment ago.
For the next minute he tore into packet after packet, breathing in the smells and textures, and for just a moment, he forgot why he was even there.
Then the intercom crackled to life, and a german accented voice - with only half an intention to do so - nearly choked him to death, and along with it back to the present.
Zoë no longer jumped in shock whenever Sonya appeared in front of her. It had taken some getting used to, that was certain, but by now it was just an annoyance. A rather large one at this point, as the girl had appeared between her and a sword that was strung from the ceiling some distance away from her easel. She scowled.
”Yes, Sonya?” Her voice dripped with, while not malice, sarcasm that indicated that it could, indeed, become malicious at the listener’s provocation.
“Sorry, ma’am, but we have a meta in the test lab and I didn’t think you’d be too busy.” Sonya sketched a quick shrug. She was one of the few that could actual remain safe while the temperamental meta was angry with them, much to her employer’s chagrin. Then again, they had a good working relationship, and Sonya, at least for her part, trusted Forge to an almost fanatical degree.
Zoë sighed, laying aside her brush and holding out her hand. She had changed into a well-worn and paint spattered pair of pale jeans and a flannel button up tee, both old enough to probably be retired but now used as crafting clothes. ”Very well, let us see what has wandered into the net, hmm?””
Sonya took the proffered hand, and Zoë found herself outside the “capture room”. Definitely going to need to come up with a better name for it at some point. She crossed her arms while Sonya ran her through everything that had occurred since the young man had come through the front door, all the while watching him gorge himself on cheap food, and then leaned forward and pressed the small switch next to the door. The inside of the room echoed with her voice, using her normal ‘Miss Richter’ slight German accent.
”Good afternoon, Mr. Atut. My name is Erika Richter. I am very curious to know what it is your powers are? Maybe a small demonstration? Nothing too major, but, you see, that is what this room is set up to do. If it’s destructive, please try to tone it down, but don’t be afraid to cut loose a little bit. The walls are very thick reinforced concrete and the window is extremely durable material as well. Everything inside is, of course, easily replaceable.”
Everett’s eyes widened as he tried to simultaneously avoid choking, to pay attention to what was actually being said, and to make quick work of a diet pepsi.
He stumbled over a beanbag chair as he awkwardly jogged back to the intercom by the door, brushing down his jacket of crisp shards and twinkie crumbs as if that would make any difference at all, and then leant into the intercom.
“Ah, um…! Yes, a pleasure to hear from you, Ms Richter, very impressive rally earlier! Really good!”
Everett, you’re breathing into the intercom, stop breathing!
He sucked his chest in a little and stood back, just a bit.
“The demonstration, um… do you have any preference as to what I, um... target with it? I appreciate a lot of this equipment is quite expensive, probably!”
”In fact, Mr. Atut, all of this was very kindly donated and is for this express purpose. But if you need a little direction, let’s sayy...the coffee table. It’s quite old and smells a bit of cat in my opinion. In your own time, Mr. Atut.”
“Oh, uh, fantastic! Great, I’ll do that, then!”
He turned and looked down at the table, a slightly battered old piece - an antique in the least interesting sense, and now that he thought about it, it did smell suspiciously like an old cat.
Not exactly to be missed, so.
Breathe deep, he thought, inhaling through his nose. His eyes closed, and he took a few more breaths.
He slowly raised his right hand outstretched, a single finger slowly pointing at the faded table. As he did, his right eye opened, and just for a moment… it glowed, a dark and brilliant orange. Like a sunset at the lowest point, or a shard of eons-old amber fresh from the soil.
In his mind’s eye the table was aglow. A warm and folding light, and in an instant of time it stretched and contorted, the foundational chains of its existence, the spheres linked by lightning, infinitesimal to the eyes of man.
His right hand curled, and there was the difference.
“Change.” he said, and his fingers snapped, and for the briefest of moments the room was made of gold.
And then, as the light returned to normal, the table was gone.
In its place was something that would, if you squinted, resemble a table - albeit for very small, very rich people with really poor taste in furniture.
A mass of solid, glimmering gold, awkwardly propped up on four deformed and stump-like legs, warped and crumpled under the weight of the central mass.
Everett smiled, the feeling always a pleasant one… though he quickly lost the sense of power when the table completely collapsed under its own weight and formed into a single loose collection of golden lumps on the floor.
He turned to the intercom.
“So, um, bit of a long story, but that table is now, very… gold. ‘Fraid I can’t turn it back, though.”
There was the faintest of sharp inhalations through a nose. ”Very good, Mr. Atut. Any other powers?”
Everett’s awkward grin faded a little, eyes widening with concern.
“No, I’m afraid, ah… just that. I can actually do it more quickly, it just… I’ve been a bit out of practice. Sort of. Don’t normally use it on stuff that large.”
”Oh, I don’t think that should be a worry, Mr. Atut. Just making sure it wasn’t necessary to see you make something explode, as well. While this rooms furnishings are replaceable, some others are very much not. Please do not be alarmed in a few moments.”
Sonya blinked her employer back to the office, counted to fifteen, then blinked in, laid her hand on Everett’s shoulder, and transported him to the office as well.
The room had come a long way since Zoë had taken over the building. Gone were the threadbare carpets, replaced by shining darkwood. The desk was ostentatious in its size, especially given that the woman who now sat at it looked for all the world like a college art student. She reclined back into the creaking leather chair, which matched the walls and blotter on the desk in a deep forest green. Several landscape paintings were hung around the room, though they had an edge to them. The one directly behind her, for example, was of a fairly standard grassy plain, possibly Italian. However, the geometry was off, and the sense of scale was carefully turned on its ear, leaving the viewer with a slight sense of vertigo, despite its otherwise flawless workmanship. To the man’s right was a large window, looking out over the office space he had gone past earlier.
”So, Mr. Atut,” she said, glancing at Sonya behind him, who very suddenly wasn’t there any more. ”The first question may be the most obvious. Was that really gold? And if so, why do you look like your next stop after this interview would be the nearest homeless shelter?”
Everett took a moment to breathe again, the sudden warping having thrown him for the dozenth loop this day, and then shook his mind back to reality and smiled at her.
“Um, right! Straight to the questions! That, yes, actually… that does make sense, so, first question.”
He clasped his hands together, gave a tight-lipped smile, and then shrugged his shoulders heavily.
“You’re welcome to test it. I’ve been doing this for… over a year, now? It’s really, really gold. 100%. Purer than pure. And, well, as to why I’m dressed like this, I…”
Might as well be honest at this point. Penny for a pound.
“I’ve… okay, might be a silly question, you ever hear of a… ‘superhero’ that was sighted around London last year, named Mansa? Possibly was accused of murdering a politician? That, that was me - I mean, uh, to clarify, not the murder, that was a different guy, but they pegged it on me, see, because I wouldn’t join them - the murderers, not the politicians, though I wasn’t a fan of them either - and so I had to go into hiding, and fled here, and then the Hound attacks threw everything in the garbage, and now, uh, mmm.”
He took another, deeper breath.
“It’s… things are sort of in the can right now, honestly.”
‘Miss Richter’ kept her gaze on the man for some time before speaking, almost as if she was still processing this information. Her eyes were, however, glittering with intelligence, not cow-eyed with difficulty. Finally, she steepled her fingers and gently itched the end of her nose with a still interlocked index finger.
”Let me tell you what I am hearing, and then you can correct me if I am mistaken.” Her voice, despite the words, was very warm, like a parent just trying to understand, or a therapist. No judgement in it.
”You were ‘doing good’ in London, helping people - back to that in a moment, by the way - before you got caught up by your enemies in a character assassination. Seeing no other option, you fled the country, and have been keeping a low profile here. Where you are not legally permitted to live, unless I miss my mark. And where you are, in fact, hiding instead of clearing your name. Which means there’s something in your past you do not want to face?”
She breathed in slightly, laying her hands flat. ”Bear in mind, Mr. Atut, that your past is yours, to keep secret as you wish, but also to deal with. We live in a world where the old comic books seem to have come to life, and I am sorry to say the transition is not smooth, as the Hounds so aptly demonstrated. But one thing seems clear about...well, our people, as it were. We tend to be like cats, solitary by nature. And yet here I am trying to herd them, and at the same time trying to change the world for the better. It’s going to get violent, Mr. Atut, of that I have no doubt, and I would be ashamed to lead you on differently.”
”Which, of course, is my point. You’ve come here, gathering from my speech that I intend to go good work, and what I presume is the same core bit of you that made you want to be a hero in the first place has you in my office now. Well and good, but what happens when the chips are down, Mr. Atut? Will you run again? And what of these murderers? Surely they do not want loose ends? My point is, how much do I have to worry once you’re in my employ? How much added stress and danger am I going to have?”
The words were heavy, and they sank into him like wet sand.
That same heaviness began to infiltrate into the back of his mind, and the world felt just a little foggy. But it was not foreign to him - rather, there was something deeply familiar to it, like recognizing a childhood face in the crowd.
Will you run again?
He bit his lip, slumping down in the chair. His eyes were focused on his hands, and there they lingered, trying to piece together far more than he had really paid mind to in recent months.
“I,” he whispered, “I’m not sure.”
His teeth ground together slightly, pouring over the thoughts, trying to piece together how on Earth he was supposed to explain all of this to the stranger in front of him - truthfully, how much he even should have told her.
“It’s,” he sighed, his whole body shaking with the weight of his memories, “it’s complicated, and I’m not completely sure of the situation back home right now. I haven’t spoken to my family in almost a year - to protect them, and those… idiots, called themselves the “Osiris Collective” like they were anything more than self-righteous gangsters; I don’t know what happened to them. They were smart enough to frame me, but petty enough to do it over a disagreement, and they had no resources outside of their group… I honestly think they might all be dead or in prison by now.”
He looked up at her, her gaze still focused, reading his every move. He couldn’t help but sweat a little.
“I thought this power, this… thing in my head, could make the world better on its own. That I could just give people with nothing to their names’ a handful of gold, and fix all the inequality and struggle, but people… society, is more complex than that. When it brought the wrong people to my door, I didn’t know what else to do, so I panicked, and now I’m stuck here.”
He gave a nervous smile.
“On the other side of the coin, this country is somehow in a worse state than home - no offence - and I… I think if I had somewhere to direct this power, someone to help me guide this golden hand, maybe...”
He held out his right hand, slightly limp, and offered as carefree a smile as he could muster, his eyes wide.
“It won’t end like last time.”
Zoë stared at the proffered hand, mind racing. Real, live, actual Midas touch. Infinite gold. Funding will never be a problem again. Carefully, though. The is a gift that should not be abused, both for his sake and to keep attention away.
”I am willing to guide you, yes. But before we, ah, shake on it, you’ll need some ground rules, yes? As much as we are looking to help, you are still, by and large, going to be my employee, not partner. Which means the usual sort of thing, plus a contract, and some additional things I’ll need to determine because of your rather dangerous ability, Mr. Atut.”
As much as she sounded standoffish, though, her posture became much more relaxed and convivial, her tone less rigidly proper. Her feet, in their pink and white Reeboks, appeared and were propped up on her desk while she leaned back and regarded him carefully.
”The speech at the rally you heard was actually not meant for metahumans, really. That was for the people who have to do things the normal way. You and I and Sonya and others are much different. If you’d like to use older terminology, we are quite close to demigods, though I doubt any divine source of power, at least for me. But the power we have gives us infinitely more choice in our lives, as all forms of power do. We are given, through whatever means, the ability to shape the world to our liking well beyond what ‘mere mortals’ could. I intend to use mine responsibly, to clean up messes I otherwise couldn’t, and to help those without voices regain control of their destinies, not to be cattle and sheep fed into the machine that has steadily replaced choice in this world. To that end, there will be many who might end up calling me a villain. If I fail, I am more than certain that they will do all they can to metaphorically burn me at the stake, along with any who might help me.”
She rotated her chair, gesturing out of the window to their side. ”Out there are several dozen people who do not know all of this, because it will not be pretty and I intend to insulate them from the damage should everything go catastrophically wrong. Down below, where you were earlier, are the people who have found out or otherwise been informed choose to go, knowing that it might mean their livelihoods, or in the extreme, their actual lives.”
She spun her chair back, feet dropping, to face him. Her demeanor shifted back to the more professional side. ”You, Mr. Atut, have a choice to make. This is your fight, but only if you make it yours. You are one of the metahumans. You could make a difference anywhere you go, really, not just with me or any other of our kind. And you may well fit in other places better than here. You may walk out of that front door to think about it. You may go see others of our kind and get a feel for them. You may do any number of things, but let me tell you right now, before you truly decide, that once I let you into the basement areas as an actual employee, Mr. Atut,” and here she paused between each word, hammering them with emphasis, ” There. Is. No. Going. Back.”
She smiled, genuinely and warmly. ”Of course, should you leave, think about it, or even go work for someone else for a while, then return here, there will be a position waiting for you. I like your eyes, Mr. Atut, they have quite a bit to say behind them, things moving that you need to process. And you came to me rather swiftly, which I appreciate. So you have, as it were, a standing offer. What I can give you right now is my solemn promise that it is not just because of your rather remarkable ability that you have this offer, and I will never force you to do anything you aren’t comfortable with. You will always have a choice, saving that once you’re in, you’re in for good. Or until we collapse, of course.”
Only now, after saying her piece, did she offer her hand.
Throughout all of this he had watched her intently, followed her movements, and the office below. At last she offered the hand of her own, and the metaphorical ink suddenly seemed to take on a shade of red...
He stepped backwards slightly, stroking his chin, eyes darting downwards as he rolled it over in his head, over and over.
A one way journey, Mansa.
“And the people will say it’s straight to hell.”
This queen of flames is willing to balance prosperity on a knife’s edge… perhaps my words before were misplaced?
“Perhaps, but... we’re here now, lost up a creek, right?”
There in that office, the cool air-conditioning on his neck and the offer of purpose a handshake away, alternatives seemed as meaningless as hoping to win the lottery on a single torn ticket.
She was right - his power was a tremendous gift, something utterly unique, and he was wasting it playing at homelessness because of his fear and self-imposed isolation.
Self-imposed? tapped the spider,
“I did this to myself.”
A lie, Mansa, no-
“That, or you did.”
The spider’s incessant tapping fell silent, vanishing from view, and once again it was simply two metas in the renovated, ambitious office. His mind wandered for a moment on the white and pink sneakers, and the junk food in the fridge, in contrast to this place and what had been built so far, what was implied to have been built below.
She was human, this Richter. Human, but smart and more than a little artistic, ambitious.
Everett stepped forwards, his eyes locking into hers and briefly losing the nerves that had defined them so far - nervousness replaced with a sense of pleading.
I hope I’m not wrong.
“My hands could make anyone rich, Ms Richter. But I don’t really care about it for myself, and trying to help people on the ground hasn’t worked. And as for the systems in place, they…”
He sighed, a weak smile passed across his cracking lips.
“The systems are broken, the prosperity always winds up in the hands that need and deserve it least. But you… you strike me as someone with a plan, and a purpose, and willingness to use those systems only as needed. You don’t seem to view your people as expendable, either, and you don’t fear your rivals or outsiders, it’s… refreshing, honestly.”
With a sudden, deep breath he reached out and grasped her hand, a strength to the grip that seemed sudden and heavy.
“I’ll take that offer.”
He nodded, “No more running.”
She breathed out through her nose at the shake, and returned his nod, a slight edge of tension leaving her shoulders. ”Excellent. I’m glad you’ve chosen to work with us. We’ll have Sonya draw up a contract, which will just be the usual non-disclosure stuff, along with your pay and accomodations. Given the uniquely valuable and, ah, tempting power of yours, I might prefer you to stay in the more secure quarters downstairs, but we can discuss that once we’ve got you settled in and meeting people.”
She released his hand to press an unobtrusive button on a panel on her desk. Sonya’s voice came through a tiny microphone/speaker combo less than a second later. “Yes, Miss Richter?”
”We’ll need to get back downstairs, Sonya, and then I’ll need to discuss an employment contract with you later tonight.”
“Of course, Miss. Just a moment.”
Sonya flickered into the office, lightly resting a hand on the recruit’s shoulder, leaning past him, and meeting her index finger with the one Zoë stretched out to her. And then they were back in front of the examination room. Sonya disappeared just as quickly, leaving them in the brightly lit hallway.
”Any questions before we begin the tour?”
He’d visibly tensed up at Sonya’s reappearance, and went rigid as once again he was pushed through spacetime, the bright lights of the hallway snapping into place around him as suddenly and simply as viewing the next photo on a slideshow.
“Yes. Does she do that a lot, without asking…? And if she does, can she just sort of…”
He waved his hand slightly, before landing on a cautious “not?”
Zoë chuckled, gesturing for him to follow her down the hall. [color]”It is a little disconcerting, isn’t it? Alas, until we get the doors finished, it’s the best way down here. And, of course, until we can get you registered into the biometric system, which is unfortunately not up yet. At the moment, she is the most reliable way down here. I will tell her not to be so abrupt with you, however.”[/color]
As they walked, her sneakers squeaked on the floor, and she had a little skipping step every once in a while, and a bounce. Having dropped her business-like demeanor from the interview, she began acting very much more her age, and it became somewhat obvious that she couldn’t be much more than legal drinking age. She flicked her hair idly as they passed one door that stood open, revealing several snack machines, pool tables, couches, and televisions.
”Here is the rec room, where you are of course encouraged to meet people while on break, blow off some steam, et cetera. Next to it, the one that’s closed, is the gymnasium, which has amongst other things fight training, resistance, weight, and a small number of aerobic machines. Unfortunately, I’ve run into some snags clearing a trainer as yet, but it shouldn’t be too long. In the mean time, please feel free to make use of it as you will, but if you hurt yourself by using equipment improperly, we only have the one doctor on staff right now.”
Another gesture down one T-intersection as they passed pointed out several doors. The cool air from the A/C vents ruffled her shirt slightly, clearly more intense in that direction. ”Here we have the dormitories, where you will be staying until you make other arrangements, or we get you set up in a private room on the next floor down. That whole floor has yet to be finished, of course, or I would show you around down there.”
She stopped with another squeak, gesturing further down the corridor. ”Down in that direction we have our power supply and water treatment facility, which I am assured is of top quality, along with our server room and, just here at the intersection, Doctor Emilia Rivera’s office. She’s not in today, or I would introduce you. She is quite good and very passionate.”
She gave Everett a conspiratorial wink and a grin. ”Just don’t bring up anything political with her, she can go on longer than even I can and we have had some disagreements about healthcare positions before. However, she is very professional and will save your life as often as is necessary. We managed to snag her from a university hospital down in Mexico.”
She stood, facing him, elbows out and hands on her hips, looking quite proud. The strength of the white light on the white walls managed to make her look even more pale and blonde, and there was a playful glint in her eyes. ”So, what do you think?”
He smiled, looking back over his shoulder and around at the walls as he thought over what he’d seen. Seeing her sudden loosening of reactions and movements left him feeling a lot more open, though the tapping of the spider suddenly took on a more sinister tone in the middle of such bright, monochrome white…
She’s even younger than me, isn’t she?
“It’s impressive, for sure, to have all of this set up underground, does…”
He bit his lip, eyes darting as he struggled to word it in a way he hoped wouldn’t upset her.
“You mentioned you were expecting to make powerful enemies. I assume this is all strictly off the books...?”
… Wait is that a suspicious thing to ask?
He laughed nervously, “For my resume, you understand... ‘Secret underground lair, July 2018 till Present’ is hard to use as a reference at MacDonalds.”
He waited for the awkwardness to pass, hopefully - or at least until it was tolerable - before shrugging and gesturing both forward and backward along the hallway.
“But it’s… it’s impressive, and all with - by the sounds of it - a fairly small operation so far. It makes me confident, you know? A good foundation, I think.”
Zoë’s face slid into a nearly fae smile. She leaned one hand on the wall next to her, opposite the dorms, and listened politely, nodding. Her eyebrow quirked up at it being small. Her fingers tapped out a distinct rhythm on the wall, and a panel slid open, revealing another hall. This one’s walls, however, were made of glass, and it made a significantly longer run than the one they were standing in. Somewhere beyond the glass it shifted into another section of white panelling. She gestured for him to step through the secret door.
”Small is an odd word to use, but yes, by the standards of, say, a government lab or military base, you are quite correct. And yes, we will make very powerful enemies, ones who want to stay in secret and hold the status quo. We are here to fight them, and we will be constantly outclassed in terms of funding and on just about every other factor. Except tenacity, really.”.
Through the glass walls were spaces of concrete floor, around thirty feet by fifty. Only two were anything but bare. The one immediately on their left held what looked to be a chemistry lab, along with lots of other machinery. Two men in lab coats looked up and waved at her as they passed the hall, to which she nodded. Just outside the door stood what looked to be a soldier, in black tactical gear and holding one of those small, very compact and high-tech sub-machine guns. He came briskly to attention as they passed him, then returned. A swift backwards glance revealed him to be playing with what looked to be a Game-Boy.
The second used space held a young man of Asian descent, sitting cross-legged in the very center of the area. Various crystals and mirrors floated around him in mid-air, though they began settling down as she approached the door guard outside his space. She shook hands with the guard.
”Robbins, this is...ahhh, crud. What exactly was your code name anyway, Mr. Atut? Oh, never mind, you won’t be using it around here anyway, that’s only for being out and about. This is Everett. Everett, Bill Robbins, one of our security team.” She had to raise her voice over the din of the exposed air conditioning above them. Either this area was unfinished yet or was purposely more spartan.
Robbins held his hand out for a shake. He was missing the pinky on his right hand, and a nasty scar dimpled his chin and jawline. “Pleasure to meet you, sir. Always nice to see fresh faces around here.”
Everett’s hanging jaw awkwardly snapped shut as he looked down at Bill’s open hand. He tried to refocus, not to let the sudden shift from “large basement” to “spy thriller headquarters” totally overwhelm his ability to think or socialize, though it was tricky.
“Uh, pleasure to meet you too, Mr Robbins. I’ll try to fit in, though my expectations are… sort of a roller coaster right now.”
Bill let out a deep belly laugh. “Yeah, the Little Lady loves her some surprises.” He very specifically seemed to pronounce the capital letters. He turned to Zoë. “I don’t know where Smith is right now, but if you send him down to the office here in a bit we can get him carded.”
”Thanks Bill. Is he busy at the moment?” She inclined her head to the man inside the glass room.
“Ah, should be finishing up any minute now.” The big man slid a card through the slot next to the door and opened it for them. Zoë held a finger to her lips for Everett’s sake and slipped just inside the door.
The man inside had just stood up. He came over to them and gave Zoë a deep bow from the waist, and another, much lighter bow to Everett.
”Everett, this is Yoshida. Yoshida, Everett will be joining the crew. His power is on the same danger level yours is.”
The Japanese man’s eyebrows raised slightly in surprise, then he nodded. He reached for the wall next to the door and grabbed a towel, then proceeded to wipe the sweat from his brow and hair. He was wearing a gi which was also damp, and the whole room smelled of it, despite the chill from the industrial sized air conditioning vent above them.
Zoë rapped her knuckles on the glass of the door, allowing Robbins to step out of the way smartly before she opened it, motioning the two of them back out. Yoshida nodded in thanks and proceeded back towards the living areas they had departed without another word.
Everett gave a bow in return, barely registering the smell - he’d gotten used to his own and others in recent months, and in the midst of everything else it was more intriguing him that Yoshida’s apparent telekinetic power caused him physical tiredness.
“Nice to meet you Yoshida. It would be interesting to share notes some time.” The man’s retreating form raised a hand in acknowledgement of the comment.
And with that, of course, he was out of the room and on his way, leaving the recruit and the revolutionary in the small white room.
Everett turned to Zoe, eyes seeming almost to flicker briefly as he maintained eye contact closely, adjusting his glasses.
“You know, this really is, um… I’m sorry I underestimated you, but I have a good feeling about this. The, uh… “skill sets” you’ve got here are so far very impressive, and the resources…”
He smiled nervously, fingers tapping.
“Now I’m more curious what the plan itself is, I’ll be honest, but… really, any plan is better than no plan, I suppose. A bridge yet to be crossed, mmm.”
Zoë smiled, gesturing back towards the same area Yoshida had gone. ”The goal is simple, while the execution will be quite complex. You will not know everything that is happening, both out of necessity and out of sheer impossibility. For now, however, I suggest you go get something to eat in the rec room, and find a cot. It’s nearing evening and I have other things I need to do. If you go through the pool hall, there is a small kitchen inside of what will eventually be a cafeteria. Feel free to make use of it as you will.”
She stopped outside of the secret entrance, and after he had followed her, she clicked something in her jeans pocket and the doorway closed, sealing itself back to invisibility. She turned back to him.
”A few ground rules. First, you’re not allowed back there unless it’s necessary or until we set up a work area for you. Until then, please avail yourself of the computer lab and library to educate yourself on any subject you fancy, keeping in mind that your power is only one portion of you and I need you to be more useful than just as a piggy bank. Second, you will not utter a word about that area to anyone who you haven’t seen back there already. If you do, I will kill you.”
She said it matter-of-factly, with no anger or posturing. It was a simple statement of fact. ”Understand that I won’t enjoy it, but it will be entirely necessary. We operate as a unit, and in complete secrecy, because if we do not, the entire plan fails immediately and it can not fail. The world can’t afford it.”
And with that she spun on her heels and began squeaking her way back up the hallway towards the entrance stairs. There was less bounce in her step, however.
He quivered, ever so slightly, a soft frown emerging.
She’s not joking, he thought, she’s not, even for a moment.
The tapping in his mind came back, and he visibly winced as its form reached once more into his mind’s eye. It whispered nothing, for it didn’t need to, and his heart began to sink, just a little.
“I understand,” the smile was suddenly scared, “that… makes sense, I suppose. I’ll avoid discussing it at all, to be on the safe side.”
He nodded rapidly as she went to leave, still uncertain, before at last a simple “thank you, good night” was mumbled towards her, and he made his way through to the kitchens.
… It was all so… quiet. Cool. Lonely.
He made his way through the routine of an evening with no routine and an unknown future, one weight lifted to only be replaced with a different, emptier sort of weight.
For the next hour he ate and drank from the kitchen supplies, slowly chewing the food and savoring the flavours even as he chewed over his thoughts of the future, savored the strange mix of anxieties that had brought him to this point.
The clock had been ticking; and the villains had been chasing; and the spider had been tapping; and the fingers had been snapping; and now he was here.
A way to guide his hand, of prosperity and ruin, by this would be queen of flames…
The spider had always called him Mansa - King - and that he would know when he had found his throne, but…
Was it here, in this unfinished, secret dorm? It was so hard to think, the evening darkness suddenly so much heavier than he last remembered, a comfy bed and soft sheets for the first time in months.
Rest, Mansa. The sun sets, the sun rises, and the world changes once again.
Far to the east, at the edge of a city of heroes, a woman with an invincible eye was driving a small black beetle down the long winding road into the heart of the downtown area.
“You think we’ll find him there?” whispered her partner.
“It’s as good a shot as any.”
“Mmm… it’s a popular hiding place for freaks and runaways, so I guess it fits. And what if we find someone helping him hide…?”
She sighed, silver eyes flickering in the mirror, “What do you think, Ghost?”
The Ghost paused, and a soft click ran through the dashboard.
“Whatever we want.”