June 5th, 2016, late evening — Erica
In the middle of downtown Wichita, the HQ for the local hero team was a welcome destination for Erica, formerly Eric, Schroeder. After the past twenty-four hours, most of which had been spent in either a car or a secret lair while mostly unconscious, the emphatically heroic and patriotic facade of the old converted firehouse was happily different from the Green Cross's nouveau-Nazi style. The fact that it meant the end of several hours of friendly but thorough questioning from the FBI was also a point in its favor. If she were to be honest, upon seeing the interior, the place needed all the help it could get.
"Wewf." Erica let out a long breath as she dropped onto the couch. The old relic of naugahyde released a matching sigh as the cushion squished beneath her. "What a day," she said.
"No kidding." Penelope plopped down beside her, eliciting a similar burst of furniture flatulence. "I thought they'd never let us out. What's the time?"
Erica scanned the walls of the dilapidated office until she found the clock. "A quarter to nine." Her stomach rumbled as a reminder that late lunches were no substitute for dinner. "D'you think Ms. Ruby has anything to eat around here?"
"Well, she lives here, right?" said the older girl. Twirling a lock of dark blonde hair absentmindedly, Penelope scanned the room. "Man, what a dump."
"Penny!" The girl looked at her strangely, and Erica realized she'd never used Penelope's nickname before. "Um, shouldn't we be more polite? She's nice enough to let us stay here, after all."
"Doesn't change the fact this place looks like it's hosting a disaster," the girl grumbled, nodding to the banged-up walls, missing picture frames, and ragged furniture.
"Hey, I resemble that remark." Dolores Gardner, a.k.a. Agent Ruby Boots, currently the sole member of the Wichita Warriors superpowered response team, bustled in with a plate of snacks. Her signature footwear clicked on the linoleum tile of the kitchen next door. "We've got crackers, cheese, and lunchmeat."
"Any apples?" asked Erica.
"In the fridge. I'll pick 'em up in a moment. Got a favorite type of pop?"
"Root beer for me," chimed in Penelope.
"Lucky yous, I've got both in stock." The leggy young black woman dashed back into the kitchen and returned a moment later with cans in hand. "Eat up! The old folks should be arriving in a few." Ruby took a seat at the far end of the room's lonely coffee table.
Erica popped open the top of the can and took a long sip. She nearly spat it out again when Ruby loosened her bootstraps and took her legs off. Beside her, Penelope almost choked on a cracker.
"Oops, forgot to mention this, didn't I?" Ruby hefted one of her legs, rubbing at a scuff with a rag. "I got caught by an IED a few years back while doing a tour in the sandbox. Double amputee after the hospital stay."
"An army science type came around, looking for volunteers to try prosthetic devises. He liked my attitude." This brought out a toothy smile. "Asked me what I'd do if I had legs, and I told him I'd kick someone's ass."
It was hard not to stare at the stumps that ended right below the knees, but Ruby didn't seem to mind at all. She spent a few minutes demonstrating how the the dual teleporter devises fitted on, showed off the little computer that helped her calculate and coordinate her jumps, and went over her daily maintenance routine. Then a loud click came from the foyer as someone came through the front door. The Screech Owl's voice shouted a greeting. Suddenly there was a blanket covering Ruby's lap and her legs were stowed to the side. Erica wasn't sure how to interpret the woman's face. Was she embarrassed about something?
She wanted to ask, but the adults were already there.
"How did you girls do?" asked her Aunt Margit. Erica was still trying to figure that particular relationship out. How could she have gone fourteen years without hearing about an aunt or uncle, especially when everyone was still on speaking terms? It was really, really obvious that Opa'd been leaving details out of the family history. Okay, she corrected herself, even beyond the whole Nazi connection thing.
"A-OK, Margit-ma'am!" Penelope actually saluted the old woman. "Just stuck to the script and repeated myself until they got bored. Then flirted with one of the cuter ones and repeated it all over again."
Erica nodded. Stick to your cover; that had been her mantra all day. It had worked during Operation Snowflake, keeping her safe when by all rights she should've been found out immediately, and it worked equally well when being questioned by the feds. And this time, it hadn't been like she was actually lying, just omitting one or two minor details.
Like being a boy less than a day ago.
Like having superpowers somehow.
"Consider it a learning experience," said her Uncle Adolf. The stone-faced man with the silver hair was more than a little intimidating, even as he smiled her way. "The next time you are interrogated, your interviewers may not be so polite. Learn the way these things are supposed to go, and you hold the keys to directing them as you like."
"I rather hope there won't be a next time, Adolf." Erica's grandfather came in, his wife just behind. Neither of them looked pleased. "We spent a great deal of time and effort making sure that we wouldn't have to deal with federal agencies anymore, and the fact that they are polite this time only worries me more."
"You worry about the wrong things, Hans," said Uncle Adolf. "They are federal agents, so of course they have ulterior plans and motives. That cannot be helped. What we should concern ourselves with is how to prepare the children so they can handle it."
Erica exchanged a nervous look with Penelope. She'd known the girl for about fifteen hours now, but it had been a tumultuous half-day. The way her aunt and uncle talked, well, that made it sound like nothing more than business as usual. "Um, excuse me?" she said, raising her hand. "If we're going to talk about the family business, could I at least find out what it is first?"
"Yes," said her grandmother. "I believe now is a good time to discuss many things." Oma and Margit took the other half of the sofa, then together they glared at their husbands. It was a fourfold stare of death, and Erica was glad it wasn't aimed at her.
"Where to begin?" said Uncle Adolf. "Today has.... ach." He was interrupted by the buzzing of his phone. "Schatzi, Winnie, Hans, if you would excuse me, but this would be my FBI contact."
"Go on, dear," said Aunt Margit. "We can fill in for you. Just be sure to ask about that one matter, yes?"
"Ja, schatzi. I promised, right?" The silver-haired man nodded. "Screech Owl, your assistance would be invaluable." Adolf was out the door before the Arkansas hero realized he'd been politely summoned. With a tired shrug, he followed.
"Okay then," said her grandfather, clapping his hands. He pulled up a folding chair and sat in it backwards, leaning his arms against the back. "What's our first question?"
Again, the foster girl from Nebraska wondered what she was doing here. Not that she was complaining. The other girls from the Green Cross's Aryan summer camp were all either locked away in holding cells or the local loony bin, depending on how they reacted once they'd recovered from the stunners. The Feds and the local cops might have come up with something for her, but then again perhaps not. She wasn't in a hurry to find out.
Ah hell, she was here and she had a stake in the insanity, too. Might as well ask what was on her mind. It was time to discuss the elephant in the room.
"Okay, correct me if I'm wrong, but... Erica's supposed to be a boy, right?" They'd told her that before, and the young girl had even confirmed it, but that was a hard fact to swallow. "I can't really see it. I mean, look at her!"
Everything about Erica, from face to body to posture, screamed "Girl!" to her. The way she kept her legs together as she sat, or held herself when she was nervous, like now — these things just did not add up. "She just does not act like a boy at all. I'd call it a great performance, only I know for a fact that she can't lie her way out of a paper bag."
"Ahem, 'Little girls' room'?"
"That's just it," Penelope said to the amused adults. "She spent half the morning in a panic over clothes, showers, guns, and getting shot at, and not once did I doubt she was a girl. Kind of a weirdo, but a girl weirdo." There. she'd said her piece.
"That is a good question," said the other old lady, Erica's grandma. This lady was soft where Margit was hard, but Penelope didn't doubt that Mrs. Schroeder could beat her up any day of the week. That was a safe assumption to make for anyone at the moment, honestly.
"I'm a mutant, aren't I?" Erica slumped into the sofa, like she could slip between the cushions.
"We can't tell without a genetic test," said the other old man, Dr. Schroeder.
"There's a testing device upstairs," offered Ruby. "It's been banged around a bit, so we'll have to do some repairs first, though."
"Thank you, miss," Dr. Schroeder continued. "We can check tomorrow. Right now, I shall just say that it is a possibility."
"This sorta thing happens a lot?" Penelope raised an eyebrow to that.
"Empowerment happens in all sorts of ways," said Margit. "I've seen devisor serums, magical imbuement, divine benediction, government programs, dynamorphs — oh, all sorts of things give people powers. Sometimes they do other weird stuff, the sort of things that make random gender changes seem tame."
"The Green Cross seemed awful sure," her gold-topped friend said.
"Ms. Groenwald has a one-track mind," Mrs. Schroeder said bluntly. "Trust me, she'd blame anything on mutants. Or Jews, but that's a bit of a stretch for us."
"Not me," Margit said with a wink.
"Yes, yes, Margie. Mazel tov."
"We can cut the list down pretty quick," said Ruby. "Just ask the source." She turned to Erica and asked, "So, any weird stuff happen recently? Flashes of light? Weird dreams?"
"Um... you mean before this morning?" Erica asked.
There was something funny about Erica's face, Penelope decided. It never changed color, never blushed or anything. She was willing to bet that the younger girl was embarrassed half to death over something, or maybe over everything. A quick hug, administered sneakily from the side, was enough to surprise and raise her spirits. The adults were nice enough to give the two of them a moment before Erica answered.
"Well, I... I..." the young girl stammered. "I'm sorry, Opa!" A sniffle followed. "Your, your... you asked me to keep it safe, but then the two agent dudes attacked and I didn't know what to do...."
"Eric...a. Erica, liebling," Mrs. Schroeder hardly tripped over the feminizing syllable. "What did you do?"
"Opa..." the girl sniffed, eyes brimming with tears. "I drank your super-strength formula!"
Penelope's eyes shot to where Dr. Schroeder sat, and she wasn't the only one. Mrs. Schroeder's face promised something unpleasant for her husband in the future, if she was to guess. Erica's grandfather looked too shocked to notice. She almost felt sorry for the reaming he was going to get later.
"But," he said finally. "It wasn't a super-strength formula at all!"
Of all the things he'd expected to hear tonight, and Gott in Himmel, some crazy possibilities had come to mind, the words from his grandson's... granddaughter's mouth hadn't even made the list. In the insanity of the last two days, he'd completely forgotten about the little grey cylinder he'd slipped into Eric's pack on Saturday morning.
His fingers itched. Part of him remembered fiddling with it, at least.
"Hans..." came his wife's voice, low and dangerous. That was the tone she reserved for interrogations, and he'd always counted himself lucky that she never used it on him. Scheisse. "Hans, if you do not start talking, then — and I say this with great love, schnucki — I will have to resort to gross domestic violence of the sort which I know you will not enjoy."
He didn't dare look her in the eyes. "I... when we were cleaning out the office Friday night, there was one last sample. The rest of my life's work had gone down the drain!" he cried in frustration. "I couldn't bring myself to get rid of the last vial."
"So you gave it to Eric."
"I hid it in the backpack with a note. Not a very good one, I'm afraid. It was a spur of the moment decision."
"But Opa," said his grand... daughter. His mind barely tripped over the label this time. "The metal cover was labeled 'Starkkräfteserum.' Why?"
"Well, it was very faint, but..."
"The cylinder was a memento, like I said, from one of my father's experiments in the early 60s. The name was just another example of his lack of genius when it came to names. Starkkräfteserum wasn’t the actual name, but a bastardized shorthand that one of the non-German assistants put on the labels. Kraftverstärkungsserum was one of his super-steroid programs, canceled after all the test subjects developed aggressive tumors." He'd lost friends to that one, he recalled. Just one more reason to hate his parent.
"What was in it, then?" The question came from the other girl, Penelope. He wasn't sure why she was there, but he was glad. His grands— daughter — needed a friend right now, he felt.
"Well?" the girl continued. "We're dying of curiosity here!"
His granddaughter nodded timidly.
"That requires a bit more family history, I'm afraid," said Hans. "You see, Adolf and I, we were our father's test subjects as much as his children. Before we were even born, he used all sorts of treatments on us. They worked," he added, "but not for everyone. Adolf and I were the only survivors out of forty children." His voice stumbled as the past arose from its shallow grave to haunt his memory once more. Winifred took his hand, and the moment passed. "The point is, after all that, the two of us were, are, effectively sterile."
"So how did Mom happen?" Erica asked.
"Your mother was a miracle of science, conceived in a test tube using artificial sperm created from my body cells in a devise. I called in many favors to get the necessary help, because the damage to my DNA was rather extensive. There were dozens of potentially fatal genes that lay unexpressed in my body but which could — and did — complicate the fertilization process. After numerous attempts, we got it to work, and the result was your mother. It probably would have been easier to just clone your grandmother, even in the 70s, but we were determined to have a child who was as much as possible from the both of us. As it was, she was at least a seventy-thirty split."
"She almost didn't happen," his wife added softly.
"Yes." Now it was his turn to hold her hand. "All the patches and fixes we'd made went on to create new problems. When she was six months old, she almost died of lymphatic failure, brought on by one of those changes. I couldn't stand to lose her then, not after coming so far, not after holding her in my arms." His eyes teared up at the thought. "I refused to give up."
"He locked himself in his laboratory for five days," said Winifred. "No food, just liters of the vilest coffee you could imagine. Most of the time he was in this fugue state that the crazy-science types sometimes get. It almost killed him."
"At the end of that, I had a single dose of something," Hans continued. "I didn't hesitate to use it on Danielle." Looking back, he'd never been more like his father than in that moment. He was not proud of that. "It worked. She survived, and became the healthiest child the doctors had ever seen. And I had no idea how I'd done it. My memory was a mess and I'd not kept any notes. Five days it took to make a miracle, and then thirty years for me to understand what I'd done."
"That's what was in the vial, wasn't it?" Erica said. "The stuff that saved Mom."
"The new and improved version, yes. A molecular engine in nanocapsule form, a machine the size of a virus. It would take up residence in the liver and pancreas, then use those organs to produce and filter large amounts of telomerase and other enzymes." Seeing the blank looks on everyone's faces, he tried for a simile. "Erica, I know you can do computer maintenance. Could you explain defragmentation?"
"Huh?" His granddaughter looked puzzled, but did her best. "It's like, you've got all the stuff on the computer, but it's jumbled up and stuff doesn't fit together as well as it should. So you run a defrag, and it tidies up all your sectors so it's in order and nothing gets jammed."
It wasn't the best simile, but it would work. "What I made was a sort of genetic defragmenter," Hans said. "It didn't change the content, the DNA, but it repaired and organized. It fixed the ends of the genes, the telomeres, and it could switch some genes on or off so they'd be expressed differently. That's how I saved Danielle. I turned her genetic disorder off at the source."
The field of epigenetics had taken three decades to catch up so that he had a frame of reference to help him understand his own work, and even now he had trouble getting his brain around it at times.
"Dr. Schroeder," said Ms. Ruby, holding up a hand. "What was supposed to happen when someone took your formula?"
"Well, their genetic code would be optimized. The good parts would be expressed more fully, while the dangerous or damaged parts would be repressed or repaired."
"No physical changes?"
"Nothing immediate, though the patient would find it much easier to stay physically fit."
"So could it..." The young black woman waved towards Erica. "Could it have done anything like that?"
"No," he admitted.
"So we're back to square one," said Ruby.
"Not necessarily," said Margit, speaking up. "It must have had some influence or effect on her. Perhaps it interacted with something else?" His sister-in-law reached out and turned Erica's head to the side, looking at the profile. "Perhaps there was something strange about the mix of genes to begin with? What do we know of her father? For that matter, did you ever have Eric checked for the mutant gene complex?"
It was weird to hear her old name coming from Margit's lips. Why? she asked herself. but was stumped for an answer. It was her name, wasn't it? She'd owned it for fourteen years, up to just this morning. By all rights, "Eric" should be what was comfortable and familiar to her, while "Erica" was the stranger. Except, that wasn't the case. In the background, the adults were talking about Eric's medical history, and it felt like they were discussing someone else. Not her. Her. She didn't even pause when she thought it. She was she and he was... nobody. Or somebody, but a stranger. She had all the memories of being Eric, but they were diffuse, removed, separated from her sense of now.
Scheisse. She was losing it, wasn't she? Going absolutely nuts. She'd been holding back her fears all day, ever since the Green Cross had flooded her mind with doubts and despair. They refused to stay down now, surging through her head. It wasn't until Penny half-crushed her with another hug that she realized she was shaking.
"Hey, y'all," the older girl interrupted. "Can we table this for tomorrow? I think Erica here's at the end of her rope — and I dunno about you, but I could use some sleep, too."
She could've hugged Penny right then, and after a moment's hesitation she did, squeezing perhaps a tad too hard. Penelope winced, but didn't complain.
"An excellent suggestion," came the gruff voice of Uncle Adolf from the doorway. "Though if you'd forgive me, I do have one or two more things to address. It won't take but a minute."
"Did everything go well with the FBI?" asked Aunt Margit.
"As well as we could hope. They'd like us to stick around for a while, until the first stages of the investigation are finished. If Ms. Ruby doesn't object?"
"Mi casa es su casa," said the woman, winking at Penny and Erica. "Nice to have company, to be honest."
"Good. Now Hans, I've contacted the German embassy. Were you aware that you and Winifred are still honorary citizens of the fatherland?"
"I'd put it out of my mind, actually," said Opa. "Will that cause any problems?"
"No, but it may be of use later. Finally," Uncle Adolf said, walking over to loom above the couch. "We have the issue of Ms. Rose here."
Oh, crap. Now what? She knew it'd been too good to be true. Just when you were getting comfortable, that's when life pulled the rug out from under you. Eight years of experience with social services had taught her as much. To be fair, it was probably the FBI messing her up this time. The Feds were full of rules and regulations, while Margit and her husband seemed more the types to just ignore the rules except where convenient.
"Agent Fredericks wished to confirm that you're willing to bear witness against the Green Cross, should she ever be brought to actual trial?"
"Good," said Mr. Stein. "He and I spent much time discussing options for you. Originally, he was going to place you back in the foster program."
The bottom fell out of her stomach when she heard that.
"But I pointed out that that was how the Green Cross gathered you up in the first place," Mr. Stein continued. "While it's irregular, I convinced him to have you enrolled in the Witness Security Program."
"Which means what, exactly?"
"A new name, a new home. Normally the program would move the entire family to protect the witness, but in your case we'd need to find you one."
"So it'd be foster care again." She didn't like the sound of that.
"Not at all, in fact. A new identity and a new life. Which would entail a new family, not a fostering."
"Adolf, just spill it," said Margit. "Did Agent Fredericks say yes?"
"What are you talking about?" Penelope demanded. It was past ten, and she was running out of patience.
"A WitSec placement for you," said Margit, "would be a de facto adoption, for all intents and purposes under the law. At least, the way we'd be bending the law, that's how it would turn out. What Adolf is working his way up to is asking if you would consent to be our granddaughter."
Penelope opened her mouth, and nothing came out. Her brain was locked up from the shock. This sort of thing just didn't happen! ran the refrain in her head. Older kids ever got adopted out of the system; that was one of the first hard truths she'd learned in life. But... but... there wasn't a kid out there in the foster homes who hadn't dreamed of something like this happening. Well, maybe not the gun-to-the-head parts, but still... a family!
It was her turn to get hugged by Erica, and she didn't protest, even though her ribs still ached a little from the last one.
"Are you serious about this, Margit?" she heard Mrs. Schroeder ask, though it took a moment for the words to register. Her heart was drumming a fast beat on the eardrums, making it hard to hear anything clearly.
"Perfectly serious. Chalk it up to Lima syndrome if you'd like," said Margit, "but Penelope and I got to know each other pretty well this morning, and I think the three of us would get along swimmingly. That is, if it's alright with you, Penny dear?"
"YES!!" She had to force the word around the shock and awe, and it came out louder than she intended. She meant every decibel of it, though. Margit was the awesomest adult she'd ever met, and Adolf had to be nice or Margit would've killed him ages ago, she reckoned. Seriously? Seriously! Was there any room for argument here? No family, no help, and no defense against the crazy Aryan lady, or all of the above with the proverbial bag of chips thrown in? "HELLS YEAH!" she shouted, even louder.
Dammit, she was gonna cry, wasn't she? Yup, she could feel the tears flowing even as she thought about it. Then Margit was out of her seat and holding her, and the tears were soaking the woman's jacket. Margit's silver lapel pin was digging into her cheek, and she didn't even care. For the first time in a long while, things were going right for her.
"Have you heard from Kommandeurin yet?"
Sandmann looked up as his brother walked into the ugly little motel room and dropped a bag of G-burgers on the table. The place barely had enough room for the two of them, but it had been cheap and the owner wasn't the type to ask questions. As long as he stayed put with the comm unit while Glas went out and about on chores, there was no way for the Feds to find them. So he hoped, at least.
"Yeah, Sänger made the pickup, and they should be home tomorrow night." It was a relief to say that. He held little trust in anything provided by the Syndicate, especially after today, so the thought of his precious Kommandeurin in a Syndi shuttle was nerve-wracking.
"Do we have orders?" Just like his brother to be calm and businesslike, even now. He was sure Glas had worried in his own special way.
"Sit and wait. The Feds have dug in and might be here for weeks, according to the home intel. If necessary, we are to move in and destroy evidence."
"And the Schroeders?"
"If necessary..." Sandmann found his smile, which he'd thought lost earlier that day, had returned to stretch his face wide.
Glas nodded. The corners of his lips twitched with a rare glimpse of shared emotion. Oh yes, there would be fun times to come...
Monday, June 6th, some ungodly hour of the morning — Erica
She spent the night dreaming the same simple dream on an infinite loop. It began with a mirror, not too different from the one in her room back at the Green Cross's base. Like that one, the face in the mirror was not her own. It was thinner and a little grubbier, with light brown hair and a spatter of freckles sandwiching a pair of mismatched blue and brown eyes between them. The face blinked when she blinked, moved when she moved. After far too long a pause came the realization that she was looking at Eric Schroeder, the boy who was supposed to be herself but who had, so quietly she hadn't even noticed, faded out of her head.
Then the mirror's frame fell away, and she was standing face-to-face with himself. No, herself, but a himself. Or was she still a himself, deep inside? No, she'd lost her himself, which was why he was here now. She reached out to touch her himself, but he stepped back, leaving her to grasp empty air. A quick lunge forward could not catch himself, either. The figure of Eric Schroeder floated backwards, staying always out of arm's reach.
No matter how fast she ran, himself would not be caught. Eventually she'd grow tired and stop for a breather. When she looked up, there was the mirror, and the entire sequence would start again.
How many times did the cycle repeat? She couldn't say. It continued until it ended, when she stopped in mid-stride because she smelled... bacon?
She sat up straight, the bedsheets falling away in a clump. The blanket was already on the floor; apparently she'd been kicking her legs as she "ran." A light sweat clung to her skin, and her breathing was ragged. Wasn't this about how yesterday started? That thought sent her into a quick inventory of her assorted parts.
Face? Still wide and heart-shaped. Her nose itched.
Boobs? Still there. The sweaty pajamas clung to them slightly.
Her fingers found the expected absence of anything in her underpants, but in her haste to check she touched a good deal more of herself than intended. The sensation of bits that were there — but strangely not quite there, either — hit her like an electric shock, and she jerked her hand back. That was too much for this morning, she decided.
She held her hand up and stared at it for a minute. Her new fingers were long and delicate, with well shaped nails. Was she obliged to paint them, now that she was a girl? Old himself had never seen the point, and new herself didn't either. Perhaps Penelope would know.
Where was the other girl, anyway? They'd taken twin beds in one of the HQ's guest rooms. By the look of it, the place had been converted from a corner office. The early morning light was just now seeping in through the blinds, but Erica could see that Penelope wasn't in her bed. The alarm clock on the lamp table said 6:15, but her nose told her someone was cooking breakfast. She changed into day clothes, not struggling at all with the bra this time, and went to investigate.
There was a kitchen down the way, and Penelope was its queen. The blonde girl was juggling three skillets on as many electric grills, preparing bacon, flapjacks, and scrambled eggs.
"Oh, you're up," the girl said, turning a flapjack with a flick of her right hand while stirring eggs with the left. "Get some plates, wouldja?"
As much as she'd complained about the early rising during her forced stay at the "summer camp," the hours hadn't been too different from her norm. As one of the senior kids at the foster home, it'd fallen to her to make sure the little ones got fed before school, because foster mom was useless in the morning. She hoped the other kids were doing alright without her.
In spite of every instinct held by her teenage body, her brain was wired for early rising, and so rise she did at 5:45. She wasn't surprised to see Erica stumble in to help half an hour later. “Sleep well?” she asked.
“Not really.” The girl looked tired already. “Brain's still processing it all, and…” A shrug spoke volumes.
“Surprised you haven't gone crazy yet.”
“That makes two of us.” Erica sat down at the table and sighed. “Stupid snowflakes.”
“When I woke up yesterday morning, I was like this. No warning, nothing but shock…”
“I can imagine.”
“...and the only thing that got me through the morning was the need to blend in, 'cause otherwise... Well, I didn't know what would happen if they found me, but it wouldn't have been pretty.” The girl was slumped against the table surface, her face buried in the bend of her elbow. “Where do you hide a snowflake? In a blizzard. Where do you hide a girl? With all the other girls. Operation Snowflake. Hide and survive.”
“That you did, Erica,” Penelope said gently. “And now?”
“When does it stop? When can I quit pretending and just be me again?” And then, quietly: “When do I get to know who I am…”
She removed a pancake from the pan and stepped away from the stove for a moment to hug her newly minted cousin. “Let me know when you figure it out, 'kay?”
The next few minutes were soppy but silent. What was one to do in this sort of situation? Penelope did the only thing she knew would work, which was to just be there. It worked for little kids in foster care, and it worked here as well. Once the tears were wiped off the table, she put the girl to work setting the dishes. All was almost ready when Margit-ma'am... er, her grandmother poked her head in.
Darnit, what should she call the older woman now? Grandma? Somehow, the word didn't really fit. She'd have to ask Margit later to see if she had any preferences. Penelope smiled. Grandma. Granny. Nanny. Nana. Mee-Mah. There were so many ways to say it. What was it Erica used? Oma? It felt awesome just having to make a choice.
"Good morning!" she sang. Erica hiccuped the words in a sort of harmony..
"Why don't you let Ms. Ruby take over here, Penelope dear," said Margit. "Winnie and I need to introduce you to the morning routine."
Penelope put down the skillet and spatula, then pulled off the apron she'd found hanging from the wall, the scorched one with the words "Devisors cook with FOOF!" printed on it. Maybe if she'd paid more attention in science class she could get the joke.
Whatever the morning routine was, she hoped it wouldn't take too long. Nothing worked up the appetite more than cooking, and her stomach was telling her loud and clear that she should've grabbed a flapjack while she could. That thought stuck with her as she followed Margit-ma'am down into the basement, where the Wichita Warriors had set up their personal gym. It was pretty bare now, with only a couple of old treadmills and some weights lying around. One half of the room had a padded floor that must've been too much trouble to make away with.
Mrs. Schroeder was there now, dressed in old sweats with a headband keeping her hair in check.
"Okay, girls!" she announced. "Time to see what you are made of!"
"Scheisse." Hans shook his head. "Someone really went to town on this." At his feet lay the remains of a genetic testing device of the sort the MCO used for quick identification of mutant traits. Some more of it lay on the table behind him, and a few extra bits were undoubtedly scattered amongst the workroom detritus. The vital elements were mostly intact, he thought, but there was a definite wiring problem — someone had stolen the wires.
"The team devisor, according to Ms. Ruby," said his brother. "At first, it was dismantled in order to remove the tattletale circuits left by the MCO, but when the state legislature started its song and dance last year, things got heated."
"In more ways than one," Hans muttered, noting the scorch marks on the casings. "It might be simpler to toss this piece of dross and buy a new one. I wonder how much they cost these days."
"Six thousand dollars," said Adolf. "That's the mass-produced Goodkind Industries model, of course. Checks for the mutant gene complexes and nothing else." He knelt down beside Hans and started gathering pieces. "Be honest with me, Hans. How likely is it?"
"Very," he replied gloomily. "The only other possibility is that there's a serious flaw in my concoction that actually induces mutations or mutation-like effects. If that's the case, then we need to find out immediately."
"It would affect our bargaining ability," his brother agreed.
"Not only that, but if Erica's a natural mutant, we'll need all the data we can manage. A Goodkind model sequencer is an overpriced yes/no machine. The devil is in the details."
"Can you repair this one enough for it to be useful?"
"I believe so... Hm." He shut his eyes, visualizing the machine as his MacGyverMacGuyver skills kicked in. "We'll need an iPad, one of the older models with the hackable data ports. A computer to do the hacking, of course, or access to a professional with one."
"I have one such young man on my contact list," offered Adolf. "Currently, he is editing all of Erica's old school and medical records to match the current reality."
"Bitte, brother. Bitte. Anything else?"
"Nothing a trip to the local Radio Shack won't get us. Shall we get started?"
The early morning air felt good on Matthias's face. It ruffled through his feathery brown hair like an old friend. Even his inner Owl, usually cranky at this hour of the morning, was mollified by its caress. He landed on the lawn in front of the Warriors HQ and adjusted his dayvision goggles. Once inside, he was ambushed by the smells of breakfast. Channeling his inner toucan for a moment, he followed his nose to the source.
Ruby was shoveling scrambled eggs onto plates in the kitchen, and a stack of pancakes was already on the table. Adolf and his brother were breaking their morning fast in the corner with the help of two large mugs of coffee. Some sort of diagram was spread out across their little table. Matthias recognized devisor work when he saw it, and chose not to stick his beak in just yet. He trusted old man Adolf to call him in as soon as necessary, but at the moment he'd rather be talking to their hostess.
"For me? You shouldn't've," he joked. That got a smile out of the lady, or at least a side-of-the-mouth smirk.
"I'm just the pinch hitter here," she replied. "Penelope did most of it before I got up. How was the nightlife, by the way?"
"Blissfully quiet," he said. "No signs of Green Cross flunkies or any other activity that couldn't be handled by the local boys in blue. Is it always this peaceful?"
"For as long as I've been stationed here, yes." She placed the last fork, then sat down to eat. Matthias picked the chair right across from her.
"So why have a super team here at all?" he asked.
"Partly for the prestige. Partly because we're the largest city in the state, and civic pride takes odd forms when it means we can one-up the capitol on something. Our actual charter has us defined as a disaster relief team assigned to the western half of Kansas, so that's what we did. Emergency repairs, search and rescue, the occasional Amber alert or other crisis where time was of the essence. We were comfortably employed."
"And then everyone else bailed."
"Can't really blame 'em," said Ruby with a frown. "The state legislature's not really mutant-friendly, and their days on the job were numbered. I'm more concerned that no one's been hired to replace them."
"I could ask around, make a few calls," he offered.
"How many non-mutant free agents do you know?"
"Ah." There was the stumper. "I could probably talk Billy Boudreaux up out of the delta region for a season or two. He's been at loose ends ever since the Krewe of Kthon affair ended."
"The Bayou Badass?" Ruby considered. "Yeah, I might be that desperate. Do you think he'd agree to a temporary name change? The guy's got a record, I heard."
"Billy's got a heart of gold, a head of granite, and a rap sheet as long as the Mississippi," he agreed. "Mostly for aggravated use of force. He needs some time on a team, honestly. He's got enough military background that he'll respond well to what he considers legitimate authority, and it's better than letting him run around on his own."
"What about some of the teams from neighboring states? Anyone you think might be willing to help?"
"Hard to say." Matthias ate his eggs as he thought. "The current governor's stance on mutants isn't helping, to be honest. Most of the cape community is unhappy with him, mutant and non."
"Comfortable up in Colorado Springs, and anyway he's working through family problems."
"I doubt you could get her out of Nebraska. I heard a rumor that she's actually bound to that Carhenge tourist trap in some way."
"Lifetime contract with the government of OKC," he said. "You could call her in an emergency; she's good like that. Also, she's a mutant."
"Really? No way."
"Honest Injun. Wind manipulator of some stripe. Had a couple of classes with her. Power-related stuff." He shook his head. "Looks like the best I can do is to put the word out and get folks to agree to emergency help. And I'll do the night patrols while I'm in town, if you don't mind."
"No, no, not at all. It was nice to get a full night's rest for once. Speaking of which," she said, "do you ever sleep?"
"Most of yesterday afternoon," he admitted. "Once the Feds verified my MID and hero registration, they gave me a bit of professional courtesy and a cot in the corner. I'm going to have to bed down in a bit. The Owl's not at its best in broad daylight, and neither am I." With that, he popped the last slice of pancake in his mouth. "My compliments to the chef. Um, where is she?"
Two. Hours. Of. Hell. That was the "morning routine." It had started out innocently enough with Erica's grandmother leading them through a calisthenics program. The summer camp's own exercise hour hadn't been too different from Mrs. Schroeder's class, in fact.
Well, at the beginning at least.
Problem was, the morning routine didn't really stop. There were stretches and bends, twists and turns, running and jumping, lifting and throwing, all cranked up to eleven with a bit left over. By the end of it all, she ached in muscles she didn't know she had till now. Her face was flushed and her body soaked with sweat as she lay prone on the mat. Not far away, Erica didn't look much better. In fact, she was pretty sure that Mrs. Schroeder had ridden her own granddaughter even harder. The girl's face was the same pristine pallor as ever, though, even while her golden bangs lay plastered limply against her forehead.
"Do you think we pushed them hard enough, Margie dear?"
"I'm not sure. I can still see movement."
It took all her strength and determination, but Penelope managed to raise her hand straight up, middle finger first. "You two are a pair of sadists, y'know that?"
"Having second thoughts, Penny dear?" asked Margit.
"Nope," she said, wincing as she tried to sit up. "My legs, though, they're considering an armed secession from the rest of my body."
Erica grunted, maybe in sympathy.
"Well now, we can't have that." Her self-appointed grandma produced two bottles of water. "Drink up. You'll feel better once you're hydrated."
The old woman spoke the truth, though she knew she'd be feeling the burn for some time to come. "So this'll be an everyday thing?" she asked, dreading the answer.
"Not exactly," came the reply. "We pushed the two of you as far as we could in order to see where your limits lay. You lasted longer than we expected," Margit added with pride. "We will be doing morning exercises every day, but only for half an hour or so before moving on to the main event."
"Which would be?"
"The what now?" Darnit, even her forehead muscles hurt. The one-eyebrow-up trick was out of the question.
"It's a martial art, developed by a Jewish resistance fighter in the years before the Second World War," explained Margit. "Its central principle could be summed up as 'When someone attacks, take them out quickly and painfully, so they can't do the same to you.'"
"Margie's quite good at it," said Mrs. Schroeder.
"I don't doubt that, ma'am." Penelope finally got herself seated upright and began massaging her legs. "So you're going to teach us to defend ourselves?"
"No, we're going to teach you how to beat up Nazis." Margit had that half-mad Cheshire cat grin on her face again, and it was contagious. Penelope couldn't help but smile back.
Ugh. Back. Legs. Arms. Butt. Pain. Pain. Paaaaaaiiiiiiinnnn. She'd dented sheet metal with her bare fists and it hadn't hurt this bad. It was all she could do to just lie there and let the aches ebb away, draining like water from a tub until she was simply empty, not in agony. "Ugh. When's breakfast?" she mumbled.
"Soon enough," she heard Oma say. The old woman took her hands and pulled her upright. "Sorry to put you through the wringer, liebling, but we had to know what your limits were before we could plan on surpassing them."
Erica was sure that if she could think straight then she wouldn't like the sound of that. "Food..." she grumbled instead. For the moment, she was letting her stomach handle all the big thinking for her.
There was a huge spread on the table when they got to the kitchen, but not quite the same as the one they'd left behind two hours ago. Ms. Ruby and the Screech Owl were tag-teaming the kitchen with slabs of breakfast sausage in one skillet and cheese omelets in the other.
"Sorry, ladies," the Arkansas hero said with a wink. "We polished off those pancakes right quick. Figured I should return the favor and make something for you."
"And in lieu of rent," added Ruby, "I'll be sending you the food bill, Mrs. Stein."
Erica wasn't paying attention to anything but the smell of the frying sausage. Oh, Offler be praised! They must've sent someone out to get the good stuff. She pretty much inhaled the first plate set before her, and the second plate was cleaned almost as fast. It wasn't until the fourth — or was it the fifth? — plate that she slowed down enough to notice what everyone else was up to.
"So," the Screech Owl was saying to Oma. "What do you think? Enhanced metabolism or just recovering from the physical changes?"
"Why not both? She is a growing girl, after all."
"That could be. No sign of Energizer abilities — and believe me, that tends to be really obvious when it first shows up. I suppose the muscle boosting could require a higher caloric intake."
Hey! They were talking about her! She tried to frown at them, but two cheeks full of egg and cheese made that easier said than done. It took almost a minute to chew through the mess and say anything coherent. "I'm not eating that much," she complained.
"That's your sixth plate, liebling," Oma pointed out.
"No it's n..." Whoops, she'd lost count there. "They're small plates, though!" she said. It wasn't her best comeback ever, unfortunately.
"Face it, cuz," said Penelope. "You've put away three times as much as me, and I was starving too." The older girl patted her stomach. "I'd be worried about my figure if the senior partners weren't planning on exercising our tails off every morning."
"Every..." Scheisse, she'd missed that part. "So, um, what are we doing for the rest of the day? Besides passing out?"
"The first order of the day," said Oma, "is to get you girls some proper clothes. The two of you can't go around in Ruby's hand-me-downs, after all."
"Yeah, my wardrobe's not that big," kidded their hostess.
"Awright!" shouted Penelope. "Shopping trip!"
Sometime maybe 10-ish, in front of the headquarters — Ruby
An hour later, Ruby was waiting outside in the SUV, its engine quietly idling as she debated how long and hard to blast the horn. She settled for leniency this time. Considering how hard the girls were worked this morning, she was impressed they could walk at all. A little extra time to wash up and feel human again was called for. And they were teenagers that alone meant she'd have to wait, no matter what.
She killed the engine, then pulled a thin paperback and a pencil out of the glove compartment. Sudoku time. The next twenty minutes flew by as she teased out patterns and filled in line after line of numbers. 9 1 3 5 7 2 8 6 4.... Ruby was on her fifth puzzle when Erica and Penelope finally flew out the door with grandmothers in tow.
"What took ya?" she quipped as she turned the ignition. "Someone fall into the toilet?"
"Penny was hogging the shower!"
"Hey! Long hair takes a while to wash!"
"It's not that long. I knew guys in school with crazier manes than that."
"Classic case of overcompensating," said the older girl. "Prolly go bald before they're out of college."
"Sorry to keep you waiting, Ruby dear," apologized Margit as she pushed the girls into the back of the SUV. Mrs. Schroeder slipped into the passenger side seat before the junior partners could think to call dibs.
"Weren't no problem." She flashed a bright grin towards the back. "I'm a pick-up-and-go gal, personally. But I know how it is."
"Hey," said Penelope as they started moving. "Any chance I can get my license this summer?" The girl was eyeing the front seat enviously. "I mean, I practiced a bit already this year, but I'm missing the summer driving course at school 'cuz of Lady Bossypants and her crazy sleepover."
"Might want to find a different car, kiddo. This one's non-standard."
"Machine guns? Missiles? Land mines?"
What, did she look like James Bond over here? Or Jemimah Bond, even? At the next stoplight she took the opportunity to show the girls the controls on the steering wheel, specifically the lever that doubled as an accelerator and a brake. Push to go, pull to slow or stop. It was simple, effective, but not something to let a learner's permit kid practice on.
"Why not use the pedals, though?"
"If you haven't noticed," Ruby snarked, "I've got two lead feet, and as good as the feedback sensors are, they aren't much up to fine control on the road. Plus," she added a little more quietly, "if I ever lose the legs, I'm gonna need this even more."
"Oh!" cried Erica. "Is that possible? That'd be awful!"
"Yeah, what would Matty-boy have to ogle when he thinks no one's watching?" joked Penelope.
Not for the first time, she was glad her skin was too dark to show a blush. Warmth flashed across her cheeks anyway. So she hadn't been imagining that. Perhaps she should listen to her intuitive side more often.
"Now Penny dear," said Margit. "Let's not be rude. Even if Matthias is horribly unsubtle about it."
If her cheeks were any hotter, they'd catch fire. She didn't say a word even as the back seat peanut gallery continued to spin random theories about the Screech Owl's likes, dislikes, and possible foot fetish, and it was with great relief that she made the final right turn to arrive at their destination.
"Wow, is that the mall?" asked Penelope. "Er, why are we going away from it?"
Seriously, what gives? There was a nice, two story building right over there with the words TOWNE EAST MALL displayed prominently in big letters in front of it. The place was modern, stylish, and definitely shopworthy. So why were they parking across the road in front of a TARGET?
"First things first," said Margit-ma'am, who could apparently read minds. Either that, or her face was beaming discontent like miserable blue sunbeams. "We're not just here for the fripperies; we need to get you girls a complete wardrobe each. That means a decent volume at a decent price for all essentials. Things you can wear any day without having to worry constantly about it getting soiled or stained."
"Not to mention torn, ripped, cut, or scorched."
"Yes, yes, Winnie. All of that. Would you put some cute boutique outfit through the morning routine?" Margit-ma'am asked.
She shook her head emphatically. Like hell she'd put anything nice through two hours of sweat and tears. She'd whiffed herself while undressing earlier, and whew.... Did they even make detergent strong enough to deal with that level of funk on a regular basis?
"Also," Margit-ma'am whispered in her ear as they got out of the SUV. "Erica needs to be eased into this. Dropping her into the middle of Victoria's Secret would be a bad idea I think."
That was also true, now that she'd had it pointed out to her. A glance showed that her ersatz cousin was nervous already, just at the thought of shopping. It really was hard to remember that Erica was only recently a girl, and a sorta nerdy, sheltered girl at that. Life with her was going to be one long string of culture shock moments. She turned her eyes back to Margit-ma'am and nodded. Mission accepted.
"I want some time in this hypothetical Victoria's Secret later," she whispered back.
"We shall see." The old lady's eyes twinkled.
"Okay, cuz," Penny said, clapping her on the back. "Your first initiation into girlhood starts now. I've got our mission parameters." Erica blinked as a piece of paper was thrust into her face. "Ready for Operation Clotheshorse?"
"Y-yeah." Penny's words helped a lot. Thinking of it all as a mission or quest helped more. "Yeah."
"Good. Our target is — quite obviously, I might add — Target. We are tasked with acquiring sufficient undergarments, t-shirts, pants and/or leggings, and exercise outfits to last no fewer than two weeks between washings, though between you and me," the older girl added conspiratorially, "I think we could get 'em to shill out for more."
Oma and Aunt Margit were already gone, headed for the mall. Part of her was happy that her grandmother wouldn't be on hand to witness anything embarrassing, and part of her was relieved, because the older woman's absence meant that things were safe for now. A smaller, younger, but much louder part of herself felt abandoned and on the verge of tears. Don't be a baby, she told herself. You're a big girl!
Her mental admonition took a moment to sink in. Yes, she was a big girl now. What of it? She squared her shoulders and set after Penny and Ruby. Be strong; be proud, her mind repeated. Yesterday, some of these thoughts would have sent her into panic mode, but today was today. She was a new person, a new woman. Not a little girl, crying in the strange and scary world around her. She would not let the world win; she would be victorious!
Target's huge red-and-white concentric circles gazed down upon her like the Eye of Sauron, but she pretended not to notice. She had a mission. It was a matter of life or death. It was shopping.
"How does that one fit?" Ruby asked. From behind the fitting room door came a series of grunts and yipes. "That bad, huh?"
"Just... a little... tight," Erica panted, throwing a plain white bra over the doorframe. "Do we really have to do this?" the girl pleaded.
"I thought you were all gung-ho and stuff."
"Changed my mind."
She stifled a laugh. Margit's niece had worked herself up to a shopping frenzy of berserker proportions just to get into the girls' section, and just as quickly deflated at the first sight of the color pink. A retreat was then called, and after some deep breathing exercises an excursion was made to the boys' department for t-shirts. Surrounded by familiar silk-screened logos, cartoons, and video game characters, Erica's inner shopper recovered enough to fill half a cart with the geekiest shirts of the lot. The pants section was not as traumatic, apparently. Ruby was even willing to bet that the girl had enjoyed herself there.
Then came the true challenge: lingerie. She and Penelope had saved that for last, and the gambit had paid off. Erica was too tired from her emotional roller-coaster ride to put much effort into complaining. The girl numbly took whatever they gave her to try on, possibly without even looking. Penelope had snuck one or two really creative items by without any reaction.
"How many have fit so far?"
"Um..." some quick rustling. "Got about a dozen, no, fifteen in here. Er, why is one of them neon green and purple?"
"Gotta have variety, kiddo." Must... not... laugh. "We should be good to go now."
"Yuppers," chimed Penelope, who was double-checking the list. "All essentials covered. Now it's time for the real fun."
She didn't wince, even at the idea that three shopping carts were only a start to the day. Nor did she faint when the total rang up at the cash register. There were reasons to shop at Target, after all, and it was easy to imagine that dollar amount doubling or tripling anywhere else. Two teenage girls required a lot of clothing! Even then, it was a good thing Margit had planned ahead with that mission thing, or else Erica might not have bought enough. The girl was barely a novice at shop-fu right now, but they were in the presence of a budding master of the art. Ruby'd never seen anyone shop as enthusiastically as Penelope Stein, nee Rose, but the older girl had put it in simple terms when she'd commented on it.
"I haven't had new clothes in eight years. Seriously. Eight years of hand-me-downs, ratty and junky and in the worst colors you've ever seen. Stuff they give to the foster kids 'cuz no one else wants it. That's what I've been wearing. So this," a broad circular wave to encompass the whole of Target in its mundanity, "even this is an improvement. I spent eight years dreaming of what I'd wear if I had the cash. And here Adolf-sir was good enough to let us borrow his wallet."
There was that. Mr. Stein had some deep pockets, and not all of them his, she suspected. For a guy, he'd made a good estimate of how much was needed, and after filling the back space of the SUV, they hopped across the road to see the mall and spend the rest of that welcome cash.
"Oh, they're early." She and Margie were just finishing a tour of the first floor jewelers — all three of them — when the junior partners made their entrance. On a Monday like this one, the crowds were non-existent, and from the mall's central court it was possible to take in the entire populace of a single direction at a glance. Ms. Ruby's heeled prosthetics left her a head taller than either of the granddaughters, and the contrast in color between the three of them was eye-catching.
"I told you, Winnie; Penny dear has a drive to her. I bet they bought out half the store, with her leading the charge. Now it's time for the real business to begin." Her sister-in-mayhem waved, and a moment later they were all reunited by the food court.
"Alright ladies," she said, sharing a grin with Margit. "How went the mission?"
"Operation Clotheshorse was a success, Mrs. Schroeder-ma'am!"
"Good. Did you have trouble finding anything?"
"No..." said her granddaughter. The girl dragged the tip of her shoe against the tiled floor. "It was just... different."
"I'm sure it was, liebling. Shall we talk about it over drinks?" A loud gurgle rolled across the way, ending at her ears but beginning in Erica's abdomen. "Perhaps lunch as well?"
That little blonde head nodded enthusiastically, hair shaking back and forth like a cheerleader's pompom. What was the saying? The more things change.... It was nice to see at least one thing about her grandchild remained constant.
"How are you still hungry?" said Penelope. "You about ate your weight in omelet!"
"But shopping is hard work!" This was punctuated by another low rumble. A few minutes later, burgers and drinks procured, the five of them had a table to themselves in one corner of the food court. Despite her own words, Margie's newly acquired granddaughter had no issue with filching fries from her cousin, she noticed.
"So, we have a table," she began. "And a conversation to continue as well. Would you like to hear about how I met your grandfather?"
"Sure," Erica tried to say, though the burger interfered to make it more of a "Shnrg."
"Were there a lot of explosions?" Penelope asked.
"Only a few towards the end," she admitted. Beneath the table, her foot nudged Margit's, warning away any saucy commentary. "As you'd probably guess, it was not a normal meeting."
"That goes without saying," said Ruby, her face deadpan.
"But I suppose I should start a bit earlier, in 1938." She took a sip of her tea, wet her lips, and continued. "My father was, in that year, an officer in the Abwehr. German intelligence," she added, seeing the blank faces of the younger generation. "Unlike many, he saw the rot surrounding the Third Reich, and discreetly sought out the Americans with the hope of defecting. Instead, he spent the next seven years as a double agent within the Abwehr and later the Spezielle Operationsbüro für Angst und Weltherrschaft, which was the rather overblown official name of the central office for the Nazi theme agents. When the war ended, he used his American connections to immigrate with his wife to a small town in Pennsylvania, where they changed their surname to Manning. I was born there a few years later, in 1950."
"Wait, so both my great-grandfathers were Nazis?"
"It happens, liebling. It's still a touchy subject for many in Germany and Austria. My father meant well, and he tried to get out of the shadows many times, only to be pulled back in because he was so good at his work. When I was two, some men from the CIA came to our house to recruit him once again. Too many of the themaagenten had evaded capture, and the Fourth Reich was entrenched in the shadows of Latin America, Africa, and the south Pacific. The US needed someone who knew these people, knew how they acted and reacted."
"So they hired him to be a Nazi hunter?" asked Ruby.
"No, they hired him to be a supervillain." She let that sink in a bit before explaining. "My father's old connections helped him start a career as a third-rate villain named Donnerschlag. His story was that he'd managed to 'liberate' the gear used by one of the Volkshelden, the Nazi patriotic superheroes of the war era, and he presented himself as a strong arm to support the leaders of the new Reich. Before long he had a reputation as a fixer, someone who was good at eliminating enemy agents. He would 'kill' their public personas while they were spirited away to a ranch in Montana for a few years."
"This is about the time my father first met him," added Margit. "Father was a member of Mossad, specifically the secret branch known as Caesarea, which was dedicated to rooting out superpowered threats to the security of Israel. The two of them had a spectacular duel in the streets of Lisbon, the sort of thing you'd see in a Bond movie. And then, a few months later they were officially introduced to each other at Langley as partners in a new operation." Her sister-in-mayhem chuckled. "Oh, how I wish I could have seen that! Unfortunately, Winnie and I were barely ten years old at the time."
"That's an important detail," said Winifred. "Six months before that, Father met with Baron Dämmerung and learned about his two sons, aged ten years. This caused quite a stir within the shadow agencies, because no one had considered the possibility that the schattenkriege could become a matter of future generations. The Baron was practically unassailable in his Castillo de la Noche in Venezuela, and so were his sons. Hans and Adolf became priority targets, both for the threat that they posed and the information they might possess. Tons of paper were thrown around, full of plans both fanciful and sound. Killing them directly was not an option, because after all, if they could do that so easily, then why was the Baron still around? Finally, someone laid out a long-range plan which, as ridiculous as it sounded, still had the best chance of getting reliable information."
"They decided to wait six years," said Margie. "Wait till the two boys were teenagers, and thus easily distractable by certain things. Like girls. They dubbed it Operation First Date."
"Father set up a permanent base near Trinidad, and Margie and I moved in. Six years we spent training to fake a Nazi heritage and be irresistible to two lonely boys. When the Baron announced a party at Castillo de la Noche to debut his two young heirs to the Fourth Reich, Father made sure that his daughter and her best friend came along."
"Wait a sec," interrupted Ruby. "You mean you two were honey traps?"
"Age sixteen and sweet as could be," said Margie with one of those sly winks. "The boys didn't know what hit them."
"A one week stay turned into a month, and then into the entire summer," she continued. "The Baron was happy to find such pleasant company for his boys, and Hans and Adolf were elated to have someone besides their father to talk with as equals. Dämmerung wasn't a very good parent, and it did not take any effort to drive a wedge between them and him."
"Old von Abendritter was a nutcase."
"Thank you for that professional opinion, Margie."
"You are welcome as always, Winnie dear."
"As it was, there was only one thing keeping the operation from being a success, and that was the Baron's other guest for the summer: Eugen von Groenwald, Lillian's father. He was a complete surprise; the Green Skull had kept his existence a secret even from the other themaagenten. Only a few members of von Groenwald's inner circle, including Herr Achziger, knew about him. And then his father dropped him off at Castillo de la Noche for the summer."
"Poor boy was the proverbial fifth wheel," said Margie. "If we'd known, we'd have arranged for another girl to come along. History could have been altered so much for the better if only we'd gotten that boy laid."
"Poetic as always, Margie. Unfortunately, we did not, and Eugen instead became infatuated with me. He and Hans were little bundles of testosterone back then, both trying to outdo the other for my attention. I'm afraid I encouraged them a little too much, and they went over the top designing miraculous things to impress me. It all unraveled when Eugen schimmelhorned a new devise together that would detect what he called 'Jew-specific biological signatures.' We didn't expect it to work, but then Margie set it off."
"Pure coincidence, I say."
"Didn't matter. There was a big to-do, with Adolf defending Margie's honor vociferously, and Hans and Eugen were at each other's throats. Then the Baron had his final fit of apoplexy, the Venezuelan army decided to invade, and it all ended in explosions. Big ones."
"The best kind!"
"So," she said to their audience. There were four blue saucers and a pair of chocolate tartelets passing for eyes staring their way. She feared they might pop out of the sockets at any moment. "Any questions?"
"Not really," said Penelope, "but dang, forget all the prime time shows, I want to see your version of 'How I Met Your Mother' done properly on HBO or something."
"Ditto," whispered her granddaughter. The pile of burgers had long since vanished, as had the fries, shakes, and chicken nuggets. There was a loud slurp as Erica vacuumed the last of her soda.
"Well then, shall we continue our shopping?" There was a faint groan from the little blonde girl. "Now, now, we'll let you pick the stores first. How does that sound?"
Margit spoke up. "If you don't mind, I'd love to spend some quality time with my granddaughter. How about the three of you go on ahead."
"Fine by me," said Ruby. Erica nodded as well.
"Okay then. Meet you back at the car around three?"
"We'll be there."
She let Margit-ma'am handle the temporary goodbyes, sipping her root beer until the other three were out of sight. Then she slumped forward, moaning as her forehead bumped the tabletop. "I am so wiped right now."
"I suspected as much, Penelope dear." Margit-ma'am's eyes were twinkling again. She chose to take that as a positive omen. "You put up a good front, though."
"Just... how does she keep going? I know you worked both of us into the ground this morning!"
"Yes, dear. We did. And of the two of you, you definitely possess more stamina, physically and emotionally. Erica, on the other hand, recovers more quickly."
"Does that have anything to do with her crazy metabolism?"
"I wouldn't doubt it. So," the older woman said, stretching her arms and relaxing. "Anything you'd like to talk about?"
"Um." There was just the one thing, really, but she didn't know where to begin. Names were big things, important things, and ... oh hell, might as well spit it out. "What can I call you?"
"Grandma, Granny, et cetera, you mean?"
"Yes!" Like everything else in life, once she'd said it, it was easy to talk about. That didn't keep her from blushing brilliantly. "I mean, not Grandma or Granny. Those don't fit you at all."
"Why, thank you."
"But what about something special, like Erica with her Oma and Opa?"
"I could be your Bubbie."
"No offense, but that sounds retarded."
"I suppose it does lack a certain je ne sais quoi, especially if you weren't raised with Yiddish as a first language. Perhaps Hebrew, then? Grandfather would be 'sava' and grandmother would be 'safta.' That sounds a little more formal to me, but..."
"I like it." Safta Margit. She rolled the words around in her brain a bit, getting a feel for them. It did sound formal, more like a title than an endearment, but that fit too. She was already tagging their names with 'sir' and 'ma'am' all the time, and this was a logical next step. "Safta Margit," she repeated out loud. "Yeah, we can work with this."
"Glad to hear it. Is there anything else you'd like to know?"
"Yeah. So, you're Jewish? Did I understand that right?"
"Last I checked, yes." Margit-ma'am — Safta Margit — tapped the Star of David on her lapel. "I don't go shouting it to high heaven, but I do try to represent. We also attend shabbat when possible."
"Do I... um, is there anything I need to be careful about?"
"No, Penelope dear; you needn't worry. I keep things kosher at home, but I don't hold with many parts of the orthodox tradition. We've got time for me to teach you a few basics. And I don't mind if you kip out on occasion for a BLT, like Adolf does from time to time."
"Is Adolf-s... Sava Adolf anything?"
"Oh, he's Jewish, too."
"Wait, wait, what?" Okay, her brain was officially too tired for communication to be possible. Somewhere in there, between the grey matter and the ear drums, there had to be a short circuit. That last sentence just could not compute.
"Well, obviously he didn't start that way. Do you feel up to another long story?"
"Can I get a refill first?"
One large root beer and a triple-scoop cup of ice cream were purchased without much thought to what went in. She just pointed three times at random, and came out of it with coffee biscotti, salted caramel, and something called 'purple sweet potato.' It was all sugar, anyway, and man did she need some. Her legs were complaining from all the time spent sitting and listening to Mrs. Schroeder, and the opportunity to stretch them was more important than the flavors. She'd never tasted any of them before, which was a plus as far as she was concerned. Try new things! Live the adventure! Safta Margit raised an eyebrow at those choices, but didn't say anything until they'd returned to their quiet little corner of the food court.
"Now, as Winnie said earlier, our job at sixteen was simple: get Hans and Adolf to come back with us. We weren't actually supposed to keep them once we caught them. It wasn't our fault they were so precious; we just couldn't let them go! When Eugen reappeared on the global scene with that plague of his in Paraguay, the four of us were brought together again to work against him, and we couldn't be happier."
"My father, on the other hand, was less enthusiastic. It was one thing to shtup a shegetz in the course of business. He was a wetwork man; he understood those things. Bringing the son of a Nazi villain home for Hanukkah, well, that was different. There was the biggest argument when Adolf asked for his blessing, and we had to leave early. The next year, Adolf showed up at his door and asked again. Father almost got him with the shotgun that time. And then the year after that, Adolf came to the door and asked for the blessing in perfect Hebrew, and then he quoted – well, paraphrased, really – from the Book of Ruth:
'Be not against me, to desire that I should leave and depart; for wherever she shall go, I will go, and where she shall dwell, I also will dwell. Her people shall be my people, and her God my God.
'The land that shall receive her dying, in the same I shall die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so and so to me, and add more also, if aught but death part me and her.'
(— Ruth 1:16-17)
"It's quite poetic, isn't it? He used most of it for our wedding vows as well. Of course at that point, Father couldn't say no. Mother would have killed him." Her grandmother sighed. "She always was a romantic, and there was no denying all the cultural strings he was pulling."
"What was that all about, though?" she had to ask. She'd sat through her fair share of Sunday school and Bible classes, but that book hadn't shown up often. In fact, the only thing about it she could say for sure was that it was about some woman named Ruth who lived in Israel.
"Ooh! Another story time! I'll try to make this one shorter. Ahem. Once upon a time, there was a woman named Noemi...."
Okay, maybe she'd gotten everything wrong about it. Did she look like a preacher's daughter? Nope!
"During a time of famine, Noemi, her husband, and her two sons went to live in the land of the Moabites, where they found good work and a good life. Both her sons married local girls, and they were all very happy. Then her husband and sons died. Why? That's not mentioned. I like to imagine it was while doing something ridiculously manly, like strangling lions barehanded."
"Is that how you think Adolf, er, Sava Adolf will go?"
"Oh, certainly not. Adolf deserves ninjas and high explosives, at the least. Where was I? Oh yes, so Noemi was left in Moab with her two daughters-in-law for company, and she became very homesick. She was concerned for the two young woman, though. How would they feel, to be forced into a life far away from their kin? They were not of the tribes of Israel, these Moabites, and Noemi was concerned for their well-being. She bade them stay with their kin, while she returned to hers.
"The first daughter-in-law decided to stay, but not the other daughter, the girl called Ruth."
A-ha! Therewas a Ruth in there somewhere.
"Noemi asked her again and again, three times in all, to stay in the land of Moab, to be with her friends and family. And three times Ruth asked to accompany her, to remain a part of her family and to share in her life. That is the point of that Bible verse Adolf quoted. Not just that he said it, but that it was what Ruth said, what made Noemi accept her choice. It's also," she added, "the basis for the Jewish laws governing conversion to the Jewish faith. Nowadays, if someone wishes to convert, it's traditional for the rabbi to refuse, to make the applicant consider their desires and reaffirm that choice three times before accepting. Adolf had learned all that when he decided to join the synagogue."
"Wasn't that, like, weird?"
"For Rabbi Levin, it certainly was. When we finally revealed Adolf's personal history to him, he about died of a conniption fit! For Adolf, not so much. Old von Abendritter wasn't big on religion of any sort, and so his sons were raised in a spiritual vacuum. It's not obvious, but Adolf has a mystic side that found a home in the synagogue. He's not the best Jew in the world, but then again, who is?"
"So what I am supposed to be?" She would have tensed up, if her muscles weren't aching so. That was a loaded question right there, a metaphorical revolver pointed right at her life, and she was spinning the cylinder. What if they wanted her to be something she wasn't sure about, or that she didn't want to be? Well, she'd probably go with it anyway, because the alternatives hadn't changed one sucky bit, but that was only if Margit didn't decide to drop her should she answer wrong.
The three scoops of ice cream were curdling in her stomach now. Or was that butterflies? Butterfly distress beacon?
"Our granddaughter. Nothing more, nothing less. We'll tell everyone we had a falling out with your mother years ago, and that we only learned about you recently. Of course you weren't raised within the synagogue, and what you choose to do with your life is your business."
"But I could say no, if I wanted to?"
"Certainly." That answer was all Margit simple, no fuss, no expectation. It was up to her to make the big decisions, and she treasured the trust that single word implied.
"I'll think about it."
"We've got all the time in the world," Safta Margit promised. "Now, I do believe we have a certain lingerie shop to look at. That is, if you don't mind shopping with an old lady?"
"A former spy of the sexy femme fatale variety? I should be asking you for pointers," she joked back.
"Anytime, Penny dearest. Anytime."
They left the mall at just after three, and the SUV was definitely riding lower than it had on the way in. Her mind was still struggling to comprehend the sheer amount of stuff that was now here, as in Erica's, separate from Eric's. There was a lot of it, enough that the grandmothers were busy discussing storage options. She stared wearily out the window, trying hard to ignore the conversation around her, to forget the emotional tug-of-war that had been this trip.
She'd enjoyed it. Despite all her nerves and complaints, Erica had had a good time at the stores today. It had helped that she'd steered clear of the greater bastions of femininity, for the most part, but there had been a few collisions anyway. Who knew that a store called "Bare Minerals" would have nothing to do with mineralogy, geology, or any other -logy beyond cosmetology? Because of that little misstep, she now had a selection of make-up and an appointment that evening with Oma to learn the basic points of using it.
Her skin didn't itch. After sitting through a consultation with the cosmetologist and and modeling while the woman recited a whole litany of beauty claptrap, her skin had three or four extra layers piled on top of it, but she couldn't feel it at all. Occasionally she'd get a look at herself in a mirror or window and be shocked at the difference a few dabs of alchemy made. Her face was cute before, but now it was borderline gorgeous.
And she liked it that way.
And that scared her. A lot.
Eric wouldn't have put up with all this nonsense. Eric wouldn't have had to. And with that thought, the emotional chasm gaped wide once again, separating her from the person she'd been up until a few days ago, leaving her with... what? A painted face and the vague feeling that everything was alright?
She could feel the tears welling up from her eyes, and with great care she wiped them away. Can't smudge the makeup.... wait, she'd just thought that? Now she screwed her eyes tight, but even then a few drops of saline fell on the back of her hand. It was hopeless. Even when she wasn't thinking, she still thought like a girl. Not like Eric, not like the boy she used to be. Please, she thought, hoped, prayed. There had to be something left that was still the same. Not everything needed to change, right?
Then she opened her eyes, squinted tearily out the window, and found the answer.
"Stop the car!"
It was a strange new thing that lay before her. Conceptually, she knew what she was looking at. It was a store, but there lay the limits of her understanding. The space was actually quite large, but it retained a boxy feel within its plain walls and ceiling. The store itself could hardly be said to be decorated, except that its merchandise more than made up for it in gaudiness. Much like a plain brown paper bag, no one cared about the wrapping. That fell so far outside her shopping paradigm that she had to blink a few times to take it all in.
Half the hall — and yes, the room was large enough to be called that — was taken up by large tables covered in weird maps and figurines. A dozen bookshelves lined the wall near the counter, filled with thin tomes so esoteric that she couldn't tell what they were for. A revolving bookstand was stuffed with cheap paperbacks whose covers showed pictures of vampires, robots, and/or elves. At the glass counter, next to a tall corkboard covered in weird playing card displays, was the cuz, who was shaking her head as she tried to bargain with the shopkeeper over... dice?
Dear Lord in Heaven, she was in Geek Central Station.
Or rather, as her brain belatedly caught up with her eyes and noted the sign out front, Friday Knights Games and Entertainment. Erica'd made Ms. Ruby turn the car around as soon as she'd seen the advertising, and the senior partners had sent good ol' Penelope along to be, as Safta Margit called it, the boursière. She really needed to bone up on her studies, she decided, or else she'd miss all of her new grandmother's jokes. In any case, the purse was hers to hold, and she'd received instructions not to let Erica go overboard. How hard could that be?
Thirty minutes later
Seriously. Seriously. Where'd the cuz been hiding all this enthusiasm when they were shopping for actual necessities? More and more items had piled up on the counter, somehow appearing while she wasn't looking. Erica didn't miss a beat as her conversation with the shop guy went on and on.
In her boredom, she'd checked out the price tags on some of those weird tomes, and the sticker shock had sent her reeling. Her little spree at Victoria's Secret hadn't cost nearly as much as some of those books. Thankfully the cuz seemed satisfied with literature at the lower end of the price spectrum. Then there were the extra little bits, which were easier to get her head around once she'd accepted the nature of the game. Accessorizing was all it was. The stuff on paper was the main point of this excursion, and the bags of extra dice, the little figurines, and the illustrated maps were, if not exactly frivolous, not essential. Here, she felt confident enough to step in and add her own two cents.
"So how much of this stuff do you actually need for whatever this game is?" she asked Erica. "And don't say 'all of it'," she added quickly, seeing a gleam in the girl's eyes. "Even I can tell that a lot of this is eye candy."
"Um, the stuff in the red box here, a couple of the extra character sheets," Erica admitted. "Maybe a divider, another set of dice, and some expansion adventures? And a calculator."
"Ever played?" asked the shopkeeper, a jovial looking guy in his mid-thirties with a poorly grown beard sprouting from his chin.
"Nope." She shook her head. "No interest." Her years in the foster system had left her in the care of several strongly Christian sorts who'd been big on the ideal of charity while not so keen on the particulars. Most of what she knew about this type of games came from Chick tracts, and she wasn't about to rely on those for accurate info.
"Well then," said the man. "I'll make you a deal. I'll throw in an extra coupla dice and some cheap hero figures on the condition that you play a game with your sister here."
"She's my cousin, actually."
"C'mon, Penny. Pleeeeeeeeeease?"
"Oh alright." She rolled her eyes as Erica squealed in delight, let the shopkeeper tally up the damage to her borrowed purse, and paid up. "Now let's git," she said as her cousin received the bag of esoteric nerdiness. "We've kept the grandmas waiting long enough."
The sun was in her eyes as she marched out of there, and it took her a moment to realize the SUV wasn't where she remembered. It was a few spaces farther out, and suspiciously empty of either shopping bags or grandmothers. The emptiness was more than filled by the polished white gleam of Ms. Ruby's grin.
"They said you'd be in there for half past forever," she explained. "So we took everything back to HQ. You girls enjoy yourselves?"
She made noncommittal noises as Erica gushed over the store and its contents, including half a dozen little things that she hadn't even noticed. Ms. Ruby seemed to follow along well enough to make appropriate comments, but even so, the superhero's face had that lost and slightly bemused glaze long before the cuz was finished.
"Oh! And Penny promised she'd play a campaign with me. Would you like to play too? It's so much better with more people."
"I'm not sure," said Ruby with what Penelope thought of as frantic backpedaling tones to her voice. "I haven't touched anything like that in years, practically a decade... Didn't all the rules change or something?"
"It's okay!" Erica continued, as bouncy and peppy as Penelope had ever seen her. "I got the red box starter set, and I know all the basic ins and outs already. And if Penny can manage it, I'm sure you can!"
Well thanks, she thought sourly at the — unintentional, she was sure — backhanded compliment. Out loud, she added, "We could get Matty-boy in for a fourth." Misery could always use more company, in her opinion, and the words had the desired effect. Their leggy chauffeur agreed, but only if Matty-boy joined as well. And she was sure they could get him in on it. All they'd have to do was tell him Ruby was playing. It was too easy.
Idly, she wondered if the game was half as interesting as getting people to play it was.
"Siebzehn, achtzehn, neunzehn..." he counted in the breath between chin-ups, concentrating on the numbers. Each pause was barely enough for the numeral to escape his lips. "Zwanzig!" With that, he lowered himself from the bar he'd fitted into the narrow frame of the bathroom door. A press of a button released the bar, which to this point had held in place without complaint. The ends were covered in this remarkable simulated rubber that Kessel had developed from captured tech, and Sandmann for one could not wait till he could get gloves made from it. The stuff had grip.
He had just enough time for a quick shower and towel-off before his brother returned from another outing, this time with some real treats in hand.
"Too easy," Glas muttered, handing Sandmann a one-hundred percent authentic FBI ID card with his face and a fabricated name.
"Just walked in and asked, huh?" While he thought it was weird as all hell at times, Sandmann couldn't deny how useful his brother's attention-cloaking power was. "Sabulum, huh? And... Vitro?" he said, noting the names. "So we're finally making good use of our high school Latin class?"
"Yes. Mrs. Llewellyn would be so pleased," Glas replied with his usual deadpan.
"Any idiom for an idiot, I suppose, and this'll be good enough to fool ours."
"Your idea was approved, I take it?"
"Sure was." He grabbed his suit. "Wash up and get ready. We're off to Topeka to see a man about a mutant."
Late in the evening at Neue Groenwald — Lillian von Groenwald
Paper, Lillian knew, was the lifeblood of any organization. It carried the oxygen of ideas and commands to all parts of the bureaucratic body, invigorating it, keeping it strong. It supported the chain of command, the nervous system that both required and regulated its flow. Thus, despite her personal distaste for it, she had to read reports, sign expenditure sheets, and provide the blessings at her disposal as the brain of the entire collective entity she thought of as the True Reich.
From her office window she could see the clerks working, the night shift just beginning their desk duties. There was a seriousness of purpose, a precision of pen and ink which filled her heart with pride. This was how the machine of government should run, she believed. Not like the Nazi regime of her grandfather and Herr Achziger's time; that had been a tumor-riddled body slowly dying from the conflicts of its parts. Not like the current American government, either; the soi-disant "Greatest Nation" had succumbed to the schizophrenia of the masses and lost its vision and purpose. No, a government's reason to exist was simple: to organize, to direct, to rule. It was the purpose of the individual to become a useful part of that dynamic social engine, serving whatever purpose best contributed to the benefit of the state.
For her, that meant dealing with the paperwork of leadership. She'd been able to put it off for a while with her little jaunt to Kansas, and it'd been a pleasant diversion right up until the very end. Personal vacations were not something she took often, and the opportunity to recruit the Schroeders could have made it worthwhile, if not for the Steins. But So ist es halt im Leben, as Vater would say. You may win some; you may lose some. It was the survival of the Reich which mattered.
Two project folders were now moving into the out-tray, to be sent back to their project leaders with her comments. Operation Candidate was almost to its first big goal, with local elections to be held the very next day. Lillian was secure in the knowledge that with her organization’s assistance, the candidate she prefered would prevail. A thin, humorless grin swept across her face as she considered how best to use that against him. The other, however… She sighed. Operation Prodigal had hit another dead end. Forty children of her father's work, only eight located alive in the last four decades.
A short German prayer escaped her lips, for the brother she’d never had the chance to meet.
The wonderful thing about business was that it didn't afford her the time to dwell on such things for too long, however. Lillian took another file from her in-tray. The folders had piled high in her absence, and it had taken her much of the day to cut it down to size. This one in her hand was a piece of correspondence, a personal letter from Baron Blitzen in his retirement villa on the island of Karedonia. A snort of derision escaped her, paining her nose. Blitzen was a first-generation Nazi, a pompous blowhard and fifth-rate villain for the sake of villainy who'd become so enamored with the trappings of the Third Reich that he'd completely forgotten what the National Socialist philosophy stood for: unity of state, purity of purpose, not jackboots and stiff-armed salutes.
Kessel had shown her a website the previous year, a page from TV Tropes entitled "Those Wacky Nazis." In it was indexed every crude stereotype, every aspect of Nazi imagery reduced to objects of derision and ridicule. It was infuriating in its own way, but it made her appreciate all the more Vater's decision to take the True Reich into a new direction. The world had changed, and so should they. Their strength lay in the power of the Aryan race working in harmonious concert, not in swastikas and outdated military attire.
Baron Blitzen had never understood that. He'd built his entire identity around a vision of Hitler's Germany which had only existed in propaganda sheets, then complained that no one ever took him seriously. The man could not even hold onto his trophy wives for long; the bitches were often more ambitious and talented than he had ever been. As she recalled, Blitzen had large virtual paragraphs of material dedicated to him in the "Real Life" section of that TV Tropes page, which underscored how pathetic he'd become by the time he'd retired. She, on the other hand, was not mentioned even once.
She slid the folder under the rest of the pile. The old man's mewling could wait for later. There was only one item left to consider: a letter from Frau Doctor Stauffer. Her annoyed expression turned to a grimace. The woman was a fellow third-generation Nazi whose father had served the old Reich marvelously in its pursuit of the purest Aryan ideal, but Lillian remembered her mainly as a woman who'd been in Vater's orbit in the early years, before some philosophical disagreement had caused them to split. There'd been no love lost between Eugen von Groenwald's female acquaintances and his daughter, though Lillian had never been able to prove that Stauffer specifically possessed any romantic intentions toward her father.
The two of them often had operations running in various parts of the Midwest, however, and it never hurt to keep in touch and off one another's toes. She did not know what the old bitch was up to, and she did not care to find out. With a sniff, she returned the correspondence to its place to be examined later, when she was in a better mood.
"Lady Groenwald?" The call was accompanied by a light rapping on the door.
"Come in, Miene," she replied. "And please, it's Lillian, or Kommandeurin. You've earned the right."
The woman was blushing as she waddled into the room. "Yes, Kommandeurin."
Only a few people called her that, and of them only Miene was not immediate family. The woman was the first successful recipient of the Thulean enhancement protocols outside of the Groenwald bloodline, which warranted the honor. Lillian admired the work her Vater's procedures had wrought, remembered the strung-out wreck of a woman her organization had picked up last year. Now Miene was strong, elegant, perfect. Even encumbered as she was by the six-month-old fetus inside her, she moved with grace to the seat across from Lillian.
"I read the report, from Kansas. I'm... I'm sorry."
"There is no need to be, my dear. It almost happened perfectly."
"But my information was wrong! My... they still kept contact with Adolf, and I told you otherwise. And Eric... Eric..."
"I'm not surprised by that first one, to be honest. I expected Hans to send a message of some sort. It was the speed of the response that was unfortunate. As for the boy..." She sighed and took the other woman's hand in hers for comfort. "I'm sorry, Danielle. We had high hopes there, didn't we? But life is not always fair. We could not have known he had the filthy gene within him; you yourself do not know who his father is. It is better for us to deal with what he has become and then put it all behind us so that we can focus on the future."
Miene, born Danielle Schroeder, rubbed her distended belly. Her face took on a serene light, and Lillian would have paid top dollar for an artist to capture that image on canvas: a new madonna for a new Reich, carrying within her the next generation. She had to smile at that. The strength of the Reich lay not in one person, but in the aggregate will to power possessed by their race. Every child was a promise to future victory.
It was up to her to ensure that future came to pass.
Tuesday, June 7th, 2016
MCO Branch Headquarters, Central Plains Division, Topeka
Myron Jankovich had been appointed regional commander in 2010 after a decade of service, and it was left to others to assume that he had earned his position. He'd seen his fair share of action, especially in those hectic years of 2007 to 2009, had served his organization, his people, and his species proudly, but he knew that was not the reason why he was in this office today. The ten-by-twenty space, bounded on three sides by solid wood paneling and with broad windows on the fourth, was not a reward for the zeal with which he'd pursued his vocation. Rather, it was a sinecure, a safe place to dump a man whose fervor had led him too deeply into the fray once too often, with results that had hit the front pages. The higher-ups couldn't fire him for doing his job too well, as the sponsors tacitly approved of that sort of thing.
No, he was here behind this old oak desk, sitting in a padded armchair over some musty shag carpeting because someone upstairs thought he was an embarrassment and decided that while Agent Myron Jankovich couldn't be fired, he could be bored to death. Regional sub-commander of the central plains region had sounded like something important at the time, and in truth the area under his surveillance was large.
When Fullerton had happened in 2011, it had looked like this region was the place to be when it came to action, and he’d actually been excited to take up the commandership when his predecessor had resigned during the fallout. But things hadn’t turned out the way he’d hoped.
It was a numbers problem, really. The State of Kansas, with all its rolling plains, had a population a little more than one-third that of New York City, and Nebraska had a million less. Even though there seemed to be more mutants with every passing year, the actual rates of mutation had risen only a hair. Manhattan, sitting all by itself in the heart of NYC, saw more breakthrough manifestations in a year than his office had dealt with in the past four. Perhaps even twice as many, which was why the northeast got the lion's share of matériel and staff. He had a total of twelve trained agents and a few dozen more office staff to cover over one-hundred fifty thousand square miles, and he needed to contract out to the bloody TSA in order to cover all the region's airports adequately. His colleagues up in the Dakotas were even worse off, while down to his south, Oklahoma was tied up tight by the DPA and the tribal councils. He was more likely to die of boredom than of death rays.
So when he'd come in this morning to discover that his secretary had a surprise appointment for him, it was a welcome diversion.
"Send them in, Margaret," he instructed over the intercom once he was sure the room was in order. Image was important, and doubly so when it was the only tool he had. His office was arranged and decorated to resemble that of a hard-boiled detective, and his worn brown suit and matching fedora, now displayed on the hat rack, reinforced the impression. Folk on the plains always had some level of appreciation for the maverick, the cowboy, the go-getter, and if it helped him with his politicking, then he might as well enjoy the trappings.
He was pouring a glass of bourbon when his guests arrived. "Fancy a friendly drink?" he asked, sizing them up. The first man was big, blond, and had the complexion of someone who enjoyed the sun and alcohol in equal measure. That one took the proffered liquor, sipped it, and nodded in appreciation.
The other one turned down the offer, politely.
"So what can the Mutant Commission Office do for you gentlemen?" Chairs creaked as they took their seats.
"Allow me the introductions," said the first man. "I am Agent Samuel Sabulum, and this is my partner, Agent Paul Vitro." An official looking ID card was laid on the table and pushed his way. "Federal Bureau of Investigation."
Another sip of bourbon helped to hide his surprise. While there were provisions in the MCO charter concerning aid and assistance to investigative agencies, the federal government had been reticent about capitalizing on them in recent years. Normally, it was up to the guys on his end to make sure the proper cooperation occurred. "And what would bring the Bureau here?"
"You are familiar with the recent incident in Wichita?"
"Yes." Well, barely. He'd read a memo about it just yesterday, but details had been thin on the ground. "Something about a criminal base uncovered outside of town. The Green Cross, wasn't it? Not really my business, y'know," he added. "As far as I know, she's no mutant."
"Most vociferously not," Agent Sabulum agreed. "We are a part of the ongoing investigation, and before you ask," he added, "no, our boss does not know we are here right now. There are some complications to the case which he would rather not have publicized, if you get my drift."
"A mutant was involved?" That got a nod. "Unregistered?" Another nod. "But the Bureau has strict rules on reporting any incidents involving powers. Why would your commander order otherwise?"
The other man explained. It was a good explanation, and Jankovich nodded along with every added detail. "Yes, yes, that does make sense."
"Thought it would," Sabulum said, grinning toothily. "So y'see, our hands are tied as long as that collaborator Fredericks is involved. You sir, however, have avenues which are blocked to us." He laid a clear folder on the desk. A photo of a young girl was visible through the top. "The mutant's name is Erica Schroeder, age 14, apparently only recently manifested but already quite strong. She has not undergone proper testing, so we aren't certain of her abilities, but we estimate that she is Exemplar 4 and possibly a TK or PK rating of uncertain strength. The details are all in there."
"Hm..." He leafed through the file, taking note of the girl's appearance as well as several photos taken with people he assumed were family members. "And the girl is in FBI custody at this moment?"
"No, unfortunately," Sabulum said. "Otherwise we could deal with this better internally. The mutant is staying with her grandparents at the local superhero headquarters. The Wichita Warriors, I believe they're called."
"Thought they'd disbanded after that budget dispute last March."
"One stayed behind, it seems. A partial cyborg, not a mutant. Her information is also in the file, though I'd like to mention that she is an officer of the Kansas National Guard as well as a state law enforcement official."
"That does make things simpler, probably," Jankovich admitted, "Though to be honest, I've never had to try that approach..." In fact, he’d been specifically told to avoid using it unless he was absolutely certain it would work. There were no precedents for that avenue, and his superiors wanted to be sure that the first one sealed the deal.
The other one spoke, and the MCO officer's concerns faded away. Yes, it would be that simple. He had the law on his side, didn't he? In fact, this was a chance to get out of this stuffy office and do some real fieldwork for once. A commanding officer would be needed for the current situation.
"Thank you for bringing this to my attention, gentlemen." He stood up to shake their hands. Agent Sabulum's grip was firm and sure, like a good handshake should be. "Rest assured, I shall omit your names from the official report. We at the MCO appreciate those brave enough to speak out on matters like this, and I would not wish to endanger your careers."
"No chance of that, but thanks for your concern."
Jankovich waited for them to take their leave, then all but pounced upon the phone. There were several numbers in his Rolodex that he'd been itching to use, but he started with his field assistant first. "Tom? Pack your kits. We've got a live one..."
"Genius, man, genius," Sandmann said to his brother as they walked away from the office, a squat, constipated building down the street from the state capitol. "You had him eating out of your hand by the end. 'Because kittens are cute,' indeed! All I could do not to bust a gut right there!"
"Such are the weak-willed," replied Glas with his best fortune cookie impression.
"Next time, do the Chewbacca defense, would ya?"
"If I make it too ridiculous, then I risk failure. It is not worth it just for the sake of your amusement."
"Aw, c'mon. There's a G-Burger down the highway a ways. If you can't use the old Chewie spiel to get us free sausage waffle breakfast sandwiches, then I'll pay for the two of us, deal?"
Glas did not smile, but neither did he frown. "I am hungry," his brother said. "They still have those hash browns, correct?"
"Damn right they do."
"Let us go then."
"Awright!" The day was going perfectly. Sure, their gambit with the MCO was a longshot, but it would be an annoyance and might create a few opportunities. If it all fell to pieces, it'd be that little Slavic prick who was left holding the bag. Sandmann was all in favor of crazy plans when it meant someone else had to deal with the consequences. And any day that included sausage waffle breakfast sandwiches was a good one.
Wednesday, June 7th, 2016 — Penelope
"Do you have a moment, Penny dearest?" Safta Margit's voice caught her like a fish on a hook, reeling her back into the exercise room she'd just vacated so joyously. The morning routine wasn't as grueling as the grandmas had made it on that first day, but she was still tired, stinky, and in much need of brunch.
"Hit the showers, shrimp," she called ahead to Erica. Her cousin grinned and raced ahead, faster than those skinny legs should've allowed. "And I expect to have some pancakes left by the time I get up there!" she finished impotently. Hopefully Ruby and Matty-boy had doubled up on the portions, or else the cuz would clean everything out. Again.
"Is everything alright, safta?" she said, returning to the room. Margit was wiping the sweat off the exercise mats with a thin towel, and motioned for Penelope to join her. So that's the way they were going to play it, huh? She snagged a towel and set to wiping. No words passed by for several minutes, until Margit finally spoke.
"Adolf received your records from the US Marshal's office," she began. "They handle the Witness Security program, you know, and they've been quite helpful despite the irregularity of it all. We have your birth certificate, foster care file, school records..." Safta Margit let that last one dangle uncomfortably in the air.
Oh. Damn. What to say, what to say.... "I can do better?" she risked.
"I'm quite sure of that, Penny dearest. In actuality, I was referring to the detention detail."
"Not my fault! He started it! She started it! They started it! Bullies! Fraudsters! Extortionists! Hipsters! Er, er..." She ran out of steam, huffing and puffing as she tried to line up a real explanation for why the foster kids had so often been the butt monkeys of the school punishment system, and her role in standing up for them — which had only landed her in more trouble. Safta let her work it out of her system, prompting her with questions and teasing the details out bit by bit. There were a lot of details, some included in the file and others not.
"For what it's worth," Safta said once the flood of words had finished passing her lips, "I think you acquitted yourself marvelously given the realities of your situation. We need to teach you how to better subvert authority figures to get what you want, but that can wait a while. You'll be happy to hear that we've decided to create a new academic history for you out of whole cloth. No record of detentions or suspensions, no juvenile delinquency allegations or arrests, and a 3.5 GPA which," she warned, "we expect you to maintain."
"Good." The older woman clapped her hands. "After brunch we're going to the library to find you some study materials. You may choose the topics, but I want you to set a good example for your cousin here and spend at least three hours a day learning something useful from an academic standpoint."
"On another note, Adolf was wondering if you'd like to go out with him this afternoon for some grandfather-daughter bonding. He's still warming up to all this adoption talk, and you'll likely both enjoy it."
"Cool. What does he have in mind?"
"You'll have to ask him, Penny dearest, but later. First, pancakes."
A loud gurgle erupted from Penelope's midriff, and she laughed. "You don't have to tell me twice, safta."
"What took ya so long?" Erica chirped at her as she entered the kitchen. The little blonde had to crane her neck to peek around the mountain of pancakes arising from her plate. Melted butter oozed between the crevices like cholesterol-laden lava, and syrup flowed in slow cascades down each tier of the stack. There was already one empty plate on the table, covered in sticky crumbs, which lay in testament to the destructive nature of Erica Schroeder's appetite.
"Oy vey, cuz. Thought I said to leave some for me?"
"She did," said Matty-boy, who was manning the stove. The owlish avatar had his dark goggles on again, making his eyes large and sleepy. He handed her a plate with a yummy-looking short stack on it. "We've got some fruit too, if this doesn't suffice."
"Thanks." In all honesty, four pancakes and a banana would be more than enough. Once again she had to wonder where the cuz was putting it all. "Where'd Ruby get off to?"
"Had to take a phone call," came the answer. "Some official business."
Huh. She'd forgotten that leggy Ms. Ruby was really a superhero in these parts. There was the feeling that business was slow, reinforced by the shopping trip they'd gone on together. It would've been hard to imagine Ruby in a fight at all if Penelope hadn't personally provided cover fire for that last one. Her fingers twitched at the memory of taking aim and making those Nazi jerks hurt. That'd been more fun than she'd like to admit.
"RAUGH! Stupid cocksucking bastards!" The shout of anger and frustration erupted from the office next door, catching Penelope in mid-pancake. She was coughing a chunk of buttery goodness out of the wrong pipe when Agent Ruby Boots of the Wichita Warriors stormed through, her high-tech legs clicking tack-tack-tack on the linoleum floor. The metal heels actually left impact craters in their wake. The heroine was by and gone before Penelope could clear her throat well enough to speak.
"What are you waiting for?" she said to Matty-boy, who was staring at Ruby's precipitous exit. "Go after her!"
Seriously. The Screech Owl may've been an adult, but he had all the sense of a teenage boy sometimes. "Yeah, she's pissed, but not at you! And since whatever's got her so bothered has to be work related...." She shrugged. "That's hero biz, which makes it your department." He was nodding at that, but not moving, so she added "Now git!" in her best Safta Margit tone of voice.
The Arkansas superhero was out the door in a flash.
"I swear," she muttered as she got up to check the stove. "Those two have got to stop with the dewy eyes and talk to each other."
"They do make a cute couple, though," Erica said.
"No argument there, but all this hemming and hawing's just plain annoying to the rest of us." She let out a snort as she filled the dirty mixing bowl with water and sloshed it about. "Promise me, cuz. When you find a guy you like, go for it. Spare the rest of us the annoyance."
"Um..." From her expression, Erica's face should've been somewhere between gonna-have-a-stroke red and gonna-puke green, but kept to that ivory pallor it always had.
"Sorry, sorry. Too much, too soon, I know. Keep forgetting over here." That got her a smile from the cuz, at least. She finished washing out the bowl and returned to the serious business of pancakes.
Cities on the high plains were not known for the altitude of their architecture. When the wind came whipping out of the north, it did not pay to be the biggest obstacle in its path from Arctic to Gulf, and a surplus of lateral space allowed prairie architects the luxury of spreading their wings, allegorically and structurally, wide instead of tall. Few buildings in Wichita topped four stories in height, and those which did tended to cluster in the center of the city in the belief that strength in numbers might provide an adequate bulwark against wind shear. The upshot was that from the right vantage point, there was nothing getting between a woman and the horizon. On a clear day like today, the view from the top of the Epic Center in downtown Wichita was breathtaking.
Ruby had always been attracted to heights, even when she was plain little Dolores Gardner, a fresh recruit from the middle of nowhere who'd somehow found her way into the volunteer army. She'd been so disappointed when told she was too short for paratrooper training.
She kicked her legs back and forth like a kid sitting on the edge of a pool. Air swished beneath her heels, and motes of dust shook off to begin the long, slow descent to the ground, some twenty stories below. Yes, ever since childhood, heights had helped calm her, relax her, provide focus when she most needed it. The fact that she could now indulge herself with the thrill of being on the wrong side of the windows was a fringe benefit of her new legs, same as the extra three inches they added to her height.
A shadow passed over her from the cloudless sky. A rush of air followed as the Screech Owl alit upon the decorative landing. "So, um, do you come here often?" the hero said as he smoothed his feathers back into the semblance of a cape.
She tried to scowl at him, but the corniness of the line hammered it into a grin before she could catch herself. "Shouldn't you be in bed by now?" she asked.
"Well, when I hear someone squawking outside my nest so loudly, I've got to check it out, now don't I?" he replied, giving her an exaggerated wink made comical by his dayvision goggles. His eyes looked huge in the bubble lenses, his face even more owlish.
"I suppose so."
"So whatcha doing up here?" he asked again.
"Thinking. This is sorta my Fortress of Solitude, y'know."
"Oh. Sorry to interrupt..."
"It's no problem," she assured him. "Not used to anyone else being able to get up here, actually. Aside from the hawks." She pointed out the vague outline of a local raptor off in the distance. "It's convenient and isolated, so I locked the coordinates into my devise memory early on."
The Screech Owl — Matthias, she reminded herself; Matthias when they were alone — Matthias sat down on the ledge next to her, kicking his legs idly. "What's got you thinking so hard?"
"Thinking that I should enjoy the view while I still can." She swung a leg up so the sunlight could shine off it. "May be losing my favorite means of locomotion soon, I'm afraid."
"Got a call from the capitol, Department of Extraordinary Emergency Affairs. The folks who rubber-stamp my paychecks," she added. "Technically I, or rather the Wichita Warriors team — either way, I'm free to act on my own within the limits of the team charter, but they hold the purse strings."
"And they're threatening to strangle you with them."
"Not exactly..." She sighed. "I've been reminded that House Bill 2366 is currently in effect, and now someone in Topeka's invoking the emergency rendition clause."
Matthias obviously was one to keep abreast of politics in neighboring states, because his reaction was immediate. There were no questions about what she was talking about or what it meant, merely a darkening of expression and a serious nod. "And you told them...?"
"That I understood, and that I'd be waiting for the proper paperwork before expediting my duties," she answered. "Didn't mention that the 'proper paperwork' would actually be my walking papers. Er, not-walking papers, I guess. I'll have to give up the girls, most likely." Her body rocked as she kicked her legs a few more times. "I miss having toes." It was such a funny thing to think, and just saying it was enough to elicit an attack of giggles. The sad thing was how quickly and easily those hiccups of laughter switched to sobs. "I don't want to lose them, but..."
"But you've got to do what you think is right, and they're the price?"
She nodded. "Most likely, yup."
And then there was his arm around her shoulders, and a clean white handkerchief wiping away her tears. Its soft linen felt good against her skin, and her cheeks were burning once more. But she didn't ask him to stop.
"State Bill 2366?" Hans repeated, not wishing to believe his ears. When young Matthias had returned with a subdued Ms. Ruby clinging to his arm, he'd not known what to think. His granddaughter's account of the young woman's exit had been sparse on details.
"You're familiar with it, then?" the Arkansas hero asked.
"Vaguely. As much as anyone who paid actual attention to the political news in the past year or three."
"More than the average citizen then, I'm afraid," his brother rumbled. Some men were said to have stormy expressions — dark and gloomy with a hint of sturm-und-drang to them. Adolf's face could have been a blizzard on the Matterhorn at that moment. "The fact that it was proposed at all speaks ill of your state government," he said to Ms. Ruby. "I'd hoped it would be struck down quickly."
"No one's had a chance to contest it directly," she said. "The ACLU's been working on it, but without a central plaintiff to hang the case on..." She shook her head. "No one's willing to stick their neck out that far, not when it's easier to keep your head down and leave the state."
He nodded at that, as did the other adults gathered around the coffee table, which was serving as the stage for an impromptu council of war. From their spots on the carpet, the granddaughters were looking confused. He watched as his new niece raised her hand and asked, "What exactly's going on? Not all of us are grown-ups yet."
That got chuckles from everyone. "You're not so far from being one," Adolf retorted. "And I'd recommend paying more attention in any case, but especially here. If Ms. Ruby could explain exactly why?" His brother gestured to the young woman, who sat up and fidgeted with her collar a moment before saying a word.
"Over the past few years," she began, "many people have been upset with the way they perceived the President to be responding to the continuing situation with mutants in this country. To be honest, they'd be upset no matter what he did. Some members of the state legislature decided to make what they like to call a 'principled stand' on the issue."
"Others would call it bald-face grandstanding," growled Matthias. His countenance was, if anything, stormier than Adolf's. "If the President would not protect the citizens of the great state of Kansas and by 'protect' they meant confine all mutants nationwide into restricted zones then it was up to them to lead the charge."
"Since emergent mutants are only a potential threat to their immediate surroundings," Ruby continued, "they framed it as an issue of maintaining the peace within state boundaries, not as one of national security. That way they could keep it as a states' rights issue under some weird reading of the Tenth Amendment. With that argument firmly in their teeth, they pushed through SB 2366 in 2013, a.k.a. the Mutant Commission Alliance and Liaison Act, and even that Supreme Court case the following year couldn’t keep it off the books, if only because it has never been officially tested. Basically, they declared that the Kansas state government could enter into specific arrangements with the MCO independently of the federal government."
"Wait, wait, wait," Penelope interrupted. ""They can't actually do that, right? The states can't negotiate directly with foreign powers..." she trailed off for a moment, then added, "Wow, actually learned something from Civics class this year."
"That's true," said her new grandfather. Hans thought he glimpsed the smallest hint of pride in that voice. "The MCO, however, is an international non-governmental organization, and the rules are less clear. By its charter, it is supposed to make arrangements with local governments on a nation-by-nation basis, and in the U.S. that has traditionally meant negotiations on the federal level."
"What's important here," said Ruby, "is that the state legislature is only two or three steps away from declaring all mutants illegal within state borders, with this as the opening legal salvo. The arrangements made with the MCO give that agency all the enforcement powers they could wish for, theoretically. Erica," she continued, looking down at the girl. "In most states the MCO doesn't have the authority to arrest people for being mutants, no matter what they say. Here in Kansas, they could shoot you in cold blood, in broad daylight, without provocation, and claim the fact of your mutation as reasonable cause. Again, in theory."
"Theory..." he sighed. He hated that word sometimes. As soon as politics entered the equation, theory became the little bastard child of expediency and poor cognitive organization. "What about in practice? That's more relevant to us."
"In practice they haven't done anything like that, yet," Ruby replied. "Mutants are really rare in these parts, and most skedaddled in the first six months or so since the law went into effect."
"Tell them the rest of it," Matthias urged.
"The state government made certain promises of cooperation," she continued, gritting her teeth. "They passed a rider on the original bill that says the MCO can demand local law enforcement hand over suspected mutants directly to them with no questions asked and no accountability afterwards. That call earlier was to give me the heads-up that such a request was working its way to me." She was shaking, though from stress or anger Hans couldn't say. "I'm going to tell them to go to hell, tell them I quit, and then the state will take away my legs."
Could they really do that? Erica watched Ms. Ruby slump back into the naugahyde embrace of the sofa, wilted and grey from stress. She watched the Screech Owl take her hand in an attempt to console her. She saw the grim looks the senior partners shared amongst themselves. Official news stories of the MCO warred with internet rumors of concealed excesses. Yes, she concluded, they could. No one would be this concerned otherwise.
"So what do we do?" she asked. "Make a run for the border?" While she wasn't too versed in local geography, Oklahoma couldn't be too far away, right?
"That's what we did earlier this spring," said Ruby. "We had a kid manifest, a magic type, and no way to properly train or hide him. So we bundled him off to OKC on the Grand Prairie Express train, kept him off the record here, and the MCO never heard a thing from our end. The rest of my team decided to follow him down the rails a month later, and like that the total number of known mutants in the state was cut by half."
"Would it work now?" asked Uncle Adolf. He was wearing what Erica thought of as his business face. Most people would probably think it was scary, but it relaxed her. Oma and Opa trusted him to handle this sort of situation all the time, so she would too. After all, this was his line of business.
"Doubt it. The request from the MCO mentions her by name, with a description and a guess at her power set. They know she's here, what she looks like, and probably who all's staying with her. I wouldn't be surprised if the MCO called a statewide APB and posted guards at the major terminals if we tried to evacuate her now."
"Couldn't you trump them anyway?" asked the Screech Owl. Erica was amused to note that he still hadn't let go of Ms. Ruby's hand. She — well, Eric — had never been much into shipping couples, though some of his regular internet haunts had entire forum threads devoted to just that. She was starting to understand what made it so popular. For a moment she was caught in a girly reverie, and almost missed his next words: "... Homeland Security?"
"That's right," said Ruby. "Federal jurisdiction trumps state in criminal matters, and state authority's all the MCO has here."
"There are two problems," Adolf said softly. "The first is that this is not a criminal matter, at least not on our end, and the MCO could possibly argue that its expertise gives it precedence here. There are officials within the Department of Homeland Security who could be bullied long enough for the MCO to get its hands on Erica, at which point it would be too late. The other problem is that I would need to officially explain to DHS exactly why I am here, and what I have been doing in its name, which may add an extra layer of complications."
"Wait, they don't know you're here?" Now both official heroes were staring at Adolf, who had the grace to look chagrined, if ever so slightly. "Then when you pushed your way into the crime scene back in Arkansas..." the Screech Owl continued.
"I was doing it on my own authority and initiative," Adolf finished for him, nodding amicably. "And do not tell me you did not suspect as much." Erica had no idea what they were talking about, but she for one wasn't surprised at all that Uncle Adolf would bluff his way into an investigation if it suited him. Apparently neither was the Arkansas hero, who let out a long breath and shook his head.
"Yo, old dudes," Penelope spoke up, raising her hand. "More important question to ponder first." The honey blonde girl grinned as all eyes turned to her. "How'd the MCO find out about Erica in the first place? I mean, they coulda read the FBI files, I guess, but that'd only give 'em what intel we gave the Feds in the first place." Now she had everyone's attention.
"Perhaps the base security system?" ventured the Screech Owl.
"They'd need Dr. Frankenstein to revive it any time soon," Aunt Margit said with pride. "But maybe that jerry-rigged system the Green Cross's techs put together?"
Adolf shook his head. "No trace of it. Fredericks' own techs think it was run through smartpads, and the Green Cross's men just ran off with it."
"Er, I did leave fist-prints in a few walls," Erica admitted.
Her grandfather patted her on the head. "Given the nature of the place," Opa said, "it would be easy to attribute those to something more believable than you, liebling."
She cocked her head, giving Opa an odd look while she tried to figure out why that sentence had sounded so weird. It was the endearment, she realized. Opa'd never called her — or rather, Eric — that before, but just then the word had slipped out. Perhaps he noticed it too, because his eyes had a funny twinkle to them as he continued: "Saying that a slip of a girl could punch through sheet metal is a bit of a stretch of the imagination, after all."
"Well then," said Uncle Adolf as he stood and stretched his legs. "I believe I have some phone calls to make."
"Doing what you do best?" joked the Screech Owl.
"You'd better believe it," Aunt Margit said smugly. "Dear Adolf has turned networking into a super power."
"Get that gene scanner working," Uncle Adolf said to Opa. "We need to know exactly what we're working with."
"But the programming..."
"I'm about to see if I can get that specialist here by late this afternoon. Do what you can."
"What about us?" asked Penelope, grabbing Erica's hand and raising it with hers.
"You two have a trip to the library," Aunt Margit reminded. "Let the schemers scheme. It's what they do best. All we can do is give them space."
And just like that, the meeting was adjourned. Matty-boy went off to bed, and her eyes did not miss how Ms. Ruby watched him go. Ye-he-hess.... She'd let 'em stew for a few days before giving them another push. Mr. Schroeder — Uncle Hans, he'd insisted she call him — hurried to that room upstairs that looked like a tornado passed through a Best Buy. Sava Adolf was about to follow when she snagged his sleeve to get his attention.
"Guess this means the whole bonding thing this afternoon is off?" She still didn't know what he had planned, and perversely that made her want to go more than ever.
"Perhaps, perhaps not," he said. His eyes gave away nothing but the vague sense that he was amused. "Should I manage to arrange things properly by seven this evening, then I do not see that we cannot continue as planned."
"You have my word, Penelope." The old man's voice was warm as he said it. "I look forward to it."
"Good." She nodded and relinquished control of his sleeve. These people kept their promises; she'd learned that quickly. As she got up to join Erica and the grandmothers on the library trip, she thought of the promises made on her side as well. To be a good granddaughter, a good cousin, a good protégé. She wasn't a Stein yet, not until the WitSec papers went through, but in her heart she'd already decided. Penelope Stein would keep her word, no matter what.
Even if it meant extra homework in the middle of summer vacation. Bleh.
It was half-past five when Adolf knocked on his door. In tow was a young man, maybe twenty-four years old, with a bulky bag slung over his shoulder and an unhealthy green cast to his face. An invitation to have a seat was complicated by the fact that every spare inch of horizontal space was loaded with fragments of electronics. Much of it was hobbyist stuff, the kind of thing one would find in a Radio Shack or some other store dedicated to people who just liked to fiddle around. The rest had been gathered from pawn shops, though presently it would be hard to say what form those bits had taken at the store. None of it looked like the innards of a high-tech piece of biometric equipment, though he would beg to differ. As it was, he took this opportunity to dump as much of the excess as possible into a cardboard box. His work was done.
On the table was a devise. It was short but massive, hunkering down on the formica like some mechanical beast. Its face was an smartpad, or at least had been one in a previous life, connected to the main body by a neck built of cables and an old erector set. The back of the beast rose into a convex hump of plastic, much like a turtle shell, and within its smooth protection lay nestled four little baubles. He was reminded of those frogs from South America that kept their tadpoles embedded in their backs. Four pylons served as its legs, each containing portions of the specialized processors as well as cooling towers. A long, rat-like tail trailed behind it, snaking to and fro before finally mating with the wall socket. It was not a thing of beauty, this beast, but one born of need and desperation. That was the essence of macgyvering.
"Dear Grod," Adolf's young man mumbled. His face, already an unpleasant shade of green, went even paler. "That's the project? Nobody said anything about mad-sci."
"He's not mad; he's my brother," Adolf said with only the hint of a smile. "And the purpose of this machine has not changed. It needed some emergency repair work, and that's all."
"Must be some emergency, then."
"If you couldn't tell by the way you arrived, we don't have a lot of time to work with. Hans, I'd like you to meet LAN Ulster, our technical wizard. LAN, this is my brother Hans, experimental biotechnologist and reasonably unbalanced scientist."
"A pleasure," he said. "And what do you mean, 'reasonably unbalanced'?"
"Well, I'd already said you weren't mad..."
"Getting a little peeved, though," he quipped back. "Nice to meet you, Lance."
"It's LAN. L-A-N, all caps."
"My apologies. Now, as you can see here," he waved at the beast, "we have a former MCO gene scanner, which unfortunately bore the brunt of its previous owners' frustration with that agency. After replacing several elements that were never meant to be replaced, we are left with a cybernetic chimera the parts of which do not all necessarily speak the same language. I've done all I can with the physical components, and now I need help with the programming. My brother assures me you're the man for the job. Are you up to the challenge?"
The young man stared at him for a moment, then at the beast. LAN licked his lips nervously, and Hans watched as the familiar light of inspiration and mania began to shine from the programmer's eyes. He waved to the seat beside him, and LAN settled in. The young man pulled a cube of plastic from his bag, pressing buttons and pulling tabs until it unfolded, blossomed into a full workstation complete with a holographic projection screen and an ergonomic keyboard that was hinged in the middle. Lan disconnected the two halves of the keyboard and spread them far apart, stretching his arms before bringing his hands down upon the keys. The two controllers floated lightly upon the formica, directing twin cursor arrows independently upon the screen as he typed.
"Okay, let's do this."
The clock struck six, and she let the pen fall to the paper, wringing her hands a bit to relax cramped muscles. Three hours a day, she'd promised Safta Margit, and she'd just done four — more, if she counted time spent at the library. By her right elbow, a stack of books stood upon the table like a temple to the dread god K'nolij. The ten books, all of her own choosing, were her curriculum for the next two weeks. Two of them, The Goy's Guide to Judaism and Hebrew for Beginners, lay open before her, along with a notebook full of new vocabulary and definitions to keep track of. The last half hour had seen her writing her own name over and over again.
פנלופה, פנלופה פנלופה ... The whole right-to-left thing was hard to get used to, but she was already getting a good handle on the alphabet and its general lack of vowels. Eventually she'd remember how all the little dots worked, for sure.
All this study kept her mind away from pointless worry. It was only once every half hour or so, when she came up for air, that thoughts of Erica and the MCO intruded, but a few extra rounds of Hebrew vocabulary banished them as thoroughly as any magic spell. A while before, she'd finished reading a section on keeping kosher, coming away with the impression that there was a lot more to it than simply "no pork," and before that she'd attempted to review some trigonometry. On the other end of the table, the cuz was devouring a thick book titled Mutants and Modern Politics.
Knock-knock. "Dinnertime, girls," came Aunt Winnie's voice from outside the room. Erica was up in a flash, not even stopping to lay her book down, but Penelope took the time to tidy her pen and papers. She came downstairs to find a pizza party already underway.
"So then, some people claim that All American caused Barry Goldwater to lose the election, but..." The cuz was in full chat-bot mode, regaling her grandparents in between bites with snippets of history from the day's studies. On the kitchen table were seven pizza boxes, and the tantalizing smell of pepperoni and cheese drew her in. It wasn't until she had a few slices on her own plate, and a good chunk of meat and dairy in her mouth, that she remembered her own studies. A bit of pepperoni caught in her throat, making her cough.
Safta Margit must've seen her guilty expression and interpreted it rightly, because the older woman winked and whispered to her, "Don't worry. We're away from home, and I'm not trying to keep things kosher."
"Sorry..." she replied after she cleared her throat. "Forgot that pepperoni is still pork."
"Eh, pizza is about as far from pareve as possible. If I were even halfway serious about it all, I'd probably have ordered Chinese for everyone."
That got a snort out of her. "But then Erica'd pig out and still be hungry again an hour later," she joked.
"Hey, whatcha talking about?" Speak of the devil....
"Just some stuff I studied this afternoon," she told the cuz.
"Oh, like the funny writing you were practicing over and over?"
"Yes. Well, not yet for that." She grabbed a napkin and scribbled her name in Hebrew letters, then handed it to Safta Margit for approval.
"You missed a dot, Penny dearest."
"What?" She snatched it back, scanning the letters till she found the errant lack-of-punctuation and fixed it. "There we go." This time, the monogram met with full grandparental approval, as well as some clapping from the cuz. "And tomorrow I'll actually practice other words," she promised.
"Take your time, Penny dearest. Jerusalem wasn't built in a day, and all that. Though when you're finished eating," Safta added in an offhand manner, "your grandfather seems to have found some time after all. That is, if you're still interested?"
"Yfmrghmnit!" It was a credit to Safta's language skills that she was able to understand anything through Penelope's mouthful of pizza, though to be fair there was only one possible answer for it to be.
Six-thirty was always a problematic time for Matthias Brooks. On the one hand, given his sleep schedule as compared to the rest of the human race, it was logistically the best time to set his alarm clock for. That way there was plenty of overlap between his starting hours and their ending hours. On the other hand, it was the very cusp of summer right now, which meant at least two more hours of daylight — never his best state of affairs. The way things were going this week, however, there was no telling what would happen during his habitual seven-to-eight hour snooze.
Case in point: just as he stumbled out of his cozy little hole and into the light of day, someone stumbled into him going the other way. Someone he'd never seen before. Half asleep though he was, his reflexes were sharp, and he had the young man against the wall with an arm bent painfully behind the back faster than an owl could hoot. It was only after this point that his brain switched gears to full consciousness and he realized he was standing around in his skivvies while manhandling a complete stranger.
"Hey, man! I was just lookin' for the toilets!"
"Yo, Matty-boy! Looking good! I dig the boxers." And there was Adolf's new granddaughter coming from the other direction with the old man himself. Neither of them seemed alarmed at having a stranger walking the halls, so he let up on the guy a little.
"I see you've met our programmer-errant," added the old man. "Matthias, this is LAN. LAN, Matthias."
"A pleasure," muttered the stringy youngster as the Screech Owl released him. "You must be fun at parties."
"Pay it no mind, lad," said Adolf. "You arrived while he was sleeping, and I hadn't had the chance to tell him yet. LAN here," he said, addressing Matthias, "is our new IT man. I arranged for him to drop in sooner than expected."
"Bloody teleportation," the kid, LAN, mumbled.
"And I was also able to make those other arrangements for matters in Little Rock," Adolf continued. "If you're still headed that way?"
"Yeah, gonna meet up with Billy tomorrow to discuss team-ups."
"Wonderful. I've left the details with Margit. If I don't see you again this evening, then bon voyage."
"Huh? Where are you off to?"
"My granddaughter and I," Adolf said, laying a proprietary hand on Penelope's shoulder, "are going to spend some quality time together."
"In the middle of all this?"
"If not now, then when? I have everything arranged for the moment, and barring emergencies there's no reason I can't take an hour or two off. Come now, Penelope dear, we are wasting daylight."
"Yes, sava," said the girl, beaming happily. "Oh, and Matty-boy," she added with a wink, "you better change into something more work appropriate. Though I bet Ruby wouldn't mind a show." She was still giggling as they walked off.
He let out a sigh. When exactly had his life gone all topsy-turvy? Just last month the Screech Owl had been a free agent, a lone spirit of the night who was only nominally tied to the greater community of supers, and now here he was, in the thick of things with the makings of a team on his hands and crazy old guys calling the shots.
"So, um, sorry about that," he said to LAN. "Any way I can make it up to you?"
"Just point me towards the crapper, man." The young man was dancing in place with a miserable grimace on his lips. "That teleporter the old guy hired was fast and dirty, and my body's not happy about it."
Matthias snorted. "Yeah, that's the way Adolf rolls. You should fly with him in his Cessna sometime. The john's down that way, third door on the right." He watched LAN dash off, then quickly ducked back into his room to change into his flight outfit. Then he went in search of the source of those pizza smells pervading the corridors.
"Got any left?" he asked when he saw the pile of empty pizza boxes. "Or did little miss megamouth finish it all?" Beside the pile, Erica stuck out her tongue.
"We saved you a pie," said Ruby, handing him a plate. "Hope you like deluxe supreme, though. It was about the only thing she wouldn't eat."
"Not a big fan, myself," he admitted. "But if it's what guarantees me a slice, then I guess I can adapt." He wolfed down a slice while Ruby filled him in on the details of the afternoon. "Already met that LAN kid," he said. "Think he'll be any help?"
"According to Hans, definitely," she replied. "They might even have that gizmo up and running by late this evening."
"Good to hear. Call me when you all get the results, okay?"
"Where are you going?" asked the little blonde, who was peeling strips of melted cheese off the bottom of the boxes. Lordy, where was she putting it all? He'd seen sticks that weren't as skinny as Erica Schroeder.
"Back to Little Rock," he told her. "Got some folks I need to see, and your uncle's arranged for some professionals to relocate all the stuff in your house, so I'll be driving the moving van back as well."
"Could you make sure they take good care of my computer?" the girl asked. "And my action figures? Oh, and if you can, it'd be great if they could stack all my RPG sourcebooks towards the top so I can get to them easily for this weekend's game — Oh!" She slapped her forehead. "Will you be back in time for that?"
"Should be, but...." He hesitated. "If things go south for us with the MCO, we may not have a chance to play."
"Don't worry! Uncle Adolf's on the job. Everything will be okay." Now it was the girl's turn to hesitate. "Well, for us at least. I wouldn't bet any money on the MCO guy."
Ruby looked at him, and he looked back. The barest ripple of muscle at the corner of her mouth betrayed the arrival of a smile, and suddenly they were both laughing together. He had to sit down before he lost balance completely. Laughter, he'd read once, developed from the human need to release stress, which was why people laughed as much at things that were painful or true as they did for things meant to be funny. And either way, the final fate of that poor MCO goon was liable to be very funny indeed — even if the schmuck never realized.
She settled into the proper stance, legs firmly planted but not locked, leaning in slightly, arms together straight to form a triangle pointing towards the target. Slowly, tenderly, she squeezed —
BANG! A hole appeared in the paper target twenty feet away. BANG! BANG! BANG! Three more opened in a tight formation around the first. She let off the rest of the magazine, then placed the handgun on the counter as the target was pulled in. Her ears itched, so she scratched and adjusted the noise mufflers a little, before presenting the paper to Sava Adolf, who was standing behind her.
"Good precision," the old man noted. "Accuracy needs some work, but that should come in time. How did it feel?"
"A little heavy," she admitted. "It's got more kick than the dart-chargers, that's for sure. I liked the first one better."
"The Ruger?" Sava said, nodding to the second handgun on the counter. Her grandfather had rented three different models from the range for the evening, all fairly low-caliber. She'd just finished trying the Glock 36. "To be expected for now. Those dart-chargers were light things, so I think we should keep you on 22-calibers," he advised. "We can move you up to larger loads once you have more experience. Here, try the Beretta."
She picked up the third gun, checked the safety and magazine, then waited for the target to finish resetting. This one wasn't as bulky as the Glock, though still heavier than what she was used to. A part of her wondered when the Green Cross had planned on introducing the Valkyrie girls to heavier firepower. Considering how drunk some of her former friends had been on the bitch queen's kool-aid, it probably would've been soon. She shivered to remember the one chance she'd had to speak with the Valkyries on Tuesday, before the Feds had them shipped off for deprogramming. Haley and Charlotte had been her new best friends at the start of the crazy summer camp, but they'd also been two of the first girls to succumb to the brainwashing. When they were told why she wasn't going with them, there'd been death threats and gutter language so foul that it was hard to believe they weren't possessed.
Deep breaths, she told herself. Deep breaths. Find your center, calm your body, and continue. She was going against Fearless Leader, after all. Death threats were par for the course. That's why the Steins were getting her through Witness Security, and why Sava Adolf's idea of grandparental bonding involved small arms fire — well, that part was at least as much about him being Adolf as it was about her being on von Groenwald's scheisse-list.
If Sava Adolf saw the shaking in her shoulders and arms — and she was willing to bet he did — then he didn't say anything. He waited patiently for her to get all in order, take aim, and put another six rounds into the target. This time, she shot a rough circle around the bulls-eye. "Yeah, I like this one," she said.
"I thought you might. Now, clear the magazines, check the safeties, and bring the guns to the back table. I told the range master that we would clean them first."
The next half hour passed quickly as grandfather imparted unto granddaughter the basics of breaking down handguns and keeping them in good condition. Rugers, she learned, were notoriously difficult to disassemble quickly, though Sava did say the more recent models were better about it. The Beretta Px4 Storm, on the other hand, was designed specifically to have interchangeable, and thus easily removable and replaceable, parts. The grip was a little large for her hands, but that was the only issue.
"I shall look into getting a Px4 Subcompact," said her grandfather. "It would be almost identical to the Px4 Storm, but better sized for your hands. It fires 22 and .40 Smith and Wesson rounds, and I know a man who can alter the barrel and magazine to accommodate more exotic devisor rounds. This range doesn't have one for you to try today, but Ms. Ruby's Toto is a variation on the type. Perhaps we can talk her into letting you borrow it sometime."
"Cool." Idly she wondered how normal grandparents spent time with the grandkids. Images of homemade cookies filled her imagination as she cleaned the Beretta, so real in her head that the aroma of chocolatey-chip goodness mixed with the biting smell of Hoppes #9 cleaning solvent. Maybe she could talk Safta Margit into baking with her, when Erica wasn't around to eat all the results.
"Also, would you be interested in a concealed-carry permit?"
"A what?" Thankfully she wasn't holding a vital bit when she dropped everything to stare at the old man. "I'm a little young for that, right?"
"You'd be surprised. We keep an official residence in Muncie, Indiana, and over in that state the minimum age for concealed carry is eighteen."
"What about other states?"
"Most of them require the permit holder to be twenty-one or older. However, they also have agreements of mutual recognition of permits between states, so as long as you have a good fake ID and can bluff well, then you shouldn't have any problems."
"Y'know, I don't think grandpas are supposed to encourage behavior like that."
"Who's encouraging? I am simply aware of the realities of our life. While I do not expect you to go around getting into firefights with Nazis, if such a happening should find you, then I would be remiss in not helping you prepare for the eventuality. Ah, excuse me..." At his hip, Sava's phone was ringing. The old man checked the number, and she could swear that a flash of surprise crossed his face for a second. "I'm sorry, Penelope dear, but I need to take this. Just a moment."
"No problem, sava. I'll finish up here." She took her time oiling and reassembling the Beretta, carefully checking each piece as she went. It had felt so natural when she shot it, just as it had during the firefight last Sunday. Before she'd left the foster home in early May, she'd never fired a gun in her life. It would've been scary how fast she was getting used to this life if she weren't so jonesed about it at the same time.
Sava Adolf returned, tight-lipped and unhappy, but the old man didn't say a word as they returned the rented firearms to the range master and left. They started home, and Penelope waited till they'd been driving for several minutes before asking what the matter was.
"It's..." the old man began.
"If the next word to come out of your lips is 'nothing,' then I call bullshit," she said.
"You wound me, Penelope dear. In point of fact, it is a matter which I'd prefer to discuss with certain others before I let it be known to all."
"Is there anything else you would like to talk about?" he said.
"Well, not that you mention it..." Several lines of questioning bubbled through her head, so she latched onto one of those. "What's up with the MCO? Why's this one guy from Topeka causing so much anxiety?"
"The short version would be that the modern MCO developed from roots of hatred, mistrust, and suppression. True, there are good people in that organization, and more every year, but it still attracts bigots in equal or larger measure. In general," he continued, "a region gets MCO agents that mirror its attitudes. Areas more friendly to mutants have MCO officers who try to overcome the differences and mistakes of the past."
"While Kansas gets a bunch of idiot bigots."
"Kansas and Nebraska," Sava agreed. "That's the area covered by the regional office. I checked around earlier, and it seems that the Topeka office is seen as a good place to dump problematic agents."
"Why am I not surprised you have contacts in the MCO..."
"Why shouldn't I? I used to work there, at least for a few years."
"Ah," Sava said, keeping his eyes on the road. "We have perhaps twenty minutes before we arrive home. Are you interested in a story?"
"I've heard 'em from Safta, Uncle Hans, and Aunt Winnie so far. Might as well collect all four."
"Fair enough," he chuckled. "Now, I know you've heard plenty about the shadow wars, and the various sides which fought in them, but ask yourself this question: Where did they all go?"
"Huh? You guys beat 'em, right?"
"Yes, and therein lay the problem. With my father's demise in 1965, and the Green Skull's that same year, the Fourth Reich began a slow spiral of destruction. At the same time, the technocrats were losing the war of public opinion, as both television and cinema undermined their credibility, and with it their ability to raise funds for those secret island lairs they loved so much. Well before the four of us took down Eugen von Groenwald in 1975, the allied shadow agencies were having crises of their own. There were no more shadowy villains to fight, and so no reason to justify the black holes the agency budgets had become. Many agents tried to get out of the business entirely, but found that normal life was too dull for one who'd run in the shadows. Some turned to active villainy, using their skills and contacts to become the thing they'd once fought against. Others turned to the more legitimate agencies, such as MI6 or the CIA, for employment, only to be met with distrust and bureaucratic pressure to retire.
"Then came the mutant question. Once their existence was confirmed, it didn't take long for extremists to rise out of the woodwork, on both sides. True, the so-called mutant supremacist groups of the Sixties never amounted to much, all appearance but no substance, but the potential danger they represented was quite real. The Mutant Commission Office — formed to study the metahuman phenomenon, not control it — suddenly found itself staffed by dozens of quiet men with shady pasts, who'd spent the best years of their lives fighting Nazis and other types of eugenicists. As far as they were concerned, they were merely trading one fascist threat for another. That is where the MCO's hard core came from."
"And you were there with them."
"From 1976 to 1980, yes. Margit and I took missions against some of the more organized threats, but we hated the office culture. I was raised in a fascist environment, remember, and I mistrusted the zeal of my comrades at the MCO. Your grandmother, of course, was firmly against the seizure of young mutants 'pro securita publica.' For the sake of public safety," he added for her benefit.
"Damnit, I need to add Latin to my list of things to learn, don't I?"
"It might help," he agreed. "Even early on, it was looking too much like the Night of Broken Glass for our tastes, so we went freelance and had quite a lucrative career... which I shall tell you about some other time, as we have arrived."
"Aw, and just when it was getting good..."
"Hello, Wichita Warriors HQ. Ruby speaking."
"Ah yes, Agent Gardner." The voice on the other end of the line was oily and fat, much like its owner. She repressed a sigh. This was the second call she'd received from this man so far today, and the first time had left her cussing. "I am just checking in," the voice continued. "Is the mutant still in your custody?"
"Yes," she said, spitting out a "sir" a few seconds later as an afterthought. At the other end of the rec room couch, Erica looked up from her history book, but Ruby put a finger to her own lips and shook her head.
"Excellent. Agent Jankovich from the MCO has just left, and should arrive sometime around midnight. Please be prepared for the prisoner transfer."
"Yes. Sir." The two syllables barely made it through gritted teeth.
"I knew I could trust you to walk the right path here," said the man, Edward Simms, head of the state's Department of Extra-Ordinary Emergency Management and her nominal boss. The meaning of those last words was not lost on her. Oh, how she wished she could kick him in the teeth right now, or beat him over the head with a leg. "I'll be in touch," Simms finished. Then, with no further niceties, the line went dead.
"Arrogant bastard," she growled to no one in particular.
"Who was it?" asked Erica.
"A petty asshole who likes to have people do nasty things for him," she replied as she massaged her temples. "C'mon, let's see how everyone else is doing. Our timeline just got a lot shorter."
The beast was purring on the table, sounding for all the world like some oversized house cat. Invisible, byte-sized snippets of information passed between it and LAN's workstation to form lines of arcane code upon the holographic display. Hans recognized the work of a master in his element, and let the young man work without interruption. Instead, he'd taken the time to upgrade the coffee machine, which now produced the strongest caffeinated beverage that could legally be referred to as "coffee," though some would dispute that appellation. His own wife usually referred to it as a disaster waiting to happen.
There were still a few kinks to work out, though. The finished product had the consistency of hot tar, so he'd needed to water it down with a canful of beer from Ruby's fridge. Some might call it a waste, but it was only an American beer, after all. No harm done, and a little alcohol helped lubricate the mental gears, he'd found. Certainly, LAN hadn't complained.
"Done," the programmer announced. The beast ceased its animal noises and sat there, waiting for its next treat. On the holographic display, a facsimile of LAN's own face appeared, smoother and less detailed than the reality, with analytic summaries surrounding it. The young man navigated the maze of details with his twin cursors, checking for all the items Hans had listed. "Yup, scan complete, all systems nominal."
"Good work, lad," he said. "Now to get Erica up here and checked."
"Halfway there," Ms. Ruby announced from the doorway. Behind her, his granddaughter was peeking into the room. "Got the call. MCO guy's gonna be here in five hours, tops. You all ready over there?"
"Pretty much," said LAN. "Calibration's almost complete. Just need a baseline sample."
"What's all that, then?" she asked, nodding to the display.
"That'd be me," the programmer replied. "Gadge-3. And yourself?"
"Normal as chocolate cake," she said. "All my tricks are props."
"Guess you'll do, then. Finger in the hole, please."
Hans guided her to the spot in question. "Now, you'll feel a pinprick, Ms. Ruby," he cautioned her. He almost missed her wince as the sampler did its work. "There, all done."
"Thanks..." The black woman sucked on her fingertip for a moment. "How long will this take?"
"Twenty-five percent complete right now," said LAN.
"What?" She stared at the beast. "No way it can be that fast."
"We may have upgraded it a little," Hans admitted sheepishly.
"Not gonna spit out an army of mini-me's, is it?"
He shook his head. "No, and I'm tired of people asking that question." Behind him, the beast whirred contentedly as it gnawed on its new snack, digesting it and breaking it down into easily analyzable bits. Screening for the known metagene clusters turned up nothing, as the results showed once they appeared on the display.
"What's with the picture?" Ruby asked, jerking a thumb at the image of a face reasonably like her own, but a little rounder and softer. "I can see the resemblance, but what gives?"
"It's a basic phenotype extrapolation," LAN explained for him. "Originally designed for law enforcement a few years back. The only problem is that it doesn't take lifestyle into account, so it looks odd when the sample subject is more or less athletic than the norm." The young man let loose a ripple of clicks and clacks as he typed ambidextrously. "Okay, calibrations complete, and databases confirmed as current. Time for the main event."
The thing on the table was unlike anything she'd seen Opa use before. Obviously, there were a lot of things about him that Erica hadn't known till recently, but the few times she'd been to the labs with him before he retired, everything had looked completely, disappointingly mundane. Her younger self had been quite put out about that, but he would've loved what she saw now.
It reminded her of the combat mechs from this one magepunk RPG she — well, Eric — and Saumer had tried out last year. There was that same sense of deadly purpose driving it, and the same half-finished crudeness to its outer appearance. One glance was enough to tell a person that this was not a device for use with science as most people knew it. In fact, there was only one word she felt could describe it properly.
"Awesome," she whispered. The word was just loud enough for Opa and the computer dude to hear, and they shared a grin as she poked and prodded the devise curiously. "You made this in four days?"
"From available parts," reminded Opa. "From scratch, it would take much longer."
"Still awesome. So I put my finger in there?" She pointed to a conveniently sized opening along the front of the devise's chassis. At Opa's nod, she wedged her pointer in and winced with anxiety. She'd — he'd — scheisse, she still needed to keep the pronouns straight in her own inner monologues — SHE had never liked needles.
-ping- a pause, then another -ping-
"Um, what was that?" she asked as the devise's front screen went red.
The computer guy, LAN, looked up from his station to stare at her. "Um, Dr. Schroeder?" he said. "I think you're gonna need a bigger needle."
He could feel the tension in the air even as he crossed the threshold of the Warrior's HQ. It wasn't the sort he'd been expecting, the sort that had pervaded the building's corridors for much of the week. It was sharper now, harder. Adolf was not an empath, and had no ESP talents at all of which he was aware. The tests for such had been dizzyingly thorough. That was not the same as saying he had no empathy or empathic sense, though the researchers had finally written it off as a combination of good body language awareness and luck.
So it was with a practiced ease that he took one look around the coffee table and had a complete stock of everyone's emotional state. Frustrations were high, as was anxiety. Worry winked from the corners of every eye — even his Margit's. The calmest face in the room was actually Penelope's, in part because she did not know enough to worry like the others, and in part because she had a younger cousin by her side who needed support.
Yes, Margit was right about the girl. She was a keeper.
"Let me get this straight," he said, calling the meeting to some semblance of order. "Your machine works, Hans, tested with mutant and baseline samples." His brother nodded. "And then Erica broke it?"
"Bent the needle," said LAN. The young man had the affronted look of a tech who knows his machines run perfectly as long as the stupid non-techies kept their hands off. "Not sure what your master plan was, Mr. Stein, but that's bent to hell as well."
"I still don't see why we can't use a higher-gauge needle," said Winifred. Erica grimaced at that.
"I explained that, liebchen..."
"No, you did not," she shot back. "You told, you expounded, in the densest devisor-speak I've heard in ages. A hundred words a minute, volume turned up to eleven, and an average syllable count of seven. I told you to lay off that coffee-flavored amphetamine blend of yours; it's impossible to understand you at times."
"Hans," he said softly, raising a hand before husband and wife would continue the verbal barrage. "Winnie. We are all tired and stressed. The sword of Damocles hangs above us, I know, but we must be strong for a while more." He waited for his brother to sit back. "Now LAN, why don't you explain to my granddaughter what's going on. Remember that she is only seventeen, and got a C in chemistry last year."
"Thanks, sava," Penelope grumbled.
"We're going to change that soon, Penelope dear. So, LAN? It's your floor."
"Okay, um... Needles. The standard MCO gene sorter takes a blood sample via pinprick. Ours is no different. Well, in that respect at least. We need a sample large enough for DNA extraction, which means we need a decent white blood cell count in there... Er, sorry, rambling. Ahem," the young man paused for a moment to process. "Simple version. Ms. Schroeder's skin appears to have a new substructure to it that, well, no bio-devisor here, but I'm guessing it's knife-proof. Needle-proof. Whatever. It's highly resistant to puncture damage, is what I'm saying. The doc's got himself a bit worked up on the possible origin of it all, but I couldn't make heads or tails of it. Er, sorry sir."
"It's no problem, lad." Good, Hans was sounding calmer now.
"So, the needle couldn't penetrate," Adolf prompted.
"Bounced clean off. Machine tried harder, and it bent. We got extra needles, but most of them are the same gauge, while at a guess we prob'ly need diamond-tipped titanium. That is," the programmer added, "if it's not a PK field of some sort. Anyway, doesn't matter. The MCO only uses these things if the subject is uncertain or denies being a mutant. The EvoRocks guys are calling 'em 'witch needles' online. Prick the subject, watch 'em bleed. But that's back east. Here, the MCO guys have to carry 'em, but the bloody politicos are gonna let him take her even without proof, right?"
"We are prepared for that."
"Hope so, man. Too bad the blood test's pointless now. It's only there to give proof in the absence of obvious mutation, right? So if you haveta ask for the heavy-duty needles, well, you're obviously not a normal person."
"Why can't we just use a different blood sample?" asked Penelope. "Fake fingertip or something. Y'know, spy stuff."
"That's why they put the phenotype extrapolator in there," said LAN. "If the image it gets from the sample doesn't match you closely enough, they can slap you with a charge of contempt or obstruction, and even the Feds would have to acknowledge it." The young man shook his head. "The extrapolation's not one hundred percent accurate, but it's good enough to make spoofing hard, even with time to prepare."
"We've got two blue-eyed blondes right here," his granddaughter pointed out before he could. "At least we can try."
"You took the words out of my mouth, Penelope dear," he said, noting how the girl beamed at the compliment. "If you and Winifred could go upstairs with LAN and Erica to check on that? The rest of us will discuss strategy."
His sister-in-law didn't like being left out, but she nodded anyway. "Fill me in later, schnucki," she said, kissing her husband on the forehead. Family crisis averted.
He waited till they were gone before unloading the bad news on Hans and Ms. Ruby. "The Syndicate is burning Wichita."
"Wait, what?" Had her ears deceived her? No, no, they may not be bionic, but they were completely serviceable. They'd caught those five words perfectly. It was the stuff in between them that was having trouble. "They're going to torch the city?" The Syndicate was many things, she'd heard, but wholesale arsonist was not one of them. Something did not compute, and she was afraid it was her brain.
"I mean burn as in ceasing all ties. Like in those old Mission Impossible episodes, 'the Secretary will disavow all knowledge of your actions,' et cetera," Adolf explained. "Here, the Syndicate is writing off all its assets in the city and its environs. That includes the base the Green Cross rented plus at least three others. It will sell what it can and clear the rest of incriminating evidence, and soon."
"This is a good thing, right?" She turned to Hans, Margit, and Adolf, hoping to see some kind of assurance in their eyes. None was to be found, and her heart sank down all the way to her non-existent ankles. "Okay, tell me why it's not."
"Answer me this, first," Adolf said. "When was the last time a major supervillain hit this city? I'm not talking about petty criminals with a touch of power, but a real threat to business or public safety."
"Before my time on the team. Way before." She thought back as far as she could, then tallied up the years. "I was nine, so... 1999? The Grin Reaper, masked psychopath with a smiley-face fetish. He killed the original Wichita Warrior, but was so wasted by the fight that the police snipers got him right after."
"Seventeen years without a supervillainous incident," Adolf concluded. "That is anomalous, for a city like Wichita. It may not be terribly large, but it's the biggest in this state, so it should be a more frequent target than that. Can you guess the reason?"
"The Syndicate." It couldn't even be called a guess. The answer was obvious. "They had some sort of protection racket going, didn't they."
"Hardly a racket, but protection nonetheless."
"A quid pro quo?" asked Margit.
"Exactly, schatzi. In exchange for turning a blind eye to certain zoning violations and the fact they were housing multiple military-grade mad science projects within city limits at any given time, the Syndicate ensured that none of its affiliate members would target Wichita — and by extension the entire western half of the state. No fuss, no repercussions, just business and a quiet life for all."
"And then we messed it up," she said glumly. It figured. Her first real action as a superhero, going up against her first real supervillain threat, and things only got worse because of it. She'd known that this life wouldn't be like the comic books, all cut and dry with an easily dispatched villain of the week, but this was bordering on politics.
"You were allowed to mess it up," Hans noted.
"That is correct," Adolf agreed. "My friend in the Syndicate said..."
"Wait a moment," Margit interrupted. "I thought we'd cut communication with Cranston after last Sunday."
"So did I, but he called me less than an hour ago to let me know about this. Like I've said, he's an honorable man in his own way. In any case, his goal was simply to harass the Green Cross, but his superiors had been looking for an excuse to get out of their contracts, both with Lillian and with the city of Wichita. Something about needing to change things up to avoid attention. We provided for both quite handily."
"What does this mean for us?" she asked.
"It means that it is now open season in Wichita for any powered villain who cares to stop by for a quick bank robbery, crime spree, or random act of terror," Adolf replied. "And currently, the only people trained to respond appropriately happen to be in this building."
"When did the Syndicate put the word out?" asked Hans.
The doctor sighed and settled back into his chair. "Which means the vultures are already circling, and we have the MCO en route. Scheisse."
"It will be one crazy party," Margit agreed.
"Maybe we'll get lucky?" she asked. "The villains and the MCO take each other out?" It was wishful thinking, she knew that, but at least it got a chuckle out of the senior partners.
"That sort of thing only happens in poorly written television dramas," said Margit. "But we can always pray, nonetheless."
"Sir? Sir?" The voice roused him from a half-dream world where all his past adventures had turned out for the best. It had been a nice dream, nicer than the reality of the little Honda's passenger side seat, and he was annoyed at his assistant for pulling him back to reality. Outside the car, all was dark, with only the moon and the stars to give light. Straight ahead was the long river of asphalt known as I-335, and to the left and to the right lay more of Kansas than he ever wanted to see, scientifically proven to be flatter than a pancake.
"What is it, Tom?" His assistant had taken the wheel at the last rest stop, however long ago that had been. As senior agent for this operation, he was going to need all his wits about him once they got to Wichita. He was about to berate the man for waking him when a bright flash of headlights interrupted him from behind.
"That, sir." Tom's voice was tense, and Jankovich could now hear the sound of the engine clearly. They were going well over the speed limit now. "The car behind us has been tailgating for the last few minutes. I try to let them pass, and they do nothing. I speed up, and they match it."
"Stupid joyriders," he grumbled. Turning around to face the annoyance, he saw that it was a very large vehicle that was after them, an oversized jeep or maybe a Humvee with an open top. The headlights were turned up bright, so he couldn't see more than the outline of a driver and a passenger behind the windshield. With all the photons they were pouring into his car, there was no doubt the hooligans could see him, though. He pulled out his MCO badge and held it squarely in front of the rear windshield. It didn't matter if these rednecks recognized it or not; the thing looked damned official. That should stop them.
Wait, what was the Humvee's passenger holding there? It was only an outline in the haze behind the headlights, but it looked like —
"Tom! Evasive maneuvers!"
"What?" His idiot assistant was slow on the uptake, so Jankovich grabbed the wheel himself, giving it a good yank that sent them careening into the opposite lane, but out of the path of the small missile that had launched from the other vehicle. The tiny rocket flew aimlessly for a moment before curving back towards them.
"Damnit." How'd they fit a tracking computer on something that small? He sent the Honda zigging left and right, thankful for the lack of oncoming traffic as they crossed all the lanes the interstate possessed, scraping the sides of the car as they barely squeezed through gaps in the median barrier, and leaving rubber marks like great long snakes on the pavement.
Then he saw the flaming paths of the other missiles, also inbound. "Aw, shit. Prepare to bail!" he order Tom, who still had command of the accelerator. "Brake on three. One, two..." They hit the ground running and made it to the wheat fields just as the pint-sized projectiles lit up the company car like it was the Fourth of July.
Two crazy ladies
From where they'd parked up the road, Clawdeen inspected the fireworks display with a pair of binoculars and a jaded eye. "A hit, a very palpable hit," she declared. "No fatalities, though, except for the vehicle."
"Eh, it was a crappy little plastic K-car anyway," came the reply from the driver's side. Bonnet lifted up her heart-shaped lenses and squinted at the distant conflagration. The evening wind ruffled her mouse-brown hair. With her lavender-pink gingham dress and red hairband, she didn't look much like a bank robber, which suited her just fine. "Sure about the MCO fuckwads?" Her words, on the other hand...
"Saw 'em make a dive for cover right before your pencil missiles hit, Babe," said Clawdeen. Taller and lankier than her partner, her violet ponytail and slitted eyes marked her as a mutant — though in this modern age of hair rinses and contacts, they could be explained away. Her long Hepburn-style gloves, designed to look like silk but made from much tougher material, hid the parts that were harder to ignore. "Still," she continued, "this'll put a crimp in whatever they're up to."
Bonnet patted the box on the dashboard. Like much of their vehicle, it was decorated in pinks and pastels. The Po-po Scan-o-matic Deluxe was one of her favorite devises, and its ability to trace all law enforcement frequencies, radio and GPS, had been the key to many a safe getaway. When it picked up an MCO transceiver in the vicinity, it had felt like her birthday'd come early. "So, on to Wichita?" she asked. There was something a little too nonchalant about her voice.
Clawdeen chewed on her lower lip. The urge to get moving and seize the day — not to mention the money — warred with the fact that her partner had her fingers busily unknotting the drawstrings on her corset vest. "Tell ya what," she said, prying the naughty digits away regretfully, "let's play a game. You keep driving, and we see how far I can go before you can't keep this bucket of bolts on the road."
"Ooh, I like that game..."
"I know you do, Babe." Her gloved hands were already under Bonnet's dress, sliding along thighs that were bare but for a garter belt and holster. "Better get going before the po-po arrive," she breathed into her partner's ear. The little brunette shivered, then threw the Leather & Lovelace Mk. III into high gear, peeling rubber out of there.
"Okay, I understand. Thank you, sir..." The line clicked and went dead. "Bastard," she said. "Okay, everyone! Got an update!" The rest of the crew was standing in the foyer, packed and ready to move on to stage two of Adolf's plan. "MCO guy's got himself into some sort of accident or car trouble. I'm supposed to keep my eyes on Erica at all times until he gets here, some time tomorrow, maybe."
"And will you?" Adolf asked.
"Don't see why not. There are harder duties out there, and I note that the idiot Simms never specified where I was supposed to be watching her," she added with a wink.
Thursday, June 8th, 2016. Little Rock, AR. 8:00 AM — Screech Owl
"Be it ever so fungal..." the Screech Owl griped, looking over the veritable spengler's worth of spores, molds, and fungi that now called his kitchen counters home. "This'll teach me to clean up properly before heading out." To be fair, he hadn't expected to be out long when that call had come in last Saturday, and no one could've predicted the rest of the week. He was just glad that he'd thought to pack an overnight bag for the trip in Adolf's plane — and that his suit was well fitted with deodorizing materials.
It had been a long flight. He'd flown farther in the past, including the endurance challenge for the Whateley advanced flight course, but it'd been a while. For most of it, he'd kept to soaring and gliding, locking his wings and letting the thermals carry him, but that wasn't as easy at night as it was in the daytime. His shoulders were sore from serious flapping by the time he got to his apartment.
He washed up the kitchenette, removing the spontaneous mycology projects and dumping them in the trash can before scrubbing all the dishes thoroughly. Then he got out his big duffel and filled it with clothes. Some casual wear, some nicer stuff, a larger variety of underpants... The Stein girl's teasing still echoed in his head from time to time, and he found himself choosing boxers according to how he thought a certain lady might react — and he shook his head. Had to keep his mind on the matters at hand, he did. That sort of speculation could wait for later.
Once he had the important stuff together, he showered and changed into civvies before taking out the trash. Pickup day was actually Friday, but better early than never, he supposed. It was on his way back to the front door that he realized he wasn't alone.
"Hey, Liv," he said to the figure leaning against the big oak in the parking lot. "When'd you get here?"
Olivia Branson, known to the public as the nature witch Ozarka, stepped away from the oak and glared at him. She was in civilian attire as well, though for her that meant dressing even more like a flower child than usual. "Four days," she said, not taking those hazel eyes off him. "Four days, and no word. By the Goddess, I had no idea where you were or what had happened!"
"I sent you an email."
"Yes, yes. 'Gone with the Steins, be back soon.' Like that's very informative. Leaving me to deal with everything over here." She crossed her arms and hit him with her best pout. "You have no idea what crazy things have been happening."
"I could probably say the same, but what's been going on in Little Rock?" There weren't any organized teams in the state, though the Arkansas heroes banded together on an as-needed basis. "Have there been problems with le Grand Escroc's guys? Or the Laser Klan?"
"No, no, Escroc's keeping to Louisiana right now, and the laser losers have moved west. We had a mutant manifest this week, and he's kept me busy. Too busy," she added pointedly.
"A new mutant, huh. Had him tested yet? MID?"
"Well, not yet. I mean, you usually handle this..."
Matthias shook his head. "Sorry, I'm still needed in Kansas. Some idiot's invoked that anti-mutant MCO bill they passed last year, and I'm in it up to my ears. Get this kid to Doc Shanks, have him tested, and give him a Whateley form. The sooner he's in the system, the safer he'll be."
"And what will you be doing?" she demanded. If words were weather, that question would be pure Ozark snowstorm.
"Meeting a freelancer, arranging the future of superheroics in Kansas, and helping save a kid from the worst sort of MCO interference," he said. "Don't worry; the testing paperwork isn't too bad. Shanks will just have you rubber-stamp some stuff. Easy-peasy." From down the street, the rev of a motorcycle rumbled through the air. "That'd be my next appointment." As if to prove his point, the motorcycle noise cut out a few yards behind them.
"Please," she said, raising the sweetness and volume levels up another notch. "Couldn't you stay and do this for me? Just be here a little longer?"
"Sorry, Liv. On a short schedule here."
"By the Horned God's hairy balls, you just can't take a hint! Well, screw you!" she shouted. She waved her hands as she stormed off, each pass subtly distorting the air around her, and walked straight into the oak tree without stopping. He'd seen her pull this trick before, and so was not surprised to see her vanish into the wood.
An old Harley had pulled into his parking spot, its rider staring at Olivia's point of dramatic departure. "Man," the guy said. "That was just cold."
"Hey Billy." He took the Cajun's hand, or rather had his own hand engulfed by Billy Boudreaux's meaty paw, and gave it a shake. "Sorry 'bout that. Liv's got a bit of a temper."
"Heck, I'd be mad too, getting dumped like that."
"What do you mean?"
"She was like, all over ya. 'Do this for me, please, you big strong man.' All that crap." Despite having a voice like gargling gravel, Billy managed a decent impression of the nature witch's too-sweet begging tones. "Whatever ya got going on for ya in Wichita, must be a nice one, man. What's her name?"
"You mean Liv?" he asked, waving towards the tree.
"Nah, yur new belle up in Kansas. A guy turns down a lady like that, must mean he's got better lined up, no?"
"No. Err... Maybe?" To be honest, he wasn't sure what he had going on with Ruby, only that it was more stable than the emotional roller coaster ride that was a relationship with Olivia Branson. "It's been a hectic week," he admitted. "How's about I fill you in over breakfast at the Waffle Shack around the corner? My treat."
Later at the Waffle Shack — Screech Owl
"Lemme get this straight," Billy said as he tucked into his double-deluxe waffle breakfast. The former infantry man was six-foot-five and built like the proverbial fridge, with an appetite to match his size. Matthias only hoped he could write this off as a business expense in some way, maybe. The IRS rules for superheroes were convoluted. "Y'all got the Green Cross, the MCO, and an unspecified number o' baddies working this town, and ya got how many people?"
"Me, Ruby, and four retired Nazi hunters," he said. The numbers didn't sound so good the second time around, either. "Plus a temporary tech guy and a couple of teenagers."
"Shee-yit, y'all are really up a creek on this one, aintcha." The Cajun shook his head. Beneath his buzz cut, a labyrinth of scars criss-crossed his scalp. "Dunno what I can do for y'all. I'm all washed up."
"Still having nightmares?" he asked softly. This was a touchy subject, he knew, but hopefully....
"Yeah," Billy vomited the word out like it was something filthy. "Docs say it's PTSD, but — feels different. Did two tours in Iraq, y'know. Another two in Afghanistan. Been through shit that'd turn most folks britches' brown and squishy, and came out of it wit' de usual shakes and stuff. But dis...." The man's accent got thicker as he continued. "Dis was crazy. Not just bad, but insane batshit God-almighty-done-cursed-us crazy."
Matthias let him be for a few minutes of contemplative waffle-noshing. He hadn't been involved in the Krewe of Kthon affair, but he'd heard plenty. There was supposedly an entire township down in the bayou past Natchitoches that had ceased to be, with four hundred people almost becoming the main course for the Krewe and its dark master. It was all straight-up Class X stuff, and he was impressed that Billy was holding up as well as he was.
"We need a strongman," he said finally. "A bruiser who can dish it out as well as he takes it. Before I even called you, I talked with Foolscap down in New Orleans. According to him, you bought his coalition of magic-users the time they needed to rescue the remaining victims and put down the Krewe."
"I didn't do nothin' special..."
"You held off a possessed biome with five machine guns, a tanker of napalm, and no assistance. I'd call that pretty special."
"Can't even remember doin' it," Billy said. The big man hung his head in shame. "Ever'time I try, or see som'tin' dat remin's me of it, I get the shakes. Even now..." He held up his right hand, which was trembling so bad that he'd dropped his fork.
"Come up to Kansas with me for a while then," said Matthias, moving the conversation along to safer ground. "No forest, no swamp, no gators, just miles and miles of the dullest farmland you ever did see."
"Ya rilly know how to sell it," said the big man, but there was a bit of a smile breaking that battered face. "I could use the change, I s'pose. Do ya think it'd help?"
"Better than sitting around doing nothing, right?" Matthias finished his last bit of waffle and waved for the waitress. "Got much to bring with you?"
"Nah, been travelin' light. All in my side car."
"Even better." He gave the waitress his credit card and signed for it. "I've got one more bit of business in town, and you can help. You game?"
"'Course, man. Let's roll."
The former home of the Schroeder's — Screech Owl
The Schroeder's house was a picturesque little building in one of Little Rock's suburbs. It was perfectly, blatantly normal, even though Matthias knew that old Hans had done some crazy things in the basement. At the moment, it was surrounded by a crumpled fumigation tent, and a moving van was parked in front. On the side of the van was a big logo, the letters M & S laid over a lighting bolt inside a yellow circle. Two men with matching red hair and blue overalls were carrying compact metallic containers out the front door when he and Billy arrived on the Harley.
"Billy, man. Deodorant."
"Sorry, been a while since my last shower."
"Couldn't tell," Matthias cracked. "My nose shut down on the first whiff. Hey, guys!" he shouted to the movers. "Adolf sent me."
"What's the word," the first man said, laying his load down carefully.
"He said, and I quote, 'I don't bother with code words. My name is sufficient,' unquote."
"Yup, that's Adolf alright." The man held out his hand. "I'm Mover."
"No, that's my codename, what it says on my MID. Power Mover. That there's my brother, Power Shaker." The second man waved.
"How do you know Adolf?"
"We specialize in moving stuff about fast, and he specializes in needing stuff moved about fast. You?"
"Working with him directly at the moment."
"My sympathies." Mover picked up a box to show Matthias and Billy. It was similar to a military cargo crate, but smaller. The lid was held in place by strong clamps, and a digital pad blinked at him. The label said 'Boy's Room.' "This is our standard container. Total internal volume of seventy-five cubic meters. My own design," he added proudly.
"So when it says 'Boy's Room'..."
"It's pretty much everything that was in there, laid out neatly on a twenty-five square meter pad in the back yard, stacked as high as we dared, and compressed via dimensional warping. Standard bag-of-holding stuff, but a little more versatile." He lifted the container and slid it into the van, where it joined a small number of its brothers. Two were labeled 'Cars'. "We should be finished soon. You guys can take it from there. Need us to box up that bike for you?"
"Nah, I think there's enough space in here." More than enough, in fact. The van's interior was echoingly empty, with the stack of containers looking more like an afterthought than the main cargo. "How do we return it once we're done?"
"It's got a one-way teleporter back to our garage built in, so no worries 'bout that. Oh, but be careful about opening the containers," Mover warned. "Make sure there's enough space to accommodate all that stuff before you put in the release codes. Speaking o' which..." He handed Matthias a memo pad. "Here's the container manifest and codes. Adolf's already paid up, so nice doin' business witcha."
"Thanks." Damn, how much was Adolf spending in just this week alone? The old man had said he was using up all his credit on this last job of his career, but Matthias had assumed he'd meant political capital, not financial. The Screech Owl pitied anyone in Internal Revenue who got the short straw to audit Adolf Stein's books.
He used Hans's key to lock up the house, helped load Billy's hog into the back of the van, and drove off. The first stop was his apartment, to tidy things, pick up some personal crap, and make Billy take that shower he so desperately needed. After that, it was time to hit the high road.
Hopefully everything was going well at the other end.
It was one in the afternoon by the time Jankovich found the mutant, half a day later than planned. The late-night pickup would have had the benefit of being discreet and anonymous. Just another mutant disappearing into the night and taken to a place of safekeeping. No muss, no fuss, little chance of endangering the public. That was the whole point of the state's arrangement with his office, was it not? Reducing the risk to innocent citizens?
Well, last night's hooligans had put the kibosh to that plan. Even with his MCO credentials to slip around the bulk of police paperwork, it had taken him till almost ten in the morning to get back to the Topeka office and resupply. Then he'd had Tom take them down I-355 doing almost ninety miles an hour to make up for lost time.
And now this.
He'd called the local state empowered law enforcement official, Gardner, only to find out she'd moved the mutant to a 'more secure facility,' as she called it. That was all well and good, and in keeping with the desire to minimize public risk. Considering what had happened to him the previous evening, it was even prudent. When he arrived, however, he had to wonder at the curious workings of fate. After going through all this business of extricating the mutant from the reach of federal authority, here it was, being held in the FBI field headquarters.
His MCO badge got him in the door and face-to-face with the agent in charge. Fredericks was a younger man, with black hair just now going to salt and pepper, forty at most, and soft from deskwarming. Jankovich could tell as much just by looking at him. It was small wonder that those two agents, Sabulum and the other one, hadn't trusted him. A man had to lead from the front, not from his rear in a cushy armchair.
Still, he greeted the collaborator with his best professional manner. "Agent Jankovich, regional commander, MCO. Here for prisoner transfer." Keep it formal, keep it detached, keep it professional. He and his agency were in the right here.
"You have the proper papers?" came the expected challenge. Oh, how the Feds liked their little sheets of cellulose! With personal satisfaction he handed Fredericks the court order, inked early this morning to replace the original, as well as the forms of settlement between his office and the state legislature. The FBI man flipped through each set carefully, making a crisp, clean sound of paper sliding on paper. Shif-shif-shif, it continued, until even Fredericks need admit that all was in order.
"Now, if you will kindly show me to where the mutant is being held?" he said. It was time to get this show on the road. The MCO transport plane would be landing in an hour or so, and he needed to have the mutant ready by then.
"Just one question," Fredericks said, holding up a hand. "What charges are levied against Ms. Schroeder?"
"She is a mutant without proper clearances within the state of Kansas, and is thus a threat to public safety," he said. "That should be enough."
"Alas," the man replied, "she is also a material witness in an ongoing joint investigation by the FBI, the ATF, and most likely DHS by the time we're done here. Moreover, her family is denying that she is a mutant at all, and I must agree that she does not appear as anything out of the ordinary. The burden of proof is on you, Jankovich. Do you have any?"
"I have reports from confidential, anonymous sources as to the existence of the mutant's — of Ms. Schroeder's — abilities. If that is not enough, I have my field-test kit with me. By federal and international law, you cannot deny me the right to test her for mutation." If the man wanted to play the trump cards, then so would he. "Take me to her."
Tom fetched the genetic sequencer from the car, and the collaborator escorted them into a conference room. The mutant was there, looking small and innocent next to her family. He had their information on file as well. The grandfather was a biology professor and researcher, now retired. The arguments for providing data on his granddaughter's 'condition' would work there. The grandmother was an instructor of gymnastics and yoga; she'd likely follow her husband's lead. The aunt and uncle were employees in one of the smaller government agencies — easily swayed by the standard public safety rhetoric. The cousin, he dismissed entirely as just another teenager. Once he'd proved the truth of the mutant's deception, he had no doubt he could win them over.
Then there was the local empowered law enforcement agent. Gardner stood out like a bit of coal in a snowbank, seated with the Schroeders and the Steins as she was. He walked up to her. "You are relieved of your prisoner, miss. You may leave."
"I was ordered to keep an eye on Erica until she was officially remanded to your custody," the black woman replied. "That has not happened yet, so I shall stay."
Damnit, what were they teaching youngsters these days? He'd have to speak with Simms about this one. "As you were, then."
The sequencer was set up on the table, looking quietly deadly with its clean, sleek lines. It was the race car of its world, high performance and style made one. The image was everything, and this machine gave the impression of cool, professional competence. There could be no doubt that it was infallible. He made a show of checking its settings personally, taking advantage of the recessed control panel to have the machine swap out the regular needle for the special Exemplar model. Sabulum's files had marked her as a potential Ex-4, after all.
"All ready," he announced. "Now, if Ms. Schroeder would please place her finger here?"
Okay, here it was. The moment of truth. She'd slipped the fake fingertip over her own right before the MCO guys came in. The gelatin-based plastic molded right over her own pointer finger, keeping it the same size and length as before, but with a small reservoir of Oma's blood hidden just behind the fingerprint. It was another one of Uncle Adolf's tricks, and she had to wonder how many he had left. Hopefully enough.
If Opa's devise was a Frankenstein's machine, the MCO guy's was an iWhatever, all plastic and curves. She thought it looked rather dull, actually, but maybe she was jaded. Obediently she placed her digit where directed and braced herself for the needle's pinch. Again, the anticipation was certainly going to be worse than the reality, but she had to put on a good show for the—
"Scheisse! Du verdammter Arschficker!"
"Erica! Mind your language!" Oma commanded.
"But it hurt!" She stuck her fingertip in her mouth and sucked on it. The fake bits dissolved the way they were supposed to, leaving the taste of blood in her mouth, stronger than it had been when they tested this trick out at the HQ.
She returned to Oma's encouraging hug. "Good work, liebling," her grandmother whispered. Erica grimaced at that, showing Oma the very obvious wound on her fingertip. This MCO guy wasn't fooling around.
"So how long will this take?" he asked, knowing the answer already. MCO gene sequencers were faster than most, but nothing compared to the beast. He nodded when Jankovich's assistant gave an ETA of twenty minutes. Hopefully that would be enough time. He'd seen the look of pain on his granddaughter's face, and the pinprick as well. Likely the man had gotten an actual sample instead of the fake. It was up to him to muddy the waters. "Agent Fredericks, since we have a bit of a wait, there was some new information about von Groenwald's operation I needed to share with you."
"Is now really the time?" the FBI man said, playing his part well. Adolf would have warned him something might come up.
"As it involves my granddaughter, I would say yes." He stood up, taking the practiced pose of a college professor. "Like we promised, we have attempted to reconstruct everything that happened within the base during that day and a half, but the parts during which Erica was unconscious have remained difficult to piece together. However, given her recent increase in fitness and strength," he said, noting how the MCO agent sat up at this tacit admission, "I initiated an examination of certain chemical markers associated with the von Groenwald protocols. You are familiar with them?"
"Only within the boundaries of this investigation," Fredericks replied. "The details are beyond me, to be frank. Would you mind if I recorded this for the lab boys back east?"
"Go ahead. You have our permission." The rest of the family gave consent, as did Ruby. The MCO agent looked like he'd bit into something sour, but he too nodded. Like it or not, this was all going on a recorder somehow. "The von Groenwald protocols," he continued, "were an attempt to make real the Nazi mythology of Ultima Thule, an ancient Aryan kingdom populated by people who were, for lack of a better word, superhuman. Physically and mentally superior, with powers similar to today's superheroes. All hogwash, of course, but the Reich believed it, and many tried to make it a reality. Adolf and I, along with Eugen von Groenwald, were the first generation of a eugenics program aimed at producing Thulean-level Aryans. The Green Cross, her half-brothers, and my own daughter Danielle were the second generation, and Erica is the third."
"The traits are heritable, then?" Fredericks prompted.
"Only in part. Quite a large amount of epigenetic information transfers across generations, but supplemental treatments are required. Adolf and I, as well as the entire von Groenwald brood, received this in utero. Danielle required it to survive her first year of infancy, and when Erica came around we used my version of the preparatory serum just to be safe. By itself," he added, "it works as a sort of gene therapy, repairing and healing. Superpowers only result from the second half of the protocols, which Eugen's father, the Green Skull, kept to himself, and eventually passed down to his son and grandchildren."
It was all speculation and lies, of course, but the best sort of both, the sort which fitted into the known facts and made sense. He and Adolf had sat down to determine just what the Feds were likely to know about this aspect of the Green Cross's power, and planned accordingly. From the way Fredericks was nodding, he was doing a good job of presenting it.
"So it is that the Green Cross has apparent projective empathy, her half-brother Mauer was a PK brick, while Glas and Sandmann have Psi abilities. We never saw Wahrheit in action, but it's likely he has some sort of power as well. None of them are mutants as defined under international law. They have no trace of the metagene complex, but the overall effect from the protocols is very similar. Which is why," Hans said, lowering his voice to a more serious tone, "I strongly suspect that the Green Cross subjected Erica to the second set of protocols sometime Saturday night while she was unconscious."
There it was, the Big Lie, out in the open. He only hoped it was good enough.
Who did they think they were fooling? In his years of ferreting out mutants, he'd heard some whoppers, but this was the most fanciful trail of bullshit he'd ever heard. Nazi conspiracy theories? Sure, the Feds were dealing with the Green Cross, but even he could see it was a stretch to connect a C-level terrorist threat with a war fought seventy years ago, and then again to a fourteen-year-old girl. Well, the joke would be on them, he gloated as the scientist's spiel went on and on. It was only a matter of time before he had incontrovertible proof on his side.
"And you have documentation to support this?" he heard that collaborator Fredericks ask. The Fed was still paying attention to this tripe, but that wasn't surprising. Dr. Schroeder was appealing to the man's pride by making a minor investigation in Bumfuck-nowhere, Kansas, seem more important than it really was.
"Right here," said Schroeder, with a thick folder in hand. "My personal notes and research on the preparatory protocols, both von Groenwald's originals as well as my own, and some hypotheses concerning the nature of the rest."
Hmph, the man was a charlatan, but he was a well prepared one. Jankovich had to give him that much credit. Still, any time now...
-PING- The chime rang, bringing the conversation to a halt. All eyes turned to where Tom was stationed next to the sequencer. His assistant had set up the large display, knowing that his boss would want everyone to see the awful truth for themselves. The mutant's face, or at least the phenotype projection, was already up there, and the text of the report began scrolling past. He waited patiently for the red flags to appear, to show the pernicious nature of the girl's DNA.
Nothing happened. He waited and waited, but the machine obstinately refused to raise the alarm.
"I don't suppose I could get a copy of this later," the mutant's grandfather asked. "I've heard excellent things about the quality of the MCO's genetic assessments. Always so accurate."
Damn the man! These traitors had tricked the sensors somehow, and now Schroeder was twisting the knife. He looked over Tom's shoulder, taking stock of the situation. No, no, no! There was literally nothing in there that pointed to a mutation. "There must be a mistake here," he finally said.
"Yes, obviously someone has falsely accused my granddaughter," said Schroeder.
"No, I have strong evidence to the contrary. The sample must have been faulty. I demand she be tested again."
"When was the machine last calibrated?" said Fredericks.
"This morning," Jankovich said. "I performed the operation myself."
"So then either you are at fault, and your maintenance is shoddy," concluded the Fed, "or Ms. Schroeder is not in fact a mutant. Which is it?"
"Neither! They've tricked it somehow. I have..."
"Yes, yes, you have proof," said Fredericks. "Which you have yet to present to us. Mr. Jankovich, this act may be enough to roll over rural sheriffs, but you'll have to do better than that here. I repeat myself when I say that the burden of proof is upon you. To phrase it more bluntly now, put up or shut up."
Oh, that was the final straw. Taking one particular folder from his bag, he lay the contents upon the table. Photo after printed photo spilled out, showing the Schroeder girl projecting an obvious force field. To his satisfaction, this shut up Dr. Schroeder completely.
"How did you come by this footage?" asked Fredericks in deadly serious tones. Good, he finally had the man's full attention.
"I have my sources."
"And who might they be?"
"I cannot reveal their identities, for fear of reprisals against them."
"Reprisal by whom?" The man was playing it cool, huh? Then so would he.
"By yourself, or someone more senior within the Bureau."
"So you received this from someone in this office?"
"Yes." He felt sorry for Sabulum and the other one, but he had no choice but to mention their involvement here. Even without giving up their names, it might still lead to an investigation which would reveal their assistance.
"Then why haven't I seen it before?" If he was cool before, Fredericks was now frigid. "My men have been working over the Green Cross's systems for almost a week, and I have seen every bit of footage as it was retrieved. This was not among the data we have."
Adolf Stein, the mutant's uncle, spoke up for the first time. "From the time signature, this was taken while the base's main systems were busy attacking each other," the man noted, though Jankovich wasn't sure what he was talking about. Was he trying to imply that these damning photos weren't from the Green Cross's base at all?
Fredericks answered the question for him. "These would have to come from the temporary surveillance rig the Green Cross set up."
"Which means they must have come from someone on her side," concluded Mr. Stein. "And their veracity must then be called into question."
"What!" Oh, this was not good. These mutant lovers had that collaborator so well wrapped around their collective middle finger that he was about to lose this one on a technicality. "Who cares where they came from! They're real, and they're proof. Under the rights and powers granted to me under the Mutant Commission Alliance and Liaison Act of 2015, I am taking Ms. Schroeder into custody right now!" He'd let this play out far too long. Now was the time to flex the legal muscle.
"And I am telling you," said Agent Fredericks, "to take that law and shove it someplace useful. You have no proof. Your own apparatus contradicts your claims and your photographic evidence is inherently suspect. You cannot provide compelling evidence that Ms. Schroeder is a mutant, so I must ask you to leave."
"No compelling evidence! Those photos alone..."
"Could have come from anywhere. There is such a thing as Photoshop, you know."
"I... I... Fine! Believe what you want about my evidence, but believe your own eyes as well!" The man wanted more proof? Well then he'd provide proof. His gun was out of its holster as fast as he thought it, sweeping around to aim at the mutant. He knew his own footage, and trusted it. She would block the shot reflexively, and he would be vindicated.
Except it didn't work out that way, because somehow—
—his arm went up—
—the shot rang out—
—a shower of dust fell from the ceiling—
—onto the back of his head—
—firmly planted against the tabletop—
—by a heavy hand—
—slamming it down—
—and a gun, a different gun, suddenly appeared in his face.
It took him longer to process than it took to happen. One moment, he was on the cusp of victory, and the next he was in pain, bleeding over the table, and a cold, serious voice was saying in his ear: "The next time you try to harm my niece, I will not stop with your arm and your nose. Every piece of you shall be broken, and my dear colleague Piet in New York City will agree that I was within my rights, you schweinhund."
Wait, Piet? Von der Geest? The MCO chief? Who was this man... That voice and those eyes followed him, chased him into the abyss of unconsciousness.
"Well, that's that," he said with a tired sigh. It was just him, his brother, and Fredericks in the room now. Jankovich had been taken away to a holding cell, while his assistant had been given the unenviable task of delivering the FBI's official report to his MCO superiors. Ruby and the grandmothers had escorted the girls to someplace safe and relaxing, where Erica could calm down in peace. His granddaughter hadn't taken the attempt on her life well, even if she probably would have deflected it. "Did we get what we wanted?"
"We got the MCO off of Erica's back," Adolf pointed out.
"And we removed that idiot Jankovich from action," Fredericks added. "I didn't think he'd actually pull his gun, much less on camera." The man scratched his head. "That added a few more grey hairs, to be honest."
"Mission accomplished, then," he said, flipping through the results from the gene sequencer. "I do wish we hadn't needed to risk Erica in this way."
"My apologies," said Adolf. "Jankovich was even less stable than I suspected. Will it be enough?" he asked Fredericks.
"Oh certainly. The man's looking at jail time for criminal conspiracy, attempted kidnapping, discharging a firearm within a federal facility, and possibly aiding and abetting an enemy of the state, though his general cluelessness may be his best defense there. In any case, the Mutant Commission Alliance and Liaison Act is dead in the water after this performance."
"So how much of that spiel was made up, by the way?" Fredericks asked.
"Less than I'd originally thought, surprisingly." He was looking over the raw data now, his experienced eyes looking for familiar patterns. "The serum I gave Danielle thirty-seven years ago was in fact based on my father's work with the elder von Groenwald, as was the far superior version Erica drank last weekend, when she thought she was keeping it out of enemy hands. The epigenetic augmentations appear to carry over far more between generations than I'd realized, and that last dose appears to have acted as a catalyst. I'm going to need a lot more time to go over it all, but..."
"Not a mutant?"
"Apparently not, but I don't know what else to call her. By all appearances she has the Exemplar package and a PK trait, but none of the metagene clusters usually associated with either of those powers." He wasn't sure the federal agent knew about the physical change from Eric to Erica, but that was still a mystery as well. "Our things should arrive tomorrow, and we may be able to claim some older DNA samples for comparison. That should help shed some light on it."
"What about that school back east? My niece has plenty of good things to say about the researchers over there. Thought about sending your granddaughter?"
"We're keeping it under consideration," he said. "But really, this is personal for me. I want to see how much I can discover on my own. Pride of the family."
"I understand," nodded the FBI man. "I'll leave this to you. I wasn't lying when I said the guys back east were interested, though. Someone may come by to pick your brain."
"They're welcome to," he said. "As long as they do not mess with my family."
"At this point," said Fredericks, looking straight at Adolf, "I don't think anyone would dare."