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The Real MCO

A Whateley Universe tale

by Diane Castle

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Monday April 9, 2007
8:30 am
New York City
NYC MCO Office Headquarters

Field Supervisor Carlos Delgado ‘Jeff’ Jefferson strode down the corridor toward the Director’s office. He didn’t like having his morning work schedule disrupted, but it was a personal summons from Director Clifford van Horne, so personal preferences had to be set aside.

Marilyn, the Director’s executive secretary looked up from her computer and smiled at him. “Supervisor Jefferson, go right in. The director’s expecting you.”

“Thanks, Marilyn,” he smiled back. He was just being polite. He knew Marilyn wasn’t interested in him. The water cooler gossip machine within the MCO had more dirt on more people than you could ever want to hear, since so much of the rest of work was ‘Top Secret’ and ‘Need To Know’, and couldn’t even be hinted at. But the most accurate gossips – and Carlos had made an effort to find out who was accurate so he could keep an ear to the ground – all said Marilyn was angling for Assistant Director Gregory J. Walmsley. Walmsley was one of MCO International Director Piet von der Geest’s fair-haired boys, and would probably end up director of one of the MCO offices in a couple years. But the New York City office was one of the top three postings world-wide, if not the official Number One trouble center, and no one got named director there without years of upper-level experience. Everyone said von der Geest didn’t like the fact that Cliff van Horne wasn’t an out-and-out mutant-hater. But van Horne had done a great job keeping New York under control, even given everything that had happened there, going back to before the ‘Fools Fight’ that had polarized the city, and even that damn Hammond trial. Carlos still couldn’t believe what idiots the prosecuting attorneys had turned out to be on that one.

Carlos Jefferson wasn’t particularly handsome or tall. He was just a little over six feet, and was the tallest member of his family. Given that his mother was Puerto Rican and his dad was only about 5’8”, that wasn’t too surprising. So he didn’t expect hot white chicks like Marilyn to swarm all over him. Besides, he always wore his wedding ring. Even in the field. And he got his suits at G-Mart, instead of fancy places like Brooks Brothers or wherever, so it wasn’t like he was dressing like a million bucks. Greg Walmsley was upper middle class, and wore suits worth more than Carlos made in a week. And that was before taxes and medical and 401K.

Carlos walked into Director van Horne’s office and closed the door behind him. van Horne had a nice office, but it wasn’t overly huge. Okay, there was a door right into a conference room, and the office had its own private toilet. But other than that, it was hardly bigger than the offices of the three Assistant Directors.

van Horne looked up from his desk and waved him over. “Jeff, thanks for coming on such short notice. You know Larry Hines, right?”

Jefferson nodded, “Yes sir, I’ve worked with Assistant Director Hines before.” He didn’t say that he’d disliked working with the guy, or that he’d had huge arguments with Hines every time he’d had to work under the guy for a field assignment. Hell, he’d rather throw rocks at a beehive than work with the jerk again. But the guy was an Assistant Director, so there was no way Jefferson was going to say that out loud.

Hines nodded to van Horne, “We’ve worked together before, sir. On the Estrellita case, to name one. We didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye, but publicly Jeff backed me up on my decisions, and he did a hell of a job tracking her down through some places I’d frankly be scared to show my face. I’d prefer Jefferson.”

Jefferson didn’t say a thing. He didn’t like Larry Hines personally, but that wasn’t something he let come up when he was at work. Hines was seriously anti-mutant, and Jefferson thought that sometimes affected his judgment. Jefferson thought of himself as personally neutral on the pro-or-anti stuff, but that meant the anti-mutant people labeled him a mutie-lover, and the pro-mutant people labeled him a closet H-1 guy. Tough shit. He wasn’t in this job to make friends, he was here to make a difference. There were plenty of people in this city who desperately needed help. You didn’t have to crap on them just because they were also mutants. He’d helped the Estrellita girl and kept her out of the hands of those Humanity First! pricks, because that was his job. Same with the Tempest kid last summer, even if that kid had a ‘tood you could bounce rocks off. But if Hines was going to act like a professional, so would he.

van Horne nodded carefully. Okay, Jefferson guessed that van Horne had a pretty good idea that Hines wasn’t going to invite Jefferson and his family over for a potluck anytime soon. No sweat. van Horne didn’t ask his staff to love one another, he just wanted them to act like pros when they needed to.

van Horne handed Jefferson a thick file off the desk. It was labeled “Precognitives – Prediction Failure K4”. Jefferson didn’t know what that meant, but he knew from the blue tag on the border that this was a research file, not an active field case.

van Horne pointed at the file and explained, “We’ve got a problem I’d like you to help Assistant Director Hines on. Precog failures happen all the time, you know.” Jefferson nodded, just to show he was paying attention. “Sometimes they see too many paths and guess wrong. Sometimes they can’t pick out the key factors to narrow down the possible paths. Sometimes they just don’t get anything concrete enough to guess at. You know how this works.”

Carlos did know how it worked. Sort of. Every single person who went to work for the MCO - even the secretaries and janitorial staff - had to go to training on what mutants were, and what their powers were. Men like Carlos Jefferson had been through several different levels of that kind of training. Some of the training was more pro-mutant, and some of it was more anti-mutant, and some of it was ‘just the facts and make up your own mind somewhere else’. It pretty much depended who was teaching the material, and which material was being covered, and how it was going to have to be applied. The ‘what mutant powers do’ course he’d had back when he started working for the MCO was pretty neutral. The ‘how to work with mutant MCO officers in the field’ course had been fairly pro-mutant, for obvious reasons. The ‘what to do when faced with a mutant supervillain’ course had been definitely anti-mutant, which wasn’t real surprising, since it was taught by Jack ‘the giantkiller’ Derby, who’d had to retire from fieldwork the year before that, when he had lost his right leg and most of his left arm in a life-or-death battle with an angry Energizer who was trying to get at his ex-wife and blow her brains out with his bare hands.

And Carlos had paid careful attention in his MCO classes. He’d always gotten top marks in them, even if he wasn’t the smartest guy he’d ever met. He just tried harder. When your dad is black and your mom is Puerto Rican and you lived in a bad part of New York City, you either tried harder, or you sank all the way to the bottom. And you didn’t work your way up from the NYPD to MCO Field Agent to MCO Senior Field Agent all the way to one of the Field Supervisor positions for the New York area by slacking off.

So Carlos knew. Precognitives didn’t get magic visions of some exact future. They saw ‘pathways’ of possible futures. The near future might have a lot of paths that were all pretty much alike. The distant future might be utterly unreadable. And even things that they could see weren’t always the way they thought they were seeing them. The better precogs could spot a key nexus in the pathways - a spot that was pretty much going to be stable no matter what else happened - and predict to that point. A rare few could even spot the changeable nexi and see how to tweak them to make things happen the way they wanted. Most of the people who could do that were a frigging nightmare to handle. Chessmaster came to mind.

van Horne got up and started pacing back and forth behind his desk. “This is different. When our precogs reported they were hitting a wall, we figured it was random chance. Then we learned that they weren’t seeing too many paths, or unclear paths, but a literal psychic wall they couldn’t get past. Something’s going to happen in late spring of next year. We don’t know what or where, but we know when the prediction paths suddenly get blanked out.

“So we checked with the other MCO offices. We’re seeing the same effect everywhere. Worldwide. Head office pulled research papers going back decades, and it looks as if this has happened just within the past five years. Suddenly, something is seriously affecting probability paths for maybe the entire planet. And it looks like the locus is going to be in the northeastern United States. So the head office dropped this bombshell on us.

“I want you to check with the mutant community and see if they’re hitting the same wall. Granted, there’s no way you can check with supervillains like Chessmaster or Chronometer. Even if you could meet with them and walk out alive, they’d still manipulate the interview process to their own ends. So I want you to start with Whateley Academy and Mrs. Potter. I have an interview arranged with the headmistress, and it’s set up for one p.m. tomorrow. Don’t botch it. The last MCO people on-site were there for the Halloween disaster and the MID card evals, and those were handled really badly. Don’t expect the welcome wagon. In fact, after the Halloween follow-up, expect pitchforks and torches.

“At the same time, we have to deal with some of the potential causes. Our researchers figure there’s a pretty high likelihood it’s the Hall of Sinister Wisdom.”

Hines groaned, “Oh man, not them again. I thought they were run out of town over Christmas.”

van Horne frowned, “It looks like they tricked everyone. Lady Jettatura and the Troll Bride have both been seen in New York since then, along with half a dozen of the other usual suspects, so we’re pretty sure the Hall is up and running. Everyone involved in that Christmas mess, including Korrupt, was sure the entire Hall self-destructed. Or, at least, that was what Korrupt was claiming, right up until he busted out of a paranormal lockup. So this must be some sort of protective system they set up, maybe years ago. Hell, with Pater Tempus involved in the Hall, maybe it’s something they won’t set up for another couple decades, but it’ll have some kind of trickle-down backward through time. We don’t know, and we don’t have any way to check.”

He took a deep breath and picked up another file. “It doesn’t have to be the Hall. The research staff put together a list of the possibles, with estimates of the likelihoods on each.” He handed Jefferson the file. “This is eyes-only, so I want you to glance over the first page and then pretend you never saw it.”

Jefferson took the file and opened it. The first page was a short paragraph of executive summary, followed by a list of possible perpetrators, in order of estimated likelihood. He read down the list and gulped. He handed the file back and admitted, “Sir, we don’t have the capability of handling threats like that. Cataclysm? Chessmaster and Deathlist? Dr. Diabolik? The Prionator? Deicide? The Black Wraith? Deathmaiden? We’re WAY out of our league on this.”

van Horne nodded solemnly. He looked over at Hines.

Hines sighed, “Yeah, I agree, Jeff. I already said the same thing, not ten minutes ago.” His voice strengthened, “But we aren’t being tasked with tackling the mutants on that list. Our job is simpler than that. We’re going to find out if the paranormal community is having the same problem our people are. If they’re not, then we find out why, and what they know about next spring. If they are, then we work with our staff and some cooperative outside espers, and we prepare an area so they can get some decent predictions. That’s it for this assignment. Until we know what we’re facing, we’re not ready to move on to another phase of the project.”

van Horne added, “And once we do know what we’re facing, we’ll only have a little over a year to stop whatever the hell is coming our way. Fortunately, even with the Hammond trial and that disaster with the Angel of Hell’s Kitchen, we’re still on speaking terms with the Department of Paranormal Affairs and the Empire City Guard and the Justice Brigade. We’ll work with the paranormal community on this one. If we’re facing a Cataclysm-level threat, we eat as much crow as we need to, and cooperate with as many mutants as we can, to keep this region safe.”

“Yes sir,” replied Jefferson staunchly.

“Right,” agreed Hines.

van Horne glanced at the clock on his desk. He said, “I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you two to move down to Larry’s office to continue this. I’ve got to call the boss and give him the latest good news.”

They rose. Hines led Jefferson out and down the hall, muttering, “Better him than me, Jeff. von der Geest’s going to have a shit hemorrhage when he hears this, and he’ll probably explode when van Horne tells him he wants to work with the DPA and every mutant he can dig up.”

Jefferson shrugged, “The local DeePee-ers have been pretty straight with me, sir. NYPD too. I’m willing to maintain inter-agency cooperation.”

Hines nodded as he ushered Jefferson into his office and closed the door. He sat down behind his desk and said, “That’s one of the reasons I asked for you on this one. You have contacts with the DPA, and in the mutant community, and you’re on really good terms with dozens of guys in the NYPD. I’m sticking you with the job of doing the interview at Whateley, while I get started working with our espers and mages to put together a protective area where we can work. If the paranorms aren’t having as much trouble as we are, we’ll need to find out what they’ve done differently, and what we can do to verify their results.”

Jefferson carefully asked, “What if we can’t verify their intel? If Mrs. Potter’s getting predictions, it may be just because she’s more powerful than anyone we’ve got.”

Hines frowned, “If that’s the case, we’ll have to try to verify the intel. If we can’t get anything from our espers, then we’ll want to get as many predictions as she’s willing to tell us, so we can watch for signs over the next year.”

Jefferson carefully suggested, “If we’re going to ask Madame Osgiliath to participate again, we need to pick our people more carefully than last time. Hessen and Mills were ‘anti’ enough to cause some major problems.”

Hines said, “Right. You can’t call on a high-level esper like her and expect her not to notice that people in her security detail can’t stand her. That’s another reason I asked for you. Got any recommendations?”

Jefferson said, “Preston. Jerry Preston got along with her reasonably well last time, and she’ll remember that. Also, Mafic.”

Hines nodded. “Hmm, Mafic would be good. I thought he decided to take early retirement after the Hammond thing blew up.”

Jefferson admitted, “Preston and I talked him out of it, sir. He’s a good field agent, and it never hurts to have a brick like him on your team when things go south.”

Hines agreed, “Good point. The Estrellita girl would never have come along peacefully if she hadn’t seen him with you, would she?”

“No sir,” said Jefferson. “Her whole family was certain we’d turn her right over to Emil Hammond, or something even worse. And her brothers were gang members, so she had plenty of backup.”

Hines said, “And it looks like she’s turned herself around. Is she still on track for a degree in social work?”

Jefferson nodded, “Yes sir.” He was surprised that Hines had bothered to keep tabs on the girl, much less follow her after she graduated from Whateley Academy.

Hines said, “Good. A social worker who doesn’t have to worry about getting beaten up by the kids she’s trying to help is a big plus. You and Mafic didn’t get enough credit for that case.”

“Thanks,” said Jefferson. He didn’t know what else to say. Maybe Hines was mellowing as he got older. Most of the anti’s just got more anti. Lately, it seemed like a lot of the pro-mutant guys got more ‘pro’ and either left the MCO or were asked to ‘retire early’. Guys like Mafic – unmistakable mutants like Mafic who worked for the MCO – were getting scarcer, as von der Geest’s people pushed them out, or else they had to quit because their fellow mutants were treating them like they were traitors.

Hines wrapped up the chat. “Now I want you to go get ready for your trip to Whateley tomorrow. You can take one agent of lower rank. Mafic would be acceptable. Barrimore or Hainey in Research would both jump at the chance, and they have the clearance, since they both worked on the K4 files that van Horne showed you. But no one who’s going to cause trouble. Carson is no one to fuck with.”

“Is it true…?”

“Oh yeah. Headmistress Carson is really Lady Astarte. And Ms. Might… And Comet Queen, for that matter.”

“Jesus Christ!” Jefferson gaped. Comet Queen? Comet Queen was an old superheroine. His mother had been a big Comet Queen fan. Just how old was the headmistress?

“Go check out her MCO file before you go up there,” Hines suggested. “I’ll have Celia put together travel arrangements for you and one other person. If you want to take Mafic, let me know ASAP, because we’ll have to set up special travel protocols for him.”

“I understand,” Jefferson replied. Taking Mafic would be a simple way to show the Whateley people he wasn’t anti-mutant. There was no mistaking that Mafic was a mutant. Not when he was six and a half feet of what looked like rock, and too wide to comfortably use even a first class seat on an airplane. But if he took Mafic, it would be obvious to anyone up there that he was trying too hard. Mafic was a good guy to work with, but taking him was asking for the Whateley people to assume he was playing the ‘some of my best friends are mutants’ card. Then there was the whole weight issue. The airlines usually charged triple for a first class ticket for Mafic, because he weighed enough to mess up their weight distributions for the entire plane. Plus, Mafic was hell on rental cars. Even a big SUV - with enough room that you weren’t getting an accidental rock elbow in your side once in a while – still had the drawback that Mafic’s weight was likely to make driving on back roads pretty crappy. Just as bad, plenty of cars had a trashed suspension once Mafic had ridden in them for a few hours, and that was hell to get through accounting. And there was no way he was going to get his hands on a special ruggedized vehicle at the Berlin airport. He thought it over and said, “I’ll take Barrimore.”

Hines smiled slightly. “That’ll simplify travel arrangements. A lot. Celia will have the arrangements for you before close of business today. And don’t let Mrs. Potter get under your skin. She’s a good enough precog to run you in circles and take over any meeting.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” Jefferson said.

“Well then, good luck tomorrow,” said Hines in an obvious dismissal.

Jefferson made a beeline for his own office. He needed to make sure his tasks and meetings for today and tomorrow were all delegated or postponed. He needed to map out a strategy for tomorrow’s meeting. Then he needed to map out a strategy for when the Whateley people ran roughshod over his strategy and took over the meeting. And then he needed to look at the MCO files on Elizabeth Amelia Carson, and anyone else she might sandbag him with in the meeting.

He had hardly been seated at his desk for more than ten minutes when Jerry Preston dropped by. “Hey Jeff, got a minute?”

Jefferson started to tell him no. “Sorry Jerry, but I just got a new task dropped on me, and I…”

Jerry nervously checked the hall, and then shut the door before sitting down in the extra chair on the other side of Jefferson’s desk. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “Look Jeff, this morning before work, I got a tip you might need to see me. About… umm… Madame Osgiliath.”

Before work? How was that even possible? He’d only mentioned Jerry’s name a matter of minutes ago. Unless…

“You got a tip from a precog, right?” he guessed. He knew he was right from the look on Jerry’s face. He took a wilder guess. “From Madame Osgiliath herself?” After all, it wasn’t like New York City was overflowing with topnotch precogs. If it wasn’t Madame Osgiliath, he didn’t know who it could be.

Jerry winced. “Uhh… yeah. Chrissy said you were gonna say her name, and bring me into it.”

Jefferson exploded, “CHRISSY?!” He dropped his face into his hands. Madame Osgiliath was really a plain little woman named Christina Mays. If Jerry was calling her ‘Chrissy’ and getting tips from her before work…

Jerry gulped. “Umm… Yeah. Me and Chrissy. I asked her out after the last work thing, and she said yes, and one thing led to another, and… Well, we’ve been living together for like three months now.”

Jefferson groaned, “Good God! Jerry, you know what the rules are! And you know damn well what guys like Hines and Walmsley are like! If word gets around that you’re seeing a mutant…”

Jerry winced again. “Yeah. I know. Chrissy said they’re probably gonna find out this week. She said I probably won’t be working for the Office by the end of the week, but at least we could be together. She said I could trust you.”

Goddamn precogs. Jefferson gritted his teeth before he said, “Well, Hines is gonna pull you in, anyway. Try like hell not to let everyone know you’re banging her.”

“It’s not like that!” Preston insisted. “She’s really special. She… Well, if I get my ass fired this week, at least I can finally ask her to marry me. Not that that'll work like I’d like, since she always knows what I'm gonna say before I decide to say it.” He shrugged, “Hey, at least she always knows when I’m gonna be in the mood.”

Jefferson looked at the goofy grin on Jerry’s face and just knew this wasn’t going to work. Preston would give it away. One of the other espers would pick it up; they had several good baseline espers, plus three or four baseline mages working in the two buildings where they had their New York HQ. Or one of the MCO guys would spot it: plenty of the MCO agents in New York City had FBI or CIA or police training, and so a lot of the field agents could spot a lie like it was coming down Fifth Avenue on a goddamn parade float.

Maybe he should go right now and tell Hines not to use Preston. Even if he had no idea what kind of reason he could give.

Jerry’s beeper went off, and he hastily checked it. “Uh-oh. It’s Hines. Gotta go!” And Jerry was out of the office, rushing down the hall.

Jefferson listened to the running footsteps, and muttered, “Crap.” He just knew this was going to turn into a clusterfuck. Assuming Lady Astarte and her super-team didn’t rip his liver out first…

It took half an hour before one of the secretaries with a high enoguh clearance could get the designated files for him. Elaine was a darn good secretary, but she covered all four Field Supervisors, and couldn’t drop everything just for his requests. Not to mention that the MCO had pretty intricate security on its files, so you couldn’t just walk into the file areas and pick out stuff you’d like to read.

Carlos took the packet of files from her and thanked her. Then he waited until she left the room before breaking the seal on the packet. The MCO had serious rules about this kind of stuff, and he always followed them to the letter. The last thing the New York office needed was someone scanning files he wasn’t supposed to see and going unilateral with the intelligence he found. Carlos checked that he had the right files, and then he started with the really thick one. The one labeled “Elizabeth Amelia Carson, nee Brant”.

Holy crap and a half. Elizabeth Carson was like the superheroine of every comic book you ever read. The file on her was thicker than every one of the Empire City Guard’s files stacked on top of one another. And the list of her codenames was, all by itself, something to stare at. Carson was the original Miss Champion? Christ, that made Carson about as old as his abuelita. Miss Champion, Lady Champion… The woman had been some of the greatest superheroes ever. And she was still out there superheroing. The list of superheroes she’d fought alongside and outlived was… Well, it was pretty damn scary. The list of supervillains she’d beaten? That list was shit-your-pants-full terrifying, starting with Aaln The Terrible, and Abbatoir, and working alphabetically. Cataclysm? She’d kicked his freaky ass half a dozen times and survived every time. Deathmaiden. Dr. Diabolik. Doomguard. He wasn’t even through the ‘D’s and he was having to turn the page. Hell, she was one of the very few supers who had ever gone up against Deathlist and made it out alive and uninjured. Most superheroes lasted ten or fifteen years tops before dying or needing to retire. Carson had been superheroing since before World War II, and she was still kicking ass and taking names! Man, that meeting was going to be a bitch and a half.

No wonder she was the headmistress at Whateley. There wasn’t a teenager alive - mutant or not - who could face off against someone like that. Carlos had a feeling that being sent to the headmistress at Whateley was nothing like being sent to the principal at his old high school.

Carson had been through three husbands. One murdered by a supervillain and two divorced. Three kids, two of them mutants. The higher-level kid had manifested with serious GSD and then later died from burnout while still at Whateley. Christ, she had grandchildren. He couldn’t imagine how freaky it would be to have your grandmother turn out to be a superhero. Hell, he couldn’t imagine how freaky it would be to have a grandmother who still looked like a thirty-year-old movie starlet.

A Masters in Education, a Masters in English Lit, a Ph.D. in English Lit, a Masters in Criminology, and a Ph.D in Education, all spread out over more than five decades. Plus superheroing. Plus running Whateley since 1982, and before that, she was the head of their English Department. Jesus! How the hell did this woman have time to sleep?

At least the file on Potter was shorter and saner. For one of the most powerful precogs on earth, anyway. She hadn’t been through earth-shaking events. But the guys who had put together her files had noted a suspicious pattern. The woman had a knack for avoiding the earth-shaking events. What a surprise. Her daughter Margaret, who lived in Southern California, just somehow was always on vacation or out of town when major earthquakes hit in the vicinity. There were records of several canceled vacations and plane trips that might otherwise have put Potter or one of her close relatives in the way of trouble. The research guys had figured out that over the last thirty years when she traveled, her airplane choices were nearly optimal given all delays, storms, strikes, and maintenance problems; that almost certainly meant she was using precognitive gifts every time she planned to travel, and was doing it at damn near a 98% success rate. She had taught at Whateley for years before finally retiring. Chessmaster had been one of her students. Christ! And, naturally, the house she currently lived in had been purchased right after the owner passed away, before it ever had a chance to go on the market. Fucking precogs.

Carlos went through half a dozen other files for Whateley faculty and staff, just on the off-chance that he might be facing one or more of them. Some of them he really didn’t want to have to handle.

Lillian Dennon was one of them. Okay, she’d served her time and she hadn’t caused problems since then. But she’d committed a hell of a lot of felonies in her day. And she taught martial arts to some of the most powerful bricks on the planet. She could probably break Mafic in half. While polishing her nails.

Another possible was Amelia Weston Hartford. Graduated from Smith. As the valedictorian. M.B.A from Harvard, and a Ph.D. in computer science from MIT. Damn, that was one smart woman! Fancy family connections, the woman who took down The Palm, and a file with a whole lot of ‘suspected’s in it. Suspected of computer crimes going back to when she was thirteen. Suspected of a series of multi-million dollar cyber-crimes when she was in her late teens and early twenties, but not a shred of proof that would stand up in a court of law. Suspected of having a number of ties to organized crime. Suspected of being a plant for The Syndicate at Whateley. Also suspected of being the person who hacked Piet von der Geest’s ultra-secure computer, inside the MCO’s ultra-secure intranet, and changed his background image to a movie of two naked, ugly, fat guys having gay sex. Okay, she was one of half a dozen suspects for that one, but that attack was still being investigated. Especially since it had taken four months to completely eradicate the malware that kept re-loading that background image, even after the IT guys got him new computers, and cleaned their own intranet half a dozen times, and everything else. Barry Holbrook, one of the local IT guys Jefferson knew, had told him that it was the most impressive piece of coding he’d ever seen, and the MCO needed to find whoever did it and hire that person as the world MCO IT czar, mutant or not.

But there were a lot of superpowered teachers and staffers at Whateley, and it would take a precog as good as Mrs. Potter to figure out exactly who Carson would put up against him. For all he knew, she might stack Fubar and Earth Mother and Circe up against him.

He checked the file on “Circe” again, just because he didn’t want to believe the contents. But the research guys weren’t sure if Circe was 45 years old, 87 years old, 373 years old, or 2900 years old. One researcher had the balls to state in an MCO research document that as far as they knew, she might be the original being that the ‘Circe’ myths were based on. He did not want to take on someone who had been a world-class sorcerer for three millennia.

And then there was Fubar. Jefferson already knew something about Fubar, because the guy acted in a capacity as a consulting detective out of a small office in Berlin. Even though he never physically left the academy grounds. But the photos of what Fubar really looked like? Jesus Christ and Mary! After looking at the photos in that file and reading about the progression from ordinary high-end mutant through the development of the worst GSD that anyone had ever survived, Jefferson had been too nauseated to eat lunch.

When he was done studying all the files, he got out the unused seal from inside the packet and sealed those files inside so no one could get at them. Then he asked Elaine to take it back down to Records personally when she had a chance.

He looked at his notes. He was going to have to map out one hell of a strategy for these people. There was no way Mrs. Potter wouldn’t see everything coming a mile away. Amelia Hartford would probably have his secure computer files off the New York MCO intranet before he managed to walk from the rental car into the Administration building. And Lady Astarte? He had met plenty of supers in his time. Hell, he’d even met the Amazing Three and been invited into their tower. But he felt completely outclassed just from reading the file on Elizabeth Carson. That file wasn’t just astounding, it was awe-inspiring.

While he was still trying to process everything he had read, he got another buzz on his pager. It was Larry Hines. He sighed, closed down his computer properly, and walked over to the Assistant Directors’ offices. Most MCO offices around the world had no Assistant Directors, and almost all the rest had only one Assistant Director. New York City and the surrounding area had so much going on every week that the office had gradually grown to three Assistant Directors, along with a Head Field Supervisor and four Field Supervisors to handle all the field agent teams. And then there was everything else the MCO needed on a day to day basis. As far as he knew, the only other MCO office on the planet with more than one Assistant Director was Manila, which had two. But the Manila office had to handle the entirety of the Philippines plus a vast expanse of surrounding ocean, which was one hell of a lot of area to cover.

Carlos lucked out. Hines just wanted to go over security procedures for the people they would be bringing in on the project. They talked it over and agreed on using one of the ultra-secure basement areas.

As Carlos was about to leave, Hines gestured for him to sit back down. “Look Jeff, I know we’re not friends or anything. But I just want you to know. This task is important. Really important. I could make Director if we pull this off and then make the next steps work. You could make Head Field Supervisor, which would put you in line for an Assistant Director spot somewhere down the line. But you need to play the game better. Stick with the party line more. You’re known as a ‘neutral’. If you’d just come across a little stronger on the baseline side, you’d be more likely to get those promotions. Hard work only goes so far. Sooner or later, you’ll be up for a promotion against people who all work as hard as you do. Attitude will matter a hell of a lot more when you get there. And who you’re friends with.”

Carlos needed to think about all of that. He didn’t know what to say. “Umm, thanks for the advice, sir. I don’t know what to say. But I’m not good at ‘playing the game’. I’m just me.”

Hines grimaced. “Okay. But just think about what I said.”

Carlos left, but he couldn’t stop thinking about it. Office politics. He’d never been good at it. He hadn’t wanted to be good at it. He didn’t even want to get promoted to Head Field Supervisor, since that would yank him off field duty permanently. He liked getting out in the field. He liked working with field guys like Preston and Mafic and Caswell. He liked interacting with people. Even if some of those people hated his guts. And he knew damn well the reason he was in the running for Head Field Supervisor some day. The EEOC. Even though the MCO was an NGO, they played by the rules in whatever country they were in, and the American charter included EEOC rules. Barney Kroeger, the current Head Field Supervisor, was scrabbling to get promoted to Assistant Director or Acting Director somewhere, even if he had to move to another country. And Barney had said more than once that guys like Carlos Jefferson were a godsend: ‘two-fers’ who were goddamn competent to start with were like getting three benefits for the price of one. Barney had once said “the only thing that could top Carlos would be that black chick from Marvel Comics who had a cybernetic arm for the ‘disability’ tick and was a goddamn good private eye too.” Barney had said that after four or five whiskeys, but he’d said it.

Carlos spent the rest of the afternoon moving around his meetings and appointments for the next two days, when he wasn’t trying to work out how the hell he could handle a meeting with Lady Astarte and Mrs. Potter, plus whoever else Carson dragged in. Especially when he knew damn well they were going to be antagonistic, after the way the New England office had screwed up every Whateley Academy encounter for at least a year and a half. It didn’t bother him that those guys were a bunch of dicks. People couldn’t help the way they were. It bugged the hell out of him that they were being so short-sighted, and that they weren’t working in the best interests of the MCO as a whole. Most of the NYC office figured those pinheads got just what they deserved from the DPA. It might have caused a lot of headaches for van Horne, but it had also cleared up a lot of headaches.

He took the subway home. He knew most of the bigshots used the special MCO parking levels in Building Two, and he knew that as a Field Supervisor he was eligible. But he didn’t think the extra fee for the parking was worth the trouble, when he was saving up for a family summer vacation. And the college funds. Putting three kids through college was going to hurt.

On the subway, he was just one more guy going home. That was fine with him, even if he was a guy going home while carrying a .45 automatic and a Goodkind Industries mil-spec MaserBlast™ 630 in twin shoulder holsters. At least he wasn’t lugging a big briefcase of work home, like some of his fellow passengers. Not that the MCO would let an employee tote stuff home. No way, when there were so many ways it could ‘vanish’ or be scanned.

He had a routine he always followed as soon as he walked into the house. He always went right into his den and took care of his weapons. He put the shoulder holster on a hook, and put the weapons in a special MCO safe that could only be opened by his thumbprint and EEG. Only his thumb, attached to his body, with him still alive, could open the safe. Anybody who could overpower him and force him to open the safe was powerful enough that they didn’t need a handgun and a MaserBlast out of the safe. It wasn’t like he kept secret MCO files in there. No, the only other thing he kept in the safe was a spare charge for the MaserBlast and a box or two of cartridges for the .45.

Once he had that taken care of, and his suit hung up in his bedroom, he put on a sweatshirt and jeans, and he went to give his wife a hug. As usual at this time of day, Juanita was cooking in the kitchen and making the kids do their homework at the kitchen table.

Melina was a junior in high school, and usually had a couple hours of homework when she got home from cheerleader practice… or from going to the mall with her friends. He was really proud of her. She was smart, and hard-working. He never took AP courses when he was in high school. But then, his parents didn’t think getting good grades was all that important. Carlos Junior, better known in the house as ‘Del’, was in his last year of middle school, and had an easier workload than Melina. But he was on the baseball team, so he usually had practice or a game after school, and had to finish up his homework later. And Tina, the youngest, was a sixth grader, but she usually wanted to be doing the same thing as big sis and big brother, so she was usually at the kitchen table reading a book or working on social studies or just drawing.

He was really tempted to kiss Nita on the nape of the neck while she was leaning forward cooking. But given what he was about to say, he figured he’d be in big trouble for it later on. “Everybody, I have bad news.”

“You can’t go to my game Saturday?” Carlos Jr. asked.

“No Del, that’s not it.”

“Carlos, if you’ve drawn another of those two-week assignments again…”

“No Nita, I have to fly to a meeting tomorrow and then fly back. I should be back by nighttime, but I might miss dinner.”

Melina groaned at that, since the kids all knew Nita was the stern taskmaster of the family, while he was the pushover. Well, it made it easier to play ‘good cop, bad cop’ at home when they already expected him to be the good cop.

He gave his older daughter a mischievous smile. “Well, just try behaving better while I’m gone!”

She whined, “Da-ad!”

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Carlos got to LaGuardia Airport in plenty of time for the flight. He was figuring he’d end up sitting around in the airport for longer than the flight took to get to Berlin Airport. But airport regs were essential. When you had people who could destroy a plane in mid-air and then just fly off unharmed to do it another time, you needed as much protection as you could manage without making everyone in the security lines want to disembowel the TSA agents.

He checked in with the TSA staff and made sure he was on their lists as an air marshal for the flight. He had to go through the ‘special’ line at security, just behind a woman with an MID, and just ahead of a couple pilots. So he couldn’t help overhearing the problem ahead of him.

“I’m sorry ma’am, but you can’t travel with that on the plane,” the younger TSA guard insisted. Carlos couldn’t miss what the guy was talking about. The woman had a glowing blue sphere of… something… that was about the size of a bowling ball.

The woman cringed. She said, “But I have to! Professor Quadrat linked it to me when I defeated him last month. I can’t be farther away from it than four or five feet. I can’t even check it through in my luggage.”

“I don’t think that would pass the requirements for check-through luggage either.”

She insisted, “But I have to get on this flight! The Empire City Guard said my best bet for getting this decoupled from me is Interleague’s deviser staff, and they’re waiting for me in Paris.”

Carlos finally stepped in. He said to the TSA agent, “Maybe you could read her in as an air marshal and she could promise not to use it except in case of prevention of a hijacking or in-flight threat.”

The woman looked at him in relief and the TSA agents nodded happily. After that, they hardly did more than glance at his weapons before moving him on toward his gate. Since he was only wearing the double holster and not any of his usual gear for fieldwork, he didn’t have to go through all that jazz.

By the time he walked to his gate, his ‘partner’ was already there. It was hard to miss Martin Barrimore, who was hard at work on a laptop, while drinking a bottle of Jolt Cola through something like a bicyclist’s drinking tube that was clipped to the side of his glasses by an elastic cord.

He walked up and introduced himself. “Hi. I don’t think we’ve met officially before.” “C-call me Marty, Supervisor Jefferson,” he said nervously.

Carlos shook his hand easily and replied, “Just call me Jeff. Everyone does.”

“J-jeff? Are you sure?” Marty checked.

Carlos nodded yes. He watched as Marty tried to finish up on the laptop, but got his hand caught in the drinking tube and had to stop to salvage his bottle of Jolt Cola.

Marty explained excitedly, “I designed this myself from an old Camelback drinking tube I had, and a plastic drinking-straw cap. It’s great on flights and in tight quarters. I don’t have to worry about spilling anything on my laptop.”

He just nodded. Marty was as excitable and nerdy as any mutant deviser Carlos had ever met. He checked, “There isn’t anything… secure on that, is there?”

“Oh no, I wouldn’t risk that,” Marty hastily insisted. “I’m just searching for all the publicly available information on… certain prep schools and the people who run them, and the boards of trustees, and stuff like that.”

Carlos kind of suspected that the public information on Whateley would be more like disinformation. But Marty had found a website for Whateley Academy, an expensive preparatory school in New England. It even had a page on the headmistress, one Dr. E.A. Carson, who had three Masters degrees, plus a Ph.D. in English Literature and a doctorate in education. The website was really snobby and pompous, with this whole ‘if we have not sought you out then you are not worthy of us’ attitude. He figured that was to tick off anyone who considered going there for the wrong reasons.

And Carlos knew the real board of trustees for Whateley was a hell of a lot more impressive than the dweebs who were listed on that website.

Marty spent most of his laptop time doing the kinds of things Carlos figured guys like Marty did. Facebook and mailing lists and chatrooms. Carlos had a paperback in one pocket of his suit jacket, and he read that while he waited. He was traveling light today. No backups or holdouts, no MCO PDA, no MCO medikit, none of that. Just his double holster, some business cards tucked in his wallet, a notepad with a pen in one of his inside blazer pockets, and a junk novel that he didn’t care if he finished any time soon.

Once the plane had taken off and reached altitude, Marty pulled out his laptop and started typing.

Can we discuss on plane?

Carlos smiled. “No. Wait until we have the rental car.”

Marty nodded and went back to whatever he was doing, which appeared to be designing some sort of armor for a GEO character. Carlos refrained from grinning, and went back to his book.

They grabbed some fast food in the airport, and then were met by one of the local MCO men. Carlos was pretty sure they’d met before, but couldn’t come up with a name. The guy didn’t seem to recognize him, so maybe it had been a long time ago. The guy had a rental car for them, and had already done a full Level 4 sweep for bugs, trackers, devises, and bombs. It didn’t hurt to be careful. Especially when you were heading off to a place that you did not want people to know where it was.

Carlos took the keys and climbed into the driver’s seat. Marty scrambled into the shotgun seat after carefully placing his laptop bag on the floor behind him and fishing out a granola bar. Carlos checked that the GPS navigation system was running, and then headed out.

He waited until he was sure they weren’t being tailed, and then he said, “We can talk now.”

Marty practically shivered with excitement. “This is so great! It’s like I get to go out in the field!”

Carlos tried to tamp down that enthusiasm, without crushing it. “You do know this isn’t real fieldwork, right?”

“Oh, right! Sir. I mean, I’m not qualified for actual field work. But this is better.”

“Well, it’s probably a lot safer,” Carlos said. He wasn’t sure about the ‘better’ part. It might get pretty unpleasant. He started outlining who might be in the meeting, and what might happen, and what they would need to do in response. He was driving through Dunwich before he finished.

He looked around as they stopped at the lone traffic light. “Oh. And one other thing. Don’t go into Dunwich on your own. There are Class X sites within walking distance, and some of the local residents may be on good terms with whatever goes in and out of those sites.”

Marty asked, “Is it true that Reverend England spent a couple years cleaning up Dunwich and the Whateley area?”

Carlos shrugged. “That’s what we’ve been told. We do know that the count on suspicious deaths and disappearances in Dunwich has pretty much dropped to nothing since he started this work back in the Sixties, but it’s not like anyone involved is still alive besides him. He and the Doctor Alexander did all the marking of Class X sites on the local maps, and there are only about a quarter as many as on their original map. So we have to figure the two of them took out some really nasty critters. But there are still some bad things around here. And don’t go hiking into the Indian reservation without official clearance, at least two armed partners who know what’s there, and permission from the reservation.”

“Why? Do they shoot trespassers?”

He snorted. “You wish. They might eat trespassers. Most of the native Americans on this reservations are Weres. Mostly werewolves, but our intel says some werecats and at least one werebear.”

Marty really perked up at that. “A werebear? I never thought of that. I wonder if I could make a GEO character that… Umm, sorry sir. I’ve been kind of focusing on this on-line game lately, not at work you know, but there’s this gigantic quest going on now, for some of the Dark Gems of Marala, they’re really powerful, and I haven’t been able to get in on it. Yet. But I’m working on it.”

Carlos didn’t say anything. But he knew that if he’d brought Mafic, at least he could have talked sports. On the other hand, Mafic wouldn’t have fit in this car, and an SUV big enough to seat him would already have a trashed suspension by now.

They parked in the parking lot for Schuster Hall in one of the ‘official visitors’ parking spaces. Carlos locked his weapons in the trunk of the car, along with Marty’s laptop bag. He was perfectly aware that most of the campus could get that trunk open in seconds, but he could also see that there were security cameras that would catch anyone who tried. He also made sure his paperback was in the trunk. He figured it would look bad if he walked into a meeting with a time-killer like that in his pocket.

A student worker who looked like he was ten walked them over to Amelia Hartford’s desk. Hartford was working away on a computer program, and ignoring them.

Carlos immediately went into his planned strategies. “I’m sorry, are we early for our appointment?”

Hartford looked up at him. He had seen her most recent MID photo in her file, and it was almost surprising how she looked at her desk. The ‘birth control’ glasses and tight bun. The business suit that virtually shouted, “I am better than you, and you should go away.” The pursed mouth and wrinkled forehead. She looked like the grumpy older sister of the woman in the MID photo. She opened her mouth to say something that would probably be rude.

Marty gushed, “Oh, I’m sorry to bother you Ms. Hartford, but are you working on network security? I was studying some of your network security code last month, and I’d love to find out how you developed your object models for your spiders and crawlers. The MCO code isn’t anywhere near as elegant, and I bet yours runs twice as fast.”

Hartford smugly said, “Seven to ten times as fast, depending on the task.”

“Wow. When I tell the IT guys I actually got to talk to you…”

Carlos decided that Marty’s interruption had done a far better job than his planned tactic. He said, “Marty, I know you’d like to talk tech with someone of Ms. Hartford’s caliber, but I really will need you in the meeting.”

“Oh. Right.”

The obvious reluctance on Marty’s face did what all the yelling or whining in the world wouldn’t do. It got Hartford moving in the right direction. She pressed a button on her phone system and said, “Mrs. Carson? They’re here.”

“Please have them come in.”

The door to Carson’s office swung open, and Hartford pointed at it. “Go on in.”

Carlos figured that was as polite as Hartford was likely to be to MCO agents, so he smiled and thanked her. Then he strode over and held the door for Marty before walking in behind him.

He closed the door and took one of the seats in front of the desk. He recognized Elizabeth Carson instantly, as well as Mrs. Potter. It took him a second to remember the third person. It was Security Chief Franklin Delarose.

Carlos frowned inwardly. He should have checked out the file on Delarose too. For some reason, he’d assumed it would be him facing half a dozen angry mutants. But Delarose was known to be a baseline. A pretty damn impressive baseline with a military background that should have gotten him a top-notch field job with the MCO or the DPA. Carlos wondered what the hell had happened that Delarose was working as a guard at Whateley. Granted, he was a hell of a guard. According to the files he had seen on the Whateley Halloween disaster, Delarose had gone face-to-face against Deathlist, and had managed to save almost all of his team. That was a lot more impressive than it sounded. Nobody went face-to-face against Deathlist and walked away. Not even supers like Hardscrabble and Demonslayer.

Carson looked at him with eyes that seemed to bore right through him. He instantly realized he was meeting, not with headmistress Elizabeth Carson, but with Lady Astarte.


He had figured it was a real possibility after the Halloween follow-up and MID evaluations, but he had really been hoping otherwise. Still, he smiled and said, “Mrs. Carson. Mrs. Potter. Chief Delarose. Thank you for allowing us to take up your time. Hopefully, this won’t take long. I’m Field Supervisor Carlos Jefferson, and this is Researcher-4 Marty Barrimore.”

“How do you do?” smiled Mrs. Potter.

Chief Delarose nodded slightly.

Marty gushed, “It’s an honor! Umm, I mean, thank you for letting us meet with you.”

Since Marty had just made an interesting impression, Carlos had him outline the details about their problem with prediction failures, leading up to the reason why they were there. Marty did a nice, succinct job of it, putting in just enough information that Mrs. Potter and Lady Astarte knew what was up, without boring Chief Delarose to tears. Carlos would have to remember to put a note in Marty’s jacket about that.

Finally, Marty wrapped up and sat back in his chair. Carlos thought he looked rather like a rabbit that was sitting in front of a wolf and hoping not to be devoured in the next few seconds.

Mrs. Potter gave both of them a big smile. She said, “I’ve been wondering when the MCO would send someone out to talk to me.”

Fucking precogs. Carlos was pretty sure she’d known exactly when the MCO would show up, but was playing it coy. Not that he had any intention of saying so. Not that he needed to say so. She probably knew exactly what he was thinking, too.

She gave him this vague smile, like she was some ordinary little old lady whose big effort was baking cookies for the church bazaar. Then she started telling him everything he was planning on asking her. Everything. She might as well have written everything down in his notebook for him. Not that he said so. He even tried not to think it, as he scribbled away.

The bottom line was simple. And really unpleasant. Mrs. Potter and every other precog she knew were also getting the psychic wall that the MCO people were hitting, and it was blocking things starting sometime next spring. Even someone like Mrs. Potter wasn’t getting anything. She also told him that there had been further blocking and difficulty in ‘seeing’ just in the last couple days, and now she was having even more trouble than before seeing anything in the future. The one thing that she and several other precognitives had seen was a ‘Dark Man’. A man, a human male, in deepest shadow, controlling things. Other than that, she had nothing useful to tell him.

He took the time to tell her about the planned ‘protected space’ they were going to try in a couple days. He promised, “If we get anything from it, we’ll be in contact.”

When everyone was done, he stood up to leave. “Mrs. Carson, thank you for being willing to take the time to meet with us.”

Mrs. Carson looked at him. Not Lady Astarte, but a more relaxed woman who looked less like a superhero in a disguise, and more like a hot Hollywood starlet acting in the role of a headmistress. She smiled, “Field Supervisor Jefferson, this has been considerably more pleasant than I expected. Although you have someone else to thank for my agreeing to this meeting at all.” She tilted her head at Mrs. Potter.

He turned toward the little old lady. “I do appreciate it, ma’am. The MCO does too.”

Mrs. Potter gave him another vague smile that didn’t fool him a bit. She said, “Have a nice flight back. And order the beef instead of the chicken.”

“Thank you,” he said. Precogs. They just had to toss those freaky little hints at you.

“Oh, a couple other things,” she added. “Have Juanita get your best suit cleaned and pressed tomorrow. And tell her not to take it to Maroni’s One-Hour Dry Cleaning.”

Fucking precogs. He tried his hardest to keep his face impassive, particularly since he had definitely not told Mrs. Potter anything about his personal life, like the full first name of his wife. Sometimes he wondered if it was all a giant game to precogs like her.

She gave him a tiny smirk, as if she knew exactly what he was thinking. “Oh, and if you see a small redheaded child wandering loose, turn her around.”

Marty got up and stammered, “Umm, uhh… Th-there is one more thing…”

“Yes?” Suddenly Lady Astarte was back, and looking at Barrimore in a distinctly untrusting way.

He turned a bright red and asked, “C-could I have your… your autograph?”

Lady Astarte looked shocked. Mrs. Potter looked amused, like she had been waiting for this little surprise.

Elizabeth Carson asked, “Do you want it from Mrs. Carson, or from Lady Astarte?”

Marty managed, “Umm… uhh… Elizabeth A. C-carson, if that’s all right w-with you.”

She pulled out some official Whateley Academy letterhead and wrote a little note, then added her signature. She folded it and handed it to him. She smiled, “I think this is the first time I’ve had an MCO officer ask for my autograph in years.”

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Liz sat back in her chair. She turned so that she could look out her window, and she watched as the two MCO men walked down to their rental car. The meeting had gone a lot better than she had anticipated. At least these MCO officers weren’t actively hostile. And now she knew why Mrs. Potter had asked her to put her best pen on her desk. Liz had to suspect that an MCO officer who wanted a superheroine’s signature was not going to go very far in today’s MCO. But it was a step in the right direction. Granted, it was a small step, but it was still a step.

Chief Delarose spoke up, “I had a friend pull about a dozen files on possibles they might send from their Big Apple office, but Carlos Jefferson wasn’t one of them.”

Liz nodded, “But we know about him. He’s on record as the MCO officer who helped rescue Tempest. And I’m pretty sure he’s the one who helped Estrellita half a dozen years ago. Unless I’m mistaken, he’s the one who used to do fieldwork with Mafic.”

He thought for a moment and said, “So they deliberately sent one of their most pro-mutant officers for this particular meeting.”

Liz shook her head slightly. “No, we know who the key pro-mutant officers in New York City are. Now that Barrimore boy’s pro-mutant. He could hardly hold still when he was walking over here before the meeting. He’s wanted to see Whateley Academy up close for a long time.”

Franklin Delarose shook his head, “That kind of obvious pro-mutant behavior is going to get that guy in trouble.”

Mrs. Potter looked up at the ceiling and said, “He’ll get some support from Mister Jefferson soon.”

Chief Delarose watched sadly as the two men got into the rental car. “Okay, but will it be enough? The MCO is not a good place to work these days unless you’re highly anti-mutant.”

Liz said, “The MCO isn’t the only place where that’s a problem.”

Mrs. Potter nodded mildly and asked, “But the New York City office is supposed to maintain a fairly neutral position, right?”

“Right,” the Chief agreed.

Mrs. Potter added, “And the problem they’re having with precognition won’t go away anytime soon. I really can’t see any farther than I told him. But I can tell you this much. Whatever Don Sebastiano is doing is somehow important, and you need to let him get away with whatever bullying and other crimes he is perpetrating, because of the things he is going to do over the next year.” She looked at the frown on Mrs. Carson’s face and said, “I’m sorry, but I really can’t be more specific. I can’t see anymore than that.”

Chief Delarose complained, “Well, the levels of bullying are way down in the past couple months, but now that The Don is out of the hospital and building up a clique again, we’re expecting an increase again.”

Liz glared, “Bullying is wrong. And nobody should be allowed to bully other kids. Letting Mr. Ramirez walk on these kinds of charges just sets a bad precedent for the lesser bullies who feel they too can get away with anything.”

Mrs. Potter insisted, “I’m sorry, but as far as I can tell, it’s necessary.”

Liz said, “If it was anyone else but you, I’d…”

The older woman gave her a wry smile. “I know, Liz. You’d tell them to shove it up their behind so far that Captain Colon couldn’t find it. I can’t see everything. I can’t predict everything. And the webs of probabilities have become so tangled that even finding a nexus is hard. But Don Sebastiano is a nexus. Somehow. So is Team Kimba as a group, and… someone else. I see a pretty little redhead standing in front of Phase. Young, and a couple inches shorter than Phase. I don’t know who she is. I don’t think she’s at Whateley yet.”

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Carlos tried not to smile, but Marty was almost hyper with excitement as they drove out. Man, this guy was worse than Del and Tina the summer he and Nita took the kids to Disneyworld in Orlando.

“There’s the Crystal Hall! Did you know it’s the largest interior-constructed geodesic dome on the planet?” Carlos watched out of the corner of his eye as Marty bounced with so much excitement that his seatbelt locked up on him and yanked him back away from the window.

Marty grinned, “Man oh man… Did you know there’s something like fifty miles of underground tunnels underneath us? I’d love to get a tour of the deviser labs some day. And their arenas. And the holographic simulation systems. Rumor is Amelia Hartford’s the genius behind a lot of the code on that one, too.

Carlos glanced over at Marty. He was worried that Marty wasn’t going to manage to stay with the MCO very long if he couldn’t hide his excitement better.

Since they had privacy for a short time, Carlos took the opportunity to debrief Marty on the way back to the airport. He made a few mental notes, so he’d get the added detail down in his notebook after they returned the car.

Once they were in the airport and through security, Carlos dragged Marty over for some food. He didn’t need a big meal, but he figured he needed something before being stuck on that jet with nothing but bad airline pretzels. He didn’t like pretzels anyway, unless they were big and soft, and slathered with mustard.

As they walked toward their gate, Carlos had an eye out. And sure enough, here came a cute little redheaded child, ambling along looking lost. He knelt down in front of her and headed her off, “Are you lost?”

“I’m not lost. My mommy is just in the wrong place.”

He managed not to grin. But he got her turned around and followed behind her, making sure she was okay. It took maybe three minutes of slow walking before the little girl squealed “Mommy” and ran over to a worried-looking woman.

This was the mom? She was damn hot for a mom. She looked maybe twenty-five, and was one smoking redhead. She gave Carlos a huge smile as she scooped up her kid. “Oh thanks so much, Ellen is just so independent now. I’m Theresa.”

“Carlos. I was just glad to help. She was sure you were the one who was lost.”

He watched the woman walk off with her daughter. Still, he didn’t get why that was so important. Fucking precogs.

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Theresa Preston kept smiling, even as she ushered her daughter back to their seats. There was no mistaking cops. And that guy had ‘cop’ written all over him in giant letters. All she needed was a run-in with a cop, or God forbid, the MCO, while she was just playing ‘ordinary mom’ and she didn’t have a uniform handy, and she didn’t have any of her weapons with her, and she had her daughter with her.

On the other hand, the guy looked like he was just passing through, so he might never get it into his head to try to match her to known supervillains. It wasn’t like her little domino mask covered that much of her face when she was Red Pyre.

“Mommy, I’m bored!” piped up a little voice.

“I know, sweetie, I know. Let’s go for a nice long walk, and maybe when we get back, they’ll be ready for us to go on the new jet!”

“I wanna see daddy!”

“Me too, sweetie, me too. Maybe next time, daddy can go see gramma with us! Wouldn’t that be great?”

“Daddy thinks gramma is a mean old bag. Gramma doesn’t look at all like a bag.”

She had to struggle not to smile. “Let’s pretend we didn’t hear daddy saying that, okay sweetie?”

“Okay! I’m good at per-tend! I’m gonna per-tend I’m flying the jet all the way to our house!”

Red Pyre hugged her little bundle of joy and tried not to laugh at the sudden image she had of one of her nemeses, like Sunscreen or Valley Girl, being told that the notorious Red Pyre was hugging a little girl and being a domestic mom in her off-hours.

“What’s so funny, mommy?”

“You’re so smart,” Theresa beamed. “I bet you really could fly a jet. We should get you one of those little mock flight trainers. Let’s see if we can find a store here inside the airport. They mount on an airplane tray table, so you could practice flying your jet all the way home.”

“Really? You’re the best mommy in the world!”

She hugged her daughter, then took her hand and walked off in search of a toy store. Preferably one that wasn’t another goddamn G-Mart. Fucking Goodkinds…

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Marty waited until they were sitting on the jet before he nervously asked, “Umm, am I in trouble for being a Lady Astarte fan?”

Carlos sighed, “Not with me. But if people find out, it won’t do you any good when it comes time for your annual review, you know. Don’t keep that autograph anywhere your supervisor can find it. In fact, don’t keep it at home either. If you’ve got a safe deposit box, stick it in there.”

Barrimore pulled it back out of his notebook and took a long look. “Wow.”

Carlos leaned over and took a peek. It said:

It was a pleasure meeting you, and I hope we have a chance to meet again.

Liz Carson

“Liz. She signed it Liz, like we’re buddies or something! Oh my God, I’m going to have this framed!”

Jefferson watched the guy tremble with excitement. Over an autograph. Okay, it was from Lady Astarte. Still, he thought Barrimore was going to have a geekgasm right there in the seat. He waited until Marty calmed down a bit and then said, “Okay. Look, there are some things you need to start doing, and one of them is practicing looking calm when you’re this excited about something. You don’t want your supervisor or his supervisor thinking you’re too pro to do your job right. Then…”

By the time he finished giving Marty some guidelines, the jet was leveling off, and the head stewardess was telling him and Marty and the rest of the first-class cabin that the meal would be a choice of chicken or beef. They looked at each other and both ordered the beef.

As they ate, they could hear the people near them bitching about the rubbery chicken. Barrimore whispered, “How did she know about the airline meal? That’s just amazing!”

Jefferson just nodded a reply. Fucking precogs.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

When Carlos got up to go to work, he made sure to talk to Nita while he ate breakfast. “Honey? Would you take my best suit to the cleaners? And I need you to take it somewhere other than Maroni’s.”

“What’s wrong with Maroni’s? I’ve been taking your things to Tony and his family for years.”

He frowned into his toast. “No idea. Yesterday, while I was talking to a woman who’s maybe the most powerful precognitive on earth, she said ‘tell Juanita to get your best suit cleaned somewhere other than Maroni’s.’ And that’s just freakish, because I never mentioned your name, and even if they checked up on me ahead of time, there’s no way they would find out where you take my suits. But when someone like her gives you advice, you take it.”

“Okay, but I want to know why, as soon as you find out,” she glared.

He sighed, “If I ever find out, I may not be able to tell you. You know the rules.”

She didn’t like that, but she stuck to the rules. Or rather, she put up with him when he stuck to the rules. When he had something he couldn’t talk about outside work, she let it drop.

Once he got into the office, he went to work writing up his report on the Whateley meeting. He knew Hines and van Horne would want to see it ASAP. He had to keep checking through his notes, so it took almost an hour to get it all typed up. Then he encrypted it and emailed it off. He didn’t know how the encryption system worked. All he knew was that you gave it the names of the people who should get it, and you used your own encryption string, which your computer remembered for you. Then the only people who could decrypt it were the people who it was intended for. The IT guys said the NSA could crack their encryption if they had five or six million years. Per message. No one else outside some very select computer experts had a ghost of a chance. He wondered if Amelia Hartford counted as one of those ‘select computer experts’. He wondered if there were any Whateley students who counted too.

Around ten am, he got a message from Larry Hines. Apparently, Hines had read through his report and was ready to meet. The MCO email system included some meeting management software, so Hines was able to look over Carlos’ schedule and pick an open slot for the meeting. 2:30 it was.

Carlos ate lunch at his desk while he tried to get caught up after the surprises of the last two days. Being a Field Supervisor in New York City usually meant big, nasty surprises, followed by tons of paperwork and days scrambling to catch up. He had to deal with problem situations with two of his field teams, so he was reading up on their most recent reports to see what sorts of disasters were in the making.

It looked like Mister Cool was back, after his big intro over Christmas, and he still had a weakness for ‘ice’. This time, he had a female minion who was apparently aiming for more of a Harley Quinn motif than ‘sidekick of Mister Freeze’. She had managed to put one of his field agents in the hospital with a rubber chicken that just happened to contain some kind of ice bomb.

The other field team with a problem had apparently gotten caught in the middle of a fight between Iron Mike and their latest snitch. The snitch was still unconscious, both agents had broken bones, and someone had stolen their wallets. It wasn’t the snitch, since he was doing a really good imitation of ‘man put into a coma by massive head trauma’. Carlos really didn’t like Iron Mike. But then, there were always ‘heroes’ he detested, and ‘villains’ who seemed like okay guys.

He finished up most of his Field Supervisor paperwork before he had to go meet with Larry Hines. Hines welcomed Carlos into his office, “Nice report. Really impressive amount of feedback from Mrs. Potter, and neither of you came back in tiny pieces.”

“Yeah, Barrimore was a lot more helpful than I expected. And he handled Amelia Hartford a lot better than I could have.”

Hines nodded and made a little note on his notepad. “We’re moving along on the next part of the program. We already have three of our best mages setting up that ‘protected space’ in the most heavily-warded sub-basement section of Building 1. We’ll be ready in two hours, and our precogs will all be here by tomorrow morning. You’ll have your team prepped before then?”

“Yes sir. Final briefing is in a little more than an hour.” He didn’t bother to say that it would be the only briefing. He didn’t need to bury his people in meetings for something they already knew how to do.

Hines showed his irritation as he said, “Cliff and I are both frustrated that Mrs. Potter didn’t have more intel, but frankly it’s a relief from the internal politics side of the problem. If our people were being blocked and the mutants were getting visions, someone from von der Geest’s office would probably be using it as a sledgehammer to smash some heads they don’t like. Starting with Cliff, and working their way down. But this just makes our job harder.”

Carlos tried re-directing the conversation. “Have you had a chance to line up any precogs?”

Hines leaned back and grinned smugly. “We’re getting Cassandra from the London office, and Delphic from the Hong Kong office. Cliff got MCO HQ to cough up our best people for this one. I got hold of Madame Osgiliath, and she said she could get Impatient to show up too. Her only condition was that our team included you and Jerry Preston and Mafic, and not Hessen or Mills. She did ask for them as part of a security team for inside our ‘protected space’. Seems she thinks it might not be protected enough.”

Carlos groaned, “Man, I hate it when the precogs drop these little teasers on us. If she wants a security team inside the protected space, we’d better make sure we have a full power armor squad in there, and make sure our other guys have body armor and a full kit.”

Hines asked, “You really think we’ll have trouble?”

Carlos managed not to roll his eyes. “Yes sir. If a precog like her asks for a security team, we’d better assume she knows exactly when and where they’ll be needed, along with who they’ll be facing. And probably exactly what injuries they’ll end up with.”

Hines groaned. “The whole point of a protected space, down in our basement areas, is so they won’t need additional protection from anyone.”

“Yeah,” Carlos sort-of-agreed. “But you know. Psychic. When precogs give you weird little hints…”

“…You treat them like manna from heaven,” finished Hines. “Great. Just great. You know how I feel about working in the dark while some precog doles out hints with an eyedropper.”

“Frankly sir, I feel exactly the same way,” said Carlos. “I still remember the Fuzzbuster case.”

“Shit,” muttered Hines. “If that precog had just given us more to work with, maybe we could’ve gotten to that kid before he fried the brains of half the people in that fast food joint.”

“And the cops that responded,” added Carlos. “And most of the S.W.A.T. team that came after them.”

“And nearly fried two of the Empire City Guard on top of that. And THEN that bitch Doctor Thunder filed a complaint against us with the DPA because we hadn’t ‘shared intel’. Like we had anything to fucking work with!”

Carlos nodded sadly. “I don’t see this one going any better. At least Madame Osgiliath trusts a couple of us.”

Hines smirked lewdly, “I think she has the hots for Preston. She was pretty insistent on having him around the whole time she’s here. Bet Preston’ll crap himself when he finds out a mutie wants to try out the ol’ lap rocket.”

Carlos pretended not to know about Jerry’s private life. “Jerry likes ‘em petite and slender and cute. And around his age. What’s the Madame look like?”

Hines leered, “Well, she’s his age, and petite, and she’s got the slender part down. Pretty plain, though. Maybe she’s right up his alley.”

Carlos said, “Okay, but she’s a pretty strong precog. If she manipulates him into the sack this week, we can’t hold it against him on his performance review.”

“Hold it against him?” Hines said expressively. “You must be kidding. Hell, if he can nail a precog, that’s pretty much a miracle right there. And if he can get her to help us too, that’s going to get him a major pat on the back. Who cares if she’s some mutie, if we need the information? As long as he doesn’t try to keep her around afterward. That’ll be hell on his annual.”

“Yes sir,” said Carlos as flatly as he could manage. Christ, he just knew this was going to turn out to be a frigging disaster! ‘…probably won’t be working for the Office by the end of the week…’ Great. Just great. If only he could be a precog for a few seconds and be able to tell what the hell was going to go wrong with this project. Or was that more like what five hundred things were going to go wrong?

He had the meeting with his ‘team’ in one of the meeting rooms for the Field Supervisors and Field Agents. The team was really just five people he knew. Five people he trusted to do the right thing if things went to hell tomorrow. That made everything simpler.

Jerry Preston and Bob Caldwell had worked with him or for him for years. And Mafic had been his partner for almost as long. Truck Howser and Jann Dominguez were newer to MCO Field Agent work, but they had been a good team in the field for over a year. So all he really had to do was tell them what roles he wanted them to take. MCO Field Agents knew what to do in assigned roles, especially in New York City. Otherwise, they couldn’t work as effectively with the DPA or the NYPD or superhero teams.

Once he had assignments dealt out, he spent a few minutes going over the potential problems they might have. He covered the interior set-up for the ‘protected space’, and who was setting it up, and who would be on the inside team. Then he explained what the project involved, and how he was worried because a precog asked for protection inside a ward and a forcefield, inside a heavily protected area inside the MCO.

He let them talk out their ideas about the project, and then he wrapped up. “Okay, I’ve taken up enough of your time. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

As everyone shuffled out, Mafic went out of his way to be last from the room. Then he stopped and shut the door. Carlos waited patiently. Mafic didn’t like asking for favors, and Carlos had seen this routine before.

Mafic sat back down, ignoring the unhappy groan of the chair. “Jeff? Is this going to take all week? I’ve… been asked to go up to Whateley on Friday. To talk to a kid who’s in the same boat as me. I think the kid’s codename is Igneous.”

Carlos nodded. He knew some of the GSD cases had it pretty bad. He said, “Not a problem. I’ll make sure you’ve got the time. As I’ve said before, helping someone now is a hell of a lot better than having to track ‘em down and arrest them five years from now.”

Mafic just nodded sadly. Carlos knew Mafic hadn’t gotten the ‘Marvel Comics’ treatment, with some hot blind blond chick falling for him because of his romantic nature. Carlos knew one of the big reasons Mafic hadn’t retired a few years ago was because he didn’t have a life to retire to, which really sucked.

Carlos watched as Mafic got to his feet and left the room. He sighed inwardly. He didn’t know how he’d stay sane without Nita and the kids. He needed to have Mafic over to watch some sports again soon. Football season was over, and March Madness was gone, but major league baseball was starting up. He’d find the next broadcast Brewers game. Mafic was a huge Brewers fan, no matter how much they stunk up the league. And he needed to call him Dwight more often in private, just to remind him that someone did think about him as something other than a third of a ton of mobile rock…

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The first hint of a problem didn’t show up until he got home that evening. It was the evening news. Maroni’s Dry Cleaning burned down several hours earlier when the neighboring store had an accident with a gas line. Four workers were hurt, including Tony’s son Eddie. Fucking precogs. Why couldn’t she just SAY so?

And what was the point about the suit? At that point, he wasn’t sure he wanted to find out.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Carlos wasn’t too surprised when Nita asked him, “Any other special requests and stuff I need to know about?”

He frowned, “I still can’t figure out what the deal is with the suit.” Then he remembered something. “Oh! There’s a Brewers game on Sunday afternoon. Del doesn’t have a game, so I’d like to invite Dwight over to watch.”

She thought for a second. “Sounds okay. You’re not skipping church, are you?”

He grinned, “No ma’am.” She gave him one of those looks. “Game doesn’t start until two. And I’ll remind him to bring his chair.” Unfortunately, a guy like Mafic needed to bring his own high tensile strength chair, so he didn’t break your furniture into kindling. He had a new one that someone in the MCO tech crew had built out of a titanium alloy. It folded up like a beach chair, but unfolded into a sturdy chair with a drink holder. The new feature was the extra-wide feet, so Mafic’s weight was distributed over a much larger area of the floor.

He rode into the office on the subway. He had his weapons in their holsters, but the first thing he did after he cleared security was to get up to his office and go heavy. He took off his shirt and tie, and put on his thin-plate Kevlar and Messingite™ body armor. He took off his pants and put on his cup. Then he dressed again. He added his holdouts. The two-shot .50 caliber double-barreled hideaway gun in its ankle strap. The knife on his opposite calf. The throwing spikes in their forearm holster on his left arm. The double holster. He added on the clip at the back of the holster so he could hang a neck knife back there as a last-ditch weapon. Spare clips for the automatic and two extra charges for the MaserBlast. He was really hoping he didn’t need any of it, but the mere fact that a precog had asked for heavy protection inside the wards was making him jumpy.

He checked that the basement room and the wards were ready. Then he checked that his team, except for Jerry Preston, was downstairs in position. He walked down to the front entrance and waited inside the security area.

Madame Osgiliath came in on Jerry Preston’s arm. Other than that, they were apparently trying to act like they didn’t really know each other. Jerry walked her through the security protocols, which didn’t take long since she wasn’t carrying anything more dangerous than a lipstick.

Impatient stormed in behind them. She didn’t even need to see the ‘NO SMOKING’ sign. She just stomped out to get in a quick smoking break before she had to go through the security area.

Cassandra Thomas came in next. She waved, “Hi, Chris!” Carlos knew that she had met Madame Osgiliath before. She had met Carlos before, too. It had been a case two years ago. So he knew that she hated her official codename, but the MCO didn’t want her to change it. She had changed her name from Jennifer to Cassandra, and she went by her ‘legal’ name instead.

Delphic arrived from the airport. An MCO agent was accompanying her and carrying her suitcase. She looked exhausted from her flight. The agent just whispered, “Delayed, and flew through some storms so no one got any sleep.”

Great. An exhausted, cranky precog. In the same room as Impatient. This didn’t bode well.

Impatient stomped back in and demanded to know how long they were going to have to wait.

Cassandra smiled, “I knew you were going to say that.”

Carlos grinned, “Hell, even I knew she was going to say that.”

Impatient looked at him and glared, “It’s a good thing you’re Preston’s friend.” She looked over to where Madame Osgiliath was still hanging onto Jerry’s arm. “She isn’t gonna be treated well. He won’t be working here after today.”

Carlos stopped grinning. “I don’t want to lose Jerry. But I’d like him to be happy, too. I don’t want him to quit because Madame Osgiliath gets yelled at. I don’t want him to get canned, either.”

Cassandra blinked several times and then muttered, “Firing in one hour.” She blinked again, and didn’t seem to realize she’d just said anything.

Carlos glanced at the clock on the wall. It was 8:37 and a few seconds. Should he tell Jerry to go get his stuff boxed up and out to his car before 9:37?

Impatient growled at Cassandra, “Shut up. Let’s get this show on the road.” She frowned at Carlos. “Where do we go?”

Carlos waved her past the security area. “We have a warded room in the basement that should be ideal.”

Impatient fussed, “I hope it isn’t gonna take forever to get the wards up once we’re in place.”

He said, “Just one thing first. Security badges. Cassandra and Delphic have theirs. I need you to look over these two short forms and sign both of them. Then put your hand on the scanner right here.”

“That’s it? How long to get the badges printed off?” Impatient had to ask.

He smiled a little. “They’re done. We just pulled your picture and ID information off your MID, so the handscan is just for ID verification.” He didn’t say that the scanner checked fingerprints, palmprint, Kirlian aura, and EEG for the verification. He hadn’t seen a Shifter or illusion yet that could beat all of those simultaneously, especially when the MCO didn’t exactly announce all the security measures the scanner used.

Impatient and Madame Osgiliath looked over the forms, signed, and did the handscan. The security officer at the desk there gave them their badges, along with the standard spiel about wearing the badge at all times.

Carlos rode down in the security elevator with Jerry and the four precogs. Impatient paced back and forth across the back of the elevator, while everyone else stood still.

They got down to the room and found the two baseline MCO mages hard at work. Carlos knew who both of them were, even if he didn’t know either of them personally. Martin Pillett-Smythe was mid-fifties and from England, and Laura Sandstrom was from Oregon. She was one of those ‘flower child’ types, and she still dressed like she was eighteen and in the Summer of Love.

Carlos watched as Preston slipped on his tac ops vest and picked up his gear. The defense team was already stationed inside the wards. Mark Hessen and Cliff Mills were in full body armor, one with a riot gun and the other toting a sixty-pound Goodkind Industries anti-brick weapon. The two powder-blue MCO power armor units were ready as well. He didn’t know who was inside the armor, but he hoped they weren’t going to be needed. He reminded himself that hope was not a useful emotion when you were dealing with precogs.

He watched carefully through a large Armorglass picture window as Martin and Laura pulled up the wards from the inside. Then Hessen turned on a large forcefield generator for extra protection. Laura focused on a ‘helper’ spell to help the precogs, while Martin started on a ‘protection’ spell.

The four precogs concentrated. Madame Osgiliath sat behind a formica writing desk with a pad of writing paper. Delphic sat in lotus position on the floor opposite her. Impatient paced back and forth between the two. Cassandra sank into a comfy armchair and put her fingertips together, breathing deeply. Carlos watched through the wards and the forcefield and the Armorglass window, since the monitors weren’t getting any feed from the monitor cameras inside. Well, that wasn’t surprising. Hell, if the forcefield didn’t knock out the electronic transmissions, the wards ought to.

For a long time, nothing of significance happened. No sudden shouts or looks of understanding. Just sitting, pacing, closed eyes, muttering… He had time to send Caldwell for some coffee, and he even drank half the cup while he waited. He was beginning to wonder if anything would ever happen.


Carlos looked up at the scream. It was coming from inside the warded room, from one of the women.

“It’s coming!” another seer screamed.

“It can’t be!” a third shouted.

Carlos couldn’t get closer. The wards held everyone back. But three of the four precogs were staring at the east wall in terror.

Madame Osgiliath shouted, “Get the wards down! We have to get out of here! Now!”

Hessen reported over the comm link, which couldn’t go through the wards or the forcefield, and so came out over a speaker mounted on the hallway wall just inside the forcefield. “Nothing visible. They’re just staring at the wall like Freddie Krueger’s comin’ out of it.”

Carlos yelled, “You just got an order from a precog! Drop the forcefield!”

Hessen replied, “Already done. Soon as Laura drops the wards, we’re outta here.”

Carlos looked at the window. He didn’t see any change.

Laura suddenly gasped, “I can’t make the wards drop!”

Martin snarled, “Don’t be stupid, let me try…”

Carlos suddenly had a really bad feeling. He pulled an electronic key out of his coat pocket and tossed it at the window. It passed harmlessly through the wards, since it wasn’t a threat. It shorted out against the forcefield with a nasty zap. “Shit,” he cursed under his breath. He raised his voice, “Hessen! The forcefield didn’t go down!”

Madame Osgiliath closed her eyes miserably and said, “It won’t go down. It’s no longer supported by your generator. It’s no longer under any of our control.”

Hessen snapped at one of the power armor men, “Porter. Smash that generator, then open the door and rupture those fields. Use of maximum power authorized.”

“Yes sir,” said the power armor guy. He instantly tromped over to the forcefield generator unit and crushed it with one fierce blow of a powered arm. Nothing happened. The forcefield stayed in place.

Carlos moved down the hall to where he could see the back side of the east wall. It looked like a plain old wall. He noted that Jerry was moving to where he could watch Madame Osgiliath. Carlos called on his cell, “Security. This is Field Supervisor Jefferson in corridor B3 South. We have a level 3 emergency. Our project is trapped inside magical wards and a forcefield. They say they can’t get the wards or the forcefield down. They’re trying to take them down from the inside. They suspect an incoming threat. I need emergency support in case they can’t get the field or the wards down. I want anti-magic and anti-forcefield teams here ASAP.”

“We copy that, sir. Teams being equipped and sent right away.”

He closed the phone and realized it was just flashing over to 9:37.

Riot guns and power armor suddenly went off inside the room. He sprinted back down the hall to where he could look through the Armorglass into the room.

He choked in horror. The east wall had a hole in it. A hole that wasn’t a hole. It was a glittering, pulsing rip into something – somewhere – that he couldn’t make his eyes focus on.

“Security! This is Jefferson! Raise that to a level 4! And get support down here NOW! We’ve got a breach! Some kind of inter-dimensional or paranormal breach! INSIDE our wards!”

Hessen and Mills turned over desks and dropped behind them. They started firing into the rip. One power armor guy was blasting away into the rip with everything he had. The other was desperately trying to smash his way through the forcefield and the wards.

Delphic screamed, clutched her temples, and fell over backward. Impatient’s legs gave out, and she collapsed to the floor like a dropped marionette. Cassandra Thomas sat in her chair, paralyzed with terror, staring at the rip that pulsed and throbbed on the wall.

Carlos watched in horror as something came through the rip. Part of something. Part of something that he prayed he’d never meet in its entirety. Half a dozen massive, writhing, slimy tentacles leapt out of the rip, ignoring gravity and physics and everything else, including common sense. Things like that just couldn’t be!

He snapped open his phone once more. “SECURITY! WE’VE GOT A LEVEL 5! WE NEED SUPPORT NOW!” There wasn’t a level higher than 5, but he had a sick feeling he was staring at a level 6.

Hessen dove over one tentacle and fired his riot gun as another tentacle grabbed Cassandra along with the entire armchair. He concentrated his fire on one spot on the tentacle, but every time he blasted the thing, it just healed up. Another tentacle snagged him from behind, wrapped around his chest, and squeezed. He never got the chance to scream. His riot gun fell to the floor, just before the two severed halves of his body did.

Carlos watched in abject horror as tentacles thicker than an elephant’s leg waved easily through the air and smashed everything they touched. Impatient stared into the rip and began convulsing. Blood ran from her eyes and nose. Two tentacles hovered over her and then smashed her into the concrete floor.

Madame Osgiliath raised her hands to her face and tilted her head back. She suddenly screamed, “I understand!” Her eyeballs exploded, flinging gore halfway across the room.

The biggest tentacle yet roiled out of the rip and flicked against her desk. Madame Osgiliath and her desk were hurled toward the far wall as she screamed out two final syllables. Her body was crushed between the desk and the wall.

One of the power armor soldiers ripped the security door off its hinges and began pounding as hard as he could against the magical barrier just inches into the hallway. Despite the immense strength of his power armor, he couldn’t make a dent in the barrier. Nothing that Jefferson’s team tried did anything, either. Preston yelled ‘Behind you!” just as a massive tentacle plunged through the back of the power armor, into the man’s chest cavity. Everyone in the hallway got a horrific view of the man’s faceplate as his head exploded inside the armor.

Carlos yelled, “Do we have anything bigger? We’ve got to get through the field!”

Preston yelled back, “We can’t use anything bigger, it’d kill everyone in the hallway!”

Mafic snatched up a C-4 mine and said, “There’s one thing we can use.”

As soon as Carlos realized what Mafic had in mind, he yelled “No!” and started to run toward Mafic’s position. But Mafic was moving too quickly. He slammed up against the field, the C-4 between him and the barrier.

The C-4 detonated, disrupting the magical barrier and shattering the Armorglass window on the other side of the ward. Mafic’s body flew backward and smashed into the wall on the other side of the hall.

Carlos yelled, “Rodriguez! Check Mafic! Preston and Howser! Blast those tentacles! No entry until the room is safer!”

But Jerry wasn’t listening to him. He dove through the broken window and rolled to his feet. It was obvious he was trying to get to Madame Osgiliath, even though two of the massive tentacles hadn’t left the room yet. Even though a shard of the ArmorGlass had ripped his leg open when he dove in, and he was already bleeding badly.

Carlos knew Jerry wouldn’t stop. He knew that if it was Nita or one of his kids in there, he’d hack those things apart with his bare hands to save them. Jerry obviously felt the same way about his Chrissy. Jerry unloaded at one tentacle as it retreated, and dove out of the way of the other. Carlos leaned over Howser and added three full-power shots from his MaserBlast™ 630, using up the entire battery charge. It didn’t do any good. Nothing they were trying did any good.

The last tentacle slashed into Preston’s back, crushing his spine and hurling his body across the room.

“Sir! Mafic’s gone. Got a hole in his chest even he couldn’t survive. Sorry.”

Carlos didn’t respond. Instead, he pressed forward to the shattered window and opened fire on the final tentacle with his handgun. “Blast that thing! No one goes in until that rip is closed up!”

They all opened fire. Nothing they did seemed to have any effect. Still, they concentrated their fire for maybe another fifteen seconds before the last tentacle-thing vanished into the rip and the rip shriveled to nothing. By then, anti-magic and anti-barrier teams were running toward them. But it was far too late.

He pointed at the two anti-magic teams. “We need you in there, making sure nothing comes back through that east wall there.” He pointed toward the spot where the rip had been.

He looked in through the broken window. He wanted to send teams of medics in, but he could see there was no point. People crushed in half, or smashed against a wall by a two-ton tentacle, or psychically lobotomized until their brains melted, or blown apart inside their own armor? Dead. There was no way any of the people in that room could be alive any longer.

He snapped open his phone once again. “Security? It looks like the intrusion is over, but there’s no guarantee, so I want it downgraded to a two for now. I need medics, forensics, and every coroner in the building. And nine bodybags. And guard teams while they’re in here, just in case.”

Carlos waited impatiently for the teams to arrive, and then followed the forensics people and the medics into the room. He looked around and tried not to wince. He could see Jerry Preston’s body. It was lying atop Madame Osgiliath’s bloody corpse. He gritted his teeth in fury as he thought about the things he’d heard from precogs in the last couple days.

“Firing in one hour.”

“Won’t still be working here at the end of the week.”

“They can still be together.”

He struggled not to kick anything, but he was so angry he wanted to explode. “Fucking precogs! God damn it to hell!”

Suddenly one of the forensics teams called him from the far side of the room. “Agent Jefferson! We’ve got something!”

He walked over, carefully stepping over anything that might be a part of a person, or maybe evidence.

And there, on the writing surface of the overturned desk where it had crushed her against the wall, drawn in her own gore, was Madame Osgiliath’s revelation.

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An MCO grief counselor was already down in the hallway before Carlos got out of that damn room. He didn’t ever want to go in there again. And the mere fact that he was reacting like that told him he needed to see the stupid counselor, no matter how much he really didn’t want to.

The woman introduced herself. “I’m Marge Harrison. I hate to intrude at a moment like this, but I thought you had better know as soon as possible. Jerry Preston and Mafic both left wills on file with the office.” That was pretty common. Everyone who ever worked in the field had a copy of his will on file, along with emergency information, family information, and anything else that might help. “They both listed you as a pallbearer and someone to say a eulogy at their funerals. We’ll contact their next of kin and find out when and where, and we’ll get the information to you.”

Somehow, he managed to say ‘thank you’ instead of screaming at the ceiling. Now he knew why he was going to need his best suit. For the funerals of two of his friends. Fucking precogs! If she knew this was going to happen, why couldn’t she say so? If she didn’t know this was going to happen, just what the HELL did she see that made her tell him that one annoying bit of information?

If he never had to deal with another precog for the rest of his life, it would be too fucking soon.

And he needed to call Whateley and tell them Mafic couldn’t come up and talk to their kid, and why. God, he didn’t want to make that phone call either.

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The after-incident report wasn’t until three that afternoon. He pulled out his lunch – two chicken sandwiches and an apple – but he couldn’t make himself eat a thing. By the meeting time, he had a headache, but he still had no appetite. He’d managed to keep two cups of coffee down, but that was about it.

The report was a full meeting up in van Horne’s meeting room. Three guys from the MCO’s Internal Affairs team were sitting opposite van Horne at the big table, while Hines and the other assistant directors were on one side. The head of the power armor division and Jefferson’s boss were along the other side, sitting next to a mediator just in case things got too controversial.

Jefferson was sitting in one of the chairs on the side walls, along with more than a dozen experts in everything from forensics to languages.

van Horne fumed from his seat at the head of the table, “First things first, they obviously DIDN’T know this would happen or they wouldn’t have agreed to get sealed up in here, so what the hell WERE they seeing?”

Hines didn’t wince. At least, he didn’t show it. “We’ve got a powers expertise team trying to figure that out. It may be that whatever-it-was suckered them all, and they were seeing something that masked the real event. Don’t know how that’s possible, but if whatever-the-hell-it-is can block every precog and esper on the planet, maybe it can do this too.”

van Horne asked, “Do we know what that thing was?”

One of the Internal Affairs people spoke up. “No sir. Definitely not human, or even earthly. We’ve got forensics on it.”

van Horne looked over, “Forensics. How’s that looking?”

The forensics supervisor sitting against the wall winced, “Not good, sir. The person who collected the samples went insane before she got them up to the labs. The security boys who picked up her samples went insane before they could deliver it. We’ve got it in Containment Level 4 with magical seals too, but we can’t get it back out without risking the rest of our staff going nuts, and we already lost our best two mages, so we’ll have to pull in someone with experience in this sort of thing to help us before we can even start. Not that we’ll learn anything we don’t already know. It’s got to be Mythos-level material. We’ll never get more than that out of the forensic testing. We don’t have the equipment or the knowledge to get more.”

One of the other assistant directors asked, “So, could she have screamed Cthulhu?”

Hines did wince then. “Oh man, don’t even go there, we are absolutely not equipped for that level of intervention!”

Chakravarty, the head of the Linguistics and Translation department displayed a section of the videotape that was still viable. He said, “No, look at her mouth in these images, it’s definitely ‘zulu’. Or something that ends with those syllables.”

“Like what?” van Horne asked.

“I don’t know, sir. We’re trying to compile a list of all the possible phrases it could be, but we’re going to need to pull in some more experts in African and Asian languages just to make sure we cover the reasonable non-Indo-European words and phrases.”

van Horne looked at Jefferson. “What did she write?”

Carlos told him, “They’re not words. They’re symbols.”

Chakravarty leaned forward again. “They’re some form of pre-Sumerian, by the form and the shape.”

van Horne asked, “Okay, what does it say?”

He admitted, “No idea, sir. No one’s spoken this for millennia. Sumerian’s been extinct as a popular language since the second century B.C.”

One of the other scientists said, “I thought Sumerian was a language isolate.”

Chakravarty pontificated, “It is, but look at the glyphs. It’s obviously some sort of extremely early Sumerian or proto-Sumerian. I’d say it even predates what we call ‘archaic Sumerian’.”

van Horne wondered out loud, “So how old is it, and who can translate it?”

Chakravarty waffled, “Umm, that’s the thing, sir. If it’s older than archaic Sumerian, it’s more than five thousand years old. There’s no one I know of who would know how to translate this.”

Hines growled, “Shit! We have a probable deathbed prophecy, and we have maybe a year before it explodes in our faces, and no one knows how to translate it?”

Chakravarty turned red and admitted, “Umm, that more or less summarizes our current position, sir.”

van Horne snapped, “Then FIND someone who can translate it! This has priority code red in your section, from here on out!”

The linguist checked, “Can we bring in mutant espers to take a crack at it?”

van Horne growled at him, “Hell, you can bring in fucking Lady Jettatura if you think it’ll help! You heard the reports, and you saw the videos they got from outside the window. Whatever that was that came through, it’s a threat we don’t know how to stop, and we don’t even know what it is.”

van Horne finished the meeting, “We know all the things we need to do. And we know the urgency here. I need someone who has enough background to manage this, and enough field experience to keep our researchers safe. Jefferson? I’m naming you Special Project Director on this. I’m sorry to pull you off field duties, but this is more important. I’m going to want daily one-paragraph reports and weekly meetings with me to keep me apprised of the progress. Even if it doesn’t seem like you’re making any. And believe me, there will be weeks where it seems like you’re not only not making progress but you’re actually moving backward.”

Carlos winced inwardly. Okay, a special project director made a hell of a lot more money than a field supervisor, and a job like that would put him in line for big things in the future. Assuming he survived the experience. And he didn’t fail so badly that everything got destroyed, like Chow, that special projects director in the Southeast Asia MCO who missed the signs that Cataclysm was going to try an underwater disaster so massive that tsunamis could have killed people all over the Pacific Rim if Lady Astarte and her teammates hadn’t stopped him. Still, 4000 people dead in the south Pacific was a huge black eye for that guy.

But this was probably the end of his field career, either way. He nodded carefully, “Yes sir. I’m on it. What should I call the project?”

van Horne said, “Already thought about it. You’re now the director for special project A2007-014. Code Name Zulu.”


or is it?


0 # Mantra64 2016-04-14 16:26
Wow. What a story!

Now I'm really curious what will happen in spring 2008...
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0 # DocSavage 2016-09-09 22:11
Quoting Mantra64:
Wow. What a story!

Now I'm really curious what will happen in spring 2008...


;) Would you believe Team Kimba and friends vs Nimbus and the Bastard? (Although personally I lean to the theory that Nimbus is a fragment of the Bastard working to get the rest of it free.)
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