"Things have been getting steadily worse."
"How much worse?"
The pall of silence of that followed spoke volumes. Daria scowled at the holographic projection of the balding man that stood in the center of the five individuals—three men and two women—waiting expectantly for their response.
"There is an unprecedented increase in heroi power activations in heavily populated cities," said the balding man. "Some small towns have reported similar incidents—notably with a heroi causing his classmates to simply 'vanish' into thin air—but so far they have been manageable. Unfortunately, cities such as Champion have been experiencing larger-scale situations similar to what you've reported. Attacks in broad daylight, specifically targeting either civilians or Guardians, disrupting infrastructure…"
"Our attempts at providing additional personnel and equipment have met with either failure or limited success," added one of the other men, this one tall, thin, and with significantly more hair than the center-man. "There has been a call for military intervention to restore order…"
"That's not possible," Daria frowned, thinking of Tartarus.
"The government will detach a relief force," said the thin man. "However, given the situation, we believe that whoever is behind this may be counting on them doing so."
Daria frowned. "From what I remember, they shouldn't. Even if heroi want to return to the old ways, a return of Tartarus is simply a no-win scenario. No one benefits from it."
"Not everyone believes what they study, Ms. Foster, and with good reason," said one of the women. "Regardless, restoring order is our top priority. Our factories will try to resupply you, but your last report indicates that will not be an option without more direct military involvement. For the duration, you are authorized to maintain order in your city by whatever means necessary."
Daria felt at once elation and a feeling of crushing defeat. No matter what I do, I'm going to be crucified.
"Understood," Daria replied stiffly.
"Then this meeting is adjourned," replied the bald man, and with that, all five holographic figures winked out of existence, leaving Daria alone in her office.
Teruo rotated the cracked metal disk in his hands, carefully inspecting it with a magnifying glass for what had to be the hundredth time since he retrieved it and its twin from the junkyard. Pressing a button on the side of the magnifier, the view zoomed closer. He breathed a heavy sigh. He really wanted this disk to be the one to use.
The crack looks to be pretty clean, he mused, lowering the magnifier and massaging his eyes. Yeah. I definitely think a vacuum weld would be all that I need to get it back to full operating status.
His mouth twisted into a yawn, and in spite of his attempts to suppress it, he failed miserably. Blinking blearily, he looked at his alarm clock. It read 9:00. He had been up all night.
Time to refill on the caffeine buzz, he thought, picking up a can of soda and taking a swig, ignoring the flat taste that assaulted his tongue. He wanted to get as much done on this as possible. The more he understood the extent of the damage, the more confident he felt, but he had a very narrow time frame with which to do it in.
Should have asked Bob to get me more equipment, he mused, setting the can back down. I'll have to scavenge for superconductor material. He pressed a hand against his skull, taking a deep breath. Exhaustion hit him heavily at this point, causing his eyelids to drop briefly. C'mon brain… He slapped himself. Wake up. Wake…
There was a rap on his door, sending a spike of adrenaline surging through Teruo's body. Reacting quickly he slid the Transmat disk under his bed and stood up as the door swung open. He ruffled his hair, hoping that John wouldn't notice his appearance…only for his sleep addled mind to realize that, regardless of how his hair looked, he hadn't changed out of yesterday's clothes since he returned home from his test at PlanPol.
"Teruo…" John began before tilting his head to one side, eyebrow raised in confusion. He pointed at the boy questioningly, specifically at the cans of soda that littered the floor. "Have you been up all night?"
"Uh…" Teruo looked around him and licked his lips carefully. "Had a brainstorm again, John. Couldn't sleep."
It was a plausible enough excuse. This was hardly the first time Teruo had pulled an all-nighter and forgot to take care of the little things of life. Unfortunately for him, John's eyes moved to Teruo's desk, where his computer was off and otherwise completely devoid of any blueprints that otherwise signaled his blueprints.
For the first time that he could remember, Teruo regretted making his caretaker suspicious of his every move.
"So!" Teruo said, perhaps a little too quickly in an attempt to distract the man. "Uh…what's up?"
"You're having another test today, remember?" John asked, fixing the young boy with a firm gaze. Teruo's shoulders sagged and he rolled his eyes.
"A-gain?!" Teruo had forgotten, lost as he was in his work, but that didn't change the fact that he would still be annoyed all the same. "You guys have done everything but dissect my brain to figure out my power. What else can you get out of it?" Folding his arms over his chest. "Besides…I'm busy!"
"With what?" John pointed to his desk. "Your brainstorm?"
"I'm making my own test," Teruo replied quickly, seizing on the idea and taking hold of it. "I want to see what I can conceptualize without physical equipment." He pointed at his head with both hands for emphasis. "It's actually pretty hard. I keep getting distracted. I was making headway until you burst in and scared the crap out of me."
John could only shake his head. He hates the tests but makes one himself… I just can't win with this kid sometimes. "I'm sorry to ruin your experiment, but if you don't get dressed and get a move on, you'll ruin PlanPol's." He pointed at the boy's dresser. "Get moving. We leave in fifteen."
Teruo wanted to scream in righteous indignation. However, as that would make him appear undignified, he settled for a resigned sigh.
"Argh," he groaned, quietly cursing his fate in a manner he was too young to say aloud. Briefly he wondered if the Jamie heroi from yesterday was having a better start to his day.
Jamie came to a stop in front of the park playground and took a quick look around him, warily regarding some boys playing hoop ball before hurriedly crossing over into the blacktop and making his way over to where Justin and Kyle stood. Justin leaned against the jungle-gym, arms folded over his chest, looking as though he had not a care in the world. Kyle, for his part, looked as pale and sickly as ever, and he uneasily watched the boys playing hoop ball. Jamie resisted the urge to take the hood on his shirt and flip it over his head. That would only cause him to stand out, and as far as he was concerned that was the last thing he wanted.
"Hey guys," Jamie greeted, waving at his friends as casually as he could.
"About time you got here," Justin chided. "Hey…uh…Beth?"
"Hello Justin," the AI greeted as she swung against Jamie's waist. "How are you today?"
"Cheery." He jerked a thumb in the direction of the hoop ball game. "Do you want to make tracks? Kyle's been looking like he's ready to freak at any second."
"I am not!" Kyle protested heatedly. Jamie froze at the sound of his voice and quickly glanced over at the hoop ball court, wondering if any of the boys overheard him. So far it didn't appear to be the case.
"Try and wake the dead why don't you," Justin said sarcastically, fixing their friend with a dry look. Pushing himself off from the jungle gym he looped an arm around Kyle and pulled him down against his armpit.
"Lemme go!" Kyle complained, struggling against his friend's grip. Grinning, Kyle tightened his hold and adjusted his footing.
"So where do you want to go?" Justin asked Jamie casually, as though Kyle weren't fighting to break free.
"Uh…well, I was…kind of thinking the hospital? To see if what your mom said was true…"
"Of course it's true!" Justin replied. "Like I told you over the phone, that sort of thing doesn't happen oft…"
"Let…go!" Kyle exclaimed, finally ripping himself free from Justin's arm. The smaller boy fell back a step and he glowered at Justin. "Jeez… Do you even use deodorant?! Your pits stink!"
"It's all for you," Justin laughed, waving a hand underneath his arm. "Sorry about that though," he said sheepishly. "The stick ran out and I forgot to ask Mom if she could get me a new one. I washed though!"
"Sure didn't smell like it," Kyle grimaced, squeezing his nose shut for emphasis.
Jamie chuckled lightly and looked over at the hoop ball court. It seemed that Kyle's cry had finally caught their attention and all activity had ceased, save for one of the boys who was now pointing in their direction.
"Um…guys? I think we might want to get out of here…"
"Hmmm…" Justin rubbed his chin thoughtfully, following Jamie's gaze. "Yeah, I guess so…"
"Justin?" came Beth's voice, a concerned tone in it. "I can tell by scanning you that your thinking is not in line with what Jamie is suggesting…"
"Wait, what?" began Jamie, raising an eyebrow at his friend. Justin glared at the machine.
"Tattler… You're like the little sister I never had or something."
"What does she mean?"
"You're a heroi, right? You don't have to go letting people push you around…"
"Uh…he's a suppressed heroi," Kyle pointed out. "And it's against the law for him to use his powers, remember?"
Jamie bit his lower lip. While this was true, he also wasn't being suppressed any longer. He didn't tell his friends that though.
"Oh…right," Justin frowned, returning his look in the direction of the hoop ball court. A smaller group of the boys had detached themselves from the others and were now heading in their direction. "Guess it's time for a retreat then."
Jamie and Kyle both nodded in agreement and all three started to head off together.
"Hey! Grey!" bellowed a voice of one of the approaching boys behind them, causing all Jamie and Kyle to both freeze up in their tracks, while Justin continued on a couple paces before stopping, turning to look at them with a raised eyebrow.
"Uh…guys? Isn't this where we're supposed to be ignoring him and keep on walking?"
"Right!" Kyle said quickly, taking hold of Jamie by the arm and, with strength that surprised the other boy, began to drag him forward. Jamie's feet stumbled for a moment and he threw a look over his shoulder.
Oh great, he thought, quickly looking away as his worst fears were realized. The boy at the head of the group, burning red-hair, wearing a tank-top to show off his already impressive muscles, and mouth drawn back in an almost predatory smile, was known amongst friends, family, and teachers as Bradley Moore. Outside of them, and more specifically to the terrified students that attended the same school as him, he was known not by a specific name but more by a feeling of abject terror. His trademark hair color was joked about once by a more learned classmate of Jamie's as the remains of the volcano that destroyed Pompeii.
Quickly getting his feet back under him, he fumbled for his Companion.
"Uh…Beth?" he began. "I…think I'd better put you somewhere else…just for a second."
"Are you worried about that boy?" she asked, electric eye swiveling beneath his grasp and taking in the full measure of the crowd approaching them.
"Um…well, no, but…just in case."
"Yeah," agreed Kyle. "It's not a good idea if he finds out about you and…"
Beth clipped off from Jamie's belt as the trio spun around. Jamie had enough time to realize that he couldn't pocket the Companion without her being noticed.
Please don't say anything, he thought desperately, trying to cover her with his fingers as much as he could without appearing obvious.
"Uh…hey…Brad," Jamie began carefully. "How are things?"
"Fine," Bradley grinned, folding his arms over his chest. "Just wondering what you're doing in my neck of the woods." He looked over at Justin, who was scowling at him. "What's your problem? You're still hanging out with these guys?"
"I was pretty sure you had eyes on your face for you to use," Justin replied, to which both Jamie and Kyle blanched noticeably. It seemed that their friend was intent on having things get off to a rocky start despite his earlier intention of leaving as soon as possible.
"Just wanted to make sure," Bradley chuckled. He looked at the others behind him. "You'd think he'd be getting tired of them by now, but hey, like my old man says, to each their own, right?"
"Yeah, sure," Justin harrumphed. Bringing his arms to rest on his friends' shoulders, he began to steer them in a direction that faced away from their fellow schoolmate. "Anyway, we've got to get out of here."
"What's the rush?" Bradley asked, a mischievous light appearing in his eyes. "You don't have time to catch up?" Slowly he reached out toward Jamie to stop the trio, but without looking, Justin's hand parted from his friend just long enough to slap Bradley's arm away before returning to its resting location. Bradley's eyebrows rose up in surprise at this, and red warmed his cheeks as one of his friends made a sharp whistling noise.
"Knock it off," Justin said, throwing a sharp glare over his shoulder. "We've got a friend in the hospital that we're visiting. They got caught in that freak heroi attack yesterday. We don't have time for you yankin' us around."
"Wha…?" Bradley finished retracting his hand, glowering back. "Since when did you kids make a new friend?"
"If we could stick around, we'd 'catch up'." Justin gave him a parting wave as they stepped off the playground, leaving Bradley and his gang to glower at them like predators cheated of a meal. After a moment, the group of boys returned to their game, Bradley taking a second longer to watch the trio as they retreated into the park.
"That was stupid," Jamie said, pulling his friend's arm off his shoulder, a slight frown on his face. "He'll get us back for that later."
"Better than having to deal with him right then and there," Justin returned casually. "Although…" he continued thoughtfully. "…showing up at the hospital with bruises would probably make things easier…"
"Let's not," Kyle said, joining Jamie in removing Justin's arm from around him. "Anyway, I didn't see anything in the news about Kira's mom being sent to the hospital. Are we going to be okay visiting her?"
"Probably not," Justin remarked, folding his arms behind his head. "My mom didn't even know she was in the building until she passed by her wing and saw her in her room. She recognized her from one of her magazines and had a guard outside her door and everything." He scowled. "She thought he was from PlanPol, but she didn't stick around long enough to make sure. She was on the job."
"PlanPol…?" Kyle asked, sounding alarmed. He glanced at Jamie. "Um…are we going to be okay with this?"
Jamie raised Beth and her electric eye swiveled around.
"I can check, but I haven't heard anything in regards to Kira's mother."
"Forget it," Justin said with a dismissive wave of his hand.
"Why?" asked Jamie, raising an eyebrow.
"Because…that would be too easy."
"Oookay… That's not an answer I was expecting."
Justin grinned. "C'mon. It'll be like an adventure. Maybe you can use your powers…"
"Uh…Justin," Jamie began tentatively.
"Jamie is under PlanPol jurisdiction," Beth reminded. "I am sorry, but I will have to report any expressions of his abilities should they occur."
Jamie breathed a sigh of relief. It was as truthful as they could be without spilling everything to his friends.
Justin shrugged. "Okay, so we do this the hard way. If you ever get to be a hero, you'll get some practice in doing infiltration…"
"Why are we talking about this?" asked Kyle. "And why are we even talking about this in front of Companion?"
"Oh…" Justin's brow scrunched up, looking as though he just realized he left out a very important factor to his plans. "Uh… Well…" He scratched the back of his head and looked over at the Companion Module. "…I…don't suppose you can keep this a secret like you did last time…or did PlanPol change that when they arrested Jamie?"
Jamie saw a dark look cross Justin's face just then and he found himself shivering a little. They hadn't really talked about that incident at the mall.
"I am afraid that I cannot keep any such secrets from my superiors," Beth replied, sounding very apologetic. "However, I don't see a reason as to why you shouldn't go to the hospital…except…" Her electric eye blinked first once, then twice before she continued. "I feel that I should investigate this."
"Hmmm… It's probably no big deal," Justin said. "It's not like celebrities don't try to hide when they've been injured." He glanced at Jamie. "Any idea what could have made that hole in their house?"
Jamie shrugged, an anxious look on his face. Although PlanPol had told him to not mention his discovery, he still did so anyway to his friends, and with Beth there, reporting his every move... He tightened his hands into fists. He was badly worried about Kira, as she ignored all of his calls (ignored? Or just wasn't able to answer? He didn't know for sure), and no one around the neighborhood claimed to have seen her since before he arrived at her house.
The discovery of her mother in the hospital, while no less distressing, could at least point them in the right direction.
Or maybe that was wishful thinking on his part.
I'll bet it was one of those heroi terrorists from the mall, he thought. They're probably part of that explosion from yesterday too. He looked down at his hand, wondering if they were the reason why Ms. Foster was allowing him to explore his powers rather than suppressing them.
"Hey, Terra to Jamie."
Jamie jerked back to attention as Justin snapped his fingers in front of his face. "Ah! Sorry! Kind of got distracted."
"No surprise there," Justin snorted, retracting his hand. "Anyway, are we going to do this or what?"
"I don't know," wavered Kyle.
"Don't tell me you're going to puss out on us," Justin snapped more harshly than he intended, causing Kyle to wince. "I mean…c'mon. What could go wrong?"
"I really hate it when you ask that question…"
"He does have a point," Jamie said. "But I'm in if it means we can figure out what happened to Kira."
Justin grinned at the younger boy and glanced at Kyle. Kyle's brow was set in a reproachful expression.
"I don't like this," he said after a moment. "But fine. Someone needs to keep you guys out of trouble."
Justin clapped his friends on the backs and let out a delighted whoop. "All right! Let's go!"
Getting into the hospital and past the reception desk turned out to be a rather simple matter. Everyone who ever sat at the front desk was familiar with Justin and his relation to Mrs. Page. A quick lie about seeing his mother and within short order, the three were given identity stickers allowing them entrance. This left them with the task of finding their target without being noticed.
"The first thing we should do is touch base with my mom," Justin said as they made their way down the hall. "You know, so that we don't have her hearing about why we came here and then didn't see her."
"Good idea," nodded Jamie while Kyle retained a neutral disposition on the matter. "But after that…where do we start?"
"Maybe she's in Gynecology," Justin laughed before seeing the flat stares of his companions. "Ah…" he continued, waving them off. "She's probably in the General area. My mom said that she saw her yesterday and she didn't look like she was in any serious condition…"
"Your mom didn't tell you where she was?" asked Kyle, looking over his shoulder and up at a camera situated in a corner of the hallway.
"She was busy. She only just remembered it at dinnertime."
"Gee, thanks for narrowing it down to the entire hospital."
"Hey, I already said we'd start in the General Wing. They've got no reason to keep her in any other area. Not even the heroi section. She's a norm."
"Hmmm…" Kyle didn't sound as though he were convinced by Justin's plan. "This is stupid."
"Okay, mister whiney pants," Justin shot at him. "Unless you've got a better idea, I'm all ears. You didn't have to come along you know."
"Come on, you guys," Jamie placated. "Can't we just focus on why we're here? Besides, all we have to do is keep an eye out for a guy in a suit or something like that, right?"
Justin and Kyle both traded angry looks with each other before the latter finally nodded.
"Fine," he sighed, massaging his forehead. "The General Area it is…"
"Actually," piped up Beth from Jamie's side. "I think I might have a suggestion."
Surprised, Jamie unclipped the Companion Module from his belt and held her up so that her electric eye was level with everyone.
"I thought you couldn't help us with this mission," Justin said.
"I cannot search for information regarding her name," Beth specified. "It comes up as a blank for me. However, I believe I can use this to locate any rooms that have this blackout. Furthermore, I could narrow it down to any rooms listed as 'unoccupied' in the event that PlanPol is providing an additional layer of security."
"How come you're giving us that much help?" Kyle asked pointedly, a suspicious scowl on his face. "Doesn't that go against your programming?"
"I do not see where in my program guidelines I am forbidden from assisting Jamie in this manner. I am not explicitly breaking the law."
"Somehow I don't think Ms. Foster would like that," Jamie remarked, lowering Beth a little. Her electric eye swung around to face him more fully.
"Perhaps, but the sooner we are out of here and able to locate your friend, the better off we'll be. There is no danger, presently."
"Sounds good to me," Justin said before any other protests could be made. "Let's do it. Lead the way Bethany!"
Beth's eye flashed twice in surprise over the way Justin addressed her. "Oh! Very well then. Let's see… On this floor, we need to go…"
Amanda turned her head as the door to her room opened to see Kelly Coleman—her only visitor sans the guards stationed inside and out, or the occasional visit from the nurse to help her with emptying her bowels—enter, data pad in hand. Amanda thought back on all the times she had seen her since she was first 'discovered' by Daria. The woman never seemed to be without a data pad on hand.
"You're looking better," Kelly greeted, closing the door behind her.
"I don't feel it," Amanda replied. This was true. With her powers suppressed, her nerves felt more raw than they should have been. A part of her wondered if PlanPol counted on this. "Have you heard anything about my daughter?"
"I would like to hear what you have to say in regards to the incident in the Junkyard," Kelly replied.
"Kira…" Amanda insisted. Kelly's eyes met hers for a moment before dropping back down to her data pad.
"We found some…interesting things at the junkyard. Normally the place is full of enough technology to make anything unusual difficult to spot, but damage from an explosion made things easier to investigate. We found what appears to be the remains of an underground base." She looked back up at Amanda. "Anything you would like to add?"
Amanda kept silent for the time being, caught up in wondering how much PlanPol knew, and how much she should reveal. Either one could change everything about how she and her daughter lived.
Amanda pressed the screen on her data pad. "We found your daughter, by the way," she supplied.
Amanda's entire body tensed up at once. "Is she…?" she began, only to stop upon seeing the expectant look in the woman's eyes. Amanda leaned back. "Let me guess… Information trade?"
"Good to see that you're on top of your game in spite of the drugs," Kelly nodded. "That base showed a great deal of material there. We're still piecing things together, but it's plainly obvious that someone with genius level IQ and a great deal of resources was heavily invested in that location. You went there and then…what? Got into a scuffle? Like you normally do?"
"I was investigating something…"
"Of course. How does your daughter figure into this? You mentioned that she was involved in some manner yesterday. Well…hinted is more like it." She pressed the screen on her data pad again. "We're already doing blood tests on her. If she's hiding anything, I guarantee your lack of talking won't protect her secrets."
"I want to see her."
Kelly folded her data pad against her chest and turned around. "Then I guess we're done here…"
"She was searching for her sister!"
Kelly paused and looked over her shoulder at the other woman. "Ran?"
"I don't know much myself," Amanda conceded. "But she heard that she could get help looking for her from the person at the base…a heroi."
"Very well." Kelly turned to face her more fully and glanced at the guard meaningfully. The man stood up and went over to Amanda and began to remove her handcuffs. "We have a car waiting for you. Let's go see your daughter."