What people knew as the Protectorate was not an area of sixteen square miles. An area of sixteen square miles was the particular range which had to be kept clear of sentient life – so the defensive structures were all outside of the area, so as to keep all personnel outside of the range. Even remotely controlled equipment counted as sentient in this regard (the phenomenon was known as sympathetic empathy and was, like most of The Protege’s powers, completely unique to him) and since the exact limits of his empathy was unknown save for its range, the people in power had decided to simply keep everything that was even fabricated by humans out of his range.
Thus, the first and tallest of three walls was built two kilometers outside of the actual Protectorate, forming a perfect circle around it. It was a smaller version of the Iron Wall, built by the same Sovjet responsible for the wall that seperated the East and the West – as were the other two walls. This one stood fifty meters high, was ten meters thick and durable enough to withstand even Lady Light’s strongest attacks. It was patrolled solely by capes, both heroic and villanous, with a rating of at least A+, some manner of protection against mental manipulation and who went through a very thorough background check to make sure they’d had no contact with the Protege before he became the Protege; they were also only allowed to patrol for up to three weeks.
Another three hundred meters further out, the second such wall stood ‘merely’ thirty-five meters tall, was just as thick and had automatic turrets mounted on top that fired grenades with every non-lethal payload known to science (and then some). It was followed, after another three hundred meters, by the third wall, twenty meters high and also mounted by turrets. Patrols on these two walls were more relaxed; both baselines and metahumans patrolled here and were allowed to move between the third and second wall. The restriction of having no prior contact with the Protege still applied to them.
Furthermore, the ground between the walls was covered with smart mines that had low AI’s ready to detonate them strategically. There were also several Gadgeteer-made blimps hovering above, armed with long-range energy weapons and enough missiles to make an American weapon fetishist call it ‘excessive’.
Beneath the ground of the first and second wall lay an underground complex that housed various control rooms, sleeping quarters and everything else that was necessary to sustain the Protectorate, including stores of food and water sufficient for a year-long siege.
Finally, there was a fourth wire mesh wall, quite mundane. Civilians were allowed to approach that one and it was all but invisible by now, hidden behind shrines, flowers, posters and other such things, left by people of all sorts, from pilgrims and petitioners to those who simply wanted to apologize.
Service at the Protectorate was considered an honor by many, a duty by others and tyranny by others still. Anyone could apply for a term of three weeks to a year at most and many were accepted after very thorough background checks to make sure they not only had no prior contact to the Protege, but were also unaffiliated to any of the various organizations dedicated to him, whether they were fanatics like the True Believers or charities like the Returners. Even indirect contact or connection was forbidden – if one was married or somehow related to a True Believer or just knew one of the Returners, they were automatically disqualified for any kind of on-site service. Though donations were accepted from anyone.
When Desmond had had these restrictions and defenses first explained to him, he’d thought them excessive at first. Then he’d spent five minutes actually thinking about them and remembered just how many people wanted to get their hands on the Protege, for various reasons. Suddenly, they seemed to be barely sufficient.
Desmond Cullen counted himself among these people, though he liked to think that his motivations and goals were far more benevolent. Personally, he just wanted to thank him in person. He was also a secret agent of the True Believers, having approached them to propose his infiltration of the Protectorate, as he himself lacked the funds to facilitate it. It was no coincidence that they had accepted, and that he’d been able to fool the extensive screenings – which included telepathic screenings, as well. The truth was that he was an unregistered metahuman – when he had been attacked mentally by Mindfuck, he’d manifested in response, gaining the ability to perfectly protect himself from such attacks in three different ways – he could turn himself completely undetectable by mental powers or he could become completely immune to such or, and this was far more useful for this operation, he could allow them in, but put up a perfect ‘false front’ to hide whatever he wanted to remain hidden without giving away that he was doing so. There was another aspect of his power which he loved even more, namely his ability to spread this protection to anyone he was touching directly, though it was of no use to him now. Everything else necessary – namely, a fake background that could stand up to scrutiny – had been provided by the True Believers, who jumped at the chance to get an inside man as close to their idol as possible.
So now Desmond Cullen, called Des by his coworkers, was sitting in a control room in the underground complex that lay between and beneath the first and second wall, waiting, hoping for a chance to express his gratitude. His duty was to spend his two four-hour shifts a day looking at eight monitors that showed images from long-range cameras, all focused on the Protege. Every day, he looked at the unchanging images of the young boy sitting on the edge of Wimbleton’s central, long dried-out fountain, the abandoned, now partially overgrown town around him providing a dreary background.
It also reminded him of that day six years ago, that week when the Savage Six attacked London. He could remember riding on his bicycle to his day job when the ‘curtain’ fell, cutting the city off from the outside world for seven days. Seven days, one for each member of the six to have their fun and the seventh for them all to finish off whoever resisted (and most others as well). He still had nightmares from those days, though he made sure that none of his coworkers learned of those. Having been present for what the press had coined as ‘The London Nightmare’ counted as first-grade contact with the Protege, putting you just one step below Returners and True Believers on the list of undesirables.
He remembered them as well. The twins, Annabel and Jessica, aged eight; German schoolchildren on a one-week stay with their class, had been separated from their friends and teachers. He’d tried to take care of them, only to fail miserably. Two days. For two days, the second and the third, he’d kept them safe, sharing his newfound power with them, only to lose them on the fourth and find them again on the seventh, just in time for Atrocity to cut open Annabel’s belly. He remembered holding her in his arms as her sister cried and begged for her not to die, seeing her blood and guts spill out as her ragged breaths and sobs made her body shake violently, the naked fear and disbelief in their eyes tearing at his soul, Atrocity watching and cackling in glee. That was what his nightmares revolved around. Not the monstrosities unleashed, not the thousands that lay dead in the streets, not Mindfuck’s visions of raping children to death. Only the fear and disbelief in the eyes of these two children, with him unable to offer them anything. To this day, he remembered every second until the moment Annabel’s eyes started to close.
And then, salvation. An eight-year old boy, slapping Atrocity aside like a child’s toy and touching his hand to Annabel’s forehead.
No one had ever found out about his aquaintance with the two girls. He’d quietly returned them to their parents who’d come over from Germany when they heard about the attack, refusing any gratitude. Then he’d left.
Now, every day, his heart broke again and again as he watched that same boy, six years older now, sitting on the edge of the fountain. His body famished to the point that his bare chest, hands and legs, visible underneath his raincoat, were little more than skin and bones, his life sustained solely by his power. It was horrifying to see his skeletal body and Desmond was glad that his face was hidden under his raincoat. He had not moved an inch since he’d sat down, more than five years ago, his projective empathy quietly and inevitably preventing any sentient lifeform from approaching. The closest anyone had ever gotten before breaking and fleeing was half a kilometer – a villain with a supposedly invincible mind shield. Not so invincible, Desmond thought. The man had retreated back to the wall and immediately gone on a rampage, driven temporarily insane. Lady Light herself had been present for the experiment, fortunately, and slapped him down before he could do any damage to himself or others. As far as Desmond knew, the man had recovered and given up being a villain, working now as a super-powered helper who intervened at sites of natural catastrophies, rescuing people from flooded homes and the like. It was for this reason, mainly, that the wall existed. Not to protect the Protege – that, too, was a reason, though he barely needed protection – but to protect all those foolish enough to enter his range. In the beginning, a group of nearly two hundred men and women had gotten past the original military blockade and entered his empathic range. Most had still not recovered from the mental assault.
Desmond’s eyes were drawn to the red button. It was a big, easily pressed button. If ever he saw so much as the slightest twitch, he was to press it, immediately putting every watchman on high alert and notifying the prime minister of Great Britain, the president of the USA, Lady Light, The Dark, Sovereign, Queen Madeleine of Australia and the Red Council of the Sovjet Union (though the last one was now defunct). It had never been pressed, nor did he think it ever would be, even though he hoped he or one of the other ones on camera duty would be given reason to do so.
And, as so often, he thought of Mandy. Sweet young Mandy, just turned eighteen, allowing her to serve a term in the Protectorate. A wiry, nervous thing that felt she had to do her part for the good of the world, but had no powers or special skills and so decided to serve a six month term at the Protectorate before going on to study to become a doctor. He knew it was inappropriate, she was nearly twelve years younger than him, but he’d still fallen for her. Hard. And she seemed to respond, at least a bit. She often visited him during her lunch break and they ate together. Not that either of them had tried yet to take their relationship to the next level. Too many prying eyes around here.
He rubbed his eyes, refocusing on the monitors. Even if it was highly unlikely that anything would happen, he had to observe his duty.
Two in the morning is definitely too late for this kind of job, he thought, pinching his nose. Then he scratched his chin, not yet used to the beard he was growing since Mandy said it would look good on him.
I wonder what Annie and Jess have made of themselves… Why am I so melancholic today?
Again, he pinched his eyes shut, rubbing them. When he opened them, the Protege had raised one arm from where it had rested on his knees for the last five years.
Without so much as a conscious thought, he slammed his hand down on the panic button. Sirens blared as every single present watchman was called to attention.
Desmond watched as the boy stood up, shaking at first as his atrophied muscles refused to obey his commands. But as Desmond was watching the shaking died down and he stood up straight. Turning to his left, he walked, slowly, towards a nearby wall. This one was painted white and stood right between a bakery and an ice cream parlor. The Protege raised his right hand and pushed his index finger against the wall, the finger sinking into the wall as if it wasn’t even there.
Desmond watched, mesmerized, as he started painting a picture, his finger leaving the surface it was sunk into undamaged but black. The cloaked boy was working slowly and deliberately, his finger drawing first a large circle onto the wall before he began to expand the painting into something more complex.
Suddenly, Desmond could feel a very pleasant sensation wash over him – a kind of mental glow, alleviating his exhaustion and hunger, making him fit, focused and, overall, better. Lady Light is here. Still not as interesting as watching what was happening on the screens.
The Protege was almost done already, even though the picture he’d drawn was extremely elaborate. It was purely black, two incredibly detailed black birds circling each other, biting each other’s tail. An ouroboros? But with birds… crows? Ravens? Despite it’s simplistic colouring, the picture had so many details, every single feather of the ravens a piece of art unto themselves. Finally, when the circle was complete, the boy began to write in the middle of the circle.
Remember? Who? What?, he asked himself as watched him return to his seat and resume his usual position.
Then, suddenly, the Protege’s cloaked head snapped up, looking right at Desmond. Not any camera, but right at the one camera on whose feed he was currently focusing. He felt his stare bore into his eyes.
Desmond fell back onto his butt, the psychic shout penetrating all of his defenses as if they weren’t even there.
* * *
He left the Protectorate in an armored car that was driven by a professional bodyguard and chauffeur who would escort him to the airport.
Unfortunately, his reaction to the incident had been recorded on camera. There was no way he would be allowed to remain at the Protectorate, not when he had apparently been so obviously affected by the scene. His superior regretted the necessity, but the rules were clear. And they had good reason for them.
One picture. He’d drawn one picture. Every single thinker-type metahuman – whether they just had enhanced brains due to Physique effects or some Perception power that helped them process information – was working on it, trying to figure out what it meant. No one outside the Protectorate would learn of it – the alarm had been explained as a malfunction of the system.
Of course, Desmond would have to tell his contact among the True Believers. He wouldn’t betray them, even if he didn’t share their fanatic beliefs.
And then he would go on a journey. He had to remember. A mission from him, to make up for his failure. “Remember”, he whispered after he’d been dropped off at the airport. “To remember… to go back…”, he continued through the check-in. “No clue who or what or when. So first…” First he was going to find Annabel and Jessica. Go back. It was a start, the only thing he could think of. He didn’t regret losing his job at the Protectorate and even not being able to see Mandy anymore, to talk to her, was a small price to pay for this. A chance at redemption for failing those girls, six years ago. Help the boy who had undone his shame.
Desmond had a mission now.