Three people were sitting in comfortable beanbag chairs in a room with a panorama window, which showed the scenery of a tropic island at noon. The window was open, allowing a cool ocean breeze inside. The room itself was richly furnished, though not excessively so. A dining table was being cleared off by four identical-looking teenage boys in red valet suits, their black hair neatly parted into old-fashioned bowl-like haircuts, their faces missing eyes, ears or mouths – only thin skin stretching over where the sensory organs should be found. This particular lack didn’t seem to impede them at all, though.
The people in the chairs were looking out the window, relaxed, each with a glass and a bottle of their drink on a small table to their left. There was an air of quiet power around them, power that was rarely unleashed.
On the leftmost chair sat a glamorous woman who appeared to be in her early thirties. Dark brown hair formed delicate ringlets, framing a face that came straight off of a World War Two fighter plane, with scarlet lips and sharp blue eyes accentuated by a subtle purple eye shadow. She was wearing a pure white dress that clung to her torso like a second skin, stretched tight around a bust that could be best called ‘heroic’, leaving her left arm and shoulder free, while extending into a skin-tight glove on the right side. It was cut like a dress from the waist down, with a slit going up the left side to allow for easier movement and show off her leg. Her feet were clad in equally white pumps with high stiletto heels. She was drinking wine, the glass held in her right hand, a lit cigarette in her left one, as she watched the scenery beyond the window with a kind of serene amusement.
Next to her sat a man well-known across the Western world, though mainly in the USA, as the founder and leader of the Humanity First group, Richard Svenson. He was tall, well-muscled, his blonde hair and beard carefully trimmed to convey a serious, trustworthy image. His blue eyes were dark, intelligent and currently focused on a four-winged humming-bird with golden plumage. He was wearing a light blue suit with a white shirt, the jacket and tie currently held by another senseless valet who stood near the door. His polished brown leather shoes lay next to his seat, and he was very obviously relaxed, sipping from a glass of green juice – Adonis on a break.
The third person was easily the most distinctive, if only for how different she was. She was young, a teenager at that point in her development where she might be an adult-looking fourteen-year-old or a petite nineteen-year-old. Or anything in between. Her skin had the colour of a child of mixed races, dark but not dark enough to be African or African-American. Her features hinted at Eurasian ancestry, her face pretty but not really beautiful, though promising to be quite stunning once she fully grew up and filled out. In contrast to her skin, her hair was of a natural platinum blonde colour, long but tied back into a practical ponytail. To further distinguish her from her two companions, she was wearing loose black sweatpants and a dark blue sports bra that held a modest bust. Her feet were bare, and she had them pulled up onto the chair, while she drank directly from a red bottle of scotch. Unlike the other two, she seemed more bored than relaxed, her eyes half-closed as she apparently focused on something that wasn’t there.
“It’s been too long since we’ve had a chance to relax like this,” the glamorous woman said, her voice slightly rough from a long, long time of smoking. “I’ve missed it.” She looked at her two companions with a warm expression.
The young girl yawned, drinking from her bottle. “I should be working. I have four different projects going on right now, and two of them are entering their critical phase,” she replied, her otherwise beautiful voice taking on a nasal quality that betrayed annoyance.
“You always have projects running, my dear,” the glamorous woman replied warmly. “You need to learn how to unwind, or you’ll burn out.”
“Listen to her,” the man said. “She knows what she’s talking about.”
“You, dearest, need to learn to unwind a little less,” she admonished him with a long-suffering smirk.
“Impossible!” he replied in an exaggerated manner. “I am always sharp!”
The young one sighed, yet couldn’t help but smile a bit. As much as she was annoyed by her companions’ attitude, it was amusing, especially in contrast to their usual behaviour.
Ten minutes later, the young one had almost emptied her bottle of scotch, while the glamorous woman was still on the same glass of wine as before, and the man had just had his glass refilled by one of the faceless boys, who’d mixed his cocktail in seconds, refilling just after he emptied his glass.
The glamorous woman emptied her own glass a few minutes later, but declined a refill.
“What’s wrong? You usually drink more than just one glass,” the man commented.
In lieu of a reply, she stretched slowly, pleasurably. “Just not in the mood for more,” she said. “Though, you know what I am in the mood for?” She gave him a smoldering look.
“What?” he asked, while the young girl perked up, looking curiously at them as if expecting something.
The glamorous woman raised a foot, wiggling it in his direction.
He rolled his eyes. “God, you’re like a cat!” But he got off his seat and sat crosslegged in front of her on the ground, taking both of her feet onto his lap. He took her pumps off, carefully putting them aside, before he started giving her a foot massage.
“Are you two going to have sex?” the disappointed looking girl asked.
“What? No!” the man replied, looking horrified. “She raised me! That would be just… just wrong!”
“Yeah, sorry, I can’t look at him without seeing that little boy who’d try to hide behind my skirts and bribe me with chocolate,” the glamorous woman said, closing her eyes in obvious enjoyment of his hands’ work.
“How disappointing,” the girl replied, emptying her scotch bottle. “Aren’t we supposed to be having crazy orgies and all?”
“First of all, we’re not that uncultured,” the glamorous woman admonished her.
“And second of all, you just emptied an entire bottle of eighteen-seventy-five Saint Miriam Rock of Scotland scotch in less than twenty minutes. That’s twenty-six thousand US dollar you just chugged down,” the man complained as he worked on the glamorous woman’s toes.
“Oh, stop complaining, Cloudlander,” she complained right back. “Also, twenty-six grand? Really? I mean, it was good, though I guess it would be better with some root beer mixed in.”
Cloudlander looked at her like she’d just told him she was going to eat babies. “Don’t you dare!” he almost shouted. “I killed the last guy who did that. Freaking idiot internet millionaire,” he grumbled. “I shoved his entire entertainment system up his ass and out the other side.”
“Cool. Next time, take me along,” the girl said unperturbed. “We can bond over slowly murdering people. That does count as a bonding experience, right?” One of the faceless boys replaced her scotch bottle with a black-labelled wodka bottle, and she immediately took a swig.
“It certainly does,” he replied, throwing a look at the glamorous woman.
She caught it, and giggled girlishly. “Oh yes, it sure does.”
They both laughed out loud, while the girl complained about not getting the joke.
Half an hour later…
They’d moved outside, sitting under the shade of several palm trees, while three faceless boys used big fans to keep up a cool draft.
All three of them were barefoot, enjoying the warmth of the sand. Cloudlander and the glamorous woman had changed into bathing suits – blue for him, white for her – while the girl was still wearing the same clothes as before.
“Since we’re all here anyway,” Cloudlander said, “I was meaning to ask you something, Skyfall.” He looked at the young girl, who was taking her time with her wodka bottle, having only emptied about a third of it so far.
“Shoot,” she said, with just the slightest slur in her speech, mostly in her ‘S’.
“What was up with that debacle in Chicago?” he asked. “I haven’t had the chance to look into it myself, but… why’d you throw the Ascendant to the wolves? He may not have been the most successful bearer of the title, but it wasn’t necessary to boot him out like that.”
She snorted in a decidedly disgusted manner. “Y’know, I strongly object there. I’ve inherited lots of weird stuff from the previous Skyfall, but I’ll never understand why he ever gave a position like that to that loser!” She took a long draught from her bottle. “He was a failure through and through! And besides, I had someone way better for the job!”
“Oh?” the glamorous woman perked up – she’d been relaxing more than the other two, even, her reclining chair almost flat, but she rose up on her elbows. “Who? And what makes them so good?”
“Well, she’s a gadgeteer, for one. Not a contriver. Why everyone acts like contrivers are the be-all end-all go-to guys for this stuff, I’ll never understand,” Skyfall complained. “Her work’s actually real. It’s going to be useful even after she dies!”
“Admittedly, that’s a big advantage that all gadgeteers share,” Cloudlander agreed with her. “But that doesn’t make contriver useless – they are considered to be among the most powerful kinds of metahumans for a reason.”
Skyfall dismissed the sentiment with a wave of her hand. “Bah. I’ll stick with gadgeteers, thank you. They’re stable, at least. Or tend to be.”
“You still haven’t told us what makes this woman so worthy of the name,” the glamorous woman gently reminded her. “The Ascendant is a rather great lineage after all.”
The girl reached out for a nearby small table on which lay a tablet computer. Though she fumbled and missed it, one of the faceless boys gave her the tablet. She tapped around on it for a little while, then handed it over to Cloudlander, who passed it on to the woman, who began reading whatever was on the screen immediately, her face quickly growing more and more alarmed.
“This is her main project,” Skyfall explained. “I think it’s got a great chance of working out, and even if it doesn’t, her preliminary research alone-“
“We have to bury this,” the glamorous woman snapped. She looked at Skyfall, her eyes hard. “This must not come out, under any circumstances! You are going to move her, and all essential personnel even remotely aware of the project, to the Installation! And you are going to kill everyone else who might even know a hint of this!” She was almost shouting by the end of it.
“Geez, Heaven’s, calm down!” the girl complained, looking almost – but only almost – frightened. “What’s so bad about this?” she asked as Heaven’s Dancer handed the tablet to Cloudlander, who quickly skimmed it.
“I agree with Heaven’s Dancer,” Cloudlander said. “And I strongly believe that our fearless leader would agree as well. We have to make sure none of this gets through to Whitaker.”
“The fuck? Why would that be a problem?” Skyfall asked, though she was looking a little concerned now. “Double L is always a problem, sure, and I guess this might get under her skin, but we can deal with h-“
“No!” both of the others shot her down in unison. They looked at each other, exchanging nods, and then Cloudlander spoke in a gentler voice.
“You don’t know Whitaker. You haven’t seen what she’s really capable of. The world has forgotten that, or at least chosen to ignore it – but if she finds out about this, she’ll stop playing nice. She won’t stop coming after us, though, and she won’t stop until everyone even remotely connected to this… this project is dead and gone!”
“How’s she going to find out, anyway?” a petulant Skyfall asked. “It’s not like I’ve let anyone untrustworthy know about the project…”
“Whitaker has greater resources than some might think,” Cloudlander said.
“To be honest, her intelligence-gathering capabilities are still a mystery to us,” Heaven’s Dancer admitted. “Which also means we have a hard time making sure everything crucial stays secret from her.”
Skyfall frowned, thinking it over, but then she nodded. “Well, you know her better than I do. I would’ve suspected her to be rather happy about this, really, but I’d be a fool not to defer to you two in this.” She sighed and took another draught. “Alright. I’ll move the Ascendant to the Installation, and I’ll kill everyone who knows about it but can’t go along.”
The other two nodded, relaxing again, as one of the boys took the tablet away. “Damn it, and I was just unwinding,” Cloudlander complained.
“Language, young man,” Heaven’s Dancer admonished him. “And besides, unwinding has never been an issue for you. Just do it.”
They all fell quiet for a short time.
“Oy, since we’re talking about the Installation already,” Skyfall spoke up after a few minutes, “How’s Project Wake coming along?”
Heaven’s Dancer groaned. “It isn’t coming along, at all. We’ve done nearly everything short of throwing nukes at the Sleeper – not that we have any at our disposal right now – and it’s failed to so much as make her stir.”
“After all this time, I’m starting to think that Project Wake is doomed to fail anyway,” Cloudlander said calmly. “Maybe we should stop wasting so many resources on it?”
Heaven’s Dancer dismissed the thought with a wave of her hand. “No no, even if Project Wake itself has so far had no successes, the other projects centered around the Sleeper have been paying huge dividends. We’ve learned more about powers and the Starchildren in the last ten years than in the seventy-nine years before that, just by studying her and all the derivates.”
“Speaking of derivates,” Skyfall interjected, “What about Project Sarsaok?”
“Oh, right, I was rather looking forward to the result of that one,” Cloudlander added. “How is that one going?”
“It’s… a reasonable success, actually,” Heaven’s Dancer replied. “Actually, if it weren’t for the fact that the team working on it was aiming for something completely different, and them having no idea how it turned out like this, I’d even call it an exceptional success. It’s rather useless to our original designs, though, as we can’t replicate it.”
Skyfalls face fell. “What a shame,” she said in between drinking from her bottle. “I would’ve liked having an-“
“Actually,” Cloudlander interrupted her, “if we can’t use it for anything else, why not just let it loose?”
“What, on Japan?” Heaven’s Dancer asked, surprised. “That would be rather… crass, don’t you think?”
He made a dismissive gesture. “No, not Japan. They’re already getting enough of a pounding as is, especially with the collapse of the Sovjet Union throwing most of Asia into chaos,” he replied, “I was thinking of the USA, actually. Esperanza City, perhaps.”
Skyfall chuckled. “What, still sore about how that business with the Afolayan family turned out?”
He groaned. “No! Yes! But that’s not the reason! Actually, I’m thinking this could actually serve the whole thing, maybe get the boy to finally manifest.”
“Why’re you so interested in him manifesting, anyway?” Skyfall asked. “I know he’s got a weird condition, but what about it makes him special?”
Heaven’s Dancer answered that question instead of Cloudlander. “Actually, he’s very interesting to us, because he’s not the only one of his kind – there have been a few other children like him, all over the planet. Four that we know about, though we haven’t been able to snatch any of them away – either Goldschmidt or Whitaker managed to snag them up before we could, putting them out of our reach,” she explained. “The Afolayan boy was the only one we knew about, but of whom neither of them had found out… until his sister went and joined the United Heroes, of course; now Whitaker probably knows.”
Cloudlander gave her an annoyed look. “And remember who exactly didn’t want to just kidnap the boy put the blame on some anti-Humanity First villain and have an actual test subject to work on?”
“Puh! Don’t be so negative,” Heaven’s Dancer dismissed his outrage. “I doubt we could’ve learned so much more than we can if we push him to trigger like this!”
“Guys, what the hell is up with this squirt that you’re so into him?” Skyfall asked with exasperation, as she threw her arms up (and spilled a good quantity of wodka).
“He’s a vector-less second-generation metahuman,” Cloudlander said simply, sipping from a fizzy green drink one of the faceless boys had put into his hand at his behest. “Shows all the signs of pre-manifestation second generation, but has no metahuman vectors from which to have inherited it – and like the other cases we know about, he’s suffering from regular fits that play hob with his brain chemistry in ways that really ought to kill the boy.”
“Wow, that is interesting,” Skyfall admitted. “How about I just go snatch him up? We could vivisect him and-“
“Or we just send Sarsaok to Esperanza, which will massively bolster anti-metahuman sentiment and potentially kill his remaining sister and might push him to manifest in a dozen other ways,” Cloudlander interjected. “We need to drum up some more support for Humanity First, anyway. With war on the horizon, the good people of the USA are suddenly growing brains and realising that having lots of metas on their side is an invaluable advantage.”
“Well, we can’t have that,” Heaven’s Dancer agreed. “Let’s send Sarsaok to Esperanza. And we’ll send an observation crew along to observe how the project goes,” she decided. “I’ll get the ball rolling tomorrow.”
“Wonderful,” Cloudlander said, and leaned back again. “It’s promising to be a wonderful week, all things considered.”
“Yeah,” Skyfall groused. “If only it wasn’t for me having to move a major, sensitive project halfway across the world in total secrecy. Nevermind how that whiny bitch-“
“Language, young lady!” Heaven’s Dancer interjected, making Skyfall roll her eyes.
“Alright, never mind how that whiny female dog,” she continued, “Dusu has been just a huge disappointment, ever since the Hawaii job. I’m honestly considering putting her up for a performance review next.”
“My, you’re going through your ranks quite quickly, Skyfall,” Cloudlander said, half in jest and half seriously.
“I think my predecessor was too soft,” the girl in question complained. “Too much stagnation is not good for progress. Especially when looking at a loser like Dusu.”
“Actually, your predecessor was considering getting rid of Dusu after the Hawaii debacle,” Heaven’s Dancer told her. “But our fearless leader objected, asking him to give Dusu a few more years.”
“Probably one of our great leader’s many visions,” Cloudlander said wisely. “So far, they’ve never really steered us wrong.”
Skyfall rolled her eyes again. “Well, I’m not betting on that. Dusu’s got a little time left, then I’ll put her up for performance review, even if the boss says otherwise.”
“Do what you think is best,” Heaven’s Dancer advised her. “Just keep in mind that gadgeteers like her are hard to replace, as you well know.”
“Oh, I’m sure I can manage,” Skyfall said with a small smile. “It’d be more important to keep things in motion than to keep every slot filled, anyway. Even if there weren’t lots of eager aspirants to our legacies, anyway.”
She sighed and stretched luxuriously on her seat. “One month. If she doesn’t come up with something amazing until then, I’ll put her up for a performance review.”