“Welcome to the UH Central Branch, Inspector Haurson,” the young woman behind the counter greeted Mike with a brilliant smile after scanning his ID card.
He smiled back on reflex. “Thank you, Miss…” he looked at her name tag. “… Fastings.” He couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d seen her before, at some point…
Right, she was at the Austin branch headquarters, he thought, as he recognised her. “Nice to meet you again,” he added with a smile.
She smiled. “You must have me confused for one of my duplicates,” she replied, tapping said name tag. “This me has certainly never met you, Sir. I’d remember.” She looked at the long scar running down the left side of his face, across his (thankfully still functional) eye and cheek, down to the jaw.
“Oh, you’re a self-duplicator?”
She nodded. “Regular and persistent. I staff a lot of places, all across the organisation.”
“Huh, you must get killer overtime,” he joked, impressed. He hadn’t heard of that kind of power before… he should really read up on more on the powered non-cape employees of the organisation, he’d focused mostly on the leadership and on the capes, so far.
The pretty receptionist giggled. “You could say that, yes. Anyway, you’re cleared for the whole building. I assume you’re here for the board meeting?”
He nodded. “Aye. First week as an inspector, and already get my first board meeting. How lucky is that, eh?” He had expected to have at least a month before the next regular meeting… of course, there was nothing regular about this one.
“Can’t be lucky all the time,” she replied with a grin. “You should hurry, or you’ll be even less lucky.”
“True, true,” he admitted, taking his card back. “Well, see you later, Miss Fastings.”
He left her, walking down the old-fashioned hall – the UH Central Branch’ headquarters was not, as some might expect, inside a huge skyscraper, nor some other modern building; it was, in fact, a refurbished mansion built in what he assumed to be an Old English style of some sort… Victorian, perhaps? He couldn’t tell. Lots of carved wood and wooden furniture, very little visible electronics of any sort. Situated in the forest depths of New Hampshire, the place was isolated and heavily fortified… not that anyone could tell.
A wooden door slid open as he approached it, revealing an old-fashioned elevator – or at least, it looked old-fashioned. No old-school elevator would have responded to his announcement of ‘Floor U4’, the doors closing.
Nothing seemed to happen at all, but seconds later, the doors opened again, and he exited out into the fourth underground floor of the gigantic complex constructed beneath the mansion. Of course, the public knew little and less about this, and even the government only knew about the first four floors beneath the mansion… the rest were secret, and the bottom most ones were secret even to him, even though he was an inspector charged with keeping the various branches of the US UH honest, investigating any hints of malfeasance.
It was annoying, but he believed his superiors when they told him that he didn’t really want to know what was down there… that it would only give him nightmares.
Some things, man was not meant to know… yeah, no, I don’t buy it. Some day, I’ll find out what’s down there, he thought quietly to himself as he walked down the hallway… which still looked like it was at least two hundred years old, if in very good condition. The aesthetics of whoever built this… well, better than just concrete and steel. I do wonder whether these fabled bottom floors are built like this, too.
Finally, he reached his destination, a large double door, and entered after a polite knock.
Inside, he found a long room, with a huge double-window at the end of it, showing an idyllic scenery of rolling hills and a lake… some gadgeteer’s work, he knew. An illusionist, he created life-like holograms, and had helped spruce things up around the base.
“Inspector Haurson, I’m glad you could join us on such short notice,” he was greeted by his superior, Chief Inspector Edward Valiant.
Edward was a strange figure to look at, in many ways. He just about reached five feet and five inches of height, was rather heavy, heavily balding and sported rather large ears. His clothing style did him no favours, either, preferring to dress like a washed-up PI from the late nineteen-forties, in a gray pinstripe suit and white shirt, with an ungodly tie in dark blue, with red-white-and-black patterned squares across it. He had a very pleasant smile, though, which almost made up for having to look at his ties.
“Chief, I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” Mike replied with a grin, shaking the shorter man’s hand. “I hope I’m not too late?” He looked around at the gathered men and women, nearly two scores of them; but the seat at the head of the table, in front of the window, was empty.
“Nah, we’re still waiting for the Chief Director,” Valiant said. “Come, let’s sit down. This is your first meeting here, after all.”
“Yeah,” Mike agreed, following his chief past several other people sitting at the lower end of the table, to sit down on an empty chair next to Valiant’s, near the middle, with his nameplate in front of him. “Honestly, I feel quite out of place here… Inspectors don’t usually sit in for this, right?”
Valiant lowered his girth into his chair, sighing in relief. “Nonsense. I always bring one of you lads along, and you’ve earned the spot; besides, I know you want to rise up even higher, and this’ll help you make your name,” he winked at Mike, grinning.
Mike coughed briefly, to cover his embarrassment. His aspirations weren’t exactly a secret, but neither did he carry them on his sleeve. Besides, he was in the company of the people he hoped to ascend to match, some day.
He was spared from having to formulate an articulate reply by the double doors opening once more. Three people entered, a tall woman and a thin man, flanking a second, short man.
A very short man. If he cracked four and a half feet, Mike would be very surprised. His slightly stocky build did not help make up for it, only emphasizing it. Furthermore, he sported a very… old-fashioned bowl-cut that made his hair literally look like its namesake overturned bowl, and a mustache one could have used as a broom, as well as a dark blue pinstripe suit.
In fact, he and the Chief Inspector made quite the matched set, in a disrespectfully funny way – there were many jokes going around the offices about the two of them.
On the other hand, his face and his bearing immediately put any doubts as to his qualification to hold the power he did hold down. He had a calm, attractive face, rugged, with thick eyebrows and dark green, intelligent eyes and an overall very serious, respectable expression.
Such was the appearance of Chief Director Harley Ortega, the leader of the United Heroes and one of the most powerful men in the world, as he walked down the length of the table, smiling at the gathered people, always trailed by his ever-present shadow, a tall, gorgeous woman wearing a dark blue suit and skirt, and black pumps, her regal mediterranean features calm and collected. Her hair was drawn up in a tight knot, which did nothing to hide the fact that instead of having a hair colour, her hair looked like someone had painstakingly cut a hairstrand-shaped length out of reality, allowing one to peak past the Earth into infinite space, with each strand showing a different section of it. The effect was oddly disorienting to look at, yet quite beautiful.
Mike knew her as Sigma and no one had been able to tell him why she bore that name. She was the Chief Director’s personal assistant and bodyguard, and her file had more redactions in it than readable text.
The other man was Warren Gerden, the chief secretary of the board of directors, a thin, somehow slimy-looking man, though Mike had never heard anything but praise for his conduct and work ethics.
The Chief Director walked onto the podium built beneath his chair at the head of the table, to give him a much-needed boost, while Sigma took her place to the right behind him, her eyes almost glowing like chips of ice above a lamp, cast into shadows by the light from the window behind her. Warren sat down at a separate chair and small table with a laptop, to record the meeting and provide any resources needed.
“Good morning, everyone,” the Chief Director greeted them smoothly, his voice easily filling the room. “Thank you for coming all together on such short notice, and outside of our usual meeting times, as well. I’m afraid we have rather a lot to talk about, and so would like to skip the pleasantries and get down to brass tacks.” He looked around the table, but no one spoke up. “Good. Now, let’s start with the obvious subject, first.”
At a snap of his fingers, the entire window behind him disappeared, instead showing, now, four still images from around the world.
Mike felt a shiver down his back as he recognised the forms of Crocell and what he assumed to be the other three monsters that’d shown up at the same time, though he hadn’t yet seen images of the other three.
Crocell was shown in his final form, the last one he took before he was brought down by the local heroes.
The Chief Director gestured at a man sitting near the head of the table, a spindly thin man with wild, white hair, his face wrinkled, his age exaggerated by the huge, thick glasses he wore, magnifying his watery blue-green eyes to near-comical orbs. Unlike everyone else in the room, he wasn’t wearing a suit, but rather, a lab coat over a Hawaii shirt and a pair of black suit pants. “Professor Finderer, would you please brief us on these creatures?”
Finderer, the head of the UH’s research and development, spoke up in a nasal, but precise voice with a strong german accent: “Yesterday, at three-twenty-five Pacific Standard Time, the monster now known as Crocell appeared at the shore of Esperanza City, after heavy warnings of precogs… around the country that something horrible was going to happen there. It continued to engage our gathered heroes – and no few supervillains – as well as several dignitaries from the AMU and the GAIN, causing billions of dollars in collateral damage, almost five thousand civilian deaths – the count was only so low due to an unidentified but presumably very powerful metahuman helping to evacuate the people, who hadn’t been moved out of the city yet – and forty-five casualties among the defenders, before a group of, of young gadgeteers, using a modified Subjugator’s main turret, managed to put it down. Its death throes then flooded most of Esperanza City, causing even more damages and four more deaths among the defenders.” He stopped to take a breath. “And it was, almost certainly, the least dangerous of the four we know of.”
There were some shocked whispers around the table, people leaning closer to each other to exchange words, while Mike folded his fingers on top of the table. He’d already heard similar sentiments on the way here, though he didn’t know the specifics yet.
“Now, as far as we know – these four beasts, named Crocell, Andras, Marchosias and Alloces, appeared less than an hour, apart from each other, all coming from the sea, and all of them wreaking seemingly mindless havoc in major population centres, except for Aloces, which was intercepted by Queen Madeleine, before it could reach one. They all seemed to, shift through several, progressively more powerful forms over the duration of combat, often in response to, taking large amounts of damage, or their abilities proving, insufficient. Since everyone here was already briefed on Crocell yesterday, we will skip discussing him.” He picked up a remote from the table and pointed it at the screen, which focused on the image to the left of Crocell’s.
It showed what appeared to be a lanky, lizard-like beast, walking on its hoofed hind legs, while its head was almost leonine, like a twisted mixture of a snake and a lion, with countless spikes growing out from it in the form of a mane.
“The entity which appeared in Australia was named Alloces, due to its physical characteristics,” Finderer explained further, speaking evenly, as if he was just reciting the same lecture he’d held last year. “As it was the first one to be noticed – though not the first one to appear – if only by an hour, this caused the others to also be named after demons from the Ars Goetia. It went through multiple stages of development, ending up in this form.” Another click of the remote changed the picture to show the same beast, only now it looked more like a centaur, standing on four hoofed legs, its body still scaled and more appropriate to a lizard than a horse, even if its shape fit one, with a muscular humanoid body sticking out of the horse’s neck, topped by a now fully leonine head. It even sported fur, and was coloured like one, as well. “The creature was slain by Queen Madeleine before the full extent of its abilities were known; it demonstrated a singular ability, aside from extreme physical strength – summoning meteorites at will, ranging in size from about six metres in diameter, to five hundred.”
The imaged changed to show a veritable rain of burning hot projectiles coming down from the sky, tearing up the beach and forest. Several people gasped at the sight, but overall, the gathered directors were far calmer than Mike felt. A giant monster summoning meteorites? That sounded like the stuff of nightmares if he’d ever heard of one.
“Queen Madeleine managed to slay it, though according to what scant few reports we have, she took heavy damage doing so,” Finderer concluded, sounding animated – and annoyed – for the first time; probably at the lack of concrete information.
He switched over to the next one, an image of what appeared to be a nude male, suspended in mid-air. He lacked any primary or secondary sexual characteristics, his body perfectly smooth, yet sculpted to perfection, his skin a warm, normal colour for a caucasian male. However, it lacked a head, its neck ending in a perfectly straight stump, showing a cross-section of its spine, throat and other organs. In front of the empty air where her head should be, a mask floated in the air, depicting some manner of stylized bird, though Mike would be damned if he could name it. Its feathers were black, at the very least, yet tipped in gold, the bird somehow managing to convey a haughty expression.
“Andras appeared in Hong Kong minutes before Crocell surfaced in Esperanza City; within twenty minutes, it had killed or enslaved the thirty-seven metahumans who’d gathered to fight it off, sending its minions to slaughter the population of the metropolis,” Finderer led the description of this one, as Mike felt a cold pit form at the bottom of his stomach. “He appears to have been either incapable or simply not interested in controlling baseline humans. During their rampage, his minions caused four manifestations, all of which were quickly enslaved by him and added to his minion’s ranks. The vector by which he controlled them is unknown, and speculated to be telepathic.”
He waited briefly as murmurs broke out for a minute or so. Even the Chief Inspector didn’t stay quiet, leaning closer to Mike. “Great, another mind-bender. As if that crazy pet of the Dark ain’t bad enough.”
Mike couldn’t help but agree fully. Untangling the mess one of Mindstar’s victims caused in the Boston PD had been the assignment that had put him on a short list to promotion, yet he still wished it had never happened. Talk about messy.
Finderer continued. “Fortunately for everyone involved, Lady Light arrived in Hong Kong within forty minutes of its initial appearance and engaged it in a protracted battle. After approximately ten minutes, she’d managed to disable his puppets, after fifteen more, she managed to destroy the monster. Apparently, she was somehow able to block its telepathic powers.”
On her own? Seriously?
“Andras did not exhibit as extreme transformations as the other three monsters; it merely started out without its mask, which slowly manifested and became more elaborate as it developed and became stronger. Aside from its – presumably – telepathic abilities, Andras exhibited the ability to generate powerful, focused energy blasts from either of its eyes, simultaneously or independently, while aiming them in multiple directions at once. It was also at least as tough as Crocell proved to be, if more compact. The whole battle destroyed fifty-five percent of downtown Hong Kong. Fortunately, upon his demise, the effects of his telepathy wore off immediately, and the heroes and villains who survived are now being treated and screened. Most of them are expected to make full recoveries.”
Another click, changing to a giant, emaciated canine with wet, messy black fur. It looked, in any way, like a dog on the edge of starvation, except for its enormous size, easily the size of a minivan, judging by the cars next to it.
“Now, Marchosias, so christened due to its canine appearance, is the only one of the four to survive its first fight. It surfaced in the bay of Tokyo, causing only a minor panic, as its did not look nearly as threatening as the others. However, it proved to be the most dangerous one, having appeared almost a full hour before Alloces, yet remaining relatively docile during the first stages of its transformation, running through the city to evade pursuit, only occasionally attacking people seemingly at random. It proved elusive enough to escape the local Sentai’s attention, going through no less than half a dozen transformations – we assume – before it appeared in its final form.”
Another click, and the image changed to show a very different creature. It now appeared more like a dragon, of some sorts, its torso a weird mixture of humanoid and canine, or perhaps feline features, looking very flexible, and covered in smooth, almost silky fur. It had powerful shoulders and strong arms, ending in clawed hands with opposable thumbs, while its hind legs were more animal-like. It had a long, sinuous tail, longer than the rest of its body, bare of fur and covered in scales instead. From its back sprouted two pairs of huge black wings, though they were only black on the outside. Their insides were covered in strange scales, arranged in a way that evoked feathers, and scintillating in bright red, blue and purple. Its head could have been a nightmarish dog’s or cat’s, it was hard to tell, covered in dark fur, with glowing eyes that matched the insides of its wings in colours. It was now the size of a truck, if it pulled its wings together.
“Once it assumed this form, it was officially named and engaged by both the local Sentai team, their support groups, as well as Huong Long and the three members of our Tokyo branch functioning in a support role. However, it soon proved to be… problematic to combat.”
Another click showed Marchosias flying through a street, trailing a cloud of glittering dust that matched its eyes and wings in colour.
“From the moment it assumed its final form, Marchosias began to produce these scales, which it spread everywhere it went,” Finderer explained, sounding more subdued now. “Any baseline who breathed them in went insane, while also growing stronger, as well as able to ignore a ridiculous amount of pain – their increased is suspected to be a result of the latter, allowing them to push themselves to extremes without pause, due to the lack of sensation. All his victims immediately started killing everyone they could reach, except for other infected, unless he was currently flying by nearby, providing more scales. In that case, they would drag uninfected people towards the scales to become infected as well. Fortunately, though, the scales appear to lose their potency quickly, becoming inert within less than a minute of being separated from its body. However, their effects upon baseline humans appear to be permanent; those who survived the immediate battle and could be caught non-lethally show no signs of recuperating.”
Oh my God… so that’s how all those people died. Mike’s stomach was turning at the thought of how that must have gone.
One of the directors – Director Niles from Miami, a rather hard man who seemed much to dour to come from that city – spoke up. “Excuse me, you specified that this applies to normals; how did it affect metahumans, then?”
Another click, showing an image of a young Asian man, naked but for a pair of torn jeans pants, walking through the street in an aggressive pose, leaning forward, his arms spread as if about to pounce on someone. His eyes were glowing a purplish colour, while veins of scintillating red, blue and purple ran from them all over and around his face and neck. He was surrounded by a corona of intense, almost solid air.
“The effect on metahumans is far more pronounced; not only were they driven insane and beyond pain by the scales, but their powers were also boosted, to varying degrees,” Finderer explained, setting off another round of whispers. “Fortunately, said effect appears to be temporary; it wears off after apparently random amounts of time, though it does appear as if the ones to recover the quickest – on the order of less than an hour – are among those with the greatest control over their power. Furthermore, certain individuals, such as the Dark, appeared to be immune. Huong Long was briefly infected, but was able to nullify its effects at will, even upon re-infection.”
“Well, at least we didn’t lose one of our best… problematic as that child may be,” Director Ryan, from New Lennston, spoke up. He was a warm-looking, blonde man, stocky almost to the point of being fat. Thick, was perhaps the best word. “Though, how did this beast manage to escape the Dark and Huong Long?”
Finderer shrugged. “Mostly due to all of its victims providing such an effective distraction. After all, once infected, it did not need to remain present to manage them. Huong Long prioritized minimizing casualties, while the Dark attempted to pursue it, but was bogged down by empowered infected.” He stopped, tapping the remote to his chin. “On another note, it appears that Marchosias chose to flee the moment the last of its… brothers… died, implying that there was some form of information exchange between them. Lastly, the three which were slain all burst into frankly ridiculous amounts of sea-water, which contributed greatly to the collateral damage to Hong Kong and Esperanza City.”
The Chief Director nodded to Finderer. “Thank you very much, Professor,” he spoke smoothly, as the screen returned to an image showing all four of the monsters. Finderer sat down, immediately turning his attention to a tablet which his assistant handed to him.
“Now, fortunately, our own losses were sparse. Most of the casualties in Esperanza were on the villain side, and we didn’t lose any members at all from our Tokyo branch. There were no – official – members of the UH involved in the Hong Kong or Australian theatre. However, the simultaneous appearance of monsters like these is reason for concern. They are clearly of like nature, in spite of their appearance, and they all pursued major population centres, even if one of them never made it that far,” the Chief Director continued as he leaned back in his chair. “What are your thoughts, my friends?”
“If there’d been just one, I’d have said this was just another broken meta,” Director Niles spoke up, rubbing his pointy chin. “But four monsters, of such like nature? Seems more like one metahuman made these… or perhaps a group of them. What’s our Eyes say?”
Everyone, including Mike, looked at the director of Project Argus Panopticos, the United Heroes’ collection of pre-cogs and various other espers. A dark-skinned woman in her late forties, Martha Jenkins was the one who’d come up with and organised the project in the first place, and had been its director since the beginning. Usually, she loved presenting her pet project’s results, showing just how well it was working.
Right now, though, she looked more than a little chagrined, as she shook her head. “Whatever or whoever made these things, wherever they may come from, it blinds all our Eyes,” she admitted. “The most we’ve been able to get were disjointed ramblings about someone named ‘Rei’ singing a lullaby. And that’s from our most powerful precog.”
“That is beyond unhelpful,” Director Warren Armstrong supplied, his huge mustache twitching with his usual distaste for precognitives. “Do we at least have an inkling of who this Rei might be?”
Jenkins almost seemed like she wanted to snarl at him, but she didn’t, instead replying coolly, “No. It is apparently not an uncommon name among Japanese people.”
“Let’s keep an eye out for any metahuman with that name,” Ortega intervened before this could escalate into another fight. “For now, let us focus on what we do know. Which metahuman that we know of could, conceivably, have created these?”
People thought it over, including Mike. Soon, the first ones spoke up.
“Merkabah,” Ryan brought up. “She’s shown a propensity for creating monsters, even if they’re usually more… mechanical.”
Now that’s a crazy fucking bitch, Mike couldn’t help but think. He’d read all the reports which existed about her, as part of his briefing on S-Class threats, and they hadn’t been pretty at all. He didn’t think she was capable of something like this, though. These beasts were too big a departure from her usual MO.
“If you got something to say, spill it,” Valiant whispered into his ear. “You’re not here just to watch and look pretty.”
He looked at his boss, nodding, and then turned to the table in general. “I disagree. Merkabah’s past creations have been markedly different from any of these four, and far less extreme in scale,” he spoke, finding his throat quite dry, yet managing to avoid squeaking.
To his great relief, he didn’t get any weird looks for having spoken up; however, people did briefly focus on him, and he very nearly shrank back in his seat, especially when the Chief Director looked at him, briefly, and smiled.
“Noted. We shall still include her in our preliminary list, for completeness’ sake if nothing else, but she’s likely to be low on it,” the man at the head of the table said. “Any other candidates anyone can think of?”
Mike leaned back, relaxing just a bit.
“The Savage Six? This is just the kind of thing they’d love to do, even if I don’t know whether they could,” another director added, too quickly for Mike to check whom it had come from.
Ortega nodded. “We should consider motivation, yes. They definitely belong on the list, for now.”
“I believe it is pertinent to mention,” Director Charles Barnes of Kansas City interjected, “that the Savage Six have apparently spent the time since they returned into their otherworldly base kidnapping other villains from all over the world. At least, our Eyes assume that the Six are behind it.”
“What!?” Armstrong shouted, slapping a hand on the table. “How come this is the first time I hear about that!? This should’ve been brought up as soon as it became known!” He looked accusingly at Jenkins again, but she didn’t get a chance to respond.
“Warren, my dear friend, please calm yourself,” the Chief Director spoke calmly. “This is no place for such outbursts.” He looked intently at the man, yet without glaring, until Warren subsided with a nod. Then he turned towards the table as a whole. “I agree that this is more than a little worrisome. Even if the Six are not involved with these monsters at all, the fact that they’re gathering villains is something to look out and prepare for. Director Jenkins, would you please make sure that your Eyes make a list of any villains whom they think have been taken?”
Jenkins nodded, looking pleased that her people were being called upon.
“So, is there anyone else who’s an option?” Ortega continued.
“Sovereign, simply because he might be able to, if he gathered the right metahumans,” Ryan said. “Though I would put him low on the list. This doesn’t seem like his… style, for lack of a better word.”
There were nods all around the table, to both points.
“That’s about it, though,” Armstrong said, his hands clasped tightly on the table in front of him. “There’s honestly no other metahumans I could think of – who’re still alive, that is – which could be capable of this. The last one to create anything near this scale was Blackhill.”
Just the mention of that name sent shivers down several people’s backs, as Mike noticed. Many of those present here were old enough to remember the Martian Invasion in all its horror and wonder.
“I suppose we’ll have to hope that our Eyes and everyone else we can gather with a hand for such things will dig up some useful data,” Ortega agreed. “Now, unless there is more on this, we should move on to determining how we’ll pitch into relief efforts for the victims of these attacks… yes, Director Ryan?”
Everyone looked at Ryan, who’d raised his hand. “There is one point,” he said. “It’s regarding the battle against Crocell or, more specifically, how the monster was finally brought down.”
“Are you referring to the young gadgeteers who cooperated to take it down?” Ortega asked.
Ryan nodded. “Yes. More specifically, I am referring to the one who figured out Crocell’s weak point, then organised the operation, an independent young hero calling himself Brennus. You all are aware of him, I believe, as the boy who was instrumental in taking out the Acre beneath New Lennston, as well as the one to put down Hastur.”
Again, there were nods around the table.
“May I interject briefly,” Niles spoke up. When Ryan nodded, she continued, “This machine he built, could it be used to slay Marchosias, when he shows up again?”
“I’m afraid not,” Finderer answered, still focused on his tablet. “Even if Sovereign had not reclaimed his Subjugator – neither Tick-Tock nor Polymnia believe that they could recreate the device without Sovereign’s advanced technology as a base, not even with Brennus’ help – Crocell appears to have been… unfinished. According to what data we were able to gather, the Dark attempted a similar strategy against Marchosias, once he learned of Crocell’s defeat, and it failed. It is highly likely that, by now, Marchosias is no longer merely a mass of sea water contained by a hyper-powerful force-field.”
Niles made a sigh, but didn’t continue, and Ryan cleared his throat.
“Anyway, the point I wish to bring up is, how should we deal with young Brennus?” he asked into the gathering of his peers and superiors, while the secretary called up an image taken of Brennus, standing atop the jury-rigged Subjugator with Polymnia and Tick-Tock, aiming, moments before it was fired off. It looked… quite impressively heroic.
Armstrong nodded. “The boy has been too… impactful. We can’t allow a vigilante like that to run around free and keep showing up the actual legal heroes,” he agreed with Ryan. “Nevermind that his actions are inherently illegal, as well-intentioned as they may be, he is undermining the whole point of the United Heroes’ existence, and of any established, legalized hero team.”
“Atmittedly true,” Ryan agreed, though he didn’t look happy, “but that is not what I am referring to. I refer to the fact that, now if not already, he is going to be a target for countless unscrupulous villains and other criminals, not the least of which being the Dark himself, and we should try to recruit him so we can protect and nurture him and his talent. Though that would also solve the image problem which he represents. Yet Brennus has, quite decidedly, refused to join our local branch, even though he is maintaining cordial relationships with both Polymnia and Gloom Glimmer, and appears to at least be on friendly terms with Tartsche and Spellgun.”
Niles drummed his fingers on the table. “Hmm… so we both need him, and he needs us. Have we tried making another recruitment pitch at him? If anything, we can offer him many more and better resources than he could get on his own, and gadgeteers always need more resources.”
Ryan shook his head. “According to Gloom Glimmer and Polymnia, he is unlikely to accept that, even though it appears that he is running out of his own resources, wherever he may have originally gained them.”
“He’s running out? How do you know that?” Armstrong asked curiously, obviously sensing an opportunity.
“His gear has been downgraded since it was damaged in the fight against Hastur,” Ryan explained. “He was obviously unable to finance a full restoration. He also hasn’t improved as much as we would have expected, based on his other feats shown.”
“What kind of rating has he been assigned?” Ortega asked. “I assume it was adjusted after his performance during the Crocell fight?”
Ryan nodded, answering as the expert on the subject. “We are currently rating him as a Gadgeteer ten-slash-eight, with sub-ratings of Damage six, Movement four, Perception five, Protection five and Spawner two.”
Mike almost whistled at all the accumulation of ratings. That was quite the list, even for a gadgeteer.
He also had an idea on how to approach this problem, but he was going to wait and see if someone else came up with it, first.
“And we haven’t been trying to recruit this boy more?” Armstrong said in outrage, barely controlling his voice. “What kind of madness is this, to let someone who’s that powerful – a child, no less, as all reports I’ve heard here suggest he’s in the age group of your Polymnia – run around unsupervised and unprotected?”
“It is a delicate situation,” Ryan replied, though he didn’t seem offended at the outburst. Rather, he almost seemed to agree, based on how he leaned a little towards Armstrong as he continued to speak. “Brennus has, so far, conducted himself nearly impeccably – a single unauthorized use of our e-mail servers notwithstanding, and we all know how that paid off for us – and he is quite popular with the public. I don’t have to explain to you how much the crowds love heroes like him, and he is a hero, even if he’s also a vigilante. Trying to force him into joining us could not only antagonise him, but also the public, if he lashed out and it became known,” he concluded.
Armstrong seemed ready to object, but Jenkins cut in, looking intently at Ryan.
“What about his emblem?” she asked. “Let us not forget the incident with Ember, during which he painted Brennus chosen emblem on a wall, the first time he moved since his exile began, and until he began healing people again. Have you been able to contact Brennus on this matter?”
The stocky director shook his head. “I’m afraid not. As I said, the situation is delicate. I don’t want to contact him about this by mail, yet e-mails remain currently our only viable way for contacting him. I was hoping to talk to him in the aftermath of the Crocell battle, but Brennus apparently insisted on being transported directly to a location somewhere near his lab, by Gloom Glimmer, as he apparently had some kind of stroke of inspiration in the aftermath of the fight, and wished to work on it. Before anyone asks, no, Gloom Glimmer doesn’t know where his lab is. She simply dropped him off at New Lennston’s northern industrial district, which we suspected to be where his base lies anyway.”
“Sounds to me like we really have to do something already,” Valiant threw in his own five cent. “Boy’s only gonna be getting more and more attention once this leaks, and it will leak. The Protegé is too big for such an action to remain secret for long. Nevermind his performance during three S-Class events, delivering the final blow in each. And wasn’t he sought out by the Savage Six, too, during the Fion girl’s kidnapping incident?”
Once more, people seemed surprised, whispering among each other at the new piece of information. At least those who hadn’t known yet.
Ryan dismissed it, though, waving a hand. “That was apparently an unrelated issue. They have been probing various gadgeteers all over the world, or at least they used to until they put that on hold in the wake of the Osaka incident. Anyway, the dismissed Brennus, in front of several members of our junior heroes. They don’t believe him to be this Macian they are looking for.”
Mike frowned, leaning closer to his chief. “Who’s Macian, Sir? I don’t think I’ve read any files on him.”
“That’s because there ain’t really one,” Valiant replied quietly. “He’s barely more than an urban legend. A child gadgeteer who grew up in the Savage Six’ games, was supposedly involved in both the Berlin and the London Incident and at least a dozen more, then is thought to have escaped their pocket dimension. Nothing concrete on him, but it’s curious enough that it drew the boards’ attention in the past.”
“Chief Inspector Valiant, Inspector Haurson,” Armstrong addressed them. “Do you have anything pertinent to say?”
They looked at the man, Valiant looking quite annoyed, but Mike was the one to reply. “Just a thought, Sir. The Savage Six are looking for a young male gadgeteer of apparently considerable power. Said gadgeteer is said to have been both in Berlin and London – where Ember was – and Ember has drawn the personal emblem of a young, male gadgeteer of considerable power to a wall. What if he is this Macian, and the Savage Six merely failed to realise it?”
That got people thinking. Mike stayed quiet, watching them, as he thought it over himself. This boy is getting more and more curious by the minute.
“Hrm, Brennus is truly becoming an unavoidable issue for us,” Ortega observed, stroking his chin. “We can’t allow him to remain independent, especially if he’s running out of resources – thus becoming more vulnerable to attacks, or recruitment by villains – nevermind the image problem he represents. Also, he’ll most likely be in Sovereign’s sight now, too, after everything that’s happened.”
“He is a criminal – why don’t we just bring him in, and then spin it in our favour?” Armstrong asked calmly. “It shouldn’t be our first, or second option, but it is an option, and one that is, to me at least, far preferable than allowing a child to so endanger himself – and others.”
“Much as I’d like to, I cannot disagree,” Ryan admitted. “However, I would rather try to recruit him in a more diplomatic manner. Perhaps with the help of our junior heroes, they do have a rather friendly rapport.”
“If he is truly running out of resources, he ought to be all too eager to join us, as he doesn’t seem inclined to become a villain at all,” Niles argued.
“He appears to be a very proud young man,” Ryan countered. “Maybe too proud to accept joining us, especially now, when he’d be at a disadvantage.”
“Our profiling supports Director Ryan’s view of him,” Jenkins added.
They continued to discuss it, bouncing around ideas on how to get the boy into the organisation, however possible. His teammates, too, once they were brought up, though they were a secondary concern right now.
Still, it didn’t sit right with Mike. This wasn’t the way to recruit a proud, young gadgeteer riding the high of three major successes like that.Finally, he decided to speak up and voice his opinion.
“What if we simply help him out by paying him what he’s owed?” he asked, interrupting a rather spirited discussion between Armstrong and Niles on how to strong-arm the boy into the UH.
“Pay him?” Ortega zeroed in on him, his gaze like a flood light, only more focused. “Please elaborate, Inspector.”
Mike swallowed dryly, then took a sip from the glass of water in front of him. “Well, as Director Ryan pointed out earlier, we have profited rather greatly from him providing Polymnia – and thus, us – with his reproducible EMP-protection. According to what I’ve read, it’s already protected a few millions worth of hardware by now, correct? Nevermind the protection it provided to several of our own gadgeteers when fighting enemies who relied on the kind of EMPs which Brennus’ system blocks, correct?”
There were nods, some enthusiastic, some apprehensive and some neutral.
“I’m thinking, if we want him to view us in a more favourable light and, eventually, persuade him to join us, it could help to offer him the patent on his invention. He provided it freely, but I don’t think he really considered what that kind of thing is worth. A patent, perhaps with some – moderate – back payments, could net him several hundred thousand dollars within a month and millions in the long run, as long as no better system is invented and adapted. It would not only make him feel more secure and less… threatened in his pride, when asked to join us, but he’d also have an example of our fairness and generosity, proof that we reward good work even when not asked to.” He stopped, nearly breathless. I really have to learn not to get so worked up about every little thing, he chided himself, but remained quiet, watching the men and women around the table.
Ortega was the first one to speak up. “I like this. I like this, a lot. It’s the kind of thing the United Heroes were founded to do, in the first place, and reaffirming that is really a purpose of its own. If we can recruit such a promising gadgeteer with such a simple gesture, or at least make him more willing to cooperate with us in other ways, then I am all for it. Are there any objections to Inspector Haurson’s proposal?”
“So long as we are not overly generous, I see no reason to disagree,” Armstrong admitted, and Mike released a breath he hadn’t even noticed he’d been holding. If he’d convinced even Armstrong, then the others were unlikely to disagree.
And true to that, there were several agreements and nods from all around the table, with only the qualifier that they had to keep their budget in mind, which was going to be stretched anyway, due to the almost certain event of them supporting Esperanza’s (repeat) rebuilding.
“It is agreed, then,” Ortega closed with a smile, turning his eyes towards Ryan. “Director Ryan, please set everything necessary in motion. I want this done as soon as possible, before anyone else gets to the boy with another offer.”
Ryan nodded, looking quite pleased himself.
“Now, let us get to the next point, that is to say, our efforts to help provide relief and reconstruction for Esperanza City…” Ortega continued the meeting.
Mike leaned back in his chair, feeling quite sweaty. He’d really overreached himself, he thought, in spite of how it had been accepted. His first meeting, not even as a member of the board, just a hanger-on to the Chief Inspector, and yet he’d spoken up brazenly several times.
Valiant, though, seemed quite pleased, smiling that fatherly smile of his that could make anyone feel like a kid again. “Good job, kid. I knew you had it in you.”
He smiled back at his mentor, nodding to thank him for the compliment, as he picked up his glass and drank, returning his attention to the ongoing discussion.
There was still so much to do.