By the time I shook off my surprise and allowed myself to be led to the dinner table, multiple dishes were already being passed around. Bright conversation flowed around and over me without fully penetrating. I did everything in my power not to look at Laila, but this was likely more noticeable than just looking at her. I have very little experience trying to actively hide this level of nervousness.
The third time someone asked me about my discomfort, I announced I was feeling ill and quickly took my leave. This was much remarked upon, I’m sure, but better than the alternative.
I walked determinedly back to my house and carefully locked the door before heading downstairs to my office and computer system. I stared at the blank monitor while trying to figure out what to do.
I hadn’t felt this scared in several months. My instinct was to boot up, log in, and look for a problem to occupy my attention – I might have an IM from Paris, too – but that might be the worst thing I could do with a known superhero literally down the block.
I started by thinking through what I knew about Polarity. Last I checked, she was a card-carrying member of California Combined Super Team (typically spelled and pronounced “CAST”), a standing combat asset for the LA branch (“SoCAST”) with more than occasional assignments to the San Francisco branch (“NorCAST”). A moderately powerful ferrokinetic, she had detailed control over metals in her immediate vicinity, down to the molecular level. Polarity typically wore a half-ton suit of platinum, iron, and carbon, which she crystallized into some sort of strong but highly ductile steel.
It had been about three months since SoCAST had asked for my help with a mission, but Polarity was definitely part of the core team at that time – which is how I came to have seen and heard enough of her to immediately recognize her tonight. Fortunately, she would not have seen or heard me.
SoCAST had been alerted to a likely super incursion near Orange County. I know that seems like a vague description, but “near Orange County” is the best I can do because the phenomenon was covering a large area. Half the parking meters would be pulled up along one side of a street, a lamp post would be wrapped around a mailbox on the other side, and that was it. Then two blocks away a vehicle would be flipped over and two more with wheels pulled off. No rhyme or reason, and no witness reports of the culprit.
Things escalated quickly when the first body was found – or, more accurately, the first body parts. The woman’s head and torso were thrown against a shop window while her four detached limbs lay on the sidewalk. It had all the same carelessness and chaos as the property damage, easily a continuation of the pattern were it not, well, murder.
It was the dead woman, and the two additional victims discovered shortly thereafter, that made Colonel Cold (in command back at SoCAST base) decide to call in Delphic. As usual, I was added to the team’s secure channels and video feeds and asked to help identify the phenomenon and how to stop it.
Identification took me a little under two minutes, as I could bring up a site of destruction and rewind to the event that caused it very quickly. Even frozen, however, the scene was a muddled blur, the super’s features smeared over an image a half block long. My power’s maximum resolution is 8-12 ms (something about the de Broglie wavelength of omicron particles according to the Doc), which meant this was a high-velocity speedster. Rare and dangerous even when properly disciplined; doubly so when clearly out of control.
I allowed the scene to progress forward at a crawl, enough to see a mailbox sliced in two as it met a flickering vortex less than a meter ahead of the man. He seemed to be actively and determinedly running, not carried along by his powers but pushing them to their fullest. There was no way to easily see if he even realized the damage he was causing. I followed along behind the path of destruction, zooming upward and outward to keep him in view… there! A single still frame of the man momentarily lurching forward as he rregrouped nd changed direction. Hispanic adult, tall and lanky, only a few tatters of lycra still clinging to his nearly-nude body. The blur resumed in a different direction.
I typed out a message to the team that was synthesized in my Delphic voice: “I analyze the subject to be a speedster with a powerful forward attack power, kinetic-based and highly variable. After each half-mile jaunt, he pauses for about one twentieth of a second. He may be vulnerable during these pauses.”
It was about a half-second before the open channels to Polarity, Inexor, and Boom started to echo small fragments of Delphic’s voice back to me, which is an embarrassing amount of lag but unavoidable. Our solution would need to rely on prediction rather than reaction.
I released my View and focused on the monitors in front of my desk, quickly placing pins on a digital map of the area already being shared with SoCAST. “Stopping points are estimated with large error margins. I don’t see a pattern. He’s too fast to intercept.”
Colonel Cold’s voice answered, “Then don’t intercept; predict. We have three heavy hitters in the chopper ready to drop as soon as we give the word. Project ahead and come up with a place he’ll likely go.”
“I can’t do that without determining the pattern,” I had my synth reply, “and he doesn’t even seem to be trying to stay in the same general area. It’s a random walk.”
“Then what do you suggest we do?” Polarity’s rich female voice came through the channel with a slight echo – hardly a surprise considering her head and the mic were encased in her signature metal armor. “We don’t have any agents, or even weapons, that move at supersonic speeds.”
I sat in my basement 2000 miles away, a model of physical comfort, pyjama pants sliding against the cool leather of my chair. I stared at the map, willing a better solution to come into focus. These weren’t my friends, my neighbors, or my town that this maniac was ripping apart. They were looking to me to provide an answer, but none of the consequences of failure would reach me or mine. Were it not for my View, for the way it drew me personally into the scenes I witnessed, it would seem entirely unreal.
I opened my View again, quickly finding and entering the helicopter. The three supers were wearing small, durable action cams as well as mics, with Boom and Polarity currently each in the others’ field of vision. Boom, her crash helmet under one arm, was looking anxious, straining against an invisible leash to be let loose, to punish a wrongdoer. She was a slight woman, young, skin just dark enough to be more likely Latina than tanned. Her eyes flashed with frustrated aggression. Her long black hair was messily tied above her head in deference to the helmet; it made her look younger.
Polarity’s helm was a placid surface of polished silver, but I knew her demeanor would mirror Boom’s if I could see it. I quickly peeked under the helmet, and saw I was wrong. She looked tired and wary, and her narrow face was a sharp contrast from Boom’s. I’d have guessed ten years’ difference in their age if I hadn’t already known otherwise. The big difference, I suspected, is that Polarity had been working these missions for almost four years. This was Boom’s second month as a member of SoCAST’s primary mission team. I wondered how much more they would match when Boom had been at it a full year.
I sighed, then began typing a response. “Under the circumstances, our best bet is to position you at a thoroughfare that he’s likely to cross eventually. If he’s neither targeting nor avoiding particular locations, any prominent road is as good as any other. Can the three of you form an effective barricade – something that could stop a rocket-powered missile, for example?”
Polarity and Boom both turned to Inexor, who nodded. Although Polarity was taller than he was in her bulky suit, it was a near thing. Inexor was just shy of seven feet tall, rail-thin, quite pale although he’d told me his mother was a Mexican immigrant (“Strong Spanish blood,” he’d boasted with a wide grin). He had the cowl on his suit in place, a form-fitting and colorful number done in pale purple and off-white to complement the signature light blue glow of active powers.
“Even spread out across the road, my wall should be strong enough to deflect this guy,” Inexor said in his heavily accented English.
A tooltip landed on the shared digital map, courtesy of HQ. “Analytics recommend dropping there, Broad Street between Magnolia and Third. It’s the most central location he hasn’t hit yet.”
The supers noticeably shifted as the chopper banked to head toward the identified point. Polarity said, “Boom and I can stagger ourselves behind the forcefield in case he manages to punch through or jump over. Has he done any of that so far?”
“Not that I’ve seen,” I typed back. “I’m going to step my frame rate up a bit to try to trace him in closer to real time.” I couldn’t actually do anything like this, of course, but I inserted my View two hundred feet up above the speedster’s last known location and reworked back and forth as fast as I could manage while keeping him in sight.
Doc had lent me a small Omicron emitter that I was using to try to train myself to see the radiation directly. For the moment I was stuck with visible light–and very near ultraviolet –better than nothing, but not as useful as near infrared would be. I could see the telltale blue glow as easily as anyone else, but direct detection would be far easier.
“Asset delivery in seventy-five seconds,” announced the pilot. CAST used Coast Guard personnel for most operations and logistical roles.
“Disturbances just south of El Modena,” I typed blind. Thank goodness for touch typing and competent autocorrect.
I watched as the cargo helicopter hovered thirty feet above the ground. The blue glowing chimera that emerged would have been hard to discern if I did not already know what I was looking at – a towering steel giant on one side of a purple and white figure, a tiny biker on the other side. Inexor looked deific, floating gently toward the ground as the beams pulsed from his outstretched hands.
The light shut off briefly when the three supers were barely a foot above the street, six boots of diverse size all hitting the pavement.
I could hear the sirens over my connection as local police arrived, quickly diverting nearby traffic according to Polarity’s directions. The road was three lanes total on this block, and both sides had long stone buildings built up close to the narrow sidewalks. Despite being the widest artery road in this area, there was little enough space that the street lights were bolted directly to the building walls to hang out over traffic.
I had never seen Inexor form his full-strength barrier, and I was impressed. From a wide stance on the yellow line, he extended his arms fully to either side and then bent his elbows so his forearms pointed straight up, making a “U”. A thick plane of force a foot wide began at those arms and extended outward toward the curbs on either side. It crept forward at an inch a second, reaching about twice as high as the super himself and soon extending all the way to the walls. A very effective roadblock.
All Omicron force constructions are the same translucent blue, but the thickness of Inexor’s working looked solid and virtually opaque. The super certainly looked like his energy and concentration were fully committed to it.
Behind him, Polarity’s ferric form flowed slowly downward and recrystallized into something more base-heavy and low to the ground, less like a humanoid suit and more like a half-melted car. A strange cracking sound reverberated through her suit and the open comm as she extended roots into the street, although these would prove a hindrance if the speedster were moving around her rather than trying to meet her directly.
Polarity was not in the center of the road but near the right curb, and Boom was similarly positioned to the left. Small cracks began snaking out from the concrete at her position, the only visible sign that she was building up to the powerful concussive force that was her namesake.
I pulled back to resume tracking; it took several seconds. “Subject is zig-zagging but making progress in your direction. If he ends up here anytime soon, it should be within a minute or so.”
“Acknowledged,” came Polarity’s tense reply. The other two were fully committed to their powers and said nothing.
Fifty-four seconds later, it was over. I didn’t see it at the time but I did rewind and View it afterwards. There wasn’t a fight so much as a massive collision, which occurred at far too high a speed for anyone to meaningfully react.
The speedster headed to the right to cut around the costumed hero and straight towards Polarity. When reviewing later, I surmised that the direction was intentional – that he was aiming for the metallic object just as he had earlier aimed for the mailboxes and cars along his route. Damage was part of his goals, and whatever this thing was it would certainly be impressive in scrambled pieces.
The man hit Inexor’s force wall at approximately Mach 3, and although he successfully punched through it, the interaction between the two fields rebounded upon both men, rendering them unconscious and canceling both effects.
Suddenly rather than a protected and devastating speedster, a limp body with no protection was hurtling forward at an impossible speed. The man’s remaining clothes and much of his skin was peeled off as the air tore into him, slowing him but not nearly enough as he hit the solid silver barrier of super steel at well above terminal velocity. The metal wasn’t significantly dented, but every solid part of the man’s body was instantly liquefied against the metal surface.
I didn’t understand Polarity’s reaction to this at the time, so later I investigated her powers. Apparently she had very limited sensory perception through the whole of her suit – she could see shapes all around her, wherever light touched the metal she was controlling, and could even sense by touch anything that contacted her metal.
Polarity had just experienced the full viscera of a human being splattering wetly against her. Every bone, muscle, and organ. And thanks to her surface ferrokinesis, every iron-infused drop of blood.
I returned my sight to the scene as Polarity let out a long, keening wail. By the time I could see her, the metal was pooled on the asphalt around her as though she had flung it quickly away. She was on her knees, holding her head, and alternating between screams and loud sobs.
She didn’t stop crying for a long time.