The Fiendish Four, as they are customarily known, represent four of the most powerful supers in the world; they have been a staple of the Times Top 50 Powered People list since they reached national prominence in the aftermath of the 2001 World Trade Center attack (usually just called 8-28 these days).
Most lists rate Twixt as less dangerous than his teammates (at least Vapula and Utuqaq; there was no consensus on Wildcard), but I have always felt that was naive. Sure, mass-variable shapeshifting and glacier-sized ice manipulation were both powerful, but the shear breadth of possibilities for someone who can create multiple spacial distortion effects over arbitrary distances is essentially incalculable. As I understood his powers, there was nothing at all stopping Twixt (or 豁然开朗, roughly ‘beholding the open spaces’) from delivering a nuclear warhead directly into the Oval Office.
This may be why, whenever the supervillain team isn’t actively attacking, most authorities prefer to ignore their continued existence. At the moment, I was making this rather hard for Lady Liberty to do.
“This isn’t how the Four usually operate,” she pointed out. “How did you ID him?”
“I have forwarded you the camera record and time stamp where his portal is visible,” I sent. “It is clearly his finger in the frame.”
Finding the one time when a portal could be seen by one of the hallway cameras – the moment where Twixt opened Old Joe’s restraints – had taken longer than watching the exchange between the prisoners and the supervillain.
“There’s no question it was Twixt?” she asked. It was her sixth variation on this same question.
“The man said it was Twixt, LL. You got some reason to think it couldn’t be?” Spinner’s interjection was most welcome, although his tone had become harsher than usual.
“You have his trail, correct?” Liberty redirected.
“Yeah, but what’s the point?” He paused for effect, but then kept on before she could answer. “I spend another half day travelling to spend five seconds looking at the cells and say, yeah, Delphic was right? I already know he is. He always is. Get off it.”
The heroine persisted. “Looking at the trails, you could-”
“It’s Twixt, Harm. He’s gone. It’s done.”
“Spinner. We still have Buzz. We’ll squeeze details out of him, too. But we need all the intel that-”
Her voice cut off abruptly, indicating a disconnected line. I heard my friend let out a frustrated grunt. “She never listens. Doesn’t know how to pick her battles.”
“You have encountered the Fiendish Four previously?” I asked.
“Just the aftermath, playing bloodhound. It’s easy enough to see where they’ve been… although the demon guy only leaves a trail if he’s eating stuff, and the grab bag one has a new trail for each new power. But thanks to Twixt they always get away clean.”
“You have seen him work alone before?”
“Eh, good point. No, it’s always the four of ’em when they show up.”
Uh oh. “Doesn’t that imply that the other three are also in New York?”
“Were,” he corrected. “By the time we know where Twixt has been, he and the rest of the group are already gone.” Considering, he adds, “Although NYST should be figuring out what the rest of them were up to.”
“You didn’t seem keen to make the trip out there,” I observed.
“Yeah, I… probably overreacted. But I feel like I’m being overused.” Another sigh. “NEST is a big job in its own right, but since the other regional leaders found out about my trail sight, I spend more than half the time on the road. It’s exhausting.”
“So you’re putting your foot down.”
“Trying to, yeah. Oh hey!” His tone pivoted to something more upbeat. “You had something you wanted to talk to me about, right?”
After Spinner had just opened up that he was feeling overused, it seemed like a bad time. “Yes, but I think it should wait.”
“All right. Uh…” I heard a hissing noise, likely him drawing breath through closed teeth. “I’m about ready to call you out on something. If you have a few more minutes.”
“I have the time.”
“Well, I… just… look, I don’t want you to feel attacked. Y’know I consider you one of the good ones.”
“I feel the same about you. We are friends.”
“Good… so… it’s just, I’m pretty sure you’re lying about what your powers are.”
I was starting to feel like I couldn’t catch a break today. “That’s a surprising accusation. What makes you think that?”
“Not a no, eh?” Spinner asked sharply. “You just don’t…” he let out a frustrated sigh. “The things you know don’t, like, cleanly match what tech should show you. Today’s a good example. I’m sure NYST had already checked all the HQ footage and hadn’t seen Twixt. So how did you know it was him?”
“I could analyze the images in far greater detail. I found that -”
“I don’t buy it, man. I’m sorry. When you were able to pick up Ambush’s trail after he turned his powers off? Details you’ve given of unmonitored, closed rooms?” Spinner’s speech sped up slightly as he pressed on. “Doesn’t fit, but something else does. Hey, let me give you video for a bit.”
I accepted the added feed when it came up a moment later. Spinner sat in the driver’s seat of a parked car, his mouth half turned up in an apologetic smile. His eyes were hidden by his silver viser, and the angle made it clear he was filming himself with a mobile device.
“If I seem a bit more ready to accept you than most,” he continued, “it’s because of how much you remind me of 4cast. The boy is not good with people, mind you, but when he speaks with confidence he’s never wrong. I trust him because his track record justifies it.”
I was skeptical that his confident predictions were correct all the time, but that was something I could look into on my own. I typed, “What does that have to do with me?”
“The sort of things you say, they… feel… kinda the same. Like…” The super ran his hand through hair with significant grey in it, which always surprised me when I saw it. He just didn’t… sound… old. “You named yourself after an oracle, and you know things that I don’t see how you could possibly know. You’re not just a tech super, are you? You’re a precog, too.”
While not quite right, Spinner’s conclusion made sense. Precognition was what he had experience with. My long-distance View into the past was unprecedented as far as I knew. But how should I respond to his conclusions? I really didn’t know.
“Aren’t you?” Spinner prompted as my silence stretched out.
It was an opportunity to come clean with someone whom I considered a trustworthy ally. I was sorely tempted… but I couldn’t risk it. Instead, I doubled down, repeating some of the stories I had spread online over the years about Delphic’s abilities.
“Spinner, I am genuinely sorry to disappoint you. What you see isn’t precognition.”
“Okay, then what is it?”
“Differential stochastic projection models, or DSP.”
“Never heard of it,” his grin had actually gotten bigger; I was amusing him.
“I have access to massive computing power. Trillions of operations a second running in parallel. This lets me simulate variations of scenarios of the near past and determine which ones best match the present.”
“So just, like, run rewind on the same virtual scene over and over until it fits?”
“More like… start with all the possible scenes and erase the ones that don’t work until you’re just left with one.”
Spinner shook his head. “Nah, you sound like you see the answer, like it just came to you. Not like you reasoned your way into it.”
“That’s how it feels to me. I can’t follow the DSP; I’m limited to my own neural thought processes… although with some modest enhancements and quite a lot of optimization. The DSP model just pops up with an answer or a set of answers, often in the form of images or particular data records.” I could see my friend nodding his head forward slightly; he was buying it. “So in a way it is kind of like an oracle, in that I get an answer and the mechanism to get it is opaque to me.”
Spinner shrugged a shoulder, then shook his head vigorously and gave me a grin. “All right, that checks out.” His grin softened as he thought of something else. “Hey, this DSP thing… I think I’ve heard people saying that something like that is what’s happening with 4cast. That he’s not really seeing the future, just… projecting it based on things in the present.”
While Spinner brought this up, he tapped the side of his visor twice and the video feed changed. From his own vantage point, the camera in his mask, I watched him put down his smart phone and start the car. There was snow coating the grass in what I presumed was Maryland.
“Do they think your own precognition works the same way?” If he was in the mood to talk about it, I saw no need to bottle my own curiosity about his powers.
“I think so, yeah. What I see is a lot more detailed, right? But also just a handful of seconds around the present.” He lets out a laugh as he makes a turn onto the highway. “Anyway, I’m sorry if I put you on the spot, there. I just figure with you and me supporting the same teams more often these days, we should keep the air clear between us.”
“I understand,” my Delphic voice replied, still with its artificial cadence and tone. “You meant no harm, and caused none.”
“All right. Let’s talk soon, okay? And give Whisper my condolences if you talk to her before I do.”
Checking the time, I needed to start getting ready to meet Kimberly. One more quick call first. I didn’t bother listening to Lady Liberty’s message; I called her back directly.
“Were you able to get through to him?” she began with no preliminaries. The video framed her armored head and shoulders at an HQ office space. It took me a moment to understand her question.
“Spinner’s reticence has a larger cause,” I explained. “So, no. Unless you can show why he is badly needed in this particular circumstance, it appears he is heading home.”
She let out a groan. “The Four are a real threat. This isn’t the time to whine about fairness.”
This told me that Liberty was aware of Spinner’s concern but pushed anyway.
“This seems like the right time to me,” I disagreed. “This is a situation where we have already identified the super involved, and do not expect that they will have left a trail that can be followed.”
“But we can’t be certain without him here.”
“And that is why this is a good time for him to refuse. You aren’t requesting him to provide the handholds to an otherwise intractable problem, or to follow an established trace. You just want him as a double check.”
“What else is he going to do; beat up muggers?”
Sneering at Spinner’s work for his own team was exactly what was bothering him. I started typing a message to this effect… and then stopped. Why provide insight to Liberty on this; why help her ease tensions with Spinner? If I wanted to recruit Spinner to act against her, it was to my advantage to let this fester.
So instead, I typed, “Any sign of Twixt’s teammates? I understand it is unusual to see any of them without the others.”
Her helmet swiveled to either side in a headshake. “No, and if this is a break in pattern rather than just a detection failure, I don’t know what to make of it.”
“If I can assist further, let me know,” I made to end the call.
“One thing that might help,” Liberty said, “see if you can get any further in identifying Buzz’s overseas contacts for buying slaves. Maybe that will connect back to the Four somehow.”
“Acknowledged,” I sent, and hung up.
The multiple layers of secrets, motivations, and deceptions were starting to wear on me. I was happy to leave them all behind for the remainder of the evening and enjoy time on purely personal endeavors.
Without Paris to micromanage my look, I kept things simple – a red dress shirt with a soft bone-colored tie; red hi-tops under black slacks. With a fresh outfit in my overnight bag (and a quick note to myself that I had fallen behind on laundry over the weekend), I shrugged on a heavy leather jacket before driving to Wayne State University’s campus.
Daylight had already spent itself as I pulled into one of a dozen parking lots interspersed among squat stone buildings, but the electric lights were quite generous. I easily walked from my car, down an uneven footpath, and to the door of the complex housing Kimberly’s class without ever leaving the demesnes of the lampposts.
“… clear case of government overreach,” Kimberly’s voice carried through the lecture hall without echoes. There were around fifty students in the room, sitting at long tables arranged in tiered rows. The door where I came in was along one side of the front of the hall, near where Kimberly stood to speak. My date wore a knee length skirt over velvet leggings, and a matching jacket and blouse. She was much better dressed than the students who had on some combination of flannel, sweats, and denim.
“So what are some of the reasons that Korstad gives for the friction between Civil Rights leaders and supers?” She caught my eye long enough to give me a wink as I slipped into an empty seat in the second row.
“The law enforcement connection,” one student called out. Kimberly extended her hand and nodded, signaling the young woman to say more. “Um, the famous supers had been, like, vigilantes and spies and stuff. So they were connected to the establishment, and the movement was the opposite.”
“Excellent,” Kimberly acknowledged. “Even figures pushing for equality aren’t immune from other prejudices, and the perception of supers were as law-and-order advocates. Anything else?”
“It undercut their equality message,” a male voice bellowed from the back. “The very existence of supers went against what they were preaching.”
“Undercut equality,” Kimberly repeated. “Say a little more, please. How do powers do that?”
“Well, the American idea that both JFK and MLK were pushing was the whole, all men are created equal thing. Like, that was how we get that segregation is bad, the differences we see between races aren’t real. But…” the student, a short white boy with spiky hair, licked his lips, “but what if that’s wrong? What if it turns out that some people really are born better than others, that everyone is not the same? That’s why Rosenberg focused so much effort on finding supers in post-War Germany.”
Several students raised their hands when Rosenberg was mentioned. Kimberly pointed to one sitting behind me. “But there’s no racial group that has a monopoly on supers,” she said. “Strong powers come from multiple genes. You need diverse ancestry for that.”
Kimberly replied, “Remember that we’re talking about 1968 here. It wasn’t even common knowledge that super powers were heritable, and the Reich was still making loud noises about breeding ‘super men.'” She typed something into her tablet and showed an iconic image from Time: President Kennedy and Fuhrer Bormann looking in opposite directions under a headline, ‘The Balance of Power.’ “Kennedy’s vocal support for Civil Rights legislation was based on contrasting it with what the Nazis were doing, and using that contrast against the southern wing of his own party. Supers would have weakened the message.”
“Are you implying,” another student asked, “that Lyndon Johnson and the Southern Democrats agreed with the Nazis?”
“Not at all,” the lecturer smirked. “I’m saying that making them look like Nazis is how JFK kept the party nomination, won his third term… and played right into the hands of the GOP Southern Strategy.” She let that sink in for a moment before continuing. “Getting back on topic… we have the stereotype of supers as friends of law enforcement, and the unfortunate association of supers with mid-century eugenics. What else?”
From a quiet voice in the front row: “Korstad also talks about the lack of pressure, since most supers could ‘pass’ as normies.”
“Everyone hear that?” Kim asked. “There was less pressure from powered people as a group because so many of them can ‘pass.’ Does that sound familiar?” Several voices returned similar answers. “Gay rights, exactly. The ability of minorities to stay ‘in the closet’ strongly impacted their investment in the struggle during this period. Women and people of color don’t typically ‘pass,’ and these groups were the ones whose very visible oppression prompted much of the activism and reforms in this period.”
“That’s pretty harsh,” one of the students who had spoken earlier called out. “You’re saying it’s LGBT people’s fault their rights came later?”
Kimberly rounded on that, and her mouth lost its smile for the first time since I’d entered the room. “No. How did you get that from what I said?”
“You were saying that minorities that weren’t as visible… weren’t as motivated to fight.” She seemed less sure of herself under her instructor’s gaze.
“Yes, but that doesn’t suddenly make the discrimination their fault.” She shook her head, eyes closed, trying to recapture some line of reasoning. “It’s important to understand why certain groups acted together and others didn’t, why the pressure to push back against injustice drove movements at different times. None of it is an assignment of blame. The blame is squarely on the inequalities in the system and those who took advantage of them to harm the vulnerable. Not the victims.”
When she opened her eyes, four more hands were up and a low level of murmur had started. She looked around the room and said, “That’s it for today. Next session, we’ll cover the Registration Acts and Huddleston, so make sure you’ve done the reading.”
I stayed seated as the students around me collected their things and slowly headed towards the exit. The class had immediately changed from low murmurs to regular voices when their lecturer finished, and it would be a few minutes before enough students had left to make private conversation really possible again.
After giving me an adorable smile and wave, Kimberly kept her attention on the lectern, organizing and folding her loose pages of notes and stuffing them in her sizable messenger bag. Two of the students who had made comments during the session approached her. I couldn’t hear their exchange, but it ended with her nodding in my direction and giving salutations of departure.
I stood and braced up against the corner of the table as she looked me over. She approved of what she saw, and her lips pursed a bit as she took a quarter step… away from me, her eyes holding mine.
I thought I had a read on her body language, but if I were mistaken… I stepped around the edge of the table and into her personal space, and felt her hands snake up my back as I leaned into a solid kiss.
I had judged the situation correctly. When Kimberly caught her breath a few minutes later, she just said, “So, where to?”