Wednesday, August 15, 2018

24 : Hitchhiker

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We took our places in the living room, James claiming a large chair to one side of the old, stiff couch. Max and Shoggoth came down and took the couch, leaving two other wooden chairs free. As I pulled up the short-backed chair, Strider came in through the front door and claimed the rocking chair.

It amused me that she must have figured it would save a few steps to teleport to the front door and walk in, rather than coming up from the basement, to the back of the kitchen, and through the dining room, to reach the living room.

For her sake, her durability better give her a health boost, because never walking anywhere was a sure way to get fat and have joint problems. A couple supers with no durability enhancement and the power to float or teleport had been known to pack on the pounds when they barely ever physically exerted themselves to even walk across a room.

Strider was young, though, 19 or 20 at most, if I had to guess, and still blessed with a young woman’s metabolism. It made me wonder just how long she’d had her powers. Which of the Doorways had she used that they would have allowed a child to walk into it?

“Alright,” said the Earth Mage. “As I said, I have assembled this team with the purpose of tracking down the ones who have kidnapped the Super Fem Force. Your roles, if they are not clear, are as follows: Strider, you are to be our long-range transport. Hitchhiker, our espionage agent. Shoggoth, our medical support. Max will be my second-in-command. All of us, of course, possess sufficient powers as combatants, but I expect Max and I to do the heavy lifting in that department.”

“Thanks a bunch,” Max muttered.

“About that,” said Shoggoth. “My healing power can’t affect people too much higher than Class 1 durability.” He motioned towards James and Max. “You two can adjust your durability, but these two.” He motioned to Strider and myself. “These two might be screwed.”

“My baseline isn’t too tough,” I said. I gave him a coy smile. “We can test it out later, if you like.”

He gave me a flat look, not impressed with my flirting.

“I am aware of your limitations,” said James. “But as I said, I am not intending for the three of you to take the brunt of the battle.”

“You needn’t worry about me,” I said, waving him off. “I regenerate from possession.” I turned to Strider. “Guess you’re the screwed one, huh?”

Strider shrugged. “I’ll make due.”

James nodded. “Very well,” he said. “Now—”

Strider held up a hand. “What is your kill policy? When it comes to a lethal fight, my power can be quite useful.”

James almost frowned. “I am aware of your effectiveness. I will expect all of you to pitch in for combat should the need arise, however, I am hoping to avoid needless death.” He glanced at me when he said that, but kept going. “I will be straightforward with you. Right now, we do not have any leads. The closest thing we have is Knock-Off confessing that she was paid by someone, a woman, to make clones of the SFF. She would not, however, reveal any information about this employer, and she killed herself rather than allow herself to be captured. From my research into the Supervillain Epidemic, this is rather common.”

Max nodded. “Almost every villain we take down has three general reactions.” She held out a hand and extended a finger. “One, they snap out of their craziness, and seem to wake up as if from a dream. They don’t remember anything about what caused them to go nuts, and their memories of acting like a villain are fuzzy. They claim they were just following a sort of impulse, but once they snap out of it, they don’t even really understand where that impulse came from. This is the most common reaction, and we usually send them to the ASP’s Department of Superhuman Affairs office for psychiatric evaluation. A lot of them come up clean, and end up doing some kind of community or government service as a sentence.”

She extended a second finger. “Two, they go completely insane, turning into a mindless berserker. This happens more often than has been reported, as the ASP doesn’t want people to panic about us superhumans. The cases are still less than a quarter, however. When that happens, we just have to kill them.”

A third finger. “Three, once they realize they’re beaten, they try to kill themselves. This is the case for over a third of them. The few that have been prevented from doing seem to snap out of it after a short period. In some cases, it takes a couple days, other come to their senses in just a few minutes. After which they follow the first model, in that they just become confused and don’t remember the incident that turned them.”

It seemed Max could manage to say something without being a sarcastic bitch or a pervert. How about that?

“So, what’s your idea?” said Max.

James pursed his lips. “Well, the idea was to try and capture a villain alive and try to find some way to jog their memory.” He motioned to myself and Shoggoth. “I am hoping that between the two of you, you might be able to manage something.”

Shoggoth and I shared a glance, then looked back at him. Shoggoth frowned. “I’m not sure what you expect me to do,” he said. “My powers don’t give me memory access or anything.”

“But you can effect the brain,” said James. “Maybe if you can analyze their brain chemistry, you can find some clue as to a trigger.”

He opened his mouth to protest, then closed it and looked upwards, thinking. He shrugged and gave a resigned, “Yeah, I guess I can try it.”

James looked to me. “Well? You’re assessment?”

I shook my head. “Hate to disappoint you, but when I possess a person, I don’t get access to their memories. I can’t even speak with them mentally or anything like that. They’re just sort of floating in the background.”

He frowned at that. “I see.” He sat back and thought that over for a moment.

“Another thing I suppose I should mention, if we’re going to be working together. My possession power does not work on other women. Since most of the superhumans we encounter are likely to be women, I’m not certain how much use I’m going to be to this team. We’re not trying to infiltrate some larger organization, where I can slip in and mess with their systems more discreetly.”

“I see,” he repeated. He steepled his fingers and mulled this fact over.

I smiled sweetly. “A Hitch in the plans already?”

“Ha,” said Strider. “I get it.”

“Thank you.”

“Regardless, you may be of some use yet,” said James.

Max rolled her eyes. “Such confidence. If Shoggoth can’t jar something and Hitchhiker is useless, what then?”

He narrowed his eyes. “Then we try to back trace and investigate what the superhuman was doing just before they turned.”

“You know that’s been tried, right?”

“Fresh eyes. Perhaps we’ll spot something the DSA investigators didn’t.”

“Maybe.” Max shook her head. “Somehow I doubt it.”

“Oh ye of little faith.”

“You're damn right, little faith! How did you even think to put this team together?”

“Indeed,” I cut in. “I'm curious how you even found us. Myself especially. I’ve stayed pretty low key, and even the gangs trying to track me didn’t know about my limitations.”

He hesitated. “I have my sources.”

“Not good enough,” I said. “If these sources can lead you right to me, despite my constant moving around, I have to wonder why this source wouldn’t also have a better lead on this Villain Maker.”

He frowned and exhaled slowly as he tried to parse his next words. “I have a friend in Australia. The only other male superhuman on the continent, actually. Probably the only reason we hung out occasionally. He never really went public, since his powers were rather strange.” He paused.

“Go on,” I prompted.

“Let’s just call him Fate,” he said. “Fate’s power is that he can foresee the connections between people, and through those connections, predict the significance of their interaction.”

I tilted my head to the side a bit, and propped up and arm to rest my cheek on my hand. “He’s a prophet? He can see the future?”

James shook his head. “No. As far as we know, no one has ever manifested the power of precognition. He simply... hmm… it’s hard to explain. But, like, he could look at two people and see a sort of spiritual resonance. Or perhaps a better phrase would be social potential. The same way that I can see elemental energy all around us, he could see the connections between people, a sort of social potential. He could tell, for example, if two people came together, whether they would have a significant future together.

“He had no idea what that future was, though. He might look at a man and a woman, and see a very weak ebb of that social energy. It meant that they might just ignore one another, or at best, they might chat a bit if they happened to sit next to one another in a bar, then never see each other again. If the connection was strong, however, it meant that the couple might fall in love and get married, have children. Or it might mean that they would become bitter enemies and spend their lives trying to ruin each other.”

“What an interesting ability,” Strider said.

It was, indeed, interesting. I could already see where this was going, and it already sounded too convoluted for me to fully buy into. It seemed to be the sort of thing a hack writer would throw into his fantasy book to brush a plot hole under a rug, because he just wanted to push the plot forward and wasn’t smart enough to think of a rational explanation for how his ragtag band of heroes would come together. Although most writers would just chalk it up to “destiny” and leave it at that.

I kept my skepticism to myself, though. The powers granted by the Doorways made little sense to our human understanding. There were many examples of the powers functioning in ways that defied rational explanation, and yet proved useful in their own way time and again.

My powers made no sense either. How did a flesh and blood woman just turn into a spirit and slip inside a person to take over their body? Why did my power only affect men, even though I could see the auras of men and women? Why did each person I possessed modify my natural powers in some way?

So, perhaps someone’s power to read “fate lines” was just as legitimate as any other. Who was I to judge?

“His power also allowed him to concentrate on a person and follow this social connection to potential persons of interest. Those with a strong shared future, he said, could be connected by these Threads of Fate even before they met.” James smiled for a moment. “He sometimes consulted as a matchmaker on the side. But of course, not every match was a positive one.”

“I can imagine,” I said. “So, he looked upon you with his power, and saw that your fate lines lead to us?”

He nodded. “Enough to be able to pinpoint your general location at the time we would meet.”

“Hmmm.” I looked at him long enough for him to feel awkward. He glanced at me and furrowed his brow.

“What?”

“So I guess we don’t actually succeed in finding this Villain Maker, do we? Or your lost girlfriends. Otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting here, waiting for the next villain attack. He would lead you right to them, instead.”

Everyone glanced at me, then looked intently at James. He just looked awkwardly back. I’d really put him on the spot.

James let out a sigh. “That appears to be complicated. Of course the first thing I asked was if he could lead me to the possible source of the Supervillain Epidemic. But he said no such connection existed. My theory that there was a Villain Maker was just that, a theory. When he told me he didn’t see a connection, I assumed it meant that this was some kind of natural phenomenon occurring in superhumans, rather than an unnatural event causes by a person. But Knock-Off’s confession made me rethink these assumptions.

“As for the Super Fem Force, their fate lines have evaporated. Usually that means the person is dead, but if there is someone who can render themselves invisible to Fate’s vision, I see no reason they couldn’t extend that same protection to them, or find someway to seal them off.”

“Hell of a coincidence,” said Shoggoth.

“I know,” said James. “But there is something else about his power that he didn’t take into account. His abilities only work on the connections between humans. He couldn’t sense a connection between a human and a dog, for example.”

I raised an eyebrow and sat up a bit straighter, dropping my arm back down to my lap, where I threaded my fingers together. “You think the Villain Maker isn’t human?”

James nodded. “After all these years, we still know next to nothing about the Doorways aside from their basic function. I refuse to believe they could be anything less than a manufactured phenomenon. Maybe whoever sent them, for whatever purpose, finally used them in reversed. Maybe they have always had a plan for us, and maybe it didn’t work, so they sent an agent here to try and kick start that plan.”

Max made a grunt of amusement. “You think the Supervillain Epidemic might, what, be the work of aliens or something?”

James shrugged. “It’s just a theory. Otherwise, it could just be another superhuman whose using some kind of psychic ability to alter people’s minds, and that may also interfere with Fate’s power. Either way, the four of you were the strongest connections to me that he foresaw, and so, you are the ones I approached.”

I shook my head. “You said Fate didn’t know if these connections would be positive or negative. Are you so certain that this gathering won’t end up leading to a disaster?”

“I think that whatever happens, it will at least lead us closer to the truth,” he said.

“Hmph. I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.”

Everyone sat for a moment, saying nothing.

Max broke the silence. “Alright, well, while we wait for the Trouble Alert to go off, we need to discuss team tactics. When we end up in a fight, we can’t all just rush in at once and start swinging randomly at targets.”

“Ooo, are we going to do Danger Room exercises?” said Strider.

Max cocked an eyebrow at her. “Danger Room?”

“It’s a comic book reference,” said James, giving Strider an amused smile. “Sadly, we don’t have the facilities for such a thing, and we shouldn’t use these grounds for it, or we’ll draw attention.”

She shrugged “I can always take us somewhere else. There’s a national park not far from here where we could get some privacy.”

“We can look around a bit later, I suppose,” he said.

“Okay, so, is that it?” said Shoggoth.

James actually looked a little sheepish. “Yeah. Pretty much. There’s not a lot we can actually do until another incident pops up.”

“Okay, then. Good talk.” Shoggoth got up and left. Max shrugged and did the same.

“Um, let me know when you want to do something, then,” said Strider. She went out the front door, and I saw her aura glimmer vanish, then reappear in the floor below.

James let out a sigh. “And this is why I went solo for so long,” he muttered. He noticed I hadn’t left yet. “Something else you wanted to ask?”

“No,” I said. “Just thinking. Since the Fantasmas, I’ve mostly been adrift. Even when I was part of their organization, I never worked directly with them. So, this whole team thing is unfamiliar ground for me as well.”

I stood and turned to go to the guest room on the first floor. With Max upstairs and Strider claiming the basement, it seemed to be the least potentially grating room to stay in. “For what it’s worth, I hope your friend’s vision was a positive one. I’d really rather not be press-ganged into a tragic destiny.”

He gave a half-hearted smile. “Me too.”

With that, I left him to his thoughts. As a Fantasmas, I had never believed in destiny or fate. Such words were used by people who didn’t have the inner strength to change their lives. But the strange powers of superhumans always made you wonder. I couldn’t easily accept the idea that we were just puppets in someone’s grand plan, but if it turned out we were? Then I would make damn sure to cut our strings.



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1 comment:

  1. Interesting, so there's some grand entity or intelligence behind this all, once that can't even be sensed by a precog either? And the same goes for the Super Fem Force, so the mystery just gets deeper.

    With that in mind, I can't really guess where it's all going, for sure...

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