It'd been one hell of a week, which was a damn shame, because before that, it'd been one hell of a month.
We were smashing records left and right there for a quick minute: Lowest incident rate of Exhuman intercession in a century. Lowest overall Prather Aggregate Index of EE's on record. Fewest Exhuman events in a month, ever.
I knew it'd been building up to something. I knew 'Pulverizer', as the media had taken to calling them, hadn't been gone for good; it would have been too convenient for them to just walk into the glasslands and right disappear on us. I knew they'd be back from their little hiatus in Japan before too long, and when they were, they'd be ten new kinds of trouble. Blackett had really stepped in it with that bunch, and I only wish he'd taken his screwups with him when he went.
What I didn't know was why the media clowns insisted on giving everything new names all the goddamn time. Pulverizer already had a name, P-Force. And while I got the rather weak joke there, it didn't help for them to be constantly inventing new names for everything. Apparently the Exhuman Liev was now just being called 'Justice', since 'I am Justice' was about the only thing he'd be caught saying. Only thing about him we were able to catch, actually. And hell, why name them at all, they all already had names, and a damn good one. Exhumans, we called them, and I thought that was catchy enough.
But that just showed how old my thinking was. Old guard, just one of the fossils they pulled off a shelf when the pups screwed everything up. I was supposed to steer the XPCA back to its roots, get everyone hating Exhumans properly again. Throw a new ass in front of the cart and see if this one pulls any better.
The office offended me. Here I was, sitting in the top of some crystal spire like an evil mastermind, behind a desk more made of floating glass than solid materials. If there'd been an alert, if the power went out or we were hit with an EMP, the damn desk would fall apart. I'd have to be issuing orders and signing executive commands on my hands and knees like a dog. Director of the XPCA, defender of the free world, hands and knees.
I shook my head at the desk, not for the first time. Damn idiot kids with their big ideas and need to show off. Blackett was a moron. What was wrong with wood? Wood didn't give a shit about an EMP.
'Course that wasn't the only turd he'd left me to polish. I wasn't allowed to close down the Exhuman prison facility, or deal with its inmates in how they probably should have been dealt. It would 'violate the public trust', the President himself had told me. He agreed to institute this policy, so it was my job to make it work.
And then Liev happened. And then Pulverizer came back. And now there was some damn hoopla about both of them making a mess over some bayou in backwater Louisiana.
I'd been so close to retirement, too.
I pushed a button on my desk. It made no noise, just like everything else Blackett had made. I wanted a satisfying click when I pressed something. If I went through the effort to press it, the least the thing could do would be to let me know.
"Ada, get General Zuse on the horn," I spoke to my desk. Every damn time, felt like I was just talking to myself. Director of the XPCA, defender of the free world, mumbling to himself in his office.
Fortunately, a moment later, my secretary replied. Administrative assistant. Whatever.
"Yessir. Just a moment and I'll put you through to the situation room."
At least this time there was a click. And then a man's voice.
"Director Hall, so good of you to join us," he said with a thin accent that I associated with snooty. French, maybe. "Too old to make it downstairs in person?"
"Too busy," I scoffed. "If you think your op is the only one I'm overseeing, you need a new brain, General. I'm making a note here about your lack of respect for authority, by-the-by."
"The only op worth calling about, I notice. What do you want, Director?" he sniffed.
"The usual. Status report. A damn sliver of respect. A stiff glass of a bourbon older than half my staff."
"I can give you exactly one of those," he said, and I heard him walking away from operations for a moment to sit. "The Exhuman Liev has, unsurprisingly, disappeared faster than we can track."
"Even with those new sensors up?"
"Of course, Director. Did you assume I forgot to use them?"
"Report out or shut up, General." I didn't need this lip, it wasn't my fault I'd been promoted over this pompous sack of crap, but he wasn't about to let me forget it.
"As you are most likely aware, the situation had escalated with the emergence of Pulverizer. We have confirmation that they were able to contact Liev, and have footage of the two forces conversing."
"Have you sent it to analysis?"
"Yes. They were both flying at a speed in excess of two-hundred miles per hour at the time the feed was taken, which produced enough visual noise that nothing they discussed can be made out."
I scratched at my beard. If all my troubles were joining forces, I might just do the General a favor and let him have my job. Do both of us a favor.
"Have all footage of the incident put under the XSA by my authority. Send a call to Intelligence to make sure the media don't get their hands on it. Who knows what shit they'll stir up with a video of them conspiring."
"Couldn't you make the call yourself, Director? I'm a bit busy here…"
"Shut it Zuse. I'm not above dismissing you out of petty spite. What's the situation level?"
He cleared his throat. "We de-escalated from EE-Two to One when Liev flew off. Not long ago it seemed the rest of them vanished as well, but as it turns out, it was merely all but one. I have footage you may wish to see, if you don't also want to tape that up behind the XSA."
"Just send it."
I grumbled to myself while I waited for it to come through. One of the better perks of being an old, gruff man was being able to grumble to myself whenever I liked, and this position had me playing that card near every hand. After a moment, the holo on my desk flashed to life and I tapped through the menus to pull up the feed.
A glance at the timestamp indicated it was just a few minutes ago. Swiping around the feed let me know the general positioning of combined arms and where exactly I was looking. Some grassland. Wasn't quite sure why I'd assumed this all happened in a bayou, except that was my understanding of most of Louisiana.
The holo flashed at me while it played the sounds of gunfire. Several times, it cut between different soldiers' feeds, taken mostly from the cameras of exosuits, I recognized by the distinctive fisheyeying.
I paused the feed. "General, why did you send me a feed of my soldiers being brutalized?"
"Because that bitch was damn hard to take, sir. And very nearly as hard to take footage of. These are the only feeds we have of her before she was detained."
"Watch the rest of the feeds, sir."
As much as I disliked his attitude, I resumed the vid. Try as I might, I couldn't see 'that bitch' of whom he spoke, though. All I saw was jumpy camera cuts across a battlefield, rockets smashing into exosuits, VTOLs getting torn out of the skies.
I paused it again to tell him off for wasting my time, but in the still, I saw a streak of blue plasma tracing away from the crashing VTOL. I felt my brow crease as I blew up the image, and when that failed to satisfy, threw the display to hover in the air over my desk. Moment by moment, I stepped the feed forward and back, noticing only in stills the blue streak rebounding everywhere chaos touched.
It could only be Karu. Allegedly murderer of our own dear Senator Irenside and her own father, and a religious zealot who'd taken to the misguided worship of Exhumans after years of putting them down. She was a tremendous embarrassment to both the Hunters and the black, so she hadn't shown up in the media so much.
With new context in mind, I watched the vid at a tenth of its speed. I'd never seen a Peregrine in action before, and from what I heard, Karu was among their best. That was before she went solo and upgraded all of her equipment beyond what Uncle Sam could afford and went after bigger prey.
It was positively headache-inducing trying to keep up with her. Even slowed down, it felt like I could only just register her presence before it was moving elsewhere. She never stayed in any one soldier's line of sight long enough for their systems to acquire her, never moved the same way twice, never stopped shooting.
"You detained her?" I asked again, disbelieving.
"At great cost, sir. I expect a detailed commendation for my men. And for myself."
I shook my head as I skimmed to the end of the vid. The little prick had ostensibly pulled all this feed for a report, but it played more like an argument for service awards coming from him. Sped-up, the footage just looked like havoc creating itself, people bursting into flames and explosions crashing for no reason at all. I couldn't begin to imagine what the regular corp must have thought of the situation. Even if she was nothing but human, it had all the feel of an event.
I got to the good part and slowed the feed again. There wasn't much here -- she'd just been worn down, it looked like. Hanging in the air, holding an arm which swung loose in its socket, blood dripping from her fingertips. Her white armor, pocked with bullet holes, many of which I knew had punched through. The jetpack keeping her up didn't hover straight vertical anymore, several of its emitters had been damaged or broken off, giving the impression of her being a doll with several strings cut.
Somehow, despite that, despite the damage and the hanging-open panels that indicated depleted munitions, the dozens of guns aimed at her from VTOL and exosuit both, and how pained her breaths were, I could see she wasn't done yet. The way she looked around from behind her visor, it almost gave me flashbacks of my time in an exosuit. She wasn't sizing up how beat she was, she was catching her breath, checking for weak points, always looking for a way out.
And then, dramatically, General Zuse's voice filled the scene, broadcast by the VTOLs in the ring.
"Karen Irenside, AKA Hunter Karu. This is General Zuse of the XPCA, in joint command of the American Combined Arms EAEE Task Force. Drop to the ground and surrender your arms, or you will be terminated by my authority. Do not seek to resist. The entirety of America's might stands against you."
A little flowery by design. Zuse undoubtedly had aims to have his name and voice aired across the country. Politicking little shit. This was exactly why they'd promoted me instead of him.
So I couldn't help but smile a little, despite myself, when the woman replied.
"Over my dead body, asshole."
She didn't get away with it, of course. Zuse wouldn't have sent over the vid if she had. She barely had time to move before all forces opened fire. It was just dumb luck that she'd been nailed with a shock net from one of the shadow ops instead of...or perhaps, in addition to traditional gunfire.
Even as it discharged into her and the ground around her, she was still spitting and hissing, thrashing to pull it off of her and firing indiscriminately. The woman's tolerance to electricity was absurd, and made me rethink the plausibility of the 'net's speculation on some of the deviant acts she and Exhuman Ashton allegedly got into.
"Well?" Zuse asked, listening to the feed over the call.
"I think I can safely say this was a job well done," I announced, closing up the holo. "Before you hurt yourself patting yourself on the back too hard, make sure you tally the casualties, and find that shadow ops who took her down and ensure his silence. Put together something for a charismatic strike unit or something to get the credit."
"Of course. It's like you think I don't know how to do my job."
"Sometimes, I have to wonder, General."
He responded with nothing but aggravated silence, and after a moment I took to grumbling again. "I'll see that you are awarded appropriate commendations. Now stop wasting my time and protect America."
"Vigilo Ignoto, Director."
I hung up on him. Sassy little brat. If he wanted my job, he could have it, but only once I was satisfied he'd do a halfway decent job of it.
Still, good work from him today, had to admit. The casualties were high -- I opened the files again and flipped through the physical reports, but less than I'd have expected for an encounter with Pulverizer. But I suppose, most of them weren't really there, were they? I expected the footage from Zuse to be curated, but I doubted he'd cut out every trace of the others.
The actual reports were much less biased, and they confirmed what he said earlier, what I'd just thought. Not a lick of conflict with the others, they'd all just up and vanished on her. Not even in their hijacked Sirius, that had been found and reclaimed. Which was just bizarre.
No havoc from 'The Spark of Death', or a single laser from 'White Death', or a kick from 'Guillotine Girl'.
As I said, the 'net loved making up new names for them. Every week, seemed like.
The troubling thought then, was their sudden disappearance. Considering they'd just spoken with 'Justice', master of disappearing, the possibility that they weren't collaborating somehow seemed thinner than ever.
Reports also spoke of a weapon, also recovered, and from what I read, I felt I had to see it myself.
"Ada," I asked the air after silently touching my desk again. "Could you schedule a visit with exotics for me to see specimen...JB...seventeen...X-fifty-seven?"
"Certainly sir. Right away."
And then she went silent in that way that made me wonder if she'd disappeared or if I was just supposed to hang here. Director of the XPCA, left to hang, yadda, yadda.
"Yes, Director. Dr. Babbage will see you now. He's just going over the specimen now in the extracts labs."
I didn't have my own elevator per se, but when I was in one, the system wouldn't make me stop for anyone else significant less important than myself. Another feature I felt like might have been put in by Blackett, although this one I couldn't be sure. Certainly most directors here seemed to have an allergy to bumping elbows with the common man. I couldn't imagine why -- in many ways what these people were doing was more important than anything I'd ever do. I'd hung up the exosuit years ago, and it was only through them that anything ever got done around here.
But at least it made the ride fast, as the elevator plunged hundreds of feet into the earth, my ears popping twice as I descended. Down into the real guts of the place, sectors which were so private and protected, even the President had only need-to-know knowledge of their function.
It was both extremely crowded and extremely empty here. Security was tight, but they weren't allowed in to the labs unless there was an incident, and 'incidents' had to be of an extreme nature even then, because the hassle of having two-hundred rank-and-file soldiers traipsing through the world's most classified materials was a headache bigger than your standard Exhuman event.
There was an entire protocol for alerts. Keys had to be inserted and turned, one of which I held, and a few by the heads down here, including Dr. Babbage, chief head of research. It had never happened, knock on wood, as the offices and the edifice of the building seemed to attract most of the Exhuman ire. But it never hurt to be too prepared.
I checked in and cleared security, getting crisp, decisive salutes from all I crossed. I'd only been down here a couple times, and the novelty was still fresh. Smelled like science.
I was let into a room which sealed behind me, locking my escort out. There were several expensive-looking instruments built into the wall, any one of which could have passed for a dishwasher, but the primary interest was the plain metal table in the center of the chamber.
It wasn't a floating pile of shit like my desk, just a good, solid piece of metal. On top of it were a huge number of pieces, individually labelled and tagged, some bagged, others resting free. Babbage wasn't here yet, so I took a step forward and picked up a piece.
Even unpowered, the visor seemed to glow red in my hands. There was a line of blood inside, with several short blonde bristles still stuck to it. The three lines of the mask seemed deliberately inhuman, maybe designed to intimidate, or maybe they just came out that way with the optimal sensor placement. I could only imagine how many Exhumans had seen the glow of this visor as their final sight.
I set it down and walked further along the table, nearly twenty feet long, with armor and weapons and munitions sprawled almost at random. The girl had put up a hell of a fight, and it was no wonder. Almost half of everything she'd had on her was sourced from us in some way or another, some of the exotics we'd repackaged and made standard. I wasn't sure the lab boys would look kindly on taking specimens for use, but given the shortages, we could certainly use what she'd left.
I reached the end of the table and the reason for my visit. The report had been vague, and I knew Babbage wouldn't be: Unidentified Exotic Weapon (firearm) (1). Read more like a mystery than a report. But it was accurate, sitting there on the metal table was indeed an unidentified exotic weapon (firearm), clearly designed to be held by human hands with a grip and a trigger.
I heard a noise by the door and looked up. Dr. Babbage would be keen to test the device, and I'd be keen to observe. Anything to get me out from behind that desk, really. And who knew when we'd reach a breakthrough?
"Hello Director," he said with a genial wave. He was a lot more pleasant than Zuse, even despite the typical break between the eggheads and the meatheads. Maybe because he didn't have a huge stick up his ass. "Excited to get start--"
I'd taken half a step towards him but stopped. Mid-sentence, he'd simply disappeared. Although, perhaps 'simply' was an overstatement. He disappeared, of that there was no doubt.
What was in doubt was the sky-blue, apparently perfectly-round, glowing egg-shaped thing which materialized where he'd once been. Old reflexes kicked in and I hit the ground on knees that hadn't seen action in too long, firearm pulled from my holster. My body felt weak and infirm compared to the last time I'd done this, but it remembered. My motions were smooth as I fed a magazine and chambered a round. I found myself inhabiting a younger man, suddenly.
"--worst place imaginable, can it?" I heard a man's voice. The owner of the voice paused, as though surprised to finish a sentence just as Babbage had started. "...huh."
"Oh, we're here," another voice said, a woman. "Would have been nice of her to warn us."
"I don't think she does nice. Have you got Tem and Saga?"
"Yeah they're here. Where...is this?"
"You tell me," he said.
"I can't get any reception or signal. I hope she didn't dump us somewhere miles underground. You made her promise it was as close to Karu as she could get us."
Karu. I swallowed hard. There weren't many who knew about her nowadays, and fewer still who might know she was taken by the XPCA. Most of those people were already in this building. That really only left…
I steeled myself and peeked over the table and my heart stopped.
Standing there between me and the doorway was America's enemy number one. The Spark of Death himself, with the copper-haired psycho beside him, carrying what looked like the body of an asian teenager over her shoulder.
In his hands was Karu's visor, and in the instant I'd moved, he'd looked up from it to me, and I saw the air crackle around him with Exhuman electricity as a creased frown crossed his lips.
"Where the fuck is Karu?" he asked, gently setting down the visor as blades of pure energy surged out of the air.