Author Topic: Chapter 1  (Read 7812 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 1
« on: July 29, 2022, 05:37:58 AM »
I was having a weird morning.

It started around 10am. I was at work, walking through one of the hallways on the third floor, when suddenly I felt a strange buzzing feeling in my head, as if a small swarm of bees had just materialized inside my skull. It only lasted a few seconds, but that's when things started getting really freaky. Only a few seconds had passed for me, but the clock showed half an hour! I hurried back downstairs, but of course I was late. I made up an excuse and apologized to my boss, but got chewed out anyway.

My name is Ahab Kane. I'm an assistant reporter at CGAC-TV, in El Paso. I'm just one small cog in a very large media machine. CGAC is owned by a large multimedia company, which in turn is owned by Vought International. Which is why the Howland family was visiting the studio that day.

The Howlands were basically celebrities. You'd expect to see a supe or two in Houston or San Antonio, but when a whole family of them showed up in my town a year ago, we were all excited.

Superheroes started popping up nation-wide a few decades ago. WW2 heroes like Soldier Boy had already cemented their reputations in the mind of the public, but that had been during a war. In peacetime, supes took on a whole new life. They started out as vigilantes, using their powers to help the downtrodden and stop criminals. When Vought stepped in, those supes gained a legal framework as well as the support of a multinational corporation. After that, all sorts of supe organizations began to appear.

Capes for Christ was one of them. A supe organization dedicated to conservative Christian values, it gained huge popularity across the southern states. El Paso might be a bit out of the way to really get caught up in it, but we weren't immune to their influence. The Howlands were their poster family. The nuclear American family unit, all super and all photogenic.

For the past two weeks we'd all been busy as bees preparing for the live interview. We'd had James Howland onscreen before, but his family had never been with him. I remember the interviewers frantically going over their questions, both for the family as a whole and for the individuals. Our lead TV personality Alex Tainer was popping antacids like they were candy, and I couldn't blame him. We were all nervous.

Until about a month ago, everyone thought superheroes were naturally-occurring. That they just popped up out of nowhere: extraordinary kids born to normal parents. The seven most powerful of them set up shop in NYC, with Vought's approval. The rest of them spread out, or were sent out, to various cities including ours.

Then a scandal hit: there was a brushfire of news about some drug called Compound V. Apparently it altered human DNA, and... created superpowers! It was like our whole world had been turned upside down. Supes weren't born, but made? How was this even possible? And more to the point, who was responsible?

Eventually Stan Edgar, Vought's CEO, released a statement to the public. A group of rogue scientists, most recently led by his senior Vice President Madelyn Stillwell, had apparently developed Compound V a few decades ago. They'd been secretly injecting kids across the country with the damn stuff, turning them into supes. Apparently kids adapted more easily to the changes than adults. It made sense, in a sick kind of way.

Those kids, including James Howland and his now-wife Sandra, had eventually had kids of their own, who were in turn injected secretly and developed superpowers of their own.

Now, for the first time since that revelation, the Howland family was about to sit in front of a camera and give the public some desperately wanted answers.

Alex Tainer waited for the sound and camera people to give the go-ahead and count down from three, and then gave a genial smile. Not just to the studio audience, but to the seven hundred thousand-or-so people at home. "Welcome, everyone. I'm Alex Tainer, and this is CGAC's Spotlight feature. Some of you will remember one of our guests from previous visits: James Howland!"

He clapped along with the audience, as Howland stepped out from the waiting area and made his way over to the table where Alex usually sat. I leaned forward in my chair, looking at Howland intently. I'd seen him on camera before, but that was always out in the field. Here in the studio, his carefully-painted 'relatable' face was on full display. He shook Alex's hand warmly, and waved to the crowd before taking a seat.

"Welcome back, James. It's been too long."

"Thanks for inviting me, Alex. It's great to be back."

Alex looked back at the camera, and gestured to the other four seats on stage. "I'd also like to welcome the rest of the Howland family: Sandra, Rick, Mary and Blake!" He glanced expectantly to the right, where a blond-haired woman in her mid thirties stepped out. She ushered three kids, ranging from twelve to sixteen, in front of her, and together they all sat in a row on stage. The crowd clapped appreciatively, and I joined in. After everything the Howlands had done for El Paso, it was great to finally see them all up close.

Alex got some of the introductory pleasantries out of the way, and smiled back at James. "So, could you tell my audience a bit about yourselves? How you two met, and why you eventually settled here. What kind of a home life you have, and what your interests are as a family- that sort of thing."

"Of course," James put in. "I started out in San Antonio, working with the SAPD to stop MS-13 members back in the day. I could use my strength to lift barriers, stop bullets and the like. And when I wasn't on duty, I was at home with my dad, or we were out on the road attending Capes for Christ events. I met Sandra on one of those, about eighteen years ago. It was... divine, right from the first moment we met."

Sandra leaned forward. "My parents organized the event, and I was helping with one of the Bible studies for the kids. I remember seeing him and it was like all the lights went out except the ones around him. I could barely concentrate on finishing my lesson."

Rick made a fake-gagging gesture, and the crowd let out a murmur of amusement. Giving him an admonishing look, Sandra continued. "People talk about love at first sight, or meeting your soul mate, but I never thought that would happen to me. I was just happy to do my part for God and country, before he walked in." She gripped James' hand briefly. "Of course my dad hated him at first. When we started dating, he insisted on chaperoning, giving stern glances from behind us the whole time. Thankfully James was just as old fashioned. He wouldn't even be alone with me in the same room at first."

James shrugged. "Those kinds of traditional values were important to my dad, and they're important to me. It's something worth keeping alive."

"And I love him all the more for it," Sandra said warmly. "Eventually we got married and moved back to San Antonio so he could keep working with the SAPD. I used my empathic powers to help with interrogations while he was out dealing with the MS-13 people and their guns."

Alex cut in. "Yes, people have been curious about that. What exactly does your power help you do? Can you read minds?"

Sandra shook her head. "Nothing like that. I'm no Mesmer- I can't peer into peoples' memories or anything. No, for me it's emotions. I can pick out anger, or guilt, or fear, and I used that to help our brave police. I do the same thing now, when we're fighting those terrible BA criminals in the streets of El Paso."

I'd heard that she was one of those telepaths, but not the specifics. I leaned back a bit uncomfortably. A supe who could shrug off bullets or lift a car was one thing, but one who could get inside my head? I didn't like that idea at all. Hopefully I was out of her range where I was sitting. I'd heard she couldn't get impressions from more than fifty feet or so, but that was just hearsay. For all I knew, she could pick up emotions from someone three states away!

Sandra looked fondly at the kids. "When these three came along, I didn't have as much time to help police anymore. I was too busy doing something much more important."

Rick gave another aggrieved face. "Do you have any idea what it's like to have a mom who always knows when you're lying? We couldn't get away with anything! It was so annoying."

Alex gave him a wry look. "I don't know, Rick. My own mom was no slouch either, and she doesn't even have empathic powers. But as for you, how did you feel when your parents decided to move out here? Were you excited?"

"Sure I was. San Antonio is fun, but it's way too big and crowded. I get around a lot with the Capes for Christ like mom and dad did, but living in a new city sounded like it would be a big adventure. And it has."

"How did you feel about the move, Sandra?"

She hesitated. "Truth be told, I was terrified at first. Like any good mother, all I care about is the safety and happiness of my kids. But, it was important to James to make a difference where he could, and he wanted Rick and Blake to share in that. We've made a home here in El Paso for the last year, and I've really started to feel comfortable in that time."

Alex nodded thoughtfully. "Rick, people have had a lot of questions about you, both personal and professional. Just how fast can you run, anyway?"

Rick looked a bit embarrassed. "I'm no A-Train, but my top speed so far is about 2400 mph. At first it was real hard getting shoes that didn't just burn to a crisp in the first second or so. When they found out just how fast I can move, mom and dad got in touch with Vought, and they sent down some reinforced shoes and clothes. Now I can run for like ten minutes or so at like... two thousand miles an hour, and not light on fire. It's pretty cool," he said with a smile.

"It does sound fun," Alex agreed for the cameras, but then paused. "Except for the spontaneous combustion part. Two thousand miles per hour is enough to outrun most bullets, right?"

Rick nodded. "Most speedsters in the world can outrun bullets. I usually just tap them mid-run, knocking them up in the air so they don't hit anyone."

"Impressive; really fascinating. Sixteen years old, and you're already a crime-fighting superhero. As for your personal life, I understand you and your brother and sister are all homeschooled?"

Sandra put a hand on Rick's shoulder. "That's right, Alex. We decided when Rick was born that all our kids would be under our personal care until they were old enough to care for themselves. I already had a teaching degree from my time with Capes for Christ, so it made sense that I would teach them. It helps with security, too, if James and I are close by. Our whole family has celebrity status, and I wouldn't put it past some of our enemies to try and strike at us at home."

"But isn't it true that Rick will be headed off to college next year? Are you looking forward to that, Rick?"

Rick grinned. "Big time. And mom doesn't need to worry. I'm fast enough to look out for myself. Besides it's not like I'm leaving the city. I'll be at a local college- only fifteen miles away!"

"I still don't have to like it," Sandra said sourly, and touched his shoulder again.

"I'm sure any mother with grown up children would feel the same," Alex said softly. "How about you, Mary? I've heard what you can do, but most of our audience hasn't seen it yet. Could you show us?"

This was interesting to me too. I watched with fascination as the Howland daughter reached out for her younger brother's hand for reassurance, and then stood up in front of the audience. She closed her eyes, and another Mary stepped out from her, looking identical to the first! Then another stepped out in the other direction, and another, and another.

The first one hadn't moved, but if I hadn't seen it happen, I wouldn't have been able to tell which one was real!

The crowd gasped appropriately, some of them leaning back in their seats as if afraid. The middle Mary stepped forward with her hands spread. "It's all right. They won't hurt you. They're just part of me."

Even Alex seemed taken aback to see it for himself. "That's amazing. How does this work, anyway? I mean some supes have genetic replication, including regeneration, but all of them look just like you. Right down to the hair and clothing!"

Mary shrugged, and James spoke up again. "Near as we can tell, it's a projection that she can do. She can create images of herself that can walk around, and even fight to a degree. But they're not flesh and blood like she is. They're just duplicates of her."

"That's just incredible," Alex said with a shaky smile. "Can they talk at all?"

Mary shook her head. "Just getting them to walk and fight is hard enough. But I can see through their eyes and hear through their ears. It lets me see what's going on so I can tell Rick where to go."

"How... many of them can you create at once?"

Mary smiled bashfully. "I did fourteen at once for my fourteenth birthday last week, but it really wiped me out. I usually stick with six or seven. It's easier that way."

"I understand you may be leaving home as well in the next year or so?"

She nodded. "I'm going to finishing school up in Nebraska. Mom went there when she was my age. She said it was a lot of fun."

I'd heard of finishing schools before, but they were mostly overseas in Europe. They were where young women went to train in social graces, I thought. Basically for people whose career goals began and ended with getting married. It surprised me to hear of one here in the States, though.

"Magdalene Finishing School was founded by Capes for Christ," Sandra explained. "When superheroes starting popping up everywhere, my parents felt it was important to have a place to remind our young people what our true values are, and how to hold onto them. They pooled their money with a dozen or so other families, and set up the school. I was one of the first students." She smiled over at her daughter. "It'll be a wrench for me to see her go, but at least I can be sure she's learning everything a young woman needs to know."

She nodded at Mary, who closed her eyes again. One by one, the duplicate Marys vanished into the air, and then the original sat again.

"That just leaves Blake," Alex looked over at the last Howland child, looking nervous, now that the attention was on him. "I'm afraid we know very little about you, young man. I'm told you look after the crime-fighting gear your brother and father use out in the field?"

He nodded. "In the van. I keep it all running, and go with them at night to watch the cameras and warn them. I stay in the van where it's safe though, with mom and Mary."

Alex waited for him to continue, but then had to prompt him for more. "How does a twelve-year-old know how to build engines and computers, anyway? Is that your superpower?"

Blake shook his head sharply, and James reached for his hand. "Blake's power is a little more disturbing," he said softly.

This was also interesting to me. I knew exactly what Blake's power was from other sources at the tv station, but I wanted to hear how his father would explain it to the crowd. I'd also heard that Blake had been sick recently, with some kind of stomach bug. Apparently he'd spent hours in the bathroom, and was only now recovering.

James gave the crowd a serious look. "Blake's touch is... deadly. Just the slightest brush of his skin on someone else's, and it sets up a kind of harmonic resonance in their internal organs. They die instantly."

The crowd let out a grave noise, and Blake looked down, averting his eyes. "I see," Alex said softly.

"Obviously we can't take him with us in the field," James went on stolidly, "but he can at least help us from the surveillance van. He's kind of a prodigy when it comes to that equipment."

"But you're touching him," Alex said, gesturing at their still-joined hands.

James nodded. "When he was a baby, we handled him all the time, just like anyone would. Because he was the child of two supes, we felt extra protective of him. As a result, he was more than a year old before we let anyone outside of family anywhere near him. Near as we can figure it, only blood relatives can touch him safely."

"I killed someone," Blake said into the air, and the crowd let out a surprised series of noises.

"That's right," James said sadly. "Just after his first birthday, we hired a nanny: Tia Hawkins, to look after him. She had excellent references. We had no idea what Blake's power was back then, or even if he had any."

Sandra leaned forward, looking sick to her stomach. "When I handed him to her, she just collapsed! There was no warning. I was barely able to grab Blake back, before she hit the floor. It was horrible."

"I am so sorry," Alex said, clearly shocked at this. I knew how he felt: I'd never heard of a supe with the literal Touch of Death before reading up on him last year. Poor nanny. Poor kid!

James nodded in appreciation. "We did tests on animals after that, and determined it was skin contact. Ever since, he wears gloves in public. The only reason he's not wearing them now is because we're all here to look after him. We decided as a family that we won't kill unless it's absolutely necessary, so obviously we can't use Blake's power in the field. Rick and I can disable people without killing them for now. Hopefully as he gets older, Blake will be able to control his power, and then he can join us on the streets."

Alex leaned over. "Thank you for sharing that with us, Blake. I know it wasn't easy to just say it like that. If you don't want to talk about it any more I understand, but I'm sure these people would like to know how you feel about that."

"It's ok," Blake said faintly, and looked up again. "I'm used to being kind of the Blake sheep of the family."

He gave a tentative smile, and the crowd seemed to sense his anxiety and desire for acceptance. Even I felt the pull from my seat up on the second level. "Sorry. I read a lot. At least I can touch my family. Dad and me build model airplanes and ships all the time. I get in fights with Rick and we wrestle all the time. I'm stronger than I look, so it's pretty even. When he doesn't cheat, anyway."

Rick gave him a scandalized look. "I don't cheat!"

"Sure you don't," Blake responded sarcastically, and I found myself smiling. He looked down again, and sighed. "When I think forward, it just sucks, you know?" His dad squeezed his hand, and he gave a pained look to the crowd. "I wanted to get married some day. Live an important life like mom and dad do. Or just get a girlfriend like Rick has, but that won't happen."

Sandra gave her other son a surprised glance. "Girlfriend?"

Rick spread his hands. "I was going to tell you. I swear."

"Hm," Sandra said suspiciously. "We'll talk about this later."

The crowd seemed to take the interchange as a tension-breaker, but I knew scripted lines when I heard them. None of this last bit was real- it was all a script the family were reading out for the people listening. I still felt bad for the kid though.

Blake seemed to gain some confidence. "I'll never be able to help like Rick and dad can, but I'm glad I can contribute. That's enough for me."

"Hear hear," Alex said appreciatively, and the crowd clapped for Blake for a few seconds. He waited for the noise to die down, and then his face sobered a little. "Now that our viewers have gotten to know you a little better, we should talk about the events in New York over this past month. The shocking revelation that superheroes were once ordinary people, altered with Compound V into what you are today. How did you react to the news, being supes yourselves?"

James and Sandra shared a meaningful look, and she answered. "We were floored, naturally. I met Madelyn Stillwell myself years ago at a CfC event, and she seemed like such a lovely woman. The idea that she could have done something so heinous, so evil... it still makes me shudder to this day. That nanny, Tia Hawkins? She might still be alive today if it hadn't been for Stillwell and her co-conspirators. I can tell you it makes me sick just thinking about it."

Alex paused, and I recognized his usual tactic for building tension. "Has it affected your faith at all? To learn that your gifts were man-made, I mean."

"Not in the slightest," James said right away, his voice firm and unyielding. "I've been a believer since I was five, and nothing will ever change that. I knew even back then that God had great plans for me- that I would be important and valuable to America and to the rest of the Church."

"And you, Sandra?"

Sandra hesitated. "To find out that the most fundamental part of myself- this gift that lets me understand my husband and my children so deeply- was something that was bottled and injected into me? Of course it shook my faith. But we talked about it as a family. We decided together that it was God's will that we ended up with powers, no matter what instruments He used to give them to us. However we got them, we have them now, and it's our responsibility to use them."

She looked over at the kids, and one by one they nodded. I got the impression that Blake agreed last, though.
« Last Edit: July 29, 2022, 05:41:34 AM by Daen »