I’m not ready for this, I thought to myself. For the second time in two days I was standing in front of my foster parent’s house. James was with me this time, but his presence didn’t make anything easier. I glanced at him and he gave a sympathetic smile and a small nod of encouragement. Animus waited next to the car behind us, not wanting to involve himself with my personal matters. Our flight was leaving soon, but I had insisted on this.
Without saying anything, I walked up and knocked on the door, James right behind me every step of the way. A few seconds went by before I heard footsteps. Paul was the one who opened the door.
“Nate, what’s the occasion?” he asked, noticing James for the first time. “Oh, James. Both of you, come in, come in,” he said with a smile, ushering us inside. “Janet, its Nate and James!” he called into the house before turning back and giving my Liaison a handshake.
Janet came around the corner with one of her signature smiles. I tried my best to return it as she swept me up in a hug. “Its good to see you again, Soot,” she said, squeezing me tighter. “I was just here yesterday,” I said.
“I know, but its always good to see you,” she said before turning to James and giving him a polite hug. “It’s good to see you too, James.”
“Always a pleasure, Mrs. Pollard.”
“So, what brings you both over this way?” Paul asked, putting a hand on my shoulder. I froze, the words tangling up in my throat.
“We should probably sit down,” James said gently, coming to my rescue.
Worry immediately flicked over both my parent’s faces. It caught me off guard. Seeing them concerned because of me hurt, and all of that was compounded knowing it hurt them more. “Alright, lets sit down, then,” Paul said with a manufactured smile, guiding us over to the living room.
James took the old armchair in the corner while Paul and Janet took seats next to each other on the couch. That left me the ottoman. I felt exposed, like I was sitting on an island. “What’s wrong, Nate?”
My heart sunk lower seeing Janet’s worry. “I… was attacked,” I said slowly. I glanced at James for help and he took the cue. Paul and Janet were still trying to process what I said when James explained.
“During the Argus Warning on Thursday, Nate had one of his visions, and he was caught up in the fighting.”
“Oh, my God, Nate!” Janet exclaimed, trying to meet my eyes.
“He was unharmed, but one of the villains was a telepath, and tracked Nate to his home, where they carried out a personal attack last night.”
That was enough to spur Janet out of her seat. She rushed over to me and started searching for injuries. “Are you hurt? What did they do to you? Why didn’t you tell us?”
Questions flooded out faster than I could make sense of them. “I’m fine, I’m fine, mom. Really, I’m alright.”
Janet wasn’t satisfied with my assurances. Paul got up and gently pulled Janet back on to the couch. She was sitting as close to me as she could, and I could tell it was taking all her willpower not to smother me and lock me away from the world. I reached out a hand, my recently repaired hand. Janet grabbed it and held on as tightly as she could, as if I might disappear if she didn’t.
“Unfortunately, that’s not everything,” James said, drawing concerned looks. I just kept my head hung low as he continued. “When Nate used his powers during the attack, he crossed the border into vigilantism.”
“Are you saying he’s going to be arrested?” Paul asked, visibly tensing up.
“I was going to be,” I interrupted, finally speaking up.
“Was?” Janet asked.
“James helped me get sanctioned. I’m a… a hero now.”
Paul and Janet exchanged another grim look. Now they knew something was off. I remember all the tearful talks about my powers from when I was young; all the nightmares. A promise had been broken. And I couldn’t tell them why.
Tense silence prevailed until James couldn’t take it anymore, “Mr. and Mrs. Pollard-”
“-James, would you mind stepping outside and letting us talk in private?” It sounded like a polite request, but the look Paul gave the Liaison made it clear it wasn’t.
“Of course. Nate, I’ll be waiting outside.”
I would have like for him to stay. I didn’t know If I had the resolve to try and convince them that this is what I had to do.
My throat was tight, and my eyes were starting to sting as I felt tears coming. I looked up anyway. Janet didn’t seem to be holding together much better than I was. Paul, always the emotional rock of the family, looked like he was in one piece, but the worry was evident. “…why didn’t you come to us?”
“I didn’t want to get you involved-”
“-Soot, we always want to be involved-”
“-I have to keep you safe!” I didn’t mean to raise my voice, but it still came out harsh. I hated this.
“Nate…” Paul said gently, “It’s supposed to be the other way around. We’re supposed to keep you safe, buddy.”
No, I thought. Safe from me.
“Why did you run in there Nate?” Janet began. “After what happened to-” She managed to catch herself, but I knew what she was going to say. After what happened to my parents.
The weight of what she’d almost said hit her hard. I could see the grief in her face. “I didn’t mean…”
“It’s okay,” I whispered hollowly. “I didn’t have a choice. It was either this or go to jail.”
“I understand that, Nate, but still…” Paul said, trying to find the words. “Heroism is dangerous. They get killed. There was a story on the news today about three heroes winding up dead in Canada. What if something happened to you? Y- you don’t have any training, any experience. What would happen if you got in a fight?”
“I- I don’t know,” I admitted. Not being able to tell them the truth was the worst thing. Everything was another lie. “I’m joining a team. They’ll help keep me safe.”
“A team?” Janet asked. “Who?”
“I think they’re called the Argonauts. I’m flying out to meet them today.”
“Flying out? To where?”
“Switzerland,” I admitted in a whisper.
“Switzerland?!” Janet nearly shouted the word. “Nate, please don’t do this,” she pleaded.
“We can find another way, Nate. I’m sure we can work something out with Argus,” Paul added.
“No, this is the only way. I have to.”
They both looked distraught. I hated the Gold Diggers for making me do this, but mostly I hated my powers for putting me here in the first place.
“Nate, don’t go to Switzerland, let’s talk about it before you go and make decisions like this.”
“I can’t, I didn’t come here to talk. I just… I had to tell you.” As much as I hated myself for doing it, I stood up and turned for the door. I had run away before, and I would do it again even if it hurt me and them. I wasn’t going to let them be punished because of me.
Before I had made it two steps, a large pair of arms pulled me into a hug. Janet came around and sandwiched me between them. “We can’t stop you, Nate. But please, please, please don’t do this,” Janet begged.
“I’m sorry,” was all I managed to say before a sob escaped. Slowly, Janet pulled away, struggling not to break into tears. Paul relaxed his grip enough for me to turn around and hug him properly. “I love you both.”
I started for the door, and they didn’t move to stop me. Despite my better judgement, I looked back as the door closed. Seeing them standing there sent a stab of emotion to my heart. It took everything to look away, but I managed it somehow.
James was waiting for me on the front porch and gave me a sympathetic look. “Let’s go,” I manage to choke out, too afraid to let myself stop walking.
I couldn’t believe it. Even as I held the card that proved I was sanctioned in my hand, it still felt surreal. A few Argus agents had met us at O’Hare to give James my official paperwork, and I had spent the whole flight looking at my registration card. James was his usual chipper self. The exuberance radiated off him like heat from a miniature sun. From the second we crossed into Swiss airspace, he’d done nothing but comment on the scenery and point out the numerous Argus installations that dotted the landscape.
The Argus ship wasn’t as advanced as the Torus, but it was defiantly more comfortable. Instead of exposed metal and hard military-style seats, it looked like first class seating on an airline. Or, at least business class.
“Nate, look! It’s the main complex! All Argus activity is coordinated from here, everything!”
I glanced at James, but he was too fascinated with the building below us to notice. Curious, I looked down myself. It was impressive. Most of the buildings were situated on the crest of a small hill. The buildings looked like the legs of some massive architectural spider, or points of a star if you wanted to think happy thoughts. Architecturally, it looked to be a high-tech modernist style. Lots of glass and steel. Several other buildings sat in clumps that formed a loose ring around the main complex in the center, probably facilitating different divisions if I had to guess.
Still, I was more… fixated? On the card in my hands. It was the size of a credit card or driver’s license. Apart from the usual things like my name, face, and date of birth, it had my sanctioning number, and my power classification: Type A Cognition; Type B Kinesis. And across the top of the card, my alias: Prophet. This was it. This was everything everyone around me made me do, and the one thing I never wanted to.
“What?” I asked, looking up at James.
“I asked if you were excited.” He said, looking concerned. “Are you okay? You’ve seemed distant this whole trip.”
“Yeah, I’m fine, but I don’t think ‘excited’ is the right word. I’ve just been thinking about my parents. I wonder if I’m doing the right thing.”
James walked over and slid into the seat across the isle from mine, resting his elbows on his knees. “I know, Nate, but we have Argus soldiers keeping an eye on your parents and your sister. The Gold Diggers won’t get anywhere near them.”
“That isn’t it…” I trailed off, failing to think of how to explain what I was going through. One wrong word could tip off the Anarchist if her claims were true. If that happened, I doubted even a small army of Argus soldiers could keep my family safe. I couldn’t take that chance. I wouldn’t.
“I guess I’m wondering if I’m cut out to be a hero. Powers aren’t all of it, you know?”
James nodded thoughtfully. “I know what you mean. And, if I’m really being honest, I’m terrified too. I mean, I’m going from being a general liaison to being the main point of contact for an entire team. I’ll have to coordinate missions with Argus command, file mission reports, and keep everyone in line.
“Because of Cypher, I’m jumping almost a decade of experience and seniority. That terrifies me.”
“Really? The indestructible James is afraid of a little paperwork?”
James laughed as he shook his head. “First of all, no. Second, I’m not indestructible,” he said, comically raising one finger and then another as his listed off his rebuttals.
“My mistake,” I said, raising my hands in surrender. For the first time in almost three days I found myself laughing.
“Remember I’m basically your boss now, and I won’t tolerate insubordination,” James said, managing to deliver it deadpan despite the urge to laugh clearly trying to break through.
“Wouldn’t dream of it, Sir,” I said giving him a mock salute. James laughed, turning back to the window to watch as we made our final decent. Did James think there was anything else behind my choice to get sanctioned? If he did, he didn’t give anything away. How could he be, or at least act, so cheerful all the time? Well, it probably helped that the lives of his family weren’t being threatened, but still. I needed to at least put on a happy face. My life was going to probably depend on this team at some point in the future. Having them trust and like me would probably make that easier.
Like almost all Argus aircraft, the plane we were in had VTOL capabilities. It looked like a private jet, not like the bulky military-like transports they ferried soldiers around in. There was a small whine as two engines spun to life, one on either wing. A bit of inertia tugged me forward as the aircraft pitched up to bleed off speed.
“Grab your stuff,” James called out as he gathered his own belongings. After visiting my parents, Animus and James stopped at my house to let me gather my clothes and phone on our way to the airport. Honestly, I thought it was kind of depressing that most of the things I owned fit into a large duffle bag and a backpack. James hadn’t brought much more; however, he had several suits with him where the most formal thing I had were a few button-down shirts.
The plane landed gently on the ground and James was already by the door as it lowered to the ground. I stepped down after him and looked around. The sun was shining down through sparce clouds in the sky, making the entire place almost look like a storybook. It looked like the place was a bit light on yardwork, but I noticed the grass looked almost unnaturally green. Did they have a superpowered groundskeeper staffed here?
Our landing pad was connected to the main building by a walkway and a series of stairs. James almost seemed to bounce as he hurried along, making me jog to keep up with him. A man was waiting for us at the top of the stairs. He wasn’t very tall with silvery hair despite his only late middle-aged face. “Mr. Hollands, It’s a pleasure to meet you!” James said, setting down his suitcase to vigorously shake the man’s hand.
“Nate, this is Edwin Hollands, director of Argus Investigation and Detainment. He oversees A.S.E.T. and now, your new team.”
“Uh, nice to meet you, Mr. Hollands,” I said, shaking his hand. He seemed stern, almost mechanical. All that from his simple lack of facial movement. He didn’t act like he was glad to meet me. He merely noticed I was there. Kind of reminded me of Cypher.
“Mr. Peterson, glad to have you on board.” British, I decided upon hearing his accent. “It’s always good to have another precog onboard,” he said, turning to lead us inside.
“You have other precogs?” I asked, curious if maybe they could help me control my powers.
“Had. Its been a while since we’ve had an active one.”
“Oh,” I said, disappointed.
“Has Argus decided on where the Argonauts will be stationed permanently?” James asked as we headed inside the building. The interior matched the exterior style. It almost looked clinical, sort of like the Regents’ base except… more bureaucratic looking.
“Our new pubic relations team is working on that. Last I heard, ‘somewhere in America’ was the most likely candidate.”
“We aren’t staying in Switzerland?”
“No. Despite how much I would like to keep everyone under one roof, the other Directors want the Argonauts to be a fan-favorite. A.S.E.T. by its nature needs to be under slightly more wraps than the normal team. Unfortunately, people prefer transparency to opacity. Your team will still be doing real work, but you’ll have to do it in a way that is more public than how I normally run things.”
“So, if the team isn’t staying in Switzerland, what am I doing here?” I asked as Mr. Hollands took us past what looked like a row of offices buzzing with activity.
“Learning the ropes,” Mr. Hollands replied, pressing an elevator call button when we reached the end of the hallway. “You have zero experience, and despite Cypher’s god complex, I’m not letting you put my team at risk if you can’t handle it.”
My sprits sank. I wasn’t even on the team yet, and I was going to be kicked off.
“Hey, that sounds like a great idea!” James said. “It’ll give you a chance to finally show off a bit.”
Not helping James, I thought while nodding. The elevator didn’t keep us waiting, and soon we were descending deeper into the center of Argus’s operations. I thought my heart might stop with the elevator; fortunately, I think, it kept beating. We stepped out into a short hallway with a set of double doors that were opened to a large gym. And there my future team was, practicing with A.S.E.T.