“Mr. Peterson, glad you could join us.”
I glanced back at Hollands who motioned for me to take a seat while he walked around to a vacant chair near the other end of the table. Realizing I was taking way too long to sit down, I quickly slid into the office chair.
With me sitting at the foot of the table, every seat had an occupant. I recognized a few; Dr. Slater and Dr. Ortiz were the closest to me on either side. James, who had adopted Holland’s grave expression, gave me a glance before looking back at a file open in front of him. I didn’t recognize the other three faces, but there was little doubt the man at the head of the table was Director Duncan.
He had broad shoulders and a frame that, even though he was sitting down, made it easy to tell he was tall. His face was just as commanding with a look of confidence and hair clipped short, blending with a short, well-trimmed beard flecked with a few white hairs. His voice made me peg him as American, but there was a hint of something else in there too. Jamaican maybe?
“As I understand it there was an altercation between you and our visitors from the Union?”
The Director held up a hand, “Mr. Hollands, I would like to hear Nate’s recollection, please.”
Hollands’ eyes narrowed, but he simply nodded without saying a word.
“Uh, yeah—yes, Sir,” I said.
“And what caused this…misunderstanding?”
There was something in the way he said that word that made me uncomfortable. “Well, we were testing our powers—you know, to see if they were from the same source—and we decided to see if she could survive in the dimension my portals connect to.”
“Was she wearing any kind of safety equipment?”
“I see. Please, carry on.”
I couldn’t shake the feeling he was mocking me. “Once we got there, we were attacked by whatever…entity lives there.”
“It physically attacked you?”
“No, more like it tried to invade my mind to make me attack Auralux.”
“That’s a bit convenient for this—entity as you called it—that you were there for it to possess. What happened next.”
“Well, nothing, really. I fought it back, and I opened a portal that let us come back. Then she tried to attack me.”
“Mr. Duncan, Auralux was the one who attacked Prophet in view of everyone,” Hollands said, coming to my defense.
“True,” The director said with a shrug of resignation. “However, this isn’t the first time Mr. Peterson has caused trouble for Argus.”
“That was a ploy by Cypher that I approved,” Hollands countered, trying to remain respectful.
“Without consulting the rest of the directors or myself.”
“Given the delicate nature of the situation and Cypher’s temperament, I thought it prudent to maintain a level of internal secrecy. We were dealing with a telepath, and coverage from our mental blockers is still spotty at best.”
Director Duncan raised an eyebrow at Holland’s growing hostility. “Regardless, you allowed an untrained and scarcely sanctioned metahuman into the heart of our operations without proper security clearances that, I hope I don’t need to remind you, still have not been updated.”
The conversation had shifted away from me, but the atmosphere in the room was still very uncomfortable. Hollands was standing his ground and not backing down.
“While we sponsor the Argonauts, they are still covered under the Accords like any other team. Their charter clearly states they have the final decision in who they allow within their ranks. Mr. Peterson had grown close with a few of the Argonauts while member of the team and they voted to allow him back in. I am in the process of obtaining a full security clearance, but the situation with the Pollards has delayed obtaining certain paperwork.”
Hollands’ mention of my adoptive family remined me that I needed to call them. I was a bit ashamed to admit that I hadn’t been calling as regularly as I should. Then again, it was kind of hard to talk openly when you knew an Argus caseworker was listening in to make sure I didn’t blow their cover. Indefinite relocation—that was how long James had told them they would have to live with new identities unless Shard and the rest of Kreigspiel were locked up. Or after fourteen months of inactivity from any member of the team, I thought to myself, recounting the rest of what James had said.
Duncan didn’t seem to really care about the security clearances, “So there was a vote? How democratic. Were there any dissenting opinions?”
“Two,” Hollands spit out while just managing to keep his composure. “Ian and Adam didn’t think it would be a good idea to allow him to stay art of the team.”
“Two? My, don’t you think that, even if the majority voted to allow him in, the fact of the dissenting opinions could sow the seeds of a rift in the team?”
“No.” Hollands bluntly replied. “And even if it would, they need to learn to set aside personal opinions and work with people they don’t know or like. What if the Pantheon attack? Or, God forbid, Yaldabaoth? There are threats, situations, were we need every meta we can recruit. I personally vouch for Mr. Peterson—he is not a double agent, nor his plotting against Argus.”
I looked at Hollands in surprise. I didn’t think he would put himself on the line for me like that. And neither did Director Duncan, judging by his raised eyebrows.
Before he could say anything, an agent pushed through the doors to the conference room, “Director Duncan, Mr. Hollands, The Priority Parget has struck again.”
“Where?” Duncan and Hollands said in unison.
“Research station 12, near Gamvik. Petralith reports that they are under siege as we speak; Samnite has engaged, but I doubt he can hold off the target for long.”
“Shit. James, Nate, with me,” Hollands said as he shot out of his seat. “Alert any available heroes nearby and brief them on the situation.”
“Already done, Sir. Dubliner is en route, but it will take him a while to get there. The Guards of Britannia haven’t responded yet, but they might be the closest.”
“Hollands! We’ll continue this discussion later,” Director Duncan said. Hollands glanced back and nodded, waving for us to follow.
I didn’t hesitate to jump up and run after Hollands. Anything that would get me out of that conference room sounded like a good plan. But there was something about ‘Priority Target’ that made me worry.
“You two prep the Argonauts; you’re going on a mission.”
“Really? I thought you said we weren’t clear for active duty?”
“Things have changed. You’ve heard the news stories about the string of metahuman murders?”
“Yeah, like four heroes and what? Twenty-Two villains?” I asked.
“That was just what we couldn’t keep from the media,” James said.
“In total, we think they are responsible for the murder of over ten heroes and thirty villains,” Hollands added.
“And you guys are just now doing something about it?” I asked.
“We haven’t been able to track them,” Hollands said defensively. “He manages to vanish before AID can arrive, then pops up somewhere else thousands of miles away.”
“Do you have any idea what their powers are?” I asked as we stepped into an elevator going down.
“Based on the damage left behind, we assume they have strength, but it could be something completely different.”
The elevator doors opened, and a look seemed to pass over Hollands’ face. His usual stoic expression took on a glare of determination. James and I broke off to head to the common room while Hollands went to do whatever he did in situations like this.
“Excited?” James asked as we hurried down the hall.
“Anxious,” I replied.
“Oh, come on, you’ve been training for a few weeks now. You have to have learned a little something. Not to mention, you took a blast from Auralux! She’s known for leveling buildings in Russia!”
“Yeah, I guess that was pretty cool,” I said. Even though I think my powers just negated hers, I thought to myself.
The team was laying around when we walked through the doors. Corey and Whitney were watching TV while Ian was reading as usual. All three perked up when we walked in. “How’d it go?” Corey asked.
“We can talk about that later,” James said before I could get anything out. I glanced at him sideways, but he was too excited to notice. “You guys have a mission!”
“Really?” Whitney asked, jumping off the couch.
“Yep!” James said, their combined excitement reaching frightening levels.
“Fuck yeah!” Whitney said, vaulting over the back of the couch and hurrying to her room. “I can’t wait to get out of this dump!”
“Dump?” Corey said to no one in particular. He glanced over at me and shrugged. “She was getting stir crazy. Do you want to wake Adam up since you’re already in your uniform?”
“Oh, yeah,” I said, glancing down. I didn’t have any time to change out of it after the whole thing with Auralux. “Sure, I’ll get him up.”
Corey grinned hurried towards his room. “Uh, Where’s Erin?” I asked.
“I think she went down to the gym to train,” he replied before slipping inside.
“Want me to go get her?” James asked.
“Yeah, I guess so. Hollands seemed like he wanted us to get moving.”
“Agreed,” James said, heading out to find Erin while I gave a hard knock on Adam’s door.
“Hey, get up. We have a mission.”
“Norway. Fucking Norway. Why didn’t you fuckers tell me our mission was in NORWAY!”
“Give it a rest, Whit,” Erin said, hitting her head against the fuselage of the dropship.
Whitney sighed. “I mean, we’ve been stuck at HQ for weeks, and our first outing is to the barren wasteland of northern Norway.”
“We get it, you want to go somewhere else,” Corey said, “But Hollands said this was important.”
“Yeah, important enough to team us up with them,” I said, nodding towards ASET who were sitting more towards the front of the aircraft.
“We can hear you,” Shogun said.
“Sorry,” I muttered back.
“Don’t apologize, just be more aware next time,” She said, giving me an encouraging smile.
“You all need to focus on the task at hand,” The man in the robotic armor spoke up—Shinobi if I remembered. “The battle will find you whether you are prepared or not.”
“Uh, right. Thanks?” I said, not sure how to respond to the fortune cookie message.
ASET never made it on the news save for maybe a mention that they brought in an elusive villain, so I wasn’t very familiar with the team. Shogun was the leader, I knew that. She seemed like the leader type, too. Her uniform reminded me of a Naval officer’s but was more ornate and fitted for combat. It matched her white hair, but I figured it had to be dyed that way. She didn’t look to be any older than her mid-thirties at most.
Next to her was the lanky guy in slacks I saw “fighting” Ian when I first met the Argonauts. I think Corey told me he went by Librarian. Honestly, from what I saw then, and his rather thin frame, I didn’t see what good he’d be in a fight unless he had some power that helped.
After him was another guy in dark blue and black armor, levitating a trio of metal orbs above his palm. He had a squared jaw and hollowed cheeks that almost gave his face the impression of being a mask. I couldn’t remember his name at all. On-something?
Across from him sat a rather buff looking guy. He appeared to be napping at the moment—I think he was the large monster looking one covered in thorns, so maybe he had a reason to relax. I vaguely remember his name was Chitin or something to that effect. He wasn’t really wearing a uniform, just jeans and a jacket fort he cool weather. His head was shaven, but then again, he had some stubble, so maybe he was just bald at thirty-something.
And that brought me back to Shinobi. The robot, I was informed, wasn’t a robot. All in all, they didn’t seem like the type to take on powerhouse villains—except for maybe Chitin. Hollands had made this out to be a very big deal, so I guess it was all hands on deck.
We were going in blind again, facing an opponent that could have any power under the sun. That didn’t exactly inspire confidence. Director Duncan’s words wormed their way into my head. What if my training wasn’t enough?
I glanced around at my team. No, we could do this. Erin was a good leader, I trusted her, and Corey and Whitney had my back, and Adam seemed dependable. Hell, even Ian didn’t seem like a bad person—maybe just abrasive. We could do this. And I was getting stronger. They thought I belonged, maybe I should too.
“We’re going to perform a rapid descent, hold on to something if you can,” The pilot said over the intercom.
“I hate these,” Ian said, gripping the hand holds built into the seats.
“What do you mean, they’re awesome!” Corey said as we were suddenly shoved forward and down by inertia as the pilot executed the maneuver; bleeding off our speed.
“Shit!” I said as my whole body suddenly felt like it weighted a ton. Then, suddenly, that was replaced by a sensation of weightlessness as we dropped through the air, slowing with what felt like only feet to spare before there was a bump that signaled, we had touched down.
“How’d you like it?” Corey asked as we started freeing ourselves from the restraints. I wanted to tell him it felt like a demonic carnival ride, but he looked so excited, “Yeah, it was awesome.” I forced a grin that became natural as I saw him light up slightly.
“You guys can compare notes later, lets move,” Erin said, leading us down the lowered rear ramp.
A stiff breeze blew in from the nearby ocean and the entire team seemed to shiver, except for me. “Jesus H. fucking Christ!” Whitney swore, shoving her hands deeper in her jacket.
“It’s not that bad,” I said. I mean, yeah it was chilly, but nothing extreme.
“Easy for the guy who has a backdoor into a walk-in freezer dimension to say.”
Was that one of my powers? Resistance to the cold?
“Everyone stay alert,” Shogun cautioned as we approached what had to be the research station we were briefed on.
“Comms check, report in,” James’ voice came over the earpiece.
“Norn, checking in…”
One after another, we went down the line, making sure our comms were in working order.
“Alright, everybody, The Guards and the Dubliner are on standby, but they’re more than an hour out at minimum, so try to stay in one piece. We haven’t heard anything from Petralith or Samnite in the past two hours. Expect the worse.”
Shinobi and Shogun drew swords while Chitin grew sheets of organic armor until he was a twelve-foot-tall behemoth of thorns and spines.
“Clyffe, wait here,” Erin said as she flared green. Ian didn’t protest; he just pulled out a tablet-like device.
I summoned my own energy, getting ready for anything. “Shogun,” Erin said as we got close to the large metal door of the bunker-like building that looked like it’d been beaten in by some very strong fists, “Maybe Chitin, Prophet, and I should scout ahead?”
“Good idea,” Shogun said, motioning for the rest of our combined group to hold back.
Great. You have a slightly defensive power and suddenly you’re volunteered to be the first one to walk into danger. Luckily, I was able to fall in step behind the living wall of spines. “Here goes nothing,” Erin said as she pushed the door open. Chitin stooped down, seemingly shrinking slightly, as he stepped through the door before growing back to full height.
“Damn,” I muttered when I laid eyes on the side. The station was a rough cube made from concrete with small, rectangular windows near the ceiling. It looked like it used to be full of expensive computer equipment, but now everything was smashed and broken; strew out across the floor. More worrying was the smears of blood on the floor and the walls, leading towards the narrow staircase to the second floor.
“Chitin, stay here incase something manages to get past us,” Erin said as she started to cautiously creep up the stairs. Stamping down the voice of danger ringing alarm bells in my head, I followed her up.
The second floor was even worse. Small chunks of what looked like gray rocks littered the ground with larger puddles of blood. And then, we unfortunately found the source of the blood. “Oh my God,” Erin said in disgusted shock. There was a crater in one of the far walls, presumably made by the butchered body laying there. Next to them, was a smaller person in a lab coat.
Fighting my urge to get away, I stepped closer. It almost looked like a pair of very strong hands had almost ripped the larger of the two—men, it looked like—in two before ripping out his organs. The smaller guy had hands covered in the same rocks that were laying around the room. I couldn’t see what had killed him, but there was too much blood here for one person.
“What’s going on up there?”
Chitin’s booming voice was accompanied by the dry scraping sound his armor made as it scraped against itself; which only made it startle me more.
“They’re both dead,” Erin called back. “Bring in the others, we need Clyffe to take a look.”
“So? What are you thinking?” Shogun asked, as Ian uncomfortably inspected the bodies.
“The big guy is definitely Samnite. He was a small-time hero from southern Europe, mostly Italy. Increased strength and durability, but he came out pretty banged up after a Pantheon attack and was ordered on passive duty if he wanted to keep his sanctioning. He was friends with the other…casualty. Petralith, a researcher who got sanctioned and joined up with Argus so he could have access to their funding.”
“What killed them? Well, what killed Petralith?” I asked.
“His chest was crushed, probably by a foot,” Shinobi said, pointing to various points on the body.
Ian nodded in agreement. “He didn’t die quickly.”
“Fuck, I want to find the son of a bitch that did this and tear them apart,” Whitney said, wisps of smoke curling from her hair. “They deserved fucking better than this.”
Corey put a comforting hand on her shoulder, and she seemed to hold her tongue from saying more.
“I don’t see anything we can track. He may have slipped through our fingers again,” Shogun said, looking around.
“Maybe, but I don’t think he’s gotten far,” Ian said.
“What makes you say that?” Erin asked, sounding doubtful.
“Petralith fired beams of energy that turned objects it hit to stone,” Ian explained, point to a place on the wall opposite the bodies that had been petrified.
“I don’t follow,” Shogun said.
“Look at the pattern,” Shinobi hinted cryptically, apparently seeing the same thing Ian did. “Maybe this can help.”
The machine-clad hero held up his hand, and something like a projector shone from his palm, highlighting what we missed—there was a portion of the roughly circular splotch of stone that had been spared from petrification, and it looked like part of a human torso.
“They were hit?” Shogun asked.
“I think so,” Ian said. “They just got done fighting, in the middle of nowhere, with part of their body turned to stone. They haven’t gone far.”