Action Figures - Issue One: Secret Origins (5 page)

“I’ve dedicated my life to—!” Manfred shouts, but Semler shouts him down.

“This isn’t about your pride, Roger! Concorde’s right. You said you’d fix the problem and you haven’t, and now we’re facing a P.R. disaster we don’t need.” Manfred bites back a retort. “Concorde, I know I don’t have the right to ask this, but I would consider it a personal favor if you held off on taking any action. I need to get our house in order, reach out to all the people who have been impacted by this...unfortunate turn of events. I want to try and make things right by them.”

“You do that,” Concorde says, “and I’ll be meeting with the police chief, see if maybe a charge of criminal negligence is in order.”

“Concorde, please...”

“Save it, Semler. You had your three strikes and I’m not giving you another chance to kill someone. The only favor you’re getting from me is some advice: shut down the A.I. department and hold your people responsible. Maybe that will earn you a scrap of goodwill.”

“Shut down the—?!” Manfred blurts. “Oh, I’m
sure your pal Bose would
love
that.”

“Excuse me?”

Semler tries to cut Manfred off, but Manfred barrels ahead. “Everyone knows you have connections to Edison Bose. You obviously got that suit from somewhere, I doubt you’re smart enough to have made it on your own.”

Concorde crosses his arms and says in an even voice, “Your robots have three times now caused considerable property damage and personal injury to dozens of innocent bystanders. Tell me how my real or imagined connections to Bose and his company are in any way relevant.”

“It isn’t,” Semler says. “You have my word, the A.I. department will be shut down.” Manfred begins to protest. Semler cows him with a look. “At least temporarily. I’m going to call a board meeting so we can conduct a formal assessment of the department, and we’ll decide then whether to mothball it permanently. But for now, it’s closed.”

“How can I work on the problem if I have no department?” Manfred says, but this falls of deaf ears, so he tries another tactic. “You’re seriously going to lay off dozens of people in this economy?”

“Sometimes you need to amputate a limb to save the patient,” Semler says. “We can find new assignments for most of the staff, and those we can’t, we’ll keep them on the payroll until we come to a decision.” Manfred readies his next argument, but Semler says, “This conversation is
over
,” and it is.

Concorde’s suit emits a low hum, the kind you feel in your body rather than hear, and he rises into the air, accelerating as he climbs, and within seconds he’s
gone.

“Ashe,” Manfred says.

“I don’t want to hear it,” Semler says, brushing past Manfred. “I’m going to go tell the department what’s going on. You get that damn robot inside and make absolutely sure it’s not active. Take it apart by hand if you have to.”

Semler leaves, never seeing the anger simmering in Manfred’s eyes, never guessing of the terrible plan forming in his brain.

SIX

I’ve already mentioned that I’m a very attractive young woman. I might not have mentioned that it’s inherited. My mom, Christina (Briggs) Hauser is also a hottie, blonde and blue-eyed like me, got it going on in the body department, and somehow she’s managed to avoid getting that “mom look.” Some women, you look at them and you can tell they’re mothers. I don’t mean that they’re ugly, I mean they have that look to them, like they used to be young and hot and now they’re not.

Look, I don’t know how else to describe it, but you know what I mean.

I’m grateful that I got her looks, I’m more grateful I got her brains, but I wish I had half her strength. I know the divorce has been hard on her. She’d been with Dad since high school. He’s the only man she’d ever been with. To end such a huge part of her life and start over again, that takes cast-iron guts. Sometimes she has these moments where it hits her that everything she knew is behind her and she can’t turn around and take it back, and I see the sadness creep into her eyes but she keeps it together. I’m sure I’m the reason why,
because I’ve been a mess. At first I didn’t even try to deal with it. I let myself fall apart and let Mom and Dad take their turns holding me together.

In short, I was a selfish brat who did nothing to make a bad situation better. Mom deserved better than that, but she’s never called me on it. I have a good mom.

Who, by the way, is an awesome cook. She makes things with lots of meat and powerful spices and heavy sauces, and she claims sole ownership to the best tiramisu recipe in the civilized world. She’s the most Italian non-Italian woman I’ve ever met. It’s a miracle we aren’t both built like SUVs. Tonight we’re digging into a lasagna she made over the weekend and froze. My grandfather, the esteemed Mr. Gregory Briggs, is too busy stuffing his face to join the dinnertime conversation in earnest.

“How was the first day at the new job?” I ask. Mom is in advertising. Or is it marketing? I get those two confused. Anyway, she works for a company that helps other companies sell stuff. She worked at a branch office back home (I mean, back in Barnstable) but was able to get a transfer to the main office in Boston, so that was one thing fewer to worry about.

“Oh, fine. Fine and dandy,” Mom says. “Met new people, spent the morning waiting for I.T. to set up my computer, chatted with the boss about which accounts he might want me to jump on. Pretty smooth, all in all. And how was the first day of school?”

“Missed the bus,” Granddad grunts in-between mouthfuls.

“I
almost
missed the bus,” I say. “I caught up to it.”

I hate myself for lying to my family, even about something so small, but I’ve become appallingly good at it. I tell myself it’s better this way because they would royally freak out if they knew about my powers, but that’s cold comfort.

“Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat?” Mom says.

My first instinct is to shrug and say I guess, it was school, but that’s an answer the old, deliberately stupid and apathetic Carrie would give. “Anyway, school was good. I got lost a couple of times because the building is so screwy, but my teachers are okay. The assistant principal seems cool.”

“Make any friends?”

“I met some kids. They’re nice. Which reminds me, they get together after school to do homework and they asked me over. Is that okay? Tonight it’s at this girl Sara’s house and she lives, like, maybe ten minutes down the street.”

I don’t press, I don’t overplay it. Try too hard to convince her they’re cool and she’ll suspect I’m covering for them, that I’ve fallen in with bad influences again. I told her it was to do homework and I didn’t say it like homework was a punishment. Let the truth stand on its own.

“How late do you think you’ll be?”

Hold the excitement until you seal the deal. “No one said anything about an end time, so I guess whenever you want me back.”

“Will this girl’s parents be home?”

“I think so.”

Mom acts like she’s not thinking it over but she is. She takes a forkful of lasagna, chews, swallows,
takes a sip of milk. “Want to bring some of the lasagna over to share?”

Score.

The lasagna goes over well. Everyone digs in, even though they’re all fresh off their own dinners. I brought half a pan and Stuart scarfs down half of that before starting in on a bag of potato chips. I don’t think he ever stops eating.

Sara’s parents stick their heads in for a quick hello and tell us they’ll be in the den if we need anything. The living room is ours and Matt sets the proper atmosphere for doing homework by turning on the TV (to New England Cable News, so at least it’s within the ballpark of educational viewing).

“Ohhhh, where to begin, where to begin?” he says, looking at his schoolbooks. “Hot pokers to the eyes?” he says to the math textbook in his right hand, then to the history book in his left, “Or the thumbscrews?”

“Start with the harder subject first, get it out of the way,” I suggest. I take my own advice and crack open my math book. I deeply resent that I live down to the stereotype of a girl who’s bad at math.

“And if they’re all equally hard?” Sara says, glowering at a pile of textbooks on the coffee table.

I shrug. “Cheesecake?”

“I like the way you do homework,” Missy says.

“Me too, but we’ll have to make do with ice cream,” Sara says. She hits the kitchen and returns with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Boston Cream Pie. A girl after my own heart. “Oh, duh,” she says, gesturing. I hear a drawer slide open and a spoon flies into the room,
missing Sara’s outstretched hand and pinging off the far wall. She snorts in annoyance and picks the spoon up off the carpet. No one else in the room has batted an eye.

“Should you be doing that?” I say. “What if your parents see you using—”

“They know,” Sara says, flopping back down on the couch.

“They do? You told them?”

“Not so much.”

Around age eleven, Sara says, she started getting headaches. They were occasional at first but got progressively more frequent and more intense. Migraines, the doctor thought. By age thirteen she was tentatively diagnosed as schizophrenic—which, I learn, is not a split personality like they always say in the movies. Real schizophrenia is when your brain processes go all screwy so you can’t think right anymore (Sara’s description, not mine), and one of the symptoms of schizophrenia is “auditory hallucinations” such as voices in your head. In Sara’s case, that was her telepathy developing; she was picking up on other people’s thoughts.

A few weeks after her fourteenth birthday, her telepathy kicked in full-power. She was in the middle of the mall with Matt and Stuart when it happened, and the flood of outside thoughts overloaded her brain. She lapsed into a deep catatonic state, and for nearly a month she lay in a hospital, practically a vegetable.

Luckily for her, Matt (with the help of the Internet) pieced together what was really going on. It didn’t take too long for Matt to convince her parents, who had checked off every other possible explanation and were desperate to help their girl. Doubly luckily for her, the
country’s top expert in psionics was right here in Kingsport: Mindforce, another member of the Protectorate. He apparently deals with this sort of thing on a regular basis, so he was able to bring Sara back. He explained her powers to her and her parents, and taught Sara some mental exercises to help her close her mind off to outside thoughts. She’s not been very successful so far; she says it’s like trying to stop your ears from hearing.

I don’t know what to say to her. I feel sorry for her. I feel guilty for having powers I can turn off, that don’t drive me insane.

“You don’t have to say anything. It’s okay,” Sara says. “Sorry, but you were thinking really loud.”

Thoughts have volume?

“Uh-huh. One of the first things Mindforce told me. I don’t get how it works, but it helps me shut other people out, kind of. Sometimes. I’m still getting the hang of how my powers work.”

“Oh, hey, look!” Matt says, and he turns up the TV. It’s a report on this afternoon’s mayhem in town. A reporter is standing in front of the wreckage on Main Street, throwing out words like
chaos
and
terror
and
devastation
, which makes it all sound way worse than it actually was. Not that it wasn’t bad, but this guy is acting like someone set off a bomb.

“The robot’s rampage was stopped once again, single-handedly, by Concorde of the Protectorate,” the anchorman says, and Matt groans.

“Single-handedly? I call B.S. on that!”

“To be fair, we barely did anything,” I say.

“We played a role. Small, maybe, but pivotal. We should have gotten some credit.”

“Oh yeah, because villains everywhere would
seriously quake in their boots to know Captain Trenchcoat is on the case,” Stuart says.

“Bite me.”

“Captain Trenchcoat?” I say.

“My super-hero name.”


Captain Trenchcoat
?”

“Lamest. Name. Ever,” Stuart says.

“Again, bite me.”

“It’s a lame name,” Sara says gently. “Accept it.”

“Well, what am I supposed to call myself?” Lots of super-heroes have semi-descriptive names, he says. Concorde, he flies and generates booming concussion blasts like the ones that wrecked the tankbot. Mindforce? Psionic powers. So what would you call a guy who can make things appear with his magic threefingered gloves? The Materializer? Gloved Justice? Put it like that and it’s a fair question.

“Besides, a name like that throws people off,” he says. “You call yourself Super-Strong Man and bad guys are like, hey, I know what this guy’s power is, but you call yourself something weird and vague and they have no idea what you can do. Gives you the element of surprise.”

“Yeah, whatever, dude,” Stuart says.

“So what’s your super-hero name?” I ask.

“Haven’t decided. I’ve played around with a bunch but none of them have stuck. Awesome Man is totally accurate but sounded a lot cooler when I was twelve. Power Dude is too California Surfer. I went through a serious
Braveheart
phase and thought about calling myself William Wail-Ass, the World’s Mightiest Scotsman, but I think a regimental super-hero is all kinds of bad waiting to happen.”

“Regimental?”

“You know, going commando. Living life free and easy. Living in a house with an unfinished basement.”

This conversation has taken an awkward turn.

“Right now I’m kind of keen on Superbeast. Track two on Rob Zombie’s
Hellbilly Deluxe
CD,” Stuart says, flashing the old heavy metal devil hand sign I don’t think anyone uses anymore. “Awesome stuff.”

“I wanted to call myself Ninjette, because I’m all fast and agile and sneaky and stuff,” Missy says, “but then I found out some guy used it in a comic book so it’s probably copywritten.”

“Copyrighted,” I say.

“Copyrighted?”

“Copyrighted.”

“Point is I can’t use it without getting sued. Not that they could find out who I really am so they could sue me and it’s not like they’d get a lot because I’m only fifteen but I guess they could sue my parents if they knew who I am, but anyway, I think I’d call myself Kunoichi because, for real, that’s Japanese for a girl ninja and that’s really cool because I’m part Japanese even though I don’t look it too much even though everyone says I look a lot like my dad even though I think I look more like my mom who’s white...so, yeah. Kunoichi.”

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