Carlos Marco stared at the man sitting stiffly across the beautiful mahogany table that was usually the resting place for stacks of research notes. Right now it was cleaned off for the first time in weeks and he was impressed with how it almost shone. He thought it matched the study’s walls well and found it hard to complain about his circumstances. It’s a beautiful prison they’re keeping me in.
It was a little unfair to think that since he could technically leave anytime he wished to. But ever since he started working more directly with the government it’d become increasingly less safe to do so. There had now been at least half a dozen assassination attempts on his life ranging from amateur crazies to a few foreign governments. And those were just the attempts they told him about.
So here he was, in protective custody on one of the President’s personal properties, now outfitted with state of the art lab equipment. He thought it was incredibly generous of President Robins to let them use one of her personal mansions, but he wondered what she thought about it being so altered. Someday she would no longer be president, but her vacation home would still have an MRI machine in the basement, among other things.
Then again, she might not even miss it. He knew he was wealthy, having one small mansion he’d purchased to make his wife happy. He’d bought it in cash because he couldn’t stand the idea of being in debt. Still, as much money as he’d made with his brilliant medical research, he knew Robins likely had a hundred times as much. Before running for president, she’d run one of the most successful hedge funds of all time. Despite her well known penchant for giving away tens to hundreds of millions a year, it was estimated her net worth was still at least a few billion.
He commiserated with the woman. She was kind, generous, and wickedly smart in a very different way than him. But despite previously being hailed as one of the best presidents in living memory, the worst disaster in recorded history had happened on her watch. Now every person with any prejudice at all against the gifted were practically calling for her head for not being willing to make oppressive laws against them. Even many moderates who accepted that no one could have predicted such a catastrophe were unhappy she’d not already taken more precautionary measures to prevent another one.
But that was part of his job. To make people realize that despite the horror of Sunlight City, the Gifted could still be a net benefit to humanity. He slaved over his research day and night, trying to find the things no one else could so he could save lives. He often worried he was neglecting his family, and worried more about the impact such a sudden move might have on his children, but they all said they understood.
This current visitor was unexpected though. General Hargrave’s blue-gray eyes gazed at him contemplatively.
“So, to what do I owe the pleasure?” he asked him, noticing that General Hargrave had not touched the glass of wine Marco poured for him. He tried not to frown at the waste of wine. More for me later, I suppose. Hopefully it doesn’t oxidize. He was lucky that drinking scarcely affected his cognitive abilities. Although sometimes his wife would drunkenly tell him he wasn’t lucky at all. Considering how much he savored the memories of how risqué she got when she drank, he was inclined to disagree.
“I want to know everything you know about organizations made with the purpose of using… the Gifted.” Dustin Hargrave didn’t seem to like the term for those with powers that President Robins and Councilor Meridan were promoting in the press. Doctor Marco wasn’t sure he liked this topic of conversation.
“I suppose it depends on what you mean by using them, and also somewhat what you mean by organization. In the strictest sense, I’ve heard of Destri’s Golden Sands following one of their agent’s attempts on my life. Fortunately that was after the Steel Man attempt and you’d already taken me into protective custody.” Marco’s wife loved Robins’ mansion, but she wasn’t terribly pleased that her own home had undergone unexpected construction work in the form of small explosives hurled by a foreign agent who would put the greatest quarterback on the planet to shame.
“I’m also aware that Redarctica has an organization known as Grey Snow. My former mentor Doctor Mirkov is working for them, last I heard. Though not as regimented, we now have Blue Skies. I can’t help but wonder if we’re copying people on the naming convention there. I assume most countries that aren’t just actively killing their Gifted have similar organizations. Even nations with less stable governments like the ones on the Dark Plains seem to be getting attention for groups like their Red Fire Squads.”
Doctor Marco hesitated. None of this information could be new to General Hargrave. Blue Skies was created specifically to help with the humanizing media campaign their government was engaged in. The Red Fire Squads were also public knowledge, unfortunately, the damage they were causing was getting far more attention than Marco was comfortable with. Redarctica was not as close a rival as it once was, nor Destri as formidable a neighbor, but both countries were no doubt still two of the most spied upon nations. Marco would be surprised if Hargrave didn’t know far more about Golden Sands and Grey Snow than he did.
“Your former mentor, Doctor Mirkov… could you tell me more about him? I also noticed you both used to work for an organization called Black Rain. Could you elaborate on what they did and what your involvement with them was?” Marco gave a slight shudder.
“Doctor Mirkov is probably the most brilliant non-Gifted scientist currently living. Unfortunately, he wastes his talent trying to better figure out the nature of powers.”
“Why do you say he’s wasting his talent?” Dustin interjected.
“Because it can’t be figured out. We spent years and the best I could do was come up with some methods for testing to see if someone was Gifted or not, and I’m not even sure I should have done that much considering how those tests have been used. Please don’t think I’m being arrogant when I say this, but it is a simple fact that I am by far the best biomedical researcher that has ever lived. I’ve single handedly figured out cures for three types of cancer and made vastly more effective treatments for half a dozen more. I have possible cures in the pipeline for HIV and malaria, as well as a potential cure for addiction to half a dozen problematic drugs.
“But when I first started working, I dedicated my life to figuring out the nature of powers. And you know what we learned? Hardly anything. It’s not viral, it’s not hereditary, it doesn’t even seem to be genetic and yet at the same time it can be argued there are elements of all of those. There’s very little rhyme or reason for who is gifted or who dies failing to receive the gift.
“There seems to be a very minute radiation signature which we’ve learned to detect. But the radiation itself doesn’t actually do anything. We’ve exposed human cells and live animals. We’ve managed to intensify the dose and we’ve exposed things for long periods. Nothing. The Gifted are genetically and structurally identical to anyone else except when using their gift. And at that point they defy basically every law of physics humanity has ever come up with.
“It might as well be magic. The most important thing we ever figured out was the existence of the rejection phenomena. Before that research, people were split between refusing to believe the increase in sudden deaths was a real thing or thinking some lunatic with powers was causing it. And even more thought the mere existence of people with abilities was causing the deaths, especially as the death rate rose. Too many still do, for that matter.”
“Yes, I read your research,” Dustin said solemnly. “Published in a surprisingly obscure medical journal, considering its importance, though it’s been getting more press lately due to recent events. They’ve renamed it as ‘rejecting the gift’ in the news. Some are claiming you’re biased due to your powers, but I concur with your numbers. Then again, my own gift is the only reason I understand your numbers to begin with.”
“The research clearly shows now that the overall population of those with powers is increasing, whereas the percentage failing to receive the gift is decreasing. But the percentage has remained steady in countries where they kill their gifted, leading to more and more of their population just …dropping dead. In areas where the Gifted have congregated, the baseline rate hasn’t increased any faster but far more people survive receiving the Gift.
“It would strongly suggest that whatever is causing the process cannot be stopped. If the current rate of change continues then, within the next century or two, everyone will either be gifted or dead. This makes the option of killing all the gifted rather untenable in the long-term.”
“Which is why I’ve never proposed it,” Dustin Hargrave said. A chill went up Marco’s spine at the thought that the general wouldn’t hesitate to propose the elimination of every gifted individual in the nation if he thought it would save the rest of their citizens.
“Yes, well anyways. All of this research was sponsored by a think tank called Black Rain. They were one of the first and most well-funded think tanks created to investigate the phenomenon of people developing powers. For privacy concerns, most of the founders remained anonymous. I know Doctor Mirkov was one of them, but most were gifted individuals themselves and didn’t want their abilities to become public knowledge.
“I was under the impression they disbanded shortly after I left. I left before that happened, so I don’t know all the details. My son got cancer and I realized that there were more productive ways I could be using my talents than banging my head on the wall trying to learn more about individuals who spit in the face of the scientific method. I know there were divided opinions on what direction the think tank should go. Some members wanted to try and use people’s gifts for profit while others wanted to make the world a better place.”
“Do you think it is possible that they might still be operational after all?” Hargrave asked. Marco blanched at the thought.
“I…suppose it is possible. Any members who knew each other were part of it before disbanding could potentially contact each other to set up some sort of continuation of the group. I’ve tried to look into it a few times in the past, but my searches have never come up with any results. Why do you ask?”
Dustin looked uncertain about whether to answer Marco’s question. He stared at him silently a few seconds before giving a slight nod.
“This is highly classified, but I suppose as Blue Skies’ foremost member you now technically have clearance,” Hargrave said solemnly. “I was asked to use my abilities and take a look at varying things surrounding the Sunlight City incident. The first issue we came across is that there is no way lightning should have naturally struck the Gifted girl responsible for the incident. She was in a suburb, so the terrain was a lot flatter than it would have been downtown. But despite that, there were still several structures that were taller than she was. In addition, their neighbors were from Storm Valley and habitually put lightning rods on their house.
“We thought at first that maybe she also somehow attracted the lightning with her own abilities. But looking further at the weather patterns, the numbers begged the question to me as to how a storm had formed that day at all. Admittedly, I don’t have a background in meteorology, but my powers screamed at me that the numbers were off. Not a lot, but enough to make me think there just might be a precipitating cause.
“Regardless of my findings on the weather, we were going to tear Isabella Rhinefield’s life apart to see what we could turn up. At first, nothing was amiss. Good student, normal friendships, a couple romantic entanglements but everything was normal for a teen girl. Still, I was bothered. So I began wondering why someone might want Sunlight City destroyed, pretending for a moment that a third party was involved.
“Thanks partly to the literally tireless efforts of Raphael and the figuratively tireless effort of President Robins’ contacts in the financial world, they were able to present a great deal of fiscal data in a manner I could digest. It was…difficult. There were obvious winners due to the destruction, but nothing to really connect them and little to suggest they were engaging in extraordinary transactions. A few were a bit suspicious and we decided to follow up on them, but for the most part there was nothing. Still, there was something bothering me.
“So I had them identify shell corporations and anonymous accounts and looked at how many of those benefited from the destruction of Sunlight City versus those who were harmed or unaffected. It took the researchers nearly a month to come back with data of use to me, and for that I’m sorry we didn’t ask you to lend a hand given your research abilities. But when they finally did, it became clear to me that anonymous parties benefitted disproportionately from Sunlight City’s destruction.
“Still, there is no actual proof yet that the destruction was anything but an accident. And legally there is not much more we can do. However, off the books, I am having everyone with any connection to Isabella Rhinefield investigated thoroughly. More than that, I am trying to learn as much as I can about any organization of power users that could possibly be involved. There are several countries that might benefit from the chaos this has created, but even many of our rivals will be negatively impacted by the economic shock. This makes the possibility of private organizations of greater interest.”
“Thus the interest in Black Rain,” Marcos concluded. Dustin nodded. “You really think they might have somehow been involved?”
“I really don’t know, and certainly can’t prove it yet. But it seems like a good candidate, or at least the former members of it. Anonymous gifted members of incredible wealth, at least some of whom have expressed a desire to use powers for profit. Even if the organization really was disbanded, those members are still out there. I’ll admit that this investigation stuff isn’t really my forte. The main reason I’m helping with it all is my abilities, and all they can tell me right now is that something is wrong. I…was wondering if you might assist us.”
“I’m a medical researcher, how do you think I can be of service?” Marco asked him.
“You’re unparalleled at turning abstract concepts into hard numbers and compiling them, as well as interpreting the results of analysis and figuring out the next step. I need the numbers as my starting point. If you turn the stories we’re observing into numbers, I can see if something doesn’t make sense and then you can better interpret my findings. In theory, our abilities complement each other quite well.”
“But these stories you’re asking to turn into numbers…they’re the lives of citizens, are they not? You’re asking me to quantify the results of illegal searches. You realize that would mean two of the top gifted members of the organization founded to establish in people’s minds the benefits of the gifted populace would be engaging in highly illicit behavior spying on some of that populace. Ethical issues aside, I’m not sure I’m very comfortable with doing something that’s going to undo all the work we’ve done in making people accept us. I mean this kind of makes us the bad guys.”
“If my suspicions are correct, the bad guys are the ones who orchestrated the deaths of millions of people. Are you comfortable knowing you might have once worked for such people? Are you comfortable knowing that they will get away with what they did if we don’t figure out a way to prove who they are and what they’re capable of?”
Marco realized he wasn’t comfortable with that idea at all. He took Dustin’s untouched wine cup and drained it in a couple of gulps, wondering if his wife was right about his bad luck after all.
“Even if we can figure out who is behind it, what’s the point if we can’t prove it through legal channels? The conspirators, if there really are any conspirators, would be untouchable. I mean it’s one thing if we can bring them to justice, but right now if the idea comes out that the Gifted might have been actively responsible for causing the disaster… the last known hate killing was a week ago. Do we want those to start again?”
“It’s a risk, but if there really are people willing to destroy a city for profit, what is there to stop them from doing it again?”
Nothing. Marco thought back to his days working with Mirkov and Black Rain. He didn’t have the interest or patience for dealing with the other members much. Occasionally he had to explain the difficulties causing the lack of process with the research. But from the few group teleconferences he was present for, the personalities had become clear. He would have to tell Dustin about them all, even if he didn’t know many names to go with.
“I’m in. But I’ll have to bring my team in on it,” Marco said after sitting in silence for several minutes, during which Dustin gave not the slightest sign of impatience. He had the sense that this was possibly the most important decision of his life. Maybe even greater than asking his wife to marry him or when they’d decided to keep the baby. Those decisions had worked out quite well, but he had a foreboding sense that this one might not. “I can keep them in the dark as much as possible, but I won’t be nearly as effective on my own.”
“Very well. For security purposes we’ll be the main points of contact between our teams. I look forward to working with you, Doctor Marco.” He extended his hand with the same solemnness he did everything else.
“Not sure I can say the same, but for the sake of our people I’ll do my best.” Marco reached out his own hand and shook it. If I’m doing the right thing, why do I feel so much like I just signed on for a life of corruption? He wished he had Raphael’s ability, because right now he doubted he’d be getting very good sleep for a decent deal of time to come.