Mirkov watched the boy in front of him speculatively. This was not an unusual occurrence, since Mikhail Mirkov was often speculative, especially regarding his test subjects. But in this case he was particularly curious. How did he survive?
Jared stood before him, cleaned up and fully healed from the acid that had been consuming his flesh. Even his hair had regrown by the time they got back to base and Mirkov wondered again how it knew when to stop. Oh how he would have liked to burn it all off and watch it grow again while Jared was hooked up to scanning equipment. Or even just cut it. That wouldn’t hurt him, right? If I just cut it, would the hair regrow the same way?
He realized he was getting side tracked and tried to rein his mind back in from one of the thousand tangents it got off on. He often wondered how he got anything done, before reminding himself that he really didn’t. Redarctica’s equipment wasn’t nearly as good as the equipment he had while working for Black Rain. They had slightly more restrictions against being too hard on their human assets as well, at least regarding the involuntary ones.
Still, it was his home country and his daughter had practically begged him to come home and work more reasonable hours. He was never sure why a grown woman wanted to see her father so often, but he admitted he enjoyed spending time with his only child. Certainly he should have spent more time with his departed wife and he’d always regret that he hadn’t. He suspected that she mostly wanted him around to help deal with his unruly grandson, but at least that part didn’t bother him a bit.
So now he was much more a glorified babysitter than he was a proper scientist. Maybe it was for the best though. He’d had a stronger stomach for extreme research methods than his protégé Doctor Marco, but the truth was his greatest contribution to the field of his passion was tweaking Marco’s scanning method so that it could determine whether someone with powers had dangerous offensive capabilities. It was a lot more than anyone besides Marco himself had managed to do in their field.
Most scientists had given up trying to figure out how the specials’ powers worked. What had first been a huge topic of research attracting many of the newest and most intelligent minds from all branches of sciences had dwindled into a handful of serious scientists and slightly larger group of nutters. Which camp Mirkov belonged to was often a topic of debate and there was no end to his frustrations that researching empowered individuals had devolved into speculation and untestable hypothesis more appropriate in the realm of philosophy than science. At least he was in good company with most quantum physicists.
There was initially extensive debate over whether people’s powers invalidated the fundamental laws of science, but eventually most of the scientific community decided to treat the Empowered as magical beings to be almost completely ignored so that they could continue making theories that seemed to fit the rest of reality. But the frustrations that made so many brilliant minds give up their investigations didn’t quite touch him. Every time he saw someone use one of their powers it sent a thrill of excitement through him. It didn’t matter what the power was, whether from simply knowing the next card in a deck with certainty to stopping kinetic energy with a force field.
But of all the powers he’d seen the last couple of decades, Jared Butler’s particularly impressed him. This eighteen year old senior high school student from The Consolidated States of Newland might not be as flashy as his classmate Patrick or quite as physics defying as May, but the potential for his powers was far more exciting. If the key to his regeneration could be unlocked, the potential impact on medical research would be staggering.
For that reason, he was not terribly happy that the Director had chosen Jared’s team to retrieve the girl sitting across the one-way mirror next to them. He was even less happy that Jared’s team had won. It would undoubtedly mean that the Director would insist on them being utilized for more dangerous missions than standard checks and retrievals. Less time to study Jared meant less time to learn about his powers and greater risk that Jared would actually be killed and take his secrets with him to the grave.
Mirkov silently cursed having poor Redarctic equipment for the thirty-third time that morning and wondered how his grandson was able to use it to create so many amazing gadgets. He was unsure if Krieg refused to apply his genius towards his grandfather’s problems out of stubbornness or if he just couldn’t fully direct his genius. Since Mirkov could no more figure out his grandson’s powers than Jared’s, he was not likely to find an answer as long as Krieg pigheadedly refused to tell. At least he was in a position where he could somewhat protect his grandson and give him an outlet for his abilities. His daughter said it’d really helped curb his behavioral problems at home.
The mission had not gone nearly as smoothly as he’d hoped. When the Director first gave him the call, he guessed immediately who they might be facing, and expected Jared’s team to beat their opponent with fairly little difficulty, while failing to capture her. When did she learn to become a dragon? As soon as the larger transformation occurred, he’d still hoped she would send Jared and Patrick through a couple of walls and escape. She’d escape, but one of his most interesting teams would survive and avoid too much scrutiny from the Director. He got half his wish when she sent Patrick flying, but he didn’t expect Jared to go jumping into her mouth.
The fact Jared survived the encounter was exciting, but perplexing. He claimed to have managed to cut his way out of her stomach before the knife was fully dissolved by acid. Mirkov had a hard time believing that. Once outside her body, her acid had quickly reverted to normal stomach acid, so it was hard for him to test how corrosive it was at full strength. But given the state of varying police cars and skeletons, he would guess a few seconds should have been enough to render the knife too dull to cut.
It also seemed strange to him that her stomach wound was oddly cauterized. He supposed it could somehow be a result of her shrinking down to size, but the leg wound showed no such cauterization. Then again, Jared had inflicted that one on her while she was still normal sized. Maybe it was only a byproduct of wounds sustained in her altered form…
Still, he suspected there was more to it. The film he had of Jared coming out of his opponent was grainy, low quality and mostly black and white but, for a moment, it appeared that part of him was covered in a dark substance. When Mirkov had asked Jared about it, he’d nonchalantly said he wasn’t sure and that it was probably just blood or something. There were no obvious indications that Jared was lying, but Mirkov still wondered. Regardless, Jared’s healing and ability to work while in pain had both come along beautifully. He despised the fact such a valuable research asset was being wasted on military concerns, but it did not entirely muffle his sense of pride at the effectiveness of the training regime he’d put together for the young regenerator.
“Her name is Tasha Knight. She was a remarkable little girl, able to transform from the age of seven. That must be, goodness, a decade and a half now. Feels like just yesterday to an old fart like me. Anyways, she doesn’t seem to want to cooperate. Now I hope that I am able to give you more positive reinforcement for cooperating, but I find sometimes it’s helpful to show people the stick in case they don’t like carrots enough.”
Mirkov gave a slight nod and Tasha rocked back in her chair, screaming bloody murder. The chair had thick steel wrist cuffs to keep her in place. If she tried to transform to a larger form, they would snap her bones. She already knew she had the pain chip in her head, but refused to even tell them her name. Mirkov thought this was silly since he already knew who she was, though he supposed she might not know who he was. He felt that was unlikely if his suspicions were correct.
He let the pain chip stay active far longer than he’d ever used on any of the team members before him.
“God damn man, you’re killing her!” Patrick exclaimed. His hands clenched tightly into fists. Mirkov didn’t feel he was any danger though. Patrick knew if he did anything then this is exactly what would happen to him.
“No, though I imagine she wishes she was dead right about now. Her training is quite impressive, I grant her that. No doubt she will soon start lying to throw us off, pretending she’s broken. Unfortunately for her, in addition to Redarctic interrogators having far too much experience in this matter, we have a perfect polygraph on the payroll. A bit autistic, but his power is quite useful.”
Mirkov didn’t miss the slight twitches in both Jared and Patrick and wondered if he ought to employ the polygraph with them later. No, too much pressure and it might break them. Soon both of them might be able to kill me before I could activate the pain chip. Wouldn’t end well for them, but I prefer not to die just yet. I’ll let them keep their secrets for now. But maybe if I could get that obstinate grandchild of mine to give me one of those force fields he keeps building for himself…
By the time Mirkov deactivated the pain chip, Tasha was nearly insensate, sweat dripping down her dark brow. Her tongue hung listlessly at the corner of her mouth and Mirkov marveled at how Krieg was able to design the chip to disable the part of the brain allowing the subject to close their mouths. It greatly reduced the risk of subjects biting their tongues in half and bleeding to death.
“We can’t leave the chip on too long or there is a high risk that the adrenaline released will be too stressful for the heart. To put it simply, too much adrenaline can interfere with the heart’s rhythm and cause the sufferer to drop dead. It looks an awful lot like rejection syndrome actually. We can, however, send a command to turn it on and off in fairly short random intervals such that the subject becomes incapable of actually doing anything other than sitting around wondering how long before the pain comes back. Only had to use that a couple of times before the defection rate dropped to zero. This state is also triggered if someone tries to interfere with the chip in any way, so I hope you don’t get any ideas about digging the chip out and healing your brain matter, Jared.”
“Oh don’t worry. The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind…more than a few hundred times,” he said dryly. Mirkov chuckled.
“Ok kids, I hope this demonstration has been effective. Now go get some rest, you’ve certainly earned it. Maybe tomorrow we’ll go get a bit of proper food for a change.” Though not sure any standard Redarctican fare will be their idea of good. Still, anything beats the garbage they’ve been eating on base. Except maybe actual garbage and I’m not even too sure about that.
The kids filed out the small door to his left, Patrick having to squeeze through the frame. It was time to get down to business. He opened the door into the interrogation room.
“Hello Kevin,” he said. Tasha’s eyes widened slightly. “Since your sister doesn’t want to get down to business, maybe you will. Though I am surprised you let us chip her. If your goal is to assassinate me, I wouldn’t think you’d need to go through such trouble.”
“Who are you talking to?” Tasha asked, trying to maintain composure. She did an admirable job, considering the bouts of torture had to be fraying all of her nerves.
“You are Tasha Knight, younger sister of Kevin Knight. Your brother was recruited approximately fifteen years ago into Black Rain by Alan Killjoy, who you probably know as The Seer. From my understanding, he’d been an orphan surviving in one of Dirkland’s city-states, ever since your mother died giving birth to you seven years before.
“Kevin remains one of the most fascinating subjects I’ve had the pleasure to come across. Notable for being blind, but able to see out of the visual cortex of any being he’s in contact with. He can also cause blindness in any being he touches, though I left before it was determined whether such blindness was permanent. There is also speculation he has enhanced hearing, given how effectively he can fight even when not using his sight jacking powers. Lastly, and perhaps most impressively, he can bend light rays around him and effectively disappear from sight, both biological and mechanical.
“Kevin cannot, however, completely mask his heat signature, which is why I know he’s standing in the corner behind you. Redarctica might be cheap, but they at least have the means to put up a few thermal cameras when I tell them to. Now I left Black Rain on good terms so, unless they have drastically changed their retirement policies to include killing former members, you are here to discuss something of importance.”
“Glad to see you haven’t lost your edge, Doctor Mirkov,” Kevin said, deep voice resonating through the room a moment before making himself visible. He was as short as his sister, his skin was a slightly darker shade and he had handsome features. His hair came down behind him in dreads that went to his lower back. On his head clung a Tarsier, its small furry body and large eyes were staring at Mirkov intently. Is he able to control where it looks now? Or did he just train it well?
“Hello Kevin. I haven’t checked the footage yet. When did you arrive?”
“A few hours ago. I had to finish an objective of Tasha’s mission for her since she got captured. Priceless artifacts don’t steal themselves.”
“I assume her getting captured was part of the plan?”
“In a manner of speaking. We have need of outside assistance and wanted to test Grey Snow’s capabilities. The team of interest has passed that test.” Kevin moved over to his sister and put a comforting hand on her shoulder. The team of interest?
“The Director knew?” Mirkov said, unable to keep an edge of anger from his voice. It was one thing for Black Rain to test their capabilities, it was quite another for his boss not to tell him.
“Not exactly,” Kevin said. “We’ve had quite a few new recruits since you left the program. Some are quite… suggestive.” Mirkov thought for a moment about who it could be. He semi-regularly received information about Black Rain’s activities, a perk of being one of the only founding members to have a good idea who most of the other founding members actually were.
Can’t be Reacher. The Director was clearly lucid when he told me what team to send. But what about…Jane Eyre? Yes, she might be able to. He already would have been considering sending them.
“I see. So you wanted to test my newest team, which means whatever you have in mind would require their services. Now what I’m curious about is what could you possibly want them to do that you couldn’t do far more easily yourselves?”
“Get caught,” Kevin said with a grin, perfect white teeth flashing even in the dimly lit room. His sister snorted, the irony not lost on her. Already recovered enough from the pain chip to respond to humor? Might be even more dangerous than I thought. Mirkov filed away the observation for later consideration and focused back on the matter at hand.
“Interesting request. What do you want them to take the fall for?” Mirkov asked, intrigued.
“That’s confidential,” Tasha said.
“It’s ok,” Kevin said to her. “He won’t help us if we don’t tell him.” Despite that, he seemed to hesitate. “Your protégé is consulting with General Dustin Hargrave regarding the truth behind a certain incident. Though we are reasonably certain that they would not be able to discover that truth even if left unmolested, it is not our nature to leave such things to chance.”
“Then you should probably change your generous retirement policy. It’s pretty obvious to me that the incident you’re talking about is how you guys blew up Sunlight City, and I suspect anyone who’s ever worked for Black Rain could guess as much.”
“Well…that’s a bit distressing to hear,” Kevin said slowly, words softly rolling out, no actual indication of concern in his tone. “But so far as we can tell no one who has worked for us has opened their mouths. And Marco doesn’t even know for sure we still exist. But Hargrave needs to die, and if we are the ones who kill him then it will be quite obvious to everyone left what happened. So we need a much more plausible triggerman.”
“This is where Grey Snow comes in,” Mirkov said, comprehending the situation in an instant. “Hargrave thwarted several Redarctican operations last decade. His strategies destabilized the Chain Mountain kingdoms in our proxy war twelve years ago, dealing Redarctica’s dwindling influence in the world what some call a final death blow. In short, my government hates him passionately. It would not be surprising for us to send a team to kill him since we’ve already tried half a dozen times in the past.”
“Exactly. Perfectly plausible third party that no one would look at twice.”
“Yeah, one little problem. We’ve been at peace for several years. No proxy wars, no espionage, not even as much normal spying. Every time we go up against the Consolidated States, they curb stomp us. You’re asking us to assassinate someone in a manner that would likely lead to a war which we cannot win. Why would we agree to that?”
“Well, if you don’t, we’re just going to frame you anyways. Except that we’ll have to get rid of anyone who might pose a problem to the plan, including you and Doctor Marco. Very slightly higher risk for us and I imagine incredibly inconvenient for you.”
“And isn’t telling me this now pose a problem to the plan? You already know we’re filming this.”
“Good luck showing it to anyone,” Kevin said. Great, let me guess, they just had Eric Chang wipe out all our electronics. That’s going to be a lot of paper work.
“Very well, so then this is…a courtesy call?”
“Yes. We do not wish harm to come to either of you, nor your families, nor the majority of your associates. But Dustin Hargrave will not stop investigating the events of Sunlight City unless he is dead, and he needs to die as quickly as possible in a manner that doesn’t give rise to many lingering doubts as to whether our organization is still around.”
Mirkov’s rage was always a cold thing, scarcely noticeable to someone who didn’t know him a lot better than Tasha or Kevin Knight did. He was calm as he nodded his head. His voice was steady as he agreed to pass along their message to the Director. He listened patiently as they explained the full plan that he would help them enact. He voiced gratitude at their giving him a chance to spare himself and his former student. But inside, the anger spread like iced vodka through his veins.
In the very best case scenario, this plan of theirs would get one of his favorite teams killed or captured, even if they succeeded. In the worst case, it would lead to a war that might threaten the lives of every single person he cared about. Oh yes, I appreciate the courtesy. I left with the understanding that I would be left alone, and in turn would leave Black Rain alone. But if that is not the case, then it is good of them to let me know… I will need to make them pay for this betrayal.
He smiled grimly to himself. Things have certainly gotten more interesting at least.