The response crew said Aaron would be alright. The fall would have killed him if he hadn’t walked onto the test grounds with a FRONT-caliber seal of Mars on his skin. If he hadn’t cheated. As it was he was concussed, dislocated and sore all over, but he was going to walk away from this just fine.
Meanwhile, the director wouldn’t even acknowledge me once the Torch was in my hands. What could he say? Both of us knew the score now. He had done everything he could to put the power in Aaron’s hands. I stopped him. If our paths crossed again I knew he’d try and pull me back down. At that moment, I knew I could get back up.
Elizer and Hannah met me at the entrance to The Ourobouros. Elizer laughed when he figured out how I’d located the artifact, while Hannah smacked her forehead. “I wonder how long it would have taken me to figure it out…” she mumbled.
I felt a pang of sympathy for her then. Elizer’s heart wasn’t really in the game the same way ours were and Aaron clearly hadn’t deserved his spot at the top. Which meant that Hannah had been the one that the director had really screwed over- denying her the right to even show if she could compete.
Sergeant Glass shared a curt conversation with the director before coming my way. She explained I’d be under Supreme Service stewardship until they were able to assess the nature of my bond with the artifact. She escorted me to three men in black suits with the purple armbands of RADFRONT agents.
One held out his his hand. “Happy graduation kid, name’s Jake.” We shook while his associates slapped me on the back. “You’ll have to spend the night under guard at your old dorm for security’s sake, but we’re going to make sure you get a chance to celebrate first.”
I’m not sure what I expected ‘celebrate’ to mean- Jake, Jack and Joseph all had that dull but wolfish bro look that I associate with mini golf and hunting people on private islands. It was actually really nice- we took a government plane back to LaGuardia where we picked up my dad and a few friends for lunch.
All the while, I held the Torch. It never felt fully at rest, no matter where I put it. If I laid it on my lap it would start to weigh too heavy on my knees. If I held it propped over my shoulder it wanted to press into my neck. And when I carried it freely, dangling at my side, it felt like it was ready to fly from my hand at any moment.
The agents paid for our meal with a black government check, then followed us on a loose perimeter as we walked the city. When I walked up to the cash register at the first store we went to, Jake stepped in my way. “You’re not buying that.” He pulled out a black government checkbook and a white pen. “Go grab a few more. We’ll wait.”
After hours of that, I retired to the dorm for one last night. It was late, but I needed to call Ma. She wasn’t my birth mother but she’d married dad when I was barely out of diapers. “Hello?” her voice was thick, groggy.
“I’m gonna be a superhero, Ma.” I explained the whole thing, bunching the telephone cord in my fist. She was kind, but I knew going in this wasn’t what she’d wanted. The marriage fell apart a few months after I moved into the academy. They never let on that was why, of course. But every time we spoke after that, Ma would do everything she could to avoid talking about school.
She said nothing for a long while. Then, in a thin voice, “I’m glad you’re coming out on top, Zanne.” We shared sleepy small talk after, an exchange of I-love-yous and her line falling heavy on the receiver. The walls of my dorm were bare, everything that was mine packed away to make room for next year’s occupant.
In the morning, we piled into a black van and traveled to an estate in Westchester. The grounds were impressive, but the building itself looked like a fortress. It was built from what looked like medusaflesh-reinforced concrete, with a high surrounding wall and guard towers on the perimeter. Over the edge of the walls I could make out what appeared to be a small warehouse, a garage, and an aircraft hangar a little further on.
When we got out of the van we were greeted by a robust man in his mid-sixties. He had tortoiseshell glasses, a bushy white beard and leather patches on his elbows. “Good day. Ms. Atlas, is it? I’m professor Jacoby with RADFRONT.”
We shook hands. The Js stayed behind at the entrance for a smoke break while professor Jacoby led me into a large white room with a steel table in the center. Along one wall there appeared to be another room separated by bulletproof glass. Ten metallic bars were stacked neatly on top of each other in the middle of the table. The professor stepped into the adjoining room.
“Alright, the purpose of today’s tests are to confirm that the artifact is operating as normal. Much of the usual legwork has been done by your predecessor, so today should be a routine check-up, as these things go.”
I nodded, looking over at the metallic bars on the table. I hadn’t put the Torch down for more than a moment since I got it. One of the first things I purchased on our outing was a sturdy carabiner for it. There it hung with just enough weight to reassure that it was there. It had so far been this shiny, fascinating abstraction… but now came the time to use it.
“Now, the first power we’re going to test is the most straightforward. When you strike an object with the Torch, your blow should land exactly where you intend with exactly the force you intend, though other objects may intervene. Approach the table.” I did so. “Now, concentrate. Not on tensing your muscles and aiming your blow, but instead on the place and effect you want to achieve. I want you to break the bars in half.”
“All of them?”
“All of them. With one blow.”
I emptied my lungs. Emptied my mind. The Torch was barely a weight in my hand. It felt more like a knot of potential resting just outside my arm. I gazed at the center of the bars and I swung.
There was a blast of light. The shockwave from the blow shredded the steel table and blasted away the tiles of the floor. Steel and linoleum blew harmlessly past as the Torch anchored me in place. I shuddered as the wave passed through me, rupturing the floor and the observation window.
I lifted the Torch from the ground. There was smoke. Not only had the test-bars been cracked neatly in two, their centers had turned completely molten. I ran a hand over my stomach. I felt fine. My ears weren’t even ringing.
The same did not seem to be true of the Professor, who yelled out “stop!” about three times before finally scrambling back into view, looking dazed but jubilant. He adjusted his coat. “Stupendous work, Atlas. Just be sure to practice restraint.”
Next game the big test. The Torch was a useful weapon, but its most important power was lifted straight from Linda Carter. When someone spoke within the Torch’s light, or when its light fell on a written statement, the light would glow green for truth and red for falsehood. Its power was so potent that the pope, Dalai Lama and the Wheezing Sultan all issued the original Torchbearer lists of topics they’d prefer he keep off-limits.
The Torch was hot, even electric in my hands. Jacoby placed a stack of white cards on the remains of the table in front of me, then took his seat behind the ruins of the observation window.
“Alright, Ms. Atlas. We’ve a simple collection of true and false statements on the deck of cards before you. Please turn them up each one at a time, shining your light on each card in isolation.”
The first card read, TODAY IS TUESDAY. I held the Torch out and clicked the switch. It’s stupid to say, but it was the most satisfying switch I’ve ever pushed in my life. I don’t mean because of the circumstances; I was a nervous wreck. But the switch itself required just the right amount of pressure. When it activated, it clicked with a brightness and clarity that rang up my wrist bones and through the room.
Unfortunately, that clarity didn’t last long. The light from the Torch was a plain white light. It was powerful but it didn’t shift to red or green like it was supposed to. Instead the card filled with text in at least a dozen colors, lines of commentary and annotation converging on the page. I grabbed the card and tried to make out the fine print.
Next to “Today” there was a mauve footnote arguing that “today” can’t be made part of a generalized statement on a globe where every slice is somewhere different on a continuum from ‘yesterday’ to ‘tomorrow.’ This shared a fuschia footnote with the word “is,” arguing that any statement of stable or static identity is inherently misleading, which was buried under a pile of vermillion, magenta, lavender, tangerine, scarlet and other footnotes proposing alternatives to ‘Tuesday,’ including ‘Tyr’s Day,’ ‘Martes,’ and ‘June 4, 2035.’
I clicked the light off and groaned. My head and eyes hurt just reading through all of that. Professor Jacoby looked concerned. “Ms. Atlas, I’m afraid our cameras couldn’t get a good look at that. Could you describe what you saw?” I did so, and when I was done the professor was nodding very seriously. “Very well. Let’s try a few more.”
First we cycled through the rest of the cards. Each was the same as the one before it- simple statements crossed with corrections, stipulations, alternatives, even the occasional apt yet vulgar doodle. No matter how obviously true or false each statement was, the commentary that lit up on the page refused to give a straight answer.
Soon Jacoby tried improvising a few with scrap paper and a permanent marker. He experimented with subjective or unprovable claims like “God is kind,” before moving into outright surrealism like “a dog is not” and “colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”
The Torch found a way to stipulate every claim. Generally, the more counter-factual, subjective or ambiguously worded the question was, the more commentary it had, to the point where outrageous lies and nonsense could barely be read under the layers of annotation. At one point I asked Jacoby who he thought was even writing this stuff- if the Torch was plagiarizing or actually generating words itself. We ended up putting the claim under the Torch, and atop the flurry of footnotes came one in cheeky canary yellow asking, “what’s the difference?”
The professor let out a laugh followed by a low groan. “Well, from a research perspective this is fascinating. From a personal perspective, it feels a bit like walking up to God’s throne and finding a rubber clown.”
Afterwards he called in the clean-up crew to incinerate the table, bars and papers. Of course, there was almost no way the Torch was actively infectious. Back in the old days, Mac Stevens would shine it on perps like a cop in a hokey TV show. Folks knew better even then, but artifacts were usually stable. Still, there was no way an official RADFRONT operation wasn’t going to follow proper containment procedures.
We went to Jacoby’s office to debrief. He pulled out a bowl of trail mix and handed me a ginger ale. “I don’t get it. I thought this was supposed to be the light of Truth, not the light of… I don’t even know what to call this. Marginalia?”
The professor smiled. “I see they don’t skimp on medieval history at the Academy. You’re correct. The light’s original operations were simplistic- distressingly simplistic to the dedicated relativists. It would shine green on ‘true’ statements and red for ‘lies.’ To be honest, it always seemed a little too easy.”
“How did it handle ambiguities?”
“Ahh… I only briefly knew Cormac, but from what I understand the man didn’t handle ambiguities. Or controversy. He treated the alleged physical embodiment of Truth as if it were some hand-held polygraph. It would drive Wiloughby absolutely mad, mind you.”
“Why do you say ‘alleged’?”
“Eh? Hrm. Well. You shouldn’t mind me, Ms. Atlas. I’m an old academic. We throw caveats out by reflex.”
“Sure. But that’s no reason to try and play me, professor. Whatever’s on your mind… I’m not afraid to hear it.”
“Yes… You may not be afraid.”
“Well… My dad would always tell me I could say something he disliked, and it would be fine as long as I wasn’t planning on hurting anybody.” I felt stupid and clumsy saying it like that. My dad. Here I was talking to a full-blown professor, citing the wisdom of some D.C. boxing coach like a naive child. I pressed through it. “As long as you’re not going to hurt anybody, your secret’s safe with me.”
“Well, if you’re going to twist my arm… Keep in mind, these are theoretical objections, but it’s important to be mindful of them, as they may uncover real traps, yes?
So for starters, there’s the question of whether this object really is what it says.” He ran his finger along the engraving on the Torch’s shaft. “Other known artifacts created by Witchblade exhibit powers related to their label, but the relationship between word and power is not always obvious. And we don’t fundamentally know how these phenomena are driven. The Other-Force seems to have an intelligence, or at least an imprint of intelligence. Could it also have motive? Could it prefer for us to believe some truths over others?”
That sent a chill down my spine liquid-quick. “So it could be manipulating us?”
“It’s certainly interacting with us, and it’s interacting with something it wants us to call the truth. That by no means guarantees it’s showing us the truth.”
“But… the Torch works! We studied the 2018 DogMaul Massacre. Commander Stevens used the Torch to figure out where DogMaul was going to strike next.”
“Ah, yes. The Torch did prove quite useful there. But did it tell the truth? Torchbearer prevented the massacre, after all, meaning it wasn’t actually true that it would occur where the Torch indicated, because it never occurred at all. So is the Torch telling us the capital-T-Truth, and is that even a thing that can be determined, or is it just telling us whatever it thinks will get us to listen?”
“That’s messed up, professor. But it doesn’t explain why it’s working differently for me. Why does it just show me this mess of evidence and commentary? Why can’t it just say true or false?”
“Well… Perhaps this is just what happens when you throw an ambiguity at the Torch and force it to try and answer. Or perhaps it’s learned new criteria for assessing the Truth, ones that allow more subjectivity but less clarity. Or… “ he rubbed his beard. “You don’t want to hear this, but it could be down to a difference between Stevens and you.”
I grimaced. “Maybe I should have just let Truman have it instead.”
He shrugged. “That boy certainly thinks much more like Cormac did. But maybe that’s not for the best. Perhaps if the Torch had been in the hand of someone more inclined to ask questions, someone could have anticipated the New Years Eve attack and… Well, things would be very different, wouldn’t they?” He glanced at his watch. “I think that’s been more than enough for one day, Ms. Atlas. I’m sure we’ll be in touch.”
I wanted to ask how he knew who Truman even was, but he’d answered a lot of my questions already and I was tired of bothering him. It turns out I didn’t have to wait long to find out anyway. Aaron was waiting for me out in the hallway, in one of the most ludicrous get-ups I’d ever seen.
Imagine if Evel Knievel designed Batman and you’ll be about half-way there. He had a big honkin’ American flag cape, a bright red cowl, and a full blue body suit in red, white and blue. I stopped dead in my tracks.
“Aaron, this isn’t some kind of… episode, is it?”
“Hey, Rock.” He rubbed the back of his head. The suit squeaked, like maybe there was leather underneath the spandex. Spandex! Like he was in a cartoon. “MacMarshall says we’re all getting individual costumes, like HOMEFRONT, instead of uniforms. Hopefully you luck out better than I did.”
We? Oh, what bright new hell was this? “It’d be hard to luck out better than you, Aaron. Looks like you made the team after all.”
“They… said they found another power source. It’s this thing I’m wearing, call it a ‘Super-Suit.’ Experimental. They thought I’d proven I’d be a good candidate.”
“Maybe I should have come in second, then I’d get to be Captain America. You think they would have been able to ‘find’ a power source in my size?”
“Come on, it’s not like that,” he protested. “Besides, at least I competed. Kaplan didn’t even show up and I saw him walking out of here earlier.”
“Of course,” I hissed. “God forbid either one of you failed to make the cut. Unless you mean to tell me somebody ‘found’ last minute powers for Elizer and Hannah too.
“Don’t blame me for catching a break. I deserve to be here. Don’t lump me in with Kaplan just because we’re both white guys.”
I wanted to say, “you lump yourself with Kaplan!” but bit my tongue. Could he be right? Or were his excuses just worming their way into my head? This must have been why the Torch couldn’t give me the straight dope. The shadows of my doubt were long and deep.
Instead, I said “You’re better than Kaplan. And I know you’re capable.” These were true. Aaron may not have been the best of the best but he wasn’t incompetent. I held out my hand, trying to mean it. “It’ll be good to have you on the team.”
“Ahem.” He waved his right arm slightly. There was a big round bulge where his hand would be, flanked on either side by the heads of a rubber axe.
Truman looked down at the strange protrusion around his right hand. “I’m not… 100% sure. They call it my ‘Slumber Axe’? Told me to be gentle with it. It smells kind of funny.” He held up his arm and pulled back a flap of spandex, showing a black tube against deep tan leather. “It leaks uh… Slumber Fluid’ through this tube into a bladder on my belt.”
“Gross. What can you even do?”
“I’m still kind of getting the hang of it, but it seems like I can perceive chemicals in people’s blood. That McMarshall lady told me to just say I have sleep powers, but they’re more like, uh, drug powers.”
“Ooooo, is that… uh…?”
He shrugged. “It’s for a good cause, right? I think ol’ Joe Smith would be fine with me drugging a few bad guys if it’s for America.”
“You’d be the expert on that one. Any word yet on what this assignment even is? You made it sound like we’d be on the same team, but not with HOMEFRONT.”
“Never thought I’d see the day when you’d forget to ask something and I didn’t,” he said. It was irritating, but his smile was friendly. I had to get used to the fact that I wasn’t done working with this kid yet. “We’re some new thing, it turns out. I uh… can’t actually remember what it stands for, but we’ve got our own acronym and everything.”
“So? Out with it, man!”
“YOUTHFRONT,” he replied. “They’re calling us YOUTHFRONT.”
Read Next: (3.2) Faye West
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