While I basically knew what to expect, I still felt a wave of relief when I saw my uniform. The original Torchbearer’s uniform had been utilitarian to the point of drabness, which suited me just fine. This one wasn’t too far off. Both were dark-blue boiler suits with goggles, a helmet and a bright yellow T on the chest. The original’s logo had been big, blocky and dead-center but mine was small, pointy and on the upper left, like a badge.
The helmet and goggles were more advanced as well. The helmet was light-weight and tight to the point that a poof of hair stuck out between it and the goggles. The goggles were outfitted with infrared, zoom-lenses and access to a tiny camera hidden on the back of the helmet. I took the helmet off and gave it a firm tap with the Torch. Nothing extreme, just what you could expect from, say, a tree coming at you at a hundred miles per hour. It bounced off gently. Not bad. My skin was still raw from receiving my Supreme Service seals, but when it comes to your skull, every layer of protection helps.
I clipped the Torch to my belt and wandered down to the meeting room. It was only a few doors down from our quarters. We’d moved in days ago but hadn’t been given a chance to explore. Jake had a habit of showing up as soon as I started to wander.
Aaron was already seated on a leather office chair in his old Academy uniform. “Not showing up in your work clothes?” I asked.
“The less time in that costume the better,” he grumbled. “I get so sweaty in that thing. Sometimes I could swear it’s sweating too.”
“Maybe we just shouldn’t talk about your suit,” I replied, trying to get the image out of my mind.
“Why do you think Hans didn’t have to stay with us back at the dorm?”
I shrugged. “Well, I’ve got an artifact. You’ve got… whatever your ‘super-suit’ is. Maybe Hans doesn’t have anything the state needs to protect.”
“You think he got some kind of super-soldier formula?”
“I think sometime before we met him he must’ve been bitten by a radioactive asshole.”
“Because he has the proportionate charm, pungency, and-”
“-I get it!”
Jake came in then, alongside two women I’d never seen before and Little Boy. LB had a different band on each arm: a yellow one for YOUTHFRONT and a red one for HOMEFRONT. He also chose to come in costume. He wore a black bomber jacket over a tight leather bodysuit, laser gauntlet strapped to his belt and jet-boots clanking as he walked.
The tech was really key to Timmy Terbeau’s success. Without it, he’d be worse than useless. The kid was literally a nuclear bomb made flesh, after all. People weren’t just going to let him drop a burst of gamma rays in the middle of a city street. Even if you could evacuate the place in time it’d be poisoned for generations the moment he cut loose.
Instead, he used that pent up nuclear energy to power devices, cutting edge tech that would be too hot and bulky if it required a power-source. Over the years he’d pared his gear down to the jet-boots and laser gauntlets. You know, the essentials.
Of the two women accompanying, one wore a purple suit with matching glasses and the other wore the dress uniform of a Major General. We made a flurry of introductions. The women were Dr. Bridget Misenhelter, our director, and Major General Serena Sedgwick, assistant director. Little Boy introduced himself as ‘Tim.’
Not long after that Dad sauntered in, pipe clamped between her teeth, and introduced herself. “Hey, kids,” Dad said. “Name’s Abigail.”
“Put that out, Gail,” Dr. Misenhelter sighed. She enunciated extra hard on the G, like she was forcing herself to say it.
“I didn’t raise you to take that tone with me young lady,” Dad replied. Her voice was stern but a smile crept into its edges.
“Fine, fine.” Dad stuck her finger in her mouth and jabbed it in the bowl of the pipe, licking the ash off when she pulled it free. She walked to the other side of the room to lean against the wall. “This everybody?”
“Something’s weird,” Aaron whined. He was right. It was so embarrassing when Dad would condescend to people, especially people who were older than her.
Dad tried to hide a grin behind her hand. “Well sport, you know it’s important to listen to your instincts. Wanna talk to your old man about it?”
“Fine! Eeeesh.” Dad shot Dr. Misenhelter a bratty look. She adjusted her collar. “So, as you’ve probably noticed, I am your dad.” When that failed to trigger any lightbulbs, she slicked back her hair and rubbed her hands together. “You see kids, when a man is too close to one Ms. Abigail, his memories start to shift around on him, you understand? ‘Cause if you think about it real careful, you’ll realize it would make no sense for your dad to be a seventeen year old girl, right?”
Oh, duh. I felt immediately stupid. Crashingly stupid. And still kind of confused.
“So this is your power?” Truman asked. “Being people’s dads?”
“More or less.”
“Okay, but you’re not really anyone’s dad,” I protested. I had a dad, after all. If I concentrated really hard I could even picture him. Salt-and-pepper hair, shoulders like a bull that’s learned to dance. So what were all these other memories coming into my mind?
“Sounds useless,” Timmy sneered.
Dad- Gail- shrugged. “Bad guys have daddy issues the same as anyone. More than most, near as I can tell. Just… don’t hang around too long. The results tend to deepen, and the deeper they get, the more they stick.”
Hearing it now, the truth was getting easier to parse out. Dad had all kinds of health issues from years of boxing. Dad never smoked a pipe a day in his life. Dad was a gigantic Samoan man who wouldn’t be caught dead in this white girl’s Dale Cooper cosplay. “You mean the memories stick,” I insisted.
“No, that’s you trying not to listen.” Her tone suggested this wasn’t the first time she’d had to explain. “Don’t get it twisted, kids. I am your dad. Your DNA is rewriting itself as we speak.”
Aaron and I exchanged looks. The sweat was visible on his face. ‘Dad’ let loose a cackle. “Calm down, you two. It wears off. Usually.”
Hans was the last to join us, dressed in grey sweatpants and some kind of heavy metal T-shirt. He’d let his grooming fall to the wayside in the weeks since graduation. His hair was shaggier and his neck and cheeks were adorned with scattered wisps of orange. He didn’t smell great either, but maybe that was just me being judgmental.
Jake stood to introduce him. “Gail, Tim, I’d like you to meet Hans.”
“Pleased to meet you Dad, Little Boy.”
“Red Snow.” Tim replied icily.
“Ohhh, right. Stepping out of the whole sidekick shadow.”
“We were partners.” Timmy hissed. “I deployed first.”
“Hans here will be working with me as Deputy Mission Control,” Jake butted in. “His drones will offer support on the field while I relay information and instructions.”
“They’re called ‘Valkyries,’ Jake,” Hans corrected. Gail rolled her eyes.
“You’ve got robot powers, Kaplan?” Aaron asked.
“Ugh, no. I’m clean, thanks. No offense to my infected colleagues.” He nodded pointedly at the doctor. I studied her features. Had I seen her somewhere before? “The Valkyries are from my senior project. Remember that old World of Warcraft server I’ve been using as a beehive for viking ghosts?”
“That’s witchcraft,” Aaron protested.
“It’s slavery,” I added.
“Well, actually it’s deconstructed psychopompery with a digital fetish.”
“Young man, where exactly did you learn the word fetish?”
“Quiet.” Tim said sternly.
“I will be quiet,” Hans promised. “As quiet as the driven red snow.”
Tim leapt from his seat but Jake was faster, sliding between the two teen boys. He squeezed Hands tightly by the shoulder. “Hans here is going to quit while he’s ahead, of course.” Jake’s voice was friendly but there was nothing gentle in how he guided Hans into the seat by his side.
Hans cleared his throat, and said nothing. To tell the truth, I never liked Jake more than in that moment.
Major Briggs cleared her throat to break the tension. “You’ll all be staying on the premises full-time from now on. Any approved belongings will be placed in your rooms. Make no mistake- each of you has signed on to become a public servant. You are among our nation’s most valuable strategic resources, and your long-term safety and well-being is our top priority.”
I had to wonder what would have happened if I’d shone my light on the major just then. It’d certainly get the group yelling. It wasn’t hard to tell that Dad- Gail was at least as much of an instigator as Hans, though hopefully less hateful. And, well… ‘Red Snow’ was notoriously hotheaded. I mean, even LBJ said so.
“Until there’s cause for official deployment you’ll be spending your hours training, conditioning and studying. There will also be public appearances, in time. I trust that each of you realizes this will necessitate appearing in uniform.” Dr. Misenhelter delivered a pointed look at both Aaron and Hans. I wondered if that meant Gail’s black-tie slick-hair look was her official costume, not just some kind of fashion statement.
“Sir, yes sir.” Truman replied.
“About that,” Hans began. “Given I’m not even on the front-facing team, couldn’t I just appear as-is?”
“If you think you’re leaving this facility dressed like that you’ve got another thing coming, mister.”
“Please, Gail. Hans, even if you personally aren’t on the ground team your ‘Valkyries’ will be,” the Major General explained. “The public needs to know there’s a reassuring face behind the controls, and your costume’s a significant part of that.”
“Oh, so it covers his face,” I muttered. People were staring. I must have said that out loud. “Uh, I mean- that was supposed to-”
Hans smiled. “No, no. That was a good one, Atlas. It was nice to hear you step off the P.C. paddywagon for a change.”
“What kind of missions will we be conducting?” I asked, desperate to change the subject.
“An excellent question. For now, we’re keeping you as a secondary response team, basically HOMEFRONT’s shadow. As the experience year continues we’ll strive to run you through activities you might encounter working for ARMFRONT, RADFRONT or VICEFRONT as well.”
“Experience year?” Aaron asked. “That sounds a lot like an internship. Are we not getting paid?”
“Room and board are covered, of course. And the experiences and contacts you make are certain to set you up for paying work for the full FRONTs.”
“And it builds character, sport.”
“Staff will be on-hand 24/7 to tend your every need. Either Jake, Jack or Joseph will be present to monitor the facility and answer any questions you have.” The Major General continued, “You should also find the gymnasium, media library and entertainment rooms quite ample. Any special requests can be submitted to Jake.” She stood. “For now, let’s go ahead and tour the facility.”
On the tour, Tim kept pushing to the front while Hans kept just in front or just behind him, asking snide questions in a fake-friendly tone. Aaron hung at my side like some lost puppy while Gail zig-zagged around, jumping in and out of conversation.
The facilities really were quite nice. We had individual rooms with furniture, private bathrooms and stocked kitchenettes. The gym, meanwhile, was like an entire sports complex with an olympic sized pool, basketball court, weight room, sauna and more. Really, the whole place was this weird mix of bunker, school and luxury hotel. But there was one room that really took the cake.
The inside was a giant, off-white sphere with a slightly irregular surface. In the center stood an obsidian pillar that stretched from floor to ceiling, segmented into dozens of squat cylinders, each lined with a different crooked symbol written in gold leaf. Animal mouths protruded from the bottommost cylinder. Living animal mouths, gnashing their teeth and snapping their beaks. Hans let out a low whistle. “Sexy.”
“This little beauty right here will be the heart of your training regimen. We’ll be coming here any week we don’t have a real mission,” Jake explained.
“What makes it so special?” Aaron asked.
“You’ll find out on tomorrow’s field trip.”
“I think I’ll need to take a look at the permission slip first, sir,” Dad protested. “Where are you taking these upstanding young people?”
“Petal Infernus Chivalrous Eupraxis Omega,” Jake said.
“Oh, sweet!” Hans squealed. “Mountie Hell.”
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