Scene 1 – Fourteen Years Ago
Exterior Cemetery, Early Evening
“…a couple that all looked up to and admired. Philanthropists, community leaders, role models. They…”
I didn’t really pay attention as the priest continued with his spiel. It was true, I supposed, but it didn’t really come close to what my mother and father had been. And listening to it, listening to what people had thought of them, hurt in a way I wasn’t sure I could describe.
My uncle, standing next to me, noticed that I had stopped paying attention, my head tilted down, and took my hand in his. He squeezed it, gently. I wasn’t sure what he was trying to say, but I squeezed back, and he seemed satisfied.
My parents had been killed violently and in the most senseless fashion. They had been out for the night at a restaurant, one of their favorites, while I stayed home to watch the new dog – a young puppy who wasn’t fully housebroken yet. I had been cleaning up after her when the news came, when I found out that a robbery gone wrong had ended up with the robber hiding in the restaurant and taking them as hostages. That they had ended up being killed along with the robber when the police came. He hadn’t even known who they were, just that they were there.
Uncle Bruce took me by the shoulder and began to lead me away from the grave. Before I left, I took a glance back at the matching coffins which held my parents. “Never again,” I swore. I wouldn’t let anyone else suffer like this.
Scene 2 – Thirteen Years Ago
Exterior Rooftops, Night
I raced over the rooftops, leaping and trusting to my cape to spread and slow my fall. It did so, stiffening just as I’d designed it to and catching the wind, allowing me to keep up with the damnably-quick women I was chasing. “Stop!” I cried, not really expecting them to.
Surprisingly, they did – the one in costume grabbed her companion by the arm to slow her. I heard them arguing as I landed on the edge of the same building.
“No, Essa. I told you, I’d only come out with you if you let me keep you safe, you can’t confront a hero when we could just escape.”
“Come on, babe, it’ll be fun! This is what it’s all about! And besides, he’s a new hero – he can’t have been doing this for much longer than we have, he hasn’t been in the news at all!” She was giving her partner puppy-dog eyes now.
I paused briefly in my approach, confused.
The uncostumed one, who instead wore casual clothes with her long, dark hair pinned up and a odd blur over most of her face, sighed. “Alright, Essa. If you insist.”
“Yay!” The one in costume – Essa – turned to face me, a brilliant smile on her face. “Well, Hero? We’ve stopped – what now?”
I cleared my throat and tried to lower my voice. “You’re under arrest,” I growled. “Stealing is a crime.”
She giggled, the other simply rolling her eyes. “Is it really? I wasn’t aware.”
“How did you even find out?” the uncostumed one asked. “We robbed an illegal gambling den. Are you on contract for them?”
“I saw you slipping out of the building at on a.m. with a sack full of loot. Seemed pretty clear.”
“Fair enough,” she allowed.
“What’s your name, hero?” Essa asked. “We haven’t been introduced.”
“Call me Starling.”
“Aren’t Starlings daytime birds?” the uncostumed one asked.
“Shut up,” I growled, and instantly regretted it.
The costumed woman laughed, a high-tinkling sound. The bitch was enjoying this. “Oh, honey, he’s just a baby! I can’t fight him, I’d feel so bad if I hurt him! I don’t think he’s even 18-”
“I’m 19,” I protested before I could stop myself, and she laughed again.
“Even so. Let’s just go, dear.”
The other shrugged and offered an arm to what I suppose must have been her girlfriend.
I snarled, drawing the tech staff I had built and snapping it open. It expanded from a foot and a half to a full six feet, and I launched myself at the smug, condescending bitches.
Immediately, their attitude vanished and they clearly stopped underestimating me – but not, unfortunately, because I was a threat. The costumed one, Essa, seemed to sense me coming somehow, releasing her friends arm and stepping to the side as I brought the staff down on her head.
She didn’t even flinch.
She turned, moving far faster than anyone should have been able to, and with a swipe of her hand, sliced my staff into two pieces. With her other hand, she grabbed me by the throat and lifted me casually into the air.
“I’ll let you live, she told me, her voice as casual as her clothing, “because you targeted me, and not her. But you’re not going free unscathed.”
Scene 3 – Thirteen Years Ago
Interior Hospital, Late Morning
“Mr. Brant?” the nurse said, knocking on the doorframe of the room I was being housed in. “You have a visitor.”
“Who is it?” I demanded. “If it’s Uncle Bruce, I don’t want to see him-”
“It’s not Bruce,” she assured me.
The nurse left as a new face appeared – a vaguely Asian looking man of about my age, wearing a tailored gray suit. “Heya, Ben!” he said cheerfully, taking a clicker from his pocket and clicking it to no apparent effect.
“Who are you, exactly?” I asked, feeling suspicious of this stranger who had just walked into my hospital room.
“Call me Miles,” he said, offering a hand. “I work for a company called Ambrosia, which you’ve probably never heard of.”
“It’s the food of the gods, said to grant immortality to those who consume it,” I snapped, bristling. “Obviously.”
“Also a type of salad!” Miles said, still obnoxiously cheerful. “But I meant the company, which is of course a reference to the mythological ambrosia and not the mediocre fruit salad.”
I didn’t say anything. No, I hadn’t heard of this Ambrosia Company, but that didn’t mean I had to admit it.
“The point, Ben, is that I’m coming to you with an offer from Ambrosia.”
“I don’t need money,” I growled. “I’ve got more than enough of that from my parents.”
“Yes, we, ah, we heard. That’s part of why we’re making the offer to you – we know you can afford it.”
“This isn’t about the hospital stay, then?”
He shook his head. “No, that’s just what brought you to our attention. Madam Thornhill – our president – likes your… how did she put it? Your gumption. She thinks you were very brave to go out and try to be a vigilante without powers.”
“Foolish, more like,” I admitted, glancing down at my broken legs. “I didn’t stand a chance against that woman.”
“La Borda is making quite a name for herself,” Miles agreed. “Although she’s been mostly standing behind Hertz.”
“Those are their names?” I asked, committing them to memory. I wouldn’t forgive those two – not ever. “The unit of wave frequency, and… is that Italian?”
“Yes. The borda is a sort of witch in Italian folklore, although not a particularly well-known one. I believe her namesake has a sort of short-ranged control over spacetime.”
I thought about the implications of that for a moment, and was horrified. “That’s stupidly powerful!”
“Yes, quite,” Miles agreed. “Some people have all the luck. Fortunately she isn’t terribly ambitious.”
“And her girlfriend?”
“One of our most satisfied customers.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “What did she buy from Ambrosia, exactly?”
“Have you heard of Ondechoq? Small-time supercriminal from Portugal, went inactive several months ago?”
“He had the ability to control soundwaves, a power that he was not using to its full potential,” he told me. “One of our agents captured him and we extracted his metagene. Some genetic therapy courtesy of Doctor Hart, and miss Hertz is now the proud owner of a metagene all her own.”
“You sell powers,” I realized. “How does that work, exactly?”
“We do indeed,” Miles agreed. “We have a couple different processes and are always looking for more – everyone is different, after all. Doctors Hart and Kaufman are our genetic specialists, but I personally handle magic.”
“Which would be used for you? It depends on what exactly you’re interested in, and the results of a few tests they’ll need to perform. Do you have any metagenes?”
“Not that I know.”
“Then the one that just activates your gene will be out. We can transfer an activated metagene to you, as we did for Hertz, or transfer a magical gift.” He frowned. “There are also… experimental methods, which may be dangerous and aren’t guaranteed to work. They bring the price down, though.”
“How did two petty thieves afford this?” I asked. “It can’t be cheap, after all.”
“It certainly isn’t. But along with discounts for assisting in our development, we also offer discounts for those willing to do us favors, and even loan plans. Madam Thornhill is a reasonable woman. I believe that La Borda did a favor for her, Hertz promised a single favor in the future, and the rest they’re paying on loan – thus their current careers as thieves.”
“Hn.” I considered it for a few minutes, Miles producing a smartphone and scrolling through something while I thought. Having powers would certainly assist my crusade against crime. It would guarantee admittance to the MLED, where I would have access to better information and resources. But… “Is it going to be a problem that I intend to be a hero, and not a villain?”
“Not at all,” he assured me. “We take no stance on that conflict – our only allegiance is to our customers.”
“Then let’s talk options,” I decided. “And I’ll want to know how much it will cost…”
Scene 4 – Thirteen Years Ago
Ambrosia Co. Laboratory, Late Morning
After some negotiation, we arrived at a deal that satisfied us both. I would assist them in the testing of an experimental supersuit that Ambrosia had funded the creation of, something called the Psychic Augmenter Mark 5 – the experimental nature of the suit would reduce the price enough that I was willing to pay it, and if it failed I could be given a proven treatment in exchange for a favor at a later date. The test was set for one month after I was released from the hospital.
When the day came, I had dodged Uncle Bruce and made my way to a point in a park where Miles waited for me. He took a brief glance around, then took my hand and quietly chanted something that my brain simply refused to make any sense of, forgetting it as soon as I heard it.
When he finished, however, I realized that I was no longer standing in the park or, for that matter, holding his hand – instead, I was holding the hand of an attractive, aristocratic looking woman a few inches shorter than me.
“You must be Mr. Brant,” she said, releasing my hand. “My name is Doctor Kaufman, and I’ll be overseeing this test.
“Yes, I am. How did I…?”
“Mr. Mercer’s magic is of a sort that trades things,” she informed me. “The closer in value to each other the better. In this case, he traded you for my colleague Dr. Hartland, who has a similar build to you and was amenable to spending a day in New Venice.”
“Of a sort. That’s not what you’re here for though, is it?” she noted.
I flushed. “Right. How will this work?”
She showed me to a dark green bodysuit, almost black, which appeared to cover everything from the neck down. Long boots and gauntlets seemed to be made of a more armored material and a lighter green than the fabric that made up the rest of the suit. A similarly armored belt was finished with a transparent buckle, and the soles of the boots and palms of the gauntlets were the same transparent material. I stepped behind a modesty screen to change into it.
“This is the PA5,” she said. “It’s the fifth version of this technology, although, I admit, it differs only slightly from the previous version. For…” she growled. “For reasons beyond my control, the PA4 and all notes on it were lost, and as such this is primarily meant as a recreation in order to continue my research.”
“And it awakens psychic abilities, correct?”
“Correct. Specifically, it stimulates the nervous system and alters it to allow you to pick up on and manipulate psychic energy, which is already in the world. If my theory is right, you’ll have powers both in and out of the suit, but they’ll be enhanced to some degree while you’re in it. It’s also somewhat armored, because, well…” There was a brief pause in which I assumed she was shrugging. “Why not?”
“Why not indeed. And you believe you have all the kinks worked out?”
“I do. Previous test subjects have had, let’s gloss over the nasty details and just say ‘issues’ with it, but the alterations should keep you safe.”
“Primarily is that you’re younger – below the critical age of 25, when the human brain finishes developing. You still have enough neural plasticity to cope with additional sensory inputs.” Her voice had previously been dry and analytical, but she was warming to the subject now. “Additionally, the suit no longer covers the head, which should prevent your brain from melting.”
“…wait, what was that?”
“It only happened with one subject, don’t worry about it.”
“…out of how many?” I asked, beginning to have second thoughts.
“Don’t worry about it, Mr. Brant, you’ll be fine. Are you changed?”
Kaufman swept the modesty curtain aside. “Right. There’s an activation button on the clasp of the belt – hit that, then turn the dial it’s set into until the suit is comfortable.”
Scene 5 – Thirteen Years Ago
Exterior City, Late Evening
The PA5 had worked exactly as Kaufman told me it would. Over the course of several hours, I felt tingles and itching all over me – which were, apparently, the result of my nervous system essentially rebooting and relearning how to feel. The slight headaches over the same time were my brain upgrading my senses thanks to the vastly expanded input.
And what input it was! My vision seemed to be entirely disconnected from my eyes, being entirely omnidirectional and no longer limited to the normal visual spectrum. My hearing was so acute that even in darkness I could navigate with echolocation, and the range of what I could hear had similarly been expanded.
And that wasn’t all. While I could only do it for a few moments at a time – Kaufman seemed confident that my time could improve with practice, likening my new ability to a psychic muscle – I could lift myself entirely off the ground in flight! Even when my strength ran out and I began to fall, it was slower and more lightly than my mass should indicate, and when combined with the cape I had created, my aerial mobility would be truly worthy of my chosen name.
When I mentioned the cape to her, Kaufman had gotten a sly look on her face, then offered me a deal – the Ambrosia Co. seemed to like those. The PA5 would, she reminded me, augment my abilities to some degree even after the initial granting of power. She had offered to give me this copy of it as well as her notes on how to maintain it, allowing me to claim it as my own invention, if I did her a small favor. All I had to do was take a message to her family in New Venice. “Don’t worry,” she assured me with a crooked smile. “I’m sure nothing will happen to the notes on it this time – continuing the project will be no problem.”
It didn’t seem all that difficult, although I wasn’t sure why she contact them herself. Ah well. I was traveling across the rooftops on my way to the address she had given, reveling in the incredible freedom flight gave me, when I was startled to see a massive humanoid figure with a much smaller one sitting on its shoulder – Anima, the leader of the New Champions, sitting atop one of the golems she could create.
She noticed me too, giving me a wave that the golem copied, and I landed beside her to say hello. By the end of the night I had agreed to join the junior MLED team, the Young Champions, and had completely forgotten about the message.