by Richard Stump

John's eyes finally begin to focus.

The walls seem all wrong, and the room's temperature is off, and it takes him some time to figure out why. He knows he's not in his apartment, or in the Powerdyne plant for that matter, and he can almost sense the suspended ceiling hovering mere feet from his nose in the gloom. Itís a real struggle to sit up and that's when the reclining bed clues him in. He's in a hospital, with about a dozen tubes in him, and he appears to be restrained so he doesn' roll over on them. His sides hurt like hell and his head's all fuzzy. He begins groping in the darkness in hopes to find the phone, but before he can call anyone, a nurse walks in.

"Good morning. How do you feel?" she says. She's tall, blonde, and smiling. Cute in an offbeat sort of way, but a far cry from Barbie doll status. "I thought your vitals had spiked."

"I'm woozy," John replies. "I hurt like I went twelve rounds with a wrecking ball. And it feels like ants are crawling all over me."

"Good, it means you're healing, which in turn means you'll live. The doctor approved some analgesics for when you woke up, so I'll get them for you. First, though, a neuro check. Do what I do."

She begins to go through this procedure where she grins, sticks out her tongue, holds her hands out like Frankenstein, and touches her nose. John feels like he's just been pulled over by the hospital police, and he's doing the drunk-on-anesthesia check.

"Good. You pass, so you probably don't have any permanent nerve damage or brain pressure. I'll get some analgesics to help relieve that pain of yours."

"Before that -- where am I? And how long was I out?"

"You're in the ICU of Gilmore Hospital." She smiles at his blank look. "In San Francisco. You were out for three days, mainly because you were drugged so you'd heal. It's now Wednesday morning."

"Uh, thanks"

"No problem, chief."

As she turns to leave, John calls out, "Can I have something to eat?"

"Of course you can. Yes, you're recovering quite fine." She flits back out like she flitted in. John finds her nice, but he's too tired now. He drifts off to sleep.


According to the clock on the wall, it's now six (a.m., John assumes), so he only slept twenty or so minutes. There's a tuna sandwich and a glass of ginger ale on the table next to the bed. And his restraints are gone. John likes that nurse more and more.

The sandwich tastes like heaven and the pop makes him realize he's starving. Must be the sugar. But eating exhausts him, so he easily slips off to sleep again.

When John wakes up, a new nurse, a guy, injects something into one of his IVs. He's a big guy, like a wrestler, with a goatee. When he speaks, his voice is surprisingly soft. "Lindy said you were awake and alert. My name's Steve. I've got you until three p.m. You hungry?"

"Yeah. I could probably eat the ass out of a low-flying duck." John can't believe he just said that. Must be the drugs he's on, but it could easily be from his genuine hunger.

Steve laughs. "Duck's not on the menu, but I'll see what the dietician suggests as a close substitute."

In a few minutes John's wolfing down meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and green beans. The food doesn't suck (well, except for the potatoes), so it's vanishing pretty quickly. Steve cut it up for John; the bandages on his hands allow him to grab stuff, but pushing hard enough to cut hurts. He's just finishing when Steve comes back.

"The doctor has cleared you for visitors, so I'll show them in."

John doesn't have time to ask any questions before three men in suits come in. One of them is the head of Powerdyne security, the one who hired him. The other is unknown, most likely some lawyer or talking head or something. And the third, well, he's unmistakable: Maximillian Powers. John's never met him in person, but there is no mistaking that face. Or the aura of command and power he emanates.

Powers is the first to speaks first. "Hello, Mr. Pierce. I'm sorry to meet you this way, but I wanted to thank the man who saved so many lives at my plant. That maniac would have scattered radioactive cobalt all over if he had actually punctured that door with force. How did you stop him?"

John shakes his head. "I didn't do anything. My memory's a tad blurry on the whole thing, but I'm pretty sure I was just beat up for fun and left for dead."

John finds it best to play confused when he's in fact just that -- confused. But why don't they know what he did? There were cameras all over that facility.

The guy he doesn't recognize pipes up and says, "Anything you could tell us would be invaluable.
Whoever that guy was he disrupted the cameras somehow, so we aren't too clear on what happened after he killed the guards."

John's confusion lifts a little, but not much. As he's about to speak, more people come into his room. More suits. Two women in off-the-rack "power" suits, five years out of style, to be precise. Government agents never have style. They both flip open badges, and the taller of the two ladies speaks.

"Mr. Pierce, we're Agents Wilmarsen and Ramirez of the FBI. The doctor tells us you can answer some basic questions. Is that correct?"

"Uh, yeah, I guess."

"Good," the tall agent says. John guesses she's Wilmarsen. She acknowledges the presence of Max Powers and his men with a simple, almost insingnificant nod. "I see that Powerdyne is well
represented here. I received a call from the director, Mr. Powers. You and your security people are welcome to stay and listen." Wilmarsen does an amazing job of conveying the impression she'd rather have her teeth pulled by a rabid baboon than let them stay.

"Thank you," Powers replies with an unnerving smile."We'll be quiet."

In the next few minutes that pass, John runs through the story he's worked on since he woke up. The agents look skeptical, but he knows from experience that they're trained to always look skeptical.

The smaller agent, Ramirez, follows up. "So you say that you went down the wrong elevator
because you thought you were following your fellow driver, Mike Jenkins. But then he changed into a, uhm, monster and attacked you."

"Yes, I pretended to be knocked out and then followed him."

The nameless Powerdyne suit chimes in. "The only tape we have shows this."

Ramirez shoots the suit a stony look before turning back to John. "After you saw him kill the guards you then attacked him? Why would you do such a thing?"

"Well, he had really rung my bell when he punched me, so I guess you could say I wasn't thinking all that clearly. And I was angry as hell. Let's keep in mind that I was just hired by Mr. Powers on a security gig, only to have this shape-changing freakazoid kill a bunch of guys I was working with. I figured I had a chance to take him out by bashing him with a fire extinguisher."

This is John's only weak point. He's pretty sure he remembers an extinguisher getting blasted during the fracas, but he's not positive.

Ramirez isn't even looking at John, just jotting down his statement on her notepad. "Then go over the rest again," she says.

John sighs. He was ready for this and has his story down pat. "He turned around and yelled he was going to kill me for touching him. He slapped me around a little... then picked me up in a bear hug..." John pauses a bit and acts like he's gathering myself. His performance is pretty damn awful. "I could feel him burning me. And I could smell my flesh cooking. And the whole time he was laughing at me and watching me die."

John pretends to fight back tears, but it doesn't really matter. The agents aren't even looking at him. "When I couldn't scream anymore he just dropped me. I don't really remember much after that."

The agent purses her lips as she reads through her notebook. Damn her and her trademark skeptical manner, John thinks.

After a moment, he quietly asks, "So was that thing riding with me all the way from
New York?"

Agent Wilmarsen answers, "We don't think so. Mr. Jenkin's body was found above the ceiling of a first-floor bathroom. His badge was missing and he'd been beaten to death."

The room is quiet for a moment until the head of Powerdyne security speaks. "We suspect the intruder can become immaterial but was stopped by the experimental anti-radiation grids we're testing at the facility. That's why he had to pose as an employee. And it appears that he tried to
walk through the vault door and was stopped. After he vanished from the main vault, cameras pick him up in a storage room nearby. The video briefly shows him mimicking the form of Jenkins and then he vanishes in the confusion of the emergency response and evacuation."

Agent Wilmarsen steps towards Powers. "Mr. Powers, did your people find anything on the
other tapes?"

"No." He looks upset. "We aren't sure how, but my engineers say that he emitted some sort of plasma and the magnetic fields it produced garbled any nearby surveillence. We shielded them against radiation, but not EMP from inside the building. We've already given all we have to your lab people."

"Thank you," Wilmarsen says, then she turns to John. "And thank you, Mr. Pierce. I know this was difficult. We may need to ask you more questions in the future."

"Uhm, okay. Anytime."

John leans back on his bed like he's tired. It's not much of a stretch. The agents leave without a word. Powers gestures the others out and stays behind. John's a bit surprised, especially when he pulls a chair close to his bed and sits down.

"Mr. Pierce, I am impressed. Not only are you the first security consultant to ever demonstrate he's worth the money you, stand up to two different metas that are trying to rob me of millions of dollars, saving lives in the process."

John starts to protest, but stays silent as Powers waves his hand. "I had you helicoptered here to Gilmore Hospital because they have the best burn unit in the country. I'm paying for this as well as any therapy or reconstructive surgery you might need."

"I, uh, I don't know what to say, Mr. Powers."

He smiles at John. "'Thank you' is a start. You see, I admire courage. And luck. It's obvious that you have both. Now get better. I expect the Pierce-Quinn agency to be on the job from now on."

It's only a few minutes after he leaves before John's asleep again.


John wakes again. Somehow, he knows that it's late. Turning his head, he sees that the clock reads 1:28. Yup, John says to himself, its late. He feels better, though. He notices that some of the tubes are gone and it looks like they changed his bandages while he slept. As he shifts around someone stirs beside him. Startled, he glances over and sees Dana asleep in the easy chair in the corner. She's wearing jeans, a man's white shirt, and dancing slippers. She must have come straight from the airport. She's curled up like a cat in the chair, her head resting on her arm.

To John, she looks like an angel.

John's movements must have registered because her eyes open and in a moment she sees him smiling at her.

"John! Are you okay?" She sounds worried. He hates to admit it even to himself, but that pleases him.

"I'm fine, Dana. What are you doing here?"

"Looking after you, of course. Sheesh! I go off on one undercover job and you get messed up as soon as I turn my back!"

"Sorry, kid. I was planning on a milk run, myself."

The smile on her face doesn't quite reach her eyes. "Christ, John. I just found out today and I rushed right here. I had no idea it was this bad."

John looks down at the bandages over his torso and hands and smiles up at her. "Nah. I'll be fine. It just itches a bit right now."

"Don't lie, John. I talked to the doctor. He said you have second degree burns on your hands and arms and third degree burns on your chest and back. That's pretty serious."

John tries to hide his own sudden concern. He had always thought third degree burns were supposed to be pure agony. While he hurt, he doesn't hurt that bad. Does he? Maybe the drugs are really good. Or maybe his powers alleviate the pain. He has no idea. John snaps his attention back to Dana.

"Dana, I'm pretty serious -- I'm fine. I itch and my sides feel bruised, but I'm going to be alright."

She smiles a little at his bravado, and then startles him more than he ever expected as she gently takes his hand and starts to softly cry. "Oh, John. I was so worried. I didn't learn until this morning and when I finally got here you were out. You looked so, so weak. I was just worried that"

Her voice trails off as she ducks her head. And John has absolutely no idea what to say to be flippant.

"Dana. Dana, please don't cry."

She looks up at him with a smile, the tears glistening on her cheeks. She gives a little laugh. "Ah, you promote me and I go all soft on you. What a way to start!"

John strokes her hair with my bandaged hand. "Dana, I didn't promote you, I asked you to be my partner. And I should have done that a long time ago. Dana"

She waits a moment, then asks him, "What is it, John? Are you okay?"

His hesitation only make her concern grow, so he rushes in. "Fine. I'm fine. Its just There are things -- important things -- I need to say to you. But this isn't the place. Not in a hospital. I'll be out soon and we'll talk, talk about things I should have told you long ago. Just be patient and know that I'm not going away for a while."

John can feel his throat getting tight with emotion, so he shuts up. And he doesn't want this moment to end, so he waits. Holding her hand and stroking her hair is as nice as he dreamed it would be, bandages or no.


As a sleek, white limousine pulls away from the main entrance of Gilmore Hospital, Maximillian Powers settles within its plush, relaxing confines. Murphy, his head of security, sits across from him. Not even the best and latest in orthopedic furnishings can correct his rigid, apprehensive manner.

"Do you have the video feeds from the facility?"

"Yes, Mr. Powers. The FBI got the dummy tapes like you asked."

"Good. Let's see what they won't then."

Murphy leans towards the computer console situated beside his employer and inserts a CD into its drive. In a brief moment, images begin to flicker.

"Most of the cameras were wiped out, but we received spotty images from a few and the sound was fine. We sent blank audio to the FBI as well."

Powers' eyes narrow as he watches a shifting form dance across the monitor, shortly
followed by another stealthy figure.

"Here's the intruder, identified as Plasm by the feds," Murphy informs. "And that's Pierce following, just like he said. The cameras were still okay at this point, and you can barely see some sort of smoke or steam coming from the front of Pierce's clothes."

Powers studies the scene before him, saying nothing. His body is composed, but his eyes are clearly calculating, deductive. The image flickers and becomes very broken as Pierce leaves the image. Clearly, Pierce's presence proved that Plasm's radioactive body had no lethal effect on him.

"This is when Plasm killed the guards and disrupted the cameras."

A new set of grainy images flicker to life, showing Plasm walk past the guards into the vault and turn past the doors. A moment later Pierce enters and also vanishes around the corner.

"The camera in the vault showed nothing but static from the time the guards were killed. But this audio is interesting."

On the tape, the Powers hears John Pierce yell, "Try this, sucker!" Even though the video feed looks like a snow storm, the business mogul notices a change in the static's pattern, coupled with a momentary pulse of increased brightness. Suddenly a sprinkler system turns on, followed by unintelligible yells, cries of pain, and finally, a moment of silence.

Powers clasps his hands together and steeples his index fingers just under his chin.  He begins to think the feed is over. But then there's a yell, followed by a concussive boom loud enough to shake the camera, and then the picture begins to clear. Seemingly borne by the renewed silence and clarity of the video feed, Pierce staggers into view, naked, burned, and bleeding. He limply falls to the floor, curls up, and is still. His blood mixes with water on the floor.

"By this time the emergency team is in the hallway," Murphy says. "They normally would've been in the containment room in less than a minute, but security had warned them of the intruder and the malfunctioning cameras."

The monitor shows a team of people in white radiation suits slowly entered the room. After a brief look around, all but one leave the scene. The last one begins treating Pierce as  huddles on the floor.

"They found no sign of the intruder. The tape we watched earlier showed Plasm leaving the storage room and shifting back into the shape of the driver."

"What was that boom at the end?" Powers finally asks.

"We aren't sure, Mr. Powers. Research and Analysis has a theory that Plasm attempted to phase through the vault door and, uh, reacted badly to the experimental anti-radiation field. This would explain the body print burned into the door and his retreat."

"And the flash when Pierce yells?"

"Again, we only have a theory. The fire extinguisher that Pierce mentions was mounted just inside the door. The investigators found it on the floor dented and slagged from heat. There is an assumption that Plasm's protective field damaged it when Pierce struck him. But we don't know."

Murphy looks nervous as he admits to not being able to answer Powers' questions fully thus far. Powers merely leans back in his seat and simply nods. Either Murphy's answers are surprising adequate for Powers, or they simply have grown irrelevant as the infallible billionaire already has the information he needs.

Powers looks down at his hands, checking to see if his fingernails are even. Then he gives Murphy a sideways glance. "What do the doctors say?"

Murphy swallows hard. "One of the specialists was more than willing to run the tests we requested in return for a, well, a forgiveness of debt. According to him Pierce has no enhanced musculature or other physiological changes associated with metahuman powers. A DNA analysis shows him to be human. If he's a meta, he isn't a genetic mutant and he has no physical modifications."

"And the rest?"

"Well, he does have a few minor accounting tricks up his sleeve, but they were all seemingly related to his courier work, which he stopped months ago. He's been known to find 'special talent' for others but he appears legitimate. We'll keep looking, of course."

"Of course," Powers replies. "Keep an eye on him. I know pure luck didn't saved him from this Plasm person. No, our Mister John Pierce is indeed a special subject, that's for certain."

"We have listening devices in his hospital room and we should have his apartment wired by tonight."

Maximillian Powers smiles. "Good. And watch his partner, this Quinn woman. She may lead us to new insights."

"Of course, Mr. Powers."

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