਀ ਀ ਀ First Date਀ ਀ ਀
First Date
਀ By Stephen Tsai
਀ ਀

਀ Rutherford McMiller listened in on the hotel conference room telephone. He was currently checked in at the Chicago Four Seasons hotel downtown, with the cover story of looking into Nova Corporation's interests in town. In reality, his goals were much larger than simple financial interests. As he spoke, his laptop provided him video conferencing and additional information from his offices back East. A small device attached to the phone and laptop ensured that the information being exchanged would remain private.

"...wasn't much for me to do when I landed," Rusty said. "At least in terms of Onyx and his crew. Central MTF though has some disturbing hypotheses about the 5th meta that got away."

"How sure are they that the 5th meta was associated with Onyx?" Nicole asked on the phone.

"Not at all. From what I could tell, the lone meta took Onyx and his team down all by herself. I took some readings from the battle scene. All four were in a deep trance and non-responsive. The stadium was almost a total wreck, but surprisingly no casualties and almost no panic, which suggests a really high-powered broadcast empath or telepath." He leaned forward. "Could you have done that Nicole?"

"15,000 kids?" There was a brief pause on the phone. "Probably not; not with only 2 symbiotes. Maybe if I had all 5, but even if I could, I'd be totally wasted if I tried it. There's no way I could do that and drop Onyx and his friends at the same time."

"The list doesn't end there," Rusty continued. "The air was lousy with ionized noble gases, and I found a substantial amount of molecular anomalies." He held up a crystal figurine of a grasshopper. "Unless Gadgeteer made a Nobel-Prize winning breakthrough on a gizmo we missed, our girl can also play with molecules."

"That sounds like a really dangerous combination," Eddie said with a dark hiss. "Did you manage to at least get an ID on this girl?"

Rusty pressed a key on his laptop. The footage Central MTF provided was grainy and dark, but Rusty had some highly advanced alien technologies for just this kind of job. The photos were washed through several enhancement filters, clearing up the pictures to almost photo studio quality. He then loaded a database copied from Farmer Village High yearbook and ran a comparison check.

"What makes you think she goes to this school?" Nicole asked.

"A hunch," Rusty replied. "The boy that got tossed by Onyx; she caught him when she first arrived at the scene and spent almost fifteen seconds talking with him before sending him to the police and ambulances."

"Well, he is a good-looking kid," Nicole said drolly as Eddie hissed and Rusty smiled with amusement. A beep sounded from the laptop, getting everyone's attention.

"Uh oh..." Rusty said as he read the file. The bright flashing red text caught his attention almost immediately.

"What?" Nicole asked.

"Our girl has a record: Her name's Angelina McGee; alias Clancy. She's a high-school freshman at this school. It says she's wanted by three federal task forces, but her file is covered with several SAP/SAR redacts. The only parts not redacted are the parts that say that her capture is considered highest priority."

"What's she wanted for?" Nicole asked. "And what the hell is a fourteen-year-old doing with Special-Access-Restricted redacts? Who wants her and what are they hiding?"

"That's the other kicker," Rusty said ominously. "The name on top of the file is none other than our pal General Garner."

There was a long quiet pause. "So let me get this straight," Eddie said coldly. "This girl Angelina can split a stadium in half, pacify the civilians, while kicking the crap out of four metahumans, and Garner wants her for reasons that don't get put on an official record. Do I have to say how much this stinks?"

"I'm not going to get emotional about Garner," Nicole said. "But I agree that something about this combination stinks. What do you think Rusty?"

Rusty sighed. "It looks like I'm not going to make the red-eye tonight."

* * *

Robinson Park was a popular place for all types of people. The feature of the park was the lake in the middle of the grounds, which was surrounded by a jogging track and picnic grounds. Angelina looked on with despondency as she tossed a flat stone into the lake, watching it skip four times before it plopped into the water.

Madelyn shook her head and snorted. "There's, like, no way you did that fair and square."

Angelina sighed. "You're doubting me too?"

"Hey, I'm just kidding." Madelyn looked around, picked up a rock and managed to skip it three times before it dropped into the lake. She looked admiringly at Angelina's stylish outfit. "Well, at least you're dressing better these days."

"Like it? It's something I thought up."

"Aren't you cold in that miniskirt though?"

Angelina shrugged dejectedly. "I don't seem to get hot or cold these days."

Madelyn sighed. "You're still bummed, huh?"

"I trashed the stadium! I was a bigger threat to everyone than the creeps who held you all ransom!"

"You saved Pete's life!" Madelyn reminded her. "You probably saved my life and everyone else at the game! OK, you trashed a stadium," she conceded. "That can be fixed. But I think you're being too hard on yourself. It was your first time. You'll get better."

"I don't know; I don't think I'm ready. You know I don't even have a superhero name?"

"Oh, I've got that, like, so covered!" Madelyn assured Angelina. "Get ready for...Psi Girl!"

"You're joking," Angelina replied in a deadpan manner.

"OK, OK, how about Mind Maid?"

"Maid? What am I, sixty?"



"How about Mindshadow?" a new voice suggested.

Both Madelyn and Angelina turned towards one of the park benches. "You..." Angelina said with recognition.

"Who?" Madelyn asked.

"He says his name's Dennis Halbert. He said he was part of the Project that's after me. How do you keep finding me?"

"We were supposed to meet again here," Dennis explained ambiguously.

"What are you, like, brain-fried?" Madelyn asked derisively as she noted Dennis' distracted and foggy behavior.

"Actually that's not far from the truth I'm afraid," Dennis admitted. "The Project affected us all differently, mostly for the worse. For me, I can see the future."

"Really," Angelina said dubiously.

"Coming from someone who can do what you can, I would think you'd be more open to such abilities."

Madelyn and Angelina looked at each other and shrugged. "OK...so if you can tell the future, how come you aren't filthy rich or something?" Madelyn asked.

"It doesn't work that way," Dennis explained. "I see the future, but for me, it's already happened. I can't change the future. I just know what's going to happen."

"What did you mean by 'Mindshadow'?" Angelina asked.

"That was the name of the Project," Dennis said. "Project Mindshadow dates back almost twenty years. Its goal was to develop the technology to create high-order psionics of all types, in the hopes of developing a counterforce against the growing metahuman population. Your parents were part of that project."

"Yeah, I know about my parents being part of the Project," Angelina said tiredly.

"No you don't," Dennis said and shook his head. "The parents you knew didn't join the Project until several years later. Your real parents were part of the first wave of test subjects for the treatments."

"So...I was part of this Project?" Angelina asked.

"No," Dennis shook his head. "You were an accident." He saw Angelina give him a baneful look, and then added, "Not that kind of accident."

"Wait a minute," Madelyn said. "You're saying Angie's real parents got their powers from the government? So they could do anything she can? How the hell did the government ever manage to catch them then?"

"Unfortunately for them, they couldn't. None of us at Project Mindshadow had even a fraction of that kind of capability. As I said, Angie was an accident." He sighed sadly. "Your parents found each other while they were test subjects. One thing led to another..." He paused. "Once they had you, the Project took you away for experimentation. So they decided they wanted out."

"So where are they now?" Angelina asked.

Dennis shook his head. "The last time I saw them, you were only a few months old."

"Look, this all sounds fascinating," Angelina said. "But seeing how I can't read you, how can I tell you aren't just selling me a load of crap? Or worse, trying to set me up?"

"Well, you could do what most people do and look things up yourself. Or you can just ask Red Nova when you see him later."

"She's gonna team up with Red Nova?" Madelyn asked hopefully.

"He's probably gonna arrest me for trashing the stadium," Angelina said.

"She goes with him," Dennis said vaguely.

"Oh yeah?" Angelina said willfully. "What if I don't? Won't that mess with your prediction?"

Dennis smiled. "You think you have that choice. From my perspective, it's already happened. But do what you want. Either way, we'll see each other again."

Madelyn and Angelina looked at each other as Dennis took his leave. "Is he for real?" Madelyn asked.

"His mind being closed is real," Angelina said with concern. "I don't know if he's telling the truth or not. He might be a plant from the government to try and lure me into an ambush again."

"Well, he does say you're going to go with Red Nova. Maybe you are going to team up with him."

"Team up for what? A building needs tearing down?" Angelina asked then sighed. "I don't think I'm ready for anything that big. I'd probably just mess things up."

* * *

Rusty wiped the mirror from the fog that came from his morning shower, as he lathered up for the ceremony most men performed every morning. There was nothing like a decent shower and shave to feel like a new man. Just then, there was a knock on the hotel room door. He grumbled and put on a bathrobe. He looked through the view hole and snorted. Speak of the devil; let's see what this is all about... he thought and opened the door.

"General Garner," Rusty said pleasantly to the military entourage. His hair was still wet from the shower, and he looked more like a fat longhaired hippie than the CEO of a multi-million dollar corporation.

"Mr. McMiller, what a coincidence that you're here in Chicago," Garner said with a gravelly voice. "What brings you here to the Windy City?" he asked, obviously digging for information.

"Business," he said still in his bathrobe and slippers. "I might ask you the same question General. We're a long ways away from the E-Ring, aren't we?"

Garner looked at Rusty with a cold hard expression. "I'm not here to dick around. I want to sign a contract for Nova Tech to produce those new rifles I'm hearing about."

"The MP1300?" Rusty shook his head and tried not to smirk. "Sorry General, but the 1300 isn't ready yet. I'm afraid I can't release any of the technologies, for a number of reasons. The main one being the military hasn't finished testing them. Also, doing so would be a breach of contract, and quite frankly the contract is more important to me than you are."

"More important than your country?"

Rusty smiled as he turned away from Garner. He must have been desperate to resort to such an obvious ploy. "Ah, I see. You must be faced with a situation. Maybe if I knew more about it, I could be of more help."

"It's nothing we can't handle with the right armaments."

"You wouldn't happen to be going after Angelina McGee? Would you?"

The air grew thick with tension. Garner did his best to hide his reaction but Rusty could see his jaw clench. "You do not need to know about her. The less you know, the safer it is for you."

"What can I say? Money was never made playing it safe," Rusty said smugly.

Garner regarded Rusty with a cold expression, and then turned towards the door. He looked to his entourage. "We're done here." He turned towards Rusty. "Let me give you a bit of free advice. Don't go getting involved with affairs that do not concern you. People get hurt when they stick their hands where they don't belong. And if you think the rules don't apply to your pal Red Nova, think again. We are prepared to do whatever it takes to resolve the situation. Whether that's with you or through you, makes no difference to us."

After the door closed, Rusty counted to ten, and then pressed a hidden stud on his watch. "Did you get all that?"

"Sounds like something's pissing in his Corn Flakes," Eddie replied from the communicator. "I love it. What's the next step?"

Rusty opened his notebook and looked at some notes that he had taken. Having the right connections and access to the right databases made for easy detective work. "I think it's time I sampled some of the cuisine in Chicago. I hear hamburgers are good here."

"Good luck Rusty. Call us if you need us."

* * *

Daniel Nunez shook his head with frustration as he read the e-mail letter on his computer. What was going on he wondered. He was sure that he had filled the paperwork right. He sighed, and then printed the letter for his records. He needed to consult with his boss to figure out what was going on.

After getting the hard copy from the printer and filing it into the folder, he walked to one of the offices and knocked on the door.

"Enter," Mark Weinstein said.

"Mr. Weinstein, do you have a moment?"

"Sure Danny, what's going on?"

Daniel pulled out the folder and referred to some of the documentation. "I was wondering what was going on with the Clancy case. I filed a request for supplemental funding for an adoption and I'm getting turned down. What's the deal?"

Mark took the offered document and looked it over. "You don't have sufficient documentation to prove financial need."

"With all due respect sir, they only have one breadwinner, and he's not exactly a big shot exec. I've documented their mortgage information and cost of living index in the appropriate forms."

"Danny," Mark sighed. "Sometimes the bureaucracy just doesn't always make sense. There's probably a bean counter who's found that the Packards fall in that nether region between too little and too much money. The best thing you can do for this girl is probably try and look into other alternatives. If you want, I'm sure I could help you find another family who's more financially capable to handle the load."

"Sir, I'm not sure that's going to work. I spent time with Miss Clancy. I interviewed the Packards. They have a good relationship with one another. I...I don't think we're going to find another family that's going to care for her more than..."

"It's not always about caring Danny," Mark interrupted. "Sometimes it's more about just taking care of the big picture. You don't want to get hung up on one case. Just find another family and move the file out of your stack."

Daniel sighed. "If it's all right with you sir, I'd like to break the news to Miss Clancy myself."

Mark froze for a moment and looked at Daniel with a hard expression. "Danny, it'd really be better for you if you don't do that. I think you're getting too close to this case for your own good."

"Sir, I gave her my word that I'd do everything I could to help her. If I have to find her another place to live, I'd like for her to hear it from me directly."

"Danny, I know you think you're doing the right thing here, and no one appreciates your empathy for the kids than I do. But I really think the further you are from this girl, the safer it is for you."

Daniel looked at Mark with confusion. What the hell was Mark talking about? "Safer sir?"

Shit...! Mark cursed himself silently. "Sorry Danny, bad choice of words. I just meant that...I think that you're letting your emotions get in the way of your judgment. It's not that uncommon in this line of work." He sighed. "Listen, I'll take care of this situation. You just take care of your other cases. If anything breaks, I give you my word that I'll let you know immediately."

"Yes sir, thank you sir," Daniel said then turned around and left.

Mark waited until the door closed, then picked up the phone. "Mr. Raintree? Do you have an ETA on that house you're preparing? I think we may have a problem..."

* * *

Roger and Laura Packard sat and fidgeted in the doctor's office. A gruff stern man, Roger didn't like showing weakness. In his line of work, fear was just not an option. One of the Coast Guard's best Chief Petty Officers, he was one of the men who taught at the training facility in New London Connecticut many years ago. He earned a reputation of being able to whip crews into shape, which meant a lot of traveling, leaving his family behind for his career until recent years. Currently one of the senior enlisted men responsible for live-fire exercises around the Great Lakes, he was accustomed to facing tough choices. But like most men, what he hated most of all was the feeling of helplessness when facing the unknown. He steeled himself as the doctor returned from the examination room.

"So what's the prognosis doctor?" Roger asked.

The doctor shook his head. "I've never seen anything like it. Mrs. Packard, you say someone just touched you and you started feeling better?"

"She claimed it was acupressure or something like that, but I got the impression that she was hiding something."

The doctor looked at a set of highly detailed X-rays again. "Well, even setting aside acupressure's dubious benefits, there's no way that explains these results. The good news is that there's no sign of your osteoarthritis. In fact, there's no sign that you've ever had arthritis of any kind. Even your old injuries like the leg you broke last year don't show any signs of prior damage."

"Well, then what's the problem?" Laura asked.

"Well, not a problem, per say. But I would very much like to know the source of the change. If it's actually some kind of treatment that can be duplicated, then it could be a huge boon to a lot of people."

"Doctor, could you give us a moment?" Roger asked.

The doctor nodded and left the room. After they were alone, Roger turned to Laura. "She did something to you, didn't she?" he asked with an accusatory tone.


"No, I'm serious! There's no other way to say it! Angie's got to be a meta of some kind!"

Laura shook her head. "I can't believe I'm hearing this! We've known Angie for years! She's probably spent more time at our home over the years than you did! Why do you have such a problem with her now? Maybe she can heal people with a touch! Is that such a bad thing?"

"Laura," Roger said, forcing himself to calm down, "in case you don't remember, Angie's parents were murdered. I've seen meta conflicts up close and they are never pretty or confined. I also don't believe in coincidence. Whoever killed Angie's parents almost certainly had something to do with her being a meta. I don't want you or Maddie getting hurt."

Laura also calmed down. "Roger...I know that your heart is in the right place. You've always been there for us. But you don't know what it's like to be constantly in pain."

"Now wait just a minute..."

"No, let me finish. If Angie was trying to hide something from us, then all she had to do was nothing at all. She chose to heal me because she was trying to help. If you're asking me to turn my back on her because you're afraid of what might happen, then I just won't do that."

"And what about Maddie? What if she's at risk? For that matter, does she even know?"

"Maddie?" Laura sighed. "With all the time they spend together, I can't imagine that she doesn't know."

Roger folded his arms. "All right. We'll find out what Maddie knows first before we do anything. But we're going to have to do what's best for our family."

* * *

George Cicero ran through the alleyway, keeping an eye out for anyone following him. Many of the people on the street called him 'Georgie'; a childhood nickname he always hated. Over the last year, he had graduated from running numbers to planning bigger jobs with the growing underground community of metahumans. As a normal human who had managed to keep his record clean, he made an ideal scout for scoping out sites before a job.

He stopped to catch his breath once he was pretty sure that no one was following him. Secretly, he harbored a jealousy for the metas; they really were the future of crime and everyone knew it. Well, he reasoned, if he couldn't actually be a meta, he could ride their coattails up the ladder of success in the underworld. He just had to watch his step around them; many metas were also basket cases in psychoses and delusions. He kept that in mind as he finally reached the warehouse and walked inside.

"You're late," James Conway said. Like George, James also looked to join the rising clique of metahuman criminals.

"Gimme a break, Jimmy," George said. "I had to make sure they had what he wanted. Is he there?"

"Yeah, and he's ticked off."

George shuddered as he proceeded. The last henchman who heard that never made it out of the warehouse.

"Where have you been?" a booming voice said from the darkness.

"I just got back," George said nervously. "I had to make sure no one followed me."

The man stepped out of the shadows and began to rub his hands. "Then tell me some news. And it better be good news!"

"S-sure Maelstrom! It's the best! The clay idol you were asking for is in the offices, just like I said! Some fancy shmancy import-clearing house from Asia has it! They're on the 38th floor of the tower!"

Maelstrom began to cackle and laugh. "Then it's all coming together! Once I get my hands on that idol, its mystic energies will increase my dark powers to their ultimate incarnation! And those who stood in the way of my destiny will pay the final price!"

* * *

Angelina scanned her thoughts as soon as she finished taking her latest customer's order. Madelyn was finishing up with band rehearsal and was going to be coming to the restaurant. Also in the background, she could hear Willie thinking up his next pickup lines, even though she had already turned him down for a date again, both during school and when she first started her work shift. Part of her wanted to go ahead and go on a date, then turn it into a disaster, but based on the fantasy images in Willie's mind, she wasn't even sure that would have worked. In any event, she wasn't sure she had the heart to abuse him that way. But she was running out of ideas on how to deal with it with mundane methods.

The next customer came up. Angelina entered the order in on autopilot, doing her best to try and ignore the sea of other people's thoughts and emotions as they continuously flooded her mind. She sighed; throughout school the last few days, she was privy to every bit of gossip and rumors, both true and false. Just getting through the day, she again had to tap into Madelyn's mind to draw enough strength to maintain her sanity. Michael had admitted that he was at a loss with her telepathic powers, other than to suggest scheduling an appointment to an endocrinologist. Like I have the money for that. And even if I did, who could I trust to keep doctor-patient confidentiality under my circumstances?

Fortunately for her, the BurgerMart was its own building and not part of a mall food court, which meant fewer minds to deal with, which was about the only blessing her job offered her. Over the last couple days, her powers were making it more and more difficult to enjoy simple pleasures like eating. The same abilities that gave her an innate sense of molecules also made her aware of the chemical processes that went on inside her body when she tried eating. It was like watching an animated version of Upton Sinclair's novel "The Jungle". In response to that, she had begun practicing keeping up her body's need for chemical energy by steadily maintaining her blood sugars, minerals and hormone levels. Despite her initial success however, she began to feel increasingly distant to everyone around her, so every now and then, she would force herself to go back to normal eating, and just try to ignore the digestion assembly line.

"Excuse me Miss?" the next customer said.

Angelina shook her head. "I'm sorry, welcome to BurgerMart, can I take your order?"

The man looked at her nametag and his eyes narrowed. "Yes, Angelina, is it?"

"I'm sorry, do I know you?"

The man shook his head. "No, just trying to be polite. Let's see... I'll have a number 3 medium combo with a Sprite, apple pie, and how about ten minutes of your time."

Angelina blinked then looked at the man more directly and tensed up. His mind's shielded. It's going to take some effort to get around it. She glanced around then listened for additional thoughts. No sign of any soldiers or government troops; he's probably alone. But what did he want? "Um... Mr. Cade?"

Gary Cade came over and looked at the situation. "Is there a problem sir?"

"No, no problem. I'd just like to have a brief private chat with your employee."

Gary smiled. You can look, but please don't touch, his thoughts said, which made Angelina roll her eyes. "Ah... I'm afraid we don't allow that kind of fraternization. It wouldn't be professional."

"I'm afraid you misunderstand Mr. Cade," the man said with a serious tone as he read the manager's nametag. "I'm here to discuss serious business with Angelina."

Gary's expression turned to one of concern. "What kind of business? Are you a cop or something? Is she in some kind of trouble?"

"Probably not, but I need to find out what she was doing a couple nights ago. As for who am I, the name's Rutherford McMiller."

Gary looked at the man with renewed respect. "The Rutherford McMiller? Nova Tech Corp?"

"The same. Now can I have a few minutes with Angelina? It's very important."

* * *

Rusty finished half his burger before taking a sip of soda. Franchises were just terrible about making food taste the same from coast-to-coast. It just kills the incentive to travel and try food in different regions of the country. Don't you agree?

Angelina blinked at the directed thought as Rusty silently congratulated himself for making her tip her hand so easily. "French fry?" he offered with a seemingly innocent smile.

"I see plenty of those all afternoon. Besides, you're not here to talk about food and travel," Angelina said softly as she looked downcast.

"Then what am I here to talk about? Normally, that's my cue to go ahead and tell you why I'm here, but I suspect you can already tell me that."

"You want to know if I was involved with the plot at the stadium."

"It probably would have paid a lot more than this place."

Angelina picked up a packet of ketchup, held it in her closed fingers, blew a puff into her fist, and then dropped the heavy yellow metal packet-shaped nugget in front of Rusty. "If I just wanted money without earning it, I wouldn't bother holding all those kids hostage."

Rusty looked the gold nugget over with intense interest. Four to six ounces, he estimated, easily $2,200 or more. "Why on earth are you working here?"

Angelina shrugged. "Well, after I found out my parents were actually government agents who were murdered for not keeping me under their control, I'm kind of left with little choice if I want to support myself without resorting to cheating or stealing from people." She sighed and shook her head. "I'm sorry; it's a long boring story. You probably didn't come all this way from Rhode Island to hear me unload my sob story on you."

Rusty looked at Angelina with quiet fascination. "I'd very much like to hear it."

Angelina paused. "Hold on, my friend Maddie's here."

"Hey Angie, you on your break?" Madelyn said as she walked into the restaurant. "Who's the hippie, another social worker?" Not as good looking as the other one, she thought.

"No, nothing like that," Angelina said. "Mr. McMiller just wanted to know what happened at the stadium."

"Oh right... so, did Red Nova ever show up?" Madelyn asked frivolously.

"Maddie, meet Red Nova," Angelina said, gesturing at Rusty, who blanched slightly before regaining his composure. He made a mental note to talk to Angelina about being so blithe about secret identities.

"Get out..." Madelyn said with an impish expression, and then looked at Angelina's expression more carefully. "Oh God...he's here because I dissed his costume, isn't he?"

"It's got nothing to do with anything like that." Rusty said. He then shrugged. "Besides, what's wrong with Red Nova's costume?"

"She thinks you need a cape," Angelina said quietly with a smile.

"Capes are, like, the thing to wear if you can, you know..." Madelyn said as she concluded by a sweeping expression of flight with her hand.

Rusty shook his head at the naivety. "Capes aren't always practical. In a fight, they get caught at the worst possible times. Red Nova's powers would shred a cape so often it's not worth it. I even know at least one meta hero several years ago who got shot and killed because his cape got caught in a revolving door and he couldn't free himself."

"Eww... " Madelyn said with a wrinkled expression.

"Look Angelina, I'd very much like to talk about this further in private. When do you get off work?" Rusty asked.

"Another hour or so. I can't talk too long though. I've got a book report due tomorrow."

Rusty sighed. "Maybe I'm not making myself clear. Angelina, I'm here to talk, but to put it bluntly, I also need to know what your motives are. Your report can wait."

"Her motives?" Madelyn said. "She saved everyone at that game! What kind of motive are you looking for?"

Rusty turned to Madelyn. "Miss, I'm willing to listen to Angelina and give her the benefit of doubt. But there are some others who wouldn't. I really need her to come with me to discuss this matter in private."

Madelyn and Angelina looked at each other with mixed emotions. "Well, he did say you'd go with him," Madelyn said with a sotto voce.

Angelina sighed. It looked like there was no graceful way around it. "Can you take my books back home with you?"

"Sure. Go beat up a bank robber or something," Madelyn said with a wink.

* * *

The Chicago Sears Tower was arguably the most famous building in the city. Built in 1973, the tower was the tallest building in America, and was only surpassed by a handful of contenders in Asia. Originally built by Sears to consolidate thousands of employees, the original purpose was lost when increasing competition from the retail business forced Sears to scale back its expectations and eventually abandon its own creation. Currently filled with over a hundred different businesses ranging from law firms, insurance companies and financial service firms, it was still one of the finest locations for business. Among the many companies included the small offices and storage area of Saiyan Imports and Exports Emporium.

"Can I help you sir?" the front desk receptionist for the Saiyan Emporium asked the group of men as they entered.

"Why yes!" Maelstrom said with a cackling glee. "You can take us to the Idol of Z'Nox!"

"Wha...?" the receptionist gasped.

"Ahahaha...!" Maelstrom said as a black bolt of energy erupted from his fingers, disintegrating a hole through the receptionist's chest and the wall behind her. "Oh, I'm sorry, did you need those organs?" he said with a giggle.

Oh shit...! So much for stealth! George cursed. What the hell was Maelstrom thinking? But he knew better than to voice his thoughts, lest he end up joining the poor receptionist. "Uh...uh...boss, the Idol?"

"Oh yes, of course Georgie!" Maelstrom said. "The Idol calls to me!"

"The guards are coming!" George reminded Maelstrom.

"That's good! The Idol calls to them as well!"

"Uh... it does?"

"Of course! There must be an audience to witness my ascension! My throne must be built on the bones of my enemies! And the darkness must feed!"

* * *

Red Nova watched from above as Angelina stepped into the alleyway, transformed her clothes into her costume and took to the sky. Not an uncommon trick, but always a useful one, he thought. When she reached his altitude, he asked "You ready to talk?"

Angelina nodded as she swallowed unconsciously. Nova's voice sounded distorted and metallic behind his mask. What was she so afraid of, she wondered. He said he just wanted to talk. "So what do you want to know?"

"Well, for starters, what do you call yourself? I'm assuming you don't want me blurting out your real name in public."

"The best Maddie and I could come up with was 'Mindshadow'."


"Well, it was either that or 'Psi-Girl'," Angelina said with a shrug.

Ugh... "OK, Mindshadow it is. You know, since your friend is going to critique my costume, you really should cover your face."

"And what's wrong with my face?" Angelina asked with a slightly offended tone.

"Nothing," Red Nova said coyly. "You're a very pretty girl. You're also very photogenic and recognizable and if you have any interest in maintaining a private life, you really should be more discrete."

"Fine." Angelina concentrated on the air molecules on front of her face, reshaping them to a one-piece mirrored visor. "How's that?"

"That's fine."

"So what did you want to know?" as the two of them began to fly towards downtown at high speed.

"What is your story? How did you know the stadium was under attack?"

"I heard the kids screaming, so I came to help. Several of the kids at that game were my friends."

"You heard the kids? Were you in the area?"

"I didn't have to be. When enough people have high emotions, I can feel them miles away."

"OK, so you came to help. Why did you start tearing the stadium apart?"

"I wasn't trying to; it was an accident!" Angelina said with some agitation. "It was my first time and when I started getting hurt, my powers can get out of control."

"I saw the fight footage. It didn't look like you were being touched. How did you get hurt?"

"My telepathy can get very intense. When the kids started to panic, their emotions hit me pretty hard."

"OK, what about the fire?"

"One of them; I think he called himself Vortex tried to attack me with water. I was able to hold it off, but when I got hurt, I lost my concentration. And like I said, when that happens, my powers can break molecular bonds and transmute matter. I think I accidentally electrolyzed the water into hydrogen and oxygen."

"I guess that makes sense," Red Nova said thoughtfully. "The exposed wiring from the shattered stadium lights would have ignited the hydrogen."

"Any more questions?" as they came to a slow hover a mile over downtown.

"I have concerns Mindshadow. I want to believe that you had the best of intentions. The evidence that I've seen seems to support your story. Be that as it may, it's very clear that you're very powerful. In fact, I'd say you're one of the most powerful psis I've ever seen and I've seen almost everyone. Then there's the fact that you seem to have some serious control issues. With your powers, any slip is going to have consequences."

"Don't you think I know that?" Angelina said tersely. "Ever since my powers came out, I've had to maintain concentration every moment of the day. I can't come near a crowd without my head being flooded with people's thoughts. I always have to feel every molecule around me moving to whatever I'm thinking about. I can even feel my powers changing my body and I don't know how to stop it."

"Then why did you decide to be a superhero?"

"It really wasn't my idea. Maddie thought that I should use my abilities to help people, and when Onyx attacked my school, I really didn't have much choice."

"Do you know what your limits are?" Red Nova held up a hand before Angelina could answer. "Hear me out first; when I got my abilities I had no idea how dangerous I could be. I made mistakes, a lot of mistakes, but no one died from it. I found out I had other abilities not too long ago, and our group got the attention of one of the government groups who studies metahumans. There's a group that for some reason has interest in you. I haven't been able to find much about the why."

"That's putting it mildly," Angelina said. "When my powers started coming out, I found out that my whole life was a big government conspiracy. The people I thought were my parents turned out to be government agents. They were feeding me drugs that kept me doped up all the time."

"Someone was trying to keep your abilities suppressed. Again the why isn't obvious, but a good doctor friend of mine thinks it might have been so you could grow up without your abilities. It's all guessing at the moment, but if you can shed any light onto that..." Red Nova turned around and noticed Angelina looking away from him. "Am I boring you?"

"No," Angelina said and then shook her head. "There are people below who are panicking. There's someone down there calling himself 'Maelstrom' blowing people up in the Sears Tower."

"Oh crap...Maelstrom?" Red Nova quickly checked the radio built into his costume and confirmed the news. "That's serious business. Maelstrom's fought the Dark Saviors to a standstill in the past." He flew down towards the Sears Tower, but stopped when he realized that he was alone. He flew back up and saw Angelina trembling.

"They're dying...! I can feel their minds just turning off like fireflies!" Angelina said despairingly.

"Snap out of it!" Red Nova said. "I need you to get it together! I've sent a distress call for the rest of the Saviors, but it's going to take them some time to get here! I'm going to need some help to contain the situation until then!" He touched her on the shoulder. "I'm opening my mind to you so we can coordinate but you've got to pull yourself together, understand?"

Angelina snapped her attention back to Red Nova, and then nodded shakily. "I'll do my best."

* * *

George and James hid under cover as the Saiyan offices exploded all around them. They cringed as they watched office workers running out of the warehouse area screaming, many of them with body parts missing, leaving behind bloody entrails as they futilely tried to escape their deaths.

"Jesus Christ...!" George said. Of course he knew that killing was part of the job, but this level of massacre was more than he could stomach.

"Hahahaha...!" Maelstrom said. "The Idol is mine at last!" He approached the locked safe, blasted the door open and walked past the remaining dead guards. He then placed his hands on the clay idol and began to pulse with a dark evil-looking light.

"Oh shit...!" James said.

"Uh...boss...can we get out of here now?" George asked fearfully.

"Ah yes, my faithful followers! Indeed we can! And as reward for your efforts, you may go forth to the streets and spread my dark gospel."

George and James looked at each other. The dark pulses around Maelstrom were building in intensity and it didn't take a genius to see where this was going. They both headed towards the elevators. But before they reached it, an arc of dark energy exploded in a massive arc, just barely missing James' and George's heads. The arcs ripped through the entire floor, slicing through the elevator shafts and shattering the emergency stairs.

"Boss! How do we get out of here?" George said as he began to feel the panic. Had he placed his bet on the wrong horse?

"Why you must take a leap of faith of course!" Maelstrom declared. "Show your faith in your new God!"

Oh shit, we're gonna die! James' expression said quite clearly. He looked at George as the cloud of black energy closed in on them. Die to the black cloud or take that leap of faith? George's expression back to him gave his answer quite clearly. At least outside, they'd get one last breath of fresh city smog. An honest death, his face said. James gritted his teeth and prayed. If I get out of this, I swear, no more metas! Honest to God, I'll stick to carjacking, I swear! With that prayer in his mind, James and George stepped out of the windows and plunged to the ground right as the 37th, 38th and 39th floors exploded.

* * *

My God... Red Nova thought. It was far worse than he could have possibly imagined. The last time he fought Maelstrom, he had the Dark Saviors with him, and they had fought in a relatively abandoned warehouse. They had gotten lucky that night; they managed to drive him off with minimal innocent casualties, other than the poor unfortunate fools who were helping him. The number of casualties was already ten times that number and the battle hadn't even started.

Mindshadow, Maelstrom's powers disintegrate matter. Can your molecule powers counter that?

Mindshadow concentrated as she reached out and began calming the panic from thousands of minds. After the stadium debacle, she had learned her lesson and put her distaste for mind manipulation aside. The last thing she needed was to be paralyzed by the overwhelming flood of emotions; she needed all the euphoria people's minds could give her. It's for the greater good, she tried to assure herself as she mentally urged everyone to quickly and calmly evacuate the area as orderly as possible. I think I can! But it's taking everything I have to keep the panic down and the tower intact! I can't reach Maelstrom's mind through all the mental static!

Never mind him! You just keep doing what you're doing; you're doing great! Red Nova assured. Maelstrom's mine! he declared as he dove into the ruins of the 38th floor.

Mindshadow gritted her teeth and furrowed her brow as Red Nova disappeared into the black cloud of death. She had already managed to levitate a dozen people who had tumbled out of the trembling building and lowered them gently to the streets. In her mind, she could feel the inky energy sucking away all the molecular bonds, reducing the building materials into component gases. She frantically commanded the molecules to reassemble themselves as quickly as she could; it would be a race between order and entropy. She hoped that Red Nova knew what he was doing; she didn't know how much longer she could keep this up.

* * *

"General Garner, I think you'd better see this," a technician said.

Garner and Raintree turned towards the television. They had gathered to examine their options. With Red Nova having been sighted in Chicago, they were considering a variety of ideas on what to do with their need to recapture F67.

"...and it's carnage here in South Wacker Drive as we're getting chaotic reports from witnesses fleeing the scene. But as near as we can determine, there's been a major incident in the Sears Tower, as we've seen thousands of people evacuating the area. Emergency response teams are establishing a perimeter trying to contain the chaos." The television picture changed to show a shaky picture showing Red Nova diving into the building, then refocusing a picture on Mindshadow hovering over the streets.

"Angelina..." Raintree muttered almost under his breath.

"What the hell is she doing?" Garner demanded. He looked at the picture for additional clues. "Did she start this?"

"Negative General," the technician said. "According to our sources, there's a cloud of negative energy building up just below the 40th floor."

"Perhaps not," Raintree said. "But maybe we can take advantage of the situation. After all, isn't it appropriate for the government to respond to protect the citizens from this obviously dangerous menace?"

"Agreed," Garner nodded. "Deploy the troops!"

* * *

Red Nova struggled as he flew through the pitch-black cloud of energy. Only his powerful force field prevented him from disintegrating like the rest of the building. But he was completely blind. Damn it, where are you he raged.

"You can't see me...!" Maelstrom taunted. "But I can see you...!"

Red Nova suddenly reeled as a powerful blast impacted against his chest, slamming him into the outer wall of the building. He could feel the wall tingling to the touch; it was being disintegrated and reintegrated at an almost equal clip. Mindshadow was doing her best to keep the building up, which was more than you're doing right now, old man! he chastised himself. Another blast clipped him in the head, almost driving his face into the floor. Hopeless, he realized. There was no way he could fight him under these circumstances. He needed to change the battlefield.

"Fall before the might of the living God of darkness and death!" Maelstrom cackled with glee.

"Why is a God so afraid to face me?" Red Nova taunted.

"A God fears nothing!" Maelstrom declared as another blast blew out the windows and wall behind Red Nova. "Be gone, unworthy one!" Maelstrom bellowed as a powerful blast impacted against Red Nova's chest, blowing him back outside. Red Nova began to fall, the shadowy substance clinging to his force field.

I got you, Mindshadow said as she reached out and caught Red Nova in mid-air.

No, I'm fine! Keep doing what you're doing! Red Nova said. We've got to stall for time until the rest of the Dark Saviors get here! Can you see inside that black cloud?

Sort of, Mindshadow said. She focused her concentration away from visual sight and let her molecular senses take over. In her mind, she could feel the lattice of atoms and molecules, as they were being manipulated by her and broken down by Maelstrom.

Can you guide me? There are still hundreds of people in the affected floors.

Mindshadow concentrated. I need you to open your mind to me. People have a distinct molecular signature; look for the complicated looking chains of carbons and organic molecules.

Red Nova braced himself mentally, and then was taken aback slightly. Wow... he thought. This was going to take some getting use to... He braced himself and teleported back into the building. The people in there though didn't have the luxury of waiting for him to get used to the new sense; he would have to learn as he went.

"Help us, anyone!" a voice said in the darkness.

"Take my hand!" Red Nova said as he reached for the cluster of people and teleported back onto the street. Two down, a few hundred more to go...

* * *

Mindshadow watched with desperation as she continued to hold the tower main supports in place. Red Nova had managed to get about half the office workers out of the 35th to 40th floors, but the people above 40 were trapped. There were no stairs any longer, and it was taking all her concentration to keep the main weight-bearing pillars intact.

"Behold your new master!" Maelstrom bellowed to the crowd as he drifted out of the ruined building and floated in the air above the crowd. "You!" he snarled as he saw Mindshadow. "You are the one who has been opposing my glorious designs! You would defy a God? Then suffer the punishments of the damned!"

"Aa...!" Mindshadow screamed as the black energy sliced through her force field. She frantically took hold of her own body's molecules, preventing them from dissipating into gas.

"Let her go!" Red Nova shouted as he blasted Maelstrom from above, slamming him into the pavement thirty-five floors below. He was about to pursue the villain down, but then he heard the crack of the building above him.

Mindshadow! The building!

Mindshadow gritted her teeth and blinked away the tears of pain and reached out once again, commanding the molecules in the main struts to reassemble themselves.

"You dare lay your hands onto a God?" Maelstrom snarled as he picked himself up from the street. "Now behold the price for your defiance!" With that, Maelstrom concentrated and his body began to glow with a black pulsing aura that projected outward. As the aura grew, it began to disintegrate everything in its path.

Oh my God...! Mindshadow gasped. She reached out and commanded the asphalt street to flow up and envelop groups of civilians who had stumbled and were unable to move to safety. Calm yourselves, she willed as she soothed the panic and fear from the civilians in the makeshift shelter. She made a reminder to herself to make sure to keep the oxygen in the shelter refreshed, lest she be responsible for more tragedy than what had already happened. As she did so, she finally managed to finish sealing the main pillars in the Sears Tower back together. It would hold for the time being.

* * *

Ten blocks away from ground zero, citizens were still fleeing from the battle. The media had already begun sending in helicopters and vans, all in the name of getting the exclusive with visions of Pulitzers in their heads. There was a sense of invincibility; no one in their profession ever really got killed; it was an unwritten rule. Even terrorists loved to be interviewed. Besides, they all took comfort in the military convoy that was heading into the battle as well. Surely the Army would protect them, even if Maelstrom didn't recognize the opportunity to give his message to the world.

In the lead military truck, Garner held up a communicator and barked orders. "Give me a status report!"

"Satellite confirms that the event is still ongoing, centered around the Sears Tower. We mark F67 is still in the area, along with Red Nova. Wait a minute... another ship is coming into the zone. Black aircraft, no markings..."

Shit... Garner cursed as he hung up the communicator. That could only be one ship. He just hoped he could extract the package before those meddlers got in the way.

* * *

Red Nova tensed up as he heard a familiar voice. I see you're letting anyone in your heads these days Rusty.

What can I say, she was cute and available, he quipped before turning serious. What's your position now?

Directly above you now, Dark Fury said. We're ready for drop. What's the situation?

Just Maelstrom, but he's jacked up somehow. He must have found a way to boost his powers. The girl with me is Mindshadow; she's the one holding the city towers intact and keeping the panic down.

Then we're free to handle the situation directly, Shadow Spawn said with a cold mental voice. Can you give us a position? We've got no visual on the target.

Form on me, Red Nova declared. Mindshadow's got a lock on him with her senses, but she can't spare the energy to attack his mind. Dark Fury, join Mindshadow in the air and see if you can help boost her abilities to get a better lock. Shadow Spawn, see if you can get inside and stop him directly.

* * *

Maelstrom came to a hover just above the street. "Enough foolish games! Now my true mission begins! Once my power has reached its full peak, I will generate an ebony pulse powerful enough to breach the Earth's crust, sinking this miserable city in one fell swoop!"

"Sink this!" Shadow Spawn said as he charged into the blackness. As he plunged into the black mass, his tentacles began to strip away the deeper he pushed. Argh...! Nova, you weren't kidding about Maelstrom's increased power! Even my regen can't keep up with this!

Pull back! Red Nova urged. We've got to shrink that aura first!

* * *

Dark Fury flew up to behind Mindshadow and placed her hands on Mindshadow's forehead. While direct physical contact was not strictly necessary for a mental connection, especially between telepaths, right now every little bit helped.

Open up girl, Dark Fury ordered. Let's see what you've got.

It's too much! Mindshadow said with despair. There are buildings everywhere that are about to come down and people that need protecting from those blasts!

You're wasting too much energy trying to save everyone, Dark Fury said coldly. You're the only one here whose power directly affects molecules. We need you to focus your energy on that disintegration aura or we're going to be here all night. Take all that power you're drawing in and focus it on a sphere around him.

Drawing what power?

Never mind. Just follow my lead. Let the people out there save themselves for a few seconds. We can help them most by focusing on the problem directly.

* * *

"No fair! My divine power! What have you done?" Maelstrom demanded as the black aura of energy began to shrink and grow weaker. "Unfair!"

Outstanding you two! Red Nova said. The black aura was no longer quite opaque and he could now see his target. Shadow Spawn, I see something in his left hand. Some kind of idol or statue and I think it's pulsing.

Shadow Spawn flexed his razor sharp tentacles. Just give me the word! Hopefully we'll at least shut him up, if nothing else!

"Foul! I call a foul! Everyone must be penalized for cheating!" Maelstrom screamed as he continued his rampage.

Dark Fury, give us an opening! Red Nova ordered.

Dark Fury focused her concentration on Maelstrom's mind. His mind was already mostly gone. Some kind of foreign energy was disrupting his already-shaky handle on reality. All she needed now was a little push...

"Argh...!" Maelstrom screamed as individual lances of black energy shot out in all directions. The solid aura flickered then faded.

Now! Red Nova ordered.

Shadow Spawn leaped forward, dodging the black lances, and swung his razor sharp tentacle. The shadowy blade sliced through Maelstrom's left hand in a single swoop.

"No...! The Idol of Z'Nox!" Maelstrom cried as the idol and his left hand tumbled through the rubble of the damaged streets and into the sewers. "I must retrieve it or all is lost!"

"I don't think so!" Red Nova declared and channeled his power into a double-fisted beam of energy. The wide beam hit Maelstrom right in the chest, blasting a wide hole through his body. He looked at the fatal wound for an instant, with realization coming a fraction of a second later before collapsing. As he did so, a trembling aura of energy ignited one last time.

Take cover! Red Nova called out, just as the cloud of black energy flashed out in all directions. The team hid under various defenses and protection as the burst washed over buildings in all directions. As the energy faded for the last time, the sounds of cracking stone and bending steel could be heard all around.

Oh crap...! Shadow Spawn said. He looked around, but realized that this was out of his area. Even with his strength, he couldn't apply it evenly across an entire building and even if he could, there was no way he could reach all the buildings in time.

Mindshadow shook her head. It's too much! I can't hold that many buildings at once!

Can you boost her somehow? Red Nova asked Dark Fury frantically.

Some, Dark Fury said as she held onto Mindshadow's forehead again. But you can boost her more!


She doesn't know it, but Mindshadow has an ability to tap into and absorb energy from outside sources which increases her powers geometrically.

Link us up! Red Nova ordered as he powered up the rest of his energies. He turned to Mindshadow. Brace yourself...!

Mindshadow screamed in pain as Red Nova channeled his internal energy into her body. Dark Fury guided him as she monitored Mindshadow's vital signs and mental strength.

Concentrate! Dark Fury ordered. Focus on the buildings! Don't lose it!

Push Mindshadow! You can do it! Red Nova urged. They're counting on you! The city is counting on you!

Shadow Spawn looked around tensely. He felt slightly left out of the rescue efforts; he never was a fan of the saying "those who also serve", but he was living it now. The whole city was bathed in a translucent energy coming from the trio as they focused all their power and concentration. Inside all the buildings, weight-bearing columns were gently being lifted and reassembled molecule by molecule. Walls and floors from as far away as ten blocks rebuilt themselves from the fallen rubble.

Finally after several tense seconds, the energies began to fade. The sounds of cracking stone and bending steel came to a hush. Dark Fury and Red Nova each gave an exhausted sigh of relief as Mindshadow crumpled in mid-air and collapsed to the ground.

* * *

Red Nova breathed heavily as he gently picked Mindshadow up off the ground as Shadow Spawn and Dark Fury looked on. They looked around at the eerie calm where there would normally be panic. The Sears Tower and surrounding office buildings were in terrible shape with half their windows blasted out and battle damage marking their walls, but were otherwise structurally sound. A quick look at the people peering out of those windows confirmed the thousands of lives who had been saved. You did real good Angelina, Red Nova thought.

Just then, they looked up. The Dark Saviors had been so drained from the battle; they didn't even notice that a whole convoy of trucks had arrived onto the scene. Military trucks, along with several helicopters; they weren't here for rescue efforts, the Dark Saviors realized. Red Nova's suspicions were confirmed as General Garner disembarked from the lead vehicle, along with a reinforced company of soldiers.

"Well, Red Nova, we meet again," Garner said brusquely.

"This is not a good time for your bullshit," Red Nova said with a cold metallic voice.

"Oh, I think it is," Garner disagreed. "But I'm not here to spar with you today. I'm here to retrieve the package. If you would so kindly back away from Subject F67, we can conclude our business without any further disagreements."

F67? Red Nova wondered for a moment, before realizing who he meant. He was severely weakened from the battle. Around him, he counted no less than a hundred soldiers armed with high-tech rifles and advanced crew-fed weaponry from mounted vehicles backing them up. Despite the odds, his determination never wavered. "This girl... almost single-handedly saved everyone in the city! I'm going to take her to get medical help!"

"I'm afraid you're mistaken," Garner corrected. "That is not a girl. She's a weapon. She represents hundreds of millions of dollars of investment. She's government property. She's our property."

"You're the one who's mistaken General," Red Nova said. "I am taking her with me! She's earned a chance to live her life without your interference!"

"I'm going to give you the same advice I gave your friend Mr. McMiller: Don't get involved with affairs that do not concern you. Stand down now!"

"Not going to happen!" Red Nova snarled.

"Light'em up!" Garner ordered. Behind him, a hundred rifles began to hum as their power supplies were ignited and locked.

Red Nova stood his ground. Behind him, Shadow Spawn and Dark Fury stood ready behind him.

"Don't be stupid Red Nova," Garner growled. "Even the Dark Saviors can't take an entire reinforced company."

"Some things are worth the risk General! Some people are worth fighting for! You want her? You go through us to get her!"

"And me." Garner fumed and Red Nova looked on with some surprise as one of the civilians in the area stood up and joined the Dark Saviors. "That girl kept me from falling to my death."

"And me," another civilian said. "She saved my whole office from panicking and guided us all to safety."

One by one, then by groups, various civilians stood up and joined the growing crowd. Garner looked around with scarcely concealed rage, but held himself in check. All around him, the media was recording the event, and more than a few reporters were beginning to take notice.

"What's it going to be General?" Red Nova asked with cold measured tones. "Want to kill us to get to your precious weapon? Mow down a hundred innocent civilians on live TV? Think she's worth any price?"

For several more tense seconds, Garner assessed his options. Damn it... he realized. There was no way he could make this many people "disappear". Too many loose ends; too many questions would go unanswered. "Stand down!" he ordered as the soldiers behind him slung their rifles. Around them, the soldiers all got back into their vehicles as the Dark Saviors watched. Garner was the last one on, looked back to Red Nova; he didn't need Dark Fury reading Garner's mind to catch the unmistakable meaning. This isn't over Red Nova... next time, your ass is mine...

* * *

Dr. Emily Marshall took notice as her patient began to stir. She had met Rusty years ago when he was instrumental for getting her reinstated as a doctor after being suspended from bogus charges. She owed him her livelihood, so in return, she ran this private medical clinic for him; one of several across the country. A metahuman herself, Emily had a gift for sensing other metas and their powers. From her perspective, the one in the hospital bed in front of her was a bright beacon pulsing with power.

"You're awake, good," Emily said.

"Dr. Marshall?" Angelina asked weakly.

Emily leaned closer. "It's not very ladylike to go prying into people's minds, you know."

"Sorry," Angelina apologized. "It's hard for me to screen it out."

"So I've heard. It's good that you're up. We couldn't get your costume off. Do you think you could take off one of your gloves? I'd like to take your physical while we're making sure you're OK."

Angelina glanced at her costume. With a thought, her outfit began to flow and shape itself into a hospital gown. Emily shook her head; you just never got used to seeing that, though it must be nice when you're trying to decide on what to wear. With her patient's arm exposed, Emily disinfected the vein area on Angelina's arm and prepared a blood kit. Angelina tensed slightly; despite everything else in her life, like most people, needles made her nervous. After drawing two test tubes worth of blood, Emily bandaged the wound. "I'll be right back. Rusty'll probably want to talk to you, but I'm sure you'll be free to go soon."

* * *

"...and we are still here at what remains of the Chicago Sears Tower, where less than three hours ago, the city was ravaged by a brawl between several metahumans. According to eyewitnesses, the Dark Saviors were identified, along with the known villains Maelstrom and the unknown ringleader of last week's hostage crisis at Farmer Village High stadium. Authorities are refusing to elaborate on any motive, other than wanton destruction. Damage is estimated in the hundreds of millions and no less than twenty-eight people have been confirmed killed..."

Nicole shook her head at the television as the brainless talking head continues his blather. "Not one single mention of how many people saved."

Eddie scowled. "Garner's media lackeys work fast, don't they?" He shrugged. "Not that we ever worried about the press before."

"Well, we have the luxury of not worrying about the press too much because we have the benefit of a reputation," Rusty said, then glanced at the closed door to the patient area. "Angelina doesn't have that benefit. I am convinced that she had nothing to do with what went down at that high school, other than saving all those kids. And she sure as hell doesn't deserve to get lumped in with Maelstrom after saving all those people."

Just then, Emily came into the waiting area. "Well, the good news is that she's awake and doesn't appear to be injured."

"Is she fit for debriefing?" Rusty asked.

"I'd like to talk to you about her test results first," Emily said. She pulled out a folder with several notes and charts. "I spent some time talking with her to get her medical history. I have some concerns about what I've found in her blood work. There are a number of anomalous psychotropic compounds in her blood; trace amounts of Midazolam and Lorazepam, and a fairly substantial amount of Flurazepam."

"Um... can you translate that?" Rusty admitted sheepishly.

"All of those are highly experimental psychotropic compounds, rumored to be used by the military to suppress psionics. The first two compounds are what prevent the subject from using psi-powers, but they're also water-soluble and almost gone, which means she probably stopped using them a while ago. Flurazepam though is stored in the liver and is used to cap high-end psionic potential. In other words, it cuts a psychic's maximum power levels."

"You're kidding me..." Rusty said. "You're telling me that Angelina's still capped?"

"Angelina said that she was taking those drugs all her life, but that when she started to hit puberty, the people running her life started increasing her dosages every couple of years. Judging from what she told me, someone must have thought it was a bright idea to keep her dosed on those drugs for years as she was growing up."

"Garner..." Eddie muttered coldly.

"Rusty, did you ever boil a pot of water, and then try putting a sealed cap on top? Those drugs are fine for short-term usage, but whoever was running this secret program Angelina talks about didn't consider the long-term ramifications. To make matters worse, all that power without any training has put tremendous psychological and physiological stress on her mind. To compensate, her brain releases Beta-endorphin and Dynorphin whenever she uses her powers. That's why she feels really good whenever she hypnotizes people or manipulates matter."

"Like how good?" Rusty asked.

Emily shook her head. "Probably ten times stronger than cocaine. When she tries not using her powers, she's bombarded by thoughts and images all around her. Using her powers is like a warm soothing blanket around her mind."

"Jesus..." Nicole whispered.

"Is there a way to help her balance out?" Rusty asked.

Emily sighed. "She really needs to see an endocrinologist or a psychopharmacologist. This goes way beyond what a general practitioner can do."

Rusty nodded. "I'll see what I can do."

"Is it really true that she can actually directly control molecules?" Emily asked.

"She mind-linked with me to help me navigate through the black cloud," Rusty said. "I saw how she can sense atoms, so I would say yes."

"I would love to put her in front of a cancer patient. She could probably be a tremendously effective surgeon."

Rusty smirked. "She makes $6 per hour at BurgerMart. Maybe you could hire her."

"What?" Nicole asked. "So now you're making jokes?"

"I'm just saying that she needs help. She's not some psychopath we're dealing with. Given what she had to endure growing up, she seems amazingly stable."

"And how long is she going to stay stable?" Nicole stared at Rusty. "You don't listen, and you never listen. She's dangerous and needs to be contained. I was in her mind. She's just a kid. I remember when I was growing up with my limited telepathic abilities. She's already hundreds of times more powerful than I was at her age. If her powers progress the same way mine did, there'll be no stopping her. Then you throw in the psychotropic addiction. It won't be long before she starts craving to use her powers more and more and at some point, she might not care who she uses them on."

Rusty nodded. "So what do you propose? Go in there? Knock her out? She can read minds like reading a book. Do you think she would allow you to just drug her? What makes you think it's the right thing to do?"

Eddie interrupted, "I can see why Garner wants her, and that's a good enough reason to keep her out of his hands. Although I think both of you have good points, I have to agree with Rusty; I don't think she can be contained unless she wants to."

Nicole turned and walked down the hall. "Fine, fine, do what you want. But if you need me to help keep her distracted, you know where to find me."

Eddie watched her go. "You trust her?" he asked.

"I think so, but I want to hear what she has to say before making a choice. I want to give her the same choices I gave you and Nicole."

"You think that's wise?" Eddie asked.

"Dealing with a telepath, honesty is the best policy. I could walk in there and get blasted and leave only my socks behind," Rusty deadpanned.

Eddie just glared at him.

* * *

Rusty came into the room as Angelina watched the television mounted in the patient area. "Hey, are you feeling better?"

"You mean before or after I helped Maelstrom blow up half the city?" Angelina said with half-hearted sarcasm.

"I'm going to take care of that," Rusty promised. "I just came in here to ask you what you wanted the world to know about your alter-ego."

Angelina paused, and then gave a half-smile. "You're going to make me miss my book report, you know."

Rusty almost chuckled. "Which book?"

"'The Importance of Being Earnest' by Oscar Wilde."

"Well, that should come easy enough for you. Double-identities are part of this profession."

"Hmm... yeah... double identities..."

Rusty sighed. "What's really bothering you?"

Angelina looked down and trembled. "I just... I can't help but wonder if I did the right thing. I... helped kill someone today. I mean, I know he was hurting a lot of people and that he needed to be stopped, but..." She shook her head. "God, I must sound like a stupid little kid..."

"No, I don't think you sound stupid." Rusty spoke with a carefully measured voice. "I didn't kill him out of malice. Or hate. Or any other reason that he was hurting others for and didn't care. Was it the right thing to do? I can't answer that. I hope it was. I would imagine that a number of people who are alive today because of our actions think so. Does it bother me? Yeah it does, and I suppose when it stops bothering me...I hope that never happens."

Angelina sighed. "I don't know. Maybe I'm not cut out for this business. I don't think I'm strong enough to make those kinds of hard choices."

"Unfortunately, you may have to make those choices. Don't underestimate Garner and the people he works for. They are still chasing Eddie. It's only because they know the rest of us have his back they haven't tried recently to bring him back. It's not from lack of trying."

"What else can I do? I can't just stop living my life because some power-mad general's out there."

"Remember what I told you earlier today? About being dangerous?" Rusty sighed. "I can't keep you here against your will. I'm also not your father, but you are dangerous. I think you're starting to understand how dangerous you can be if pushed. I'd like to say we could help you. I think we can but there are problems. You would need to trust us. It would also mean you would have to leave behind what's left of your current life. I can't and won't make this choice for you. I won't lie and say you wouldn't be a valuable member of the team if you wanted to be. Everyone must make their own choices."

"I...I don't want to give up my life. I mean, don't get me wrong. I appreciate everything you're doing for me. But if I have to run away and hide, then it's like they've won. The life I have isn't much, but it's all I have. It sounds corny, I know."

Rusty nodded. "If you change your mind, get in touch with Emily or call my office in Rhode Island. For starters, I'll see if I can find a specialist for your medical problems that I'm sure you overheard us talking about outside."

Angelina blushed. "I was wondering about what was causing those weird feelings."

"It may take me some time to find a solution, but I promise I'll do my best. For starters, I would like you to take one of our cell phones and keep it with you. It's got a built-in scrambler, so no one can listen in. Just be careful; if you aren't using this specific phone, assume that someone else is listening in."

* * *

The sounds of construction had not yet started downtown, but preparations had begun. Repair crews had marked off affected street lanes as heavy equipment was being prepared. On the roads, drivers complained at the increased congestion while pedestrians pointed at the wreckage and spoke among themselves.

Under the streets, the sounds of the sewers could be heard as the foul odor drifted up and mingled with the smells of the city. The rats scurried away from the unfamiliar sounds from above. Unnoticed among the refuse and rubble, a clay idol laid in the corner. Inside the idol, a dark crystal could be seen through the cracks. It pulsed with a black light. And waited...

* * *

The helicopters made it back to the Farm first, followed shortly by the convoy of trucks. There was the vague sense of dissatisfaction among the troops, but also a palpable sense of relief. No one liked running away from a fight like a whipped dog, but the thought of firing on innocent civilians would have made more than a few men question their loyalties to their superiors.

Raintree came out to meet the first column of trucks. General Garner stepped out first with a scowl still on his face. "We had her! We were this close to getting her back!"

Raintree clicked his tongue. "The media being there would have made it a messy operation General."

Garner and Raintree walked briskly into the main building as the soldiers headed back towards their respective offices. Garner entered the main surveillance room and looked at the personnel scurried around. "Where is she now?"

Raintree pointed to one of the monitors. "We tracked the Dark Savior's aircraft to the outskirts of Chicago. There are a number of commercial buildings where they disembarked. Chances are, they have a clinic or meeting area set up in town already."

"Our intel says the Dark Saviors may have safe houses set up in several locations across the nation already," Garner confirmed.

"Sir," one of the technicians reported, "we have another set of helicopters coming in. Call sign Tango-Foxtrot-Eagle-One."

"Eagle-One?" Raintree asked.

"I don't intend to be caught unprepared again Mr. Raintree. It's time we brought in some specialists," Garner explained as he and Raintree headed to the outdoor landing pad.

Outside, the Blackhawk helicopter came to a landing with the rotors still in motion. Three uniformed officers came off; Raintree immediately noted the combat decorations on each man's uniform.

"Mr. Raintree, let me introduce you to Colonel Joel Scott, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Mitchell and Master Sergeant Fred Fredrickson."

"From the Sahara incident. The Gods of Egypt invasion, right?" Raintree asked as he took each man's hand. "I heard good things about what your team accomplished."

"After Egypt, the Pentagon decided that a more organized response was required," Garner explained. "Colonel Scott was the man who helped write the military's battle plans for meta-human counter response."

"What about Posse Comitatus?" Raintree asked.

"In light of recent events, the United States Attorney General has requested that SecDef provide emergency assistance in this matter," Scott explained as he handed over a set of signed notarized orders. "The AG's office has determined that a Class 1 metahuman threat falls under the same classification as a Nuclear or Radiological weapon. Task Force Echo's mission is to provide whatever means necessary to neutralize this threat."

Raintree smiled. "Excellent..."