June was out recruiting, but Petra had opted to stay behind with Maggie and the newest member of the group, a Mr. Lou Gaines who used to cover Dawn’s struggles for the Polvo Tribune . Petra had initially felt that a demolitions expert would be of more use than an ex-reporter who taught at UNMP when it came to taking out ODAR, but the more time she spent around Lou, the less sure of that she was.
“Ben’s gone!” This was Maggie, walking into the kitchen where Petra sat perched on the counter. “So you’re good now, if you’d like to stretch your abilities a little.”
“Right. Because, uh, I definitely wouldn’t be using my powers if I thought Ben was still here.” Another Petra appeared, visible in the hall through one of the other kitchen doors, but she sight of caught Petra Prime’s expression and ducked back out of view before Maggie could see. “Any word from our beloved leader yet?”
“She texted me when she got there, but I haven’t heard anything since then. I wouldn’t worry, though.”
Petra snorted. “I wasn’t worried .”
“Of course not,” Maggie said drily. “Nothing phases you.”
“Glad we understand each other.” Petra drew her feet up onto the counter. “So, what do you know about this person June’s gone to meet? And before you say anything, idle interest isn’t the same thing as worry.”
“They go by ‘the Beacon,’ apparently. Electrokinetic, may also be able to project thoughts, but that one’s a little harder to verify. They’ve been running around the southwest U.S. for about a year now, going from city to city. Are you hungry? I’m making pasta.”
“Hm? Oh, sure. Thanks,” Petra said. Between Maggie and Ben, someone was always cooking in the Barlowe household. It was kind of nice, actually. There had been kitchens at the ODAR facility where she grew up, but she hadn’t used them very often. She hadn’t needed to. Of course, she didn’t really need to here, either—June insisted that room and board were part of their arrangement, and had told Petra that if she didn’t want to stay in the house, June would just buy her an apartment (and weekly groceries). Petra had considered taking her up on that, actually, but the Barlowes had bedrooms to spare, and even though it had been months now since she struck out on her own she’d never really adjusting to living alone. Being here, in a house full of secrets and people she still didn’t fully trust? It was almost like home.
Maggie filled a pot with water as she spoke: “June’s got reason to believe that the Beacon has some stake in seeing ODAR fold. I suppose they’ve gone head to head with the agency a few times before.”
“And they’re still fighting the fight? Good on them,” Petra said approvingly. “Of course, depending on which one of ODAR’s goons they were up against, not necessarily that much of a challenge.”
Maggie made a noncommittal noise in response. Unlike June, she never seemed keen to talk about ODAR. It had been almost three weeks now since Petra started working with her, and she always seemed to drop out of conversations like this after a minute or two with some excuse. Of course, Maggie had a real job and was only supposed to be involved in their plans as a medic, so most of the time her excuses were legitimate, but still—Petra got the sense that she didn’t share June’s fervor about burning ODAR to the ground. Not that she seemed sympathetic towards the agency; it was more like she’d rather just stay out of the conflict entirely, if only her friendship with June (and her conscience) would allow it.
Sooner or later, Petra was going to get a full backstory from her and puzzle out why exactly Maggie was the first person June had brought in on her crusade. Admittedly, that goal felt a little hypocritical coming from someone who the Barlowes and company still only knew as Sylvia, but hey, she couldn’t be faulted for not giving her name when June had kept her word about not asking for it.
But for now, she let the conversation slide towards last night’s Murder, She Wrote marathon and slid the pasta box over to Maggie. Empires weren’t toppled on empty stomachs, after all.
The other Petra, cut off from the kitchen, retreated down the hall until she reached the study that held the entrance to June’s underground facility. Lou was reading at the desk, but he looked up as Petra hesitated in the doorway and waved her in.
“What are you looking at?” she asked.
“I was going through some of the files June prepared. While I certainly know her, I don’t know nearly as much as I’d like to about the Office of Developed Anomalous Resources.”
“Why did you agree to help take down an organization you don’t know anything about?”
“I said I didn’t know as much as I’d like, not that I didn’t know anything,” Lou responded. “I certainly suspect a fair amount. I’ve been...connecting pieces from the past, let’s say, and I don’t much like the bigger picture. Why did you agree to help?”
“Because they deserve to be taken out and I deserve to make it happen,” Petra said.
Lou nodded, like that statement actually explained anything, and smiled at her. She sighed. He was so understanding that it might actually kill her. He almost reminded her of—
And then she was speaking again, because as much as she typically hated talking about her past, she hated thinking about it more. Besides, she’d already told June nearly everything she knew about ODAR. Lou was bound to read this in one of those files, if he hadn’t already. “Look, Lou, if you’re after ‘pieces of the past’ to justify an anti-ODAR agenda, I’ve got you covered. I grew up in an ODAR facility. Before that was a series of foster homes, but I don’t remember much about those days. My earliest memories are of blood tests and training—and of the other kids in Project Plasticity, their build-a-superhero program.” Petra took a deep breath, trying not to see all of their faces. Trying not to remember who she had left behind.
“The agent in charge was a guy named Van,” she continued. “He was...he was different. I know he was complicit in what ODAR did to us, on some level, but he didn’t just see us as tools. He didn’t even see us as heroes. He was the only person who still thought of us as children. One time a few years back, I remember, I was sneaking around with Car—with one of the others, and we overheard him fighting with the Director. Van wanted to scrap the medical portion of the project. He said that we already had several adult operatives who had come across their powers in other ways, and we would find more people like them. Beyond that, there were plenty of ODAR operatives without our abilities, and with the training we had we were already at their level. That screwing with our genetic makeup was just an unnecessary, unethical risk.”
“She wasn’t swayed,” Lou said softly.
It wasn’t a question, but Petra shook her head regardless. “And since Van couldn’t stop the experiment, he volunteered. The old if-you-can’t beat-em-join-‘em philosophy. ODAR hadn’t dared try Plasticity on anyone whose brains and bodies were already fully developed. But he made it clear that those were his conditions, and if the Director and the R&D department were unwilling to comply, he’d hand in his letter of resignation. They needed him, because we needed him. We were getting older, getting ‘unruly,’ starting to question our orders. But we trusted him, and everyone knew it. In the end, the Director agreed.”
From the look on Lou’s face, she knew he could already see where this story was headed. But he’d need to know what ODAR was really like, what they were capable of, if he was going to help bring them down. (Besides, how could anyone else have the right to avoid the story’s ending, when she was the one who’d been forced to live it?) So she went on: “At first it appeared to be working. After a few months, he started developing the ability to manipulate molecular density, affect gravity fields. Anchor, they started calling him. Of course, we’d been calling him that for years. He’d always kept us moored. Until...he didn’t.”
She cleared her throat, blinked hard a couple of times. No use in getting emotional about this any more, unless the emotion in question was carefully targeted anger. “It was the serum, whatever cocktail they used on the rest of us. His body rejected it not long after he started testing out his powers. After that—he didn’t have long. A few weeks.’
“I’m sorry, Sylvia,” Lou said.
“Yeah, well, me too,” she replied, maybe a little too brusquely. She knew that he meant it, but everyone meant it. Hell, the Director herself had probably meant it. It didn’t change anything. “I hit the road the day after. Seemed the thing to do.”
He was quiet for a moment. Then he opened one of June’s files, flipping through it for a moment before coming to rest on a photograph of a young man. “The bigger picture I’m working on, my suspicions...there’s this former student of mine, a close friend. David. He’s been missing for three months now, and I believe ODAR has him. I’m not sure if he’s with them willingly or not, but he wouldn’t just disappear unless he had no other options. I know a thing or two about building a family for yourself, Sylvia, and I know what it’s like to suddenly lose that. This isn’t the first time, either. It isn’t the same, of course. It’s never the same. I’m not trying to undermine your troubles with my own. But I want you to understand that you have my empathy, as well as my sympathy. And just as importantly, you’ll have my help.”
“In demolishing ODAR?” Petra asked.
“In saving whoever in the agency we can save. David, your family. In remembering whoever is beyond our help.” Lou closed the file before continuing. “And yes, in tearing down whatever is still left after that.”
“Remembering, huh?” Petra tried and failed to keep the skepticism from her tone.
He smiled, and gestured for her to take a seat across from him. “I was speaking to June earlier. She’s been thinking that if we’re going to do this, really do this, we should have something to call ourselves. How do you think your Agent Van would feel about having his name tied to a group actively seeking the end of ODAR?”
Petra sat. This was going to be a much longer conversation, and she didn’t want to miss a beat of it. “You know, I think he’d like that. I think I would too.”