“‘The Timepiece?’ Seriously? Not even, I don’t know, Dr. Timepiece?”
Anthony groaned audibly from across the room, where he was unpacking his suitcase. “Yes, because that sounds so much better.”
“Still,” Sally insisted, scanning the rest of the newspaper article. “No offense to—let me see—Bridget Chambers of the Waxahachie Gazette, but it’s not what I would have gone with.”
“How many times do I have to tell you, the branding isn’t up to us? Besides, nobody would take a superhero seriously if their name was, I don’t know, a Back to the Future reference, or whatever else you might want to go for. You should be glad that you have a name at all—Waxahachie seems to be growing fond of you.”
Sally snorted. “Aside from the police force. And the mayor’s office. And the criminals. And my boss, although I think that one’s unconnected to our start-up vigilante business.”
“Anytime you get tired of dealing with—”
“Yeah, yeah,” Sally cut in, waving him off. “UNM Polvo would love to have me, on account of how I’m an absolute delight. But there’s no point in me moving there when you’re down here anyways.”
“Only for the summer,” he reminded her. “Your workplace isn’t as keen on hiring me, nor do I have any interest in smashing particles together.”
“Sure, who’d want to do that when you could be grading papers?” She smirked and dodged the Stephen King novel he threw at her. “Hey, you could put an eye out with that thing!”
From under the couch, Archimedes hissed his disdain for both Stephen King and flying objects.
“Just keeping you sharp.” Anthony pulled another couple of books out of his bag before closing it. “Alright, I think that’s it.”
“Excellent! Just like back in college, hm?”
Anthony looked around the small guest bedroom (formerly functioning as an office) where he would be staying for the next seven weeks, and was grateful to find that it wasn’t remotely reminiscent of the battered old townhouse the two of them had once shared with a couple of other undergraduate students. “I should hope not. As I recall, you kicked me out senior year because you decided you couldn’t stand me.”
“Clearly, your memory is failing you. You were the one who stormed out, and it was only for two weeks. Although you’re right on one count—I absolutely cannot stand you. Now if you’re done unpacking, come on, we’ve got some errands to run!”
After lunch (and a quick stop at the grocery store for cat food and coffee filters), Sally and Anthony found their way to a local fabric and crafting supply shop.
Fighting crime, the two had quickly discovered, was a task far easier said than planned, and far easier planned than done. Their earliest endeavors were further complicated by the facts that Sally had no practical experience in combat, that Anthony was attempting to direct and assist her across state lines, and that they both had full-time jobs already. After a while, they’d realized that the most effective method was for Sally to simply press pause on time and stroll through the city in search of anyone who needed assistance—a method that involved too much aimless wandering for either of their tastes. Sally had begun experimenting with police scanners and taken a defense class at her local gym. For his part, Anthony was working overtime to adapt his theories on predictive algorithms to foresee where Sally would be needed most on any given day.
But there was one major hurdle to caped crime-fighting that they had yet to overcome, and that was Sally’s hero outfit. She’d managed to disintegrate one of the sleeves entirely on her last outing, and that was only the latest in a long line of rips, tears, and burns. While there was plenty of research available on durable materials and damage-resistant polymers, the materials themselves were much harder to get a hold of, particularly on a budget. So they limited themselves to pre-existing clothing modified through their combined sewing skills, which were far from dazzling.
The current model had as its base a padded grey athletic jumpsuit. To this, Anthony had attached several swatches of blue and red fabric and an embroidered design on the back, two series of overlapping circles that diminished in size until they joined in the middle.
(That had been a fun conversation. “Look, you’ve got to have a symbol, that’s how this goes—”
“I don’t care what the comics say, it looks ridiculous and it doesn’t even mean anything!”)
Sally’s contributions primarily involved pushing for a cape. As they walked the aisles, she yanked cloth from shelves, attempting to unroll each piece until it was long enough that she could drape it across either her or Anthony’s shoulders before he noticed (only occasionally cheating through use of her powers).
“Fine,” he said at last, throwing his arms up and dislodging the length of faux fur Sally had just set on him. “Go with the cape. It’s your outfit. Ignore your business consultant if you want to; it doesn’t make a difference for me in the end.”
“Business consultant?” She laughed, hopping onto the back of the cart he was pushing. “Is that what you are?”
“Tired of shopping is what I am.” Despite this claim, he pushed the cart faster now, tipping precariously as he rounded a corner and nearly losing Sally before the last of the vigilante crafting gear was acquired. Somehow they made it to checkout without knocking any shelves down. With shopping bags in hand they returned at last to Sally’s run-down van, an evening of sewing and The Two Towers: Extended Edition before them.
When Sally unlocked her apartment, Archimedes was mewling from the other side of the kitchen counter.
“Yes, yes, I know,” Sally murmured. “You’re a poor neglected cat who never receives any love or attention. Don’t worry, we picked up your dinner while we were out. Although I’m sure that a fierce predator such as yourself is—”
She stopped short as she rounded the corner into the small kitchen. There was Archimedes—and there, kneeling down to scratch his head, was a woman Sally had never seen before in her life.
The stranger stood up abruptly. “I’m so sorry for the intrusion. You must be Dr. Grissom.”
“And you’re, what, a cat burglar?” A quick halt on time, so that she could take a few minutes to survey the woman at close range. She didn’t appear to be armed—all she had on her was a badge for a group Sally had never heard of, some sort of smart watch, and a pen—but that didn’t make Sally feel particularly at ease. Carrying a gun would have been overkill when she already knew Sally’s name and how to get into her apartment.
Forward motion. The woman smiled, although Sally didn’t think it was at her pun. “That was very impressive.”
“Really? I thought the choice of wordplay was a little obvious.”
“Excuse me; I was referring to your ability,” the woman said.
“Wh—what?” Sally froze. It was as if a window had been left open somewhere in her circulatory system, and now a draft was wafting its way through her veins. Every mission she’d sent herself on in the past couple of months flitted through her head in quick succession. Anthony had insisted that she needed to be more careful with her identity, that someone would work out who “Dr. Timepiece” was sooner or later. She should’ve listened to him. (Not that she’d ever give him the satisfaction of hearing her say those words.)
“You’re standing in a different position than you were a millisecond ago, and my jacket pocket is unbuttoned,” the stranger explained. She adjusted this now, then held out her hand. “Amelia Arnault.”
Sally didn’t take it, just stared at her. The silent standoff would likely have gone on for some while had Anthony not walked into the apartment.
“—ask me, what were you thinking with the—oh.” He dropped the bag of costume materials on the counter, looking back and forth between the two women. “Is this a...friend of yours?”
“I was about to ask the same,” the woman said to Sally, indicating Anthony with a nod and a slight smile. “I didn’t realize you had company. I can come back at a more convenient time.”
“How about you explain who you are right the hell now, or you come back never?” Sally responded.
Amelia wavered. “I don’t know that that would be wise,” she said, tactfully not looking at Anthony.
“Anything you want to say to me, you can say to him. He knows about—whatever it is you think you know about.”
The woman gave a genuine, full sort of laugh. “I like to think I know about a lot of things. Alright, then. Tonya may not be happy with me, but she’s the one who’s been pushing a ‘policy of honesty’ across the agency.”
“What agency?” Anthony asked, wary now that he saw the way Sally bristled every time Amelia moved.
Archie had no such reservations. He pawed at Amelia’s shoes, but she didn’t cave to the requests for attention. She was all business as she looked Sally in the eyes and spoke. “I represent the Office of Developed Anomalous Resources. We’d like to offer you a job.”
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.”