The room is dim, narrow, long, and cold.
Cold in every sense of the word: it is physically cold—cold enough for Plague to see his own breath when he exhales—but it’s also cold in the abstract. The floor is bare concrete, the walls and ceiling metal—dull, brushed metal, treated to prevent frost.
The medical gurneys are set lengthwise against the longest of the walls, twelve to a side. The test subjects on the gurneys sleep—Plague prefers to think of it as sleeping—and equipment beeps and hisses softly as it monitors the vitals of each man, pushing more drugs into their bodies as needed.
Plague’s voice echoes slightly, bouncing off the walls as it travels down the long room. The technicians monitoring the equipment don’t bother to look up. He walks down the length of the room, looking at each subject in turn. There are no names, only numbers: Test Subject #1, Test Subject #2, Test Subject #3, and so on. There are twenty-four in this room, and two more rooms just like it. They tell him it’s the largest group yet. They tell him that’s why he’s here.
One of the reasons, anyway.
“So we got, what… seventy-two today?”
The technician leaning over Test Subject #14 looks up. She’s in her mid 40s, streaks of gray showing in dark hair pulled into a tight braid. Her ID badge displays the name ELENA LOPEZ. Hispanic—that would have been a problem for him, once upon a time. Her eyes focus on him, and she nods briskly. “That sounds right.”
“How’s the weather?”
Her mouth twists in annoyance. “Clear skies so far.”
“Clear skies? You gotta be kidding me.”
She shrugs. “They told us to get everything set up anyway. They said they’d deal with the talent.”
“Talent my ass,” Plague mutters. “How long do we got before they freeze to death?”
“We’re bringing in electric blankets.”
Plague stares at Test Subject #14 for a moment. He’s in his late fifties, early sixties—strong, though, still in shape. Not metahuman levels, but impressive for a man his age. The tattoo on his arm suggests military service, and the calluses on his hands suggests he didn’t have a desk job.
“Who is this one?” He shouldn’t care. He doesn’t, exactly, but something about the man strikes a familiar chord.
“Test Subject #14,” she says. “Someone has their names somewhere, but they don’t tell us.”
“Ah.” Plague stares at Test Subject #14 and tries to figure out what it is that pulls at him. The working-class roots, perhaps: Plague grew up poor, always looking for a way out, always looking for something better. Fourteen’s tattoo suggests he enlisted—maybe he thought that was his way out. Plague was never in the military, but he considered himself a soldier in his younger days.
“It’s better that way,” Elena says. “No point getting to know them. They’ll all be dead by evening, one way or another.”
“Yeah,” Plague says. “I get that. It’s easier not to know.”
He flinches at the unbidden image of a dying woman sitting on a cheap couch. He doesn’t want to remember the slow, rasping sound of her final breath, but the memory wraps itself around him like a noose.
“Are you all right?” Elena looks on with a mix of curiosity and alarm.
“I’m fine.” His voice is hoarse. “I’m going to find the talent and deal with him myself.”
* * *
The man is bound, wrapped tightly in his straitjacket, curled up in the corner of a bare metal room. They don’t have proper psychiatric facilities here, so they’re using one of the holding cells, with guards on hand to make sure he doesn’t try to use the hard, bare walls as a weapon against himself. He’s tried, twice, and the walls are still stained from each attempt.
Johann Richter stands in the observation room overlooking the cell and watches the man in silence. He barely recognizes him. Horace Preston was once competent, focused and self-assured, considered reliable by his superiors. Now he barely exists; he has dissolved into a bundle of tremors and nervous tics, given to bouts of anger and self-inflicted violence. He mutters to himself, apparently without end: fearful, incoherent ramblings that don’t connect to anything tangible.
He turns his head slightly as the observation door opens. A muscular, white-haired man, dressed in blue slacks, thick-soled work boots, and a blue denim button-up shirt, stands in the doorway, scowling.
Richter nods in greeting. “Plague.”
Plague walks up to Richter, falling in beside him, gazing through the observation window. His eyes lock on Horace, and his expression changes from anger to shock.
“What the hell happened?” Plague’s voice is rough and uncultured. It’s easy to dismiss him as stupid, but Richter knows better.
“No one knows.” Richter’s own voice is smoother, more educated, with the slightest hint of a German accent. “A few days ago he began his work. Yesterday he suffered a breakdown. We’ve kept it quiet—no sense in alarming personnel.”
Plague’s scowl returns. “One of the lab techs says it’s still clear and dry outside.”
Richter nods. “That will change soon enough. We have a Prodigy Harness. If he will not cooperate willingly…”
Plague shakes his head. “Kinda dangerous, putting a guy like him in one of those.”
“We have no choice,” Richter says. “Weather manipulators are very rare. The harness will do what must be done. It will be messier than I’d prefer, but it will give us what we need.”
They stand in silence, watching Horace mutter, and twitch, and rock back and forth. Occasionally he cries out, as if he were a young child suffering through nightmares.
“Jesus,” Plague says. “A few days?”
“Four, to be precise.”
“Nobody knows why?”
“Unfortunately.” Richter sighs softly. “Mr. Preston complained of fatigue on the first day. He said the process was more difficult than it usually was. But he assured us everything was on track—it was requiring more effort to get the weather to respond, but it wasn’t taking any more time. Everything was on schedule. On the second day he was withdrawn. Only spoke when spoken to, and then only to say he was still on schedule. Everyone around him assumed he was simply focused on the task at hand. On the third day he attempted to harm himself.”
“So you put him in a straitjacket and took the harness out of storage.”
“It seemed prudent,” Richter says.
“How long?” Plague asks. “I get that this is a problem, but nobody told us to stand down.”
“Once he is in the harness, we will proceed as planned,” Richter says. “Once the test is complete we will evacuate the facility. A search is currently underway for our new location.”
“In Farraday City?”
Richter hesitates. “Unlikely. Once we use the Prodigy Harness to get what we need… well, I suspect we will have crossed a line.”
“What about the other reason we’re here?”
“Yes…” Richter’s brow furrows. “Curveball and the girl. Unfortunately, it will be difficult to—”
He is interrupted by a sharp knock on the observation room door. The door opens, and a man wearing body armor over medical scrubs enters the room.
“We have it.” The man looks from Richter, to Plague, unsure which of them he should be focusing on. “It’s right outside the cell door.”
Richter turns to face him. “And you are?”
The man fumbles for a moment. “Wallace, sir. Doctor Michael Wallace. My team is responsible for Prodigy Harness operation and maintenance.”
“Very good.” Richter looks through the observation window at the huddled form of Horace. “Dr. Wallace, I will assist you in securing him to the harness. Plague, stay here. We can’t risk you being injured before the test.”
“I can’t get injured,” Plague says. “Not any more.”
“That is not universally true.”
Plague scowls as he remembers the blonde girl who broke his jaw. “Yeah, OK, that one surprised me. But I can handle this.”
“I don’t doubt your willingness or your ability,” Richter says. “But without you we have no test. Stay here, while we deal with Mr. Preston.”
“Fine.” Plague looks away.
Richter turns back to Dr. Wallace. “Let’s go.”
The team waiting outside the cell door is larger than Richter expected. The harness is in multiple parts, each part has its own team of technicians, and an armed guard accompanies the group.
“We recommend assembling the harness in the cell,” Dr. Wallace says. “I think it’ll be faster to assemble it in there than it will be to attempt to transport him to another location.”
“There are no outlets in the room,” Richter says.
“Not needed. It has its own power supply. We checked the charge before bringing it up—it’ll operate for days.”
Richter thinks it over. “Very well. We will secure him in the main harness first. Then we can assemble the pieces around him.”
Dr. Wallace nods and turns to his people, giving out orders. Richter motions for the armed guards to follow him into the cell.
* * *
Horace Preston doesn’t react when the cell door opens. When Richter puts his hand on the man’s shoulder, however, the reaction is immediate.
“NO!” The howl is barely recognizably human as Horace jerks away, falls on his back, and starts lashing out with his legs. Richter immediately grabs the man’s legs, as two guards grab the straps on his straitjacket, lifting him into the air. Horace flails desperately, trying in vain to shake his way free.
“We have him!”
The cell door opens again, and four men roll in what appears to be a bed surrounded by a half-formed cocoon. Horace stares at it, uncomprehending, then his eyes go wide.
“No.” His voice is just a whisper this time. “No, no, Richter, Richter, please, no.”
“Bring it here.” Richter’s voice is cold and unmoving.
“Richter.” Horace lifts his head to focus on the man holding his legs. “Richter, listen to me. You can’t do this. You can’t… don’t do this.” His eyes are clear, as if the shock of seeing the harness has, for a time, dispelled his madness.
Richter doesn’t reply.
“You don’t understand.” Horace is pleading now. “It’s… no good. I tried, I tried, but the city. The city, Richter. The city.”
He has Richter’s attention now. “What are you talking about?”
“The city,” Horace repeats. “I started moving the air and the city moved it back. It fought me. It’s fighting me. It doesn’t like anyone else to decide. Only it. Only it decides.”
“Decides what?” Richter’s voice is sharp. “Horace, what are you talking about? What does the city decide?”
Horace looks away. “When to make it rain.”
Richter considers his words. “Put him under.”
A strong gust of wind surges through the room, coming seemingly from nowhere. Two of the doctors wheeling in the base of the harness are knocked over, and the harness itself rolls to the right as one of the guards is forced back three steps, knocking into it. Richter and the two men holding him up hold fast.
“Do not put me in that thing!”
Lightning explodes from the center of the room, arcing into the harness. Richter smells ozone and scorched plastic as everyone scatters, some throwing themselves against the walls of the cell, others diving through the door.
“I will not defy the city again! Never again!”
The wind grows stronger. Richter is forced to let go of Horace as he’s pushed out toward the wall. Horace's legs drop to the ground, and suddenly he’s standing on his own as the two men holding his straitjacket lose their grips, and are flung, hard, up and into the ceiling. They drop to the floor, unmoving, and are pushed to the walls like detritus in a storm.
In the center of the room, Richter can see the vague outline of a funnel beginning to form. A tornado. Horace Preston is creating a miniature tornado in the middle of his cell.
And then, all at once, it stops. Horace doubles over, gagging, then sinks to his knees as he begins to retch.
“Quickly,” Richter says. “Sedate him now.”
Dr. Wallace rushes into the room, carrying a hypodermic needle filled with a dark, cherry-red liquid. He steps around the harness, over the guards, and kneels next to the still-retching form of Horace Preston. Richter pushes him onto the floor, pressing down on his back to keep him from moving, as the doctor injects the liquid into his neck. In a matter of seconds, Horace begins to calm down. By the count of twenty, Horace is asleep.
Richter sighs in relief.
“What happened?” Dr. Wallace looks around in confusion. “What set him off? What made him stop?”
“I don’t know what set him off,” Richter says. “As to what made him stop…” He looks over to the wall he knows separates the cell from the observation room, and nods once. “Plague.”
Dr. Wallace takes a half-step away from Horace’s unmoving form—an unconscious, reflexive, unscientific reaction, but one easy to understand.
“Take these guards to the infirmary,” Richter orders. “Make sure the harness is undamaged, then put Mr. Preston within. Revive him as soon as it is operational. We need him conscious for what comes next.”
“What does come next?” Dr. Wallace asks the question aloud, but everyone in the room is wondering the same thing.
Richter’s smile is cold and thin.