Robert Thorpe’s pain is real. The pain’s location isn’t.
He feels pain because his nervous system is damaged. The kind of pain changes: sometimes he has headaches, sometimes he has muscle cramps, sometimes he has sharp, stabbing pain going up and down an arm, or a leg. Today his pain is in his lower back, and it’s more severe than usual.
There’s never anything specifically wrong with the part of his body that’s suffering at any given time, but he feels the pain all the same.
He eases back in his chair, exhaling in relief as he sinks into the heated cushion. His back may not actually be damaged, but for the moment his brain is convinced that it is, and the heat acts as an effective placebo.
“I’ll be ready in a minute.” He tries to keep the weariness out of his voice.
He closes his eyes. He hasn’t figured out why, but reducing sensory stimulation often helps manage the pain. In a few minutes he feels it ebb. It doesn’t disappear, and won’t for another hour or so, but the heat combined with the aspirin he took moments earlier will dial it back to a dull, throbbing ache. He can handle an ache.
He exhales, opening his eyes, and turns in his seat to face the other men. The three chairs set in front of his desk are all occupied: CB is splayed out in the chair on the left, looking like he slept in his trenchcoat, which he may actually have done. Agent Grant slouches in the chair on the right, looking considerably more put together in his neatly pressed black suit and matching black trenchcoat. In the center chair is Artemis LaFleur, dressed in slacks, deck shoes, and an expensive silk shirt, looking relaxed and serene—as if he were on vacation.
“I suppose you’re wondering why I gathered you here today.”
CB snorts at that, shaking his head as he thrusts his hand deep into his trenchcoat pocket, fumbling with what Robert suspects is a pack of cigarettes. He looks haggard; he’s been wrestling with something ever since they learned what Project Recall really was. He hasn’t talked about it, but Robert has a vague notion of what it might be, and it worries him.
“If you’re about to accuse one of us of murder, I’m arresting LaFleur.” Grant smooths out the folds from his own trenchcoat as he speaks, his voice thick with sarcasm.
Out of all the members of this uneasy alliance, Agent Alan Grant and his partner, Agent Lijuan Hu, are the ones Robert knows the least. Normally that would be cause for concern—not the least because they are part of the Department of Homeland Security. But Pete Travers vouches for them, and Robert trusts Travers.
“I won’t be plagiarizing Agatha Christie today,” Robert promises.
“Even if he did,” LaFleur said, smiling slightly, “I doubt you would be able to keep me in restraints.”
It isn’t spoken as a threat, or even as a dare. Once, Robert might have taken it as either, but he understands LaFleur much better than he did ten years ago. He’s certainly capable of bravado, but he’s not a man to engage in it carelessly. It would provide no tactical advantage in this situation, so he doesn’t bother. Instead he’s simply… making conversation.
Grant appears unruffled. “Yeah, probably not. But it’d be a hell of a story back at the office. ‘Yeah guys, I was right there ready to put the cuffs on Overmind but the old bastard said something cheeky and teleported away.’”
LaFleur chuckles softly. “I’m not really one for cheek.”
“I might be projecting a little.”
“If I may,” Robert says, and immediately all eyes are on him. He nods in acknowledgment. “The reason I called you here is simple. Thanks to your willingness to donate genetic material for testing, we’ve made great strides in understanding how the virus targets metahuman DNA. We still haven’t made the leap we need to make from seeing what it does to understanding how to stop it, unfortunately, but we have enough material to work with to keep moving forward.”
Agent Grant looks to his right, first at LaFleur, then at CB, then turns back to Robert. “That’s great, but isn’t that something you should tell the whole group? I mean everybody donated. I’m kinda curious to know how you actually managed to extract genetic material from Regiment and Scrapper Jack, by the way. I’d think that’d be like trying to saw through cinderblock with a butterknife.”
“That’s a more accurate metaphor than you realize,” Robert says. “Let’s just say that I’m grateful both men exhibit a great deal of self-control. But you three aren’t here to discuss our research. Not exactly. You’re here because we haven’t been able to use you in our research at all.”
“Oh?” LaFleur’s right eyebrow raises slightly. “Were our samples contaminated somehow?”
“No,” Robert says, “they were fine. They just didn’t have anything we could use.”
LaFleur’s right eyebrow raises higher. He leans back in his chair, nodding thoughtfully. He understands, Robert thinks. It’s hardly surprising. This is his field of expertise.
It is not CB’s field of expertise. “I don’t get it.” He leans forward, drawing that pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and absent thumping it against the palm of his left hand. “If the samples were fine, why couldn’t you use them?”
“CB, do you remember back when the Guardians applied for government sanction?”
CB rolls his eyes. “I remember all those fucking tests, is what I remember.”
“I remember how amused you were that all your tests came back negative,” Robert says.
CB laughs. “That was hilarious. Until they demanded I do the tests again a third time, anyway.”
“I always assumed that was your power at work.” Robert shifts slightly to include LaFleur and Agent Grant in the conversation. “In 1989 the Guardians of Justice applied for government sanction—at that time it was run by the FBI, though the FBMA took it over a few years later. One of the preconditions of sanction was that each of us go through a battery of tests that were a precursor to the Dyson-Ferris Assessment.”
Agent Grant nods. “Dyson-Ferris Assessment is still a requirement for sanction.”
“The tests back then were rather rudimentary,” Robert says. “But they worked well enough for most of us. Not, however, for Curveball. He tested as a normal human all five times.”
Agent Grant stares at CB, frowning. His gaze drifts over to LaFleur.
LaFleur nods. “I also test negative on the Dyson-Ferris. Though I’ve never been in a position to have it administered in an official capacity.”
“Yeah...” Grant slowly turns his gaze back to Robert. “That would be hard to pull off, you being a standing threat to national security and all.”
“What I would like to confirm,” Robert says, “is that you, Agent Grant, also test negative on the Dyson-Ferris.”
CB and LaFleur stare at Agent Grant expectantly. For a moment, Grant doesn’t react. Then, reluctantly, he nods.
“I thought so,” Robert says.
“That’s weird,” CB says.
“Not as weird as you think...” Robert takes a moment to choose his words. “The DFA is the gold standard for metahuman assessment, but it’s still not perfect. There are always outliers. People who have certain types of abilities are more likely to test negative than others—weather manipulators, for example, have always tested negative. As a general rule of thumb, the more unusual someone’s ability is, the less likely they are to test positive.”
“That would explain us,” CB says. “Assuming Agent Grant’s right about what he does.”
“Damn skippy I am,” Grant says.
“Teleporters in general tend to be edge cases for the assessment,” Robert says, “but teleporting into multiple locations simultaneously, and being able to maintain those locations concurrently? I’ve never heard of that before. But you’re actually wrong about that, CB. It doesn’t explain anything.”
CB exhales forcefully, exasperation starting to show. “Damn it, Robert...”
“I’m getting to the point,” Robert says. “I promise. The problem is that you’re assuming the assessment could one day be refined to the point where it would detect you. That if it had enough information on all the metahuman DNA out there, it would, eventually, detect and classify the three of you.”
“I guess I am,” CB admits. “That’s not true?”
“I’m pretty certain it isn’t,” Robert says. “Project Recall is many terrible things, but it has achieved what many of us have tried to do for decades: it has identified the genetic markers that must be present in order for metahuman abilities to manifest. Having those markers doesn’t guarantee that someone will be a metahuman, but not having them guarantees that they won’t.”
“With that information,” LaFleur says, “it would be theoretically possible to fine-tune the Dyson-Ferris Assessment to the point that it would always detect a metahuman.”
“It would,” Robert agrees, “and it still wouldn’t matter for you three. None of you have those markers.”
LaFleur sits back, nodding once as Robert confirms what he’d already deduced. CB and Agent Grant wear oddly similar expressions of blank incomprehension.
“Let me put it this way,” Robert says. “The reason you three don’t test as metahumans isn’t because you’re edge cases. It’s because you’re not metahumans at all. You don’t have any of the genetic material necessary.”
“Then... what are we?” CB asks.
Robert spreads his hands, gesturing helplessly. “Damned if I know.”