Powerstar looked up impassively at his attackers, but his mind raced. My force field’s stronger than that cannon, he decided, but I’ve only been at this for a few days, and they must have backup. He didn’t even have to think about which one was the most dangerous. The flying man on her right — his left — was clearly an obedient junior officer, while the creep on her left was an insubordinate equivalent. Both men were strikingly ordinary — medium height and build, short brown hair, neatly cut. They wore visors instead of sunglasses, but were otherwise the very image of the black-suited enforcers of urban myth. The woman was darker-skinned, like John, with black hair tied in a bun, and a severe expression. Her suit was less cookie-cutter, but still black, severe, and business-like. Her eyes were dark, whatever their color.
"Is this some sort of parody of the ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine?" he asked, watching them closely. John could feel some kind of energy in their equipment, and the flying man, and the sensation was much like how he sensed electricity. The energy, however, was not electricity, he was certain of that.
"No. Harkin’s just a jerk," the flying man replied evenly.
‘Harkin’ scowled furiously, his face turning red. "You should watch your mouth, Max," he spat back. "Don’t think you’re better than -"
"Enough," Martinez barked. Both men fell silent, staring angrily at each other. "You call yourself ‘Powerstar,’ correct?"
John nodded. He very carefully did nothing else.
Martinez watched for a few seconds, then nodded back. "All right, then. Powerstar. It sounds ridiculous, but otherwise you’ve shown more brains than some in the Complex." Harkin bristled, but said nothing.
"The…Complex…" Powerstar’s eye slits widened. "You’re not serious."
Martinez nodded again, this time clearly in approval. "You catch on quick. Don’t assume that you know what we are, though."
*John,* Heather sent nervously.
*Not yet,* John replied. *I want to hear this.* Then he fired back, "Did Eisenhower know?"
Max and Harkin looked at each other in confusion, but Martinez had the good grace to wince. "Touche. He knew more than most outside the Complex, but no, he didn’t understand us. Not really." She gestured with her right hand, and her disc descended.
"What’s fancy-pants talking about, Agent Martinez?" Harkin asked, looking more controlled if not quite subdued.
"President Eisenhower is widely credited with coining the term ‘military-industrial complex,’ Harkin," Martinez sighed as her disc landed. "Now. Powerstar." She clearly had trouble using the name with a straight face. "You’re obviously smarter than HQ gave you credit for."
"Took me for a naive geek fanboy, right?" Powerstar asked with a lopsided grin.
"Something like that," she admitted. Her expression never changed. "Think about it. You know you’re not alone now. You’ve already guessed at least a little about us. Now try to consider why we’re doing it."
"Power," he replied coolly.
Martinez frowned. "That’s part of it for some, I have to admit. Think about your ‘fanboy’ comic books, movies, cartoons. What happens when the Empowered beings can be classified, when they’re a group that can be labeled?"
Powerstar looked into the distance for a moment. Then his eyes widened. "Of course…" When she gestured for him to go on, he grinned weakly. "You can be public mutants or secret wizards, right? It’s hard to hate and fear something that doesn’t exist."
"Go to the head of the class," Martinez replied, the frown vanishing, quickly replaced with a smile. This one had a touch of friendliness. "Most of us have been doing this for a long time. Technology hasn’t made our job harder, it makes it easier."
"Unless some yahoo starts flying around in a bright blue costume zapping muggers," Harkin snapped. "People’s minds slide off us in person, but cameras don’t give a crap."
Powerstar and Martinez glared at him in nearly perfect unison. "That’s an interesting side effect," he replied coldly, and he could almost hear Martinez’s inward groan. "How did that happen?"
"We have…connections, as you’ve no doubt noticed," Martinez admitted. "A combination of Empowered suggestion and mass media conditioning." At Powerstar’s scowl, she added, "I know, it’s unpleasant, but our choices are limited. We are vastly outnumbered."
Powerstar considered, cupping his hand around his chin. "That’s the second time you’ve said ‘Empowered.’ I could almost hear you capitalize it."
"The general term we use for ourselves," Martinez replied. "Forget psychobabble cliches. Real Empowerment turns humans into, well, us." She gestured, palm up, at Powerstar, then at the two suited men, and finally herself. "You’re one of us now."
*John, I don’t like this,* Heather burst in.
*I understand, but they have a point,* he admitted reluctantly. *I’m not going with anyone yet, though, don’t worry.* He looked Agent Martinez over. She seemed sensible enough. "Look, you’ve given me a lot to think about, and I do want to know more."
"Not a good sign," Harkin quipped.
"Shut up, Harkin," Martinez hissed. "I’m glad to hear that. And we don’t force people to join the Complex. Most do join — it’s the ultimate ‘in,’ after all, the perfect way to make connections. But we don’t need to know anything except who you are." Powerstar’s hand went reflexively to his mask. At his frown, she continued before he could interrupt. "It’s for everyone’s safety. There’s a lot you don’t know yet, and I can’t tell you until I know we can trust you."
"I’ll think about it," Powerstar replied. "That’s the best you’re going to get right now." Martinez stared pointedly at the starburst on his chest and raised an eyebrow. This time, it was John’s turn to wince. "Okay, and I’ll stop making a spectacle of myself in the meantime. Fair enough."
"Fair’s got nothing to do with it, spandex boy," Harkin snarled. "You think this is a negotiation?"
Martinez glared up at the insubordinate agent, and while he couldn’t hear what was going on, Powerstar could feel the mental force he used to contact Heather flickering between them. So there are some things we have in common. Interesting.
Then Harkin’s eyes went wide. "He tapped us!" The agent aimed his huge weapon at Powerstar.
"What? No! I was just -" Powerstar began. He never got to finish. All he could hear as the world roared around him was Martinez cursing a blue streak, but ironically, the thick, wide beam of force didn’t affect his vision at all. He was only thrown back several feet this time, instead of several blocks. Nevertheless, the blow was every bit as disorienting as before. It wasn’t any more painful than being struck by a fairly strong jet of water, thanks to his force field, but the attack seemed to come from everywhere.
*Oh god oh god oh god John get out of there!* Heather sent, terrified. John didn’t blame her. If their positions were reversed, he’d be scared for her.
*Just…maybe I can still talk to Martinez,* he replied groggily.
"That’s going on your record, you idiot. He just sensed our connection!" Martinez roared. As Powerstar regained his footing, however, she sighed furiously. "Nothing for it now, though. Take him."
Harkin let out a rebel yell and raced down on his disc, while Max moved to flank John. So much for that idea, Powerstar sighed. "Just remember, I didn’t want to do this," he replied, stretching out his hand. He made a fist.
Harkin tumbled to the ground with a thud as both his gun and his disc turned into spheres, metal groaning briefly in protest. "You…" he began with a snarl. Powerstar opened his hand again, and thin bolts of lightning streaked out. Harkin resisted, but much to Powerstar’s surprise, the agent was no match for either his power or his skill. With a gasp of amazement, the agent collapsed. Then Powerstar turned his attention to Max as Martinez swore and vanished.
She’s coming back, Powerstar thought, turning his lightning on the flying agent. Max charged, managing to avoid most of the bolts. Then Powerstar gestured with his left hand, and Max’s trajectory changed radically. In the blink of an eye, he was buried halfway up to his chest in the ground, legs flailing. "Does that qualify as a landing you can walk away from?" Powerstar quipped.
*Oh, that’s weak,* Heather sent, her voice thick with relief.
*Give me a break, I’m new at this,* John fired back, as relieved as she was.
Then Martinez reappeared right behind him, slapping the back of his head. A jolt of something raced through him, and the world tilted sickeningly. He shot into the sky, wobbling badly, as the agent’s disc flew under her as she leaped. "Wha’he’was tha’?" Powerstar blurted as she rode the disc up to meet him.
"You’re good, kid," Martinez admitted, eyes focused like lasers, locked firmly onto him. "I’ve never seen a rookie like you. UNIT One will be glad to have you." Agent Max exploded from the ground, righting himself as he flew up, fury written across his face. "Right now, though, you’re going down."
"Uh-oh," Powerstar replied weakly…
…To Be Continued…
NEXT: The Complex, part 3