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The Phoenix Initiative – Chapter 3

Written by papayoya1 :: [Friday, 16 November 2018 21:54] Last updated by :: [Saturday, 17 November 2018 12:32]

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Chapter 3

“We don’t need Roark sniffing around!” Dr. Jacob Sully snapped as General Lindbergh shared the news with him.

“Look, Jacob, I like it as little as you do, but I’m afraid we have no other option. The woman is flying to Santa Isabel as we speak.”

“What for?” the scientist barked again. Jacob Sully was a brilliant man, but he had never had strong social or political abilities.

“In theory, she’ll report to me, at the same level you do. Secretary Dunbar wants her to take ownership of the program to neutralize the women; you’ll remain responsible for the main research project, with Campos reporting to you and working on the exploration of the medical possibilities of the findings. Of course, she’ll try to learn more,” Lindbergh said.

“I’ll make sure she doesn’t!” Sully replied, still in the same angry tone.

Lindbergh then smiled.

“No, you won’t do that.” When Sully looked at him questioningly, the General explained. “You’ll make sure she gets as much information as she wants. You’ll be as cooperative as you can be. And the only things that you will keep away from her will be the ones I choose. If Roark is happy, Dunbar is happy. And we need him happy for as long as possible, understood?”

Sully nodded.

“Good. Now, you’ll choose the people on your team working on the neutralization project and let them know that they report to Eva Roark, starting today.”

“A lot of people in my team work on multiple areas at the same time,” Sully complained.

“I know, which is the reason I trust you’ll assign the researchers with less exposure to those areas we want to keep to ourselves for the time being to Roark,” Lindbergh replied in a condescending tone.

“I… understand,” Sully finally said. “We could have done without her, though.”

“It’s our fault really. I reviewed the latest neutralization plan we sent to the SecDef’s staff two weeks ago. It’s crap!”

Sully blushed, half ashamed and half upset.

“It’s my fault as well as yours,” Lindbergh said. “I approved it before sending it.”

“I… I didn’t include everything we’re doing in that area,” the scientist said by way of an apology.

“Of course, you didn’t. Which was expected. But next time make sure that what you include feels compelling enough to bureaucrats in DC that are likely to have a panic attack when they see our girls roaming Santa Isabel, moving tons of stuff out of the way like someone tidying a kid’s room. Especially when those same bureaucrats are especially jumpy about the fact that one of the girls is at large and not yet found.”

Sully looked down. Then he muttered:

“I’ve been… too focused on other areas of our investigation.”

“I know, Jacob. Don’t take it personally. If we keep her under control, Roark may even prove useful. In the end, being in charge of the neutralization strategy is a sugar-coated pill. Her work will only be relevant if everything goes to hell. Your work, though, will be on the front page of every newspaper when you succeed.”

Lindbergh smiled as he saw Sully’s face relax at his remark. It was relatively easy to deal with the man. He lacked any sort of moral compass, so you only had to appeal to his ego.

“Speaking of which… I wanted to share some of our recent findings. I trust you’ll find them interesting,” Sully said.

Lindbergh did not have too much time, but Sully was usually conservative in his statements, so him saying that he had something interesting to share certainly appealed to his curiosity.

“Sure. Give me a minute, will you?” Lindbergh said. He then took his cell phone out and made a call. “I’m going to be late. Ask Rhodes to take over the coordination in the field,” he stated, in his usual commanding tone when giving orders. Sully was surprised when his eyebrow rose. “What do you mean you don’t know where he is?”

Lindbergh listened to his assistant’s explanations for a few minutes, then finally said:

“Ok, ask Burns. I’ll be there as soon as possible.”

“Any problems?” Sully asked.

“Nothing important. Please, go on.”

Jacob Sully had used the time to connect the display from his computer to the wall TV. General Lindbergh was soon looking at six charts that all looked more or less the same.

“What am I looking at?” he asked.

“Correlation,” Sully replied. Owen Lindbergh knew how to interpret a chart if he was given all the data. The charts on the screen were easy enough: they all showed a slow but steady growth slope, with some peaks and valleys but a clear trend line. “There was some important work needed filtering and normalizing all the data that we had, but once you know what you’re looking at, the conclusion is unmistakable. The charts here belong to Susan Simpson, but we could be looking at Baptiste’s or Watson’s data and it would look just the same. Top right chart is the weight, once we normalize it to take into account only muscle mass. This one was a bit tricky, but it turned out to be the one that revealed everything else. Next one to the right are the results for raw strength. The next one is peak speed. Bottom row are resistance, reflexes and eyesight. All of them normalized. I could chart the data for other parameters. With the right processing, they would all look the same.”

Lindbergh quickly understood what the doctor was telling him.

“They’re improving.”

Sully nodded.

“The key is in normalization. It was almost imperceptible in the raw data, but one of my guys is a bit of a genius and has a natural ability to identify trends. Once we knew what to look at, working out the rest was relatively easy.”

“How much?” Lindbergh asked, feeling a bit uneasy.

“We established our current testing methodology six months ago. We had to discard previous data, since it was not comparable. Having said that, we have a lot of data points and the chart is very linear, so we expect what we have is enough,” Sully went on.

“How much, Jacob?” the General asked, obvious impatient.

“2 percent in 6 months. So, 4 percent every year,” the doctor said.

Owen Lindbergh exhaled and chuckled.

“You had me worried for a second there, Jacob.”

“I don’t think you understand the implications of what I just told you,” the scientist said.

“So, in twenty-five years they will be twice as strong as they are today. That will hardly make a difference!”

“Well, it’s eighteen years, really. But that’s not the point. The relevant part of what I told you is not how much stronger they will get, Owen!” Dr. Sully said in a tone that suggested that he could not understand how his boss was not getting it. “The truly amazing part is that they CAN get stronger. And they are. Which means that something is still making them change. The Flare kickstarted the process. But it’s still going on.”

“How?”

“The Sun, of course. It’s the only possibility, the only explanation that wouldn’t cause differences between the three of them. The Sun made them, and the Sun is still powering them up!”

“How many people know about this?”

“Well, the researcher that found the correlation. Me. And now you,” Sully said.

“Let’s keep it like that for the moment. And for God’s sake, make sure that Roark doesn’t find out.”

“Owen, you’re still missing my point. Making the girls stronger right now is pointless. What’s the difference between being a million times stronger and being two million times stronger? The real point is that we have a new and wonderful tool to figure out how to replicate the process. Up until now we’ve invested most of our effort in understanding the consequences of The Flare in the girls and on doing reverse engineering to understand how it worked. Now… now that we know that they are still transforming, we can just design experiments and measure the results.”

“Are you suggesting what I think you are suggesting?” Lindbergh asked.

“It’s our strongest option to make progress. How long do we have?” Sully asked.

Lindbergh sighed. There was no point hiding his thoughts from Jacob Sully. The man was completely loyal for the most fundamental reason: his success depended on him.

“Not much. Roark can’t be coming purely to take care of an area we’ve been overlooking for some time. She’ll do that, and she’ll do it well. But she certainly had higher expectations when she accepted it. I didn’t know it when I was planning it, but yesterday’s PR bought us time. I can make sure the girls are on TV daily over the next few weeks. But the current hype will eventually die down. And when it does, the Pentagon will still be looking for their super-soldier. Either we deliver it, or they’ll ask Roark to do it.”

Sully nodded.

“I’ll fast track the tests, then.”

“Which tests?” Lindbergh asked, a bit concerned.

“Over the last nine months we’ve theorized about which radiation components of The Flare were the ones that caused the improvement. All of them are also present in very small doses in regular solar rays, which fit well with what I just explained. Two days ago, we started exposing the girls to mild doses of these components, equivalent to about a year of exposure to the Sun. We have three subjects, so we’re testing different wavelengths, combinations and intensities and comparing the results in their daily checks. After all, that’s the scientific way to validate a theory. It’s a pity that Keilani is no longer with us, we could’ve moved forward even faster.”

*=*=*=*=*=*

“I love the new outfits,” Jennifer said as the modified Chinook descended into the square where they were due to land. There was no rush today, and the PR team had decided that having her jump out of the chopper could be more counterproductive than helpful.

Once the Phoenix name had quickly caught on and the #Phoenix hashtag had started to trend, someone at the PR department had decided that it would be a nice touch to add a red logo in the shape of an actual Phoenix to the black Kevlar two-piece outfit they usually wore. The team was working on something more elaborate, but it was remarkable enough that they had been able to react so quickly after their first day.

Cameras were pointing at her once the heavy helicopter set down and the large cargo doors at the back opened. The chopper, which had been black to start with, now also boasted two shiny Phoenix logos next to the US Army one.

Jennifer smiled warmly as she focused on being casual but elegant in her trek down the ramp. Her sensitive ears caught each and every question launched at her from behind the police line, but she just smiled politely and pretended to ignore them. Stopping halfway to the journalists, she broadened her smile and gave the short speech she had prepared in an only slightly louder than normal voice:

“My colleagues and I were incredibly happy to be able to help our fellow citizens yesterday. We’ll continue offering our assistance today, and for as many days as needed to help Isabelians out of the difficulties they’re currently facing. I’m heading to Saint Claire’s Hospital, which is still operating at half capacity after yesterday’s earthquake. I know you have questions. Right now, our priority is to help, though. I’ll be more than happy to tell you anything you want to know about me once the city is back to normal.”

She ignored the outburst of questions and turned, walking to a different end of the police line and smiling cutely at the officers manning it when they opened it for her.

The sight of the familiar face made Jennifer happy enough to pick up her pace a little. Officer Kyle Jenkins stood in place as she approached, smiling but looking a little uncertain about the entire situation.

“Hi there, Kyle!”

“Er… hi, Jennifer,” the officer replied, without too much conviction.

“I’m glad that we’re working together again,” the amazon said. Seeing that the police officer still did not look too convinced, she crouched and whispered closer to him: “The school bus was yesterday’s most popular clip. The PR guys realized that people want to see us together. Follow my lead and I’ll make you famous!”

Kyle was not so sure he wanted to be famous, but he had his orders, so he followed the ultra-confident superwoman as she started again towards the hospital.

Jennifer kept smiling at people, shaking hands and exchanging courtesies for a few minutes, with Kyle discreetly standing at her side, still feeling uneasy next to her towering figure. Their first stop would be on the twelfth floor, which was still closed due to rubble.

Kyle walked towards the elevator and saw Jennifer diverting towards the stairs.

“I’ll see you upstairs,” she said with a wave.

“Why don’t you take the elevator?” he asked quite naturally.

“I’m a big girl, Kyle,” Jennifer said cutely as she took two more steps towards the stairs.

“Come on, I’m sure you’d fit if you crouched down!” Kyle replied, raising his tone a bit so that it would reach her.

It visibly made her upset, which at the time made Kyle very uneasy. Jennifer turned and walked towards him, her face way less cheerful than it had been until now. She dropped to one knee as soon as she was next to him and whispered at him again:

“I weigh forty-nine hundred pounds, OK?” she said.

Kyle’s jaw dropped.

“Wh… what?”

He was still trying to process what she had said, trying to find out where he had got it wrong.

“Shut the fuck up and get to the twelfth floor. I’ll explain later, OK?” Jennifer said, in her most annoyed tone since he had met her. “And not a word to anyone.”

Kyle decided that the last thing he wanted to do was to upset a woman that could lift a bus over her head, so he did as instructed and took the elevator by himself. His jaw dropped again when the doors of the twelfth floor opened and she was there, waiting immediately outside for him. She was not even breathing hard.

There were some more people in the exit area, as well as a TV crew. Jennifer waited for the hospital director to explain what she would be doing there and why it was so important, smiling as cutely as ever. She then rested her hand on Kyle’s shoulder, apparently in a gesture of camaraderie. When her fingers closed a bit tighter than they should, though, Kyle knew that she had not yet forgotten the conversation downstairs.

“Kyle and I are very happy to have been assigned to this hospital. I’m eager to get started and clear the three blocked floors this morning, so that more kids can be treated here starting tomorrow. Now, if you’ll forgive us, we’d rather get to work.”

She pulled Kyle “gently” as she walked towards the collapsed area, forcing him to follow her. Then, she made sure to get deep into it, looking for some isolation.

Kyle was a bit scared when she let him go.

“I… I didn’t… I’m sorry...” he started. Then, he seemed to realized something and said: “Wait! I didn’t do anything wrong!”

“I know,” Jennifer replied in a less cheerful tone than the one she typically used. “But I realized we needed to have a chat if we have to keep working together.”

Kyle nodded, a bit relieved.

The amazon then extended an oversized hand and said:

“I’m Jennifer Watson. I’m twenty-six and I used to be a cheerleader for the Sea Lions.”

Kyle took the hand, the feeling a bit awkward as it was both soft to the touch and incredibly hard to the pressure, and said:

“Kyle Jenkins. Thirty-one. Cop.”

“Girlfriend?” Jennifer asked.

Kyle blushed and shook his head.

“Ok. If they keep making us work together, sooner or later they’ll start speculating about romance. If they ask you, just smile and say that we’re friends and have a very good working relationship. You might want to add a comment or two about how great I am. I’ll do the same. That should settle it.”

“Or… I could deny it?” Kyle suggested.

“Why would you want to do that? It’s best to keep them thinking,” Jennifer said. “Believe me, it is. No comments about me weighting forty-nine hundred pounds, though,” Jennifer added.

“Is that for real? My squad car weights less…” Kyle said.

“Tell me, Kyle… do you think I’m fat?”

The question took him completely off guard. If there was something missing from Jennifer’s body it was an ounce of fat. Her muscles, while not bulging, were better defined than those of a fitness coach. And her proportions, hips, waist and chest were almost cartoonish.

“No! Of course not!”

“Right,” Jennifer said. “You saw me holding a school bus over my head, did you not? Do you know how I did that?”

Kyle was getting a bit upset by Jennifer’s tone.

“No, not really. You told me you were freaking strong and that you would explain later. You never did.”

Jennifer had not been expecting the harsh response. It made her realize that she was being a bit difficult, which made her relax her tone.

“When all those other women got cancer, I did too. But I didn’t die. Many days, I wished I had. I wouldn’t wish that kind of pain on my worst enemy. And then, one day, the pain was gone. I was aware of my surroundings once more. And I could see myself. Only I was not me. I was … this!” she said, pointing at herself. “The cancer, or whatever it was, did something different to me than killing me. I grew. And it made my muscles ultra-dense. I have waaaay more muscle tissue than even a body this size has the right to have. That’s the reason I’m so freaking strong. And also the reason I’m so heavy. And believe me, the world isn’t ready for eight-footers, but it’s even less ready for women of my weight. I can’t get in elevators, I can’t ride vehicles that haven’t been adapted for me, I can’t swim…”

“You can’t swim?” Kyle asked, taken by surprise.

“It has to do with the density. And I love swimming. I can walk under the sea without issues, or jump out of the water. But no swimming.”

“I’m sorry,” Kyle offered.

“But then, I can hold a bus over my head!” Jennifer added, trying to cheer the tone of the conversation a bit.

Kyle then remembered about something he wanted to ask.

“Why are we in this hospital?”

“You mean, why is someone like me taking care of a job any construction crew could do? Or why are you stuck with me?” Jennifer asked. She answered her own question: “It’s called PR. Yesterday, we made a big difference. Today, there’s not really much chance of repeating that. But we have people’s attention. And that’s the important thing. So, why a hospital? Because it sells more than a library. And because we can finish by kissing kids on our way out.”

“You don’t seem too bothered, though?”

“Why should I be? I love kids. And I understand that image is important. If I had shown up under any other circumstances, I’d be called a freak. Today, I’m the people’s hero. Once this earthquake stuff is over, I want to continue being it. I want people not to freak out about my strength. I want them to talk about my looks.”

“Why are you telling me all this?” Kyle asked, realizing that the amazon was opening up quite a lot for such an early stage in their professional relationship.

“Because you have a part to play. They put you with me for a reason. Originally, the idea was that we would be very obviously following instructions from the rightful authorities. You know, the last thing people want is a girl with my strength making her own decisions. Now that we’re angels and all that, my guess is that they need a counterpoint for us. I mean, I’m a woman. I’m supposed to need someone to help me think or provide me with emotional balance.”

“That’s male chauvinism!” Kyle said.

“That’s the way it works,” Jennifer countered.

“You’re not upset by it?” Kyle asked, surprised.

“Again, that’s the way it works. I want to help people. I want the popularity that comes with it. So, I play my part. And if you play yours, you can get a lot out of this.”

“But, I haven’t a clue how to do this!” Kyle protested.

“Don’t worry. I’ll help you,” Jennifer said. Then, she crouched and brought her face closer to her partner’s. “Oh, and Kyle… if you ever tell anyone any of this… I’ll be very, very pissed off, understood?”

He swallowed hard.

Her tone was cheerful once more as she said:

“Cool, let’s get some rubble out of the way, shall we?”

*=*=*=*=*=*

Nathalie was smiling at the people lining up on both sides of the avenue as she walked slowly, waving shyly as she headed towards the bridge on eighty-third. Or towards what used to be the bridge. They had asked her to clear the rubble and cars that were blocking Northwood’s main street, so that traffic could get back to normal as soon as possible.

Mike Sigursson was walking next to her, feeling overwhelmed about the situation as a camera crew recorded their movements, now from a distance.

“There are no emergency teams in the area. I haven’t seen one since I landed, and that was a while ago already. And this neighborhood was hit hard.”

There were many more affected buildings compared with other areas of town, probably because the construction quality was lower.

“Santa Isabel is a big city. There aren’t that many emergency relief resources,” Mike replied apologetically.

“And this is a poor neighborhood, right?” Nathalie replied dryly.

“I didn’t say that…” Mike said, ashamed.

Nathalie softened her tone immediately.

“I know it’s not your fault, but you might want to tell whoever might give a damn about this that I noticed, and that I hope that I won’t need to mention it when the news crews ask me about my day. I’ll clear the street as asked, but these people need much more than a weight lifter.”

They were interrupted by the loud bang of three shots and the approaching sound of screeching tires. A car raced past them two intersections ahead. Ten seconds later, a squad car with its siren on rushed after it.

Nathalie looked at Mike questioningly. He was listening to the radio.

“They looted a local electronics shop. The owner, who lives upstairs, tried to stop them with a shotgun, they shot him. He’s injured but alive.”

Nathalie could feel her blood boil. After a day helping victims of the earthquake and having a first-hand view of the misery the tremor had caused to tens of thousands of people, the thought that someone might take advantage of the situation and of the victims maddened her.

She looked down at Officer Sigursson and said:

“Mike, order me to help you with this.”

He looked up at her and realized that he had no other option.

“Su… sure. Nathalie, is there anything you could do to help us with the shooting?”

She smirked and said:

“Ask for reinforcements. Wait for me here.”

Nathalie turned and started sprinting right away. Mike felt a shiver running down his spine when he realized that she was running faster than a race car.

The ebony amazon made a left onto the street where the looters and the chasing cops had raced by and used her enhanced vision to find them six blocks away. It made her step up her pace, her feet now cracking the asphalt as they pushed her along at over a hundred and fifty miles per hour.

Traffic was still light, considering that most of the roads in the neighborhood were still not operational, but there was the occasional car every now and then. It was no problem for Nathalie, who could combine her acute senses, her superhuman reflexes and her agility to easily avoid them and run past them as if they were stationary.

She soon caught up with the squad car, the passenger looking at her with his mouth wide open as she kept level with it for a few seconds.

“I’m going to take care of them. No need to risk your lives,” she said to the startled officers.

She picked up her pace right after, reaching a peak of two-hundred miles per hour before catching up with the old Lexus. Nathalie wondered what to do for a second. Then, she just jabbed her fingers into the side of the car and stopped in her tracks.

She was dragged for a few feet. Her feet dug into the asphalt as she played the role of a brake for both the car and herself. Half a block further on, they were completely stopped.

The squad car, not ready for what had happened, raced past them before immediately braking hard, leaving very noticeable tire marks on the road as it did.

Nathalie was still very pissed off at the criminals, so she did not waste time walking over to the driver’s side of the car and ripping the door off the vehicle’s frame. She bent to look at the hateful men inside when she found herself facing the barrel of a gun.

The thug did not even warn her before shooting. At point blank range, she felt the slug hitting the bridge of her nose and stinging a little, only to bounce away in a random direction an instant later. Just like in training. Just like they had been instructed to avoid in “real life”.

Nathalie reacted without hesitation and kicked the underside of the car, making it roll twice over itself before it landed on its roof. None of the villains inside were in good enough shape to try anything against her when she approached the car again and bent to look at the now very bruised thugs. She did not feel any sympathy for them, so she just ignored their pained moans and proceeded to remove all three of them from the car, not taking any care to be gentle in the process.

The trio of looters were lying on the road next to Nathalie when the two cops from the chasing car finally arrived, clearly short of breath.

“Are you OK?” the one she had seen through the window asked.

“What? Yes, sure!” Nathalie said.

“They… they shot at you!” the cop said.

Nathalie did not know if her expression would betray her. She resorted to the answer she had practiced, though.

“Yes… the fucking bastard tried to shoot me. He missed, though.”

The cop that had been driving arched an eyebrow, but did not say anything. Nathalie decided not to give them any time to think, so she just crouched and started grabbing the looters one by one, tucking two of them underarm and keeping the third in her right hand.

“Where do you guys want me to leave this scum?”

*=*=*=*=*=*

Susan was working down in the Subway tunnels, clearing some large pieces of debris out of the way, when she found herself running out of patience. The latest of a long series of puns was the final straw for her. The workers had been whispering all morning, unaware that her enhanced ears allowed her to hear even their distant breathing.

She turned, her look startling the men despite the low light, and said angrily:

“Yeah, I have a great ass. Great tits too. And no, I’m not a virgin. But don’t get too excited, I don’t date shorter guys!”

The crew exchanged looks of shame. It was not nearly enough to calm Susan down. Her voice started to become louder, up to a point that no-one who lacked her special abilities would have been able to match.

“You guys are disgusting! It would at least be passable if you weren’t completely useless. But you know what? I’m spending more time trying not to crush you as I’m getting the job done than actually clearing the way!”

There were some murmurs and over-shoulder glances before finally they faced Susan again, feeling uneasy.

Susan had broken the seal.

“You know what? I don’t need you! The only reason I’m required to work with you is so that people will think that I’m just one more pair of hands. But I’m not. I want to help, but I don’t need to take your crap!”

There was a very uncomfortable silence. Then, Susan broke it with a very loud interjection.

“Get lost!”

The men were starting to become very scared.

“Go on! It’s alright! There aren’t any cameras here! No-one’s interested in crappy Subway work, even if it’s possibly the most useful stuff that will get done today. You can all just fuck off and no one will ever notice!”

When no one reacted, Susan raised her voice to the point where men had to cover their ears:

“Go!”

That finally had the desired effect. She immediately felt a guilty pleasure at what she had achieved, even if she knew it was going to provoke a backlash back at the base. Not having to worry about the pigs anymore, she focused back on the task at hand. It wasn’t easy, but it was the sort of job she could get done in a fraction of the time a full construction crew would have needed. The Subway was important for Isabelians, especially the less affluent ones, so Susan knew that no matter how lousy everyone thought the work was, she was doing something significant.

For a while, she continued pushing smaller pieces of debris off the tracks. From time to time, there was a larger chunk she had to take all the way to the exit; without the men bothering her, she could get it done so much faster. She enjoyed the loneliness and the quiet and efficiency that came with it. She had to be thankful for her enhanced eyesight, in any case. With the men gone, so were their flashlights, which meant that the tunnel was in almost total darkness as she worked on it. A tiny glimmer of light was all her eyes needed to work, however, affording her a view of the tunnels that was comparable to the most sophisticated night vision systems.

Susan knew that, even with her remarkable skills, she would not complete the Subway task in a single day. And she understood that Lindbergh would continue assigning her to it for as long as he was able to; after all this was the least public of all the relief efforts available, the perfect location for the girl that no-one had wanted to become super-strong.

By the time she came out to take a bite, Susan had already cleared seventeen miles of tunnels. No-one congratulated her on a job well done or sat with her to eat. She could not have cared less, devouring the equivalent of twenty individual rations quietly and methodically while noticing the stares of the men fixed on her. No-one was whispering anything about her anymore, though. Susan figured that the men had done the math and realized that her hearing was far more sensitive than they had expected.

She just nodded at the annoyed-looking men when she finished her huge meal and got back inside, ready to accomplish in a few hours what the two-dozen men out there could not have dreamed of completing even if they had a whole month.

The last thing she was expecting when she turned around the corner and faced the last section of the tunnel she was working on was the one thing that happened.

“Hi there, Susie,” the deep voice said, almost with a trace of mockery.

Susan recognized it right away.

“You know I hate being called Susie!” she snapped.

“I know, I know,” the woman that had uttered the words replied, raising her hands in an apologetic way as she stood up from the boulder she had been sitting on and headed towards Susan through the gloomy tunnel. For once, Susan did not need to look down to meet her eyes.

“What are you doing here?” Susan asked.

“I just wanted to have a chat, catch up a bit,” the woman said.

“Tell me, Nicole, why shouldn’t I just turn you in?”

“Because you don’t give a shit about them,” Nicole said.

“I don’t give a shit about you either,” Susan said.

“No, but you’re dying of curiosity.”

*=*=*=*=*=*

Lindbergh tried to look welcoming as he received Eva Roark at door to his office. It was curious: he found her physically attractive at the same time as despising her presence. In her mid-forties, Dr. Roark kept herself in admirable physical shape and dressed smartly but elegantly, making her look professional, commanding and appealing at the same time. Or at least, that’s how she appeared to the General.

“Welcome to Fort Exeter, Dr. Roark.”

She smiled, but it was clear that it was forced.

“It’s good to be here and to be working for you, General Lindbergh. It’s clear that you’re running the most interesting military research project in the country. I hope that I can contribute to its success.”

“Oh, I’m sure you will. I was told by the Secretary that you reviewed our neutralization plans and identified several potential improvements,” the General said, swiftly cutting to the chase, but keeping his tone warm.

“Well, I spotted a few black holes. My conclusions pretty much matched those of the other committee members.”

A committee? So, Dunbar had set up a committee to review and trash their work? Lindbergh managed to keep a calm demeanor despite the rage that he felt welling up inside.

“I see,” he said, simply.

“The staff at the Pentagon were very concerned by those conclusions. The committee came up with a list of recommendations and I was asked to oversee its implementation,” Roark explained.

Once more, “I see,” was all that Lindbergh managed to say, the effort to contain his anger growing more taxing. “That’s in line with what I was told when I was informed that you would be reporting to me,” he added, stressing the hierarchical reference.

“Good. There won’t be any misunderstandings, then,” Roark replied with a cold smile.

“Of course, we all hope that your work won’t be necessary,” Lindbergh said. “Our objective here is creative in nature, not destructive.”

“Oh,” uttered Eva Roark.

“Oh, what?” the General asked, finally letting his displeasure be heard in his voice.

“I see you were not fully informed. The Pentagon has decided to put any other research on hold until we have a revised neutralization plan, signed off by the committee once I’ve submitted my recommendation.”

Lindbergh was speechless.

“That’s crazy…” he finally managed to say.

“General, with all due respect, crazy would be allowing yourself to be blinded by ambition and focussing all the vast resources at your disposal on replicating the random results of The Flare when you don’t even have the means to control the four women under your command, as proven by the escape of Miss Keilani,” Roark snapped.

So, this was not going to be a courtesy meeting, after all.

“Have you come to help us, or correct us?” General Lindbergh finally barked.

“I’m here to help you by correcting the part of your work that needs correcting. Don’t get me wrong, General. What you are trying to accomplish may prove to be the biggest advance in US military power since Project Manhattan. But right now you’re tampering with radioactive material in the middle of a metropolis without anything that even resembles shielding.”

There were a few seconds of uncomfortable silence. Eva Roark held the General’s gaze constantly.

“Thanks for being direct about your observations and your purpose here. And thanks for making it clear that formal reporting lines aren’t going to be that relevant. I assume you’ll be keeping the Pentagon up to date directly, saving me the trouble of having to do so. Now that we’ve reached this point, I’ve got to ask, though: what’s it going to take for you to endorse the revised neutralization plan and unblock the real research we’re doing here?” Lindbergh asked in a silky yet threatening tone.

Dr. Roark narrowed her eyes just a little and said:

“I’m a practical woman, General. And since I assume you won’t be willing to use any of the three women still working for you for the sort of tests that would be required, what I have in mind will necessarily involve Nicole Keilani. Once I see her corpse and I understand the manner of her death, you’ll have my recommendation to move forward.”

“How soon can you be ready, Dr. Roark?” Lindbergh inquired.

“How soon can you deliver her to me?” Eva Roark asked back.

*=*=*=*=*=*

Mike Sigursson watched in amazement as Nathalie kept the three looters under control as easily as an adult might keep three children in place, while his colleagues made the transport van ready.

He had seen Nathalie take off after them and still could not believe the speed the young woman had managed to achieve. The rest of the story, he knew by reference. If he had not seen the woman in action before, he would not have believed a word of what his comrades had told him. Now, he had no problem accepting that the amazon had caught up with the car, stopped it with her hands, flipped it over with a kick and removed the three bruised criminals from within as if they were rag dolls.

He was still feeling somewhat uneasy about the part of the story where she had barely managed to avoid being shot in the face. It would have been dramatic for the city to lose its newfound hero less than forty-eight hours after meeting her for the first time. Mike made a mental note to have a chat with Nathalie and raise her awareness of the dangers of law enforcement. He had the feeling that the girl was overconfident due to her abilities and was not alert to the type of scum that existed out there.

He was leaning on the front of his squad car, watching Nicole release “her prisoners” one by one to his colleagues, who were handcuffing them and forcing them into the van. Suddenly, a reflection caught his attention. He was about to discard it, but curiosity got the better of him so Officer Sigursson found himself walking towards the upside-down car in which the looters had been trying to escape.

He crouched to pick up the shiny object and was shocked by the realisation that it was a 9mm bullet. Or, to be more precise, a severely deformed 9mm bullet. It looked like the slugs they had picked up when firing on the range at an armored target. And it was right next to the car, very close to the spot where Nathalie had clearly torn the driver’s door out of the frame to get to the driver.

“Hey, Sigursson! What’s up?” an approaching colleague called from distance.

He rushed to place the deformed bullet in his pocket. He was still a bit jumpy when he stood up and turned to the smiling officer.

“Nothing. I thought the men might have dropped something when exiting the car, but it was just a trick of the light.”

“Sure. Hey, that girl… she’s pretty impressive, isn’t she?”

“More than you think.” Sigursson replied.

*=*=*=*=*=*

 Five minutes into their initial meeting, it became clear that Eva Roark was much more skilled at politics than Jason Sully.

“What do you mean the teams I’ve formed won’t work?” he complained.

“I took the liberty of picking my own team members during the flight here. I see none of the ones on my list are on yours. I suggest we discuss them one by one, if you don’t mind?” Roark said.

“What… why? I do not report to you!” Sully complained.

“Feel free to check with General Lindbergh if you want. We can continue our conversation later, if that works best for you.”

“I already checked with Lindbergh!” Sully complained.

“You may want to do it again,” Eva Roark suggested with a silky tone.

“I will!”

“Ok, so let’s leave the team composition for a later meeting. Is today at 6pm OK? I’d rather not delay this decision too much.”

Sully could only nod. Roark smiled and changed topic:

“Let’s talk about content, then. Would you mind sharing with me your latest neutralization plans?”

“You already have them. I think they’re the ones you criticized in order to get a ticket here,” Jacob Sully replied, finally releasing all his animosity for her.

“Of course, I have those. But even if you haven’t paid any attention to this particular critical aspect of the project, there’s no way those were your real plans. You see, I have more esteem than you think for your abilities,” Roark said.

“I was told that you had your own list of suggestions,” Sully replied, trying to change the direction of the conversation.

“I do. And I’m planning to update it once I see your real plans.”

There was a very long and uncomfortable silence. Or at least that’s how it felt to Sully. When Eva Roark moved, to get more comfortable in her chair, and it became obvious that she was not going to leave, Sully said:

“I need to talk to General Lindbergh.”

Dr. Roark rolled her eyes before replying:

“Your loyalty is admirable. It’s not going to get you very far, though.”

*=*=*=*=*=*

Lindbergh never met with Colonel Beck at his office. The tall and sharp-looking man was lighting a cigarette when the General climbed into his car, on the sixth floor of a mall parking lot.

“I got your message,” Beck said in the same cold tone he always used. “I’m still stitching the net.”

“I need you to work faster. Roark was much more obvious than I was expecting, which means that her takeover is not going to be subtle. Our only way out of this is to find and kill Keilani without any meaningful contribution from that bitch,” Lindbergh said.

“I see,” Beck replied, not changing his expression.

“Can you do it?” Lindbergh asked, sounding a bit impatient. Beck was brutally efficient, but the man’s attitude sometimes got on his nerves.

“Honestly, I don’t know. She’s been way more careful than I expected over the last three weeks. There’s hardly any clues to work on.”

“Can you push it?” the General asked.

“I could, but it would put at risk our original objective of not attracting attention to the fact that one of the girls had gone AWOL. If I start digging too quickly, the SIPD and the Feds may start inquiring. And now that they know about the other three girls, even the press might start sniffing around.”

“I don’t care. We have more important objectives right now.”

“Understood.”

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