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The Phoenix Initiative – Chapter 5

Written by papayoya1 :: [Saturday, 22 December 2018 10:50] Last updated by :: [Saturday, 22 December 2018 12:26]

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Chapter 5

“Are you sure it was her?” General Lindbergh asked on the secure line, noticeably uncomfortable.

Colonel Beck’s voice came back from the other end:

“We’ll know soon enough. Rhodes was having an affair with Alison Stone. They’ve both been missing for two days. My men are heading to the hotel room where they met regularly, but I bet we’ll find traces of Keilani’s DNA there.”

“Why didn’t I know about this affair?” Lindbergh asked.

“It wasn’t important. Until now,” Beck replied dryly.

Owen Lindbergh knew better than to get upset with his main investigator and SpecOps man. His astonishing efficiency bought him enough credit to allow for his methods.

The fact that Rhodes was banging one of his assistants didn’t have to mean that Nicole Keilani had finally decided to come out of the dark, after almost a month lying so low that they had not heard anything about her.

“That still doesn’t explain why you’re so sure it was her,” the General replied, revealing a shade more tension than he intended in his voice.

“If you were seeing what I’m seeing, you wouldn’t have any doubts that the bitch has something in mind,” was Beck’s only response. “Listen, I need to take care of the cops that found the scene. I’ll call you back.”

General Lindbergh did not have the time to reply before the line died. The call had been deeply disturbing. He did not know if he was more concerned by the death of one of the men who reported directly to him, a man he had trusted with the training program for the girls, or about the news that his biggest mistake was getting ready to come back into the spotlight precisely when it was least convenient.

*=*=*=*=*=*

Mike Sigursson felt a little overwhelmed as the obliging Corporal Smith guided him through the oversized corridors of Fort Exeter. Fifty miles out of Santa Isabel in the forest direction, the brand-new army base had seemed pretty unremarkable from the outside. Mike was now learning that all the surprises were kept inside.

“Fort Exeter was a small support base,” the Corporal said in the tone of a tourist guide. “It was used as a field hospital after the Flare, when the ones Downtown became over-filled. Once we learned about the girls, the Phoenix, the location was convenient, and the Army had enough land, so it was expanded.”

Mike needed some time to realize what it was that unnerved him. Then he noticed: everything was just larger. The ceilings, the doors, the furniture… it felt designed for someone way bigger than an average human. Of course, he knew who.

“We are in the living and training section now,” Smith went on. “It was designed so that the girls would feel comfortable. Not all the base is like this. You should see them in the older buildings, having to crouch to get anywhere,” he added with a chuckle.

“So, this is where they live?” he asked.

“Well, not exactly. That’s where we’ll go, later. Right now, Nathalie, I mean, Miss Baptiste, is finishing her routine training, so I’ll show you around the area and we’ll meet her there, if that’s alright,” the Corporal said. “She can then show you her quarters.”

“Er… sure,” Mike said.

He noticed a change in the Corporal’s expression and soon found the reason a few yards further down the corridor. Mike had seen Susan Simpson on TV, even if she had been the girl who had been on screen the least, but as had happened to him with Nathalie, there was a big difference between the seeing the broadcast images and encountering her in real life.

Sweaty and dressed only in overstretched spandex shorts and bra, the youngest of the three girls was much more impressive at the close range. Her long hair was as red as his and was both drenched and neatly tied into a bun. There was no doubt that she had been exercising, even if nothing about her demeanor suggested exhaustion. Her skin was as pale and freckled as Mike’s, but that was where the similarities ended.

While Mike had no problem admitting that he was both short and not too strong, everything about the girl projected power. Her toned muscles were more defined than those of an athlete, which made a girl of her astounding height even more impressive. The dark-skinned woman hurriedly trying to keep pace by her side barely made it as high as her companion’s impressive chest and looked like a little girl by comparison, even if she was probably in her forties.

Corporal Smith’s body language suggested that he was not comfortable in her presence. Mike understood why, once his eyes met the deep green pools of the girl’s. She scowled, making him look elsewhere.

He felt observed as Susan and the woman walked past them without so much as a gesture from the redhead acknowledging their presence.

A few paces later Mike had sufficiently recovered from the brief experience to look for a bit of small talk with the Corporal.

“So, she’s not in a good mood?” he asked.

“Miss Simpson isn’t really a people person, if you know what I mean.”

Mike guessed he did, but it was clear that the man was not enthusiastic about the topic, so he just remained silent. They reached a massive side door soon enough.

“We’re here!” Smith said cheerfully as he keyed in the code and invited him through.

The door led to a wide gangway that overlooked several lower-level areas. Each of them was vast and featured some sort of heavy equipment that Mike could either not identify or would have related to construction. They walked for over two minutes past a half a dozen of these areas on either side before they reached one where there clearly was activity.

“There you have her!” Corporal Smith said with a smile, pointing down at the magnificent figure of Nathalie Baptiste.

She had not seen him yet. Mike guessed that it would be hard for her to notice anything, considering just how fast her legs were moving as she ran on what looked like a combination of a gym treadmill and a truck weighing station.

The display on the far end of the training zone was large enough for Mike to be able to read the numbers. They were oscillating between 101 and 102.

“Is she running at one hundred miles per hour?” he asked, stunned.

A man dressed in a white coat who had been observing the exercise a few paces away turned and smiled at him.

“Oh, no. That display isn’t miles per hour, it’s meters per second. We use International System measurements here,” he said. Seeing that Mike was clueless, the man widened his smile and said: “Nathalie is topping at around two-hundred and twenty-eight miles per hour. I’m not the one keeping track, but I think it’s her personal best. She’s still far behind Susan, though. But she used to run half-marathons before the Flare, so she was already a natural.”

Mike was astounded. For some reason, the only question that came to mind was:

“How fast is Susan?”

The man in the white coat chuckled.

“Well, she didn’t make it explicit, but everyone knew that she wanted to beat the three-hundred mile-an-hour mark today. She missed it by one mile per hour. I don’t think she’s in a good mood,” he said with a sneer that revealed to Mike that he was not sorry that the girl had missed her target.

Even if she had not hit her objective, two-hundred and ninety-nine miles per hour was an astonishing figure, no matter how enhanced she was. Just the thought that she could win any Indy race purely by running was mind-blowing.

“Hey, Mike!” a powerful voice brought his attention back to the training zone. Nathalie had finished and was waving at him with a warm smile.

Mike waved back, a bit uncertain.

She climbed the metallic and very sturdy-looking steps and he felt the gangway rattle as she ascended, heading towards him in a way that suggested she was genuinely pleased. As usual, Mike felt a little uneasy as she reached him and he was confronted with just how much she dwarfed him. She knelt, reaching out for a hug, and he was afraid for a moment. It turned out he had never been embraced so delicately, her barely sweaty skin feeling incredibly soft to touch.

She stood back up as she said:

“I was so happy to hear that you’d be coming by!”

“I had to insist,” he said, looking at the white coated men.

“I insisted too. I told them it would be good for PR. Why don’t you come with me? I need to go back to my room for a shower, but I’ll show you around. We have permission to go anywhere in the building!” she said, excited.

“Sure.”

Nathalie’s training clothes did not do much to cover her phenomenal figure and Mike caught himself staring at her hard bouncing buttocks as he followed her down a wide corridor. He could tell that she was being mindful of not walking too fast, letting him keep up with her without too much effort and reminding him that no matter how physically intimidating the young woman was, she seemed to have a very kind heart. Which was, of course, the only reason he had kept his secret to himself until now.

Nathalie’s accommodations were more like an apartment than a room. It was obvious that they wanted to make her feel at home, since the large space was decorated with a lot of taste and even a bit of luxury. Only everything was done at her scale, of course. So, he had to jump a bit to climb into the comfortable armchair while he waited for her to get out of the shower. Finding an oversized remote control next to him on the too wide cushion, Mike decided that TV was as good a way to kill the time as anything else, so he switched it on and was surprised when an entire wall came to life with an almost cinema-sized screen.

“They’re talking about you!” he said. The TV was showing a talk-show that alternated comments from the pundits with images of the girls, mostly Jennifer and Nathalie.

He had not expected her to hear him. After all, the bathroom was a considerable distance away and he could hear that the shower was still running. So, he was surprised when her reply came back, so loud and clear that she could have been standing next to him. Of course, after what he had seen her do the day he met her, he was only mildly surprised.

“Yeah! They talk about us all day long. Jennifer loves it. I try to keep as much away from it as possible. I don’t want to turn crazy!” she said cheerfully.

She was wearing a long gown when she stepped out of the bathroom, hair still wet. Mike arched an eyebrow and she chuckled.

“Don’t worry, I’m clothed underneath!”

She could only laugh when he blushed.

“You’re cute!” she said between laughs.

Officer Sigursson was desperately looking for a change of conversation, so he asked:

“So, you train every day?”

“Yes. Well, it’s more a check than training, really. The docs want to keep track of our abilities. I know they also use it to keep us entertained. At least the other girls. I’m not so competitive!” Nathalie readily answered.

“They pitch you against each other?” Mike asked, curious.

“Only the stats. They test a number of things like speed, stamina, raw strength, ability to react, agility…There are numerical results for all of them, so some time ago someone started a competition. I’m in it but, honestly, I don’t give a damn. Which I guess works well enough for me, since I’d lose at everything!” she said with another chuckle.

“Really?” Mike asked, surprised.

Nathalie smiled:

“Well, I know some of the stuff I do looks pretty impressive. I mean, I guess that from your point of view there isn’t such a big difference. But when it comes to the tests, I typically rank last. Except for hearing and eyesight, but I guess that’s not so spectacular, right?”

“Well, I had laser surgery to have my eyesight corrected, so don’t underestimate being blessed in that area!”

Nathalie laughed at Mike’s remark.

“Sure! Still, I don’t have any problem letting the other girls take the spotlight. Especially Jennifer. She loves it so much!”

“So, what is she good at?”

“Well, in her case it’s mostly about raw strength. I mean, that girl is a beast! She was almost six feet tall and worked out every day before the Flare. She used to be a cheerleader for the Sea Lions, so she kept in shape. I rarely visited the gym. And well, after the Flare, the difference can be measured in tons!” she said, chuckling at the end.

“I wouldn’t be too worried if I were you, anyway. I was impressed by the two-hundred and twenty-eight miles per hour!” Mike said.

“Oh, I’m happy enough with that. But you saw Susan. That girl is going to cross the three-hundred miles an hour mark any day now. And Nicole is faster, too.”

“Nicole?” Mike asked, surprised.

Nathalie’s face went blank for an instant, then she recovered and said:

“Oh, sorry, I meant Jennifer!”

She chuckled a bit as she finished, but Mike noticed a slight change of attitude and some discomfort. It was the girl’s turn to change subject.

“So, why did you come all the way here? Don’t misunderstand me… I love the visit, and I hope it’ll be the first of many, but the guys told me that there was something you wanted to talk to me about.”

Mike reached for his pocket and took out the deformed slug he had taken from the crime scene. Nathalie’s face changed as soon as he showed it to her, pinched between two fingers. Her index finger quickly shot to her lips as her eyes conveyed a warning. It sent a shiver down Mike’s spine.

“You know what?” the girl said, trying to keep the same cheerful tone she had had until that point, even if Mike could feel the tension. “Why don’t we take a walk and we can chat while I show you the rest of the facilities?”

The walk felt never-ending to Mike as he followed Nathalie, now clad in comfortable cotton shorts and T-shirt. She told him about the training area, the place where the other two girls lived, the common areas where they met and socialized and also the part of the base where the scientific team lived and worked.

Then she guided him through a garden and into an open field, telling him about her fondness for being in the open, even if she only went outside the grounds of the base when she was on a mission. She started discussing the different types of trees that could be found in the small stretch of forest that fell within Fort Exeter’s perimeter and guided him to a large oak that was her favorite. As soon as they reached it, she looked down at him with a very concerned face.

“Who have you told about the bullet?”

Mike instantly became worried. Then, he saw the tension in the woman’s body and felt a shiver down his spine as he realized that he was afraid.

Nathalie noticed, and immediately changed her expression to one that looked like a mix of embarrassment and annoyance.

“For God’s sake, I would never hurt you!” she said, sounding very upset. “I’m doing all this for your sake!”

It was obvious that she had been hurt by his reaction, so it was now Mike’s opportunity to be embarrassed.

“I… I’m sorry. All this is becoming a bit mind-boggling.”

Nathalie’s expression changed right away to the usual kind one, but her eyes were still focused.

“I really need to know if you told anyone about the bullet,” she urged.

“You’re the first,” Mike replied, suddenly feeling good about having trusted her to be the first to know. He was happy to see the very noticeable relief in her face.

“I know I don’t have the right to ask,” Nathalie said. “But I need this to stay between us.”

Mike was about to reply when he suddenly thought of something.

“Is your room bugged?”

It was the only reason she could have gone to all the work of taking him for such a long walk.

Nathalie shrugged and said:

“Well, I don’t know for certain. But we all assume someone’s listening. We’re pretty sure they’re not watching. I guess that being girls kind of helped there.”

“But that…” Sigursson started.

“I know,” Nathalie said, lowering her gaze. “But that’s not important right now. We don’t have too long. If we don’t head back soon, they’ll start suspecting. Can I count on you?”

Mike could not hold it in any longer.

“Nathalie, you’re invulnerable to bullets!”

She seemed both embarrassed and proud.

“Look… the Flare, whatever it did… it obviously changed us. Made our muscles way denser, giving us the kind of strength that you’ve already seen. But it did more. My body is much heavier… and tougher. A bullet or a simple blade can’t go through my skin.”

“Oh, my God, this is… mind-blowing,” Mike said. Then, he understood the consequences of what he had just learned, and his face changed. Nathalie, of course, noticed.

“See,” she said, sounding a bit sad. “This is the reason I’m asking. The General doesn’t want it known. And no matter how big of an asshole he is, the man has a point on this one. If people found out, what do you think the reaction would be?”

Mike understood what she meant, even if he wanted to be more positive.

“You don’t know… you’re heroes…” he started saying.

“They’d be scared shitless, Mike!” she snapped. “And who could blame them? I mean, some people are already publicly questioning whether we’re a threat. What do you think they’d do if they heard that we’re invulnerable to regular weapons?”

Mike understood.

“You can’t hide it forever,” he said. “Besides, I’m not sure… the people have a right to know.”

Nathalie let out a half-hearted laugh.

“You know what? A year ago, I would have wholeheartedly agreed with you. But what do you think will happen if the people learn? Look at me, Mike. I want to help. That’s my new mission in life. I understand that there’s no going back to my old life. I’ve accepted that I’ll be confined to a military base for the rest of my days, being tested and following instructions. But I can make a difference, and that’s all I want. I’m not dangerous, but if people think I am, we’re all going to lose out.”

“You’re not the only one,” Sigursson observed.

“Come on. Jennifer loves the spotlight too much, but aside from that she’s a great girl. And it’s not as if she’d do anything that might harm her public image!”

“And Susan?”

Mike remembered the uneasiness the redhead had caused.

“Susan’s just a frightened little girl. She couldn’t kill a fly. And Jen and I take care of her.”

“You’re asking me to lie,” Mike reflected.

“For the greater good. Yours included. If the General finds out that you know about this, you’ll be in trouble.”

Mike did not like the remark.

“It looks as if things are not as happy here as one would’ve thought.”

Nathalie nodded lightly as she kept her dark eyes locked on his.

“We’ve been here long enough already. Trust me on this and I promise I will trust you with everything. When we get back to the room, invite me for dinner at your place any day that works well. They won’t be able to deny me this one, they can even spin it for publicity. I’ll return the confidence. I promise.”

Officer Sigursson had to admit that it felt very weird to have a woman such as Nathalie Baptiste almost pleading with him. His heart won the quick internal argument and, against his best judgment, he said:

“Ok. But this isn’t a blank check.”

Nathalie just smiled and led the way back.

*=*=*=*=*=*=*

Susan felt utterly frustrated. After her constant improvement over the last week, she had been sure that she would be beating the three-hundred mile per hour mark and falling short made her feel like an underachiever. After all, running was one of the only things in her life that still managed to provide her with some satisfaction.

Dr. Campos was struggling to keep up as she followed her to her room. The Doc wanted to have a chat, even if Susan was not in the mood. And then, a door opened and a woman in her forties stepped into the corridor, followed by an entourage of four of the eggheads she knew. The woman was good looking in a severe sort of way, her dark hair neatly tied in a bun and her black skirt and jacket reinforcing the image. It was clear by the look on her face that she was not expecting to cross paths with her.

Susan headed straight to the woman. It was obvious that no one was happy with that, but it was not as if anyone was going to be able to do anything about it. The woman was visibly uncomfortable, and even more when Susan did not stop her stroll until she was practically on top of her. She did not stoop or crouch on purpose, making the difference in height more evident. After a couple of pretty awkward seconds, Susan offered her hand. To the small woman’s credit, she did not flinch in accepting the offer, closing her significantly smaller fingers around hers. Susan was gentle as they shook hands.

“Susan Simpson,” she said. “And you must be Dr. Roark, the woman they sent to find ways to kill us.”

Susan’s comment raised the overall discomfort levels of the situation. Susan broke the tension with a chuckle.

“Oh, don’t worry. No matter how much Lindbergh, Sully or the good Doc Campos here have tried to pretend otherwise, we’ve always known that they were working on it. In a way, it’s good to know that there’s someone responsible for it. This way, I can ask you directly about the progress.”

The woman kept proving that she had guts. She did not hesitate before replying:

“It is nice to meet you, Susan. You certainly know that it’s not my objective or my intention to kill you or any of the other girls.”

Susan smiled.

“Of course,” she said. “Why would you? In any case, I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t wish you luck in your endeavors.”

With that, Susan let the woman’s hand go and kept walking down the corridor.

She did not wait for Dr. Campos as she reached her suite and headed straight to the shower. Elena was waiting for her when she stepped out.

“You’re not going to get dressed?” the doctor asked as Susan set the towel aside.

“You’re not seeing anything that you haven’t seen a hundred times before,” Susan replied with some disdain.

And then, Dr. Campos scolded her like only she could do.

“I don’t care if you’re mad at the rest of the world Susan! I saved your fucking life, so you’d better stop that childish behavior with me!”

Susan was embarrassed. She was not going to apologize, but still she went for a gown and donned it before sitting across from the Doctor in the comfortable sofa. She did not say anything, but this gave Dr. Campos the cue to go on.

“That attitude of yours isn’t helping you. You’re a smart girl, so you must be seeing it!”

Susan did not reply immediately. Instead, she grabbed her tablet and turned it on, browsing through the apps with her fingers.

“See that?”

Dr. Campos narrowed her eyes.

“You made a Facebook page?”

“No. This is my old Facebook page. Do you know how many friends I had before all this happened? Thirty-eight. Most of them were family. Do you know how many tried to contact me after the Flare and after I was out for a year? Seven!” Susan said.

“What are you trying to say, Susan?” Elena Campos asked.

“Wanna see what happened in the last couple of days, after Lindbergh’s publicity stunt? I have so many friend requests that the system can’t even show them. And do you want to read the comments?”

“I can imagine…” Dr. Campos said.

“Oh, you’d be surprised how twisted some people can be, believe me!” Susan said.

“So what?” Dr. Campos asked, getting impatient.

“So, stop asking me to be nice and enjoy. The world was seriously fucked up before all this happened to me and it’s still seriously fucked up now. Do you know the difference? Before people saw a weirdo they could laugh at and abuse. Now, they see an oversized girl with big boobs and a hard ass that can do their heavy lifting. Does anyone care about what I want? No, of course not. Do I want to go to college? Why should that matter; it’s way more important not to make the rest of the students uncomfortable, right? Do I like jogging? Why should anyone care when I can use the fucking treadmill!”

“Susan…”

“I wake up when I’m told to. I take the tests I’m told to take. I go out and get heavy rubble out of the way when I’m told to. Why do you care if I’m not nice to people I despise?”

Dr. Campos looked dismayed.

“Look, Susan. You girls are heroes. Jennifer and Nathalie are using it for their benefit. Do yourself a favor, stop whining and start enjoying the situation.”

“Do you care about me, Dr. Campos?” Susan suddenly asked.

“How can you ask that? Of course I do!”

“Then, why don’t you prove it?” Susan asked. She was determined to use the conversation for her own benefit. “Talk to Lindbergh. Let me go jogging outside. You know running was the only thing I enjoyed before all this shit! It’s not as if you have anything to lose, anyway. After all, we’re in the middle of fucking nowhere!”

Dr. Campos was shocked. This was not necessarily bad. After a few seconds, she said:

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“Good,” Susan said plainly.

“You know what ‘quid pro quo’ means, right?” Dr. Campos then asked.

“Of course,” Susan replied, intrigued.

“If I get you this, I expect you to stop being a spoilt little girl and to start acting like what you’ve become!”

She did not give her the chance to reply, standing up from a sofa that dwarfed her petite form and heading for the door with a speed that felt fast even for Susan. She stayed in the room, reflecting for a while.

*=*=*=*=*=*

“I’m sorry that you had to see this, Officer Tracy,” Colonel Beck said. “The Triads are well-known for violence, but they’re at their worst when they’re fighting amongst themselves.”

“This… this was a fight between gangs?” one of the two policemen that had found the scene at Vanderbilt said.

“Well, they’re too well-armed to be considered gangs. Think of them practically as armies. That’s the reason we created the special unit. We want to make sure they don’t root on the West Coast. Our own organized crime is bad enough, but this… well, you can see what savages they are!”

“The bodies… they burst!” the cop said.

Colonel Beck looked down and shook his head.

“Yeah. I’ve seen this before. They use heavy construction machinery. To send a message, you know.”

“Oh my God!” the cop said.

“Yes. We can’t afford to let these practices come here. We still have a good chance. In a way, the fact that they’ve been killing themselves helps. But it’s very important that this doesn’t become public knowledge. You understand that, right?”

The cops nodded.

“It’s very important that you don’t talk about this to anyone. Not even your colleagues down at the precinct.”

They nodded again. Beck smiled and said:

“You two did a great job. Really fine. We’ll make sure to talk to your Captain so that you get the proper recognition. We’ll take it from here.”

The squad car was on its way back soon enough, finally allowing Beck time to get into the site. His men had already been working, Captain Benning quickly coming to his side to point out the most remarkable findings.

The state of the bodies would have been sickening for men with less training than them. Beck saw beyond them and felt some distress at some of the other things he could see. Destroyed and toppled vehicles, a truck that had been tossed into the canal, a plane that had crashed into the hangar.

Benning broke the silence.

“You know, I’ve seen these fucking girls do a ton of stuff back at Fort Exeter. Rationally, I should have known that Nicole Keilani was capable of this. But I never made that link. I could imagine her lifting cars or tossing people around. But this… I never imagined this.”

Beck did not reply immediately.

“We always knew she had the physical skills to do something like this. We never wanted to imagine that a human being was capable of it, though. But we knew there was a risk with Keilani.”

“She’d never been involved in any act of violence before. We checked her background. We were thorough. How does someone move from that to killing over sixty people in one go?” Benning asked.

“In her case, by being able to,” Beck replied. “We knew she was smart. We knew she was mostly a cold-thinker but that she could also be hot-blooded. She tried to hide it, but we knew she enjoyed power. Once she found out that she could exercise it without any fear of retaliation, she just let go. You never know when a psychopath will start killing.”

Benning swallowed hard.

“That thing with the plane…” Beck stated. “My God!”

“What’s she going to do now?” Benning asked.

“I’ll be damned if I know. She did this as part of a plan. I guess we’ll learn soon enough what’s the next thing she has in mind. She might lay low for a while more, or she may go after more blood, if that serves her purposes,” Beck said.

“What do we do?”

“Anticipate her movements. Find out what the hell these goons were doing here and who, besides Keilani, might want to see them dead. She’s been off our radar for close to a month. She got some help to do that. If we find out who helped her, we may be able to predict what she’ll do.”

*=*=*=*=*=*=*

Nicole was lying in bed, watching the endless succession of images of her three former colleagues on TV, when the door opened. Two of Petrenko’s men came in, carrying a third man. She smiled at the terrified Zhao while the bruisers that had brought him there got out of her room as quickly as they were able to.

Nicole switched the TV off and laughed when she saw the Chinese boss slamming his fists on the armored door.

“Stop hurting yourself, dear. I’ll open the door for you myself as soon as we’re done,” she said in a sensual voice.

The man turned, still looking scared. There was also a questioning look in his face. Nicole patted the bed next to her and beckoned.

“Why don’t you come here? All I want is to have a little chat.”

He was hesitant, so she decided to push him a bit.

“I can also come over there and pick you up, but the chances of you ending up with more broken bones will be higher.”

It took him a while, but he finally started reluctantly walking towards her, making her chuckle. He struggled to climb onto the high bed, especially with his left hand wrapped in a bandage, but he finally made it close enough to her to make him shiver.

“What are you?” the Chinese man finally asked. His English was that of a well-educated man.

Nicole rolled her eyes as she said:

“You’ve seen my three friends moving heavy stuff out of the way on TV. I’m the same.”

“No-one said that they were bullet-proof,” Zhao said, sounding more comfortable as they talked.

“I guess they omitted that little detail, didn’t they?” Nicole answered with a chuckle. “I can’t imagine why? Unless they didn’t want the public to be shocked by the possibility of people like me roaming around their city.”

“Are there more?” Zhao asked, making Nicole laugh.

“Why? Are you trying to get to meet all of us? That will be a total of four, as far as I know. Everyone else who was exposed to the Flare and got sick and died.”

“What do you want?” he finally asked.

“You know, before all this happened to me, I used to be an associate lawyer in a big firm. So, I happen to know that an operation like the one you were running cannot work without a good front and a good money laundering system. I want to know how yours works,” she said.

“Why?” Zhao asked, getting nervous again.

“I promised Andrey that I would put you out of business. And I’m a thorough woman.”

“Why do you work for Petrenko?” Zhao asked, raising his voice.

Nicole let out another laugh.

“Work for him? I don’t work for anyone! Do you think I need to?” she said. When she saw the question in his eyes, she went on. “Andrey did me a favor when I needed it. So, I’m paying it back.”

“By killing my men?” Zhao asked.

“You were trying to put Petrenko out of business by killing his, so it’s hard to understand the complaint. The only difference between you two is that he had me.”

There was a brief silence and Nicole took advantage of it to reach out and grab the Triad boss as if he were a doll. He was soon sitting in her lap, much against his will. Nicole started caressing him with the surprisingly soft skin of her palm when she said:

“You know I can cause you more pain than you can possibly imagine. Every man has a limit, and believe me, yours is way below my skill. Save yourself from that. The Triads are never going to set up base here. I’ll make sure of that. You can’t help that. But you can help yourself. Tell me what I want to know, and you’ll walk out of this alive.”

“Petrenko will kill me if you don’t,” Zhao said.

“Petrenko won’t do shit if I tell him not to. He’s as scared of me as you are, and he still needs me.”

“Why let me live?” Zhao asked.

“You guys’re all the same. You’d probably kill Petrenko if the situation was the other way round. And well, Petrenko would probably kill you if I let him. You both seem stupid enough. But you’re no longer a threat to him, and God knows you’ve never been a threat to me. Your financial infrastructure is way more important. Once I take care of it, you’re worthless.”

Zhao swallowed hard.

“You’re a psycho!” he finally spat.

“That’s part of my charm,” Nicole replied with a wink. “So, tell me, which side of me do you want to meet today?” she said as she grabbed his chin and applied the tiniest amount of pressure, bringing it close to breaking point.

It did not take long for Zhao to start talking. Half an hour later, Nicole knew everything that needed to be known to put an end to the Triad’s business in the country.

*=*=*=*=*=*=*

Jennifer smiled when she found Kyle Jenkins waiting for her on her couch in her suite as she stepped out of the shower, wrapped in an oversized towel.

“Kyle! It’s so nice of you to come!” she said, genuinely excited.

“I was asked to,” he said.

“So, you’re not happy to see me, then?” she asked back, pouting a bit.

“Of course, I am,” he quickly corrected.

“So, did they tell you about the show?” Jennifer asked. When she saw his blank face, she smiled again and said: “Ok, I’ll have to fill you in myself, then. No problem. We have time,” she said as she started crossing the room towards the wardrobe.

“Show?” Kyle asked, a bit puzzled.

Jennifer stopped in the middle of her walk.

“The guys in charge figured out that it was time to do some more PR, so they offered me to a number of TV shows. They were all interested, of course, so we could basically take our pick. The idea of having you there was actually mine, following yesterday’s conversation.”

“What am I supposed to do?” Kyle asked, nervous.

“Well, be there for the most part. Look, we’ve chosen a late-night show, so the questions will be easy. They’ll want to know about me, so I’ll tell them about how I got like this, how I live, how the girls and me want to use this gift to help people, etcetera. At some point they’ll make me do some stuff, then we’ll re-live some of the stuff I did after the Earthquake. That’s where you come in. We can rehearse it, so don’t panic. The idea is for people to see that I was following your lead and that we work very well together as a team because, well, there’s good chemistry between us.”

“Oh, God!”

“I thought you were up for it!” Jennifer said, excited.

“We never talked about TV!” Kyle replied.

“So, where do you think a girl like me would end up being interviewed? Reader’s Digest?” she replied.

“Oh, God!” Kyle repeated.

“Look, don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. We leave for the show in seven hours. We have time.”

“Jennifer, I don’t know anything about you!” Kyle protested.

“Ok, let’s start working on it, then,” she said as she dropped the towel and stood naked in front of him.

“What the fuck!” Kyle let out, blushing. Still, his eyes were glued to Jennifer’s astounding figure, the forty-nine hundred pounds she had confessed she weighted contained in a body almost three heads taller than him that could have belonged to a centerfold, a top model and a fitness athlete at the same time. Her breasts were large even for her oversized frame, their perfect shape defying gravity as much as her waist to hip ratio defied the rules of proportion.

“I read somewhere that seeing each other naked helps to boost confidence, or something like that,” Jennifer said, shrugging and clearly not uncomfortable at all showing herself in her birthday suit.

“I’m pretty sure it’s about imagining the audience naked when you’re going to talk from the stage, and it’s meant to help the speaker beat his nervousness!” Kyle finally managed to say.

“Ooops,” Jennifer said, not looking too concerned. “My mistake. Anyway, it’s done now. Your turn.”

“What?” Kyle almost shrieked.

“My house, my rules. Now, get out of your clothes, cutie. And don’t worry about your erection. I can see the bulge well enough with your pants on. And I’ll take it as a compliment, anyway.”

“What… no!” Kyle said.

Jennifer raised an eyebrow and started tapping her foot. Soon enough, Kyle was unbuttoning his shirt.

“Wow, that’s a world-class boner!” Jennifer said playfully as Kyle reluctantly removed his underwear. It made his blush deepen, which in turn made Jennifer let out a wholehearted laugh.

There were a few seconds of silence, then Jennifer said:

“You know what? I think there is still too much tension here. Let’s find a way to relieve it.”

Kyle felt even tenser as the naked amazon took a step towards him. He was tempted to step back but managed to stay in place despite what all his instincts were telling him. Soon enough, the blonde Valkyrie was upon him, her body towering over his in a way that was making him incredibly nervous. He had no clue what she was up to before she crouched and grabbed him gently under the armpits. Her skin felt smooth as he felt her powerful fingers close around his torso almost in a caress. His body was not obeying him anymore, but he was still surprised when his erection renewed its vigor at her touch, staying in place even when he started to become scared as the former cheerleader lifted him off the floor as if he was weightless.

She was making every effort to reassure him, despite the distress of the situation. Kyle was soon staring directly into her beautiful blue eyes. Her voice was seductive as she asked:

“Tell me Kyle, do you find me beautiful?”

He could only nod. He could not have called her scary, but there was no doubt that she intimidated him. But those thoughts aside, Jennifer Watson was undeniably a gorgeous woman.

“I think you’re cute too,” she said in a bedroom voice. Kyle would not have thought of himself as handsome, but he worked out enough that a six-pack hinted its presence in his stomach. He had never been especially lucky with long-term relationships but had not had too many problems dating girls either.

“You can stop me any time you want,” she added.

He understood what she was referring to when her arms pushed him higher and he felt a pair of full lips encompassing his still incredibly hard penis. A shiver ran down his spine. He did not open his mouth, though.

Jennifer focused on being exquisitely gentle with her mouth as she kept holding the weightless man in a convenient position. She was aware that she needed to be extra careful, but thought she had struck the right balance when the man started moaning profusely a few seconds later. Encouraged, she brought her tongue into play, doubling the care and making the man’s joy increase, from what could be deduced from his panting.

Jennifer had always prided herself of excelling at oral sex, but it had been too long since the last time; it had been in another life. Her older instincts were not valid anymore, she would have hurt him if she had resorted to them. In their place, she started building new ones, using the exquisite control she had over her new strength to make the most of it without coming close to endangering him. His salty cum filled her mouth by the time she thought she was beginning to master the craft again, synchronized with the officer’s last and considerably more audible scream of ecstasy.

Jennifer felt strangely relieved as she swallowed and walked to gently set the blissed man on her oversized bed. She smiled warmly at him when he opened his eyes.

“I hope I wasn’t too forward,” she said with a wink. “Believe it or not, I don’t usually do this. But this last year has been very fucked up.”

“What… why?” Kyle asked, still panting.

“You didn’t say ‘Stop’,” Jennifer replied with a wink. She then lay next to him and brought a finger to his stomach, running it in circles with care, feeling his abs.

“I don’t understand,” Kyle said. Still, he did not move or complain, which was a good sign.

“You keep yourself in good shape, Kyle. But, more importantly, you’re the only man that has treated me like a person for a year. Doing that… made me feel alive, make me feel that I’m making my own choices. I hope it was good for you too.”

Kyle could only nod, making Jennifer giggle. She turned on the side and started fondling his hair. It was surprising how soft her skin was, considering everything he had seen her do.

“So, I’m Jennifer Watson. I’m twenty-six. Before all this shit, I was a cheerleader for the Sea Lions. I hope you don’t think I’m too vain, but I was very hot already. My life wasn’t going anywhere. I was going out with one of the players but found out I wasn’t his only one about four months before the Flare. You’re… the first, since then. It wasn’t a lack of propositions, of course, but I had kind of fallen into a bit of a depression. Before that, I was as stereotypical as it gets. Most popular girl in high school, prom queen, cheerleader at college... and suddenly I’m twenty-five and I’m not good at anything but cheerleading. It’s not the same when you’re not in College though. Sure, it pays the bills. Up to a point. But you’re essentially no one. And as much as I hate to admit it, that’s very hard for someone like me. But then, one day, the Sun shines brighter and I get sick. The pain is unbearable for close to three months. And when it finally goes… I’m someone different. It feels amazing at first. God, there’re still so many amazing moments. But it’s terribly lonely too.”

“Wow,” Kyle said.

Jennifer remained silent. He got the cue.

“I’m Kyle Jenkins, thirty-one. I’m a cop. My father was a cop, my grandfather was a cop. I’m not a very good cop. I mean, I’m good for patrolling and all that stuff, but I’ll never make a detective. That breaks my father’s heart. He doesn’t say anything, though. He’s still mourning. My mother was one of the first women to die after the Flare. Since then, I’ve had to keep an eye on him. My recent life has been as boring as it gets. I haven’t been in a long-term relationship for more than three years.”

He shut up. After two seconds, he added:

“I guess I should also say that I’m very freaked out by all this.”

It made Jennifer laugh.

“See? We’re starting to trust each other. Now, why don’t we cuddle a bit and we discuss tonight’s show?”

*=*=*=*=*=*=*

Dr. Campos was grinning as she waited for her at the gate.

“See? If you ask for things nicely enough, you may even get them.”

Susan was happy. Very happy. Still, she still kept a straight face.

“How?” she asked.

“Does it matter? You have until sunset. And you’ll wear this,” Dr. Campos said handing her something similar to a sports watch, only her size.

Susan started putting the oversized FitBit onto her left wrist as Dr. Campos ran through the list of restrictions.

“You cannot go more than ten miles in the direction of Santa Isabel. The General’s team was a bit more generous if you decide to head inland; they are fine with thirty miles there. This has a GPS, so they’ll track you. If you screw it up, this will be your first and last day of jogging outside.”

Susan nodded and took a first step towards the gate.

“You know, a ‘Thank you’ would be nice, but I never expected it. But you owe me. We’ll talk when you’re back.”

Ten minutes later, Susan was twenty miles away from Fort Exeter and felt free. She did not remember having felt this happy over the last year. Her life had not given her too many moments of happiness before the Flare either but running had offered her both a satisfaction and a motivation that she had dearly missed.

She did not push the pace, instead focusing on enjoying the nature around the base as her strides carried her through different corners of the forest. There, alone, with no one disturbing her, Susan felt free. The noise of a car engine broke the spell.

It did not take Susan long to identify the direction it was coming from. The car was relatively distant, but still close enough to not escape her superhuman ears. It broke the harmony, but she guessed that she would have to live with that. Then, something flashed in the back of her mind and she remembered that there was absolutely nothing in the area.

That triggered her curiosity and before she realized she was running uphill to get a better look. She found the car, a black SUV with black windows, soon enough. It was about a couple of miles away and was driving through a road so narrow and so deserted that Susan did not even know it existed. She followed it out of instinct, stopping only when her wristband beeped and let her know that she was a mile away from the limits of the designated running area.

Susan cursed. She had now caught up with the car, sensing that it was not merely a passing vehicle. But she did not want to risk losing her jogging privileges on her first day. She found a solution to her dilemma soon enough. She reached the hill in no time, this time pushing her speed closer to her limit. It was the tallest in the area and it still fell within the boundaries she had been given, even if only by a few hundred yards.

She would have found the car anyway, but the cloud of dust it created as it moved along a road that had now transitioned into a dirt path made it easier. Susan would have never realized the existence of the small base if the car had not led her there. It was maybe fifteen miles away, still within the range of her enhanced vision, even if marginally. She could still recognize General Lindbergh and Dr. Sully as they stepped out of the SUV at the checkpoint.

*=*=*=*=*=*=*

General Owen Lindbergh walked along the aisle, trying to ignore the pained moans of the women lying in the beds on both sides of him.

“All of them?” he asked.

Dr. Sully nodded.

“The effects are almost identical to the ones of the Flare. Only accelerated.”

“I guess congratulations are in order,” Lindbergh said softly, his surroundings tuning down the excitement he felt at the news.

“None of the women shared the Phoenix condition, of course,” Dr. Sully said, still looking proud. “From a scientific point of view, the Flare was a marvelous coincidence. Mankind could have lived for millennia without learning about the possibilities the DNA of some of our own hid. They were dormant and had it not been for a phenomenon that affected millions of people at once, it would have been almost impossible statistically to find out. And now, thanks to the original girls not only do we know what’s possible, but we also know how to isolate the specific radiation that produces the sought-after effects. The tests we have been conducting on the three girls these last days have pushed us further than an entire year of work.”

General Lindbergh was not the one who was going to scold Dr. Sully for talking so cheerfully about a phenomenon that had killed a million women. It would have been hypocritical for him to do so. Still, he could not share his lead researcher’s tone.

“Are all of them dying?” he asked, looking at the sick women on either side of the room.

Dr. Sully nodded.

“This is still a milestone in my research. The Flare didn’t even affect every female, but we’ve now proven that with the right radiation intensity and focus it’s possible. The next step is the critical one, though. Ideally, we’ll find out how to provoke the same conditions that made our girls change instead of die, so that every female becomes part of our target population. Worst case, we’ll learn how to filter them in advance.”

“How long?” Lindbergh asked.

“You know my answer already. We’re working as fast as we can. I know time is more critical than ever.”

“Does Roark suspect anything?”

“Of course not!” Sully replied.

“We may still save this,” General Lindbergh said as they reached the end of the aisle. “We’ll get the next load of volunteers tomorrow.”

“Where from?” Dr. Sully asked.

“You don’t need or want to know,” Lindbergh replied.

Sully just shrugged and said:

“We’ll make space, then.”

*=*=*=*=*=*=*

Susan had barely been able to follow the sequence inside the base; the figures of Lindbergh and Sully having become mere shadows behind the windows of the second floor. The base seemed to be some sort of field hospital, even if the location was the weirdest she had ever heard about for this type of facility. Beds with patients were lined by the windows and even from the distance, Susan could see that they were not in great shape.

Instinct told her to keep observing the base long after Sully and Lindbergh had left. After all, she knew where they were going. Susan felt a chill running down her spine when men started crossing the yard with stretchers, each of them carrying a motionless and very pale patient from the main building to a secondary one.

Susan guessed the second building might host some specific medical equipment. At least until a thick column of black smoke started raising into the sky. She was horrified. Then, she realized something else and her blood froze. Every single one of the corpses that had been moved to the incinerator belonged to a woman.

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