Not long after Dan and Petra turned a corner, the back door of the car they’d arrived in opened and closed. Brain Child stepped out onto the street and stared after the pair as he brought a printed phone up to his ear. “And they’re off,” he said, voice dripping with disdain.
With a frown marring his face, he he crossed the street and followed after the two at a leisurely pace.
“Any sign that they’re aware of you monitoring them?” asked the voice of Edward Telluson, the school’s administrator, prompting anger to flash in the young telepath’s eyes.
“Why do you constantly question my abilities at every turn?” he spoke through grinding teeth. “Especially the simple stuff. Erasing myself from their sense memory before their conscious minds can register me is something I could do with a concussion. So no; they didn’t notice me.”
“A simple yes or no would have sufficed.”
Brain Child almost punched a light pole. “Apparently not, Teach. And stop being condescending to me or I’ll tell the real boss that you’re mistreating the talent.” There was a moment of silence on the phone, which helped improve Brain Child’s mood greatly. “Yeah, you know he mistrusts us equally so it’s really just a matter of who’s more valuable to him: a telepath who can blend in with the kine, or his glorified secretary with the eidetic memory and nothing else.”
“We’re all on the same side here,” ‘Teach’ replied, making sure his tone was one of exaggerated patience, “And you have a mission.”
Rolling his eyes, Brain Child picked up the pace. There wasn’t a lot to catch his eye on the street: a few quaint little restaurants, a florist, a bakery, then an art supply store. He’d finally caught up enough that he could see his quarry a block ahead of him, walking slowly and leaning close to talk without being heard.
“This whole thing is a waste. They were already coerced into being here; letting them compare notes and conclude you guys are monsters isn’t going to do anything but galvanize them against the whole idea of the school.”
A thin, dry laugh from Teach fractured the improved mood Brain Child was working on. “And that is where you underestimate my value. No matter how much you develop your powers, you’ll never have the years of expertise that I have. What you’re forgetting is that I’m one of a very tiny pool of experts on descendant psychology and that is why I’m in charge of the school, not a secretary.”
Fixing his gaze on the two classmates he was pursuing, Brain Child let a sneer twist his lips. “And just what does your ‘expertise’ say about setting the school up for a revolt? Last I check, there were only four of us students. You’re pushing two to the breaking point, Bad Lass does what she wants anyway because she knows you can’t stop her, and I’m being paid. A seventy-five percent failure rate doesn’t sound good for you.”
“That you see it as failure shows just how little you do know, Brain Child.”
“Then enlighten this poor ignorant urchin, Teach.” Ahead of him, Dan and Petra stopped and were consulting Dan’s palmtop about something. “Hold on.”
Engaging his powers was as easy as willing it. In his mind’s eye, he could pick out every mind within around one hundred feet and their relative resistance to his abilities. It was a fact he downplayed to Teach and the Orbweaver and one he expected other telepaths kept hidden as well, but only about fifteen percent of people have absolutely no defenses against mental intrusion. While what protection the majority of other minds afforded themselves was usually easily overwhelmed, sometimes they rallied if they noticed what was happening—sometimes they became wholly impenetrable.
So he was careful was he applied his standard memory block not to try and probe anyone too hard without reason. At the speed of thought, he’d established the same block that made him undetectable to his classmates. Then he turned his attention on his quarry.
They both presented challenges in unique ways.
When her powers were active, Petra’s was one of those ironclad mindscapes that he loathed, but at any other time, she was one of those rare few that offered no resistance or defense at all.
Dan though, was a different story. Originally, Brain Child thought he just had middling protection like a majority of people. Blocks, light surface reading and gentle mental nudges were child’s play (pun intended), but if he tried to probe deeper or assert what little extra levels of control he could and he’d be repulsed.
Not blocked. Repulsed. As if something in Dan’s mind recognized him and threw him out like a bouncer in an exclusive club. Brain Child had never encountered anything like that. It was actually starting to worry him though, because whatever it was that guarded Dan’s mind… he couldn’t detect it even as it handed him his mental ass.
Erring on the side of caution, he focused on Petra, probing gently for surface thoughts.
Weakening distrust filmed every other notion along with a long-held weariness. Hunger nipped fleetingly around the edges of concentration as she examined the palmtop screen. It was a fluttering thing, but slowly growing. For now, Brainchild ignored it and turned his attentions to what she was reading.
Astral fingers snatched every other frame of visual information enroute to her visual cortex and delivered it to his instead. They were looking at a map of town, namely the various stores on the main drag.
Visions of trundling around as the two worked off their nervous energies sight-seeing flitted before his eyes. With a callus, off-hand use of his power, Brain Child fed power into Petra’s hunger, making it grow until it was no longer nipping, but gnawing on her every thought, impossible to ignore any longer.
Then he retreated back to his own mind, secure in the fact that he’d be able to watch them from a comfortable seat in a restaurant now.
“Back.” he finally informed Teach. “What were we talking about again?”
Teach snarled. “I remember you being far more tolerable when we recruited Bad Lass.”
“That’s before I realized how important I am to the operation.” As he watched, Petra said something to Dan, who tapped on the palmtop a few times before they both headed off in a new direction. He grinned wolfishly. “Also, next time you talk to the big boss, tell him there’s something else I want.”
“What’s that?” Teach actually sounded curious.
“Petra. He’s such a Machiavellian genius, he should be able to make it happen: I want Petra as my girlfriend.”
Teach chuckled, but his words were filled with disgust. “I’d think your powers would be custom to ensure you never needed help on those areas.”
Brain Child’s tone took a dark turn. “It doesn’t work that way. I do subtle manipulation: pushes and pulls, working with what’s already there. I can make an angry man kill, but I can’t make him dance a jig, understand?”
Now Teach’s laugh was lighter and mocking. “And what Ms. Jules has in regard to you?”
“She thinks I’m creepy and untrustworthy.”
“Well she is the brightest student in he class.” Teach pointed out.
By now, Brain Child was grinding his teeth. “She’s also the most good. I already explained to you how she had dreams of becoming a superhero didn’t I? And Orbweaver apparently has the means to control her well enough to change her tune on that, why not what I want?”
Teach tutted. “Poor boy. If only you’ve let me finish earlier. It isn’t powers or technology that pull Ms. Jule’s levers here. Orbweaver doesn’t have some magic key to keep her under his sway, he has psychology and coercion—my expertise.”
Brain Child shoved his hands in his pockets and started walking. “I’m listening…”
“Understand that finding a student with your power set and disposition was a rare occasion. And as much as I dislike your attitude, it is in keeping with Orbweaver’s goal of raising up a new generation of supervillains. Not super-criminals, villains. There’s a marked difference.”
“I disagree, but go on.”
“I could talk at length on the differences,” Teach said, “but the important thing is the process of turning this youths into proper candidates. I believe that the key elements necessary here are persecution, betrayal and a loss of empathy.”
Brain Child chewed on that nugget of information and finally nodded to himself. “That’s what pissing these two off is all about then: persecution and paranoia.”
“Precisely. And then we let them commiserate, feeding each other’s fears until they trust no one but themselves. Then we engineer a betrayal, breaking them both and leaving them at a low point, open to suggestion—a classic technique applied by cults.” Teach sounded intensely proud of his plan while Brain Child simply shook his head.
“That doesn’t sound good. I don’t want to be surrounded by zealots.”
Teach tutted again, making Brain Child want to hit him. “That depends on what you turn their zealotry toward. Orbweaver doesn’t want followers, he wants future customers. I’ll be directing their fanaticism not toward some form of idolatry but toward the pursuit of their own desires. That, Brain Child, is what makes a supervillain.”
Knowing there would be nothing more to the conversation beyond Teach bragging about himself, Brain Child decided to get things back on track. “So what? You want me to increase their paranoia? Make them trust each other more?”
“Not just yet,” said Teach. “I don’t want you to risk discovery at such an early stage. Soon enough, we’ll be having a class exercise to help reinforce their respective persecution complexes as well as Tamara Daye’s rebellious streak…”
It was two hours after the last class of the day and Laurel Brant was still in her office, fretting over her notes concerning the Safety Patrol applicants. She expected a large portion of the student body to jump at the idea of training in actual super heroics. What she hadn’t foreseen was how many of them had good reasons for wanting that training.
She made a note to meet with Patricia Masters to discuss that.
In the end though, Mr. Liedecker had placed the responsibility of choosing the members of the team and she didn’t want to place that burden on anyone else.
There was already a short list, but who to cut was becoming a very real problem. More students than she imagined were proving themselves worthy, and some beyond that had proven that they should at least be given a chance.
Her palmtop beeped out a few short notes, the notification sound she’d set for her school related email.
“Maybe just maybe it’ll be a distraction,” she muttered to herself, grabbing up the device.
Her first warning that it would be something more substantial than a mere distraction was that the sender’s name and return email address had been scrambled and there were three attachments: one portable documents file and two holographic image files.
Wary of opening suspicious holograms in her office whee someone could come in, she opened the former.
The file turned out to start a series of satellite images of a large farmhouse at the end of an old, dirt road. It was surrounded by construction vehicles, but all the work seemed to be going into a deep pit where a packed dirt ramp led into the earth beneath said house.
Years ago, Laurel herself chose not to build new areas beneath Freeland House expressly because that kind of would would be very easy to notice using an eye in the sky.
Someone was building something extensive beneath that house in—she checked the coordinates in the corner of each picture and mentally figured the general location—Madison. Not far from Mayfield.
Scrolling down revealed more satellite photos taken after construction was finished. These showed cars outside the building with people carrying luggage. These were followed by the names and bios of three young people. The dossiers included not just names, ages, and other vital statistics, but brief descriptions of powers.
Beneath those, there was a single line of text in large font.
You have your school for heroes; They have their school for villains.
Laurel’s jaw creaked as it tightened. This wouldn’t be the first time she’d gotten word of a shady school through various channels. They’d never shown up on her doorstep before though.
And they also never included Tamara Daye, AKA Bad Lass in their rolls.
Nor had they professed to be a school for ‘villains’.
Dr. Masters had warned her that would happen eventually, and that Liedecker’s choice to implement the Safety Patrol would only accelerate that process. The national mythology of supers—both heroes and villains—created a vast sociological pressure on descendants to conform to one archetype or another. Or so the theory went.
Laurel made a note to call for the meeting as soon as possible.
In the meantime, she had another, more important call to make: one to the ROCIC. They were going to have to investigate the claims set before her immediately.
To Be Continued…