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... He was going to take this time to double-check Quin's status as an A-3 – simply for curiosity's sake. As he said, Eric had yet to lock in any consistency for how those changes were processed, and if Benoit was set to put a polished foot into the air formerly containing one chipmunk's head, he wanted to know how hard he had to kick to make the paperwork worth it. He wouldn't have this problem were the A-2s showing discretion. Stewart or no Stewart, Quin didn't fit his employment, let alone whatever rank Eric had reduced him to. He lacked the aptitude for playing nice. It made him dangerous to his work and everyone else's. They gave that a team? Benoit's incredulousness was the same as when it had circled Elias' promotion. Selfishness was not a trait to reward with greater authority, not even if it already seemed to be the basis of every Agency staffing decision since its inception. Honestly, it was as though their management had taken to sneezing while filling in the Case Lead documents, and whoever's name best matched the resulting scribble got the job. Perhaps it was why Eric was so cavalier in stripping ranks: there was a constant 40% they'd been issued via allergies anyway.
His head hurt. That couldn’t be a good sign. Never mind – status, now. Benoit blinked and scanned his eyes across the internal display, grateful for the artificial distance of it hovering several inches away instead of crushed against his pupils as it actually was. He –
<<Don’t do it,>> the lenses roared. Then they cut off the request.
Obviously he hadn’t installed that. And by the way, what the hell? During the silence following Quin’s inane blather, he took more time to be absolutely sure his lenses had chosen to deny his query in a stern panic minus any other further explanation. He blinked again, thrilled to be hiding it under tinted shades, and asked for the profile with seething restraint. There came the same reply. Experimenting, he drew March’s records. It displayed. He stole up a random employee’s data. It also displayed, albeit noting, <<You punched him twice and that is enough.>> Had he? The text shone readily, regardless. Quin’s had not. Benoit wanted to frown, but he liked the idea of making the boy wait for no apparent reason. He remained composed, allowing the quiet to build before deigned to end the goblin’s misery.
“Alright,” he finally began. “This is how this will work.” He put a hand to his chest deliberately, gesturing to himself slow enough for Quin to follow along. “My name is Benoit. I am the lead on the Alexander case. You are Agent Quin, in charge of the…” What was the name? “… the fire-girl case.” He would have liked to have looked it up, but it was blocked. Another urge to frown swept in. “As you are aware, your target has gone. Mine as well. They are both with a classified, external group.” He chose not to define the fire-girl’s – or Alexander’s – willingness in that. “They are together. It should mean they’re safe.” Safe among Anti-Agents. He had said more ridiculous things.
Hold on. Why had his lenses implied the sole reason he would have for researching a name was to find out whether he could punch it? … How were they capable of implying anything?
He thought about it.
... Really, Jean. A nanny-cam. That was supposed to have been a joke. God forbid the man ‘retired’ without a sense of humour – or a withered grasp of sarcasm – but it looked as if that was what had happened exactly. His fingers felt suddenly empty without the cigarette he’d inexplicably lost between moving from the curtain to the central monitor. As he busied himself with re-lighting his way to an early grave – unless Jean had done it on purpose and whatever was cutting access to Quin information was the result of a painfully annoying misassumption that he knew how to be funny morphing into legitimate inspiration and, because he utterly refused to do something half-assed, left Benoit with a brand new puzzle to solve while he was on the cusp of hangover. That man had the worst sense of timing, too. He wanted to sleep, not decode inconsistencies, but years of Jean and his thing about whatever was in writing – it needed to be enshrouded, it had to be complex, because even though he had left the rebels, the Agency knew no mercy – meant Benoit could only see clues and would for as long as it took to scratch this paranoid itch.
It was hard to miss a friend when there was no sign he had gone. Except for Eric, Jean might have been in another room. Being annoying. That, or hilarious to tease. Benoit admitted if the power was on his side, he likely would’ve tossed Jean in with Bergmann. He faulted Eric immensely for it, but Jean would have survived. He would also sulk for a week and a half, which was entertainment in its own right.
“Normally, my target runs independently. As of late, however, he has twice involved himself in something he abandoned five years ago,” Benoit went on. “A partnership. He partnered with the Stewart girl and she served as a weight around his neck. Pulled properly, as she seemingly was, she could throw him off-balance.” Stewart forced Alexander to share her concerns, ignoring that he had his own to fumble with. What should have been an exhaustive sprint towards a different coast ended at a city less than a gas tank away. They remained there for the night. Whose decision had it been to find a hotel? The guest would never have accepted it, and the host held no sway in that respect. March, he remembered, did something to the girl, and while he recognized such a turn of events may have trapped them where they were, the distance between the old apartment and Vestal betook a stop well in advance of the norm – and natural survival. He couldn’t ask for a better weapon against their thief. Peter came damn close, but thanks to Stewart, Elias was in a stasis cell. “I should think whatever connection they had was palpable. You caught her at La Madeleine, did you not?” He shook his head. “I don’t know how you stomached a dinner with them. But at least I don’t have to explain their effect on each other.”
Alexander avoided attachments; he did not avoid people. Through his small doses of tolerance, he gave Benoit an understanding of how involved a woman had to be before she was invited anywhere. The guest grasped ‘subtle’ about as well as Jean did ‘risk’: awfully, terribly, and when it counted, apocalyptically lethal. Granted, Benoit couldn’t say how deep any of it was because he wasn’t, but for Stewart to go with Alexander, even Alexander-the-host, a desperate level of trust needed to be in place. For a Pain Eater, trust came in two varieties, and since the guest wasn’t branded with cursive G.S. initials, it had to be assumed they were screwing.
<<Don’t do it.>> It was the tone, not the message, that called him. It was worded in the same, familiar cadence as the second alert, but with twice the panic. The second was more a polite reminder.
 “Now your target is with him. Alone, I might add,” he indeed added, “in a sea of hostile strangers. I wasn’t entirely able to keep up with what you... explained…” He believed he put in an admirable effort towards making that word sound sincere. “You briefly mentioned your target. I am confident you have a complete prediction of how she might respond to Alexander in this context, but he poses a certain unpredictability for those not aware of how he responds likewise. Therefore, in the interest of preventing our cases from tangling –” Or in untangling them, as that case may be. “– I propose a trade.” Benoit blew a cloud of smoke at the monitors. “What was on that tape after it ended? What did Alexander do? In return, I can give you the course of actions he takes regarding those of your target’s ‘attributes’.” And those of Stewart’s. “I imagine it will fine-tune your expectations for later. It may also be the difference in taking her back versus dragging her by the hair.”

It was him being nice.

Madeline Bergmann had, in her office, a closet filled with fun trinkets. It stood in the farthest corner of her room and proudly swelled with its assorted contents. Those contents had been organized in the rough shape of a human being – by limb. While this meant the shackles and gags were easy to find, it equally meant glancing at any item lined along waist-height brought on potentially irreparable emotional trauma. He had every intention of using them in lieu of a blade. Without confirmation on Quin’s rank, harming him would be a terrible gamble. Humiliation? The Agency didn’t care as much. So that would work.

* * *

This was gold. All of it. Weist hadn't stopped talking since they'd come in and he wasn't showing signs of slowing down. Agent Donovan had given them permission to stock up on supplies for potential attacks – and they were, sort of. Higeuros and Gordon were on the other side of the massive room, looking for guns. He and Weist volunteered for the crap job of gathering ammo for them, since every gun in the world was useless without bullets and battery packs, leaving them plenty of time to talk about what the hell was going on around here. The Agency was fucked, and it was glorious.

'Spy' was the wrong word for Franklin's assignment. He was part of an outreach program, like an ambassador from the R ranks to the A's. He was here to learn. He was also here to blow the heads off asshole intruders, but first and foremost, he represented Security in closing the gap. There swam a big divide between what these guys called 'public' and 'private' Salcon. Comms was particularly pissed by it. They hated waiting on intel for more than two minutes, so decades of restricted access really rubbed salt on their wound, and then the lockout of any group not exclusively dealing in Targets of Interest sent them spiralling into... hate orgies. They'd been taking it out on everybody, so now as a step towards better internal relations, each A base had a 'public' person making rounds. 'Pubbys', they were 'affectionately' called. The goal was to hit a compromise on what could be intersectorally shared, then use that to rejig clearances and let more circles into the loop. Salcon wanted all its forces back under the same fold. It was supposed to happen diplomatically and there was huge support for it from other groups – not from Comms, but if C ranks had their way, the Agency would go back to being a specialized mop-up crew – but... the point of the Split – capital 'S' – six years ago was shooting for the opposite. The Agency wanted to get the hell away to stop outsiders from sticking their fingers in people who exploded buildings by blinking. They dragged their heels on every agreement, and even this'd been soaring to limbo. Eric Patten got the ball rolling. R's were invited to suss out danger to public personnel. T's were here to study overlap and decide how their experiments could be mutually helpful. Agent Patten had a love affair with S's already. Comms was not allowed in. The Agency hated them, and it was just Comms who was shocked that that would matter. Half the friggin' reason this place was so damn secret was because C ranks weren't riffling through it. And Franklin had to hand it to the A's for planning that: he'd never, ever thought they spent their days catching superhumans – and that he'd be a part of it! As an observer, but he couldn't get much more. Practically the only ways to be hired was to get born into it or accidentally find a target and drag that poor sap in, demanding work and saying that was their cover letter. He'd flipped when his R-5 offered this. He was shaking on his first day and didn't have anything to report for a week because his mind was reeling over these walls. Elmira was serious shit.

“They're allowed to kill each other?”

This was a massive room. Elmira loved shoving their shit in one place. Those archives? Those fucking archives – he meant 'Archives' with a capital 'A' – his head nearly popped off and rolled around in them from it. That was a massive fucking room. Rooms! Apparently the Archives were layered, and rows of what was on the floor could be lowered or lifted to bring a new set of quasi-corpses. They'd fiddled with it to grab that Nathan kid. This room, the Weapons Cache, was just filled with... damn – he didn't know the names for some of it. And he was R! R was Security – R had open access to whatever T cooked up! He didn't think the Agency could top that, but looking at the metal walls and metal ceiling and metal floor, seeing baskets sat in clusters and filled with grenades he thought were high-tech but were thrown in like apples on display at a store, then the overhead baskets hanging down overflowing with more, got him to change his mind. The Agents didn't let those quasi-corpses go to waste. They worked the magic out of each of them and spent years turning it into something they could duplicate. That stuff, the powered tech, got the actual shelf space. They were lined like books in a library, with tiny blue barcodes underneath for easy requisition. There were scanners at the door that lit their display with full weapons specs. They gave vague references to what abilities were incorporated – mostly what abilities they countered, like piercing psychic ice-blocks or clearing illusions – but what he liked was minimum rank required. When Higeuros radioed in what ammo to get next, Franklin scanned it. Those two hadn't picked a thing lower than A-5. They were allowed to handle these? Agent Donovan had said... but there was gonna be a boot up their ass like no other if any of this was damaged.

“'Course not,” Weist replied. He was the one member of Team F who didn't mind talking to him. “No one's allowed to do half the shit they do, but what they're excused for depends on who they are. Pain Eaters get a fuckin' pass – can't blame 'em 'cause they're crazy, can't charge someone for killing one 'cause they're dangerous and self-defence is assumed. It's like having a stick where both ends are short. Higeuros!” To the radio. “Pack Type 44108 or 44118?”

108, dumbass.

“Plasma RPG. Hand-held,” Weist noted. “Very fuckin' nice.” He cleared a whole cubby into his bag.

“Dylan's mom was a civilian. Why did Lawrence's get away with...” Franklin didn't say it exactly. “You know...” He'd been warned about accusing someone, even if they weren't here. “She got away with it.”

“She got the punishment she wanted,” Weist corrected. “She got Dylan, and then she went to the other two who were suddenly a lot more cool about givin' their kids to this psycho that may or may not've murdered the fuck out'f the last mom that said no. That's how she got Trevor and Marshall, remember?' No. Because they'd done a hundred awful things and taking kids was on the bottom of the fucked up scale. The Eliases made sure. “She would've taken Roland too if his mom wasn't a little bitch. She straight says, 'Lawrence's mom, of course I'm on your side, I'll do everything you tell me, I'm a good girl!' One less mouth to feed but one more soldier in the trench. Can't turn that down.”

Franklin had asked what the deal with them was. The Eliases, he meant. Two hours later, his ears were screaming from the fun ways the brothers got along. He knew A gave its folks extra lines of slack in trade of the stress they went through, and Weist was forever explaining to Weathers that PEs had more for being Agent-raised since they were twelve. The Agency assumed accountability like parents did for their... well, twelve-year-olds. But this redefined 'job security'. It pretty much renamed 'hostile environment', too.

“So she murdered her to get the kids and waved death threats in the air – to... what – like raise a personal army?”

“The story goes she didn't want two she-devils raising the kids of her husband.”

“Lawrence's mom and him got married?”

“In her head, they did.” Weist was picking through shock cells. “In her head, her husband was a saint. Those bitches got their harpy claws in his brain to seduce him, so they had to die or she at least had to take the kids away and preserve their father's honour. Truth is?” He empty another cubicle. “Their father was a slut.” Shrug. “It's kind'f a running joke. When Marshall worked here, every time someone asked about his family, he'd sum it up as, 'Dad was a whore', and when someone challenged it, he'd actually trace back to prove that yes, this started 'cause pappy couldn't leave his dick in his pants.”

The guy liked to talk like he'd worked here for years. It was months. Franklin had joined four weeks after him. Still – it made a damn difference. The Puerto Rican used to be in the military's Special Ops. as a jack-of-all-trades for infiltration. He was an information dealer and Agent Donovan didn't actively hate him, which were the two reasons Franklin had for getting as far as he was. Eric Patten might have approved the public rounds, but although they loved their leader, Agents were cripplingly wary of strangers. They were slow to trust. They were also cliquey as hell – no team mixed with any other. Suits stayed especially segregated. They were to the A's what Comms was to the parent corp., and since PEs were to the Agency what the Agency was to Salcon – elaborate badasses designed and bred to complete missions – that explained that rivalry.

Pack Type 27889.

Weist rolled his eyes and looked at the aisle he was in, then snapped back at Higeuros, “I'm in the 40k's, dick.”

So walk your ass to the 20k's, princess. Fuckin' wire guns are at stake here! They shoot bolts of razor wire!

“Someone's losin' a head.” That didn't sound like it bothered anyone. “So none of this rings a fuckin' bell?”

“Comms,” Franklin flatly justified while Weist led him through the endless rows. “They don't talk with us. At us, but not with.” There was 'segregated' for you. “They think we're cavemen.” And while he did feel like an idiot for not knowing about the family, the Agency was free about its gossip whereas 'public' Salcon's had to go through them. Lawrence Elias worked in C. No wonder it never hit headlines. “They'll probably tear this out if I add it to the updates.”

“This shit's important,” Weist said. “You can't move ahead without knowing where you've been. That's double when the past's not dead.” He turned a little grim. “Marshall's out there. The feud's still on.”

“You think it's a problem?”

Weist did, but this went above their ranks. They had another order from Higeuros for a pack in the 60k's. Franklin moved, following closely, interestedly watching the wall as they passed a board of 'spike-things'. The weapons were PE exclusive. They looked about as feral, too. There were hundreds lined as high as the ceiling, each a golden colour and forged from an alloy the Agency wouldn't name. They came in pairs beside their twins, and they'd been organized by a vague, blade to curved scheme. He didn't understand. Those on the left were useful; they were knives welded to knuckles fashioned out of the handles. Those in the middle were thick railroad spikes, ending either in points or flat edges sharpened by rage. They were the transition between straight implements and deepening curves to the rounded spines. The right was where he stopped recognizing advantages. It was flooded by the same concepts, but the metal bent so exaggeratedly that they became brass-knuckled fishhooks. The knuckles themselves didn't help with where they were placed: on the back of the hook, pushing the point to carve his forearm if he walked with one in hand. The angle he'd have to hold his wrist locked the damn joint up. Fighting with it...

He'd stick to guns.

“... I've got a theory, Pubby.” Theories were dangerous. A rumour was shared like currency, but stitching several into speculation was crossing a reddened line. “You hear people saying –” Franklin'd heard Weist saying... “– that Eliases are PSAs on what you shouldn't do.” Yes. Again, he'd heard that from Weist. “What I think is they're more than a cautionary tale. I think they're a history lesson.” Did he now. “Draw a map with the milestones Salcon hit getting where they are tonight, and besides it stretching decades longer, you won't find a spot out'f place with the family. Their dad in Siberia, meeting Trevor's mom, is like Salcon experimenting with pills and winding up with a zillion mutated genes and then all those people had babies and now we have a fuckin' mutant crisis on our hands.”

“Their father's dick made mutants?”

No!” Weist scowled. “Their dad went to Siberia and fucked the first woman he met. That's Salcon – it's like Salcon – going into half their bread and butter: genetic alterations, what they call 'medicine' from way, way, way back in the day. Then their dad goes home to the States. He finds a new chick, knocks her up and: Lawrence. That's like Salcon getting serious and building oversight for its medical patents. It was arm's length, advisory management, mostly 'bout hovering over geneticists' shoulders but not touching shit, just running it. Early Communications, before they put that science under S.” S was Stratified Research and Development. They ruled the organic projects. T, the Technology and Counterintelligence sector, did the inorganic crap. T made things that went boom. “Lawrence's mom gets crazy and starts spoutin' shit about being in love. That's early C screaming at Salcon, saying they need more policies in place, more contingencies, 'cause it's looking like most of the drugs Salcon wants commercialized, not just military, are gonna fuck people right the fuck up. Salcon thinks it's for the better though, and early C is like, 'No, no, no', but Salcon's like, 'Whatever, don't tell me what to do'. And then their dad goes back to Europe – Britain now – the same way Salcon goes back to bigger experiments.”

“Why did they think screwing with people was for the better?”

“They were got good results,” Weist said. “The labs were showing trials with subjects stronger, faster, harder –” He hummed for a sec. “They thought they were improving humanity so much that they could make a perfect human being. Salcon starts by looking into perfect soldiers. This would be when their dad is announcing he's gonna have a kid in every country he's in 'cause he's a whore but he's gonna be an infamous whore. They got ambitious, you see, and they made progress. Salcon's labs started showing crazy shit, and their dad fathered Dylan.”

“You told me Lawrence's mom found out,” he reminded.

Fuck yes she did.” Weren't they getting ammo? “When their dad leaves, she flips out, finds out what he's been up to, sees he fucked some other woman, sees that woman's pregnant, goes hysterical.” Weist chuckled. “Early C saw Salcon's trials and almost shit itself. It demanded that the company take action because some subjects were getting out and some were passing on effects like STDs. There's also this rush of leaked secrets – like, y'know, how Lawrence's mom found out – and other companies independently reproduce Salcon's pills, their crap rubs against Salcon's, Salcon's dominants but changes, and next it's not just superstrength or superspeed but superhero pop-ups happening.”

“But none of this made it to the news.”

“That's what K's for, Pubby,” Weist replied. “They public-relationed that shit to the ground. So Salcon freaks and realizes, 'holy shit, I have a problem'. Their dad jumps back to America, Lawrence's mom is happy, but right when you think he's going to her again, he veers off and stops at Vegas. Knocks another broad up, there's Marshall, and there's Salcon deciding the best action is to set up a focused team within the R's to do intense, motherfucking damage control. They make...” Weist paused for effect. “... the A ranks. Salcon's happy 'cause it thinks the problem's solved, so it goes back to its experiments, except now they're fully geared to get that perfect solider dream right.”

Sure, why not?

“You think hindsight hurts?”

Pretending to be productive, Franklin grabbed something off the shelves. He didn't know what it was, but chances were that if they said they'd fired them, he could keep a pack as a souvenir.

“It did eventually. Their dad goes to Europe one last time, now to Italy, and he makes a certain female friend. He introduces her to Lawrence's mom and they become decent besties. Then he fucks the Italian chick and flies off – hence, Roland.” They were in the right place for more of Higeuros' orders. Their bags were heavy. They'd filled three each already. “Early C was thinking Salcon turned to safe experiments, only to get sideswiped by 'ha, ha - sweet, we can makes our dudes into gods'. Salcon is then like, 'Wow, I made this much worse' because more secrets get out and it does what it thinks is the only thing it can given the fact that there are now folks with lasers in their eyes being born: it forms a task group. It's never done that before – their dad has never been to South America before – but it knows it needs to get out of regular recalls, containment of escaped trial patients and recovery of its corporate secrets, because since it's gone to the masses, it has to be stopped-stopped.” Franklin didn't have the chance to ask how that turned out before Weist flashed a tanned-face grin. It was too excited. It made him uncomfortable, but didn't stop him from paying attention to, “Do you know about the rebels?”


“The rebels,” Weist repeated. “They were the trial patients who didn't like how they were being stopped. The first generation of superhumans depended on pills Salcon gave to sustain their abilities. Their children didn't need it. They were sustained by regular food – fruit, meat, vitamins, the normal things rather than concentrated chemicals. They were more than dangerous to Salcon's containment efforts. The rebels were slow growing 'til Salcon brought out the X sector. I can't even tell you what the X stands for because they were shit-canned in the next five minutes. X killed and forcibly terminated second generation mutants, kicking that hornet's nest into a pile of more fucking hornet nests. The rebels rallied, got organized by one of our own, and an all-out war breaks loose.”

“I never heard of it,” Franklin said.

“K,” Weist told him again. “You wouldn't've. No one heard. It still happened – and their dad got himself killed fighting it. Salcon's experiments also stopped – it woke up to what it was doing. But now it had to handle the aftermath, and early C was right at the front of it, exactly how Lawrence's mom starts seeing these kids and making up her mind. Medicine development, its weaponized versions, and its effective damage control – Trevor, Dylan, Marshall – get swept into the A's mission of using its technological experiments on its people to buff 'em up and deal with the situation quietly. C's guiding them through all of it, making sure it's in line with corporate policy and choking them on their leash. Same as Lawrence's mom: she's getting all three of them into Salcon, signing off on training, until it comes to a head and Dylan learns what she did to his mother. He's not happy. That's the start of the divide, but it starts slow.” Weist had all but abandoned getting ammo packs. He was invested in describing this. “Trevor and Dylan're already in the PE program, Lawrence's being groomed to take over his mom's throne, Roland's set too, who cares about the sixth, but Marshall's on the fence 'cause he's fucking ten and ten-year-olds can't decide on candy. He's supposed to be going into Comms like Lawrence, but screw that noise, Dylan puts him on the PE path, forges Lawrence's mom's signature, gets them into PE residence – and, one more time, Marshall's fucking ten, Dylan was fourteen, Trevor was sixteen, and they got permission to live in the same complexes as full-fledged fucking Pain Eaters. Lawrence's mom was pissed!”

“And Comms would've been...?”

Weist didn't believe it wasn't obvious.

“The A ranks told Comms they couldn't work under micromanagement, so they applied to get top secret status and Salcon gave it to them. How do you think Comms was?”

Weist, holy fuck,” the radio burst. Franklin jumped, “Jesus Murphy and Christ – you have to see this!

There was no hesitation. Weist and Franklin dropped their bags and trekked to the farthest corner of the Weapons' Cache. It was where they'd left other two to giggle at the toys like children, and they weren't far from it now. What the hell had they been doing? They'd barely moved, except for reaching the garages. The farthest wall wasn't a smooth end. Nine dividers had been evenly installed to create ten deliberate dead-ends for assigned storage. This corner slot was gingerly ransacked. There were two things in it and both torn open: a stubby stand that was oh-so-plainly locked a few hours earlier, and a crate.

Weist, for his part, got to the point. He nodded astutely and declared, “Yeah, your mom could fit it in.”

'It' was the size of a stasis cell.

“Fuck off.” Team F's version of 'hello, friend!' “Guess whose it is.”

“No one good's.”

Gordon was squatted on the ground beside the pried off wood. Franklin didn't like Gordon. He was too quiet and his blue-rimmed glasses made his eyes too big. He was an IT Tech from the lower A ranks, but because he was Agent, he got his 'accepted by the Team' status automatically. In a side-by-side comparison, Franklin's rep was better in every way, but he'd made the mistake of not having parents who already hunted superhumans, or at least ones that debugged the systems the real ranks used.


“That sounds about right.” Weist stepped forward, walking not to the crate but the sleek, polished, black casing inside it. He put his fingers on its gleaming surface. When he removed them, the traces of his prints winked before serenely drifting drifting away like snowflakes. Something was in there. “Open it.”


“We can't –”

“Fuck off, Pubby,” Higeuros snapped. That was Team F's version of 'fuck off, Pubby'. “It's got a visitor's button. We're visitors.”

Franklin could have snapped back if he wanted. The good part of being on the outside was there wasn't any farther he'd be kicked, but Higeuros and Weist were friends or something. As absorbed in the casing as Weist was, his reports couldn't afford losing his exposition machine. Franklin reined himself in and neutrally asked, “What's the button do?”

“Jesus – I don't know,” Higeuros said. “I didn't press it yet.”

Actually, maybe he said 'genius'. Higeuros was a rough-shaven, Mexican A-10. He spoke clearly, but sometimes his accent ran in and messed with his pronunciations. Either way, fuck you, too.

“You can't press it,” Franklin ordered. “It's not ours, it's Patten's, and you don't – Weist!

“We're visitors.” Fucking hell, these people! “Calm your tits, Pubby. Donovan cleared us. If something goes wrong, he's the one who gets the blame. Remember what I said about blaming Pain Eaters?”

“Was that the part before or after you said they can't get blamed, either?” Like for killing a rookie team over dissecting A-1 property, but Clemens might murder them first! “Why the hell didn't you take it out of the crate at least?”

The black casing was growing.

It pulsed with promise. A fine line down its centre mirrored a French door design, the kind that flowed open like a present. From its sides spiralled a thin breeze, and it whirred with charming delight. In a delicate air, it let its doors brush outward, laying its skin upon the pine wood surrounding it. The crate wheezed at the movement, hoarsely coughing as the black casing danced on without a pause. Its desire was to stretch its wings, and following a shattered series of pops as the nails ripped from their joints, the divider beside them buckled in agony and cleaved away at the casing's insistence. Whirring, singing, the casing dragged the crate to its death, and it cheerfully sighed while it ignored the ruin at its feet. It had won.  It was pleased. An elegant puff swept the hapless fibres off its surface. Now it waited for their words, fluttering from the thought of a loving audience.

... Patten's, huh?

“Fuuuuuuuuuck...” Higeuros whistled low. Team F's version of being impressed. “Fuck – that's a suit...” Not one Franklin had seen them wear. “Gordon, scan it. Find out what it is. Fuck, this thing wants to kill.”

Talking about super soldiers...

Gordon went to the barcode resting on the inside of left door, but they didn't need to read the specs to agree with Higeuros' statement. This suit was mean. On a wall, close to the rows of spike-things, there hung a generic suit for whoever needed a back up. Suits were supposed to be slim, second skins designed to live in the shadows. They were built light for quick escapes and sprints to exits. They were Agency colours, thick on dark hues, nearer to black than not. This... was not that.

“It's a prototype,” Gordon droned. “It's powered armour.”

“Shit.” That meant something to Weist. His eyes popped and he suddenly leaped back. “Shit!”

“Give him the scanner, techie,” Higeuros said.

Gordon tried, but Weist snatched it from him. Franklin perked up. Whatever this was, it was new.

“Powered armour is special?”

“Very special. Special as fuck.” Weist swiped at the screen. “Powered weapons are kids' play to make compared to it.”

“Kids' play to use,” Higeuros added. He'd wandered to the new suit, too. “Ask that dipshit –” Gordon. “– or Team J, God rest their stupid ass. Shit, Pubby, I bet you could do it off, too.”

“Thanks,” Franklin said.

Higeuros glared.

“Powered weapons are based on active abilities. That's the flashy shit you'll see in briefing clips. Offensive moves, generally. The nerds love 'em for how easy they are to perfect.” Weist bounced his head to point at the gun strapped on his buddy's back. “If they want that to shoot fucking lightning, the nerds know they've got it right when it shoots fucking lightning, and you just use it as a standard point'n'click. Powered armour?” Weist snorted. “Damned impossible to figure out. It uses passive abilities, ones where you don't 'fire' but 'focus' if it's not automatic. There's no guarantee they'll get it like the mutant did, and there's less chance you'll pick it up or be able to power it later. The only armour that actually works in this place like that is the suits, and you've seen those guys.”

“Not really,” he admitted.

“They're druggies,” Higeuros said. “All of them. Higher'n fuckin' kites.”

“Masks are bad, goggles are worse. Their attention's split by that trippy interface,” Weist said. “Focused powers draw their energy from the wearer. They have to be sustained through concentration. A person can't do that all the time, so they use the drugs to stay focused. Focus long enough and they fuse with it. Break their concentration – or lower it – and they go loco. One told me: it's not the drugs they get addicted to, Pubby. It's the fading and the attention span they have to have to fuel it. The whole suit works as a system for that, so they'll get bad enough where just taking off their masks sends 'em spiralling. It's sick.”

“Mental Pain Eaters,” Franklin figured.

“Yeah. Hardcore. And all that for camouflage.”

“Fuckers promised invisibility in the 80s,” Higeuros muttered. “But they said we'd get hoverboards, too. Where're those?”

“This is a prototype.” Weist jiggled the scanner. “This thing? This is not a normal suit. It's not. Fuuuuuuuuck...” He must have read something. “This damn thing's running a repulsion field.”

Higeuros screeched like a girl at that and rammed his hand into the prototype's stomach like the asshole he was. His hand then flew off like it'd been blasted from a cannon.

No fucking way,” Higeuros laughed hysterically. “Guys! Guys – try this! I can't touch it!”

It was white. That was the first difference. Gone was the muted and shy, black, reclusive colour scheme. This was a brilliant white. It demanded to be seen.

The suit was packaged like a doll in plastic, its arms positioned wrist-out but on a slant in towards its thighs. He could see the dark gray gloves. They stood out from the armguards around them. No, 'armguard' was misleading. The forearms were made into a metal bulb that reached over the knuckles and extended back beyond the elbow into a skewer. Its surface looked smoother than silk, but loudly unapologetic for its strength. It flexed proudly, arrogantly, shamelessly displaying its skill. The metal bulbs had small openings underneath large enough for a fist to tuck inside, and was so devoted to the idea of breaking sternums that the image of an outstretched hand instead was awkward and unwieldy.

Everything about the suit fit in within that arrant confidence. The sides of the ribs were gray, giving it the lean shape of a hunter. The calves were dark, and those shadows travelled to coat the soles and toes of its feet. Under the biceps were last places to be coloured. Other than that... The helmet. To the left of the suit, in the upper corner of the casing, was a helmet. Very Daft Punk; it covered the head, coldly eyeless and sliced sharply to throat, defining the jaw. Its face was a shield of that familiar gray. There was a rise on the half of the helmet he could see, most certainly for an ear, but with another flat disc welded onto it. That wasn't for aesthetics. It must have been a scanner.

“Damn,” Gordon said. “You really can't touch it.” He was trying. “Fuuuuck...”

“Repulsion shield. The harder you hit it, the harder it reflects,” Weist was saying.

This suit had been armoured. Its fabric was as thick as leather, but the silkiness carried on to the eye. The shoulders had been sculpted into round covers, slimmer than football padding but decidedly worked to blast ahead with tackles. They were set on either side of the prototype's broad chest, leaning away from the high collar covering its neck. The chest was emblazoned with the Agency's logo. The sections down its torso gave the highest flexibility, probably close to acrobatic by the looks of it. It did want to hunt. The lack of weight on the legs said as much alone. It wanted to run, pounce, drop on its pray, and the soft padding in place of woven shoes meant that sad bastard wouldn't hear his death until it was on top of him.

“What's Patten have this thing for?”

“Trophy, maybe,” Franklin guessed.

“No.” Weist stepped back up, determined. He reached out to the case, but not towards the suit. He had moved towards the casing's door. “These.” He'd found something. “Fuuuuuuuuuck... Higeuros!”

At once, Higeuros stuck his nose in.

“Fuuuuuuuuck,” the guy agreed.

Gordon, too quiet, stayed quiet. Useless jerk.

As thrilling as waiting in silence was, Franklin was uncomfortable standing in wreckage unless something made it worth his while. He cleared his throat before venturing, “What'd you find?”

“Contacts.” Weist had a small, white case he clicked open. “Glittery contacts.”

“Blue tint, tiny mirrors, same box as the suit is in...” Higeuros was hovering. The black casing whirred. Neither he nor Weist gave a shit. “You think this fits your theory?”

“What theory? The milestone one?”

Yes, the milestone one,” Higeuros spat. “The only theory he talks about. Fucking Pubbys – you've been here for three months and you're still lost.”

“There's a part two,” Weist then said. “Salcon's past aligns with the Eliases, but the Eliases aren't done.” He raised the small case. “Marshall was here two days ago. That suit's too big for a normal one and it, according to the read-out, got dropped off yesterday. Pop quiz: what are the odds this prototype's here, the exact size of a guy who broke in on Friday, being a coincidence?”

“Marshall's a PE,” Franklin responded.

“The Agency's damage control.” He gave the contacts to Higeuros, who casually stuffed them into the door. The whirring stopped. The black casing sighed contentedly. “So far.”

“What else is it supposed to be?”

“I don't know.” A moment passed. “Don't know,” Weist murmured again. More to himself, it felt like. He lifted his hand to the suit. “But that's not damage control.”