On the crest of a street in San Francisco, stood six people – Luke, Sabra, Harley, Anna Lucia, and Leverett – wearing masks and street clothes. They looked more like bank robbers than the superheroes they were, a look which had earned them the moniker The Dissents – despite their fight to protect the people from the peccant and deleterious QED Corporation.
The four superheroes faced off against an army of frightening numbers, each soldier with superhuman powers of their own. These men and women were trained to fight and die for their country, and had been lead to believe that these six were vigilante outlaws who were trying to destroy humanity. Behind them was a line of soldiers in nearly impenetrable mech suits, and overhead helicopters swarmed. It was like six David’s facing off Goliath, his wife, children, relatives, in-laws, closest friends, and neighbors – the odds appeared off balanced.
“So… This whole knowing we were walking into a trap and being okay with that…” Anna Lucia began.
“Shut up, Anna,” Luke growled.
“All I’m saying is we could have thought this through some,” she insisted. “You know, maybe—”
“Is this really the time?” Sabra hotly interrupted. “She told us this was going to happen, no matter what we did.”
“Yeah. And one of us dies. I refuse to let that be me.”
“I second that,” Harley said.
Luke smiled. “We can all agree on that, so let’s go hand them their asses and call it a day. Sound like a good plan?”
With only a gust of wind to prove they had been there, Luke and his team rushed headlong into battle. The steamrolled into the army waiting for them, throwing soldiers left and right – and keeping with one rule on their short superhero rule list, doing everything they could to keep any of the soldiers from dying.
The fight ripped apart buildings, cars left on the street, holes were left in the asphalt and cement, and trees were crushed.
Despite the soldiers having superpowers and in mech suits, and the sheer number they had come into battle with, it quickly became apparent they were no match against The Dissents. The team had been using their powers of two years, they knew each other’s moves, and they communicated without a spoken word. The soldiers had been trained to work in combat as a team, but it didn’t make up for their lack of experience using their superpowers. The tide of the battle seemed unable to be turned and again Q.E.D. was losing to the ragtag team.
Luke heard someone scream his name and turned. Through the fighting and destruction he saw the face of a friend turned traitor.
“Asshole!” Luke snarled at the man before speeding toward him.
He was about to hit, prepared to knock him ten blocks away, when his bête noire yanked a teenage girl in front of him like a shield and coward behind her. That didn’t stop Luke. He knew he could pull her safely away and still attack his adversary.
Luke reached for her and grabbed her arms to pull her close – and felt sudden, intense pain burn into his chest. Her eyes instantly widened from pain and she tried to scream, but it came out as gurgling noise. Luke stumbled to a stop, falling against the wall of an apartment building with her and crushing her left leg and arm in the impact. He slowly sank to his knees, still holding her. Luke looked down, staring at the piece of metal that held them together. His enemy knew his weakness, the weakness all six of them had. Despite their powers, despite their speed and seemingly endless strength, they all bore the same weakness. If something was slow enough, but still had enough force behind it, it could easily penetrate their skin, and in this case, kill them for a second time in their lives.
Luke looked into the dying girl’s face. But he killed this child in Luke’s arms to murder Luke – if he’d had the strength, if he couldn’t feel his life slipping away so fast, Luke would have that man. He would have put an end to him betraying the team and now killing an innocent child.
“I’m sorry,” Luke whispered to her.
She tried to say something, but never had the chance. Somehow he knew his death wasn’t much further behind the girl’s.
He saw something burning fly overhead and crash into the house. It broke through a window and something inside burst into flames. The fire inside seemed to move at a crawl, inch by inch consuming anything that would feed its hunger.
Someone put their hand on his shoulder. “Hang on. Hold on, Luke,” Leverett quietly said.
In the distance, a car alarm started going off. Even in death it was an annoying sound.
Luke felt like he was falling. He blinked. A sharp rocky shoreline was rushing toward him. He didn’t scream. Instead he threw a hand out to break his fall, while his other hand balled into a fist as if clenching something precious. And then…
JUNE 1, 2030
Luke Peterfeso jerked awake. One hand slammed against the mattress to break his fall, while the other curled into a tight fist to hold onto that precious item.
Several minutes passed while his confused mind struggled to separate his nightmare from reality. As it did, Luke tried to recount the last time he’d had this same nightmare – it was last week, he remembered, but this nightmare had recurred many, many times before that. He’d been having it since he was eight, right after he’d suffered an unusually resilient case of Scarlett Fever. The strangest part of the fever wasn’t that it didn’t respond to antibiotics for two weeks and he was in Intensive Care from it, but that the doctors had no idea how he’d gotten it. He hadn’t had strep throat or tested positive for it prior to or during his illness, as far as they knew he hadn’t been in contact with anyone else who had the bacteria that caused it – by all accounts, it seemed to have manifested from nothing. With it came this nightmare every time he fell asleep, and after that, it recurred when he was stressed or depressed. Unfortunately, his adult life seemed rife with both stress and depression, so the nightmare occurred most nights.
Luke looked over at the alarm clock next to him, realizing it was the car alarm he’d heard in his nightmare. He sat up on the edge of his bed and stared at his reflection in the full length cheval mirror. He really hated that mirror but his ex-wife had insisted on having it and he hadn’t gotten around to selling it, giving it away, or better yet, breaking the damned thing until it was slivers of wood and glass. The stupid thing only made him feel worse about himself for all he saw looking back at him was a pathetic, tall, dumb looking man, and that was exactly how his ex-wife often described him.
They were both wrong.
With bright blue eyes, chestnut hair, and clean shaven, Luke was distinctly handsome. Sports, or much more than walking didn’t interest him, but that didn’t keep him from being tall, sinewy, and strong (despite his lack of activity). Junk foods didn’t appeal to him because his father and older brother loved them so much, and he never wanted to be anything like either of them; his desire to be nothing like either also drove his healthy eating habits and how rarely he would drink a beer. Luke was anything but dumb, and if he’d ever gotten around to taking an Intelligent Quotient test, his score would have placed him among geniuses. But he was smart beyond that. He had common sense and street smart intelligence, both limited only by his self-esteem and a life that so far had left scars. Even he couldn’t acknowledge he was a passionate visionary, but this drove his technology breakthroughs and constant craving to push the limits.
With a sigh, Luke realized his pity trip wasn’t getting him to work on time. He smacked the reset button on his alarm clock and staggered into his bathroom for a hot shower.
Luke was recruited by Q.E.D. at twenty-three, just as he began his Ph.D., and for the five years Luke had shared a lab with the same person: Mark Trundle.
Mark was a long term employee, having put in twelve years. He was always complaining about how little he was paid, although Luke had doubts he was being paid less than Luke. Q.E.D. gave raises to most employees every year, so he had to be making four or five times more than Luke by now. Perhaps it had something to do with the wife he hated, the teenage daughter he never said no to, or the high class mistress he kept on the side. For five years they were all Luke had heard about, along with any sport that involved balls. Usually Luke had to tune him out with headphones just to get his work done, but today Mark hadn’t said much. That was very unusual, but Luke was so caught up in the nightmare that he didn’t notice the unusual silence form the other side of the lab.
His concentration did break when he heard a Q.E.D. advertisement start and get closer to him. He smiled, watching Brundon Doughtry walk into the lab and up to him. He held up his iPad so Luke could see the advertisement.
The dumpy, balding man twice Luke’s age he was pretty much the only friend Luke had, and Luke seemed to be his only friend. Luke had gotten to know the man since they started having lunch together every day, four years ago, and he pitied the man. Brundon was kind and generous, but no one at Q.E.D. liked him. Not just this office in Santa Clara, but the entire company world-wide. Anytime Luke heard anyone talk about Brundon it was full of ruthless rumors, unfounded gossip, all fueled by jealousy and misunderstanding. Brundon was the only NOC for the technology that had made Q.E.D. the superpower it was – a computer known as BRINDA. Calling it a computer was a simplistic term but there wasn’t any known term that really encompassed the breadth of what the system really was. And Brundon was only a handful of people who were ever allowed into the Core where the main components were housed – aptly called since it was a room at the center of the building and rumored to be able to withstand a 10.0 earthquake, atomic bomb blast, and an EMP pulse. He was also nicknamed Monica’s lap dog – she was the company’s CEO and a complete cunt. Luke felt that if people really knew how he felt about her that nickname wouldn’t last long, but Brundon knew better than to express his opinions about his supervisor. Her wraith was fast and had effectively killed people’s career prospects in hours of pissing her off. Between her naturally abusive nature and being ostracized by everyone, Brundon was a ball of anxious nerves. Luke always wondered why Brundon trusted him but he was just grateful to have a friend, even if it was only a work friend, so he didn’t ask and risk rocking the friendship boat.
Mark was among the many people who hated Brundon. He glanced up at Brundon but only to glare at him before turning his attention back to his own work.
“Can you believe this?” Brundon shoved asked. “They’re marketing the new computers already. Look at this. They ripped off another company’s design! Again!”
Luke did believe it. In his five years with the company, he’d seen a lot of stolen technology on many of the products the company sold. It was rumored that Q.E.D. paid the board members of the victim companies millions to keep quiet about the theft and halt lawsuits.
“No right minded person would buy these. Not when they find out their computer is linked up to BRINDA, whether they have an Internet or not. Q.E.D. can see everything! I see a lot of RIAA lawsuits against a lot of teenagers in the near future. Talk about 1984!”
Luke lifted his eyebrows. “They’ll link to BRINDA without the Internet? How?”
Brundon looked at him with a shocked expression. Clearly that wasn’t something he was supposed to be telling anyone. Luke smiled.
“Letting cats out of the bag’ll get you scratched, Brun. Should watch that. The vampire of Q.E.D. could be lurking anywhere.”
“The bitch that sucks your life for pure entertainment,” Mark muttered.
Brundon chuckled at the joke. Mark glared, killing the chuckle.
Brundon turned back to Luke. “Lunch. Where should we go?”
“You’re asking me at eight o’clock in the morning?”
“Yeah. So I can plan.”
“That’s five hours away. Text me in four hours. Then I’ll decide.”
“Brundon!” a female voice snapped.
The vampire, cunt of Q.E.D. had found him!
All three men turned toward the voice.
CEO of the Santa Clara, California Q.E.D. office, the vampire herself, Monica Stokes, blocked the door as if she thought one of them might escape before she had unleashed her unbridled wraith on them. She was a stunning woman with strawberry-blonde hair, unusual blue eyes, porcelain skin, and the perfect figure that was shown off by her tailored outfits – of which she never wore the same twice. Beauty and perfection that did nothing to take the edge off her thorny underside or temper that could make the strongest man or woman cower and whimper.
“Did I send you in here to chat?”
“Get back to The Core!”
Brundon left without a word.
She walked up to Luke, stopping when her breasts brushed his arm. He held her gaze. Luke wasn’t afraid of her like everyone else around him was, and the reason was illogical. He could not get her to fire him! He desperately wanted to leave Q.E.D., but he’d signed a ten year contract when he began working here, and the only two ways he could get out of it without becoming homeless was to be fired for minor infractions or die. He had tried everything that fell under the minor infractions – not filing reports, filing poorly written paperwork, missing dates or meetings, even coming in late, things which he’d seen other employees be fired for almost immediately. She wouldn’t fire him and he couldn’t figure out what it was. So one day he exploded at her and instead of immediately having him escorted off the property, she was her usual coy self, threw some insults his way, and walked away. Luke was now convinced his life was the embodiment of hell, and she was there to make sure it only got worse – and he no longer feared her.
“You’re working on a miniature storage device.” She stated it as if Luke didn’t know about his own project.
“I want all the devices you have, every prototype, now. Then you will forward all documentation and reports to me.”
“It’s not finished, Missus Stokes.”
“Did I ask if they were finished?”
Luke didn’t answer.
“Now, Mister Peterfeso.”
“No.” Secretly Luke hoped this would be the final straw and was begging this would finally piss her off and finally he would be fired.
She almost smiled. “Excuse me?”
“I’m finishing the project this time. You aren’t taking it away from me until I’ve completed it.”
She leaned in, pressing her body against him. He held his ground, glaring into her cool smile.
“Are you refusing to comply, Mr. Peterfeso?”
Luke thought about it. “Yes. I guess you’ll have to fire me.”
She chuckled a little. “I can appreciate your brash behavior, Mister Peterfeso, for a few minutes. And no, I won’t fire you. I’ll change your job duties. Do you enjoy cleaning toilets? There’s an opening on our janitorial staff. Your pay grade will be scaled to match the position. That might make it a little hard to take care of dad, won’t it?”
Luke was burning to argue with her, to accept the challenge – but she was right. He needed his paycheck to pay for the nursing home.
How the hell did she know about his father’s health? Or that he could barely afford to pay for his care on his current pay check? With his backfired plan, Luke caved.
“I was close to getting it to work, Monica,” he growled. Luke turned, saying, “Mark, give me a hand?”
Mark followed him into the small storage room at the back of the lab. Luke glanced back. Monica had one hand against the door frame and drummed her fingers impatiently. Luke grabbed a box and walked to a small, clear front cooler. He yanked open the door.
“Hold this, will ya?” Luke asked Mark, holding the container where he wanted Mark to stand.
Mark took it and Luke grabbed the first tray. Inside were three-dozen two-centimeter amber colored spheres. Luke poured them into the container. He grabbed a second tray, brushing his hand along the edge so he could swipe three before emptying the tray into the container. He looked up, seeing Mark’s surprised expression. He had seen the swipe. Would he tell her?
Luke put the tray back and turned his back on Mark and Monica. He put the spheres in a shirt pocket and then pulled out a tray from another cooler. The tray had a dozen prototypes of various composition and color – all the ones that had failed. He dumped those in the container, slammed the cooler doors shut and stopped at a filing cabinet to yank out a folder and deposit it in the box. As he walked past Monica, he let the box go. Not expecting it, Monica flailed her arms, trying to keep the box from falling. Mark walked away without offering to help.
“Is that all?” She turned, finding Luke at the lab door, holding the door open for her.
“Yes,” Luke answered.
She smirked as she walked past. Luke slammed the door behind her. She stopped in the hall and slowly turned. Through the glass door, he glared at her. She turned and walked away.
“You’re ballsy, Luke,” Mark commented.
“She’s not pissed. She doesn’t even care.” Luke went back to his computer.
“That’s not what I meant.”
Luke looked at him. He glanced at the pocket Luke had put the spheres.
“Meet me at Hawkins Point for a beer tonight. Around six. Bring those pens.” He patted Luke’s pocket.
“Great. See you there.” Mark left the lab.
Luke decided not to argue. He didn’t really want Mark’s help, but his lab partner had just kept his secret. So he decided he’d have a beer or two with him. Besides, he could use a partner if he wanted to get the spheres working before Monica could.