Somewhere in America
The warehouse, or hangar, or bunker, or whatever it was, could easily hold a hundred men on its floor and, if they were stacked on top of one another, many more than that. But there were only four people in the space, two of them sitting on crates, one of them watching the two on the crates with undisguised hostility, and the last, the only woman, was chewing, popping, and re-chewing at least three sticks of gum with what could only be described as viciousness.
They had been there for more than half an hour. None had met before. All of them were accused, convicted, and sentenced criminals. And as far as anyone who wasn't in this building was concerned, they were all dead. The men sitting on the crates were talking, passing a hand-rolled cigarette back and forth. “Yeah, I think I have heard of ye,” one of them, a tall and muscular man with wild red hair and a jaw-line beard said, a Boston-Irish accent coloring the words. “Never bought an album, no offense. Not my kind a' music.”
“Hey man, it's cool,” the other said. He was as tall as the Irishman, but lankier, more toned than muscular - the kind of body one gets to look good with no shirt on, not the kind gained through hard, unforgiving labor. He was black, bald, and even in an orange prison jumpsuit, he managed to look like he should be on a magazine cover. “Rap ain't for everyone, never meant to be. It's the sound of the streets, man, you know?”
“Sure, sure,” the Irishman said, rolling another cigarette with tobacco that was probably half dead leaves. “More into the punk scene, me'self. You know, I saw the Sex Pistols live once? Damn, but those fuckers put on a good show.”
“Yeah, yeah I just bet,” the black man said, nodding.
The doors that the four criminals had come in through opened, but this time only one man came through. He carried a clipboard, but he certainly didn't look like someone who would usually carry one - he was heavily built, bald, with scars lining his scalp and one along his jaw. He was dressed in an olive-drab shirt, pixelated camouflage pants, and black combat boots. He looked like everything a soldier should be - except for the prison ID bracelet on his right wrist.
“Afternoon,” he said, by way of greeting.
“Oh is that what time it is?” the black man asked. “See, we wouldn't know, cuz we haven't seen the sun in four days.”
“Cute,” the man in military dress said. “Put a little pout into it, and I might consider giving a shit.” He flipped a page on the clipboard, looked back at the man, and nodded. “Alexander Quincy?”
“Xander Q,” the man said. “That's how the world knows me.”
“Well as far as the world knows, Xander, you're deader than dogshit. If it makes you feel better, you're not. Be good, and it'll stay that way.”
“Who the fuck are you to be threatenin' us?” the Irishman said. “You're a fuckin' convict like the rest of us, else you wouldn't have that fine piece o' jewelry there.” He pointed to the man's wrist.”
“He has a point,” the tall man standing to the side said, still glaring daggers wherever his pale blue eyes looked.
“Who are you?” the man started, looking all four of the convicts, “I am the guy that got you out of prison. Whether you choose to appreciate that or not is your choice.” He gave a cold, mirthless smile. “If you want, we can go around the table and shake hands.”
“Just tell us who you are,” the woman said, the first sound anyone in the room had heard her make.
“My name is Richard Kreuz,” he began. “Some of you who know a little metahuman history might remember me - from about 1973 to 1978, I was known as Totenkreuz.”
The Irishman chuckled. The black man made no expression. The tall man's teeth looked like they weren't set quite right anymore. The woman raised an eyebrow. “And...you people,” he said, nodding to the group. “Xander Q, if you really want to be called such a stupid name, is a former rap star from San Diego. Somehow, he was born with the ability to generate a harmonic resonance in his vocal chords that suppresses certain activity in the brain. Makes people submissive and subservient, something like that. Arrested and incarcerated for extortion, embezzlement, and illegal misuse of mental abilities. No wonder his debut went double platinum.”
Xander smiled. “You noticed.”
Kreuz smiled back, the same cold smile as before. “You can't do that anymore, can you Xander?”
“Naw,” the rapper said, rubbing his throat. “Prison doc put some kinda clamp on my vocal chords. Can't do it no more.”
“Play your cards right, and maybe you'll be able to,” Kreuz said. “Moving along, we have Mr. 'Bad Luck' Brandon Flannery. Has an innate sense and, to an extent, control over the forces of probability. Made a sultan's fortune in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, but it looks like something went wrong in Amsterdam...”
“Fuckin' psychics,” Flannery said, flicking away the remains of his cigarette.
“Michael Chambers,” Kreuz continued. “You used to be on the side of the angels, weren't you Mike?”
“I still am,” Chambers said. “Unlike the rest of the people in this room.”
“Oh, I don't know about that, Mike. What did they used to call you, White Shield?”
“See, the 'Shield' I get, no problem there. For those of you who've never heard of him, Mr. Chambers has the ability to create an energy field around himself of anyone he's touching. Somehow, he's also capable o unassisted human flight, very nice, very nice...now, it's the 'White' part that got you in trouble, isn't it?” Chambers said nothing, just continued to glare at Kreuz. “Nobody knew you were a member of the Ku Klux Klan, did they, Mike? That wasn't part of your costume or anything, no white hood, no burning cross. Hm. Were you ashamed of your friends, Mike?”
“My name is Michael. And sometimes...sometimes justice has to disguise itself.”
“If your idea of justice is the murder of an entire black neighborhood, then yeah, sure. The men in that community raped a little girl, Kreuz.”
“Actually, they didn't. I don't know if you heard about it while you were at Ceti Alpha, but they managed to pin that one down to a Mr. Arnold Beekeeper...why, the local chapter leader of the Florida Ku Klux Klan! What...a...surprise, wouldn't you say?”
“Arnold? He would never...!”
“But he did. And you killed over thirty innocent people because you were too blind to look past your own mask.” Chambers' body shook, but he said nothing.
“And now, perhaps our most interesting case, may I introduce Jane Five. Jane...is a robot.” Jane blew a gum bubble almost as big as her own face, popped it, and maneuvered it back into her mouth in a way that would distract the vast majority of men watching. “Some kid in Idaho made her to be his girlfriend, and I guess she didn't like the idea so much. Murdered the kid in his sleep, along with his parents, and two policemen.”
“They looked at me funny. Way the kid looked at me when he wanted to fuck.”
“Uh...huh. Says here you've got comparable strength to an industrial forklift, your skin is made of something tougher than kevlar, and you can see in every light spectrum. What I want to know is what kind of kinky shit was the kid into to need to give you all that?”
“He didn't,” Jane said. “I upgraded myself.”
“Oh,” Kreuz said, looking back down at the clipboard. “That explains the break in at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.” He made a few marks on the paper, and then dropped the clipboard, and kicked it away. It whistled as it sped along the concrete floor. “You know the gist of why you're here. Unit Zero is, in a nutshell, one of the riskiest uses of taxpayer money in this country's history. You are all being released from prison on probation to carry out secret operations for the American government. In return, there is a definite possibility of a new identity, and reintegration into society. I am in charge of Unit Zero, and the five-man fire team called Sigma Black.
He took a moment to look at each of the super-criminals in the room. “You have two choices. You can join Sigma Black, possibly die or be injured in the field, and never be remembered or praised for anything you do from this point in your life on...and maybe, just maybe, get enough good favor to be released. Or, you can refuse, and I can shoot you.” He pulled a strange-looking pistol from the back of his waistband that no one had noticed before.
“What the hell?!” Flannery exclaimed, as everyone else made sounds of surprise, except for Jane, who cocked her head slightly to the side. “Confidentiality and plausible deniability, Mr. Flannery. Meaning, I can't let you blab about this to your cellmate, or anyone else for that matter, and the only way to ensure that is if you are, in fact, dead. That goes for all of you.” He clicked the pistol's safety off, and it made a strange, thump-WHINE! sound, like a a generator starting up. “Any takers?”
There was a long moment of silence. No one said anything. Kreuz smiled, clicked the safety back on, and put the pistol back in his waistband. “That's what I was hoping. Gentlemen, ma'am, welcome to Sigma Black.”
Kreuz sat at the table, hands crossed, looking at the one-way mirror window that showed the four poor bastards (well, three poor bastards and one sexbot who went Charles Manson) marauding their way through the obstacle courses the eggheads had come up with. Kreuz thought they all looked like a bad circus act, and he could only imagine what his hand-picked team of elite plausibly deniable losers thought about the whole thing, but the General thought it was a cool idea, and as long as Kreuz still wore the explosive sub-dermal collar he had come to think of lovingly as his "dog-tags," he didn't really want to tell the General he thought the idea was stupid.
And speak of the devil...
Actually, it was the Devil, along with three of his good drinking buddies. They were all dressed in the new pixelated camo BDU, fruit salads adorning their chests showing what big men they were and what great things they'd done for their country. Kreuz had been in Vietnam - he knew that the amount of bullshit a person was full of was directly related to the amount of metal on his chest - unless the metal was actually in his chest, which meant that he was probably an OK guy.
"Good morning, Kreuz," General Bradley Yoates said, sitting down on the metal chair and dropping a manilla folder on the table.
"Is that what time it is?" Kreuz asked. "Haven\'t seen the sun in a few days."
"Don\'t be cute with me, Kreuz," Yoates said. "Especially not when you've got to steal lines from those pissants just to have a witty comeback."
Shit. He\'d been watching. "I'm just saying, it'd be nice if you sent me an omelette every now and then so I can tell what time it is."
To his surprise, the General pointed to one of his aides. "Gimme one, too. Lotsa ham, lotsa Swiss." Kreuz raised an eyebrow, and gave the General the slightest of nods. The General looked out the window, watching the former super-convicts. "So what do you think?
"They look alright to me," Kreuz said. "But I got one question."
"Who the hell thought it was a good idea to stick a black rapper in the same fireteam as white supremist?"
The General sighed. "We based the team on the compatibility of their abilities, not their dating profiles, Kreuz. If they've got a social problem, you're gonna have to deal with it."
"How is this my problem if your people fucked up?"
"It\'s your problem if they kill each other in the field, Kreuz." The General leaned back in his chair, and gave Kreuz a patronizing smile. "You know why you people, the supervillians I mean, keep losing? Why you keep getting locked up in places like Ceti Alpha? Because you can\'t stand to put aside your own damn problems and work together for the cause of world fuck-up-ery."
Kreuz rolled his eyes. "Because you're just such a paragon of virtue. Sir."
"I don't pretend to be," Yoates said. "I like to think of myself as this country's trashman. And when you spend your whole time dealing with garbage, you\'re going to smell like shit."
"Thank you, sir. My ego was feeling a little low."
The aide came in with two enlisted men carrying porcelain plates with omelettes on them. "The robo-girl doesn't seem like she'll be a problem," Kreuz said, after a bite. Just cheese. Damn. "As long as she doesn't re-wire her collar."
"Don't worry about that one too much," the General said, attacking his omelette like he'd just had his stomach replaced and he wanted to break it in. "We had our techs take her apart and put her back together. She used to run on unleaded petroleum. Now she runs off something best described as two Die-Hard batteries with a grenade lodged between them and a radio remote that can reach halfway to the moon."
"Ah. Well, that would do it, yeah. What about the Irish guy? What if he makes a break for it and that bomb on his neck just happens to be a dud?"
"He can do that?"
"Well, I dunno, I haven\'t even played poker with him. But what if he can?"
"Hm. Well, we'll just put five on him. I bet he can't stop 'em all."
"I wouldn't bet anything around that guy."
"You know what I mean." He pushed the clean and glistening plate away, rubbing his face with a napkin that looked like it belonged in a four-star hotel. "So do we have a first mission?"
"I'll start you kids off on an easy one, I think. A little house-cleaning, you know?"
"Oh, shit." House-cleaning was the General\'s term for taking out people that the US had actually put in power somewhere, and needed killed off now that they weren't needed anymore. Or, more commonly, because they were now using everything the US had equipped them with to commit every kind of monstrosity imaginable, and even invent a few of their own. "Who am I going after this time?"
"When you get your playmates' act together, we need you to take out a guy named Po Guong-Qi,\" the General said, pulling out a photograph and a dossier. “We gave him and his buddies a couple million dollars and a crate or two of guns and ammo back in the 60s, hoping he would start going after Kim Il-Sung. That didn't work out so well - oh, he'll shoot up a convoy every now and then, but most of what he did was disappear into the forest and take people hostage for ransom. We didn't care so much until they took four British nationals and the Spanish ambassador hostage." He passed the photo and dossier to Kreuz.
Kreuz looked at the General. "That's it? This sounds about as tough as screwing your sister, sir."
The General smiled, and Kreuz' blood turned to ice. "Oh, I think you\'ll be unpleasantly surprised, Kreuz. Very surprised."'
Alexander Quincy, known to his fans and most of his ex-girlfriends (except the Spanish one) as Xander Q, held the rifle up to his shoulder, exhaled, took aim, and fired off a three-round burst. He took a look at his target, and raised an eyebrow. “Not bad for a first-timer, eh boss?”
Kreuz came up behind Xander, looked at the target, and snorted. “You know you're shooting for the middle, son?” He snatched the M4 out of Xander's hands, and had pulled the clip out just as Xander was realizing that the rifle was gone.
“And I bet you hit bull's eye the first time you held a rifle,” Xander muttered.
“Actually,” Kreuz said, re-loading the clip and clicking it back into the rifle's housing, “I didn't.” He waved Xander back, stood in position, and fired off another three rounds in semi-auto mode. These penetrated both kneecaps and the right shoulder of the target. “Never aim to kill if you don't have to,” Kreuz said. “You kill a man, it takes him out of action. You wound a man, it takes out him and his two buddies that had to drag him out of the fire line.”
“The people we'll be fighting won't be so humane, surely,” the metahuman formerly known as White Shield said, arms crossed and sitting on a crate of 5.56mm ammunition.
“We don't know who we'll be fighting,” Kreuz said. “Don't assume that the individual soldiers we will be fighting are going to be heartless baby-eaters - some of them may be fighting for hearth and home. Some of them will be fighting because if they don't, their superiors will shoot them in the back of the head. We did that very thing in the First World War.” He paused, and looked at the four would-be Sigmans Black. “And if they turn out to be so humane, well...we might as well use that to our advantage.” He handed the rifle to Flannery. “Give it a try.”
The Irishman took the M4, winked at Jane, and popped off his three rounds. All had hit either the hand or foot. “Like that?” he asked.
Kreuz nodded. “Flannery, does it take you any time or concentration to do that?”
“What, fire a rifle?”
“No. Get lucky.”
“A bit. Only a second.”
“Try it again without doing that,” Kreuz said.
“In the second it takes you to make probability your bitch, you could have you head taken off by a trigger-happy AK-wielding teenager who was just as lucky as you for that second. Try it again.”
Flannery sighed, took aim again, and fired. One round nicked a hand. The others pinged off the steel back wall of the firing range. “Fuck!”
“That's alright,” Kreuz said, though the tone of his voice was still flat and disapproving. “If he drops his gun, that's still something.” He nodded to Jane, the killer fem-bot, and held the rifle out.
She gave Kreuz a 'say-what?' look, and waved the rifle away. “I hate guns,” she said.
Kreuz sighed. “If you can throw your bubblegum and hit a man in the eye with it, then you can skip rifle training.” Jane raised an eyebrow, and pointed two fingers at the target. There was a humming, a vibration that all the men in the room could feel in their bones, in their teeth. The steel walls acted like a tuning fork, sending the subsonic harmonics all around the room. Xander grit his teeth, and put a finger to his ear. White Shield growled. And ten seconds after the humming began, it ended. And two target practice dummies exploded into shards of plexiglass.
Kreuz rubbed his ear, and said. “Huh. That could be fun.”