- Every year, a randomly chosen person on Earth is struck by lightning and gains superpowers.
- Each new superhuman is twice as powerful as the previous one.
- This has been going on for eleven years.
A desolate air base smack in the North American heartland, surrounded by a sixty-kilometre ribbon of electric fence and razor wire hung with intimidating red, yellow and white signs warding off photographers, trespassers and enemies of the state respectively, plus incomprehensibly secret experiments going on within? It's a little greener, vegetation-wise, but Kuang Ching-Yu thinks you might as well call it Area 51 and save yourself five pages of description.
As far as most of Ching's past colleagues know, he works at Google. He does not.
Ching's a faster-than-light communications engineer, one of about nine in the whole world. There are only nine FTLCEngs in the whole world because FTLC does not work.
Well, they should work in theory, but they don't, because, in a bitter twist of irony, they are blocked by a very loud repeating message explaining that very theory.
Ching is also an amateur photographer, so the red signs in particular drive him nuts. On bad days, the amount of stuff he has failed to commit to film makes him nauseous: sunsets, starfields, red-lit racks of fighter jets, white-lit files of soldiers, bleak, fluorescent-lit command buildings, oppressively black concrete bunkers and, of course, the impossible flying people. The latter, in particular, he feels a near-irresistible compulsion to take photographic record of. Even now, after all his experimentation, he cannot quite believe it.
It's just a coma fantasy, he tells himself. Surely, science still applies in the waking world.
Two F-22s hurtle from horizon to horizon. From ground level, with the aid of binoculars, Ching can just about make out two human figures keeping pace and formation with the jets. They're wearing dark blue, and using the position that the aerodynamics boys eventually figured out for them: nose-first, with the feet very slightly lower than the head to ease the neck, and the arms very slightly spread, providing just a little lift. He has no idea how fast they're going. Any of them. He does know that without their transponders neither individual shows up on radar alongside the jets. They have no heat signature-- at least, when they're not moving fast enough to set the air on fire behind them.
The aircraft peel off towards a landing strip. The humans lose altitude and speed and just curl around lazily down to the ground. They don't need landing strips. The smaller of the two figures spots Ching from the air, and the larger one follows in the same direction.
As they get closer the dark blue aerodynamic flight suits become visible in detail; buckled rubbery things laden with stiff attitude control fins along the arms and legs and neck and head and feet. The first aerosuits looked like living aeroplanes, but the fins are coming to look more and more like bird feathers with every revision the design team makes. There are goggles.
"The thing about these suits, you two," says Ching as they get within speaking distance, "is they're going for improved speed and manoeuvrability, but they won't improve your reactions or control. What good is being able to move twice as fast if you can't tell what you're doing at that speed?"
"They also look bloody stupid," says Arika, wrenching off her hood and goggles. "And they're too hot."
Jason lands, nods to Ching, who nods in return. Jason appears to concur on the heat issue. "It's better when you're moving at speed because of windchill. But they don't breathe."
"They don't want to put in holes because it'll ruin the airflow," says Ching.
"I say screw airflow," says Arika.
"That's what I'm saying," says Ching. "I think it's ridiculous. They should work on something approaching armour. Something which can take being punched through a mountain."
Jason Chilton (Nine) is a short, broad-shouldered, stubbly, just-a-little-overweight Brit. He is/was/may still be a project manager for a company whose purpose Ching was only dimly able to understand, even after Jason explained it with diagrams. Jason openly admits to being infinitely more at home wearing a work shirt in an office environment, and finds the aerosuit and, indeed, the entire notion of being superpowered nonsensical. He was, in fact, punched through a mountain once.
Arika McClure (Eight) is taller than either of them. She is a teenaged, mixed-race, Australian orphan whose parents died under tragic circumstances almost three years ago. She ticks all kinds of demographic boxes and looks a hell of a lot better in the suit than Jason does. She loves being superpowered, every minute of it. She has done some actual successful crimefighting in her home town. She is on an endless happy adventure.
Both of them have been flying for more than a year, and have grown to hate walking so much that they rarely bother touching the ground anymore. Ching finds it disconcerting to talk to them as they bob up and down unconsciously on the spot, looking down at him, but he, like many other people on the base, has given up trying to get them to disobey their instincts.
"Twenty-four hours left," says Ching. "Still haven't found Eleven. I said I should have gone with them to work the equipment. Morons're going to miss the deadline."
"That's not true at all," says Arika. "He's here. He arrived yesterday."
"You were told that?"
"No," says Jason. "Sixth sense. Woke us both up in the middle of the night. He's here."
"He's here? And you weren't told, and I wasn't told, and none of us have spoken to him?"
The two Powers shrug.
Ching encounters his boss in the corridor which runs around C Block and quickly matches walking speed with him. Both of them are en route to the same meeting room.
"I know Eleven arrived last night."
Captain Moxon slows down. "We were going to tell you today. This very meeting."
"Do you have any idea how much work we need to do in the next twenty-four hours? I should have been notified the second you took off from the Philippines en route here. I could have been preparing all of yesterday and working all night."
"Look, Kuang. We've been busy. The other guys on your team are following your instructions. It is in hand."
"You just don't need me, is that it?"
"Of course we need you. You have the overview and the notes and the designs. You can explain everything in plain English. You're the key."
They open the double doors to the meeting room, in which there is a wide oval boardroom table which seats thirty, but only one other man, a dark-haired airman who instantly snaps to attention. Moxon tells him to be seated. Ching circles the table and plonks down his sheaf of paperwork at the far end, nearest the white screens.
"Ching-Yu Kuang, Jerry Kavet. He's our translator."
Ching goes back over and shakes Kavet's hand before handing him a file of paper. "Tagalog, am I right?"
"Yes, sir, and some local dialects." Kavet is broad-shouldered and bronzed and apparently heavily jet-lagged.
"Tell him everything you know about this," Moxon says to Ching.
Ching spreads out his paperwork and gathers his thoughts for just a second.
"Once every year, somebody, somewhere on Earth, undergoes a metamorphosis. They remain physically and genetically human, but gain the ability to apply reactionless forces to their own bodies, which, in turn, permits superhuman feats of strength and unaided flight. They also gain the ability to dramatically accelerate their own perceptions, which allows them to think and react when moving at superhuman speeds; superhuman resistance to damage, which prevents them from tearing their own bodies apart when using their super-strength; and, finally, a sixth sense for other nearby Powers. We call them Powers, or members of the Line. Superhumans. Metahumans.
"Never 'mutants'. Never 'heroes'. Those are misnomers.
"Each one is more powerful than the last, and the man you're about to speak to-- it is a man, Captain Moxon?"
"What's his name?"
"Mister Dimasalang has been identified as soon to become the eleventh Power. As of 0820 hours tomorrow, he's going to become a superman more powerful than all the previous Powers put together."
"Right...?" Jerry Kavet is vaguely aware of the chaos which surrounded the events of last year's Birth, which nearly began a war, but has as few of the facts as the media sources which reported on it. Flying men are still predominantly fictional in this world - a new field of poorly-documented pseudoscience, like UFOs.
"This base was established to study the existing Powers and figure out how, if at all, this phenomenon can be controlled, harnessed, or, as a last resort, stopped entirely. The people here have been working on it since the first genuine superhuman was positively identified in Russia. We now believe this woman is the sixth Power. The five earlier Powers are assumed to have been of too little note, or too remotely located, to be noticeable on a global scale. The seventh Power was also Russian but is now dead. The eighth Power was Arika McClure, an Australian who is here at the base right now. The ninth was Jason Chilton, a Briton who is also here. The tenth was Tzu-Le Chang, Chinese, and also dead, as of almost precisely a year ago.
"I won't go into the scientific details of our studies," says Ching. Because there hardly are any, he adds to himself. "New Powers are born insane. There's a lead-up period of five to seven minutes of intense pain and then they go totally berserk for fifteen point eight seconds. For Dimasalang, at full perceptual acceleration, that time period will be equivalent to almost nine hours. In that time, at maximum speed, he could, from a standing start in this room, reach and exterminate everybody on this base and an additional five to ten thousand people in the towns of Fairview and Brooksburg, eighteen miles to the south-south-east and south respectively. He will be impervious to, and faster than, all conventional weaponry. A missile would be able to track the heat generated by air friction, but would never be able to catch up with something so fast and mobile, and certainly the explosion would not do more than stun him."
Ching pauses and waits for the question he knows, from reading Kavet's face, is coming. Kavet opens his mouth and Ching gestures that he can speak.
"Why don't you just kill him?"
"Because we're scientists."