Mopping can be therapeutic. A simple, rhythmic task where you can just let your mind go blank. Of course, it could also be sickness-inducing depending on what kind of lovely surprise you find waiting for you. This time, however, it was just a simple coffee spill. Those happened often enough, and with the staggering volume of caffeine the eggheads here consumed it wasn’t surprising. All in all, today was a slow day. Nothing had blown up, nothing hazardous had leaked, and nothing had malfunctioned in a messy way.
Things were looking up.
I knew I was setting the bar low as far as dreams and aspirations went. Most people my age were at a college or university climbing their way towards a degree while simultaneously digging their way into debt. Then they would get a job they maybe liked and get pay that wasn’t quite enough to get everything they wanted. But when you have low expectations, its easier to be content.
The spill was now just a memory as I put the mop back in its bucket. Another job well done, go me. It was getting close to lunch time, so I opted to eat a little early. I made my way to the elevator, pushing my cart with me. No one really pays you any attention when you’re wearing a janitor uniform, and if they do its either because they have something that needs to be cleaned or they need to move out of your way. To be honest, I kind of liked that. It just made pretending to be normal that much easier.
When the doors slid open, I wheeled my cart inside and smiled at the other occupant. “Floor?” He asked with a smile.
“Uh, basement,” I replied, getting everything inside. There was something about him that struck me as familiar. I’d probably seen him walking around before, but he was one of the corporate types as indicated by his suit and lack of pocket protector.
He reached over and hit the button and I saw he was headed for the ground floor. “Nice weather outside, isn’t it?”
His question caught me a bit off guard. Like I mentioned, I wasn’t used to attention. “Yeah, I guess so,” I replied, trying to be cordial, but it probably came out sounding more suspicious than anything. Why did he look so familiar? I was trying to place a name with his face, but it wasn’t clicking. He wasn’t very tall and had a rather thin frame with his light-brown hair done in a youthful style.
“Its Peterson, right?” he asked with a look on his face that made it seem like it wasn’t really a question. Now I was starting to panic, feeling the dread of forgetting the name of someone you’re supposed to know creeping into the pit of my stomach. I must have looked confused, because he quickly followed up with, “Oh, sorry. I try to make it a point to learn all my employee’s names.”
The realization hit me like a ton of bricks. David Hartley. The founder and CEO of Daedalus Technologies. “Yes, sir, Mr. Hartley, that’s uh, that’s me. I mean, my name, that’s my name.”
He seemed to graciously ignore me stumbling over myself, but he didn’t get the chance to continue the conversation. The elevator came to a stop and Mr. Hartley gave me a nod before stepping off. That was strange, I thought to myself as the doors started to close. But before they met, Hartley’s hand jammed between them, forcing them open again. “Oh, Mr. Peterson, I almost forgot. I couldn’t help but notice that dampener on your arm. We’re working on some new models for Argus on the forty-second floor. If you want to stop by after lunch, we can maybe let you try on a few of the prototypes. It’s always good to get feedback from those the product is meant to help,” he said, apparently waiting for an answer.
Alarms were going off in my head as I felt the growing dread in my stomach solidify. Was it that obvious? And he was inviting me to a lab like we were old friends. “I… I guess so, sir…” I muttered before I could think of anything else to say. Hartley’s face lit up, “Excellent, just stop by anytime after lunch and we’ll try not to take up too much of your time.”
Hartley pulled away from the elevator without another word, and this time the doors closed. I banged my head against the back of the elevator. One day. Not even a full one. That was all it took for someone to notice. Was it just him, or were there others who saw it and realized what it was?
I wanted to rip the stupid thing off and drown it in the bucket of mop water. I forced myself to take a deep breath and then another. Getting upset wouldn’t make anything better. The doors opened again, this time to the basement. I stored the cart in a supply closet and went to take off my coveralls in the locker room. I didn’t really know what its like to work anywhere else, but it was nice to have a long break for lunch. Another perk of working at DT.
Another elevator ride and I was back on the ground floor. I decided to wait until after lunch to think about the dampener or metahumans or heroes or anything else. There were quite a few other people heading for the doors who seemed to have the same idea I did: a hot lunch. There was a place a few blocks over James had told me about that I wanted to try. I think he said it was Greek.
But then, the ground shook. Everyone in the lobby froze, looking around with fearful expressions. A voice crackled to life over the PA system, “Attention all employees: Argus has issued an active Class III Metahuman Warning for the Greater Chicago area. Daedalus Technologies is implementing a level one lockdown.” Retractable shielding lowered to cover nearly all the glass on the ground floor exposed to the outside, as several members of the building security hurried into the lobby to urge everyone to backup from the front doors. I knew from security meetings that blast-proof metal barricades were being lowered to cut off the parking garage entrance, and the elevators were shutting down as a precautionary measure. Any offices with windows were evacuated with people being pooled near the central trunk of the building.
The guards were letting a few people in off the street, but there was no way they’d let me out without a good reason regardless if I thought food was grounds or not. The building shook again, but it felt closer this time. Maybe staying put was a good idea. A Class III threat meant that even with all the heroes present putting up a fight, Argus predicted the potential for “substantial loss of life”. People were beginning to murmur, but they weren’t panicking. Yet.
Since going out for lunch was off the table, I decided the vending machines a few floors up would have to do. The Metahuman Warning was troubling, but the Regents could handle it. Of course, the only members that I knew were in the city were Wrath, Animus, and Vindicator. The others could be halfway around the world or anywhere in between. Still, there were other heroes who could make it here in a matter of minutes. Not to mention any solo acts that were in the area.
I made my way up the stairs and really began to harbor a hatred for them. I understood lowering shielding for exposed windows but shutting off the elevators seemed like overkill. Maybe I’d lodge a complaint. I mused the thought over as I rounded a corner. The vending machines were in a little alcove near a group of cubicles that were predominantly empty with the active warning. After feeding the machines my spare change, I grabbed my prize of chips and a bottle of soda.
The quakes were growing more frequent, but there wasn’t any pattern to them. Sometimes they were back to back only to fall silent for several seconds that sometimes stretched into minutes. It was like listening to an amateur drummer who was constantly off-beat. I had invaded one of the cubicles and tried to entertain myself with a collection of paper footballs made from some borrowed post-it notes. That became boring fast, but there wasn’t much to do except get back to work. Everyone else was glued to screens tuned into news broadcasts covering the event, not that there was really anything to see.
No doubt, there were some brave, and questionably suicidal, reporters trying to sneak past the joint Argus and Police barricades to get a shot of a hero, or villain, in action. On top of that, Helicopters were grounded, and airlines re-routed to prevent them from becoming potential targets for flying foes. While the people in tights tried to subdue the baddies, the Argus agents were evacuating the surrounding area as best they could. Now they were really the brave ones in my eyes. Sure, they had Kevlar and guns, but against a villain with enhanced strength they might as well be tissue paper and pea shooters. They still ran into danger anyway.
I lined up another shot with the makeshift goal I made from pencils and paperclips, but I noticed a blinking light. My eyes drifted over to the power dampener and the red indicator frantically trying to tell me something. Problem was, I had no idea what that something might be. Malfunction? Low Battery? A notification about the throw down taking place outside? I had no clue. James didn’t exactly give me the user manual. Suddenly, that seemed like glaring oversight.
Should I call James? Nah. It probably wasn’t a big of a deal, and he was almost certainly busy coordinating with the rest of Argus during the meta warning. With nothing better to do, I decided to get back to work. After cleaning up my own entertainment, it was basement-ward bound for me. I felt the beginnings of a headache taking hold as I jogged down the stairs. The humming I felt in the back of my jaw seemed to grow stronger. Was this because of the red light?
It was probably fine.
After a few more flights, the pain started getting worse. The light on the dampener wasn’t blinking anymore; it was just a solid red eye glaring at me. The pain spiked and my footing faltered. I would have fallen down the steps, but instead I sprawled out on the second-floor landing. The impact hurt, but not nearly as much as the throbbing in my head. I managed to sit up, but the pain was getting worse, and massaging my temples did nothing. I wasn’t prone to migraines, but the one or two I’ve had weren’t anything like this. A haze was starting to creep in from the corner of my vision. What the hell was happening?
Somehow in my daze, I managed to grab my phone. The screen was blurry, and my vision was swimming as I fumbled to contacts and managed to find James. The ringing just made the pain in my head worse; the sound was like a bullet ricocheting around my skull. No answer. Damn it. Of all the times he wasn’t magnetized to his phone, now was the worst. It had to be the power dampener, there wasn’t anything else it could be. I jammed down the power button and my vision washed blue…