After descending for almost a minute with total silence from Cypher, the elevator doors slid open to reveal a long hallway. Unlike the rest of the base, it had a concrete floor and cinder block walls. Cypher stepped out of the elevator without another word, and I followed him to a steel door that looked innocuous enough. At least for a door in the basement of a secret superhero base, that is. “If this is your secret murder basement, I would really like to know.”
The hero didn’t dignify my request with a response, instead, he swung the door open to reveal… an empty room? Like the rest of the base, “The Oculus” was circular, with smooth, featureless walls.
“Not going to lie, I was expecting a little more.”
“Sometimes, when I’m trying to work though a problem, it helps me to have fresh data to play with. Seemingly random bits of information stitch together to form a cohesive web with strands connecting the most bizarre and unexpected occurrences. Sterling, activate the Oculus, The Sign of Four.”
“The base’s AI,” Cypher answered offhandedly.
A projector in the middle of the ceiling turned on, casting streams of what looked like binary or computer code on the walls of the room. I couldn’t quite make out what it was, it scrolled past way too fast for me to make out.
“I think it could help you have a vision,” Cypher said.
“How? this is just gibberish.”
“No, its raw data from social media posts, search engine queries, emails, telegrams, every single scrap of digital data that I can access. You just can’t read it fast enough to gain anything useful from it. I sort through more data than the NSA could ever dream to.”
“Is that legal?” I asked, looking at the information whirl around.
“Not in the slightest.”
I turned around to look at the hero who had his arms folded, his face ever-hidden and unreadable. Was he being smug? I guess it was possible for him to have emotions after all.
“So, you break the law? The great hero Cypher, the ‘best hero in the world’?”
“I don’t call myself that, and I do what I have to so I can save as many people as possible.”
“Why are you showing me this?”
“Like I said, I think I can help you have a vision. You claimed you saw one where Chicago was destroyed by Wrath during the attack on Thursday, right?”
“Well, yeah,” I said, still confused with Cypher’s open admission of breaking the law. “But, aren’t you afraid I could tell someone about all this?”
“Okay…” I murmured, still baffled. “So, how are you going to trigger a vision? They’ve always come on their own.”
“I’m sure you’ve heard of hypnotism?”
“Yeah, its like mind control, right?”
Cypher’s head tilted slightly to the side, but he didn’t comment what he was thinking. “Only in the movies. In practice it’s a method of focused attention, suppressing distractions. What I want to try isn’t true hypnosis, but a variant on the theory. I am going to show you a series of images in a pattern that I think will shift your mind into a state more susceptible to accessing the powers you don’t have control over yet.”
“I don’t know, I mean, my visions aren’t pleasant, and they come when they want.”
“Are you refusing?”
“No,” I said quickly, “I just think it might be a waste of time.”
“There has been success in using hypnosis to help metahumans control their powers in the past.”
I had never been able to stop the visions before, let alone will one into existence. But I had to do this, right? This is what the Gold Diggers were making me do.
“Alright. Do it.”
Without any order from Cypher, the stream of code was replaced with an image of a field of flowers.
“What is this?”
The image changed again to a landscape shot of Chicago from the lake, then another city I didn’t recognize, and back to another field of flowers. More images began to flash by, each one staying on the screen for less time than the last. There were pictures of dogs, cars, places, random objects, but as the slideshow started picking up speed, I caught snippets of people. They were gone before I could recognize them.
Then something strange started happening with the pictures. They were flashing back to back so quickly, they seemed to overlap, superimposing each other. I couldn’t tell how long the barrage of pictures went on with intermittent flashes of darkness, but eventually it ended with a bright white screen.
“Did you see anything?” Cypher asked from somewhere behind me.
“No, nothing,” I answered, blinking my eyes from the sudden brightness.
His disappointment was obvious, but he didn’t seem too keen on talking. “Sorry. Like I told you, they come when they want.”
“That doesn’t help me. Have you had any other visions since the one where Wrath destroyed the city?”
“Well, yeah,” I said, thinking back to before I woke up in the hospital. “But it was really more of a dream.”
“Tell me,” Cypher said, stepping closer, his voice sounding eager.
“After I passed out, you know, when the Gold Diggers attacked me, I had a dream. When the visions come as dreams, sometimes they start in a place, a forest of dead trees. I was there, but then I saw a giant statue without a head. It was getting ready to crush an army under its foot while two more attacked from both sides.
“Like I said, not exactly clear.”
“Can you tell me anything else about the statue?” Cypher asked intently.
“Uhh, it was holding a sword in one hand and a dagger in the other. And there were a pair of glowing amber eyes looking down at the statue.”
“Amber eyes?” Cypher asked, sounding confused. “Specifically, amber?”
“I don’t know, it was what seemed to fit. Why is that important?”
“It’s complicated but thank you; you gave me more than you think. Go get some sleep, its late. Take the elevator up to floor two. There will be a room with an open door. Its yours for the night.”
“Are you staying here?”
“I need to do some research.”
I nodded, “Well, thanks for the room.” Cypher already seemed enraptured with the stream of code that reappeared on the screens, so I turned to walk back to the elevator.
“What?” I asked, pausing to look back.
“A potential alias,” Cypher said, not turning around.
“Prophet? Seems kinda pretentious, don’t you think?”
“Sometimes, that can be a good thing. You just have to make sure you can live up to it.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said as I left the Oculus.
After a short elevator ride, I found the room without much trouble. There were several other rooms on the floor which I guessed were for the other Regents. All the doors were closed, though, and they didn’t have name tags, so there was no telling whose was whose.
The room itself was sparse, just a bed and some drawers built into the wall. One wall had a small alcove with a desk where a computer or something similar could go. On the far side of the room, near the foot of the bed was a door that led to a private bathroom. A quick glance revealed it to be as small and compact as the rest of the room with a shower, toilet, and sink.
Honestly, the room was welcome. I didn’t really want to go home and be alone with the Gold Diggers on the loose. I knew they typically operated in Europe, but if the Anarchist was really in my head, that didn’t really make me feel any safer. At least as long as I was here, I had the Regents as bodyguards.
I sat down on the edge of the bed and kicked my shoes off, glad for the chance to relax for what felt like the first time in days. It didn’t take sleep long to take over once I laid down and closed my eyes.
I was in the forest again, the one from my dreams. The same dream from the hospital was playing out over and over on repeat. Except this time, I was one of the figures above the center army, seconds away from being crushed.
This didn’t feel like the vision, it was fever pitched, a looping nightmare.
A screeching alarm jolted me awake, my heart racing. Thankfully, it turned off as soon as I sat up.
“Apologies, Nathaniel. You seemed to have trouble waking up.”
I looked around, trying to find the source of the synthetic sounding voice, but the room was empty. My first thought was Ghost, but I’d heard him speak while wearing his mask and it didn’t sound artificial like this. “Uh, hello?” I asked, hesitantly.
“Animus wants to know if you want pancakes.”
“What? Who’s talking.”
“I am Sterling. Has Cypher not told you of my existence?”
Sterling, right. The base’s AI. That made sense. “Yeah, he told me about you.”
“Good. Do you want pancakes?”
I was hungry. “Animus is making pancakes?”
“Yes. Do you want pancakes?”
“Sure, I guess. Uh, where should I go?” It felt strange talking to no one but the ceiling, but I guess it was far from the strangest thing that I’d done in the past three days.
“The central hub of the dormitory level serves as the cafeteria. I can guide you if you need further aid.”
“And this is the dormitory level?”
“I think I can find it on my own, but thanks,” I said. Sterling didn’t seem to feel the need to add anything else, so I slipped on my shoes and walked out into the circular hallway. The only clothes I had were the ones I’d worn to bed, so changing wasn’t an option.
The smell of bacon guided me half-way around the silo-shaped base to a large double-door on the interior wall. All the Regents were inside, except for Cypher and Ghost, and sitting at a long table, devouring breakfast.
“He lives!” Quatermain laughed, taking a sip of his coffee. “Want some breakfast?” Animus called from a small kitchen area near the table.
“Yeah, that sounds good,” I said, standing awkwardly near the door. “Come on, don’t be a stranger, kid,” Vindicator said, waving me closer. That’s when I spotted James near the far end of the table with an empty seat next to him.
He offered me a smile as I sat down but didn’t say anything. Odd. “Come on, dig in,” Peregrine urged me, “It may look like enough to feed an army, but Wrath and Vindy will scarf it all down if you take your eyes off it for too long.”
It was the first time I’d heard him speak, and his accent was immediately noticeable. Irish, I thought. Was he the only non-American on the team?
A stomach rumble urged me to action, so I put some food on my plate and went to town. “Have you thought anymore about your alias?” James asked, finally speaking up.
“Well, I was talking to Cypher last night and he said I should call myself ‘Prophet’. But I don’t know. Seems a bit… much, I guess.”
“Nate Peterson, aka Prophet. Has a ring to it,” Animus said, walking over with fresh eggs and bacon before making his own plate of food.
“Sounds pretty good to me,” Peregrine chimed in.
“I’d go with it. It fits,” Quatermain said, taking one more sip of his coffee before getting up and taking his empty plate over to the sink. “I’ll be back later, I gotta go relieve Ghost.”
“Relieve him of what?” I asked, taking another bite of food.
“We’re going to keep an eye on your folks for a while until we can make sure the Gold Diggers aren’t going to use them to get to you. Ghost took first watch, and Ezra- Quatermain is going to take over for him,” Animus explained.
“Oh… Thanks,” I said lamely, not sure exactly what to say.
Being reminded that the Gold Diggers could hurt my family put a pit of dread in my stomach. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t all but ruined my appetite.
“So, if Ghost is out guarding my parents, where’s Cypher?” I asked, realizing his absence for a second time.
“He doesn’t usually eat with us, especially with guests,” Animus answered, glancing between James and me. “Can’t really eat with the mask on, ya know?”
“Does he wear it all the time?” James asked.
“Usually,” Wrath muttered. “I think he even sleeps in it.”
“It’s odd, we know. But he has his eccentricities,” Animus said. “Still, he is without a doubt, the best of the best.”
“Well, getting back to the matter at hand, if I may, are you going to go with ‘Prophet’?” James asked, glancing at me between bites of food.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
It was just an alias, but if felt like I was signing a contract with the devil.
“Lighten up, kid, you’re a hero!” Vindicator said with a smile.
“Yeah, I guess I am,” I said with a bittersweet grin.
I pulled back from the conversation, letting the Regents talk among themselves. They didn’t seem like heroes full of bravado that could destroy cities or throw tanks through walls. They seemed like normal people. A strange family sitting down for breakfast.
Ghost walked in after a few more minutes had gone by. He was met with a mix of greeting and good natured jabs. He pulled down his hood and took off his mask as he sat down. He had handsome face with short, dark hair and a warm complexion. Hispanic if I had to guess, and not much older than I was.
“Everything was quiet all night. Nothing out of the ordinary.”
It took me a second to realize he was talking to me. “Great,” I said, scrambling for something to say on such short notice.
“So, what are your plans now?” Ghost asked. “Are you going to go solo, or joining a team?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t given it much thought,” Or any, I said to myself.
“Well, you could become a Regent.”
I looked at Animus in surprise.
“Really?” James asked. Animus nodded, “And we need a new liaison. Cypher… had our last one transferred.”
Join the Regents? I really hadn’t thought about that.
“Cypher and I talked it over. We think you could be a good addition to the team.”
The Regents were one of the most famous teams in the world. My name would be everywhere. I could really do some good. But what about the Gold Diggers? If I was mole on the inside, what could they make me do? Could they protect me, my family? Help me stop the Gold Diggers? Maybe, probably, but could I take the chance of my family being hurt if they couldn’t?
“No,” The answer slipped out of my mouth before I could give it any more thought. James snapped to look at me, but Animus didn’t seem surprised though, he just nodded.
“Cypher said you wouldn’t go for it, but he wanted to make the offer anyway.”
James looked disappointed but didn’t protest.
“So, he came up with something that might suit you better.”
“Have you heard of A.S.E.T.?” Cypher asked, walking through the door. “Nice of you to finally join us,” Wrath muttered.
“Uh, yeah, they’re basically police for metahumans, right?” I asked, ignoring Wrath’s comment.
“Their purpose fits that description, yes. Argus wants to establish a team with a similar function, but more suitable for the public eye. Youthful, charismatic members, that sort of thing. A.S.E.T. is rather secretive, and that doesn’t tilt public opinion in their favor.”
“So, you want me to become a poster boy?”
“Not the words I would use.”
“I’ve heard about them,” James cut in. “A sort of junior A.S.E.T. team. That could be perfect for you, Nate. A fresh team, you could get in at the ground floor and help build it up.”
Again, what could the Gold Diggers make me do if I was on a team like that? They were a new team, so they probably wouldn’t be given top-level access. I hoped. And maybe they would be a good fit. A.S.E.T. went after heroes that broke the law, people who abused their powers. I could stop them from hurting people.
“Does the team have a name yet?”
“Last I heard they were going with ‘Argonauts’,” James answered.
Being a part of team would probably be for the best. I mean, I didn’t have any kind of training, or experience being a hero. I barely knew how to use my own powers, let alone stop someone else who knew their way around theirs. Heroing as a solo act would probably put me in the ground way before my time. A team would hopefully stop me from getting killed as fast.
“Yeah, that sounds like it might be the way to go,” I said. “How many are on the team?”
“You would make the sixth member,” Cypher said.
“Its not a guarantee they’ll let you join, though,” James warned.
“With me vouching for you it will be,” Cypher said. “You as well, Mr. Owens.”
“Wait, me?” James asked, confused.
“I need Nate to stay safe, and I trust you. The Argonauts will need a liaison as well.”
James thought about it for a minute before cracking a growing smile. “I’m game. What do you think, Prophet?” he asked looking at me.
His excitement must have been contagious because I felt my own smile growing. “Yeah,” I said, “I’m game.”