FREELANCER HQ, ARCHAVEN
TRAINING ROOM 04
“Good afternoon, Miss Smith.” The lab-coated man across from her looked more like a misplaced socialite than a doctor. He was tall, with a smile-creased face and dark hair lined with gray along the sides. His accent was upper-class british, and his gray eyes shone with a bright curiosity. His grin was, frankly, more infectious than was appropriate for a man who ought to be curing infections. “Or should I say Ledger?”
“I dunno,” Carolina shrugged, “either?”
“Ledger it is! You’ll need to get used to your new codename. How exciting, yes? Anyway, the lead paraphysician here in Archaven,” he shook her hand firmly, “and I’m here to workshop your abilities a bit, see what you can do. Sound good?”
“No, but I guess it’s important.”
“That’s the spirit! I’ll be behind this blast shield, just in case your Emergence wasn’t a one-off. Wouldn’t that be a sight!” Dr. Bowman chuckled and power-walked to a reinforced door, which he unlatched and stepped through, entering a chamber with a clear, reinforced blast shield. He spoke briefly to the techs there, voice muffled so much that Carolina couldn’t hear him even in the silence of the training room.
She turned and looked at her surroundings, mind reeling. How had it come to this? There were training dummies, targets, racks of padded weapons, open space. Everything was reinforced, built to withstand a bomb at the very least. All of her training until now had been in specialized facilities for humans: a gun range, a dojo, a chalk ring drawn in the basement of a bar. This seemed so… para.
She was a paranormal now. Fuck.
“All right, Ledger, why don’t we begin simply,” Doctor Bowman’s voice over the loudspeaker was clear and didn’t echo. Superb acoustics for a training room. “We know you’re capable of creating energy. I don’t suppose you could tone it down a bit? Make something small?”
Carolina nodded and held a hand out in front of her. It was bizarre to have such an intuitive understanding that yes, she could absolutely make a small amount of energy. Even more bizarre was the fact that she hadn’t known until she thought about that particular question. Can you make energy? Yes, I can.
A crackling ball of blue fire sprang to life just above her palm. The moment it flared into existence, Carolina felt a kind of karmic weight gathering in the pit of her soul. It was slight compared to what she carried when she had stumbled into the hospital, but she felt every noncorporeal grain of it.
“Is that okay? Can I stop?” She asked, a nervous edge creeping into her voice.
“Hmm, well. I suppose.” Dr. Bowman’s voice carried a distinct note of disappointment, but Carolina ignored it, extinguishing the fire. The doctor continued, “by your expression, you’ll have accrued some of that ‘debt’ you mentioned, yes? But only a little?”
“Yeah,” Carolina replied, wary.
“Would you kindly, ah, pay it off?”
“If you don’t mind.”
Carolina sighed. “All right.”
Closing her eyes, she focused on the small mass of debt resting around her, inside her. She didn’t know how to describe it, exactly, but she knew that it would only take a little tweak, like pulling a pin–
“Ah, fuck!” She dropped to her knees. The skin of her hand reddened, blackened, and crackled, sending shooting pain up her arm. “Fuck, fuck! Oh fuck!”
Then, a moment later, it was over. The pain was gone, though its memory lingered as a phantom ache. It had been only a few seconds.
“Gone as quickly as it came! Stunning!” Bowman’s voice was excited. “Can you continue?”
“Continue?” She fought to suppress incredulity from her voice.
“If you can, of course! We could stop for now, if you need,” Bowman’s tone was placating at best. “I merely presumed you might want to take the field sooner rather than later. Your financial situation being what it is.”
“Yes,” Carolina gritted her teeth. “Of course. I can continue.”
One Hour Later
Carolina lay in the middle of the training room floor, curled into the fetal position. She tried to uncurl, but overwhelming trauma and pain memory thwarted her efforts, producing little more than a twitch and whimper.
Behind the reinforced plastic of the observation chamber, Doctor Bowman marveled while his assistants recorded and typed results furiously.
“Brilliant,” Bowman breathed, “absolutely brilliant. She’s already exhibited a wider range of abilities than 85% of known Paranormals, all within a scant hour of testing. Piers, list off the corresponding costs, won’t you?”
“Raw energy production leads to burns,” the assistant said, “electricity to spasms, enhanced strength to muscle pain. Durability to bone breaks. Speed to itching and abrasions. Telekinesis, shielding, and force bolts cause headaches and weakness. Pheromone production causes paranoia and despair. Healing others leads to nausea, bleeding, and fainting. That’s all we have so far.”
“In one hour. Brilliant.”
The exterior door to the observation room snapped open, revealing the slight form and stoic expression of Dr. Nami Meda.
“Peter, why wasn’t I notified– wait, is that Ledger?” She walked to the observation with long, tight strides, the tension in her body the only thing outwardly revealing her anger. She looked at Carolina’s curled-up body for a few moments, then turned to Dr. Bowman. “Peter, why is our patient curled in a fetal position and unattended in the middle of a training room?”
“Ledger has been voluntarily engaging in a paranormal status assessment,” Dr. Bowman replied primly, “which has been going extremely well. We’re done for now, if you needed her.”
“Do you even take the Hippocratic Oath at Oxford?” Meda stalked to the interior door and threw it open. “Is it the Hippocratic Suggestion, perhaps? The Hippocratic Quaint Notion?”
“No need to be snide, Nami,” Bowman rolled his eyes, “she is unharmed. She heals completely from all of her payments.”
“Your instruments don’t measure mental trauma, and a field agent with paralyzing PTSD is useless to us. I’m taking her to my office.” Meda slammed the door behind her.
“That woman has no appreciation for the scientific method,” Bowman grumbled, folding his arms.
THE NEXT DAY
“All right, Miss Smith, we’re just about set to clear you for appearance on the roster, but there are a few things that Mister Cheney needed me to bring up.” The young man (‘Jace Meadows’, the placard outside his door had read), gave her a perfunctory smile and tapped the tip of his pen against a pad of paper.
“Okay,” Carolina replied, already slightly nervous.
“Your history with the Human Supremacist movement is, ah, potentially a liability for the Freelancers. Your face as it is now cannot appear in public as a Freelancer agent.”
“So, your options are, well. We would be happy to subsidize the cost of facial reconstruction surgery–“
“No!” Carolina replied quickly. “No, I. I want to keep my face. Can I wear a mask?”
“While not our preferred choice, that would be acceptable.” Jace offered a brittle smile. “If you’d like to go with the mask option, we’re going to need you to speak to our wardrobe designer, Jessi Gem. You and she can figure out together what look would best suit The Ledger.”
THE NEXT DAY
Carolina walked through the hallways of the Freelancers HQ toward her quarters, brand-new costume folded over her arms. The craft was obvious in its design; durable, breathable, lightly armored fabric fashioned into a coat and cap, each one split red and black down the center.
She’d need to practice in it. Cheney had made it clear that in order to pay her debt off ahead of the interest rate, The Ledger would need to work in the field, doing dangerous combat missions and the like. She’d need to train more, then; the less she had to use her powers, the better.
Her thoughts were arrested as she realized that someone was staring at her. A green-haired woman, long-limbed and skinny, stopped in the middle of the hallway as Carolina approached.
Fuck, she thought. Should I know who this is?
The green-haired woman turned on her heel and began to walk in the other direction, jamming her hands into her pockets.
“Did I…” Carolina stammered.