Author: Kirk Baldridge
THE FACILITY parking lot
The two muscular, goateed men in strength-enhancing OzCorp power armor stood at attention as the black jeep with the Council logo on the sides pulled up. The driver nodded to them and then began unloading bags, while his only passenger slowly slid out and stretched her legs.
A small but well-built woman in her twenties with long blonde hair tied in a rather severe-looking ponytail, she wore blue jeans and a really tight T-shirt. She noticed one of the guards checking her out and winked at him, then frowned when he didn't react except to turn his eyes forward again.
"Hey!" She snatched one away of the bags from the jeep driver before it could hit the ground. "Watch it! I've got my portable DVD player in there!"
He tensed when he saw literal fire in the woman's eyes. "S-Sorry, ma'am."
She turned. A tall, lithe man with dark brown hair was approaching. He wore glasses and a tailor-made, charcoal gray suit. She pegged him immediately as a Council bureaucrat.
"Excellent. You're early." He held out his hand. "My name is Pryce. Wesley Pryce."
She shook his hand. "Uh huh. Nice to meet you, Wes. Call me Buffy."
"I would prefer it if you called me Mr. Pryce. Or if you must be informal, Wesley then. I am, after all, Director of Personnel here at the Facility."
Buffy nodded. Just like she'd thought. A bureaucrat. "So, what's the drill?"
"Do we just stand out here in the parking lot all day, or..."
He smiled. "Oh yes. Of course. Do follow me." He saw her glance nervously over her shoulder. "Don't fret. The area is secure, I assure you. Your luggage will be transported to your quarters post-haste."
"Okay." Buffy shoved her hands in her pockets. "Lead the way, Wes...ley."
Pryce sighed. "Follow me." He gestured as they entered a large, open area with golden tiles and red walls, little in the way of plants or other aesthetics however. "This is the lobby, of course. That's Frank and Thomas, manning the security desk over there. Oh, speaking of which, you'll need this." He handed her a badge with her picture, and a bunch of numbers and letters, plus what appeared to be a bar-code, on it. "Your security ID. You'll need to wear it at all times in the facility, so long as you are in civilian attire at least. Once you have been assigned or selected a costume, other measures will be taken."
"Cool." Buffy clipped the badge on her belt, and followed him toward the elevator.
"A word of note about the Facility. The above-ground portion, is what you might call our public face. While it's not exactly a secret, the true function of our Facility is not generally known, publicly. Still, there are conference rooms on this level, and another where we give press conferences when necessary. The floor above is one of our two security sectors, no one without the proper clearance is allowed in there."
Buffy nodded. "Okay."
"There are four subterranean levels, two of which you have clearance to access. Directly below us is secondary security. Next up is the personnel level where everyone's quarters are located, as well the cafeteria and a state of the art entertainment center. There is also a holographic training system on that level for those of you possessed of special abilities. That's as far as you are authorized to go, I'm afraid."
"That's fine but, out of curiosity, what's below that?"
Pryce sighed. "If you are not authorized to go, do you honestly believe you are authorized to hear?"
"No," Buffy replied. "But it was worth a shot."
They got into the elevator and Pryce glanced toward the ceiling. "Personnel."
"Am I going to meet any of the other Supers?" Buffy asked. "Or is this place all Norms?"
"Miss Summers, we do not use that word around here," Pryce said coldy. "However, in answer to your question, you will undoubtedly come across some of the other superhumans in due time. Currently there are four powered individuals assigned to the premises, counting yourself."
Buffy smiled. "Thunderbolt?"
"Indeed." Pryce cleared his throat as the elevator glided to a halt and the doors opened with a chime. "I assigned you to room eight. It's smaller than some, but then again you are new. If there's anything you need, press one one seven on the intercom and someone will be along shortly to assist you."
"Thanks, Wes." When Buffy got into her room, using her security badge on the door scanner, she was surprised to find her bags waiting inside. "Huh." She spent the next couple of hours unpacking, and was about to sit down to watch TV when a bell let her know someone was at her door.
She answered it, expecting to see Wesley.
Instead, she found a dark-haired young man with wild eyes and a quirky grin on his face. He was wearing a black T-shirt with a flaming skull on it, blue jeans, and a long white lab coat. "Hey there."
"Who are you?" Buffy asked, somewhat suspicious. He didn't look like any member of the Council she had ever seen, but he didn't appear to be any kind of threat either.
"Oh, right. Sorry. Guess I forgot to introduce myself, in the five seconds since we met. Name's Xander. Xander Harris. Though most everybody calls me X."
Buffy crossed her arms. "X, huh? Okay. So what can I do for you, X?"
"Actually I think the question you should be asking, is what can I do for you? You're new here. I'm not. I have all the connections a beautiful S-woman like yourself needs to make this dreary tweed-encrusted little underground paradise of ours just a tad be more livable. Consider me the real reception committee."
"Wesley?" X asked. "Yeah. He's a nice enough guy, for a Brit. But he's as stuffy as the rest of them."
"Yeah, he is a little bit stiff, isn't he?"
"You should meet his boss. Rupert Giles. I swear Buffy...do you mind if I call you Buffy? I don't know how you feel about using real names, and I saw in your file you haven't chosen a code-name yet. You'd better do it soon or they'll choose one for you." X didn't actually wait to hear her response or give her an opportunity to get a word in edge-wise. "Anyway, like I was saying about Giles. The rod up that man's ass must have a rod up it's ass. He's stiff in a way that makes most of the others, Pryce included, look flimsy by comparison."
Buffy arched an eyebrow. "Do you always talk this much?"
"Oh yeah. I can suck all the oxygen right out of any room I'm in. It comes from too many hours locked up in the lab by myself. I don't always have anyone else to bounce ideas off so I end up talking to myself and unfortunately I don't have that inner modulator telling me to stop, 'cause I think I bored him to sleep."
Buffy chuckled. "I like you, X. So, what can the real reception committee do for little ol' me?"
"Anything you need, I can get. I'll even show you around if you want. I can take you to all the place Wes will not since you don't have the quote unquote proper clearance."
"And you do?"
X nodded. "I'm a big-whig around here, Buff. Started out in R&D, but I've been unofficially promoted to Repair Supervisor or as I like to call it, Chief Engineer." He paused, apparently waiting for a response of some kind, and when he didn't get it moved on without missing a beat. "Anyway, I have clearance to every level of the Facility. In case something goes wrong, see, they don't have time to worry about getting me through the security and...this is about where I lose most people so let's move on. I can't take you to the bottom level...well, I could but as you are no doubt aware that's where the S-vortex is, and if they caught you down there they'd probably kick you out of the program in a hurry. Fact is, I think T-Bolt's the only S-woman allowed down there, though I suppose 'shield could go too if she wanted to."
"Wait, you actually know Thunderbolt and Lightshield?" Buffy asked.
"Better than anybody else. I knew them both before they were Supers. According to the Council guys they're the strongest S's to ever come through the Facility."
"Are they here? Can I meet them?"
X glanced at his watch. "Let's see... yeah if you hurry you may be able to catch them in the cafeteria. They never stay long, they just grab some food and head back to their room, so if you want to meet them you'll have to..." He looked up, to see Buffy's long blonde hair disappearing out the door. "Yeah. That's what I was going to, hey! Wait up!" He followed her as best her could.
Unfortunately the only people in the cafeteria when they arrived were a burly security guard, who was reading a magazine, and a handful of lab-coat wearing scientist types, one of whom made a deliberate point of getting up to leave when Xander walked in and waved.
Buffy couldn't help noticing this. "Friends of yours?"
"No really." He saw she was smiling. "Oh, I get it. You know, you've got an interesting sense of humor. Not like the last thermal manipulator who come through here."
"You've met others?" Buffy asked.
X nodded. "Just Ember. Flame manipulation seems to be a fairly common power. I think it has something to do with "an intense psychosomatic reaction to the enpowerment process", or at least that's what I overheard some of the guys in the Psych department blabbering about." He stared at her for a moment. "Though I have to admit, after I heard you were being assigned here I did some checking and it looks like your particular technique is classified as unusual. There are no records of anyone else doing it quite the way you do."
"That's what my trainers at the academy said," Buffy replied. She sighed. "I guess we missed them."
"Who, T-Bolt and 'shield?" Buffy nodded. "Not necessarily. They train every morning, in the holo-room, from 7 to 9, and again from 8 to 9 in the evening. Sometimes their session gets cut short 'cause there's an alert, and they make up for it the next day. We had one just yesterday. You know Cyber?"
Buffy remembered seeing a listing on many of the Council's top Super's Most Wanted. "Yeah. She manipulates computers and electronics, right?"
"That's her. Well, she tried to use the upgrade being performed on the Sunnydale City Bank's computers to hide her theft of a buttload of money. T-Bolt and 'shield stomped her." X again looked at his watch. "They should be in pretty soon. After the workout they'll have a shower, which takes the two of them longer when they're together if you get my drift, and then they'll be by to stock up on food before noon."
"What happens at noon?"
"It's Monday. The Anime Network shows PsiStalkers, a Japanese series, from noon until midnight. Will's a big, big fan of PsiStalkers, and Tara's right along for the ride."
Buffy stared at him. "You really do know them."
"I told you. Willow, that's Thunderbolt to you, and I grew up together. I introduced her to Tara and I was by their sides at the hospital after the accident that transformed them."
"It was a single incident?" Buffy asked. "I knew they had similar powers but there don't seem to be any specifics about their origins. What happened?"
"Okay. Long story short. Willow was working as a place called CRD. What she was working on is...well, a little too complicated to explain to someone non-technically minded. No offense. Anyway, suffice it to say, this thing went all wonky one night. She and her lab assistant, Tara, were the only ones in the building and they tried to stop it. They did the best they could but it exploded in their faces anyway. The energy released activated their S-genes and turned the two of them into the butt-kicking pair they are today."
"Which explains why their powers are so similar," said Buffy. "I always wondered. It seemed like they were like flip sides of the same coin." She smiled. "And I'm gonna meet them. This is so cool."
"You know the hero worship thing of yours is cute," said X. "But horribly misplaced. Trust me, Willow and Tara are..." He stopped as soon as he realized Buffy wasn't listening to a word he said, thanks mostly to the two people who had just walked into the cafeteria. He sighed. "...here."
Willow Rosenberg, known to the public as Thunderbolt, was a lithe beauty in her twenties with her red hair tied in a severe-looking ponytail. At the moment she was wearing black sunglasses and a loose-fitting black bodysuit, which was a far cry from her somewhat garish superhero persona.
At her side as ever was the equally beautiful Tara Maclay, otherwise known as Lightshield, a curvaceous blonde whose long hair cascaded freely across her supple shoulders. She was wearing blue shorts and a T-shirt so tight it left little to the imagination, and had everyone in the room staring.
They didn't seem to be paying attention to anyone else however. They were walking so close they kept bumping up against one another, talking and laughing and obviously enjoying each other's company. They didn't have to get in line for food either, everyone just moved out of their way.
X waited until they finished before he stood up and waved to get their attention. "Will! Tara! Over here."
Tara said something they couldn't hear to Willow, who nodded, and both came over to the table.
"Hey X," said the redhead. "Sorry, but we're kinda pressed for time. Psi..."
"Oh please. You've got like half an hour. You two really just wanna get back to your room so you can make out, thinking about that Hiruka girl." X grinned as they both blushed. "I just wanted to introduce you to somebody." He gestured. "This is Buffy. Your new teammate. Buffy. Thunderbolt and Lightshield."
Tara smiled. "Nice to meet you."
"You too. This is a real honor. I've been reading about all the times you guys have saved the city..."
"Don't believe everything you read," X mumbled. "Most of it is just hype."
Willow looked Buffy up and down in obvious appreciation. "So you're the newbie, huh? Well, I'll say one thing, you're shorter than the last one... but you're cute."
Buffy blushed. "Uhh, thanks."
"Don't let her get you," said Tara. "She's really nicer than she seems. Have you chosen a name yet?"
"I told her not to wait too long," X informed them. "Wes goes on a real tear with that sort of thing. I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't have a list for you to choose from already."
"Actually, I did come up with one." Buffy bit her lip. "I'm just not sure if it's any good."
"Cool. Let's hear it," said X. "We, okay, I promise not to laugh...too loudly."
Buffy took a deep breath. "Firehawk."
X stared at her for a few seconds, his mouth half-open as if he was trying to decide exactly how to respond, but he ended up choosing a smile. "I think it's great. It fits."
"Fits what?" Willow asked. She didn't appear to be particularly impressed.
"Her powers," X replied. "Trust me I..." He jerked his head up as the lights in the room dimmed. "Uh oh."
Willow frowned. "Damn it!"
"An alert?" Buffy asked. She hadn't been expecting one so soon.
X nodded as a beeper on his hip went off. "Looks like. Not a major one, but still."
"I'm gonna miss PsiStalkers," Willow grumbled as they headed for the door.
"Don't worry, honey." Tara put a hand on her shoulder. "I set the TiVo, just in case, okay?"
In the corridor X reached into his inside coat pocket and took out a small plastic container. "Hey." He handed it to Buffy. "You're going to need that."
"What is it?"
"You'll see." He winked and headed off in another direction.
Willow and Tara stepped into the elevator and motioned for Buffy to join them. She did so, while still trying to figure out what X had given her.
"Are you excited?" Tara asked. "This is your first field assignment, isn't it?"
"Yes. Except, how can I? I don't even have a name yet. Or a costume."
The elevator doors opened onto the roof of the Facility. Willow and Tara began to glow as they walked out, the light becoming so intense Buffy actually had to cover her eyes. Seconds later, when she could she again, she was surprised to find the blonde and the redhead had changed.
Willow was wearing a skin-tight white costume with yellow trim, boots and gloves. Tara's outfit looked exactly the same, except that the white and yellow were reversed. Neither was wearing a mask, though a faint aura around them appeared to be partially obscuring their features anyway.
"Remember," the redhead warned. "When we're in costume don't refer to us by our real names. That's one of the biggest rookie mistakes. I am Thunderbolt."
"And I'm Lightshield," said the blonde. "By the way, that thing X gave you? It's a communicator." Buffy took out of the box what looked like an advanced hearing aid. "It fits right into your ear and is pretty much undetectable. It has a range of about ten miles or so, but there are relays set up all over the city. With it we're in constant contact with one another, even if we're separated, and receive communiqués from the Facility." She put a hand to her ear, her brow furrowing. "Kind of like the one we're getting now."
Buffy put the communicator in her ear and was immediately able to hear a woman's voice as if it were speaking inside her head. "...downtown. The Director says you're to take Ms. Summers along but strongly suggests she not be involved in combat unless it is absolutely necessary. Anya out."
"Who was that?"
"Anya," said Lightshield. "She's the operator of the communications web on the floor below us."
Thunderbolt strode on the edge of the roof, staring out at the cityscape for a moment, then she turned to glance over her shoulder. "I forgot to ask. Can you even fly?"
"Not as fast as you two, but yes." Buffy spread her arms, and smiled as fire filled her eyes. "Oh. You might want to back up." Flames erupted around her entire body and formed into a crackling, bird-shaped corona, which flared for several seconds before becoming a pair of huge, fiery wings on her back. Her eyes were still smoldering. "I'm ready to go now."
Lightshield smiled. "Wow. That's impressive."
"Follow us!" said Thunderbolt. She and Lightshield dove off the rooftop. Their golden auras surged brightly and they took off toward the horizon like rockets, leaving a faint light trail behind them.
"I'll try." Buffy flapped her fire-wings and took to the air.