Chapter 1: The First Interview
The interview room was not comfortable, nor was it meant to be. Grey concrete, a glossy black table with rounded corners, perhaps to prevent injury should the person under interrogation suddenly become violent. Mirrors lined one wall, full length, making the cramped room appear larger. No windows pierced the concrete; the only light came from a row of fluorescent tubes along the ceiling which cast stark shadows over the young woman waiting silently at the table. The woman sat with her head bowed, staring at her hands folded in her lap. Her face was impassive, but the tension in her limbs betrayed her emotions. She was unremarkable looking, the sort of person one might meet a dozen times before remembering her name. Brown hair, brown eyes, brown skin. Her features were unexceptional and could have matched practically any ethnic profile. People usually pegged her as mixed race, a combination of Caucasian and Hispanic. Or perhaps middle eastern. Or Southeast Asian. That is, when people bothered to notice her at all. She looked to be in her late twenties, but could be as young as twenty-one or as old as forty. It was impossible to tell for sure. She wore a sage green turtleneck and a beige A-line skirt, a belt cinching in her waist. Neat, professional, forgettable.
The door to the interrogation room opened, the squeak of its hinges amplified in the silent room. A man entered, his dull grey suit and dark tie drawing an observer’s attention upwards to his piercing blue eyes. He took a seat across from the woman and set a plain navy blue folder on the table. “Leda Chimera?”
The woman nodded almost imperceptibly. The man did not smile, but the corners of his eyes crinkled slightly. “My name is Agent Caldwell. As you have probably deduced, I work for the NSA.”
The woman’s voice was husky and low, as though she’d had very little occasion to use it. Caldwell raised an eyebrow at her. “Supers.”
“Oh,” the woman replied softly. She did not elaborate further, but her hands clenched into fists beneath the table.
Caldwell reached forward and opened the folder to the first page, revealing a profile complete with a recent photo. A neat banner line at the top read “Confidential//RD/SUPERS”. The woman’s eyes lingered on the miniature portrait of her own face. The edges of the picture were ever so slightly blurred, as though the image had been captured from a long distance away. Agent Caldwell glanced from the photo to the woman in front of him once more, unconsciously checking to see that he had the right person. “Our records indicate you are currently employed as an IT specialist for the cyber defense division of Blackrock Security. Is this correct?”
The woman nodded silently.
“Before Blackrock you were privately contracted by the firm Abdulani Enterprises, spending a year in Dubai rebuilding their firewall protections after a data breach. At that time you used the alias ‘Maria Lusinga’. Your training includes degrees from the National University of Singapore, as well as Imperial College London and the Technische Universität Berlin. You used a different alias at each school.”
The woman nodded again. Agent Caldwell flipped to the next page in his folder. “You have had four intimate relationships, none lasting more than a year. Your most recent relationship ended eight months ago, after which you left the UK and moved to the US. Since then you have not attempted to contact any of your ex-lovers, nor have you begun dating again.”
“Is this relevant?” the woman asked quietly. Her tone did not indicate anger, only mild interest. Her speech had the slightest trace of an accent, perhaps Spanish, perhaps something else entirely.
Caldwell ignored her question. “Your former professors describe you as gifted, talented, even genius. One went so far as to call your work with holographics the ‘Future of Technology’.”
“Are you in need of a security consultant?”
The look Caldwell gave her was almost pitying. “Despite your near-universal reputation as a master of your craft, your associates seem unable to provide an accurate description of your appearance. Those who knew you in Singapore describe you as dark-haired and statuesque, while those in London identified you as a petite strawberry-blonde.”
“People can change their hair color,” the woman murmured.
“But rarely their height,” Caldwell countered scathingly. Surely she knew better than to try and hide her powers from the very agency designed to know the most about them. “Descriptions provided by your former partners also vary wildly. Indeed, it is almost as though each person we interviewed was describing a completely different person.” He leaned forward in his chair, eyes boring into the woman across from him. “But they weren’t, were they, Mirage?”
The woman sometimes known as Mirage shuddered at the sound of her name. Caldwell’s smile was triumphant, like a Siamese cat with a cornered mouse. “Why would a woman like you, respected in her field, well-liked by her colleagues and acquaintances, expend so much energy disguising herself at every turn?”
“I enjoy privacy,” Mirage replied. Her voice contained no rebuke, but Caldwell leaned back in his chair, his eyes darting toward the wall of mirrors. Mirage did not follow his gaze, her eyes locked upon his face. “Am I under arrest?”
Caldwell blinked, caught off guard. “Should you be?”
“I merely ask because the NSA rarely calls well-disguised supers in for questioning unless they suspect the super has broken the law.” Mirage crossed her arms over her chest, brown eyes sharp. “As far as I know, being difficult to describe is not a crime. But perhaps the laws have changed.”
“The laws have not changed, but the times most certainly have,” Caldwell replied. “Back when the ban on supers was put in place, your powers were considered insignificant enough not to warrant a handler. We knew you were in control of your abilities,” he amended, belatedly realizing how insulting his previous statement had been. “Despite your youth, you seemed fully prepared to accept the conditions of the ban without protest. We let your file sit dormant for 14 years.”
“Why contact me now?”
Caldwell withdrew a single sheet of paper from the file. The banner line at the top read “Secret//REL USA, PACIFIC”. He set the paper down and spun it so she could read. “What do you know about the Omni Corporation?”
Mirage drew the paper closer, skimming the contents. “I’ve heard of it,” she admitted. “They provide advanced tech to both the US and Russian air forces, don’t they?”
“A dangerous game,” Caldwell commented dryly. “Thankfully our agency does not involve itself in politics, when it can be avoided.”
“Droid technology,” Mirage murmured under her breath, frowning to herself. “AI contingent upon single source operators, a new metal alloy with volcanic origins . . .” she looked up, brow furrowed. “I hadn’t heard about any of this.”
“From what we can deduce, the company’s owner keeps most of his advanced technology for his own personal use. This is worrying in itself, given the company’s reputation of churning out deadlier and deadlier weapons. But our agency has even greater concerns than a megalomaniac with a private army.”
He stood and withdrew a tiny remote from a jacket pocket and clicked it once. Immediately projections of light shot out from the four corners of the room, merging in the center to create a blue-tinged holographic image of a volcanic island. “This is Nomanisan, Omni Corp’s headquarters, where most of their research and development takes place.” He clicked the remote a second time, and the island disappeared, replaced by headshots of a group of old-school supers complete with uniforms and capes. “In the past year six supers have gone missing,” Caldwell said gravely. “There may be even more: our agency cannot possibly keep close tabs on every super. Some, like yourself, have managed to assimilate effectively enough that the NSA no longer checks up on them. Since the disappearances were first noted, a task force has been assigned to evaluate whether other supers have also gone missing under mysterious circumstances.”
“And this relates to Omni how?”
“Macroburst’s suit contained a com-link used to contact other the other Phantasmics. After the team split up the com-link feature of the suit became obsolete, however data from those com-link conversations was recorded and stored remotely. Our own team of technicians has successfully hacked into the encrypted records, revealing that Macroburst did transmit one last time, and that the message was sent a mere five miles from Nomanisan.”
“Do you think they’re alive?” Mirage asked. “The missing supers?”
Slowly, Caldwell shook his head. “At this point it seems unlikely Possible, yes, but unlikely.”
Mirage flipped the paper over, checking for more information on the back, but it was blank. “I don’t understand. Why contact me?”
“Why contact a technologic genius who can transform her appearance and slip through the world unnoticed?” Caldwell asked in disbelief.
Mirage tensed. “You want me to become a spy? Prowl around on some godforsaken tropical rock until I’m inevitably caught and killed? Why on earth do you think I’d agree to something so suicidal, after thirty years spent trying to fit in?”
“Your kind needs you.” Caldwell braced his hands on the table and leaned forward, his shadow falling over the still seated woman. “Supers are vanishing, and Omni might have something to do with it.”
“Or they might not.” Mirage stood, glaring at Caldwell. Her eyes, formerly a dull brown, now read as deep burnished chestnut. “I do have a job already, you know. I’m very good at it. You’ll have to make a better argument than patriotic duty if you expect me to give up all I’ve worked for and go racing off into the jungle.”
Caldwell reached into his suit jacket, pulling out a smaller file taped shut, the words “Top Secret” stamped upon it. He handed it to Mirage without a word. The woman broke open the file with the edge of her thumbnail, then began to read. Her face became ashen beneath her dusky skin. Her knees buckled and she dropped back onto her chair, staring at the classified file in utmost horror.
“As you can see, they’ve been watching you for some time,” Caldwell said gently. In another man, his expression might have been called concern. “The tracking, the photos, we stumbled upon them by accident. One of our military spy satellites malfunctioned, and while conducting emergency reprogramming a tech noticed an unscheduled data pickup. Thankfully the tech was one of our people, and knew what to look for. She brought the encrypted data to our attention, and since then we’ve discovered several devices planted in and around your current home. Some are cameras, others audio. All are made by Omni.”
“Why?” Mirage whispered. “I’m not like Macroburst or Psychwave. I don’t wear a supersuit and race around saving people from burning buildings. I’ve never been a hero. Why target me?”
“That’s the thing,” Caldwell said, taking a seat across from her once more. “There’s a chance the creator of Omni is looking to recruit you. He may not know you are a super, just a genius programmer. At the very least, he is likely unaware of your exact power set. Despite your chameleon-like abilities, your reputation in the tech community is impressive and your work is both recognizable and trackable. The Omni creator is a tech genius himself. Perhaps he feels he needs your assistance for some top-secret project.”
“By which you mean, perhaps I can make him feel he needs my assistance?”
Caldwell nodded and Mirage ground her teeth. “If he looks hard enough he’s bound to find old photos of me. He’ll figure out I’m a super.”
“There are supers, and then there are supers,” Caldwell informed her. “As you’ve said, your not one for theme songs and newspaper headlines. Think of how useful that anonymity could be, how easily you could lull the Omni creator into a false sense of security. A woman of your talents could be very persuasive, I’m sure.”
“This is why I hide,” Mirage murmured under her breath. “All these lies, these manipulations. I can’t bear to be a part of it.”
“I’m afraid you have very little choice,” Caldwell said, and for once he sounded genuinely sorry. “For better or worse, the creator of Omni has taken an interest in you. All we at the NSA ask is that you tell us if you see anything suspicious. Perhaps we’re wrong, and the Omni creator isn’t behind the disappearances. But someone made those supers vanish, and whoever it is, they’re out there right now.”
Mirage stared at him, her brow creased as she took in the cut of his suit, ever-so-slightly too big, and the shiny new I.D. just visible poking out of his pocket. Her gaze lingered on the dark circles beneath the eyes, his wan and bloodless complexion. He could practically see her mind processing data like a supercomputer, making connections. Calculations complete, she met his eyes. “Which one was yours?”
Caldwell’s breath caught. She was better than he’d thought. “Blazestone,” he admitted at last. “I noticed her disappearance a month before anyone else. She was a runner, the sort to storm off in a huff if offended by the slightest thing. No one believed me when I said something had happened to her.”
“How long had you been her handler?” Mirage asked softly.
Caldwell felt the muscles of his shoulders twisting and tensing with discomfort, but it was clear Mirage had no intention of letting the question drop. “It would have been four years next week. When we were first paired she was a mess: furious at the world, the NSA, everybody. Her powers were leaking out left and right. Memories to modify, relocations, the works. After just a year together she’d already become more stable. Two years, and she’d enrolled in community college. Three, and she’d started to talk about settling down, getting a real job, starting a family. She had a future not just as a super, but as a person. And someone took that from her.”
He stopped speaking, lips white with anger. He still remembered his last conversation with Blazestone, the one where she’d gushed over her new apartment (“Downtown, but good downtown, you know? Like, Versace and Prada, not drive-by shootings.”), and where she’d proudly presented him with the five-year plan he’d been hounding her to make since their first month together. She’d been happy. And yet something had gone wrong, something that made her disappear from the face of the earth as if she’d never existed. He’d been to her apartment afterwards. It was untouched. No one she knew had noticed anyone strange hanging around her place. She was just gone.
Mirage was regarding him thoughtfully. “Interesting . . .” she murmured. “If I do this – infiltrate Omni, report back about anything related to supers – the NSA has to promise me free rein. I’ve worked with black market kingpins and illegal weapons manufacturers. I know how to handle dangerous men. I’m not about to accept orders from people thousands of miles away, not when those orders could put me in danger.”
“That’s understandable,” Caldwell conceded. “We will, of course, require a handler set up, merely for the transmission of information and assistance, not for orders.”
Caldwell grimaced. “Unlikely. I belong to a different department now.”
“That was not a request,” Mirage informed him. “I’ll work with you, no one else.”
Agent Caldwell blinked. “Why?” he asked blankly.
Mirage caught his gaze and held it, drawing him in though some strange power. “If I asked you, would you send help to retrieve me?”
“Of course,” he replied without thinking. Her eyes were hypnotic, fascinating.
She smiled, and her hold on him lifted. “That’s all I need to know. Tell your superiors that if Omni comes calling I’ll take the interview. I can’t promise they’ll hire me, but I’ll do my best.”
Mouth suddenly dry, Caldwell nodded. “I’ll inform the relevant people. Thank you for your cooperation.”
He gathered both folders and left, leaving Mirage behind at the table staring pensively at where the files had been. Emerging into the hallway, he took a sharp left turn and turned the handle of the next door down, punching in a key code as he did so. The door opened to reveal a security booth set up behind the wall of mirrored glass. A tech sat at the recording console, headphones covering his ears. His attention was on the woman still seated calmly at the table. Caldwell took up a post beside him, staring at Mirage. She was not at all what he’d anticipated. From her power profile he’d expected someone shifty, a liar capable of weaseling out of any bad situation. Either that or someone overblown and vain, the sort of super who used their power of cosmetic transformation to bewitch and beguile the unknowing public. With all he knew of supers, he never would have imagined this one could be so cool and collected, so regal, for lack of a better term.
Mirage stirred, then rose to her feet and kept rising. Her legs stretched beneath her, growing long and slender. Her arms grew to match, feeding off her torso, which shrank accordingly, her ribs collapsing inward. Her waist narrowed until it was practically non-existent. Her neck lengthened by half an inch, enough to balance out her now long-limbed figure. With graceful strides, she crossed to the wall of mirrors and stood before it, examining her reflection. From her expression Caldwell knew she understood the mirror was two-way, that she was displaying her transformation deliberately. The look in her eyes was almost arrogant as she traced her parted lips with a thumb, letting her mouth become full and sensuous. Reaching up, she tangled her fingers in her shoulder-length brown hair, slowly combing it out. As she did so the hair lengthened, growing past her shoulders and down her back. Where she touched it the roots began to lighten until finally her hair had turned a startling shade of white blonde, made all the more striking by the darkness of her skin. As a final touch she closed her eyes, brushing the back of one hand lightly over the lids. When she opened her eyes again her irises had become a startling shade of golden amber. With one final probing glance at the mirror she turned and left, hips swaying gracefully from side to side.
Behind the mirrored glass, Agent Caldwell felt himself begin to breathe once more. After eight years with the NSA he thought he’d grown used to supers and their inhuman abilities, but this was something else. Beside him, the recording tech whistled softly. “What a woman. Looks like you’ve got your work cut out for you, George.”
Caldwell did not bother to reply. Yes, Mirage was indeed an exceptional woman. He shuddered, remembering his last handler assignment. He needed to be better prepared this time. The stakes were higher now, the mission deadly serious. He would not lose Mirage the way he’d lost Blazestone. Not when she was risking her life for the good of supers everywhere. Not when she was counting on him to keep her safe.
Chapter 2: The Second Interview
Zepsky’s was not a bar one might normally associate with people of means. It was less likely to serve chilled martinis and white wine spritzers, and more likely to offer patrons lukewarm beer and cheap vodka. Caldwell, having done his research ahead of time, wore as casual an outfit as he felt capable of owning. Beige slacks, black collared shirt. From the look the bartender gave him when he walked in, he’d still managed to come overdressed, but at least none of the shady characters populating the smoky room seemed alarmed by his presence. That had to count for something.
There was a booth at the far end of the room, by the dartboard and the rusted out jukebox. Caldwell chose the seat most in shadow, ordered a whiskey on the rocks, and waited.
He did not have to wait long. Less than five minutes had passed when a woman slid into the seat across from him. Golden eyes flashed in the dim light. She had tied her pale hair back in a loose ponytail, revealing the curve of her jaw and the length of her neck. Her navy blouse was a size too big – no doubt a remnant from a different transformation. From the admiring looks several of the barflies were giving her, Caldwell guessed she was wearing tight trousers or a short skirt. He refused to find out which, to give her the satisfaction. He could tell she was toying with him, goading him into looking at the body she'd designed. He knew better than to engage with such behavior. “I’m surprised to see you like this,” he told her calmly. “I would have expected—“
“Another change?” she answered. Her voice was lower than it had been, sultry without her even trying. The hint of an accent, the one he’d been unable to place before, was still there. “You mean, you expected me to arrive as a sixty-year-old drunk with bad knees and a penchant for gin?”
“Not exactly,” Caldwell admitted. “But it appears to me that you’ve changed very little about your appearance since your remarkable transformation two weeks ago.”
Mirage’s luscious mouth twisted in a feline smile. “‘Remarkable’, was it?”
Caldwell hid a grimace. He’d meant to downplay the fact that he’d watched her transform. Exhibitionism was never a good trait to encourage in supers, and Mirage’s transformation had been a textbook example of a super taking advantage of their unique abilities in order to show off. Never mind that display had been directed at him alone. It was still a dangerous sign of weakness and vanity in a woman the NSA was counting on to be reliable. “I think you’re fully aware of your own abilities, Miss Chimera.”
“Mirage,” she corrected. “I’m called Mirage, as long as I’m like this.” she gestured with one graceful hand at her flawlessly attractive figure. “It’s the pseudonym I use for work on the Dark Net, the pseudonym the Omni creator knows me by. So long as I’m under his surveillance, I’m Mirage and no one else.” She raised one curved brow. “Which ought to answer your question about my appearance as well.”
“Has he contacted you, then?” Caldwell asked. “The man behind Omni?”
Mirage nodded. “I am to report to hangar 113 at Kenwark airport tomorrow morning. From there I will be flown to Nomanisan for my official interview.”
“All that way for an interview,” Caldwell mused.
“At this point I believe he’s made up his mind about hiring me,” Mirage informed Caldwell smoothly. “The research he’s already done on me has told him what he needs to know. The interview is a formality.”
“I see.” Caldwell frowned. “With that in mind, what do you imagine once you're officially hired?”
“I imagine he’ll expect me to begin work straight away. The journey to Nomanisan is long and inconvenient, and since I’ll already be right there at his facility it makes sense that he’d want me to forgo a return trip and just stay.”
“Meaning you’ll be out of contact range.”
“Leave that to me.” Mirage smiled, a different smile this time. Confident, reassuring. “It’s no coincidence that the Omni creator has taken an interest in my abilities. You saw my file, the things people in my field have said about me. If I can’t figure out a way of remote contacting a specific person without detection, I hardly deserve the moniker ‘Tech genius’.”
Reluctantly, Caldwell returned her smile with one of his own. “I suppose I’ll have to trust you.”
Mirage nodded. “You will. And it may be hard, when days or even weeks pass without news. But I promise, I'll find a way to be in touch.”
She stood, and he followed suit. The bar had quieted somewhat, enough that he could hear the click of her heels on the floor. Without meaning to he looked down and caught sight of her endless legs rising up to the hem of a skirt that left very little to the imagination. He hurriedly looked away, and heard her chuckle. A hand tugged at his sleeve, making him jump and look back at her. Mirage's expression was thoughtful, unreadable. “You realize there’s a good chance we’re being watched, even now.”
He nodded. She’d yet to let go of his sleeve, the warmth of her hand distracting him from their conversation. “I anticipated the possibility, yes.”
“Then you’ll understand what has to happen next,” she said, leaning closer. “All I can say is, I’m sorry.”
Caldwell’s response died in his throat as he felt her lips connect with his. She kissed him passionately, deeply, as though she were drowning and he was her only lifeline. He felt his mind go blank in shock. Then, as abruptly as she’d kissed him, she broke away, stumbling back. He barely registered the tears in her eyes before the sting of her hand connecting with his cheek made him stagger to one side. Mirage gave one loud sob and fled, disappearing out into the night and leaving him staring after her in utter confusion, one hand pressed to the side of his face where she’d struck him. The regulars and the bartender were all giving him dirty looks, and the hostility was enough for him to throw down a few bills and leave as fast as he could. He emerged onto the deserted street and looked for any sign of Mirage, but she’d gone. Dazed and unsure what had just happened, he found his car and climbed into the driver’s seat, but made no attempt to start the ignition. His mind reeled, and yet when he thought back to the way she’d kissed him, everything else seemed to freeze. Closing his eyes, he ran his fingers over his lips. Mirage was dangerous. Unpredictable. He knew he shouldn’t trust her as far as he could throw her. But God, the feel of her was enough to drive away any sensible thought left in him. One thing was certain: his life had just gotten a whole lot more difficult.
Chapter 3: The Tablet
Paperwork. Piles of it, waiting for him to read and review. The higher-ups had relented about allowing him to act as a handler again (once they’d realized Mirage was serious about working with Caldwell and no one else), but that still didn’t change his day job as a paper pusher. Two weeks with no sign of contact from Mirage had left him bored and itching for something more than budget reports to concentrate on. Not that his mind had any trouble wandering, particularly when his thoughts turned to a certain golden-eyed super with a dangerous smile. He’d relived their conversation at the bar a thousand times, analyzing each word and gesture. It had taken him hours to realize why she’d kissed him, why she’d hit him. If Omni had been surveilling her then the kiss would help explain why she was meeting a strange man in a bar near midnight. A secret affair, a meet-up with an old flame. The slap, so quickly after the kiss, made it seem to any observer that the kiss had been his idea, that he’d forced himself on her and she’d lashed out in order to escape his unwanted advances. A neat and tidy way to keep Omni from looking into their relationship any further. And yet, much as he admired her ingenuity, it was another tiny detail that nagged at him. When she’d broken away from him there had been tears in her eyes. She was an excellent actress, that much was obvious, but the idea of her crying over anything at all made him shiver. It was a strange feeling to hope she’d been faking her emotions that night, but he’d rather feel used than imagine her as vulnerable. She was alone and defenseless on an island five thousand miles away. She needed her strength.
With a groan, he reached for a new stack of files that had arrived just that morning. He recognized the top two as HR reports, and the third as an invoice for the new fleet of vehicles to transport supers whose covers were blown back to headquarters for relocation.
The file below that was thicker and slightly skewed out of place in the stack. Curious, Caldwell drew it out and opened it. The papers inside were as mundane as the others, but a package had been slipped in among the reports by mistake. The edges of the padded manila envelope were bent, but the contents seemed unharmed. Warily (bad things happened to federal agents who opened unmarked packages), Caldwell opened the envelope and withdrew a plain grey tablet with no visible buttons. A light in the top right hand corner emitted a faint green glow. As he leaned in to examine it, words appeared on the screen. “Hold still . . . ” he read aloud.
A moment later he nearly dropped the tablet in surprise. A tiny laser had shot from the screen itself, scanning first his face, then the room, before disappearing once more. A tinny voice came from the tablet’s hidden speakers. “Match: George Caldwell. Room is secure.”
The screen flickered to life, revealing a familiar profile. Mirage looked up at him from the tablet, her expression smug. “Agent Caldwell. Might I introduce our new communication system? The device you currently hold has been specially designed to relate messages between the two of us each time one of its sister tablets activates. The signal is passive, so the messages we send to one another should be undetectable. Of course, this means it may be some time in between each message, when no other tablets are active. But patience is a virtue, so I hear.” She smiled. “In any case, press the button on the left to record your own message. It will be transmitted as soon as the next tablet is deployed. And do choose your words wisely.” Her eyes glinted, remarkably lifelike even in two dimensions. “One message per transmission. Those are the rules.” Reaching up, she brushed her hair back behind one ear. “Until next time, Agent Caldwell,” she murmured.
The screen went dark. The green light in the corner winked out. Startled by the message’s sudden end, Caldwell shook the tablet, but the screen showed no sign of life. Running his hand down the side of the device, he felt around until his fingertips met a tiny round button. Heart in his throat, he pressed it. A red light illuminated at the corner of the tablet. “Mirage?” he asked, as though somehow the tablet could answer him. As he spoke, zigzags of white light shot across the screen. “Nice piece of tech,” he said gruffly, trying to hide how unnerved he was by the sophistication of the device in his hand. “Now that we can communicate, I need you to find out whether the creator of Omni has had any contact with supers in the last six months or so. Any hint as to what else he might be hiding on that island of his would also be appreciated. Good work so far. And I’m glad you’re alright. Stay safe.”
He stopped recording before he started to ramble. The sound of her voice had broken through the grey mundanity of his life and made him overly aware of the blood rushing through his veins, the beat of his heart. God, she was good. She’d managed to create a persona so irresistible that no sane man could possibly ignore her, and she’d done it in a matter of seconds. He could hardly remember what she’d looked and sounded like before her transformation. He supposed that was the point of having an alter ego: to attract as little notice as possible. Not for the first time, he wondered what the true Mirage looked like. He somehow doubted the dull little sparrow in the interrogation room was her real, unaltered form. It would be too convenient for a super with shape-shifting powers to naturally possess such an unassuming appearance. Was she blonde or brunette, willowy or curvaceous? The only thing he was certain of was her age, thirty-one, but even her place of birth had been erased from all records. She was an enigma, enticing and infuriating.
Caldwell eyed the blank tablet thoughtfully, then tucked it into his briefcase for safekeeping. For some reason he felt reluctant to disclose the tablet’s existence to his superiors. In any case, it was useful to have the tablet with him if Mirage’s transmissions arrived at odd hours. Until she provided him with information useful to the Agency, there was no harm in keeping their communication method private. In any case, the tablet’s ID scanner had proven that the messages she sent were for his private viewing only. If that knowledge provided him with a bit more satisfaction than it should have, well, such emotions couldn’t be helped. He was only human, after all.
Chapter 4: The Fourth Message
It did not take long for Caldwell to realize that patience was a virtue he’d yet to acquire. Mirage’s second message came three days after the first: an update on the droid technology Omni currently kept hidden at their island facility. Her third message came a week after that, a quick 30-second confirmation that Omni had been behind the surveillance of her apartment, and that they had several other camera groupings around Metroville to keep an eye on persons of interest. The information was not particularly useful to him, but just hearing her voice was enough. She was alive, ensconced in Omni’s headquarters, as safe as any covert agent could ever be.
The fourth message came one month to the day after his midnight rendezvous in Zapsky’s bar. Caldwell was just tying his steel grey tie into a neat half-Windsor knot when he noticed the light at the top of the tablet had turned green, the signal that a new message had been received. He picked the tablet up off the nightstand where he’d taken to keeping it and walked across his studio apartment to his favorite chair by the 9th floor window. The NSA wasn’t stingy with their paystubs, but he preferred living simply. The chair was his one indulgence: dark brown leather, wing-backed, imposing yet comfortable. He settled in and pressed the glowing button.
Mirage appeared on screen, dressed in a black turtleneck sweater that drew attention upward to her face. Her features were as captivating as ever, but her expression was surprisingly grave. Her eyes held none of their usual teasing humor. “Agent Caldwell,” her husky voice said. “I’m afraid my latest information will be difficult for you to hear. Further research has uncovered testing data for the Omnidroid, the weapon I discussed earlier. In order to evaluate the droid’s abilities, the creator of Omni has set up challenges. At first I believed these challenges consisted of an obstacle course on the southern half of the island. But flight logs indicate that no fewer than eleven supers have arrived on Nomanisan over the past twelve months, and no flights are recorded as having left again. I believe the creator of Omni is pitting his droid against supers to test the AI system’s ability to cope with an unusually skilled opponent.”
She paused, glancing away, and Caldwell felt his heart sink. “The Omnidroid is as advanced a robot as I’ve ever seen, and utterly ruthless. I just can’t fathom a way in which the supers might have survived.” Her glorious eyes had dimmed, the pity in them evident even on the screen. “I’m so sorry, George,” she murmured. “Truly I am. I know how close you were to Blazestone. But more victims may arrive on the island any day now. I need you to warn other supers. Make sure they know someone might be after them, and be certain their handlers are on the lookout for suspicious behavior. Protect them. And,” she smiled weakly, “protect yourself.”
The screen went dark. Caldwell stared down at it, unseeing. The world had gone deathly silent the moment Mirage had stopped speaking. It didn’t seem possible: eleven supers killed by one evil genius? But he knew Mirage had to be right. She would never have told him something like that if there was any chance Blazestone and the others might still be alive.
The tablet slipped through his numb fingers and he put his head in his hands, squeezing his eyes tight shut to block out the daylight streaming through the window. His mind filled with the image of a California blonde with a side ponytail and a white crop-top that read “Eat My Flames”. He heard the ghostly echo of a laugh, high and excited, saw the glint of white teeth as she smiled. Grief was a hard lump in his chest, weighing him down. Somehow he found the strength to stand. He limped to the mirror, feeling battered and bruised, and finger-combed his hair back into place. Mirage was right. He had a job to do, if other supers were to be spared Blazestone’s fate. Gathering his briefcase, he retrieved the tablet from the floor and tucked it between files, then left without looking back.
Chapter 5: The Setback
Miss Rosalyn Fipple possessed the longest neck of any woman Caldwell had ever seen. It rose like an ivory tower up from the floral meadow that was her blouse, and ended in a small and rather drooping face with watery blue eyes magnified by reading glasses she wore on a long beaded chain. “Not till Tuesday, I’m afraid,” she said in her buzzy, high-pitched voice. If hummingbirds could talk, they would sound like Rosalyn Fipple.
Caldwell gritted his teeth. “This can’t wait till Tuesday. I have to see the Director now. It’s urgent.”
“Mr. Axelman is very busy, Agent Caldwell,” Miss Fipple chided, as though Caldwell were an impatient schoolboy. “I can pencil you in for an eight minute slot on Tuesday afternoon. Four fifty-two, shall we say?”
“What part of urgent is so hard—” Caldwell began, but a familiar gloomy voice made him pause.
“Urgent is as urgent does.”
Rick Dicker, Senior Handler, stood in the doorway of the receptionist’s office. His expression was as dour as ever, but his eyes were kind. “Let’s see if I can help you, before you go bothering the big-wigs.”
“An excellent idea,” sniffed Miss Fipple.
Caldwell glared at her. “I still want those eight minutes on Tuesday,” he said warningly as he followed Dicker out into the hall.
Miss Fipple pretended she hadn’t heard him, which was nearly enough to send him stalking back into the receptionist’s office, but Dicker put a calming hand on his shoulder and Caldwell forced himself to relax. “Seems to me it’s getting harder every year for us underlings to get a word in with the boss,” Dicker commented. “Then again, our department tends to manage pretty well on our own.”
“Not well enough,” Caldwell said bitterly. “Not when a dozen supers can just slip through the cracks.”
Dicker raised his shaggy eyebrows. “More missing supers?” he asked. “Your inside girl got you this info?”
“Mirage did, yes,” Caldwell confirmed. “She has proof that eleven supers arrived at Omni headquarters, and not one of them has left. Think about that. The Omni creator murdered eleven supers, eleven people we were sworn to protect. Psychwave, Macroburst, Everseer – they all had handlers. Yet all of them somehow ended up on that island without our agency any the wiser. That’s why I have to talk to the director right away.”
Dicker sighed, face drooping more than ever. “I understand your instinct, George. But Axelman isn’t one to move quickly without hard proof in front of his nose.” Dicker held up a hand before Caldwell could protest. “I know you trust your girl, and believe me, the thought of a villain targeting supers is disturbing, but until you have proof that Axelman can hold in his hand he isn’t going to listen.” Dicker patted Caldwell’s shoulder consolingly. “I’ll do what I can to let the handlers in my division know there’s a threat to their supers. With luck the alter egos we’ve helped create will protect them.”
“Like it protected Blazestone?” Caldwell demanded.
Dicker shook his head. “Go home, George. It’s nearly five anyway. You look like you could use some rest.”
Caldwell didn’t bother to reply. Shrugging off Dicker’s hand, he strode back to his office and slammed the door behind him with more force than necessary. Collapsing into his desk chair, he took a deep, calming breath before reaching into his bag and pulling out the tablet. If he stared at the blank screen he could almost see the etched outlines of Mirage’s face upon it. His left thumb traced the side of the tablet until it reached the record button, then pressed and held it.
“Mirage, they aren’t listening,” he murmured. “I need proof, physical proof – these people won’t respond to anything else. I’ve found a way to let the handlers know about the threat, but if the Omni creator is clever enough to lure in eleven supers, a few NSA agents aren’t going to make a difference. I’m at a loss. Help me. We have to convince them, before it’s too late.”
Chapter 6: The Overpass
Three weeks. Caldwell thought his muscles might soon give up and become permanently tense. Then, just when he’d begun to wonder whether Mirage had been compromised, he was awoken at midnight by an electronic pinging sound coming from the tablet on his nightstand. Groggily, he fumbled for his bedside lamp and picked the tablet up, frowning at the blank screen. It had never made noise before. Was this a malfunction?
There was a whirring sound, and then a crisp white business card shot out of the tablet to land in his lap. Utterly baffled, he raised the card up to the light, squinting at it. On the front of the card, the word “MIRAGE” glimmered in capital letters. The ink seemed to shift and move, an illusion in and of itself.
The back of the card was different. Across the ivory surface a message was scrawled in slanting black letters: Traction Avenue Flyover, Lower Level - 1:30 AM.
Caldwell stared at the card for a good thirty seconds before the meaning of it hit home. Then he scrambled for his watch, nearly knocking it off his table. 12:37. He would have to hurry. Leaping out of bed, he threw on the first clothes he could find, grabbed his keys and the business card, and ran.
The Traction Flyover consisted of a towering overpass that curved like a huge figure-eight above the city streets and cast long, ominous shadows onto the pavement below. Caldwell pulled up at 1:28 and switched off his engine, staring up at the massive feat of engineering. The golden haze of the streetlamps somehow served to make him feel less at ease. Surrounded by concrete and asphalt, there was nowhere to hide.
He waited, glancing down at the business card every thirty seconds to be sure he had the right place. Her writing was too neat for him to have mistaken the message. 1:30 came and went, then 1:35. What was going on?
She appeared as suddenly as a ghost, white-blonde hair glowing in the city lights. Dark three-piece suit, black stiletto heels, slim briefcase, as though she were on her way to a business conference and not a clandestine meeting in the dead of night beneath a freeway overpass. She approached, heels clicking on the pavement, and he unlocked the passenger door. To his surprise, she opened the rear door instead and climbed into the back seat. “7th and Meridian,” she said, her voice sending chills down his spine. “Don’t talk. And keep your eyes on the road.”
Too confused to argue, he obeyed. The deserted streets slid past, one indistinguishable from the next. Despite her warning, he glanced into his rear-view mirror and caught his breath. Mirage had removed her pinstriped black jacket and conservative blouse, and was in the process of unfastening her bra. “I told you, eyes on the road,” she growled, and he quickly turned his attention back to driving. Several minutes passed in silence. He was acutely aware of her moving behind him, but force of will kept him from risking another look back. As they reached Meridian and began driving along the bay, she tapped his shoulder. “Pull over,” she commanded.
Caldwell guided the car into the emergency lane and stopped. Mirage got out, briefcase in hand, and walked to the very edge of the road where only a rusted metal guardrail separated her from open ocean. Caldwell blinked. She was fully dressed again, exactly as before. Raising the briefcase over her head, she threw it with all her might into the ocean below, then walked calmly back to the car and got into the passenger seat. “Hello, Agent Caldwell,” she said, as though they’d met by chance in a cafe. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Mirage,” said Caldwell, trying and failing to match her calm. “What the hell—”
“Tracking devices,” Mirage cut him off. “As we both know, Omni Corp is a leading manufacturer of button cameras, magnetic microphones, various tiny insidious devices that make all the difference when it comes to, say, exposing the identity of a covert operative and her handler.” She smiled at him. “I took the precaution of packing an identical set of clothes. The ones I wore previously are now at the bottom of the harbor. While it is unlikely that the surveillance technology could survive prolonged immersion in salt water, I thought it best to make sure your voice did not make it onto any recordings. Hence my rudeness before.”
“Oh,” said Caldwell. For a moment he couldn’t think of anything else to say. Mirage was inches from him, close enough that he could smell her delicate perfume: sandalwood mixed with something else, something heady and intoxicating. “You’re here,” he murmured. Reality caught hold of him just in time, and he blinked. “Aren’t you supposed to be on Nomanisan?”
“Drive south, please,” she instructed. “I’m on a reconnaissance mission,” she continued as he pulled back onto the road. “Whether your tip off made the supers in the area go further underground, or whether the world is just running out of supers, the Omni mastermind has decided he needs an agent on the mainland. Boots on the ground, so to speak.” She glanced down at her glossy black heels. “I’m to investigate certain people in the hopes that they might slip up and reveal themselves to be supers in hiding.”
“Anyone I know?” Caldwell asked.
Their eyes met in the rear view mirror and he saw at once that she’d changed. The tablet hadn’t showed her properly, had hidden and distorted the details. Up close he could see the anxiety in her eyes, the way her full lips flattened into a tight, worried line. Clearly the mission had taken its toll on her, though she’d seemed reluctant to elaborate about her actual position at Omni in any of her messages. “Exit here,” she murmured, voice intruding upon his thoughts.
He took the first off-ramp and continued to drive, this time on the city streets. They were in the financial district, not far from the courthouse. The safest place in the city during the day. At night . . . less so. There were shadier neighborhoods in Metroville, but not many. He kept his eyes peeled for anything suspicious.
“Any more luck with your boss?” Mirage asked.
Caldwell grimaced. “My meeting with him was cancelled due to a golf game that ran over.”
“I see.” Mirage fell silent for a moment, then pointed at a three-story structure rising up in the distance. “That parking garage, there. Top level.”
She remained quiet until he’d driven to the very top of the structure and parked. Then she reached over, long fingers catching at the sleeve of his shirt. “Agent Caldwell,” she said softly.
He made the mistake of turning to look at her fully, and felt heat rush through his veins. Whether by accident or on purpose, she’d neglected to finish buttoning her blouse. The deep V of brown skin beneath the snowy white fabric was enticing enough, but she’d also forgone the need for stockings. Her bare legs seemed endless and impossibly alluring in the dim light of the garage. He drank in the sight of her. Her hand seemed hot enough to burn as it rested on his arm.
“Agent Caldwell, do you understand why I kissed you last time we met?”
He swallowed. “A cover. Something to explain our meeting, if we were seen together.”
Mirage nodded. “With that in mind, would you think it cruel of me if I were to do it again?”
He shook his head, chest tight with anticipation. She smiled at him in a way that made him imagine things he shouldn’t. Her arms entwined around his neck and she pulled herself toward him, their lips meeting. This time he knew her well enough to read her emotions. Passion was there, sorrow as well, perhaps even fear. She needed him in that moment, desperately and fully. Without thinking his hands went to her waist, caressing her, savoring every second of contact. He heard her inhale sharply, but then she was kissing him harder and everything but her seemed to fade out of existence. Their kisses went on and on until suddenly she drew away, leaving him breathless with want. Her hands went to her blouse, straightening it, doing up the buttons, her eyes downcast demurely as though she hadn’t just been tangled in his embrace. “Thank you, Agent Caldwell,” she murmured. “You’ve been most obliging.”
“Mirage,” he groaned. It took every ounce of strength he had not to grab her by the crisp lapels of her blazer and pull her back into his arms.
Mirage shook her head. “I have to go. He’ll suspect me enough as it is.”
“The Omni creator?” Caldwell demanded, feeling a fresh rush of hatred toward the shadowy villain. “Who is he, anyway?”
“He calls himself Syndrome,” Mirage answered quietly. The worried look had returned to her face.
“Syndrome,” Caldwell repeated. The name felt ominous, like some deadly disease that clung to Mirage, desperate to infect her.
She crossed her arms over her chest, a defensive motion. “It will be harder, from now on, to contact you. He watches me.”
“Let him watch,” Caldwell murmured, reaching for her.
She leaned away, avoiding his touch. “I have to go,” she said again. “I’m sorry. I’ve given you nothing. Truthfully I never should have come, but I . . .”
She let the sentence hang, opening the car door and climbing out. “Goodbye, George,” she whispered.
Turning, she walked calmly across the garage to a shiny black coupe that waited in the corner. “Mirage,” Caldwell called out, voice echoing through the empty building.
She paused, glancing back over her shoulder. He found it difficult to draw breath. “Stay safe,” he managed at last.
She smiled sadly. “You too,” she replied.
A minute later she’d gone, her car disappearing around the corner leaving Caldwell rooted to his seat, reliving every moment since he first received her message. She’d given him so little information, so little reason for their rendezvous. Yet he’d learned more about her than he’d ever expected to. Not just about her body, though the memory of her tongue brushing against his teeth made him sweat. He’d learned about her emotions, what she was feeling. The tracking devices, identical clothes, meeting in deserted parts of the city in the dead of night. She was frightened, perhaps more than even she realized. He knew from their very first interview, not to mention every message and encounter since, that she was not easily spooked. Whatever this “Syndrome” was doing on Nomanisan island, it was enough to unnerve her. And that unnerved him.
He shifted into gear and left the garage, taking a long and circuitous route home in case he was being followed. False dawn had begun to show on the horizon by the time he reentered his apartment. He knew he ought to be exhausted, but his eyes refused to close. Retreating to his favorite chair, he watched the sky turn pink and thought of her.
Chapter 7: The Disc
Agent Caldwell gripped the second business card tight enough to bend it and attempted to look like an ordinary businessman in suit and tie. Of course, ordinary businessmen rarely waited alone in atmospheric French restaurants at tables meant for two. Mirage was half an hour late, and Caldwell was beginning to receive pitying looks from the wait staff. He ignored the stares, too concerned that something might have gone wrong to care about the opinions of strangers. He’d had a strange feeling all day, a sinking feeling. Only fools and supers believed in premonitions, but nonetheless his nerves were on edge.
“More wine, Monsieur?”
The sommelier leaned in tentatively, glancing at Caldwell’s empty glass. Caldwell shook his head. He was already one glass past his two glass limit, the stress of the situation outweighing his usual caution. The sommelier backed away slowly, leaving Caldwell alone with his thoughts.
“You Mister Chimera?”
A busboy, clearly uncomfortable in the dining room, stood nearby. He shifted his weight back and forth as though expecting to be told off at any moment. “Only I’m supposed to give something to a Mister Chimera.”
He placed the stress on the first syllable of ‘Chimera’, and it took Caldwell a moment to recognize the name. Mirage’s alias, the one she’d used at their very first meeting. “I’m Mister Chimera,” Caldwell said hurriedly.
The busboy looked unconvinced, but his doubts vanished when he saw the Maître D approaching. “Here,” he said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out an envelope smaller than a cigarette packet. “Take it, before Bernard has me shot for slacking off.”
Caldwell obeyed, taking the envelope and concealing it in his palm. The busboy fled. Caldwell settled back in his chair and slowly tipped the envelope, running his thumbnail along the top to open it and waiting until he felt the contents fall into his hand.
He nearly missed it, it was so small. A flat disk no larger than the nail on his little finger winked up at him, its surface shimmering like an oil slick. Intrigued, he held it up for a better look. He could make out miniscule dots and lines criss-crossing the mysterious disk, almost like a motherboard. There could be only one device capable of reading something so far beyond the normal scope of technology.
Standing, he tucked a few bills beneath the base of his wine glass and headed for the door. “Going so soon, Monsieur?” the Maître D asked plaintively.
“I’m afraid I’ve had my fill of atmosphere for the evening,” Caldwell said brusquely, his mind already several miles away.
He reached his apartment at a quarter past nine and marched straight to his briefcase where he’d left the tablet, taking it out and turning it over and over in his hands. The surface was smooth and sleek, with no visible chinks in the casing where a tiny disk might fit. Caldwell crossed to the kitchen and rummaged in a drawer until he found a flashlight, then set the tablet down on the counter, marveling yet again at Mirage’s ingenuity and skill. He knew enough about technology to understand how advanced the tablet was. Not for the first time, he wondered what she’d truly be capable of, if given the resources. Perhaps the NSA could hire her as a consultant, once her mission with Omni Corp had finished. Then he could stay on as her handler, not that she’d need one. He knew his motivations were selfish, but it never hurt to dream.
There, by the indicator light that told him a new message had arrived: a miniscule port just the right size. Carefully he inserted the disk, crossing his fingers that he hadn’t just lost it to the inner workings of the tablet.
The screen shone blue, making him blink and hold the tablet at arm’s length. White writing appeared on screen, or rather, white lines that arched and converged. Slowly an image took form, an image so bizarre Caldwell could only stare. It was a robot, that much he knew, one with a spherical body and five curved arms snaking downward and ending in claw-like hands. Along the top of the screen, a banner read “Omnidroid 07”. Just as he was starting to get a sense of the strange invention, the picture changed. This image showed the inner workings of the droid, listing its stats along one side. Caldwell read the data numbers and blanched. The droid was capable of exerting over 5000 pounds of pressure with a single arm. He knew of very few supers whose could withstand a grip as devastating as that.
Another image followed, a top view and composition analysis. The image after that showed a list of improvements presumably made since the previous model of droid. In total the data file contained the full and comprehensive blueprints of Omni’s top secret robot, the killing device Syndrome used to destroy supers.
The images cycled through three times before the screen went dark and the disk ejected. Caldwell caught it before it could fall and held it as gently as he could. Mirage had outdone herself. She’d given him proof, all the proof the NSA needed to take out Syndrome and end these senseless murders forever. He would present his findings to his head of department in the morning, who would take them to the Director, who would authorize an immediate covert raid on Nomanisan Island. Syndrome would be in chains by the end of the week.
Smiling, he gently slid the disk back into its envelope and placed it beside the tablet on his bedside table. He fell back onto his pillow and was asleep in minutes.
He awoke quite suddenly sometime around 4 AM. His room was pitch black, and it took him a moment to get his bearings. He’d been having a dream, something about mountains and lakes, and Mirage had been there. He smiled to himself. His best dreams always seemed to involve her, these days.
Out of habit he glanced over at the tablet, checking for a new message. His heart leapt as he saw the glowing green light illuminated in the corner. Not bothering with his bedside lamp, he grabbed the tablet and sat up, pressing the button to begin the message.
The second that Mirage appeared on screen he could tell something was very wrong. She was agitated, glancing around as though sure someone was watching. “Things are moving faster,” she said without preamble. “The blueprints I sent you may not be up to date for long. Time is running out.” She tucked her hair behind her ear, a nervous gesture. “Another super will arrive any day now. One he’s been looking for. Once that super dies, he intends to—”
She gasped, eyes widening in terror as she looked past the camera. The screen went black, leaving Caldwell in darkness. Mirage was gone.
Chapter 8: The Director
“No, not later. Now.”
Miss Fipple shook her head adamantly. “I’m afraid Director Axelman is a very busy—Agent Caldwell? Agent Caldwell, wait!”
Caldwell strode past her desk, intent upon the pair of tall double doors in front of him. It was not until he reached them that he saw the thumbprint scanner embedded in the polished oak. He cursed as he heard Miss Fipple closing in fast, buzzing like an irate bee. But just then, by some miracle, the doors swung open and none other than Frederick Axelman himself strode out into the lobby. “Cancel my noon appointment, Rozzy, I’m getting lunch with a couple of senators at the Shanes Street Club.”
“Director Axelman,” Caldwell said quickly, moving to stand between the head of the NSA and his indignant secretary. “I have to speak with you about the Nomanisan project. Our informant there has been compromised. We have to retrieve her immediately.”
The Director looked at Caldwell bemusedly. He was only an inch shorter than Caldwell’s six feet, but much broader across the chest and belly. “I beg your pardon, do I know you?”
Caldwell gritted his teeth. “Agent Caldwell, Handler. Sir, we have very little time. Our operative is in grave danger. We must send a rescue team to Nomanisan Island before it is too late.”
“Nomanisan,” Director Axelman said thoughtfully. “Is that near Surinam? Oh no,” he chuckled. “No, of course it isn’t. Nomanisan, that’s that awful bit of rock in the Pacific where all our nasty weapons come from.”
“Sir—” Caldwell began again, but Miss Fipple interrupted.
“Director, your eleven twenty-five meeting with the Senate Finance Chairman begins in four minutes.”
“Finance. Yes, yes.” Axelman straightened his tie. “Got to pander to the fellas with the purse strings,” he said, winking at Caldwell. “Only twice a year, thank God, but overhead costs’ll kill you every time.”
He tried to walk toward the door, but Caldwell stepped in front of him, blocking his way. “Sir, a woman’s life is in danger,” Caldwell said, struggling to keep calm. “I swore, when I sent her into that volcanic hellhole, that I would get her out again.”
Axelman raised an eyebrow. “That’s a considerable promise to make to a lone agent on a barely accessible island.”
“She’s risking her life out there,” Caldwell managed to say through gritted teeth.
“We all risk our lives, Agent Caldwell,” Axelman said emotionlessly. “Those who choose to defend the world from the adverse effects of supers do so at their own peril. We can only protect our people so much before the cost becomes too great.”
“This is about money to you?” Caldwell spat. He was done being polite. “Lives are at stake – potentially thousands of lives. Our operative has transmitted the blueprints for a battle robot, a droid capable of destruction the likes of which this city has never seen. She’s endangered her own life countless times in order to bring us this information.”
“A battle robot?” Axelman asked, disbelief evident on his face. “Like what? Dueling vacuum cleaners? Robots are not advanced enough to tie knots or conduct conversation. One robot is not going to destroy a city.”
“You fool,” Caldwell whispered. “Look at the data, the facts, they’re right in front of you.”
Axelman’s face darkened. “No, Agent Caldwell, you are right in front of me. And I have a meeting to go to.”
He swept past, knocking Caldwell aside. “Sir!” Caldwell called desperately. “Wait, you have to listen—“
“I have to be in G-wing in five minutes,” Axelman cut him off. “I suggest you return to your office now, Agent Caldwell, before you find you no longer have one.”
With that he strode away, leaving a stunned Caldwell in his wake.
With no other option, Caldwell returned to his office, shutting the door behind him and leaning heavily against it. His mind had departed along with Axelman, leaving only a numb void. Crossing to his desk, he stared down at the stacks of mundane papers and reports as though they were alien objects, untouchable, unknowable. His gaze travelled to the bookshelf behind his desk, and the filing cabinet beside it. They were foreign things disconnected from his real life. What use were they, now that Mirage had gone silent? He’d spent all night trying to contact her, recording message after message on the tablet despite knowing that only the first one would ever send. The image of her panic-stricken face was burned into his mind. From all she’d told him of Syndrome, he knew the probability that she was still alive was very small. Villains did not take kindly to spies in their midst. He tried not to think of the blueprint she’d sent him, the terrifying 5-armed robot. The idea of Mirage trapped in the steely grip of such a diabolical creation made his entire body ache.
He rummaged around until he found a box and began tossing books and files into it. He couldn’t imagine her that way, helpless and frightened. She was stronger than that. She’d survived weeks on Nomanisan, existed for years before that as an imposter in her own body. She might not be able to fight like some supers, but she had brains and a power Syndrome wouldn’t expect. He had to focus on that, and only that, if he was to keep himself from utter collapse. There was no use mourning yet. Not before he knew without a shadow of a doubt that she was gone.
He’d nearly finished packing up when there was a knock at the door. Dicker entered, surveying the mess Caldwell had made of the office with sad eyes. “Heard what happened,” he said. “Shouldn’t have gone to him first.”
“I’ve since been made aware of that fact, thank you,” said Caldwell icily. “I’ve also been made aware of our agency’s new motto: Money over All. Not quite as striking as ‘Protect and Defend’, but I’m sure it will catch on.”
“George . . .” Dicker began.
Caldwell shook his head sharply. “Don’t. Don’t try and tell me I was wrong to want a retrieval team for her. Don’t you dare mention financial resources, calculated risks. She trusted us.” He bit his lower lip, fighting to get his emotions under control. “She trusted me. I promised to take care of her. That interview is taped, archived as proof. I promised I’d save her.”
“Sometimes people can’t be saved,” Dicker said softly. His gruff voice was gentle, consoling. “It happens. It isn’t fair, it isn’t right, but it happens.” His eyes travelled over the box full of jumbled files and books. “Going somewhere?”
“I’m through,” Caldwell said shortly. “I’ve had enough of this place and these people.”
“Wait a few days,” Dicker urged. “Make sure you’re in the right frame of mind when you quit. I’ll file all the necessary paperwork for a leave of absence.”
Caldwell felt a flash of annoyance, but the emotion faded as quickly as it had come. “Thank you,” he murmured. “I doubt I’ll change my mind, but thank you.”
“Take as much time as you need,” Dicker instructed. He made as though to leave, but paused in the doorway. “George?”
Caldwell looked up from the stack of files he was sorting. “Yes?”
“She’s gone,” Dicker told him quietly. “Remember that, and try to move on from there.”
Caldwell did not respond, but remained staring at the closed door long after the other man had left. Dicker didn’t understand – how could he? He dealt with superheroes, people with storm powers or cosmic rays. Mirage was as different from the cape-sporting old guard as it was possible to be. Her powers had kept her anonymous, had kept her safe until he’d tracked her down and pressured her into accepting a potentially deadly assignment. She was no masked crime fighter. She was just a woman, beautiful and brilliant, fragile and vulnerable. He closed his eyes as the ghostly memory of her kisses overtook him. He could not accept that she was dead. Their story could not end so abruptly and cruelly. He would find her if it killed him, he would hold her and kiss her and tell her everything he’d been too afraid to tell her before. She was all that mattered, and he would never let her go.
Chapter 9: The Passcode
The sun shone through the windows of his studio, mocking him. He’d carried his box of files up all nine flights of stairs in order to avoid a chattering family just entering the elevator. He couldn’t bear to hear careless laughter or listen to mundane gossip, not now. Setting the box down on his kitchen counter, he drew the blinds, leaving the room in semi-darkness. Out of habit he looked over at the tablet on his bedside table, but no light shone from the top. He retrieved it anyway, staring at the blank screen and imagining her face. His fingers found the record button and pressed it. “Mirage,” he murmured, watching as the sound of his voice sent waves of white light across the screen. “If you’re out there, I’ll find you. I promise you that. I don’t give a damn about the NSA, they can rot in hell for all I care. You’re all I think about. I can’t imagine a world with you gone.”
As he spoke the white lines seemed to dim, as though the device were losing power. “No,” he whispered, desperately clinging to this last piece of her, this tangible thing he could hold in his hands to prove she’d really existed. That she hadn’t been what her name implied: a mirage, an illusion that tempted and enticed before disappearing without a trace, leaving him to wander alone in a barren desert. “God, Mirage, I love you. If I could tell you just one thing, it would be that.”
The lines on the screen faded into blackness. Caldwell rested his forehead against the tablet, utterly defeated. He had never felt so fully and heartbreakingly alone.
Light pressed against his closed eyelids. The screen was glowing. Hardly able to believe it, Caldwell held the tablet at arm’s length. Words appeared along the top edge, small and cramped. “Message locked. Name verification required.”
Seven blank spaces appeared below the words, pulsing gently. Caldwell stared at the message, mind racing. What name would she have used as a password? Mirage had only six letters, Caldwell had eight. He thought back to their first interview. The name she’d used then was Leda Chimera. Fingers shaking, he typed the word Chimera and pressed enter.
“Incorrect Passcode. 2 attempts remaining.”
Heart racing, Caldwell dropped the tablet onto his bed and half-ran to the box of papers. Somewhere in the jumble was her file, the one that listed her aliases. He dug through the papers, tossing aside anything irrelevant, until he found what he was looking for. Before Leda Chimera, Mirage used Maria Lusinga as her alias. He was halfway to the tablet when he paused. “Lusinga” meant illusion in Italian. “Chimera” was Greek for the same. And of course, there was the word “Mirage”. All of them meant something unreal, a false vision separate from reality. He checked the file again. All the aliases followed the same pattern in different root languages. Yet it was highly unlikely that a super would be born with a surname that so closely matched their powers. None of the names on his list could possibly be Mirage’s real name.
He realized he was smiling. She’d given him a gift, a challenge to occupy him and a chance to delve further into her past. His reward would be her message, a final chance to see her face if the worst had indeed come to pass.
It took several tries to get through to what people at the National Supers Agency referred to as The Other NSA. “Stebbins,” he said, once the call finally connected. “I have a favor to ask. I need a programmer with security clearance who’s good with linguistics, who works fast, and who can keep quiet about his side projects. I thought of you first.”
“First, second, and last, I would hope,” came the tinny voice from the phone’s speakers. “Not a lot of people fit that description, I must say. What’s this about?”
“You want Feldman for that,” Stebbins said at once. “He’s brilliant with facial recognition.”
“This case is an exception. Visual ID is useless.”
“Intriguing.” Caldwell could almost hear Stebbins rubbing his hands together with anticipation. “How long has this particular person been missing?”
Caldwell paused. “I’m not entirely sure. But if I had to guess, I’d say thirteen years.”
“Wow,” Stebbins murmured. “And no one has any idea where they are?”
“Oh, I know exactly where she is,” Caldwell said darkly. “What I need to know is where she’s been. Or rather, who she’s been.”
“Sounds like a challenge,” Stebbins said. “Can you come in after work today? Or better yet, meet me at my house.”
“Seven,” Stebbins corrected. “I need time to, er, tidy up. Tournament last week, you know.”
“I don’t know, but I can imagine,” Caldwell said dryly. In his free time Stebbins enjoyed using the most advanced technology in the world to create holograms of barbarian warriors and battle them against similar creations conceived by his various friends in the industry. His wife didn’t seem to mind, but then, Deanna was as eccentric as Stebbins in her own way. “Seven it is,” Caldwell confirmed. “See you there.”
He hung up the phone and began packing everything he’d need into his briefcase. At the last minute he packed the tablet. If by some miracle he and Stebbins came up with Mirage’s name that night, he wanted to be prepared.
From the outside the Stebbins family home looked perfectly ordinary, a tract house identical to all the others on the block. However, Caldwell doubted whether the pleasant suburban family next door had converted their living room into a cavern stuffed with the latest technology and gadgets. The electronic hum was audible, sending tiny pulses through the walls and floor. Personally, Caldwell had often wondered how Stebbins managed to get his pictures to stay on the walls, what with all the stray vibrations. But there was probably yet another bit of tech to cope with that issue.
Stebbins sat at a control booth by the far wall, glancing at a trio of screens in front of him. “You’re missing the fun, Caldwell,” he said by way of greeting. “Pull up a chair.”
Caldwell obeyed, and Stebbins began typing furiously. “You didn’t give me much to work with over the phone, but I’ve been thinking a lot about tracking systems lately and I’ve pulled up all the work I’ve already done. Give me a name to input, and we’ll see how it goes.”
“Start with the name Mirage,” Caldwell instructed.
Stebbins stopped typing and stared at him. “Mirage? Like, THE Mirage? The inventor of compound holographic layering, not to mention projection enhancement and negative space imaging? That Mirage?”
“One can only assume so,” said Caldwell patiently.
“Wow,” Stebbins breathed. “And you want to find out who she is in real life.”
“Close enough,” Caldwell confirmed. “Can your system run name comparisons? Every alias I know she’s used has the same theme of illusions, tricks of the eye.”
“I’ll try. But we can’t exactly run every name in the world through this system. It’d take years.”
“Try the other way around,” Caldwell suggested. “Find the synonyms for illusion in the major languages of Eurasia and run those through immigration databases, citizenship records. Start with records of people entering Singapore thirteen years ago. That’s when she started university.”
“This’ll take a sec,” Stebbins murmured, working furiously. “D’you want a drink or something?”
Caldwell shook his hear. “I’ll watch, if that’s alright.”
Half an hour passed in silence before Stebbins stopped typing again. “Right. Singapore, thirteen years ago. Eighty-three people with illusion-type names entered the country. Of those, only thirty remained in the country for more than two weeks.”
“How many women?” Caldwell was not positive how constrained Mirage’s powers were when it came to factors like gender and age, but photographic evidence of her past few transformations supported the idea that she preferred to stay female and within her own age bracket.
“Even split, male/female. Here are the women under twenty-five.”
Stebbins hit a trio of keys and the list of names popped up on the large glass screen in the center of the room. Caldwell stepped closer. Only four names remained. He hesitated at the second name, Mina Synvilla. “Can you pull up immigration records?”
Stebbins entered another series of keystrokes and the screen changed to show immigration pictures of a pale blonde with huge, round eyes. The info displayed beside her photo gave her birthplace as Tromsø, Norway, her age as 17. Caldwell studied her face as though it would help somehow, as though he expected to see the Mirage who haunted his dreams somewhere beneath the features of a teenage girl. “Search this name?” he said, more of a command than a question.
“On it.” The visual disappeared as Stebbins worked. “Mina Synvilla, married four years ago, currently living in Stockholm.”
“Not her,” Caldwell murmured. “Back to the list.”
The next name down he didn’t recognize. “Turkish root,” Stebbins explained. “Apparently ‘Gizem’ means mystery.”
Stebbins pulled up the file to reveal a passport photo of a dark-skinned young woman in a headscarf whose prominent arched nose drew focus. “Gizem Çelik, age 19,” Stebbins read. “Arrived in Singapore from Istanbul. No record of an exit visa.”
Caldwell leaned in. There was something about the woman’s eyes that didn’t match the rest of her features. The irises were dark, nearly as black as the pupils, but that was common enough. There was something else, indefinable. “Search?”
“Nothing.” Stebbins typed frantically. “No other records of travel anywhere. Her passport was marked valid by the authorities in Singapore, but a quick search of records in Turkey have no one of her name applying for a passport or ID.”
“That’s her,” Caldwell said triumphantly.
“That’s what Mirage looks like?” Stebbins asked in disbelief.
“No,” Caldwell responded. “Don’t worry about it,” he said quickly, when Stebbins looked confused. “We know she was in Istanbul. Time to repeat the process, this time for Turkey.”
He didn’t know why he was bothering to conceal Mirage’s power from Stebbins. It wasn’t as though Stebbins had trouble putting two and two together – Caldwell did work for the National Supers Agency, after all. It didn’t take a genius to work it out. Yet somehow revealing Mirage’s powers to someone outside the agency felt like a betrayal, like he was exposing her secrets without asking permission.
The pair of them kept at it for another two hours, checking names and passports. Just as they were both beginning to tire, another picture popped up, this one attached to the name Sasha Videniye, age 17. This girl was as different from the Turkish alias as it was possible to be, pale and honey blonde. Yet her eyes were exactly the same – dark and bottomless. Caldwell caught his breath. Many supers only gained full control of their powers once they reached adulthood. Perhaps the young Mirage had had to learn as she went along, practicing until she could change a few, then most, then all but one of her features. He’d heard from courtroom sketch artists that eyes were incredibly difficult to capture on paper. Even photographs rarely did them justice. “Stebbins, I believe the time has come to do a visual ID. I’d like the eyes of both these photos analyzed and compared to Ukranian immigration records of girls under 18.”
“That may not help,” Stebbins said quietly, his voice unusually grave. “Lots of girls enter Ukraine without passports or records. Human trafficking, illegal immigration, not to mention children who are never documented by their parents. Plus when a child disappears, their parents sometimes pass on the missing child’s name to the next child born. A replacement son or daughter, so to speak.”
“Look elsewhere then,” Caldwell said brusquely to hide his horror. “Not government records, but newspapers, school pictures, anything. Somewhere there is an image of a girl with those eyes. There has to be.”
“I’ll ask Feldman tomorrow,” Stebbins promised. “It may take time – images are a lot harder to compare than names. But if there’s a photo out there, we’ll find it.”
“Thank you,” Caldwell said, relieved. “I owe you.”
“Damn right,” said Stebbins cheerfully. “Don’t worry, I’m already thinking of lavish gifts you can buy me to fully express your gratitude.”
“Find her, and I’ll get you whatever you want,” Caldwell promised. “Call me the moment you get something.”
“Will do,” Stebbins assured him. “Don’t worry. No one can hide forever.”
Chapter 10: The Last Message
The search for Mirage kept him alive. His body did not want to function, but he forced himself to get out of bed, dress himself, feed himself. The threat that he might miss something due to exhaustion made him take care of his body when he otherwise would have given up entirely. Stebbins and his contact Feldman had run hundreds of variations and tests through the search program, sorting for facial feature matches and names that exuded mystery. Three days after his first meeting with Stebbins they discovered another alias, this one a Venezuelan girl named Paola Semblanza, age 16. Caldwell knew they had to be getting close. The image of Paola had the same dark eyes, the same length hair as the girl in Ukraine. Comparing the photographs of the aliases he’d compiled was like watching a super’s powers regress at an accelerated rate. At this age Mirage had clearly been less proficient in her transformations. Another alias or two and he’d have her.
A week more passed. Caldwell took to reviewing every piece of information he’d compiled on Mirage before their first meeting, even obtaining the transcript of their interview and going over it line by line. NSA surveillance had refused to give him the recording itself, but he remembered every gesture and nod she’d made, every sudden look and every sharp comment. He found it more and more interesting that her first reaction, once he’d spoken the name of her super identity, was to ask whether she was under arrest. He found it hard to imagine her as a gun-toting gangster, but cyber-crime existed. Perhaps she’d robbed banks the subtle way, with computers rather than ransom notes.
Two more aliases, both with names derived from Spanish, both still in Venezuela. She’d used them to book overland transport from the mountainous western border to the capital. No pictures were involved, so there was no way of telling what she’d looked like, but that hardly mattered. Caldwell tracked her journey on a map, tracing the roads she would have used in red pen. “Colombia,” he told Stebbins one night as the programmer was taking a quick break from work to devour a sandwich.
Stebbins nodded, swallowing his mouthful of roast beef. “Likely. If her direction of travel is any indication, it looks like she was coming from the capital. I’ll check birth records in Bogota, see what I come up with.”
“If it’s really her and not an alias, it’s probable that she won’t have the same type of name,” Caldwell warned.
Stebbins shrugged. “Whatever. I’ll find descriptions, photos, evidence. You’ll get your answer.”
Caldwell said nothing. It was no longer just about the message locked within the tablet. It was about removing that last layer of illusion that separated them. Learning her identity would mean knowing her as deeply as he ever would. Day after day with no word from her had dampened his hopes until only a tiny spark remained. He refused to give up, but a part of him recognized that the message in the tablet might be the last time he saw her face.
They worked till nearly eleven. Caldwell had just gotten home and hung up his jacket when the phone rang.
“George? You gotta come back. There’s—I found a, a thing. You gotta come back.”
Caldwell was in his car a minute later.
Though he’d left it less than an hour earlier, Stebbins’ house seemed different. The servers and modems had quieted, leaving an eerie void in their wake. Stebbins was waiting in the living room. “Thanks for coming, George.”
“You gave me very little choice,” Caldwell pointed out. “Show me what you’ve found.”
“Right,” said Stebbins. For some reason he sounded reluctant. “See, what happened was, I was looking through newspaper archives in Bogota, just to see what I could find, you know? And then this came up, and I looked at the picture, and I think it’s her. But boy, it isn’t what I expected.”
“Stebbins, it is past midnight. Show me the photo already.”
“Right,” said Stebbins. “Here you go. You might want to sit down.”
He reached out and struck a single key. The image of a newspaper appeared on the large glass screen, dated seventeen years before. The text was in Spanish, but a translated version appeared parallel to the original.
Assassination Sparks Riot
In the midst of a speech on the need for co-operation between both parties, Mayor Juan Moreno Garcia was fatally shot by a right-wing protester. Crowds gathered for the speech descended upon the shooter, actions which quickly dissolved into chaos. More shots rang out shortly after the death of Moreno Garcia, escalating the situation still further. In total twenty-nine people are dead, including the mayor’s wife, Ana-Maria de la Cruz, who was struck by stray gunfire after fighting erupted in the square. The mayor’s daughter, Natalia Moreno de la Cruz, is currently missing and presumed dead. Over one hundred injuries have been reported, and repercussions from the assassination have begun to spread throughout the city and the region.
A grainy picture of Juan Moreno Garcia accompanied the article. He was tall and clean-shaven, his black hair slicked back and parted on one side. Beside him stood his wife, a pretty woman in her late thirties with the sort of smile all politicians’ wives seemed to learn. And on his other side . . .
Dark eyes, nearly black, gazed at Caldwell as though accusing him of a crime. She looked to be around fifteen, her expression almost defiant as she stared straight into the camera. Her hair fell in loose waves over her shoulders, not constrained by pins or ties. Caldwell felt the world around him grow quiet, then fade away entirely. He’d found her at last.
Stebbins cleared his throat. “So, I was right?”
Caldwell nodded, his attention shifting from the dark-eyed girl to the text of the article. “Yes, you were right,” he said emotionlessly, his attention focused on the girl’s name as he memorized it.
“Well, don’t thank me too much or I’ll become vain.”
Caldwell turned to Stebbins and smiled. “Thank you. I’d never have found her without you, and I needed to find her. So badly.”
“I noticed.” Stebbins smiled. “I hope it was worth it.”
“It was,” Caldwell said fervently. “No matter what happens now, it was.”
He left in a daze, unable to remember the drive back to his high-rise apartment. One second he stood in Stebbins’ living room, the next he was sitting in his own chair staring at Mirage’s tablet. The entry field, seven spaces long, winked up at him. Slowly, carefully, he filled in the letters until the name ‘Natalia’ glowed white against the dark screen. Holding his breath, he pressed enter.
For one terrifying moment nothing happened. Then the familiar image of Mirage appeared. “Hello, Agent Caldwell,” she said huskily. The sound of her voice was just as he’d remembered it, only better. More intoxicating. “If you’ve accessed this recording it is highly likely that my mission has been compromised, and that I am dead.”
Her lips curved into a rueful half-smile. “Isn’t it a shame that we can only say what we mean when it’s far too late? Even now, knowing I’ll be gone when you hear this, it’s still so hard to find the words.” She glanced away as though embarrassed. “I’ve enjoyed our time together, Agent Caldwell. No,” she amended, looking back. “It’s more than that. I’ve lived for the sound of your voice. Your messages gave me a reason to go on. I’ve spent my life running, scared to stay in one place or with one person for too long. I was afraid to be known. But you know me, Agent Caldwell.” She took a deep breath. “I needed to tell you. However my life ended, having you in my world has made all the pain worth it.”
Her amber eyes shone with unshed tears. “Goodbye, George,” she whispered.
The screen went black.
Chapter 11: The Droid
The earthquake woke him. His building trembled, foundations threatening to crumble. Caldwell opened bleary eyes and stared at the ceiling. He knew he ought to evacuate, but he couldn’t make himself care. For three days, or maybe four, he’d lain in bed unable to move or think. The world was desolate and empty, the people in it were cruel and unfeeling. What did he care if buildings fell?
He closed his eyes once more, then immediately opened them as he heard the bizarre yet unmistakable sound of ice hitting his window.
Staggering upright, he went to look. The sight that met his eyes was strange enough to cut through the fog that filled his mind.
There were supers on the street below. More than one. He recognized Frozone from the ice coating the roads and nearby buildings. The others were less distinct, all dressed in similar colors. He thought he saw Mr. Incredible, but couldn’t be sure at a distance.
In the midst of the supers stood a robot torn straight from Caldwell’s nightmares. Five arms ending in snapping claws. An enormous spherical body topped with a disk-like head that glowed angry red. Where it walked (if the gait could be called walking) asphalt cracked and masonry shook. Lasers fired from its single eye, scorching cars and disintegrating trees. Caldwell stared at it in utmost horror. This was the thing Mirage had warned him about, the merciless killing machine Syndrome had created to battle supers on Nomanisan Island.
He watched the battle until it disappeared around the corner, then threw on the first clothes he saw, ran down the stairs, and stumbled out into the street. People were emerging from their hiding places behind cars and down alleys, looking bewildered and scared. Caldwell ignored them, following the trail of ice Frozone had left behind. He knew he wasn’t thinking straight – what chance could he possibly stand against a weaponized droid larger than a eight-story building? But he couldn’t bear to lose sight of the robot. This was the thing that had murdered Mirage, he knew it deep in his core. If Syndrome had walked in on her, had realized she was a spy or a super or both, he would have had no qualms about setting his killing machine on her. The image of Mirage trapped in the machine’s claws, torn apart by its metal sinews, made him break into a run, pushing past startled civilians as he followed the Omnidroid.
He rounded the corner in time to see the droid topple and fall into the water, broken wires sparking as they poked out of an enormous hole in the robot’s side. A moment later the entire machine detonated like a bomb, sending debris high in the air. When the smoke cleared only the droid’s monstrous legs were left, limp and useless without the body.
At once a crowd began to gather around the supers who had managed to defeat the attacking droid. Caldwell had trouble shouldering his way through, particularly when police arrived and began setting up a perimeter around the area where the droid had exploded. Caldwell jostled toward the supers, trying to recognize them. Frozone of course, and Mr. Incredible. He knew them both from their files. The two young supers were new to him, a brother and sister judging by the way they squabbled. The woman was most likely Elastigirl, though she’d changed her hairstyle. The adults were talking to police about the Omnidroid while the children beamed and waved at the appreciative crowd. Caldwell had just reached the hastily erected caution tape when he heard Mr. Incredible say the word “Nomanisan”.
Caldwell’s mind focused for the first time since Mirage’s tablet had gone dark. His attention fixated upon Mr. Incredible as he moved along the barrier. If the supers knew of the island’s existence, perhaps they’d seen Mirage or heard of her. Perhaps they knew what had happened to her. The policeman who’d been interviewing the family stepped back to confer with a partner, and Caldwell seized upon the opportunity. Ducking beneath the caution tape, he leapt forward and grabbed Mr. Incredible’s sleeve.
No sooner had his fingertips touched the fabric than something wrapped around his chest like a python and threw him to the ground. He coughed, all the wind knocked out of him. Elastigirl (it had to be Elastigirl) stood over him, glaring. “What exactly do you think you’re doing?” she demanded.
Before Caldwell could attempt to answer, he heard someone yell his name. Looking around, he saw that Dicker had arrived. “George, you shouldn’t be here,” Dicker told him, frown lines creasing his forehead. “This isn’t the place for you right now.”
“They know the island,” Caldwell said desperately, scrambling to his knees. “He said the name of it. Please, Dicker, I have to know what happened to her.”
Dicker shook his head, disappointment radiating off him. “Go home, George,” he repeated. “She’s gone.”
“Rick, you know this guy?” Mr. Incredible had joined the conversation and was looking down at Caldwell with mild interest.
“He’s one of ours,” Dicker confirmed reluctantly. “A former handler. Syndrome killed his super.”
Caldwell winced and looked down. The way Dicker said it was so matter of fact, so perfunctory. As though Mirage hadn’t been a person at all. He realized the palm of his left hand was scraped and bleeding from where he’d tried to stop his fall. The pain seemed not to register. He heard Elastigirl speaking, her voice kinder than it had been moments before. “Which one was his? Psychwave? Apogee?”
“Not one of the old guard,” said Dicker. “A young woman, illusion powers, by the name of Mirage.”
“Mirage?” Mr. Incredible asked in disbelief. “Mirage is . . . a super?”
A jolt of electricity raced up Caldwell’s spine. He stared at Mr. Incredible, eyes wide and searching. “You’ve seen her.” It was a statement, not a question. “What happened to her? Please,” he heard himself beg, “I need the truth.”
Mr. Incredible exchanged looks with Elastigirl. “As far as we know,” he said slowly, “Mirage is still on Nomanisan.”
“Last time we saw her she seemed perfectly healthy,” Elastigirl added. “You’re her handler? And she hasn’t contacted you?”
Caldwell shook his head, still in shock. “Not for a month now. She was interrupted halfway through a message. I thought she’d been compromised. I thought Syndrome had found out about her powers. That he’d killed her.”
“Well, she was alive this morning,” Elastigirl said frankly. She offered him her hand and pulled him to his feet again. “She might have been afraid to contact you with Syndrome there. I wouldn’t be surprised if you heard from her once he’s safely behind bars.”
“Sure,” said Caldwell, his thoughts a thousand miles away. “Thank you. Both of you.”
“No problem,” said Mr. Incredible with a gleaming smile, back to his persona of the grand hero.
Elastigirl smiled encouragingly before the pair of children surrounded her, both talking at once. Caldwell backed away, letting the crowd fill in again. By the time he was free of the throng of people he had a plan. It was complicated, possibly foolhardy, definitely more dramatic than usual. But he would only get one shot, and he needed to make it good.
Chapter 12: Natalia
“You look awful. Come in!”
Deanna Stebbins evaluated Caldwell’s disheveled appearance, walking a full circle around him. “Grey really isn’t your color,” she tutted. “Makes you look all peaky.”
“Not the clothes doing that, D,” Stebbins remarked, poking his head out of the kitchen. “I’ve pinpointed the exact location, and we’re set to go with the call.”
“Hologram?” Caldwell queried.
“In place,” Deanna confirmed. “I made a few adjustments to the voice matching software. I used a few of his old interviews, aged it up a bit. I watched the news reports from today and it’s a damn close match, if I do say so myself.”
“I trust you,” Caldwell assured her. Deanna was the nation’s leading expert in audio analysis. She and Stebbins made a formidable pair, when she wasn’t busy touring with her band.
The three of them entered the living room, which had been shifted and cleared so that there were two six-foot tall glass screens facing one another. On one side other room stations had been set up, one with a complex audio console for Deanna, the other with Stebbins’ usual array of keyboards and displays. In the corner yet another glass screen showed a map of the Pacific with a glowing red dot several hundred miles west of Hawaii. “Ready?” Stebbins asked as Deanna slipped on headphones, her expression determined.
“You’re sure this is going to work?” Caldwell asked, placing himself behind the closer of the two glass screens. “We won’t get another chance.”
“Breathe, George,” Deanna said kindly, handing her husband a pair of headphones as well. “We’ll get the false image up, then place the call. All you have to do is tell me when to switch over to your voice, and when Stebbie should drop the image. Easy.”
“Right,” Caldwell breathed. He envied the couple their casual confidence. Like so many things involving Mirage, this felt like a life and death situation. What if she didn’t take the bait? What if she became angry when he revealed himself? What if she’d cut ties with him for a reason, one he just didn’t understand?”
“Secondary image going up,” Stebbins announced.
A moment later a picture of Mr. Incredible appeared on the screen, blonde and broad shouldered. As Caldwell shifted his weight to one side, the picture followed suit. “Say something,” Deanna instructed.
The entirety of the English language left Caldwell’s head. “I, um . . .”
The sound that came out of his mouth was familiar, but the voice that came through the speakers placed strategically throughout the room was that of Mr. Incredible. “This is amazing,” he told Deanna truthfully, the words taking on Mr. Incredible’s unique tone.
Deanna smiled broadly. “Glad you approve. Ready for the call?”
Stebbins pressed a button, and the sound of a dial tone filled the room. The three of them waited on tenterhooks as the phone rang. Then, at last, a voice came through the speakers.
Caldwell’s knees threatened to give way. Relief and joy mingled with hurt and resentment as a picture of her appeared on the second screen. She looked exactly as she had in her last message, silvery-blonde hair draped over one shoulder, her expression curious. For a month he’d lived in agony, thinking she’d been murdered in the most gruesome way, and yet here she was without a scratch on her. He forced himself to remain calm.
“Mirage,” he said stiffly, voice amplified and altered.
“I’ve seen the footage of your encounter with the Omnidroid 10,000. Very impressive. Any word on Syndrome’s whereabouts?”
“Not yet,” Caldwell replied. “I’ve found someone else though. Someone I think you should see.”
“Interesting,” Mirage said, raising an eyebrow. “Anyone I know?”
Caldwell took a deep breath and gestured to Deanna. The audio engineer locked eyes with her husband, held up her hand, and silently counted down 3-2-1.
The image of Mr. Incredible disappeared. Caldwell looked straight through the glass and into Mirage’s startled eyes. “Hello, Mirage.”
Mirage stared at him in disbelief. “Agent Caldwell.”
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Deanna grab Stebbins and begin towing the programmer out of the room. “We’ll leave you two alone,” she hissed.
Caldwell gave her a tiny nod, his attention still on the image of Mirage. A second later he heard a door close behind him. Adrenaline coursed through him and did his best to keep from shaking. “I thought you were dead. What happened?”
She looked away as though unable to stand the sight of him. “Syndrome found me. I thought it wisest to cut contact.”
“He discovered you were an NSA informant?”
Reluctantly, she shook her head. “No, I managed to demonstrate my loyalty.” Her words were sharp, edged in some unknown emotion. “I can be very convincing, when I have to be.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Caldwell’s jaw ached from gritting his teeth. “You managed to convince me of a lot of things.”
She flinched. “George, don’t.”
“Don’t what?” He was getting angry now, there was no denying it. “Don’t mention the way you kissed me that night?”
“I should go,” Mirage whispered. “We shouldn’t even be talking.”
She turned away. “Wait!” he called out, terrified to lose her yet again. “Natalia, wait!”
She froze. He could see the tension in her body, the stiffness in her shoulders. “Please, Natalia,” he murmured. “Don’t go. Not yet.”
Slowly, she turned back to him. Her eyes were wide with shock, but she did not seem frightened. He took that as a good sign. “I found the message you hid,” he told her quietly. “I know who you are.”
Her lips parted, but she seemed unable to speak.
He stepped as close to the screen as he dared. “What you said in that hidden recording seemed familiar, somehow. It took me a long time to realize why.” His hand hovered an inch from the glass. “I feel the same way, you see. I lived for your messages. They brought me life. Hearing you speak, seeing you on that screen, gave me the will to go on. I’ve been lost for so long, angry at the world, too afraid to let anyone close enough to break me. And I was right to be afraid.” His smile was half grimace. “You’ve destroyed me, Natalia Moreno. I am broken, and yet seeing you now, knowing you’re alive, makes the pain worthwhile. I love you.”
It was as though the words shattered something within her. She gave a single gasping sob, wrapping her arms around her middle like an embrace, her head bowed. “You shouldn’t,” she choked out. “You don’t know what I’ve done. I’m a monster, George. I’ve watched people die without lifting a hand to save them. I’ve used my powers to save myself while abandoning innocent men, women, and children to their fates. Everything I’ve ever done has been driven by selfishness and fear. Even now I’m afraid to leave this island. I know I’m a criminal, I know I deserve to be held accountable but I can’t stand being caged. I just can’t, George. I’d rather live alone with my cowardice than face the justice I deserve.”
“Shh,” George murmured, wishing more than anything that he could reach out and touch her. “You’re not a coward. A coward would never have gone to Nomanisan in the first place. Survival is a human instinct. Natalia, I read what happened after your father was killed.” He swallowed, hoping he wasn’t about to push her too far. “An entire country at war with itself. Tens of thousands of people slaughtered. You were fifteen. You could never have stopped it. All you could do was run.”
Her shoulders still shook, but she seemed to be listening. Caldwell decided it was best to keep her talking. “You cut off contact with me because you were afraid you’d gotten too involved with me, is that it?” She nodded. “But then you created that last hidden message.”
“No,” she murmured, a blush visible along her cheekbones. “I created the hidden message the night after we kissed in your car. It was voice coded, using the microphone in the tablet.” She shook her head. “Even then I took advantage. You had to confess first, or the message wouldn’t be triggered.”
“Confess . . .?”
Her blush deepened. “You had to say you loved me.”
“Oh.” Caldwell thought back. He barely remembered the moments before the locked message appeared, the world had been too dark. “And your name?”
“I wanted you to know everything before you heard that message, so there would be no secrets left between us.” She looked up at him through her long lashes. “And you really did go all the way back, didn’t you?”
“Through every country and every alias,” Caldwell confirmed.
“You must have friends in high places,” she commented. “It can’t have been easy to sort through that much data. I hid my trail well.”
“Just one friend, and not so much in high places as in his living room,” Caldwell corrected. “He’s also a holograph enthusiast and a big admirer of your work.”
Her expression darkened again. “Of Mirage’s work. Yet another false identity.” She looked at him, frowning. “You were taken in by Mirage as well.” She gestured to her own willowy form. “This is the body you love, isn’t it? The one that you’ve known for months, the one that kissed you?”
“Seeing as I’ve spent the vast majority of my time in the past few weeks staring at pictures of your aliases, I feel confident in saying that I love each and every form you’ve taken.” His eyes traced the graceful lines of her body on the screen. “While I must admit you’ve created a masterpiece, I love you for far more than the length of your legs or the color of your hair.”
She regarded him thoughtfully for a moment, then stood, taking several steps back so that her whole body was visible to the camera. Raising one graceful hand, she brushed the back of her fingers delicately over her closed eyelids. When her eyes opened the color had darkened until they were nearly black. Knowing what was coming, Caldwell watched spellbound as she caressed her own body, layers of illusion dissolving at her touch until finally she stood before him in her one true form.