July, before The Poisoning, somewhere near Roswell, New Mexico
There’s nothing like an open road with the sun and the wind for company as you ride an American-made classic across the desert. The belt drive on this 1450cc bike makes for a smoother ride than the older chain-driven bikes ever offered. The power available on a hog like this is incredible. I’d never stop if I didn’t have to.
I had to. I came out here to find and talk to a remarkable girl the Air Force lost touch with a while ago. The briefing said she was in the care of a retired Air Force couple under Air Force supervision. It seems this girl had highly-classified origins and the Defense Department made her care and welfare part of its mission. One of the hazards with mid-teenagers is that many times there is a stage where they rebel and they don’t want to do things “the way they’ve always been done.”
My job was to try to connect with her and see if she’d consider joining a strike force the government asked me to help start. She’d exhibited exceptional computer skills, crashing the entire security framework at a Defense Department research facility, and it was that talent the strike force organizers were interested in. The address I was given was a few miles outside of town, surrounded by Joshua-tree sprinkled desert.
As I rolled up, I was greeted by a dog who joined me and ran along-side the last 100 yards or so. An older gentleman came out on the front porch and watched as I parked and dismounted then called a friendly, “Hello!” to me as I found my feet and stepped toward the house.
“Hi!” I answered! “Are you Samuel Clarke?”
“What’s your pleasure?” he asked affably.
Straight to the point without being pushy or defensive. I liked this guy already. “I was hoping to speak to Kenna.”
“Well, you’re not from the Air Force, so she might talk to you.” He called over his shoulder, “Kenna! You have a visitor!”
A 16 year-old girl came around the side of the house wearing shorts and a spaghetti strap top. She was blond, maybe 5′-6″ and maybe 110 pounds. She’d be really popular at school with her looks. She wore no shoes in the desert in spite of all the rocks, bugs and cacti. Interesting.
Mr. Clarke said, “I’ll leave you two to your business,” and went back inside the house. No concern, no defensive guardian posture. I really liked this guy.
“Hey Kenna! I’m Stephanie!” I offered her a handshake.
She dusted her hands off on her shorts and accepted. “Hi!” she said. “What’s up?”
The briefing said there was “significant residual mistrust.” I decided to tread softly. “I wanna talk to you if that’s ok.”
Her hands landed on her hips in a “what do you want?” posture and she asked, “What about?”
I had tread too softly. Time to be more direct. “You have some remarkable computer skills and my organization needs a computer expert.” I regretted the word “needs” as soon as I finished speaking.
“What organiation?” she asked , with an inflection that said she was pretty sure she already knew. I was pretty sure she didn’t – even I wasn’t all that sure.
“You know all the terrorist stuff that’s been happening? Well, we’re forming a strike force to respond to them before they can do their attacks.
“You said you needed a computer expert, now you are making a strike force, what are you really doing?”
I blinked. The whole proposition made sense to me, but she acted like I had told two different stories in the same breath. I’d been her age only 3 years ago. I remembered my suspicions of adults – I still had them. Mine were never as bad as some, but I could see where she thought the disconnect was.
While I took a moment to realize where her head was, she leapt to some conclusions of her own, bad conclusions. She shoved me backward, saying, “I’m not going anywhere with any secret-squirrel people!”
Her shove was powerful, really powerful. I was airborne. I have a 240 pound super-powered sparring partner who can’t shove this hard. I landed very ungracefully, flopped and tumbled, and skidded to a stop in rough sand and rock. It hurt. I took a moment to assess my injuries; road rash over the lower part of my back, my shoulders, and the fronts of my arms, a bump on my head, and sand in my hair, face and clothes. Nothing broken and only a little blood.
When I looked up, she was standing in a defensive posture with a worried look on her face that faded when she saw me moving. I’m not a fan of unscheduled flight, and this girl had not asked nicely. She just launched me. As I began to get up, she yelled, “Leave me alone, I’m not going!”
“That’s fine,” I said, getting one of my feet under me. “You don’t have to,” I added as I got the other foot under me. I wasn’t ready to leave it at that though. The least I could do was let her know she needed to learn some self control. At 16, she could toss me around like a toy; she could easily do serious harm to someone if she didn’t control herself. If she wanted to stay here, she could, but it was time the irresistible force met an immovable object.
I worked through my soreness as I moved back to my bike. “You, however, have a nasty temper and a very dangerous lack of self restraint,” I said as I took my shield from its sheath on the front of my bike. “You are going to hurt or kill somebody.”
“Look I’m sorry, but you don’t look all that hurt so just get lost!”
A male voice from the front porch said, “Young lady, you look pretty tough, but maybe you ought to let this go.”
“Thank you, sir, but unless you object, I’d like to see how this goes.” I was stalling, circling, getting my limbs to move again.
“Suit yourself. I’ll have some ointment and dressings ready when you’re done.”
Interesting. He saw me grab a shield, he noted how tough I looked, and yet he was not the least bit afraid his slip of a daughter was in any trouble. She’d pushed as hard as any bus, and she didn’t need a wind-up to do it. She moved as if she was invulnerable, like nothing ever hurt her. She was leading with her chin, if that was possible at this distance, and I decided to see what it felt like to really lay into a chin that could take it. I shifted my shield to my right hand, discus style.
She laughed, “What are you gonna do, play frisbee?”
“Something like that!” I said as I threw it directly at her with all the force my sore body could get behind it.
The laugh dropped to a smile and quickly faded all together as she raised her hands too late to stop my shield. It just cleared the tips of her fingers, skidded up the tops of her arms and caught her across the front of her neck. She flew backward about ten feet in complete shock as my “frisbee” sailed past her and arced back toward me.
Compared to me, she fairly bounced back to her feet. Clearly she wasn’t hurt, even a little bit. She was shocked – hurt in an “I can’t believe you did that” sort of way, but that was all. She said, “look, I’m sorry, I don’t want to hurt you, but,…”
That’s when she realized the shield was circling back around toward me, that I’d be able to do it again.
“Oh no you don’t!” she said with determination and then flew at me, fists first. My shield was still 5 yards away.
I kept my eyes on my shield, if I took my eyes off it, I’d miss catching it the same as any professional baseball player who misses a sure put-out at first. But she was flying directly at me. Flying. Fast. From 20 yards away. I was not going to have any time to move or duck. If I missed this catch, I was probably going to get hurt. With her in my peripheral vision, I focused on making the catch, both hands, right arm slipping into the harness and left hand tilting it to face her squarely. I leaned into the back of my shield as she struck it directly with both fists. 12 pounds of shield backed by 165 pounds of body-builder confronted maybe 100 pounds of girl flying at probably 200+ miles an hour.
I love this shield. It’s amazing. First, it is completely immalleable. Second, it absolutely refuses to transfer energy, including energy from impact such as that normally induced by 100 pounds impacting at 200+ miles an hour. 26 foot/tons of force met an immovable object – for the first time in its life, apparently. I looked over the top of my shield at a very ungraceful crash in progress. She bounced off my shield and was sailing backwards out of control, propelled by the energy she’d created. She bounced over the ground a few times and slid several yards, pushing up a pile of rocks and sand as she went.
She pushed her way out from under the pile, looked herself over, and then looked at me. I raised my shield. She eyed me. She was really mad, but she wasn’t going to let me bounce her off my shield again. She clenched her fists and began marching toward me. I figured I was in for a battle when I noticed Mr. Clarke coming off the porch.
“All right you two, that’s enough. I’m not having two young ladies play Superman vs. The Hulk out here and destroy everything I own. Kenna, stop. And you, Miss Stephanie, I think you better go now.”
I watched Kenna long enough to see she if was going to obey her father. “Yes, sir,” I said, as I began to move backward toward my bike.
He watched both of us making sure the fire was going to die down. As I slipped my shield back into its sheath on the handlebars, he said, “You look pretty sore. The offer of ointment and bandages is open if you want it.”
I thought about it for a moment, first aid seemed like a really good idea right now. “After the way I behaved here, I’d be putting you out to ask that.”
“Why don’t you both come inside. Leave your shield here, you won’t need it. Kenna, help me get Stephanie inside so we can dress those scrapes and bruises.”
Looking warily at Kenna, I said, “If it’s all the same to you sir, I’d rather keep some distance.”
Kenna said, “No. Look, I’m sorry. I just don’t want to go back to that lab. I’m not going anywhere with you, but I won’t hurt you anymore. Daddy’s right, I’m sorry.” She stuck out a hand to offer a handshake. “Truce?”
In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought. “Truce,” I said, looking her directly in the eye. Then I made a show of letting my shield settle onto the handlebars and turned to let them help me to the house. I did not shake her hand – I wanted to send the message that I was still guarded about any relations with anyone so short tempered. Instead, I let Mr. Clarke slide in beside me and take some of my weight. Kenna dealt with me leaving her handshake hanging and followed her father’s example, taking some of my weight from the other side.
Inside, Mrs. Clarke had moved the kitchen table to one side, put a chair out so it was easy to get to, and was bringing in some first-aid things as I settled in the chair. These were really nice people. With that in mind, I needed to reconsider my opinion of Kenna. She had exploded seemingly unprovoked, but for someone raised by the Clarkes to behave that way, there had to be something I was missing.
Mrs. Clarke, Joanna, was fussing over me, “poor dear this and poor dear that” as she began digging small bits of rock out of my elbows and arms with tweezers. Mr. Clarke, Sameul, was less fussy but no less earnest in his ministrations, using a table knife to pop bits out of my shoulders and back. Kenna watched, silently, dutifully taking the bits of gravel and rinsing bloodied washcloths in the sink before handing them back to her parents.
“Look, I really appreciate this. After the way I acted, you don’t have to do this. I’ll be,…”
“You sit still,” Mrs. Clarke said, “We’re civilized people out here and we won’t have you going away hurt like this. You’ll fall off that motorcycle of yours and get hurt even worse. Besides, you still have business here.”
“Yes, now sit still and let us help you,” she concluded.
I marveled at how these gentle people cared for me after I had presumed to teach their daughter a lesson in self-discipline. Yes I had gotten Mr. Clarke’s permission, sort of, before I did it, but it was still arrogant and presumptuous. I should have left, but my pride told me I could teach this girl a valuable life lesson.
That and my pride had goaded me into getting even. I had; I had injured Kenna’s sense of invulnerability. At the time it seemed like a good idea. Now it just seemed like a shameful, selfish thing to do. She only attacked me once then she stopped; all she wanted was to be let alone. I looked up at Kenna. She was watching her parents as they carefully examined my arms, hands, shoulders, and back to make sure they’d gotten all the smaller bits dug out of my scrapes, and she was quietly crying.
I said, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that to you. This is all my fault.”
Her voice cracked as she answered, “No. I’m sorry, I hurt you and I could have really hurt you badly. If you hadn’t caught your shield, I might have,…” She broke off and got her emotions under control. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, I just don’t want to go back there again.”
This was the part I was missing, the burr under her saddle that made her so jumpy. I took a deep breath, for emphasis, before I spoke. “Go back where, Kenna?”
She looked at me incredulously. “Like you don’t know! It was terrible! I was trapped! I couldn’t go anywhere! I couldn’t see my friends! I couldn’t go home! I couldn’t do anything!”
That was all she managed to say before her emotions took her again. Her parents turned to her and tentatively reached for her. She let her father hold her as her mother came back and began to put antibiotic on my scrapes and cuts. I definitely represented the elephant in the room, and I didn’t know what the elephant was,… yet.
I looked at Mr. Clarke and waited for him to look my way. “What is she talking about? Where was she?” I asked softly.
“Let’s get you fixed up first, then we’ll all sit down and talk.” He eyeballed me and continued, “But only about what Kenna is comfortable with.”
“Yes, sir.” I helped Mrs. Clarke with my wounds the best I could, and we got my scrapes and cuts treated and dressed. My arms looked like mummy arms. The heels of my hands were no great shakes either. I was going to be in some pain driving away from here. Mrs. Clarke got me some cold compresses for the worst of my bruises as Mr. Clarke replaced the table and chairs so that we could all sit and, as Mrs. Clarke put it, “finish our business.”
Mr. Clarke sat Kenna down opposite me and he took a seat between us on one side of the table. Meanwhile Mrs. Clarke put out some glasses and a pitcher of unsweetened tea. Then she put out a plate of re-heated turkey leftovers with cut-up potatoes and some bread and butter before joining us.
Mr. Clarke said grace and then began, “Now, let’s cut through all the confusion here, shall we?”
I minded my place and let him lead the conversation as we slowly made our way through supper. He led Kenna through opening up and telling me about how the Air Force had asked her to participate in some evaluations after her physical abilities manifested themselves. They told me how she’d gradually weakened over the course of a couple months inside the labs. They told me she was moved within the labs to different areas, evaluating different aspects supposedly, all the while tightening security around her and completing what I began to realize was an unjust imprisonment.
Mr. Clarke told me that he suspected it had all been in the interest of National Security, that they were basically afraid of someone with ever increasing strength and speed who was invulnerable and was beginning to fly. Having fought her a little while earlier, I understood why. I also understood that she would never have exploded like that if she had not been incarcerated like she was.
Then the hard part came, telling about the escape. She acted like she thought she would get in trouble. She said she realized that she was being made a prisoner inside the labs, so she began to play along like she was openly cooperating so that she could gain access to their computers, something they didn’t know she was good with. She was afraid that telling me how she hacked into the security framework and engineered a false disaster that allowed her to escape in the confusion would get her into even more trouble. The two days she spent outside under the sun running and hiding afterward let her regain some of her physical powers. Then she was afraid to tell me about “breaking some of their helicopters and trucks when they found her” (her words) because I might arrest her or something. She didn’t need arresting, she needed friends.
It was as Mr. Clarke was telling me that their house had been under constant surveillance since she escaped that a knock came on the front door. Mr. Clarke got up and answered it. There was a muffled conversation. Kenna’s expression changed. I heard Mr. Clarke say the word, “No,” and I concentrated on trying to pick up the rest of what was being said.
“They want us to come with them. They’re saying that we’re telling you classified secrets and that we have to go to a debriefing, you too,” Kenna told me.
Like hell. I got up. The rest, the relaxation, and mostly the cold compresses had done wonders. Walking through the living room to the front door, I saw that the man addressing Mr. Clarke was an Air Force Major with an aiguillette on his shoulder indicating he was acting with the authority of a General.
I touched Mr. Clarke’s elbow, “Mr. Clarke? Would you mind if I handled this?”
He acquiesced, and I pulled rank on the Major’s General. It’s amazing how much weight you can toss around when your shield says, “I work directly for the Secretary of Defense.”
I’d been sent all the way out to New Mexico, left to confront a flying miniature she-hulk without the courtesy of a decent heads-up (by people who were in a position to know the danger) and set up to quite possibly leave without ever realizing why she was so angry. Besides me, Kenna was also being hung out to dry. When I get back to New York, I’ll be tossing around a lot more than some political weight, someone is going to explain to me just exactly why so much information was left out of my briefing and why I should still be interested in joining this strike team.
I slept on the Clarke’s couch that night, and I shook Kenna’s hand before I left the next morning.