Half a world away, a completely different kind of hero was closing in on a particularly violent group at the head of a drug cartel. Their armored limo sped along the bumpy road, its state-of-the art suspension keeping it relatively stable. They were running, and with good reason; String theory was after them. String, as he was normally referred to, was Alan Pierce (or just Al), a gymnast and martial artist who had served as a Navy SEAL some years before until he was blinded in a conflict in Afghanistan.
Years later, his sight was restored, but rather than return to active duty, he had been asked to join a secret project that involved a suit of armor that could manipulate the “strings” that made up all energy and matter. He had never accepted and couldn’t believe his fortune. The ST-101 Mark VII suit, which he now used to speed up to the limousine, was a marvel of physics and quantum manipulation. When inside, he technically operated just outside of normal space-time, meaning he did not actually age when it was activated, and he was free from concerns like gravity and inertia; a good thing considering how many times he’d been shot out of the sky and hit by tanks in the two years since he’d donned the suit.
The suit itself “replaced” itself in normal spacetime with a replica made of any kind of energy or matter Al could think of; no coincidence that part of his training was to catalogue the periodic table and be exposed to as many substances as they could think of. Currently, he was rocketing as directed flame toward the speeding car. A man wearing sunglasses leaned out a window and fired several rounds from an AK-47 at him. They ricocheted off carbon shell inside the flames he’d created to give the fire momentum. String laughed, then angled his palms back and increased the thrust forward.
He easily overtook the limo, and what he did next completely took those inside by surprise. Al changed instantly into depleted uranium; his sudden weight causing him to drop the ten feet to the ground and directly through the engine of the limo, stopping it instantly. The man who’d been hanging out the window was killed instantly. String changed into titanium and climbed out of the hole and wreckage.
From the looks of things, the men inside would not be much of a challenge, if they were even alive. he stalked around to the passenger side when a man rolled out of the open door and began firing a UMP-5 him. String looked at him, his head coked to the side as if to say “Really?” He pointed a fist at the man; it generated an aura of plasma which a built-in magnetic field generator focused and then fired back at the man. The superheated, charged gas hit him like a bullet, through him back into a tree and leaving a hole the size of a softball in him.
The Service preferred they be taken alive to face prosecution, but didn’t bat an eyelid if there were deaths, even if they were all killed. The ends justified the means where people like this were concerned. Al checked the rest of the crew; there had been five in all. Two died in the crash, and another lay dead with a smoking hole through him. Two others remained, unconscious but breathing. he dragged them away from the wreckage, tossed in their weapons, then placing both hands together, focussed a stream of plasma onto the vehicle. It superheated in seconds, the gas tank exploding, and the rest burning and melting into a twisted unrecognizable blob of metal. He called for a helicopter to pick up the remaining prisoners, and when he could hear it in the distance, he roused the two men, then flew them up to the approaching helo, screaming in terror all the way.
After tossing them in, he saluted the soldiers who quickly cuffed the two, and flew off back towards the US.
String Theory was headed back to a secret base hidden in the Smoky Mountains at a “leisurely” hypersonic pace. He could easily convert into photons and return at literally light speed, but he enjoyed the ride enough to take his time, relatively speaking. Al checked his messages and email, calling them up onto the heads-up display of his suit with voice commands.
On his encoded messaging system provided by the government, he had a message from his favorite police officer. While he was happy to hear from Carbon, he was not happy with what she had to say.
The twins are getting more aggressive. Set back investigations on a dozen gang members. I hate to hit you with this when you’ve been busy, but our glorious leader is pretty close to killing bystanders if he doesn’t reign it in.
He sighed. Carbon preferred that criminals pay for their crimes within the system and he could not fault that; he played by roughly the same rules. But Cavalier had originally organized their group and had been their accepted leader since its inception, so he was hard to contradict with the others. Carbon was a brutally effective soldier in the war on evil, but she was repeatedly downplayed because of her gender, which infuriated her more than than anything, he knew.
The rest of the team seemed to attend their councils more for the feeling of camaraderie than to actually be effective members of a decision making body, mostly knowing Cavalier and Crater from newsreels that painted the two as great heroes of the people, crushing crime with fists and justice.
He would call a meeting, without the two of them, to discuss how to handle them moving forward. It felt more than a little dishonest, but they clouded any discussion with bravado and volume. He started dictating the message, then decided maybe light speed would be a better idea. He was suddenly in no mood for scenery.
“That was a troubling amount of vomit he spread on his nice carpet.” Cooed a slender woman, nearly skipping down a dirt road in India. The man in loose clothing nodded as he smiled and held her hand. His twin sister enjoyed their work, as did he. A minor politician in India had caused some issues regarding drug trafficking for their boss and the twins had been sent to eliminate him.
The man was relatively wealthy, and well regarded in the little town where he lived, but his obstruction of the local drug trade could not be tolerated, so Emily and Emmett, also known as Plague and Pestilence, sent a message. Individually, they were frightening and dangerous. Emily could conjure and manipulate disease. “Conjure” may not have been an accurate description; she could cause a few microbes of a desired disease, if they were in the area, to multiply and become highly contagious.
Considering the sheer volume of potentially dangerous on any surface or in the air at any moment, she was a terrible and dangerous force of nature. Emmett, on the other hand, could summon and control vermin; everything from lice to ticks to rats were potential legions in his service. Together, Emily could modify diseases, change their scope or their potential victims, and Emmett could modify their vector. Just for fun, they once created mosquitoes that delivered AIDS to one unfortunate man.
They strolled, hand in hand, down the road toward the nearby river where a boat was waiting to pick them up. They would be flown to Colorado, where they would find where they fit into the plan they had been invited to join in. They had been told there might be an opportunity to create a pandemic, the thought of which caused giddiness in the normally reserved pair.
There were faint footsteps approaching from behind, but the pair continued to skip along as if nothing was happening. When it sounded as if the person was within fifty feet, they turned in unison. The man who was following them stopped short and pointed an assault rifle at them. “You killed him!” He was shaking with rage. Emily put on an exaggerated pout. “Us? we’ve never killed a soul. You wound me, sir.” Her silky voice covering her sarcasm.
The man approached. “No! No lies! I know it was you. I recognize you!” Both twins cocked an eyebrow. “In Mumbai. You vere vith a gun seller. He died, too, many diseases, now you kill a very good man!”
Emmett patted the air in front of him. “Please, be calm my friend. This is merely a coincidence. My sister and I were in bombay, yes, but we were hostages!” The man’s grip tightened. “Liar! You lie! You were there with the people from the vest, no hostage. You smile, all the time.” At that Emmett did smile. “We’re optimists.” The man gave a quizzical look and closed at least thirty feet toward the pair, never once lowering the gun, pointing it to one nervously, then the other.”
“I do not believe you. I don’t know vhat you did to Vijay, but you vill not get away with it!” Emmett put his hands up defensively, and Emily pretended to cower behind him. “Good sit, I must ask you to stop shouting. You are frightening my sister, and I can not abide by that.” The man shouldered the assault rifle and closed another ten feet. “I do not care if I frighten you! You are very bad peopl- MMMMMM!” Emily had grasped Emmett’s hand, and at the same moment, her brother pointed and outstretched hand toward the man with the gun. A jet of sickly yellow-green mucus erupted from Emmett’s fingers, enveloping the man’s face and covering his gun and arms. His screams were muffled by the thick viscous strands of diseased goop.
He twisted and fell to the ground, firing several rounds into the air as he went down in a panic. He writhed in agony, both from suffocation and because vicious diseases were even then racing through the mucous membranes in his nose mouth and eyes. As he tried to train the gun on the pair, his throat and sinuses swelled, a torrential post nasal drip poured bodily fluids down his throat, and defeated white blood cells caused his head to fill with pus, causing pressure on his brain and infecting it.
He spasmed and convulsed violently, all the while his lungs filled with discharge. It wasn’t clear if he died of asphyxiation or encephalitis, nor did it matter much to the twins. Emmett shook his hand, then sticky fluid sliding off and leaving no residue on his hand. Emily kissed her brother on the cheek. “That was even more fun than the last! I do hope more follow.”
Emily was disappointed as they did not encounter any more resistance on the way to the boat. T compensate, she flirted with the dock boy who untied the boat, gently tracing his dark skinned chin with her finger. He had the look of a smart young man with great potential, a winning smile and bright, intelligent eyes. She did so enjoy robbing the world of potential, it meant so much more than killing someone who would never have made a difference.
Hours later, the young man was dead, face down near the shore of the river, being nibbled on by black rats summoned by Emmett. Within days, several people in the nearby village contracted Bubonic plague.
Crawling through the Rockies toward a certain secret lair crawled a unique little being. No taller than four foot eight when walking upright, it more often scrambled on all fours with great speed. While he had been born a normal child, the onset of puberty had been rough for the small man. Always a little odd, he had delighted in frightening other children. He was the kid that would eat worms or drink expired milk mixed with pickle juice just to get a rise out of others.
Although they truly did not bother him. He had been small, but anything but sickly. He was reckless, always getting into trouble, breaking things and then running away. His childhood hobbies included breaking bottles and throwing eggs at cars and houses. After one such incident, the home owner chased after him with a bat. He ran, luckily for him much faster than the middle aged man, and when he encountered a guardrail, he figured he would jump over the side and run down the hill.
Unfortunately for him, the guardrail was for a train overpass, and he plummeted almost thirty feet onto the tracks. The man running after him gave up the chase, figuring he was either dead or soon to be, and didn’t want it being traced back to him. Meanwhile, something odd had happened. The young man rose to find himself staring back at himself. The impact had not only not hurt him, but had created an exact replica of him, clothes and all. Somehow the “real” him and the clone knew who was who.
He had expected to be broken and dying, instead he’d doubled. They kept his “friend” hidden for a day, planning to go back out for even more mischief that night. However, much to his disappointment, by that night the clone deteriorated into a disgusting amorphous blob of body parts organs and hair, which evaporated hours later. The young man found that with sufficient kinetic energy, he could generate one or more exact doubles of himself that lived for just under a day.
His pranks became much more involved and dangerous from then on. Then, when he hit puberty, he began to change even more. His back began to hunch, and he sprouted coarse hair all over his body. His front teeth became very pronounced and sharp. He ran away from home and began selling himself as a thief and lockpick, calling himself “Ratpack.”
It was his cloning ability, however, that had resulted in the young man being summoned to Arachne’s. She said she had plans for him, BIG plans that would exceed his deepest dreams of destruction and chaos. He could have driven or flown; he had become quite adept at hitching rides, much like the rats he resembled, but he preferred the freedom of running. He loved occasionally being mistaken for an animal, only to terrify people on nature walks or the occasional fisherman by being “part human” in appearance.
Seconds after chuckling to himself about a fly fisherman he had frightened just the day before, a loud crack split the air. Ratpack found himself laying on his side, a dull ache in his ribs where a large caliber bullet had struck him. He lay very still; he could hear the approaching hunter’s boots crunching leaves and twigs. He heard a man’s voice whisper, to himself it seemed “That weren’t a deer, what in hell was it?”
Ratpack could see the man was carrying a Barret .50 caliber sniper rifle. For hunting deer? He thought. He’s either a gun nut or the deer around here wear body armor and carry grenades. The man strolled up to the small, beastial man with the rifle pointed at him. Ratpack lay very still. The man nudged him with his foot. No movement. He moved a fern and got a good look at Ratpack’s face. “Oh my God!” He said breathlessly. Ratpack leapt to his feet. “Son of a bitch! That hurts us!” The man shrieked and fell back. In that moment, four clones jumped up from the underbrush.
Without thinking, them hunter fired another shot at the rat man. The little man flew back. Seconds later, five rat men jumped back to their feet. “Our turn.” They grinned evilly. The man turned to run, but he was surrounded. As they approached, he panicked, he fired three more shots from the rifle, but only hit with one. That Ratpack got up with two more in tow. The hunter dropped his now spent rifle and drew a pistol. he fired as they approached, each hit dropping rat man who then got back up with a partner. When they overwhelmed the man, they number over twenty. He had little time to scream as the ravenous group ripped into him like a pack of furred land piranhas.
They cannibalized most of the man, but left his head intact, hoping someone stumbled over his corpse in time to see his horrified expression before it was rotten or eaten. Energized by the excitement, ratpack and his horde rushed off toward Arachne’s, eager to learn what her plans for them, him, were.
String Theory walked into the hidden facility in the Smoky Mountains and offered a salute to a lone man working on a prototype drone. The man, an engineer and soldier offered a sharp salute back before returning to his work. Technical sergeant Lance Reilly looked over the robot; some of the best minds in the US military had developed this machine. Not much bigger than a man, it was capable of VTOL flight and could changed direction on a dime, bringing its many weapons to bear or multiple targets.
Lance had been involved in this and many other secret DOD and DARPA projects, including the String Theory project, which had tapped into and studied several of his natural born abilities to empower Al’s suit with its wondrous abilities. Lance was unique among humans; he had the power to manipulate, shape and transmute metals. He could literally change lead into gold. He had never been one to rest on his laurels, however. Despite being able to create machines out of metal simply by thinking about it, he had earned a master’s degree in engineering and metallurgy.
The drone he was currently working on had originally been designed and built out of aluminum, and once he finished perfecting the circuitry, the frame would be altered into magnesium and the shell titanium. It would then be coated in graphene to prevent corrosion and hooked up to a remote control unit where a pilot wearing virtual reality equipment would control it from as far away as fifteen thousand miles instantaneously thanks to an advanced quantum computer control system that used entangled sub atomic particles to transmit control commands and relay feedback.
The drone could be next to the operator or a million light years away and react to his input with the same speed and fluidity. If they could develop a means to (relatively) inexpensively build more drones based on this prototype, codenamed “hedgehog” because of its compact, round design, it would revolutionize warfare, effectively allowing the good ol’ U.S. of A. fight a war anywhere with no danger to it’s own soldiers.
Not that tech Sergeant Reilly shied away from a good fight. he was the pilot of a predecessor suit of powered armor that had served as the proof of concept for String Theory’s. It did not have it’s own ability to change matter, however when Lance wore it, he could modify the construction to be whatever metal he desired. It allowed him to get up close and personal in fights, where he had on many occasions blocked missiles from damaging tanks, to even winning a fist fight with an enemy armored personnel carrier. However, Lance didn’t get out to the field much these days. Codenamed Cobalt, he’d been all but retired when String Theory went online. He didn’t harbor any jealousy or hard feelings toward seaman Pierce; they were both soldiers fighting for the good of America, that was good enough for him.
He missed the front lines, but found no shame in making the devices that would save the lives of countless American men and women in the future. And that was ultimately his duty as a soldier first and foremost, protect the citizens and land of his home country.
He stood back and stared for a moment at the ROV. Part of him hoped it would never see service, not because it didn’t work but because there was no need. He remembered an old quote, “A true warrior prepares for war, but prays for peace.” He sighed. Lance gave up praying years before; the world seemed focused on preparation.