Late Winter 2005, Superstition Mountains, Arizona
We walked down the trail in silence for a bit, past tall saguaro cactus, mesquite trees, and stunted sagebrush. It was the kind of location you might film some miners and their donkeys heading out for gold in the 1800s. The sun was warm and I was enjoying the quiet.
“It’s Chaos, ya know,” the redheaded youth said, breaking the silence.
“What?” I asked, stopping and looking at him.
“I am not a boy. I turned twenty-one this year. It’s ‘Chaos.’”
I rolled my eyes and shrugged. I wasn’t at all interested in what he wanted to be called. “What is it that you wanted? Aren’t we a little off track here?”
“This war with the Arcturian Alliance. It’s no conventional war. The stakes are mighty high. The military can’t innovate quickly enough. Hell, they need a written order just to take a shite. What this world needs is a small agile group of powerful, dedicated individuals.”
“That may be true, but you guys are a league of villains. I am not a villain. I am not an ends justifies the means kind of guy.”
“So, theoretically speaking, what would ya do if ya were confronted with a choice? The stakes are the entire world. You can save it, but one innocent person will die.”
“This is ridiculous,” I said. “It’s never like that. It is never that clear-cut.”
“Say it was.”
I shrugged. “Well, yeah. I would do it.”
“Okay, now say it is a thousand people. No, make it a million. Would ya do it knowing a million people would die?”
“No, of course not. I would find another way.”
“There is no other way. Ya can save the world, but a million people die.”
“This is ridiculous,” I said and started walking away.
Chaosboy ran ahead of me and got in my way. “It’s not. One million out of six billion—that’s like one tenth of one percent. That kind of loss is not acceptable to ya?”
“We are talking about saving everyone on the planet.”
“I’d find another way.”
“Ya really are a Boy Scout. No, I take that back. You’re a do-gooder nun. No, that’s not good enough. You’re Mother freaking Teresa.”
“Then I see no reason to come talk to Toxicwasteman.”
“It’s Toxic, now. We’re all going by shorter names. Like, you’d be Neutrino. Nice ring to it, eh?”
I picked him up and put him down on the side of the trail and continued walking.
“I’ll make it worth your while,” he said from behind me. I could hear him scrambling to catch up. I just kept walking. “I have some information that ya need. I guarantee ya it will be worth it.”
He was really starting to annoy me. “What is it?”
“I need your word first.”
“Oh…” I began as I stopped and faced him. “Now you want this Boy Scout’s word. Now you care about integrity? When it means you’ll get what you want it counts.”
He nodded and smiled.
“You have my word that if the information you have is valuable to me I will come and talk to Toxicwasteman.”
“And… and ya won’t reveal the location of our secret base.” He seemed to be warming up to this.
I just stood there with my arms crossed.
He waved his hands in a placating gesture. “Okay. Okay. Ya gave your word, that’s good. That’s good. I only need one more thing.”
He wanted proof. The little guy wanted proof that I was Neutrinoman. It seemed ridiculous to me—he had spent the last twenty minutes pestering me.
I had changed my finger for him until it glowed yellow, but that hadn’t been enough. He wanted a full body change. I grumbled but in the end I agreed to do it.
I took us off the trail a bit until I found a large boulder that would afford me some privacy. I had a suspicion that he had other motives for this.
“Satisfied?” I asked him as I stepped around the boulder fully in my neutrino form.
He nodded. “That is impressive.”
“So tell me the truth now, why did you have me do this. You knew who I was.”
He looked a little sheepish. “Our simulations showed there was an 80 to 90 percent chance ya had a subcutaneous tracking device.”
I shook my head. “Why didn’t you just ask me?”
I went back behind the rock still shaking my head. Not out of annoyance at his antics, but because he had been right. I did have a tracking device—at least until I had changed—the military had been expecting this offer.
Seeing Chaosboy behind the wheel of the Hummer H2 was kind of funny. He really was short, maybe five foot, and the vehicle just overwhelmed him. We had just left the parking area, headed towards Phoenix.
“So,” I began. “What’s this valuable information?”
He turned and smiled at me. “You’re gonna love this.” He then told me my full name, the full name of both my parents, the names of Licia and her parents, and the address where we all lived.
“Stop the car,” I said, my teeth clenched.
“No. No. Don’t freak out, now. We’ve known for over a month. Took our girl, Byte, all of ten minutes to get the info.”
“Stop the damn car.”
“We haven’t used that information,” he said, glancing at me. “We won’t. We were just looking into your background.”
“What are the odds that you could survive if I exploded right now?” I asked. “Can you bend probability that much? Stop the car.”
He pulled the car over and followed me out. We were still on a little two-lane road in the middle of nowhere. I felt a little dizzy. I walked out into the desert with just enough awareness to step around a big bunch of prickly pear cactus.
“Sorry, fella,” he said as he ran out to catch up with me. “I said that wrong.”
“You think? You better tell me something, right now, or I’ll—”
“The media, they’ve been digging too. Diane Madison, that reporter from WNN, she’s got a team on it. They’re gonna find out who ya are, who your family is any day now. Ya need to call them.”
I sat down on the sandy ground and got my sat phone out—the military had finally issued me my own satellite phone (aka batphone).
“Told ya it would be worth it,” Choasboy said with a grin.
I sat alone in the desert. I had yelled at Chaosboy until he went back to the Hummer. He seemed hurt, like a puppy who had just done a trick and was anticipating a reward, but got scolded instead. The phone I dialed just kept ringing and ringing. It wouldn’t go to voice mail, it was another batphone.
“Hello,” she said, finally. My heart thudded in my chest on just hearing that one word.
“Hi, it’s Nik.”
“Oh. Hi,” Licia said.
It was as awkward as I had feared, but there was nothing to be done about it.
“Listen, I need to tell you something. Something important. I…” I trailed off. I missed her and I wanted to do anything but tell her what I needed to tell her.
“What is it, Nik?”
“Where are you? You’re not driving or anything?”
“No. I’m on a break from training. You know, they are crazy about this now.”
“Yeah, I know. Look, Licia, I am sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but I have it on good authority that some reporter is about to find out who we really are.”
“Who we are, where we live, what our parents’ names are.”
“I… Oh God, this is not good.” Her voice was shaking a bit, which made my stomach feel like it was going to fall out.
“No, not good. Everything is going to change. Again.” I wanted to hold her and talk to her. She’s probably the only other person in the world that could understand what I was feeling right then. It was one thing to be doing the superhero q-morph thing with the shield of anonymity. It was going to be a completely different thing to be doing it under the glare of public scrutiny. Sitting there I was scared, and I really had no idea how bad it was going to get.
“I… I better go. I better tell my parents, get my stuff out of my apartment.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Me too.”
There was dead air between us. I wanted to say more, I wanted to plead for a chance to see her, but now was not the time.
“Thanks for telling me, Nik.”
“Yeah, of course.”
The phone went dead.
I spent the next ten minutes on the phone. I talked to my dad and to Colonel Williams. I didn’t talk about Chaosboy or me having agreed to meet with Toxicwasteman. I am sure Williams could guess.
Maybe it was the specter of being outed as a superhero, maybe something else. But sitting there I was quite paranoid that Chaosboy, or maybe someone else from LoVE, was listening. I didn’t want to blow this whole double agent thing before it really got started.
Williams agreed to help. He would coordinate getting my parents someplace where the media couldn’t find them. It was going to be a circus.
“Thanks,” I said to Chaosboy as I got back to the car.
“Worth it, right?”
“I need ya to melt that down now,” he said, pointing at the phone.
I shrugged, held the phone out the open window and let my hand, which was holding it, go moderately neutrino and it became a smoldering pile of plastic and electronics. They didn’t want the military to track me. So be it.
He then handed me a black bag and told me I needed to put it over my head.
“Seriously?” I said.
He nodded. “Secret base, ya know. Ya ain’t one of us. Precautions, they got to be taken.”
I shrugged, putting it on and putting the seat back on the Hummer. I pretended to sleep, but my mind was way too preoccupied for anything approaching rest.