Jaxon Teaque is in trouble. Well...maybe he's in trouble? Hard to say. He's in a limo. And he got his ass kicked and almost died, so I guess from that to limo is a step in the right direction. But uh...doesn't really feel like it. Maybe that's because of the person he's riding in the limo with, and what that particular person tends to do with people like Jaxon...
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The contents of this episode were 100% written by me, MJ Dooney. I did use AI created voice filters, but any likeness to a real person was NOT intended. I would one day love to do this with proper voice acting, but currently lack the resources (and/or connections) to do that with fidelity.
This was my first limo ride. I grew up in a small family, the only child of two only children, so there weren’t an abundance of weddings or momentous ceremonies to be limo riding opportunities for me. We weren’t exactly rich either. Don’t get me wrong, we were alright. My mom was a nurse, so she made a pretty solid living. But my dad died when I was six. So while we weren’t missing bills and searching the couch cushions for coins to buy fast food, we also definitely didn’t have a jar of limo money sitting around. Also, I skipped my senior prom, partially because I was too introverted to talk to girls and partially because some video game released that weekend (I forgot which one). Anyway, my point is, I’d never really been in a limo until that day.
I guess it was kind of exciting, in that first-time light, when Howard Prophit rolled up in his limo and invited me inside. True, I had just narrowly escaped a bloody death, glaring straight down the barrel of a crazy, teleporting girl’s hand gun. Furthermore, she’d mentioned they were BEAM, and the little I knew about BEAM indicated that it was hardly the time for me to start getting giddy. I guess that demonstrated how scattered my brain was at that moment—I knew I was as good as dead and yet couldn’t stop thinking about how cool it was to finally be in a limo.
Once I got in, that excitement faded almost immediately. I’d barely moved since I sat down, buckled up, and the man across from me, a man I only assumed to be Howard Prophit, offered me a bag of ice to set on my swollen face. There was fun looking stuff all around me I might have wanted to mess with—sticking my head out the sunroof, the classic clichés. But my muscles were too tense to budge.
Instead, I just nervously gave myself a mouth manicure, trying to avoid direct eye contact with the guy sitting across from me. He had no qualms about staring me down though, which probably had something to do with confidence, I guess. This Howie fellow wasn’t particularly foreboding or intimidating; he wasn’t large in stature, didn’t have that grizzled, tough-looking face. But he just exuded this almost palpable sureness, with his perfectly tailored suit and perfectly buffed shoes, crossing his legs the way girls are supposed to without much concern about it. He smiled at me, softly and silently, like he was anticipating me getting the punch line of a joke he’d forgotten to tell me. I wondered if he had three separate combs, one for his perfectly parted hair, one for his perfectly groomed goatee, one for his eyebrows, almost drawn on. There wasn’t a thing out of place on him, pieced together like a sculpture—a self-possessed, authoritative sculpture. I felt drastically underdressed in my zip-up hoodie and gym shorts, but if they hadn’t attacked me in the middle of the night, I might have made more appropriate fashion decisions. The tension alone was enough to make me sweat, and I tried to mop it up with my ice bag, still avoiding his assertive eye contact.
Finally, he broke the silence, “So I must know. Jaxon—such a strange name. The first time I saw it, I thought it had to be a mistake. Where ever did your mother come up with a name like that?”
“Oh…uh,” this wasn’t exactly the topic I thought we’d be discussing. Nonetheless, it was better than no words at all, “Well my mom’s maiden name is Jackson. Like J-A-C-K-S-O-N, the way everyone spells it. She thought it’d be cute to call me Jackson like that, because I’m half Jackson, half Teaque. Jackson Teaque, right?”
He nodded in understanding, noiselessly urging me to proceed. “But my grandma? My dad’s mom? She hated the idea. She said it was too weird, and kids would pick on me. But I think she really just wanted to have her opinion heard, boss people around a bit. She liked to be told what she thought mattered. You know how that generation is?”
“Yes, defined by their vanity, aren’t they? My mother was the same.”
His voice was so gentle, it betrayed the arrogance in his eyes, and everything I’d ever heard about the leader of BEAM. But I could feel my muscles loosen up, as I settled in to my story a bit, “Anyway, the statement my grandma ran with eventually was she hated it because it was too long. ‘Boys names are five letters or less,’ she’d say. So my mom promised her, five letters or less, and my grandma backed off. Once I was born, my mom just applied a bit of creative massaging of the English language, and voila. J-A-X-O-N. Five letters.”
He laughed, a loud hearty laugh, like he didn’t care if other people heard it, “Delightful! What a clever lady, your mother! And how did Grandma take it?”
“Bad,” I smirked back, “She got over it eventually. I’m told she just called me Jack anyway, but she died before I was old enough to remember her.”
“Ah. Condolences.” It was a word, a single word of comfort, for the death of a woman neither of us had even met. How did he get so much sympathy, so much remorse into that single word? Such a practiced, polished speaker, yet no hint of artificiality. “Now, your mother. Does she call you Jack?”
I shook my head, “Nope, Jaxon. She’s never called me anything but Jaxon.”
“I see, I see. Very good,” he reached down and grabbed a tumbler of what I assumed was whisky, took a sip, then continued, “I ask everyone this question the first time I meet them. What does your mother call you? I find it’s so reassuring and calming. It sets even the fieriest temperaments at instant ease. Take Charlie: I called her Charlotte one time almost two years ago. And it was a mistake I won’t be repeating! I assure you.”
“Charlie,” I cut in, as he sipped his whisky, “Is that your teleporting girl? The one who…” I gestured feebly at my busted up face.
He scrunched up his mouth and looked to the sky in a contemplative grimace, humming a bit. “I’m sorry to be so pedantic, Jaxon. While it may seem I’m nit-picking, I assure you the distinction is relevant. I wouldn’t want you walking around speaking fallaciously. What Charlie does is not strictly speaking ‘teleporting.’ For lack of a better term, we around the organization refer to it as ‘grouping.’ You see, what actually occurs when Charlie groups, is she breaks down her body into a particulate dust—too fine for the most precise microscopes, a process we call ‘ungrouping.’ Then she transports that dust at blazing fast speeds elsewhere in the world. There, she reassembles herself as she was before, incidentally we call this ‘regrouping.’ Therefore she is not a teleporting girl, but a grouping girl. And yes, you have had the displeasure of, shall we say, making her acquaintance.
“On a further note, I have to object to the notion that she is my grouping girl. Charlie belongs to anyone as much as the wind or the moon or the rain. If somehow she found out you’d referred to her as mine without my correcting you…well, I’m her superior and she yet instills a certain level of anxiety within me! Surely on that note, you can empathize?”
“She’s pretty terrifying, yeah,” I admitted sheepishly, “Especially with that gun in your face.”
“Guillermo, parenthetically. She calls her gun Guillermo.”
“She named her gun?”
He nodded, “Charlie is a touch standoffish, you’ll find. Well, I’m certain you’ve already found! But even when she’s not trying to kill you, she’s in no rush to socialize. To be fair, she has a rather complicated history. I’d wager Guillermo is her closest friend, so she may as well personify him a bit. Uh…don’t tell her I said any of this though. Like I mentioned, she does tend to frighten me sometimes.”
“I won’t tell,” we smiled at each other until enough time had passed that it seemed inappropriate. He glanced into his tumbler, rolling the ice in a circle before downing the bit of whisky left inside, then rested the cup on the tray between us. He lingered there for a second and glanced up at me while tapping his fingernail against a second glass, wordlessly inquiring if I’d like a drink.
“No,” I coarsely denied him. “I mean…sorry. No thank you; I’m…only eighteen,” I awkwardly sputtered through my explanation.
Prophit nodded, as if he didn’t already know that, then reclined backwards, sprawling his arms across the back of his seat. I was in no hurry to enter another long pause, and quite frankly was sick of dancing around the elephant in the room. So I gathered up my thimble of assertiveness and plunged into the pages of questions burning in my head.
“Please, Jaxon!” he lifted a hand cutting me short before I could even get started. “If I’m to refer to you as Jaxon, you may call me Howie. No Mister Prophit, no Howard, just Howie, as my mother called me. The only people who call me Mister Prophit are those trying to get something from me.”
“Heh,” I chuckled nervously, “Alright then. Howie?” He bowed his head and gestured me the floor, “Charlie mentioned that this is BEAM. The guys in my house, her, you. You’re all BEAM, right?”
“Correct,” he replied bluntly, and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his lap, clasping his hands together and covering his mouth with them, “Tell me, what do you know about BEAM?”
“I guess…not much in terms of details. What I hear on the news and stuff…”
“And that is?”
“Uh…BEAM is…The Bureau for the Equalization of Anomalistic Metahumans. They uh…they kill superheroes. Right?”
“Ha!” I jumped at the suddenness of his guffaw, “So abrupt! To the point! I like it, what a travesty, what a disgraceful and ruinous description of my organization! So macabre, so contemptuous! We kill superheroes, well! I suppose there’s an iota of truth to any oversimplified stereotype.”
“I…I didn’t mean to offend…”
“No, no my boy! It is no fault of yours how the media chooses to portray us. Truthfully we have a slight image problem. Only it’s so far down on our list of problems we haven’t even begun to attend to it! But here, allow me to defend ourselves a bit, and then if nothing else should come of this whole incident, awareness of our true nature will increase just by you knowing how we operate. Sound good?”
“First thing’s first, that word, ‘superhero.’ I detest that word—along with both root words. So much so, it’s actually banned from our facilities. ‘Super’ implies preeminence, authority, power over others, like they’re better, worthier or beyond moral reproach by nature of their being. I cannot ascribe to the concept that a man who can fly is inherently worth more than he who merely walks.
“But ‘hero’ is much worse. Never mind the statistical fact that seventy-five percent of those with abilities utilize them in a criminal or downright villainous nature. Ignore that, for now. The very notion that one person’s altruism supersedes another’s, all founded on the ridiculous genetic or mystical or otherwise empowering luck that enables that person to capacities the other lacks, is almost as preposterous as the notion that a person exists in the world who would never behave on his own accord, who would always act in the best interest of the good of others. Nobody is heroic all of the time, Jaxon, so what sort of justice emerges from the incidents when they choose not to? There are no heroes. And I don’t know why society still expects otherwise, but at BEAM we’re more realistic.
“We use the word ‘Anomalies.’ It’s so much more…neutral, no? It deprives the individual of any intrinsically elevated benevolence, or innate superiority. Frees them from the nagging insistences of their own selfishness, allows them to make a mistake, have an accident, be humans instead of gods. Anomalies, not superheroes. Please, let this be the last time we use the word at all. I cringe each time I hear it.
“Furthermore, lethal action, ‘equalization’ is our jargon, equalization is our last, last resort, even against the most potent of Anomalies. We find the vast majority of them are technological in nature; that is, they’ve developed some equipment to give them their powers. Those cases are easily handled—we confiscate their tech and they serve a prison sentence. If the Anomaly isn’t artificial, we strive to control it. This may mean suppressing their abilities; it may mean physically holding the Anomaly itself. A motto of mine goes, ‘defang if you can defang; contain if you can contain.’ Only failing those circumstances do we take a more mortal approach. So you see, Jaxon, we don’t ‘kill Anomalies,’ free of all circumstances, in a vacuum like that.”
He paused his manifesto to glare at me for a moment, trying to gauge how I was responding. Apparently, my facial expression betrayed my true opinions, but he smiled softly nonetheless, “You still seem opposed to our workings.”
I nervously shook my head, a bit too vigorously to be believable, “No, no, I’m just kind of…taking it all in I guess.”
He continued to glower into my soul, and I squirmed a little under his intense eye contact. Finally, he spoke, “I understand that my pessimistic notion of anti-heroism is one that’s challenging for many people to grapple with. Specifically the young adults of your generation, so idealistic, so morally sure, black and white. So I will approach the matter from a more pragmatic angle. Did you know that pre-Tanaka and pre-BEAM, seven out of ten people in the world had a direct family member who was injured or killed by either the careless mistakes or malicious intents of an Anomaly? It’s a startling statistic, especially considering BEAM was founded a mere five years after the first reported Anomalistic activity! Seven out of every ten in just five years’ time. So I’ll ask you, quite candidly, short of BEAM’s admittedly extreme current method of resolving this, how would you remedy such a profoundly impactful statistic?”
“Well…” I thought perhaps this was a fight I didn’t want to engage in. But Howie seemed to earnestly want me to contend with him on it, so I offered the first solution that came to my head, “I guess punish the ones who mess up? Punish the sup—Anomalies who hurt and kill people, even if it’s an accident, but not before they do it? Treat them like everyone else.”
“Ah, yes. A noble and just endeavor. But Jaxon, their very nature ensures that we cannot treat them like everyone else. How do you arrest a man who can fly, or a woman who can dissolve into particle dust and disappear across the planet? Not to mention, once they’re gone, how do you find them? Eighty-five percent of Anomalies are completely anonymous—they hide their faces, act under pseudonyms. There’s no accountability! How do you arrest a man when you do not know who he is and your handcuffs cannot hold him? BEAM has the answer: you arrest him for the mere intention of setting himself above others, and deprive him of the chance to hurt someone anonymously, before he even has the opportunity to do so.”
“Well yeah I mean…alright, I guess with most of those cases, I don’t really see an issue. Nabbing someone before they even have a chance to mess up…I mean vigilantism is illegal, right? So even in the best case scenario, the ones who make themselves Anomalies, set out to do something illegal are just asking for trouble. Especially with the state of society since…Tanaka and all that. It’s the natural ones I don’t like the methods for. You wake up one day and slide a lamp across the table with your mind, never even consider robbing a bank or fighting crime, and suddenly your house is full of BEAM agents and…it’s not fair, you know? And not just because I…am one…” I’d almost forgotten that my perspective was just slightly biased. I’d almost forgotten that I should probably be terrified. Or, in all honesty, dead.
He smiled back, “I am as well, Jaxon. Precognition, remember?” His attempt at striking up a sense of camaraderie, on-my-side understanding fell a bit short. I wasn’t actually ever told that Howie was a precognitive Anomaly before that moment, so it came as more of a shock than a reassurance. In any case, it shut me up long enough for him to defend his ground.
“The whole ‘natural abilities’ case is thorny, Jaxon, I won’t skate around it. I suppose it boils down to a matter of power, and the risk of much more detrimental consequences. Let me ask you, how old were you when Tanaka happened?”
“I was six.”
“Do you recall it vividly?”
“I…don’t really? But um…” this was the sort of secret you didn’t tell a stranger you met twenty minutes ago, even one as pleasant or threatening as Howard Prophit, “Well, let’s just say it impacted me.”
He nodded, “Tanaka was eighteen. Did you know that? About your age if not younger than you are now. The press never leaked that detail. I suppose it was tragic enough that it happened, an entire city annihilated without a trace or a purpose or a cause, all the more tragic that it happened because a literal child was struck with such unearthly, uncontrollable power. Do you know how many died, Jaxon?”
“Forty-two-thousand-one-hundred-fifty-nine,” I responded without missing a beat. Howie was momentarily nonplussed, and I smirked at what I surmised was a rare occurrence, “Like I said, it impacted me.”
He nodded solemnly again. “We have a gentleman at our facility, Phyl—head of our Research and Technology department. Smartest man in the world, and you’ll recognize him instantly. He’s green, full of chloroplasts, a product of genetic engineering, and so efficient at photosynthesis, he powers HQ all by himself! But, I digress. Anyway, Phyl’s done immense research on the meltdown, as well as studying the video and records of Tanaka’s earlier performances. A street performer was Tanaka. Did you know that? Nothing illicit, nothing heroic, just trying to make an extra dime on some otherworldly talents. Phyl tells me it was something temporal in nature, what Tanaka could do. Opening wormholes or reversing time streams, tachyons, all very technical and dense; you’d have to ask him for a deeper explanation sometime, as I would just fumble it up. Incidentally, Phyl managed to track the development of this skill through Tanaka’s performances—took measurements, some based on limited numerical evidence, others by the accounts of observers. Taken altogether, it is his estimate that had Tanaka’s meltdown occurred six months—merely six months later, the universe would have been annihilated.
“Let that sink in for a moment. Because to this day, no one knows what caused it. No one knows what set Tanaka off. Imagine if whatever it was happened only half a year later. The universe, Jaxon, the entire universe. With this in mind, even considering the grave losses the world faced at Tanaka’s meltdown…do you not count us lucky that it happened when it did? Could you imagine if someone had killed Tanaka sooner, the people who would be alive today?”
I had one in mind in particular. “But…you can’t just assume that every Anomaly is going to be Tanaka! You can’t just kill them because there’s some chance they might end the universe!”
“What you say rings true at the most fundamental, empirical level—for there’s some slight chance, be it infinitesimal, that any individual will end the universe, even a non-Anomaly. Surely, we can’t just kill everyone. But say you could go back in time, and know with one-hundred percent certainty that Tanaka would meltdown that very same day. Would you not end one life to save forty-two-thousand-one-hundred-fifty-nine? Suppose it was only fifty percent certain? Ten percent? One percent? A one percent chance at the apocalypse vs. the death of one unfortunate Anomaly. Where would you put your chips, Jaxon?”
“But who are you to decide those chances? How could you accurately decide that any individual person is however likely to be the next Tanaka?”
“Precognition tends to assist in that effort,” he grinned. “But rarely are my forecasts that in depth and specific. And so we don’t take the decision to equalize lightly; it’s a complex process of measurements and calculations performed anonymously by our Evaluations department. It’s admittedly a complicated issue, so we take it case by case, situation by situation, and evaluate each Anomaly excruciatingly before we decide they cannot be delimited, and recognize that the risk of obliteration outweighs the value of that one individual’s life. It is a challenging situation, I grant you this, but I personally would say we’ve done much more good than harm. You will see it as well in due time.”
“Oh. Oh! Of course, I’m terribly sorry,” he chuckled in sudden revelation, “It completely slipped my mind—why you’re here in the first place! My apologies, I got caught up in the moment, finally having located you and all. I’m here to offer you a position at BEAM.”
My heart probably stopped for a moment as I diverted all energy to my brain, deliberating whether or not this was good or bad news. Good in the sense that I’d be alive, bad in the sense that I really didn’t want to work for BEAM. But Howie, who I had already gathered liked to talk a lot, kept explaining.
“You see, in recent years we have found the danger level of the top tier of Anomalies is increasing faster than our potency in handling them. A sort of…resistance effect I suppose. Prior to a particularly challenging case, I had the premonition that led me to the solution. Controllable Anomalies working for BEAM, with BEAM, could help us with their unique skillsets to undo other Anomalies that would otherwise be too potent to undo.”
“Isn’t that sort of…hypocritical? Using Anomalies to stop Anomalies?”
He smiled, “Yes, well. Sort of, I’ll admit. But consider that Equalizers in this new department—we call it AvA or Anomaly vs. Anomaly—would not be performing any illegal vigilante or criminal activities, first and foremost. They would not infringe on the police or the army or any other federal organization’s jurisdiction: strictly Anomaly control, as the rest of BEAM operates. Furthermore, consider the motto: ‘defang if you can defang; contain if you can contain.’ Enlisting these Anomalies in BEAM is, in a sense, containing them, so long as we only choose agents that we can in some way manipulate and control to prevent the accidents and meltdowns BEAM aims to prevent in all cases.
“For example, Agent Shayde—Charlie, AvA’s only current Equalizer. We have found a way to limit her effectiveness whenever I see fit. You see, Charlie’s brain is floating in a jar in a vault hidden in BEAM headquarters.” The fact that he announced this preposterous piece of medical science fiction so matter-of-factly almost made me laugh out loud against my will, but thankfully, he continued explaining quickly. “Before we took it out, she could only ungroup portions of her body at a time, but never her head. Grouping commands originate just as moving commands—in the brain. If Charlie ungrouped her brain, she could not regroup it. Effectively, she’d die.
“However, we were fortunate enough in our endeavors, a few years before Charlie in fact, to encounter an uncannily brilliant biological engineer. This man, Doctor Viktor Kovorski he was called, possessed not only the capacity to remove a brain and maintain its health and function separately from a body, but he also developed a procedure to establish wireless radio communication between the neurons of said brain and the old owner’s now vacant body. In a sense, a remote controlled psyche—brain separate from body, yet with perfectly preserved continuity of thought. We requested, in exchange for some, shall we say…political leniencies, that he perform this procedure on Charlie.
“With her brain safely removed, Charlie may group her entire body, but still retain consciousness. While she is in one piece, fully assembled, the brain controls her body via the wireless radio transceivers planted at various key points on either end of her central nervous system. While she is ungrouped, the manipulation of her particulate pieces is performed by some other mechanism we are as of yet unaware of. No matter though! Because if ever we need to disable Charlie’s abilities, if ever her powers bring her dangerously close to a calamity, we simply disable the radio transmitters and she can no longer control her body! Effectively, she is but a brain in a jar—contained. So why not put her to good use helping the cause?”
“So, if you’re asking me to join this AvA department…that means you have some method of containing me? Are you going to remove my brain?”
He threw his head back and laughed, loud enough to again warrant self-consciousness, “No, no, son. Wouldn’t be entirely necessary to take your brain out, I think. No, I have other methods for keeping you in check. Methods I’d prefer not to share with you, however. They are the sort of things that your knowledge thereof will limit the effectiveness.”
“Suppose…I say no?” His smiled melted into a confused frown, so I elaborated, “I mean…your doctrine is sounder than I’d first anticipated, I’ll admit it. Ultimately, I guess you’re basically just protecting people, sure. But I’m still not completely sure I want to kill…er…equalize anybody. Or even that I can? If I say no, and you can suppress my abilities…”
“But Jaxon, that’s just it. I cannot tell a living soul of my methods to suppress you! To do so would make said methods ineffective, you must understand. They have to remain a secret. I cannot deny you the option to decline my offer to join. But to do so is tantamount to suicide, Jaxon. You were already deemed uncontainable, and too high of a risk to allow to persist. If you don’t join AvA, I’m afraid you’ll have to be equalized.”
It was then that I realized how silly it was to insist on my freedom to a man who already thought he was granting it to me. I was left with a choice that was only so in the sense that stabbing yourself in the face or not stabbing yourself in the face was a choice. Kill or be killed, as the saying went, and Charlie had already shown me how easy it was for BEAM’s forces to stop me. I still couldn’t imagine being complicit in the sort of thing they stood for. I still couldn’t imagine taking a life. But I resolved to cross that bridge when I came to it. For now, I was too scared not to sustain my own life.
I slowly nodded to confirm my understanding. “Okay,” I said, dry-mouthed and nervous, “Okay. I’m in. I’ll be an Equalizer.”