Rise of The Circle - 3D (1)

The devastation was catastrophic, unlike anything the world had seen since The Battle all those years ago. Alpha Team fought to capture and contain the metas, which had been released from Silver Island, for days on end. Many of the escaped metas, the smart ones, chose to flee Bay View City altogether. Those that didn't and were captured were executed. There would be no place to hold rogue metas in Bay View City while Alpha Team was running it.

I wish I could tell you that I learned all of this because I was out there in the fight. I wish I could tell you that I'm only here telling you this now because, in the end, I defeated Alpha Team and returned home safely. That isn't what happened, though. For the past week I've had to sit and watch these events unfold on television, just like everyone else, everyone else who was lucky enough to be far away from the fighting at least.

No one could completely escape it, though. I watched in horror and helplessness as a member of Alpha Team ripped the head off of an escaped meta right in front of me, on the other side of our living room window on the forty-seventh floor.

The reason I couldn’t do anything to help was a promise I’d made to a woman named Michelle, a woman that I had known as Veronica for the three months she’d been dating my older brother, Derrick, before revealing who she really is and asking me to agree to join her with little additional information. When she asked me to help her, I was on my back, barely clinging to life. She made me promise one thing: that I would not use my metabands under any circumstances until she returned.

I don't know if I made the right choice agreeing to that, not that I was in any shape to fight even if I wanted to. I've been forced to watch as my city tears itself apart piece by piece, helpless to do anything about it. The sad truth is that even if I disobeyed Michelle and powered up my metabands to fight, there is little I could do. Midnight is gone, presumed dead by many. All the other supposed heroes either left the city or found themselves lined up for execution alongside the criminals. If I wanted to power up my bands and fight, I would have no allies, and everyone from both sides would be out to get me. Any attempt at stopping the criminals or Alpha Team would result in little more than a momentary distraction for both.

Derrick is scared, the most scared I've possibly ever seen him, and that includes the time I was six years old and got rocks stuck up my nose. Maybe he’s just been putting on a brave face since our parents died and he’s had to take care of me, but seeing the city the way it is now makes it feel like all hope has been lost. Even if I hadn't promised Michelle that I wouldn't fight, it would be hard to go out there knowing just how likely it is that I'd never come back and that Derrick would never forgive himself for being unable to stop me.

The little that Michelle did explain before she left pertained to all of this being much bigger than me and much bigger than just Bay View City. If I engaged in fighting Alpha Team or any of the others, they would know that not only was I still alive, but that I hadn’t left the city either. According to Michelle, they would stop at nothing to make sure I was put down for good. Even after that they wouldn't stop. She told me that they would find out who I really am, who Derrick is, and ultimately who she really is. She didn't tell me this out of self-preservation; she told me this because according to her, what she’s working for is much bigger than any of us, and it could all easily come crashing down if the wrong people learn about it. Risking my life meant risking countless other lives for what she assured me would’ve been a suicide mission anyway. That didn't make it any easier to watch as everything I knew was destroyed.

I've never felt more helpless, sitting at home all day, everyday, alone. Derrick stopped working from home and practically moved into his office. With people fleeing the city left and right, he had little choice. He had to make sure someone was there to keep his business alive. Ironically, business has never been better for him. Nothing draws public interest around metahuman stories like when a group of them decide to practically destroy a city.

In fairness to Alpha Team, as if they deserved such a thing, property destruction was minimal. After all, it's hard to try to convince the rest of the world that all other metas should be eradicated if you just go and destroy the city yourselves.

But by far the hardest part of the past week has been not knowing what happened to any of my friends. Midnight, Sarah, Jim, they are all unaccounted for. Only in the past few days has anyone outside of Alpha Team been able to get anywhere close to Silver Island to assess the damage. Reports are coming in almost hourly on the rising number of dead bodies being found, and that doesn't even count the rest of the city, where conflicts are still happening around the clock. Even if any of them did manage to escape, there are very few safe places in Bay View City.

Michelle has forbidden me from using my metabands until she returns, presumably with a better plan than the current one, which is to just "wait." She also told me to stay put in the apartment. Unbeknownst to me, the apartment that Derrick and I have been living in for the past few months is a veritable fortress. It’s one of the reasons Derrick has been attracted to it all along. The windows are bullet and blast proof. Reinforced support columns are hidden behind drywall, essentially providing a separate foundation for our penthouse apartment. While it would be difficult to build an apartment immune to a direct meta attack with any kind of discretion, our apartment was advertised as meta-resistant. I guess I owe a thank you card to the eccentric millionaire who lived here before us ... whoever he was.

Derrick hadn't told me about any of these features because he thought doing so would feel like he was undermining me and my abilities. Deciding to live in a fortress in the sky isn't a very hardy endorsement of confidence in the idea that I could protect the place myself. I didn't take it personally, though. If anything, I was more pissed off that he hadn't told me sooner. It isn't foolproof by any stretch, but it would have given me some piece of mind, since I would never be able to protect Derrick twenty-four hours a day anyway.

This made Michelle and him feel more comfortable leaving me here by myself, but it doesn't make me feel any better. That's why tonight I'm planning to escape.

Well, not really "escape." I plan to come back after all. I plan to come back later tonight even. But I just can't stay cooped up in this fishbowl any more, not when I don't know if the people I care about are alive.

To get into our apartment, you need an elevator key. This is because the elevator goes straight into our apartment. I know, fancy. If it weren't for the key, anyone would be able to just hit the "P" button and walk right into our living room. The easy solution for making sure I wouldn't leave the apartment would be to just take away my key, which Derrick tried to do. I successfully argued with him that not only was that unsafe if there was an actual emergency and I needed to evacuate the building, but that it was also treating me like a baby. After some back and forth, Derrick relented and said he would give me the key because he trusted me.

Idiot.

He isn't actually that dumb, though. The elevator is Internet connected. Derrick can access it from anywhere he can get a connection and not only shut it down if he wanted to, but also watch via the security camera. He can even set up an alert to let him know if the elevator moved when he wasn't home, and knowing the nerd that he is, I’m sure he did just that. But, being the nerd that he is, he probably didn't consider the other way to get in and out of the apartment: the stairs. Granted, walking down forty-seven flights of stairs isn't a very attractive alternative, but for now, I'm telling myself it won't be as bad as climbing them later.

The fire escape door swings open and a blast of cool air floods into the stairwell. Autumn is quickly becoming winter, and I'm glad I thought to bring a coat, even if I considered just leaving it in the stairwell around the twentieth floor because it was too hot.

It's starting to get dark earlier, but even still, it's too early in the evening for the streets to be so quiet in the middle of what is usually a bustling area of the city. It's one thing to see the empty streets from the top floor or on TV, but it's entirely different to see them with my own two eyes. There's no one. Even most of the cars that are usually parked along the side of the street are gone.

Right about now is when I start to realize that I didn't really have a plan beyond just getting out of the apartment. I succeeded in doing that much, and I'm pretty sure I even did it without Derrick or anyone else finding out.

Now what?

It's after a few minutes of walking that I find I’m somewhat instinctively walking toward Sarah's house. It's not intentional at first, but after I realize it, it seems like the only logical place to go. I'm nearly positive that she's out of the city. She'd have to be. Her father works for The Agency and it’s hard to imagine that any of them would feel safe staying in Bay View City after the breakout. Even The Agency doesn't have enough people working for it or the kind of resources necessary to mount anything like a retaliation here. If they went looking for a fight, all they'll get is a massacre.

Still, it's possible Sarah and Halpern could have gone to their house before they left the city, unlikely but possible. And without any other way to contact her, it's my best bet.

I still feel enormous guilt over listening to Michelle's orders to keep my metabands powered down and to not go looking for Sarah. If something has happened to her, I'll never be able to tell myself that I couldn't have stopped it. There's no use in that kind of negative thinking, though. Michelle told me being with The Agency was one of the safest places Sarah could be. A meta like me striking out on his own to go find her would be a million times more likely to attract attention from Alpha Team than actually doing anything useful.

The walk takes longer than I remember, and by the time I arrive at Sarah's house, it's late. Most of the houses on the street are dark and empty-looking inside. I can't tell if it's just because the people who live in them are all asleep or if they've left town. It's been happening in droves. People are fed up with the violence and chaos and have been leaving Bay View City by the thousands. Most have no idea where they're going next, just as long as they're far away from here. A lot have relocated across the bay to Skyville. Some hope to just wait this out, see what Alpha Team does, and hopefully move back once everything is somewhat back to normal. Others think "normal" isn't something that we'll see in this city again and have started planning to put down permanent roots somewhere else.

The last mile or so on the walk to Sarah's house I don't see a single soul, meta or otherwise. I find myself glancing toward the sky over and over again, thinking that I see someone streaking past out of the corner of my eye, but when I look up, I see the same empty sky that was the norm for a decade before all of this started up again.

Sarah's house is dark and quiet, just like all the others on her block. I still approach it carefully, aware that while all these houses look empty, for all I know there could be entire families huddled together in their darkened living rooms, watching me through the gaps in their curtains.

When I reach the door, I'm not quite sure what to do. It's so quiet here that even knocking feels like it'll echo through the entire neighborhood, but a breaking and entering charge wouldn't be easy to explain to Michelle and Derrick, especially since I already promised Derrick that my days of being brought home in cop cars were behind me.

From the sidewalk, the door looks like it’s closed, but upon closer inspection, I see that it's actually open slightly, barely even an inch between the door and its frame, like someone didn't pull it closed all the way on their way out, or as though someone set up a trap for me to walk into. Midnight's paranoia is still hard at work somewhere deep in the back of my mind. It’s a strange coincidence, and I go back and forth with myself over whether or not I should go in. I'd like to think that I decide to go in because I'm brave and that I don't need to rely on my metabands to get me out of any trouble I might find, but really I know that it's just that I walked all this way, and I'm not about to turn back now for no other reason than sheer stubbornness.

I push the door itself without having to even turn the doorknob, and it swings open. It's almost pitch black inside, with the exception of a few rays of light streaming in from the full moon hanging above the city tonight. Still, it's enough light for me to recognize the space from my ill-fated, first dinner with Sarah and her dad. Walking down the hallway toward the dining room, I see the same photos on the wall of Sarah and her dad during happier times, presumably before all of this started again over the summer, and I can't help but feel somewhat responsible for all of it. What if it was my activating the metabands in the first place that brought all of the others crashing down to Earth? What if I had just kept them off and dealt with that monster in the woods with my own two hands? Would things have turned out differently, I wonder? It's an exercise in futility since there's nothing I can do to change it, though.

The living room also looks the same as when I was last here just a few short weeks ago. Nothing looks out of place, but then again, it's not like I took an inventory the last time I was here. It's also not likely that if Sarah and her dad came back here and left in a hurry that they would have remembered to take their favorite living room lamps before they left. If I’m going to find any sign of whether or not Sarah and Halpern have been back here since Silver Island was destroyed, I'll find it in their respective bedrooms. If there is anything they came back to grab, that's where they would have taken it from.

It still feels creepy to be skulking through their house without permission, especially when I make the decision to head upstairs toward Sarah's bedroom at the end of the hallway. Despite having the best intentions here, there's no way you can tiptoe into your ex-girlfriend's dark bedroom in the middle of the night without feeling like a real creep.

Before I'm able to reach the door, a noise stops me in my tracks. It's not especially loud, but it came from Sarah's bedroom. I stand completely still and wait to see if I can hear it again or if my mind is just playing tricks on me. A second later, I have my answer when I hear it again. This time I recognize it as a creaking floorboard and my heart starts racing. Someone else is in the house, and whoever it is, it seems like they don't want anyone to know they're here either.

It could very well be Sarah or her dad, but if one of them were here, it doesn't make sense that they'd have all the lights off, does it? The idea that they're both here and just asleep in their beds crosses my mind and my face immediately becomes flush with embarrassment just at the thought of having to explain to either of them what the hell I'm doing creeping around their house in the middle of the night.

Another thought soon takes over, not nearly as embarrassing but far more dangerous. It occurs to me that someone with bad intentions could have found out who Sarah and Halpern really are, and that someone could be taking advantage of everyone's focus and attention being elsewhere to sneak in here.

I stand waiting in the darkness of the hallway for what feels like an eternity, weighing my options. There really aren't that many. I can either keep going and see for sure who or what, if anything, is in Sarah's room, or I can turn around and leave the way I came. If there is something bad in Sarah's room, I don't really like the idea of turning my back on it, though. If I turn around and leave, I know that I'll just be back here again tomorrow night. My curiosity is so strong, it’s just too much for me to ignore what might be behind that door. And if it turns out that something happened to Sarah or Halpern, I'll never be able to forgive myself for not investigating when I could’ve tonight, just because I was afraid.

Metabands aren't an option if I want to abide by Michelle's rule, so whatever is in that room, I'm going to have to face it without any help. I slowly make my way toward Sarah's room at the end of the hallway, careful to walk gently to avoid squeaking any of the floorboards and alerting whoever might be waiting in her room. The door leading to her room is already open for the most part, which makes it less likely that I'll find a surprise by the time I get to it.

From a few feet away, the room looks empty, but because of the angle, I won't know for sure until I'm actually inside. I push the door gently, just enough so that I can squeeze through. The blinds on her window are pulled mostly shut, limiting the light in the room, but luckily, my eyes have mostly adjusted to the darkness by this point. While I can't see everything, I feel confident enough that I'll be able to make out the shape of a person if there’s one in here.

Inside Sarah's room, I find her carefully made bed. The drawers to her dresser are all closed. I run my fingers over the top of it and feel a layer of dust. There aren't any signs that Sarah, or anyone else, has been here in a while. Whatever I heard before must have been nothing. Normal, small sounds like a house settling become much more ominous when there are no other natural sounds to mask them.

Satisfied that the bedroom is clear, I head back downstairs. I remember briefly seeing a chalkboard with a grocery list the last time I was here. Below that chalkboard, mounted to the wall, I remember seeing a set of car keys hanging on a hook. It was a small thing, but it stuck out in my mind at the time because of the keychain. Halpern owns the same brand of car that my parents had and the logo on the keychain reminded me of them that night. If that keychain is gone, that would mean there is a good chance that maybe Sarah and Halpern came back after all to take the car. Of course, that's assuming Halpern didn't already have the car with him at Silver Island that day, which is very likely. I know that the keychain is likely gone either way, but still, it feels like maybe I'll get some reassurance if I see that it's missing. Maybe I know deep down it'll be missing either way, and I'm just ignoring that for some glimmer of the kind of hope that's been missing in this city for the past week.

I push past the free-swinging door that separates the dining room from the kitchen, no longer as concerned with minimizing the noise I make. The keychain is missing, and for an instant, I feel a sense of relief, even if I know it doesn't really mean anything. Behind me I hear another quiet creak and that sense of relief disappears in an instant.

There's barely any time to process the idea that there’s definitely someone in the house before I hear the swinging door behind me being opened. Instinct takes over completely and before I know what I'm doing, my arms are out at my sides, summoning my metabands from whatever alternate dimension they go to when I'm not using them. Before they've even fully materialized, my wrists are heading straight for each other.

There's a loud clang as the metal makes contact before Omni's suit ricochets out of the bands and envelopes my body. Before the swinging door has even hit the wall, I'm fully powered up and ready. If Alpha Team knows about this house, if they know who Sarah and Halpern really are, then they would have come here. If they're here, there's very little I can do to protect myself, but I'm not about to go down without a fight.

"Omni?" the voice behind me asks.

Without thinking about it first, I spin around. Not always the best thing to do when someone has just snuck up on you, but I couldn't help it. There, standing in the doorway to the kitchen, is my ex-girlfriend, Sarah Miller, and she's holding a gun pointed right at my head.

"Whoa, relax," I say, putting my hands up to show I don't mean her any harm in the hopes that she'll lower the weapon. Even if a bullet won't do anything to me, it's still not fun to get shot at, to say nothing of what the neighbors will think.

"Oh my gosh, sorry!" Sarah says, embarrassed, as she lowers the gun to her side. "It's empty. There aren't any bullets in it. I just ... I just heard a noise and didn't expect to see you standing here."

It's been so long since I've seen her that for a moment, I almost forget that she has no idea Connor and Omni are one and the same.

"I'm sorry," I say. "I just wanted to check up on you ... make sure you were okay."

"How did you know where I live?"

She's got me there. There's no reason Omni should know this. The personal and professional lives of employees who work for The Agency are kept strictly separate. Even Sarah's co-workers probably have very little knowledge of who she is outside of her work, so metahumans like me are kept even further in the dark. Before I can think of an answer to give her, I'm saved by her tendency to answer her own questions before the person she's asked even has a chance.

"What am I doing asking you how you know where I live? Of course you'd be able to find out where I live. You're buddies with Sherlock Holmes."

"Who?"

"Not the actual Sherlock Holmes, of course. He's fictional. I meant Midnight. That's what I call him: Sherlock Holmes. I don't think he appreciates it very much, even though it was meant as a compliment."

"Wait, you know Midnight? How do you know Midnight? Have you seen him? Is he okay?" I ask.

"I was just about to ask you the same question. I haven't seen him since he saved me."

"He saved you? I don't get it. You're the one who saved me at Silver Island."

"And you're welcome for that, by the way," she says before I have a chance to thank her properly. I know she's kidding, but I'm still mad at myself for rudely failing to thank my ex-girlfriend for saving my life from who I now know is the daughter of the man who killed my parents. A thank you is the least I should have been able to come up with for her.

"After I last saw you on Silver Island, I tried to escape through the tunnel back to the mainland. I almost made it, but in the confusion, no one realized that I hadn't come out yet. The tunnel was blown before I reached the end. I was buried in an avalanche of rubble," Sarah explains.

"What? How did you make it out then?" I ask.

"Midnight. He saved me. He found me in the rubble. I'm not sure how, but he did. No one else was even looking for me because they didn't know I was even missing. My dad was told I was in one of the other escape vehicles. He didn't realize I wasn't until later when they met at the rendezvous point and he couldn't find me. Even if someone other than Midnight had found me, I probably wouldn't be standing here today.

“I'd lost a lot of blood. Too much blood. I don't remember any of that, though. The first thing I remember is waking up in one of Midnight's ... places. Lairs? Is that what you would call them? Anyway, I woke up there, hooked up to who knows how many machines, and slowly made my way back to the land of the living."

"And what about your dad?" I ask.

"He's fine," Sarah tells me. "He's been better, obviously, but aside from a fractured elbow, he's okay. There's something else though ... he doesn't know about what happened with Midnight."

"Why didn't you tell him?"

"Because if he knew what actually happened, he'd never let me go back to work for The Agency. The only reason he's even letting me come back, I think, is because he doesn't know what else to do with me, and he's too busy to think about anything else. It's really a mess out there right now."

"Yeah, I've noticed that," I say before hearing a sound toward the front of the house. It's the doorknob on the front door being slowly turned. My powers aren't back to what they were before all of this, so I didn't hear anyone walking up to the house.

"Expecting company?" I ask Sarah, readying myself for whatever is on the other side of the door. If it's Alpha Team, I can't imagine they'd use the front door.

The door swings open suddenly and reveals Halpern standing in the doorway, his hand on his unclipped gun holster. He sees me and smiles before putting the clip back in place to secure his weapon.

"Losing your edge, huh? You're not someone I ever expected to be able to sneak up on," Halpern says to me with a smile on his face.

"Well it's been awhile since I've suited up, in case you haven't noticed."

"Oh no, believe me, I've noticed. The Bay View City wing of The Agency might be shattered into splinters currently, but I don't think there's a person in this city that doesn't know what Alpha Team has been doing to the metas they find," Halpern says.

"I only turned these on for protection," I say.

"From Sarah?" Halpern asks with a chuckle. "Sorry, honey, no offense." The look on Sarah's face says she doesn't appreciate the apology. "As nice as it's been catching up, we really don't have time for chitchat, unfortunately. We're just here to grab a few things, and then we're gone."

"You can't leave here. This city is your home, both of you," I say.

"This city isn't home to anyone other than Alpha Team. There's no way to stop them right now, and I'm not waiting around here to find out what else they're capable of."

"So you're just giving up?"

"Just giving up? No, kid. But you've got to realize that there are some battles you just can't win. This is one of them for The Agency. We'll find a way to deal with this eventually, I promise you that, but right now there's not much any of us can do waiting around Bay View City to see what they've got planned next."

"So where are you going then?"

"I'm afraid I can't tell you that, but we're both going to places where we can continue to fight the good fight. There's still a lot of good The Agency can do, and this little war is far from over if we have anything to say about it."

"You said you're both going to places, as in plural."

"Very perceptive, kid. That old guy you hang around with must be rubbing off on you. Don't think that's going to mean you get any more clues from me, though. You know as well as either of us that the less you know the better it's likely going to be for everyone involved."

"Well that old guy I've been hanging around with hasn't been seen since Silver Island, so you don't have to worry about that anymore," I say to Halpern, knowing that it's not entirely true, since I just found out that Sarah has actually seen him since then.

"I'm sorry to hear that, but he's been through worse before. I'm sure he's fine. It'll take more than four or five of the most powerful metas the world's ever seen to put him down," Halpern says, waiting for a reaction before continuing. "That was supposed to be a joke. Guess it wasn't a very funny one.

"In all seriousness, though, kid, I'm sure the old guy's fine. He's probably just laying low for a little bit, just like most of us are. It's a dangerous place out there for anyone who hasn't picked these Alpha maniacs as the side they're going to throw down with if push comes to shove."

"And what about you? Who are you going to side with if it comes to that?" I ask.

"Me? I'm going to stay on the side I've always been on: neither. There're good metas, there're bad metas, just like any other group of people. You try to help the good ones while trying to stop the bad ones from hurting anyone along the way. That's all anyone can do. These things aren't going away any time soon. When they disappeared ten years ago, a lot of people thought that was it and stopped preparing for the day they might come back, and look how that turned out."

Outside I hear footsteps approaching the house. They're faint. Whoever is making them is going out of their way not to be heard. If it weren't for my guard being up so high after Halpern was able to sneak up on me, even I wouldn't have noticed them.

"We've got company outside the house. Expecting more guests?" I ask Halpern and Sarah. Both look back at me as though they have no idea what I'm talking about.

"It's the Blanks," Halpern says suddenly. "It's got to be. They're the only ones who could walk around the neighborhood without getting bothered at this time of night. If they find a meta in here, we're all done. You've got to teleport out of here."

"Okay," I say, and then think of home with the intention of teleporting there. But, I don't. Nothing happens. My body stays exactly where it is.

"Come on, you've got to go," Halpern says.

"I'm trying. I just can't. It's not working. I don't know why it's not working," I say, the panic in my voice starting to show itself.

"Then power them down," Halpern says calmly and seriously.

"No," I say. I can't just power down. If I power down and reveal who I really am to Halpern and Sarah, along with potentially whoever is on their way inside, not only could we all be in trouble, but Derrick and Michelle will be too. Too many peoples' safety relies on my identity staying a secret.

"There has to be another way," I say.

"The wine cellar," Sarah says suddenly as she moves toward a carpet lying on the kitchen floor. She takes the carpet in both hands and pulls, revealing a trap door in the hardwood floor below.

"How did you know about my wine cellar?" Halpern asks her.

"Don't worry about it. Omni, get down in there."

"Is this really going to work?" I ask.

"Do we have another choice?" she replies.

She's got a point. I pull open the trap door and quickly descend down the three steps into a very small area lined with wine bottles. There isn't much room, and before I have a chance to adjust my position, Sarah slams the trap door over me, hitting my head and pushing me farther down. It's a good thing I'm nearly invulnerable or else that would have really hurt. I can hear the carpet being replaced over the trap door seconds before there is a hard knock on the front door and the sound of Halpern's footsteps heading toward it.

The door squeaks open down the hallway, and I can hear footsteps from multiple people coming through the doorway and into the house. I stare up toward the sound and concentrate, trying to see through the floorboards to the room above, but all I see staring back at me is darkness. My ability to see through solid objects is gone. What is happening to my powers? Not being able to teleport before worried me, but the past few days have been the longest I've gone without using my metabands, so I tried not to freak out when I wasn't able to do it. I thought maybe this is just something that happens when I'm not used to using them everyday for a little while. Maybe they're not like riding a bike? But now, not being able to see through anything? That's causing me to start worrying and making me think that the problem is with the metabands, not me.

"Who's in here with you?" a muffled voice barks from the kitchen above me.

"It's just me and my daughter here," Halpern replies.

"We received a call from one of your neighbors that they saw a known metahuman through your living room window."

Dammit.

"A metahuman? I don't think so. Which metahuman do they think they saw?" Halpern asks back, lying.

"Why don't you tell me which metahuman they would have seen strolling around your house, buddy?" the voice asks back.

Michelle was right. It was stupid to use my metabands. Now Halpern and Sarah are getting grilled because I didn't listen.

"I'm really not sure what you're talking about, sir, but if it would make you feel better, you're welcome to look around. Actually, I'd feel safer knowing that you did if someone thought they saw a metahuman in here."

"You, check upstairs," the voice commands an unseen companion. "You, check the kitchen. You, come with me to check the bedrooms."

Footsteps spread out through the house, banging up a flight of stairs and down another hallway. Another pair are coming toward the kitchen. Whoever they're sending in here, I'm hoping that they're not the thorough type. Above me I can hear cabinet doors being opened and closed, curtains being moved, a pantry door creaking.

"Who exactly are you expecting to find in the refrigerator?" I hear Sarah ask. She's standing directly above me, on top of the carpet lying over the trap door. I'm guessing her choice of location wasn't an accident, and I feel a slight sense of relief that maybe I won't be found after all.

"You can never be too thorough, Sarah," replies the person rummaging through her kitchen.

There's a few seconds of silence before I hear Sarah's reply.

"How do you know my name is Sarah?" she asks.

"Uh, you said it, didn't you?" the voice replies back quickly, still opening and closing every conceivable hiding space.

"No, I didn't."

"Oh, well they probably said it on the call on the way over. Sometimes they give us the names of the people in the house before we check 'em so we can make sure everyone who is supposed to be there is there."

"I don't believe you," Sarah replies. It's quiet above me. The cabinets are no longer being checked. There's a reluctant sigh followed quickly by a gasp from Sarah.

"Jim?" she asks, seemingly unable to believe what she's seeing.

"Sorry," a voice I now recognize as Jim’s, no longer being muffled by a mask, replies back.

"What are you doing? Why are you working with the Blanks?"

"Because we're doing the right thing. We're trying to save this city from what it’s started to become: a playground for metas or those rich enough to buy them off."

"You can't be serious. A meta saved your life before. You wouldn't be here if it weren’t for Omni. You're just going to ignore all of that now?"

"I'm not ignoring that. A meta did save my life, but from another meta. It wouldn't have needed saving if they didn't exist in the first place. We all got along just fine for thousands of years without them. Now people have to worry about whether or not an idiot with superpowers is going to drop a car on their heads while they're just trying to go about their lives. You call that progress? These are the people we're supposed to look up to as heroes, and why? Because they can do things we can't? That doesn't make them above the law, and that doesn't make them welcome in Bay View city anymore as far as we're concerned."

"And who is 'we,' Jim?" Sarah asks.

"He's in the kitchen," a voice from down the hall says, preceding a pair of footsteps, which grow louder as they approach. I hear some brief shuffling above me and realize that it must be Jim replacing his mirrored mask in anticipation of whoever is coming through the kitchen door.

"Well I'm glad that you can see there's obviously no metahumans here, sir," Halpern says to what I presume is one of the Blanks walking alongside him.

"You, why does it seem like you’re anxious for us to leave? Do you have somewhere more important to be?" one of the Blanks asks Sarah.

"I already told you-" Halpern starts.

"Quiet. I didn't ask you. I asked her. I already heard your answer. Now I want to see if she gives me the same one."

"We're going to stay with family," Sarah says confidently. This isn't her or Halpern's first lying rodeo, and it's going to take a lot tougher questions than that to trip up either of them.

There's a loud crash that sounds like it came from outside the house, followed by commotion in the hallway leading to the front door. A new pair of heavy footsteps enters the house and marches into the kitchen to join Halpern, Sarah, a masked Jim, and at least one other Blank. Footsteps come from elsewhere throughout the house, the rest of the Blanks reconvening.

"Have you found anything?" a voice asks above me, and I recognize it immediately as belonging to Charlie. Of course. It all makes sense now, and I feel like an idiot for not realizing it sooner. Alpha Team is working with the Blanks. “Working with” is probably too strong of a term. Alpha Team doesn't seem like they're taking orders anymore. Now they've got the Blanks taking orders from them.

"No, sir, the house seems to be secure," Jim replies to Charlie, his voice now distorted behind a mask.

"So you called me out here for nothing?" Charlie asks back.

Um ... no, sir. We received word that a meta was at this location. We wouldn't have called you for backup if we hadn't."

"Backup? You think that I'm backup for you? You work for me, not the other way around. What good are you if a team of five can't even take out one metahuman, let alone if you can't even see if one is actually here before you come crying to daddy to help?"

"You're right, sir. I apologize, sir," Jim says.

"Are you in charge here?" Charlie asks.

"No, sir. He is in charge here."

The floorboards creek as Charlie walks across the room toward the person Jim has indicated. It's quiet for a brief moment; then there’s a loud snap and a heavy thud against the floorboards above me.

"A man who doesn't speak up and take responsibility for his own mistakes isn't a leader. Congratulations, young man, you just got yourself a promotion. Now, if we're done here, I imagine you all have places you can be of more use than a kitchen. I suggest you find those places," Charlie says. There's a popping noise, which I recognize as the sound of air being displaced by someone moving incredibly fast. It's followed by the hurried footsteps of the Blanks as they exit the house. Outside, faintly, I can hear a truck's engine start up, followed by tires squealing as they drive away.

I continue to wait, though. Without my enhanced vision, there's no way of knowing that they're all gone for sure, so I leave that decision up to Halpern and Sarah. A few seconds after the truck is out of earshot, the trap door is opened and the light from the kitchen illuminates the tiny space I'm huddled in.

"You need to get out of here now," Halpern says, offering a hand to help bring me out of the converted crawlspace. I take it and pull myself back out into the kitchen. Turning around, I see the body of a Blank lying on the floor, his head turned completely around in the wrong direction.

"I'm sorry," I say.

"Don't be. It's not your fault that man's dead. You were here because you were trying to do the right thing, and in the end, doing the right thing always saves more lives than it costs. Don't forget that, Omni. We're still the good guys."

I look over at Sarah, and while she's putting on a stoic face, it's obvious she’s upset.

"I'm sorry. I know I shouldn't be upset. It's not very professional of me," Sarah says, directed more toward me than Halpern, but her words seem to be intended for both of us.

"It's not a sign of weakness to have that upset you. They stormed your home and killed one of their own right in front of you. It's easier to pretend things like that are just the new normal now, but that doesn't mean that we have to accept it," I say.

"I don't think I could have said it better myself," Halpern says as he puts his arm around Sarah's shoulders. "Come on, kiddo. Grab whatever you need from here and let’s get the hell out of here. There's not much more good we can do inside the city anymore."

Halpern nods at me. I'm not sure if it's in thanks or just a reminder that I have to get out of here too. If it is a reminder, I take the hint. The front door is still wide open. I turn toward it, dig my feet in, and start running. I'm grateful to find that my speed's still here, even if some of my other abilities have apparently decided to call in sick today. Within seconds, I've sped through the entire city, moving fast enough that anyone would be hard pressed to even see a blur. There's no one on the street to see me anyway.

I slow down just enough to make sure I don't blow out the windows of my building and head for the stairwell, making short work of the forty-seven flights. I flip the light switch on my way through the front door and have my metabands powered down before the electricity has even reached the bulbs overhead in the living room. In retrospect, it would have been a better idea to have powered down before I breezed in the front door, but I don't realize that until I see Derrick and Michelle sitting on the couch, waiting for me with their arms crossed like parents who just caught their kid sneaking in late after being grounded, which I realize isn't that far off as metaphors go.

"Oops."

"Do you have any idea the kind of trouble you could have gotten yourself into by powering up those bands tonight?" Michelle asks me. I look in Derrick's direction, but I'm not really sure why. I think part of me hopes that he'll step in and back me up, even though he probably has no idea where I went tonight either. Instead, he shares a look that tells me I'm on my own with this one.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to-" I begin before Michelle interrupts me.

"Connor, we don't have the option of diverting from the plan whenever we feel it's inconvenient. You're not the only one involved here, and you're not the only one who'll suffer the consequences if something goes wrong."

"I know. I'm sorry."

"It doesn't matter if you're sorry or not."

"It won't happen again. This was a one-time thing. I promise."

"You're right. It was a one-time thing because we're leaving Bay View City. All of us. Tonight."

"What? What are you talking about? I'm not leaving Bay View City. This is my home."

"You've lived here for six months."

"That doesn't matter. This is my home now, and I'm going to do whatever it takes to protect it. I'm not just going to pick up and run at the first sign of trouble."

"Connor," Derrick says, "this isn't the first sign of trouble anymore. No one is saying we're running away. We're just regrouping."

"More than regrouping. We're gearing up," Michelle says.

"Have you even seen the news yet tonight, Connor?" Derrick asks me.

I shake my head no. Derrick reaches toward the coffee table and picks up a remote control, which he uses to turn on the television. The screen comes on, and it’s immediately filled with an image of Charlie speaking into the camera.

"This just happens to be what's on at the very second you turn on the TV? I thought that only happens in movies," I say.

"It's DVRed, smartass. Just watch," Derrick says.

"Citizens of Bay View City. Thank you for offering me the chance to explain my actions as well as the actions of my colleagues. As most of you know by now, a number of days ago, we were summoned to the Silver Island Metahuman Detention Facility to assist in stopping a breakout ..."

"What? That's not true! They were the reason the breakout happened in the first place. If they hadn't shown up, none of this would be happening!" I burst out.

"I know that, Connor. We all know that. Just watch the video. It'll be much easier if I don't have to pause it every time you argue with the screen," Derrick says.

"... unfortunately that breakout has resulted in the deaths of dozens of civilians, people like yourselves who were simply going about their day-to-day business, regular, hardworking Americans. And sadly, some who were not even old enough to fully grasp the new world we're dealing with today.

“These deaths were all unnecessary. They did not need to happen. They happened only as a result of a policy that not only excuses metas from the consequences of their crimes, but dangerously gathers them together into facilities like Silver Island, facilities that taxpayers spend millions of dollars on to ensure that these metahumans are cared for and babysat, even when they refuse to remove and surrender their metabands.

“To that I say enough. The rumors you may have heard are true, but in case you haven't heard them, then let me be perfectly clear. Starting today, the people of this city will no longer have to lie awake at night wondering if or when a metahuman attack might take the lives of their loved ones. That's because as of midnight tonight, we are hereby giving notice that all metahumans within the Bay View City limits must surrender their metabands to us for destruction or vacate the city limits immediately. This is a decision that has not been made hastily, and unfortunately, we have learned over the past few days as we have worked around the clock to round up the remaining escaped prisoners from Silver Island that it is not a choice that could go any other way.

“Up until now, people who wish to live in a normal, metahuman-free society simply had no choice as of a few months ago when the metabands returned. Even if a city was completely devoid of metahumans, it simply would become a target for those who wished to cause harm, steal, or worse. This catch-22, as it were, made it impossible to have a city free of metahumans unless it wished to risk its own safety from outside attacks. Now, we can provide that safety and protection. As you witnessed a few short days ago, myself and my ... colleagues possess an ability many thought previously impossible: the ability to destroy metabands.

“Does this mean that no metahuman will ever try to cause harm to Bay View City again? I wish I could tell you it did, but of course it doesn't. That is why we will stand guard and protect this city from any outside threats it may face, foreign or domestic. It is our firm belief that knowing Alpha Team is watching over this city will mean anyone wishing to cause it harm will think good and hard before even trying. We will not distinguish between so-called good metahumans and bad metahumans, as if such a distinction could indeed ever even be made.

"Instead, we will simply stand behind our warning: If you are a metahuman, you are no longer welcome in Bay View City. We care about this city, and we care about its people. We will no longer risk the deaths of many for the privilege of the lucky few. This will be the only warning. We will not hesitate, and we will not take prisoners. There is no longer anything waiting in Bay View City for metahumans except death."

The video pauses and it feels like all the air has been sucked out of the apartment. Michelle and Derrick are both quiet, waiting for my reaction.

"Is he serious?" I finally ask.

"I'm afraid so. There've already been reports of metahumans forfeiting their metabands in droves downtown. So far it seems mostly to be the ones with weaker powers. We suspect the more powerful ones are weighing their options before they decide to give them up or vacate the city," Michelle says.

"Is it true that they can really destroy metabands?" I ask.

"We don't have any firm evidence of that, everything so far is anecdotal, but yes, we think that they can, at least in certain circumstances."

"Didn't they try to destroy yours, Connor?"

I look down at the still present, yet powered-down metabands on my wrists, specifically at the hairline cracks that have developed in both.

"They did, but Midnight stopped them before they could. Or before they could completely, that is. They were still able to damage them."

"Have you suffered any ill effects from the damage?" Michelle asks.

"Wait. That must be it. Tonight, when I used my metabands. It was the first time since Silver Island and my powers ... they were different."

"Different how?"

"Maybe not different, just some of them weren't there. It's like I just couldn't access them anymore."

"Which powers?" Derrick asks.

"Teleportation. That's the big one. My senses seemed to be dulled too. I couldn't see through objects any more."

"Hmm," Michelle says, "that's not good. Any others missing?"

"Not that I know of, but I didn't get a chance to test them all out yet."

"What do you mean, 'yet'?" Derrick asks. "There's no 'yet' here, Connor. Did you not hear what Charlie said on TV just now? I'm sorry, but they almost killed you the last time. You're not making me an only child."

Before I have the chance to say anything in return, Michelle interrupts.

"Surrendering your metabands isn't the only option here. There's another. Connor, it wasn't an accident that I sought you out. You know that by now, don't you?"

"I know that you've said that to me, but outside of that, not really. You've been keeping whatever you're doing a secret from me and Derrick ever since you told us who you really are. I'm not sure how you expect me to just keep waiting here with my bands powered down, trusting that you have some big solution to everything when you won't even tell either of us what exactly it is that you're planning."

"That's not exactly one hundred percent true anymore, Connor," Derrick says.

"What do you mean?"

"Michelle has explained to me what her mission was, and what her goal is in being here."

"Great. That's just great. Everyone knows what the plan is except for the guy who actually, you know, has the superpowers."

"Connor, you're not being fair. It's not like you've been exactly forthcoming about everything lately. I know things are crazy right now, but you have to know that I still trust you. Trusting you wasn't the problem. The truth is, I didn't trust Michelle, not completely," Derrick says.

I look to Michelle, expecting to see something resembling surprise on her face, but it's not there. I'm guessing, hoping, that they've had this conversation already. Otherwise, even I know that Derrick's getting himself into a world of trouble saying these things. I may only have a couple of months of girlfriend experience under my belt, but one thing I picked up on was: don't say you don't trust your girlfriend while your girlfriend is standing right next to you, even if you have plenty of probable cause. You know, like she lied about her name and her job and pretty much everything else because she was actually an undercover spy the whole time you were dating her.

"I needed to know I could trust Michelle for myself before she talked to you about all of this," Derrick continues. "I know you're a metahuman and you could throw me across the state if you wanted to, but you're still my little brother and technically my legal ward."

"Don't call me your ward. You know I hate that."

"Well regardless of what you think about it, it's the truth. I'd trust Michelle with my life, but I needed to see what she was talking about with my own eyes before I could trust her with yours."

"Okay. So now that all of that melodrama is over with, are either of you actually going to tell me what's finally going on?" I ask.

"Yes. Please, Connor, have a seat," Michelle begins. I consider telling her that I'd rather stand, but decide that it's immature, and I'd be doing it just for the sake of trying to show that she's not the boss of me. The truth is that I'm out of options and ideas. I'm hoping whatever she has to say is a better alternative to what I've been doing so far.

"The solution is moving to Skyville," Michelle says.

"What? That's it? We're just going to move? This is the genius plan that your secret little organization has come up with? You've got to be kidding me. If I just wanted to save my own skin, yeah, of course we could just move. You're not telling me anything new."

"Are you done?" Derrick asks.

"What?"

"I said, are you done? Because Michelle isn't done talking, and if you kept your trap shut for a minute, you'd be able to hear the entire plan."

"Honestly, I don't really care what the plan is if it means just running away to hide."

"I'm sorry. He gets like this sometimes. I apologize for my ward," Derrick says to Michelle, trying to get a rise out of me. It almost works, but I decide to shut up and let her finish so this will all be over with and I can tell them I'm not leaving this city.

"Connor," Michelle begins, "Skyville wasn't chosen randomly out of a hat."

"I figured it wasn't. It's right across the bay and half the city's already moved there to get out of Alpha Team's way," I say.

"Half the city is an exaggeration, but the fact that many of Bay View City's residents have decided to move to Skyville is certainly something that is in our favor. It will attract less attention to move there," Michelle says. I scowl at her for the certainty in her language. "If you move there," she corrects herself.

"Do you know about Skyville Preparatory Academy?" Michelle asks.

"Sorry, I've been kinda too caught up lately to work on my college applications, so no, I don't."

"Well I think you would have a very hard time getting in," Michelle says.

"Thanks," I reply sarcastically.

"That's not what I meant. What I mean is that you'd have a very hard time getting in because the school itself never actually opened. It was nearly completed almost a decade ago, until The Battle happened. After that, pretty much all new construction around the country was stopped. Countless tons of equipment, cement, steel, and tens of thousands of construction workers were all moved to Empire City to help rebuild."

"Yeah, I remember that," I say.

"By the time work could be reconsidered on the academy, much of the interest had moved on. We were still in a deep recession caused by the fallout from The Battle and every metaband around the world deactivating overnight. No one wanted to spend millions and millions of dollars to finish building a school that was already over budget and that many people couldn't afford in the first place."

"I don't see what any of this has to do with anything."

"The economy and waning interest weren't the real reasons that construction was stopped. The real reason that Skyville Prep Academy was never finished was because there was no reason to continue pouring money into it if there weren't metahumans any more."

"I don't get it."

"Connor, Skyville Prep was just a front. Sure, it was a real school. You could enroll, take classes, get a degree, all of those things. For it to work it was essential that no one suspect what the school actually was."

"And what was that?"

"A training center for metahumans."

"Okay. And how exactly were you planning on keeping that a secret? Real school or not, I think once people saw metas flying in and out of their dorm windows, the jig would’ve been up pretty quickly."

"Very, very few of the students enrolled would have been metas. The rest would have been normal, everyday run-of-the-mill students. The students, faculty, staff, all of them, would have had no idea about the training facility since the training facility itself was built nearly a mile underground. Not even someone like you could have caused enough trouble down there for anyone on the surface to notice.

“Plans were drawn up for facilities around the country. The government had identified the importance of metahumans in the twenty-first century. They knew that nothing would ever be the same, and that if a group of metas decided to overthrow the government, there would be chaos, even if they didn't succeed. It was for that reason they wanted to at least try to have some kind of influence over as many metas as they could.

“They thought that by appealing to the patriotic nature of some, they'd be able to have them in their back pockets if push ever came to shove."

"How would a training facility have done that?"

"Many people underestimate the human need for feeling as though they're part of something. Skyville Academy would have given metas that opportunity, to feel that they weren't just people with extraordinary abilities and little else to offer. The facility would have given those who felt confused or alone the opportunity to learn about their powers, hone them, and better control them.

“In the years since metabands were first discovered, more people have been killed as the result of collateral damage than anything else. Someone like Jones? Yes, obviously he was very, very dangerous. He killed more people than any other meta, but the average person was still a hundred times more likely to be killed by a gargoyle falling from a building because one meta just threw another one into it than they were of getting their head twisted off by Jones."

"Yeah, but people knew that," I say.

"People think they knew that. Everyone knows that you're more likely to die in a car accident than a plane crash, but you're still a lot more likely to find someone praying before takeoff than you are every time they stick the key in the ignition. Same thing. It wasn't given as much media attention, but the government wanted it to stop. They knew that it was just a matter of time before an event like The Battle. They feared that an event like that would cause an escalation in metahuman violence that could ultimately lead to all-out war. If they couldn't confiscate every metaband out there and destroy them, then trying to help the good ones beat the bad ones while minimizing collateral damage was the next best thing.

“They knew that the general population wouldn't go for it, nor would most metas if it meant revealing their identities, hence the need for a secret facility. Adolescents and young adults were often those with the rawest abilities, and the most impressionable. No offense. If Skyville Academy worked, then the plan was to expand into other facilities. Plans had already been developed for other types of places, office buildings, factories that would have acted as fronts for underground training facilities."

"Okay, so there are training facilities underneath this old school that they never finished building. I'm still not sure how this helps me," I say.

"Tomorrow, the governor is going to announce that the school will be opened to accommodate the influx of Bay View City refugees. The plan is to offer curriculums for kindergarten through high school to any new resident of the city."

"That's going to be chaos, though. That has to be thousands and thousands of students."

"Exactly. The alternative is either trying to integrate all the new students into existing schools, which are already overcrowded, or simply doing nothing and ignoring the educational needs of all of these people. By offering this as a solution, the governor looks like he's being proactive. He's taking a beating in the polls for his response to Alpha Team's coup and with his eyes on running for president in a few years, he needs to do something big. Setting up an empty campus as a makeshift school for displaced voters' families will cost him next to nothing and make him look like a hero, and he doesn’t lose anything.

“It also means that the training facilities located under the campus can be activated without any flags being raised. There will suddenly be thousands of confused students crawling all over the place, so the comings and goings of a few metas won't raise a single eyebrow, as long as we do it right."

"So if I agree to go along with this, and that's still a big if, when would we be moving?" I ask.

Michelle and Derrick exchange glances again, a sure sign that there's something I'm missing or that they're not telling me and neither wants to be the one to do it.

"Um, there's no we, Connor. You'd be moving there on your own," Derrick says.

"Seriously?"

"It would lower suspicions. Derrick is in charge of one of the biggest meta news sites in the world. His deciding to suddenly move out of the city where the most important meta-related story is happening would look strange, to say the least," Michelle says.

"And what about you?" I ask her.

"My cover already implies a lot of travel. It would make sense for me to leave Bay View City since I only spend less than half of my time here as it is. Remember, we want to keep all of this as quiet as possible. No one should be doing anything out of the norm unless there is a significant upside."

"So nothing out of the norm like, um, I don't know, moving to another city randomly, like you want me to do?"

"Is it really so random, Connor? Your school was destroyed. Fellow students of yours were injured and killed. Meanwhile, you're also the younger brother of a prominent journalist who can easily afford to send you wherever he'd like. Would it really be so strange that you would be leaving a city in chaos to go to a different school? One of the dorm buildings that is actually finished on campus will be opened for refugee students in need of housing. I've seen to it that your housing will be provided by the school as well as the housing of the other metas who will be training alongside you."

"Let me get this straight then: you two are staying in Bay View City, but I'm moving to Skyville, where I'll have a place to live, on my own?" I ask, barely able to hide the smile starting to creep across my face.

"Yeah, but don't start getting any ideas about being able to lead some kind of swinging bachelor-slash-superhero lifestyle. You'll be taking a full class load so you can actually graduate on time next year, along with metahuman training at night and in the mornings before classes," Derrick explains.

"Who uses the term 'swinging bachelor' anymore, Derrick?" I ask.

"I think that means he'll go," Derrick says to Michelle.

Rise of The Circle is available now for Kindle preorder exclusively on Amazon.

Rise of The Circle - 3D (1)