The Doctor Is In
I was in my private lab, gathering the notes for my one-thirty lecture. My teaching assistant, Mary, was dividing her time between searching for the flash drive that contained my PowerPoint slides and organizing a pile of correspondence and journals that had spilled onto the floor from my desk. To her credit, she’d let the papers fall and grabbed the photos of my wife and daughter.
My beard was scratching against my collar. I’d wanted to have it trimmed before the start of the semester and lost track of time. Now I was heading off to my fourth lecture and it still was a shaggy mess of too-much-silver hair. Eva hates it when my beard gets too long. It was short when we met in grad school. I needed to stop by the campus barber before I ended up looking any more like Walt Whitman.
I heard the door open behind me as I packed my briefcase, but thought nothing of it until I heard my name.
“Dr. Emil Sorensen?”
The speaker was a young man I didn’t recognize. He wore a well-tailored suit he looked uncomfortable in. A double-Windsor-knotted tie. Tight, cropped hair above sharp eyes.
I’d seen this ploy many times. Every professor sees it at least once or twice a semester. There are a few different names for it, but here the faculty calls it the VIP Play. An undergrad tries to look or sound important to put themselves on equal footing with their instructor. Then they explain the extenuating circumstances behind a certain grade or exam result. They drop the names of people who would be disappointed because of it. Which all leads, of course, to the suggestion that they should be allowed to resubmit a paper, retake a test, or–in some bold cases–simply have their grade changed to something acceptable.
I was running late and it was too early in the semester for such schemes. “You have ninety seconds,” I said. “Can I help you with something?”
Even as I spoke, two more men stepped in behind the first. They were larger and more solid than him. One carried an attaché case. All their suits matched.
Mary stopped looking for the flash drive. Her gaze shifted from me to the trio of men.
“John Smith,” said the man. “I know it sounds like a joke, but that’s really my name. I’d like to speak with you for a few moments, if I could.” He had a broad smile I knew from fundraisers and alumni dinners. A practiced smile, but not a well-practiced one.
“This really isn’t the best time. I have a lecture in about ten minutes on the other side of campus, and–”
“I hope you’ll forgive me,” said Smith, “but I took the liberty of canceling your lecture.”
It took a moment for the words to sink in. “Who the hell do you think you are?”
“John Smith,” he repeated. The smile faltered as his hand fumbled with a leather wallet. He opened it to reveal a golden badge and a set of credentials with his photo. He was smiling in the photo. “Agent Smith, technically. I’m with the Department of Homeland Security, seconded to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Could we speak alone, sir?”
He said the last with a nod to Mary. She looked at me with wide eyes. We all spoke a bit too freely at times, and on a college campus paranoia and rumors about the Patriot Act ran like wildfire. “Doctor?”
I tried what I hoped was a reassuring smile. “Why don’t you go see if there are any stragglers at Bartlett Hall,” I told her. “Let them know this delay doesn’t mean they’re off the hook for next week’s test.”
She gathered her own papers and paused to make sure I saw the flash drive she’d uncovered. The smile graced Smith’s face the entire time. He gave Mary a polite wave as she slipped out between the two larger men. They closed the door behind her.
“So what’s this all about?”
Smith’s face relaxed. As the smile faded, he gained several years. Not a young man, but cursed with the face of one. One of the other biochem professors had the same problem. A young face in a college town meant always being carded at the liquor store and never being taken as seriously as your colleagues.
“You’re a very impressive man, Dr. Sorensen,” he said. “You’ve got more doctorate degrees than I’ve got years of education. Physiology. Neurology. Biochemistry. A forerunner in molecular nanotechnology and–”
“I know my own credentials.”
“From what I’ve read, you got cheated out of the Nobel Prize last year.”
“It’s not about winning prizes,” I said. “Besides, the gene modification techniques Evans and the others developed are brilliant. They even helped my own work.”
“Of course,” Smith agreed with a polite nod. “You’ve received several grants from DARPA over the past twenty years. If I read the file right, your contract’s been renewed a record-breaking seven times. In fact”–he gave a forced chuckle–“you started working for the government just before my eighth birthday.”
“Can you please get to the point, Mr. Smith?”
The smile faltered again. “Well, doctor, the fact is they want to bring you on full-time and put you in charge of–”
His face dropped. “You don’t even know which project I was going to say.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “I’m comfortable with my arrangement the way it is.”
“Are you sure?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
Smith reached out to the side. The man with the attaché case opened it and placed a file folder in the waiting hand. “You’ve seen some of the headlines, I’m guessing?” He walked past me to the table and spread out some clippings and printed articles.
THE MIGHTY DRAGON PATROLS LOS ANGELES
“APE MAN” STOPS ROBBERY
SHADOWY FIGURE HUNTS RAMPART DISTRICT CRIMINALS
I’d seen most of them before. A few of my grad students had been saving news stories and images for me since the Mighty Dragon had first appeared in June. I guessed we had twice as many articles as Smith did. Copies were on the flash drive, which reminded me to pick it up and drop it in my pocket. “Have you seen the ones about the electrical man up in Boston?” I asked him.
His eyes lit up like a child. “I have. What do you think of them?”
“I’m intrigued, of course, but until I see more concrete proof than a headline in the Post or some grainy photos on a blog, it’s not going to occupy a lot of my time.”
“But you’ve had your students saving news stories for you.” His smile came back.
“What are you getting at, Mr. Smith?”
He avoided my eyes and looked around the lab. “I hate to sound suspicious, Professor Sorensen, but . . . well, some folks at DARPA have been wondering if you’ve had some success with your human enhancement research that you haven’t told us about.”
I felt a twinge of panic. Maybe Mary’s paranoia wasn’t that misplaced after all. “You think I had something to do with these people?”
Smith shrugged. “To be honest,” he said, “I think they’d be thrilled if you had. It’d put the United States far ahead in the superpowers race.”
“They’re not just here, doctor,” he said. “People with superhuman abilities are appearing all over the world. Did you see Vladimir Putin on the cover of Time last month?” Smith shook his head.
“I saw the picture,” I said with a nod. They’d titled it “Superman of the Year.” Putin had been bare-chested in front of the Kremlin, holding a car one-handed over his head. “I thought it was Photoshop propaganda.”
“Most people did. Thank the CIA for that. But superhumans are popping up everywhere.” Smith slid some more photos from the file folder. “England’s got the Green Knight and the Scarecrow. Japan’s got a whole team of super-samurais. There’re two guys in Iran calling themselves Gilgamesh and Marduk. Hell, we got satellite footage of a dragon flying over Baghdad this morning. Wings, horns, tail, everything.”
He shrugged. “Some of the agency folks think it might be some kind of metamorphosis or something.” His tongue tripped over the word. “That something, maybe someone, changed into–”
“I know what metamorphosis means.”
“Right, sorry. Anyway, don’t you see, professor? That’s why we need to get you back on Project Krypton. No more consults, no more outside evaluations. We want you working full-time with us on this. And you don’t want to miss out on a chance like this, do you?”
“No,” I found myself saying. I knew Smith was right. Eva and Madelyn were going to be angry with me. I’d promised them I wouldn’t take on extra projects this year. “I thought Krypton was done for good?”
“The secretary of defense likes it. He brought it back two years ago, but it’s been kept pretty quiet. The Future Force Warrior project gets most of the headlines on Wired, anyway.”
“Then why bring back Krypton?”
“Well, Future Force is doing well,” he said, “and they’re also hoping to have that new exoskeleton project in the public eye in the next seven or eight months. But when it comes down to it, the vice president, the secretary, and the Joint Chiefs want to see the real deal in our corner and they think you’re the man to do it.”
I furrowed my brow. It’s a bad habit. Eva says it’s giving me wrinkles. “Our corner? I’m not sure I understand.”
He gestured at the papers and images on the table. “All these other superhumans are answering to their country’s government,” he explained. “Almost every one of them. Some are even on payroll. I mean, think about it, doctor. There’s no point in having superheroes in the United States if the government doesn’t control them.”
There were at least three dozen more people in the shop than needed to be. A rumble of conversation echoed through the warehouse-sized room. The rolling tables and racks had been wheeled away. In their place, a single chair sat centered under the cleanest skylight.
St. George sat in the chair. His leather jacket had been tossed aside on one of the tables, revealing the cherry-red tank top that still made summer in Los Angeles feel too hot. He looked at the crowd, then at the handful of people who stood around his chair.
Jarvis tucked a sturdy hacksaw under his arm and clapped his hands. “All y’all, quiet down,” he said. “No reason to turn this into more of a circus than it already is.” He paused to scratch his chin beneath his salt-and-pepper beard. “We all know this ain’t a one-person job. We drew lots last week and each of the winners is going to get a chance at him.”
To St. George’s left, Andy held a pair of well-worn bolt cutters, and by his shoulder a woman clutched a pair of bright blue tin snips. Billie Carter stood on the other side of the chair with a pair of wire cutters. Mike Turner had another set of bolt cutters. Right in front was a little Latina girl, Andrea, with a black set of wire cutters. She was bouncing up and down. St. George smiled at her and she blushed.
Jarvis turned to the hero in the chair. “Last chance to back out, chief.”
The hero smiled. “I’m good,” he said. “This is long overdue.”
The older man shook his head and let his own hair settle past his shoulders. “Personally, I think it makes you look distinguished.”
“Maybe,” said St. George, “but it’s too damned hot in the summer.”
“You let it grow any longer we’d all start calling you St. Fabio,” said Mike.
“St. Hippie is more like it,” said Billie. She squeezed her wire cutters a few times for emphasis and a round of chuckles echoed in the room. She still wore her hair cropped military short.
Andy stepped forward and held up the bolt cutters. He moved behind St. George and began to gather the golden hair into a ponytail.
“Et tu, Andy?” St. George said with a grin.
“How could I pass up the chance to cut the hair off a legendary strongman?” Andy said with a smile. “If I ever get ordained, I could tell that story every Sunday to a rapt congregation.” He settled the ponytail into the mouth of the bolt cutters, took a deep breath, and levered the handles together.
The hair resisted. Andy took another breath, threw his weight into it, and there was a crackle of sharp pops, like breaking spaghetti. It echoed through the shop and the ponytail dropped to the floor. The crowd hollered and applauded. Andy looked at the gouged blades of his bolt cutters and shook his head.
Mike wobbled forward. It had been eight months since an ex had tried to bite through his shoe and cracked half the bones in his foot. Dr. Connolly still wasn’t sure if he’d ever walk without a limp. “Little off the top, boss?” he said with a wicked grin.
Over the course of the hour, they sawed and clipped and chopped at the hero’s hair. In the end the tools were chipped and pitted, but the floor was covered with hair. There was a final burst of applause from the crowd as St. George looked at himself with a hand mirror.
“Reminds me of a haircut I got in college once.” He set down the mirror. “Hope everyone had fun,” he said, and gave Andrea a wink. “Time to get back to work. The day’s wasting.”
The crowd funneled away as he shrugged into the jacket. A few moments later he was alone with Billie and Jarvis. “We ready?” he asked.
She gave him a sharp nod. “Luke’s got the extra fuel tanks loaded in Road Warrior. We’ve got overnight gear if we need it. Stealth’s even letting us take three extra cases of ammunition. One nine millimeter, two of .30-08.” She glanced at her watch. “Team assembles in thirty-nine minutes.”
The hero glanced at Jarvis. “What’s the armor situation? Did Rocky get those last three sets of sleeves done?”
“He did not,” said the bearded man. “He says it’s an art and it takes as long as it takes. I told him y’all wouldn’t be pleased.”
“Crap. What’s that give us, thirteen full suits?”
“Not a great number,” said Billie.
“No,” agreed the hero.
“Half the folks just want to wear their leathers anyway,” said Jarvis. “This whole armor idea still ain’t going over that well.”
“It’s too damned hot for leather,” said Billie. “Either people don’t wear it or get heat exhaustion from it.”
“Tell Rocky he gets chicken for dinner tonight if he can finish one more set before we leave,” said St. George. “He’s got my word on it.”