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The Red Rook - Chapter 2 - Secret of the Mudroom

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You don't get to choose what piece you are, only how you play the game...

You'd think that being stronger and tougher than everyone else at Centurion High would go down in the plus column. And it had, as far as the athletic crowd was concerned. Enough that the jocks forgave Penny for her preference to hang out with a small clique notorious for being hardcore board-gamers and role-playing eggheads. But it seemed like a small consolation.

Maybe it's because Penny just wants to be appreciated for her brains rather than her brawn. Or maybe she hangs out with the nerds because of Michael. Michael—her childhood best friend and the boy-next-door—certainly appreciates Penny for her smarts—and maybe, sometimes, she wants him to appreciate her for more than that. Penny's been spending a lot of time with Michael recently, helping him to take up his dead father's superhero identity. Besides, despite Michael being a straight up genius, he's "common sense" challenged.

If that wasn't enough, Penny's superhero mother has ramped up her passive-aggressive campaign to convince Penny to take up the mask and start crime fighting; her two younger sibs—almost as strong and tough as Penny—are superhero crazy; a series of mysterious attacks seems to be targeting Penny directly; and her other best friend is dating Michael. (e)

Back to Chapter 1

Chapter 2: Secret of the Mudroom

I stood in front of the coat closet for several long moments ignoring the noise of the house, thinking about the obvious and non-obvious symmetry between our house and Michael’s, two doors down. It would be as quiet as this one was loud. The floor plans, like many of the houses in Star Estates, were nearly identical, including a mudroom off the garage with a coat closet like this. Unlike the other houses in the subdivision, both of our mudroom closets were part of the same secret.

I punched a key-code into the house security panel next to the garage door—also a duplicate to the one in the Gurick mudroom. A faint hiss from within the closet told me that the boots, broom, and sundry shelves of cleaning supplies had slid away from their normal position. I opened the closet door. A dimly lit shaft was revealed, dropping away into darkness. In the middle of the shaft was a vertical rod with hand grips and foot bars, not unlike a pogo stick. It was connected to the far wall by several struts. You shouldn’t be surprised when I tell you that most of us call it the “pogo.” Michael prefers “pneumatic pogo,” but then he tends to fixate on technical details. And yes, there’s a duplicate shaft and pogo leading down from his mudroom, too.

I gripped and stepped on. It dropped. I felt that telltale tickle of free fall in my stomach for 2.8 seconds. I know how long the drop is, because on the pretense of a science project, the twins spent a whole afternoon measuring the time it takes before the pneumatics kick in and start to brake your fall.

It came to a smooth stop with a ka-thisssss. I stepped off and turned to face the circular expanse of the exercise room. The hulking, skeletal shapes of exercise machines were scattered about, growing larger and more imposing towards the center of the domed space. Interspersed among the angular metal struts, arms, levers and other compression-tension inducing devices, ran the sinuous curves of pneumatic power lines. These machines were capable of stressing even Diana’s superhuman muscles, or “putting on the burn,” as she likes to call it. Something I can attest to personally, because she’s on me to exercise regularly, making sure to note that the CHS exercise facilities didn’t count. Diana and I, as well as the twins, are what is commonly referred to as “bricks.” Which is to say, we’re stronger and tougher than normal, non-powered humans. I wouldn’t have admitted this to her, but I enjoyed “the burn,” or, should I say, the feeling afterward. I won’t go into the crankiness that is avoided by daily exercise. It’s a genetic thing.

There were racks of free weights as well, not that Diana or I used them, but Michael and Kim have gone beyond making noises about weight training during the last few months and made use of them. Of course, my subtle attempts to create a sense of physical competition between the two helped. I just had to remember to not work out in front them. It had been bad enough when I made the mistake of picking up a fifty-pound weight disk with one hand and sliding it onto the bar in preparation for Michael to do lifts. Non-bricks’ egos seem to bruise more easily than their bodies when they come in contact with a brick. Or maybe it’s a guy thing.

I walked down the familiar circular-cross-section tunnel. I passed under the Gilmore’s backyard still thinking about how different ours were from of the 130 or so houses of Star Estates. As far as I knew, only two of them were connected to the tunnel system that spread out from here. But I knew that at least two other families had secrets not unlike Michael’s and my family’s. There had to be others that I didn’t know about, all with secrets leading back to the Supernova and the Galactics’ intervention that saved Earth from being sterilized.

I’ve thought a lot about the defining event of the 20th century. There is some debate about which event in 1947 was the event that changed everything, but there is little doubt in anyone’s mind that 1947 was the year that everything changed. (Of course, if you’ve read enough history, you can pretty much point to any year as the year that changed everything. If this still strikes you as questionable, go watch James Burke’s Connections.) A lot people say the defining event was Supernova 1947A, which isn’t quite accurate as the Supernova really happened years before that, we just didn’t find out about it—the hard way, mind you—until February 3rd, 1947 when the neutrinos, gamma rays, and visible light arrived. I’m here to tell you this because of the second event of 1947. Unbeknownst to us, the Galactics, a Milky Way-spanning civilization in possession of faster-than-light travel, had built a shield (or series of shields, but the engineering details are above Earth’s technology grade). The Shield (as we Terrans have come to call it) saved us. Mostly. Something went wrong and it leaked. The Galactics haven’t talked about what caused the failure, but the most credible rumor I’ve heard is that a Star Wisp, one of their slower-than-light FTL-gate seeders, collided with the Shield at a significant percentage of light speed. What everyone does know is that ten percent of Earth’s population died because of that failure. North Americans suffered closer to a twenty percent death rate because the unseen star in question was directly above North America when the radiation wavefront collided with Earth’s atmosphere. A lot more Terrans would have died if not for the third event.

Apparently, the Galactics have dealt with similar situations (or perhaps they just have really extensive what-if simulations) and were prepared for a shield failure. The Galactics dropped a cometary rain on Earth containing DNA and cellular repair nanotech. The nanotech, like some sort of Promethean Fire, burned through the survivors, repairing DNA and cellular damage as it did. When the nanotech-induced fever ebbed, the survivors found themselves stronger and healthier. It didn’t take long for us to discover that we were the permanent hosts of sub-microscopic machines which had, coincidentally, cured most forms of cancer and genetic defects. It took a little longer to realize that we were living longer than any previous generation of humans. Then there were the occasional births of the ‘gifted,’ or ‘powered,’ who became known as the First Generation of the Nova Genesis.

Event number four was Contact. Up until the Galactics announced their presence, we had no idea that we had suffered anything but the impersonal wrath of a supernova much too close to Earth. Astronomers had gone on about ‘anomalous’ readings and there were more sightings of UFOs and crashed flying saucers, but few took them seriously. Then the Galactics dropped a city-sized arcology into southern Lake Michigan on April 1st of 1947 and we couldn’t ignore that aliens existed. Here. On Earth. Which brings me to the final, rather subtle event of 1947, Generation Zero. The fact that superheroes and supervillains began to appear wasn’t subtle. They were heroes and villains, not just the superpowered doing good or bad things, which was all according to the Galactics’ contingency plan. No matter how unique we were in detail, the Galactics had known how we would react in general. When you’re dealing with a civilization millions of years old there isn’t really anything they haven’t seen, modeled, and predicted before. They knew that some of us would develop powers; and rather than just let it happen, they pressed a few cultural levers here, greased a few social skids there, and preempted our collective responses with a few well-chosen role models. Despite two world wars, the previous half century or so had primed us for the cultural nudge with “superhuman” physical culture and pulp fiction heroes.


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