In the car I asked Frank, “Hey, would you be able to take me to the airport tomorrow?  It’s Zoe’s first day back at college, and she hasn’t got a car yet.”

“Sure,” he said.  “I’ll come over in the morning and help you pack, if you want.”

“I’m planning to do that tonight,” I said, “but thanks.”

“No problem, dear,” he replied.

We talked for a while; traffic was heavy, even though we were early for the noon rush, but we got to the restaurant with plenty of time to spare.  Bill, Will, and Tabatha were there already, and Sarah came in right behind us.  We’d chosen a restaurant in South Park, a quirky little place specializing in grilled cheese sandwiches — I kid you not, it’s San Francisco, that’s how we roll.  I had the tomato soup with a jalapeno grill cheese sandwich and a salad, and it was wonderful.  Since half of the people at the table weren’t “in” on my secret life, I didn’t have to talk about it, and that was great too.  I was really getting tired of answering the “how are you?” questions all the time.

I mean, I was fine, other than a few bad dreams that I was sure would pass.  I might have been almost dead on Monday, but it was Wednesday and all was well.

I think I really believed that.

We were just a couple of blocks from the building, so we walked.  It was a nice day, not as hot as it had been, and the air was clear and the sky was bright.  I saw the realtor just getting out of her van as we came up on the address, but I wasn’t sure what building it was, so I was looking around.  She stuck her hand out and said, “Polly, hi, how are you?” and I kind of cringed inside.

“I’m doing pretty well, Felicia.  How are you?”

“Great, great,” she said.  “Isn’t this wonderful weather?”

“It is.  Felicia, you know Frank and Sarah already, I think?”

“Oh, yes,” she said, shaking their hands.  When she took Sarah’s hand she said, “We really appreciate all the site credit.”

“That’s all Polly,” she replied, and Felicia smiled at me.

“And this is Tabatha, Bill, and Will.  I don’t think you’ve met them.”

“No,” she said, shaking their hands.  “Bill and Will.”

“Don’t ask me,” I laughed, “I didn’t name them.”  I noticed that Will seemed hesitant as she extended her hand to him, and I found that strange… he’d been shy when we hired him, of course, but he had also been a virgin.  As much sex as he’d seen, photographed, and even participated in, I would have expected him to be more confident.  I mean, Felicia was a nice looking woman, not model material but pretty with a nice rack and good legs — she showed those features off to good effect with her otherwise businesslike attire — but there was no reason I could think of that he would still be shy around women.  But he shook her hand finally, and we moved on.

“Well, anyway,” she said, “this is the building,” and she waved at a three-story brick building on the other side of the street.

It had huge front windows, and the building to the left was lower; I walked up the street to where I could see that side, and saw more big windows.  “Nice.”

“Come on, see the inside,” she said, and she led us in to a large reception area.  It was empty, of course, except for the built-in reception desk.  I could see where signs had been removed on the walls and on the front of the reception desk.

“What was this, before?” I asked.

“Web startup of some kind,” she replied.  “No idea what they did, not my thing.”

“Did they go out of business?” asked Sarah.

“Actually I think they upgraded,” she replied.  “Anyway, this floor is all offices,” and we followed her into a long hallway cutting through the building.  “The offices are all large, and there’s a big server room in the back.”  Sarah walked past Felicia, toward the promised room, and for a moment Felicia didn’t seem to know which way to go.

“Is it locked?” I asked, and she shook her head.  “Let her go, then.  She can catch up later.”

“Okay, good,” said Felicia.  “Come this way.”  She led us back into the reception area.  “Stairs over there, elevator here.”  It was a big elevator, kind of a freight elevator actually, and I wondered what the building had been before the web guys got it.

We went up a floor and stepped out.  “There are two offices here, and through that door is the back room.”  I opened the door and found a large, high-ceilinged, brick-lined space with huge windows along one side.

“Oh, I love it,” said Frank, and Bill and Will and Tabatha were talking about it too.  “What a lovely space.  We can build regular movie studio sets in here, maybe three or four, and have lots of room to move around.”

I frowned at him.  We hadn’t discussed the price with Felicia yet, and here he was talking up the place.  I decided I’d have to be the bad guy, so I kept quiet.

“If you like this floor, wait ’til we go upstairs,” said Felicia, and we all piled back into the elevator.  The upper floor was laid out the same way, offices in front benefiting from those big front windows, but the main room in the back was even better.  It was the same size as on the floor below, but it had big windows along one side, smaller windows up high on the other, and a double row of skylights running along the roof from front to back.  The light was spectacular.

Frank, Bill, and Will just stood there, open mouthed.  Tabatha leaned over to me and said, “Isn’t it great?”

The room was a little warm, and I latched on to that.  “Might be expensive to air condition,” I replied.  “And all those sets are going to cost us… we’ve got to keep that in mind.”

“The best part is, I can rent it to you now,” said Felicia, “and when your settlement comes through you can go ahead and buy it.  I have a proposal right here.”

I texted Sarah to come up to the top floor, then said, “Let’s step into one of these offices and talk turkey.  Frank, you’re with me.  The rest of you stay out of trouble, okay?”

“Yes Boss,” said Bill, and Will just nodded.  I wasn’t sure Tabatha had heard me at all.

So we came to an agreement, and I wrote a check for the first rent payment and signed a letter of intent to secure my claim to the building.  Of course, we didn’t do it all there… I worked out the agreement with Felicia, then took it to my lawyer.  He was busy, as always, but as always he found time for me.  By the end of the day I had everything lined up.

As Frank drove me home, I gave him one of the keys Felicia had given me.  “Tell Sarah she can get started on whatever she needs to do, okay?  We can plan out how to use the space when I get back next week.”

“Will do,” he said.  “Are you sure you want us to go ahead with the shoot this weekend?”

“Might as well,” I said.  “You know what you’re doing, so you’re in charge while I’m away.”  I laughed.  “You’ve done it before.”

When Frank dropped me off at home, I told him I was going to go get packed, but I didn’t, not right then anyway.  There was one more thing I wanted to do first… I wanted to talk to Hyde.

I changed into jeans and a T-shirt, threw on my riding jacket and helmet, and took off on the Triumph; Zoe wasn’t home yet, and even if she was, I really felt like riding instead of driving my car anyway.  It was a beautiful evening; crossing the bridge, I rose up above the foggy bay, and I could see Alcatraz doing the same thing.  Of course, I descended into the fog as I rode into the city, but fog is so normal for San Francisco that I hardly notice it.

It did cover my approach to Hyde’s house.  I hadn’t considered, the first time I visited him at home, that he might be under surveillance, but for some reason it occurred to me that he might be.  I didn’t really want to be connected with him as Polly… though, having left the Guardians, I supposed it probably didn’t matter anymore.

I knocked at his door, and after a moment he appeared.  “Polly,” he said, “come in.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” I said.

“Just call me Jamie, please,” he said.

“Jamie,” I said, trying it out.  It felt funny on my tongue… he just didn’t seem like a Jamie to me.  “We need to talk, Jamie.”

“I know.  Please, have a seat,” he said, indicating the armchair that was half of his living room furniture.  “Can I get you anything?  I’ve got soda, water, and beer.”

“I’ll take a beer,” I said.  He brought out two ice cold beers, something local that I kind of liked actually, and he sat down in the other chair.  “I suppose you’d like to know what that was about, back at GHQ.”

“The blood test, yes.”

“I need to tell you some things about me first, if you don’t mind?  Good, okay.  I was just a normal kid, with average grades and an average life, and like most kids in high school I liked to party.  Alcohol, rave drugs, the whole works.  One night, one of the other kids had some new drug, one of the drugs they call ‘bath salts,’ and we all tried it.  I was the only survivor… the others went crazy and killed themselves, some of them right away, some of them after weeks of counseling and lots of depressant drugs.  The drug we all took broke us, emotionally, winding up our sensitivity and anxiety, and preventing any of us from sleeping.  But where all the others died, I got better.  No one could explain it.”

“Wow, that’s terrible,” I said.  I had taken designer drugs before… in fact, it hadn’t been that many years back I had still taken a pill or two every now and then, just for fun.  It’s something everyone just did.  But I had heard some of the bath salts were pretty bad stuff.

“Indeed,” he said.  “I survived, but I was changed.  I had developed a special genius for the biological sciences.  I went to medical school, but I was too impatient with the pace of my studies; I moved ahead, in private, learning everything I could, and somewhere along the way I became obsessed with one question… where did super powers come from?”

“So that’s why you abducted heroes to experiment on,” I said.  “Looking for their secret.”

“Yes,” he said.  “People like us…”

“Like us?” I interrupted.  “Are you saying you’re a metahuman too?”

“I am.  The bath salts should have killed me… you see a pattern here?  It’s one that is repeated over and over.  Heroes and villains, changed by events that should have killed them.  Sometimes the changes seem related to the mortality event, sometimes they don’t.  Like your powers… I mean, your original powers.  What does invulnerability and strength have to do with fighting off a cancer-causing pathogen?  But your friend Zoe wasn’t just fighting off the pathogen, she fought off the cancer, and her regeneration power seems relevant to that.”

I thought about what Shawn had told me of his origin, and I realized he was in that second category… his power was definitely related to the ‘mortality event’ that had triggered it.  But I kept quiet… not my secret to tell.

He continued his tale, apparently unaware that I had zoned out for a moment.  “Think about the history of metahumans.  Before 1939, there were almost none, and most of them were more myth than reality.  Then in 1939 Avenger appeared, and the next year saw Captain Victory, Dynamo Joe, and the other US Army super soldiers… and then, in 1941, suddenly the Germans had super soldiers too.”

I nodded.  It was not as if this weren’t public knowledge, but I knew he was going somewhere and I also knew if I tried to hurry him up, he’d slow down instead.  He said, “Then in the 1950’s other metahumans appeared, but there was a definite pattern at that time… almost all were white, and male, and of those whose identities have been revealed almost all were veterans of the second World War.  It’s not until the 1960’s that we start to see female metahumans in any numbers, but even then there were very few blacks and practically no asians or hispanics at all.”

“I know all this,” I said, getting a little bored with his story telling.

“Sorry, Polly.  My theory is this: The US government got something from that alien spacecraft that gave Avenger his powers, or maybe from somewhere else.  Something they couldn’t make more of.  They gave it to a lot of American soldiers, almost all men and almost all white, but only a very few reacted to it right away… those were the Super Soldier Corps.  I think that something, whatever it was, was stolen and given to the Nazis, and they used what was left to make their own super soldiers.”

“Still not telling me anything I haven’t heard before,” I said.  “I know the government denies it, but that’s a very common conspiracy theory.  You see it all the time on Facebook.”

He leaned forward in his chair.  “But I found out what that something was.”  Before I could actually ask, he went on, “In the cells of almost all superheros I’ve test so far, and in my own cells as well, is a metagenetic complex.  It looks like a mitochondria… so much so, in fact, that no one else has ever identified it before.  Its chemistry is alien, literally alien.  I believe that the complex is activated when the person who has it is close to death, and the complex tries to save them by changing their body radically.  Once I knew how to identify it, I started looking for it everywhere.  In the general population, it’s really rare, but among heroes it’s common.  You have it, I have it, Slapstick and Micron and Thunder and Lightning have it.  Eagle doesn’t, which makes me think he gets his power from a device of some sort.”  I didn’t respond… again, not my secret to tell.  “I’d love to have a sample from Avenger, to see if he is really ‘patient zero’ or something else entirely.  When I saved your friend Zoe, I did it by extracting the complex from your cells and concentrating it.  I hoped that, having weathered my synthetic pathogen in your body, it could handle it in hers, and it did.  But my theory was that the complex would have been imprinted in your body, and would give her the same powers… I was surprised to learn hers were different.”

“Wow,” I said.  “So you know where super heroes come from, and it’s not the stork.”

He laughed.  “No.  So anyway, the blood test I gave you was to examine your complex, and compare it to a sample I took from just before you traded powers with her.  I can’t understand the coding in the complex yet, but I can tell when it has changed, and I assumed yours would change when your powers changed; the strange thing is, it didn’t.”

“Magic,” I replied.  “We used magic to switch powers.  I don’t have any idea if that affects your theory or not.”

“Me either,” he said.  “Magic is far outside my expertise.  I didn’t even believe it was real until I saw what happened to you.”  He sat back in his chair and took a long drink of his beer.  “Now I have something else to tell you.”

“What?” I said, suspecting I wasn’t going to like the next bit.

“Fritz Rossi is probably my fault.”

“Well, he was your assistant, but what he did after he was away from you can’t be your fault.”

“I disagree,” he said.  “When my brain changed, I didn’t just become smart about biology.  I also became psychotic.  I became obsessed with finding the answer to the riddle of metahuman powers, and I sincerely did not care at all what happened to anyone I needed to experiment on.  When I was captured, my lawyer claimed I was mentally incompetent, and Robin was assigned to my case.  She put me on anti-psychotic drugs, which made me almost normal.  The side effects were nasty, though, so I invented a whole suite of better drugs, which are just now coming on the market.  I’ve been taking the best of them since I invented them.”

“I see,” I said, “so this is why Thunder trusts you now.  You’re on your meds.”

“Religiously,” he replied.  “But before I was captured, before Rossi faked his death, I did an experiment.  That serum I gave you to save Zoe?  I made one from my own blood, believing it would grant my biological genius to someone else, and I gave it to my assistants.  I didn’t think it had worked, but it wasn’t long between administering the treatment to them and my capture; it may have done its job.  It may have made Fritz Rossi, who was already not a very nice man, into a psychotic geneticist like I was.  So I believe I am responsible for what he’s done, indirectly of course, but responsible nonetheless.”

I looked at him.  He was looking down at his lap, hands lying slack on the arms of his chair, and I could see clearly that he really believed he was responsible.  I went to him, sat on the arm of his chair, put my arm around him, and said, “You couldn’t help it.  You weren’t on your meds yet… you weren’t able to be responsible.”

“I still remember all of it, Polly.  Every last victim I tortured, looking for the secret.  I remember, and I feel the feelings I couldn’t feel then.  And I know that every victim of Fritz Rossi is my fault.  I’ve been thinking he was still the fool I hired to wash glassware and help hold down test subjects and so on, but now I realize he may be as big a threat as I ever was, or maybe more.”

“It’ll be okay,” I said.  “We’ll get him.”