In a world similar to our own, Deltas - humans endowed with superhuman abilities - try to make their way through life, the same as the rest of us. Some hide, pretending to be regular folk - Baselines. Others try to find a way to make their abilities useful in the everyday world. A few try to profit from their power any way they can.
And then there are the Masks...
Saturday morning, seven AM. I park my sedan near the house in this sleepy cul-de-sac. It’s a small place, one floor, small yard, garage, two bedrooms. Nice, quiet neighborhood. After a moment’s hesitation, I slip my weapon, holster and all, out from my hip and lock it in the glove compartment. I won’t need it. I get out of the car and approach the house.
It’s funny. They're always surprised when I show up. Television and decades of comic books have convinced everyone it’s easy. They never stop to consider all the ways they might be found, more ways than even the TV shows have guessed at.
Sure, one or two have managed it, but those are the statistical outliers. If you want to keep your identity secret in the real world, you better never leave behind any DNA, or fingerprints. You better never get caught on a security camera, or even let us catch your voice. At the very least, when you fly away from a scene, make sure you’re not always flying directly toward the same place. Might as well put a sign in your front yard.
And I don't care how long Clark Kent got away with it in the comics, a pair of glasses isn't a disguise. It’s a pair of glasses. Glasses can’t even make the ugly duckling character in those teen movies look convincingly ugly. How do you think they’re going to hide you? They’re not. She looks like a pretty girl in glasses, and you look like Superman in glasses.
But still, they're always surprised when I show up at their door. I take a moment to clear my head, prepared for the game. Then I knock on her door. It’s early, but I know she's up. After a few moments she opens the door and I get my first look at her. Well, the real her.
She’s pretty, a bit like those ugly ducklings in those teen movies actually. She’s sixteen, wearing glasses which suit her face nicely, and her dark hair is pulled back in an uninspired ponytail. She’s just coming into her own as a woman, and doing her best to hide it, I think. For a moment I feel a little bad. She looks at me for a moment, no doubt wondering who's knocking at this hour.
"Good morning, Quantum," I say calmly. I prefer the direct approach. It saves some time, and that fractional facial tick I see when I use their Mask name gives me the last bit of proof I need to be one hundred percent certain.
They’re always surprised, and she’s no exception. I see her twitch, and I know I nailed it again. It takes her a brief moment further before she reacts, but when she does she follows the script established during every other confrontation like this.
"Excuse me?" She's fairly casual, and her confusion is pretty convincing, but it’s too late. I saw it in her eyes. I take a moment and try to offer a reassuring smile, and to appear non-threatening. Hell, to her, I am non-threatening.
"Quantum," I say keeping my tone friendly. "I'm sorry, you probably prefer Sarah."
This is about the point where the mistaken identity act usually begins. I must have the wrong house, she can’t possibly be who I think she is, it’s all a crazy misunderstanding, and hey look, my hair is a different color. Like I say, none of them are ever really prepared.
"Actually," The girl before me says with a small sigh. "I do prefer Sarah, if you don't mind. My mom doesn't know, yet."
Now it’s my turn to be surprised, and she must see it because she smiles. I'll admit it, I was ready for the dance, her evasions doing a two-step across the threshold of her front door with my assertions and evidence. It takes me a moment to shift gears, and she actually seems amused. But then I gather my wits and proceed.
"I'm afraid she'll find out today, Sarah." Her face falls a little, and I shake my head in commiseration. "I'm sorry, but you're underage. I can't talk to you about this without her present." Poor kid.
"Well, she's not home yet." I’m a tad surprised, but I should have realized it when there was no car in the drive. Sarah adds, "She got called to fill a shift at the last minute, and we need the overtime. She should be home soon."
Sarah steps back and pulls the door wide.
"You might as well come in. I’m just making her breakfast. Can I get you some coffee, Mr..."
It's not generally wise for a young woman to invite a strange man into her house. But given this woman could snap me in half or incinerate me with a look, I decide not to mention it. Instead I step across the threshold.
"Jakes," I supply. "Paul Jakes. You can call me Paul. And, yes, I'd love a cup, if it's not too much trouble. Black."
"No trouble at all, I’m having some, too. C’mon into the kitchen."
I follow her into the house, looking around as I pass. I see the lives of Sarah and her mom represented in photos on the wall and the decor of the living room and dining area as we pass into the kitchen. I see a happy family, once happier, but still doing okay. Mom and dad split up, mom moves to a new city, takes a nursing job to make ends meet on a single income. Dad’s out of the picture, but at least the child support checks are arriving - I did my homework before coming here. So, in the grand scheme, it could be a lot worse. Not the American Portrait, but nowhere near the tragic things I’ve seen.
Two minutes later I'm sipping strong black coffee in her kitchen. She busies herself, mixing pancake batter, and seems pretty at ease. She glances up from the mixing bowl, and smiles a little self consciously at my scrutiny.
"So what are you, Paul? FBI? Homeland Security? Something...else?"
I reach into my jacket and remove my badge holder, opening it and showing her the star inside.She looks at it a moment and tilts her head with a curious look.
"Deputy United States Marshal?"
I nod, and she still looks a little confused.
"I'm afraid so. There was an executive order, made quietly a couple years back when Masks started appearing more and more. The Marshal’s Service is tasked with tracking those like you, and when we find you, you get a visit from someone like me."
I pause a moment, then continue.
"You’re thinking about the news, and about how it’s always the FBI or Homeland Security involved whenever a Delta takedown makes the news." She nods. "Well, you’re right. But this isn’t a takedown, just a conversation."
Sarah grabs a griddle from her cupboard and puts it on the stove, turning the heat on. She looks at me.
"And depending on how our conversation goes, a visit from one of those agencies may or may not be in my future?"
I nod, and she nods back. She’s a lot more collected than most, taking the news in stride, considering it carefully. Maybe her power gives her added confidence, but I have a feeling she’s just generally calmer than most. Then she tests the griddle with her index finger. I hear it sizzle and she doesn’t so much as flinch. She adjusts the heat a bit.
"My mom taught me, the secret to the perfect pancake is the perfect cooking temperature. So, how does this work, Paul? A Marshal shows up, unarmed--"
"I left my weapon in my car. I didn’t think I’d need it, but I can go get it if it makes you more comfortable." I say it with humor and she laughs a little.
"No, that’s okay. Unarmed, polite, acting pretty casual to get me to relax, sipping my coffee-- hey, you want some pancakes? I always make extra batter."
The non-sequitur makes me smile.
"I had breakfast, but I’d love to try one if there’s really extra and you’re not just being polite." I sip my coffee. It’s a decent brew.
"What’s next is your mom gets home, and we talk."
"And there’s really no way we would leave my mom out of this? I’d really rather she not find out that’s me in that outfit."
Now I bark a laugh, and I can’t blame her. I was very surprised when I first learned the statuesque five-foot-ten Quantum, with her flowing violet hair and skintight suit, is really a skinny girl named Sarah. The physical transformation actually made her harder to track, but DNA and retinal prints don’t lie. But, I shake my head.
"Sarah, while I definitely want to keep this low-key, and friendly, you’re a minor, and there are protocols to follow. I shouldn’t even be in the house with you."
"I could toss you out if it makes you more comfortable," she says with a wink. I laugh at having my earlier words parroted back to me.
"No, I’m good, but thanks for offering."
She smiles, but then she sighs, heavily. It’s funny, the prospect of her mom finding out seems to be the only part of this which bothers her.
"I’m sorry, Sarah."
She looks back at me, still down for the moment. But then she brightens a little.
"Will you at least let me tell her?" I nod, and Sarah pours batter onto the griddle.
"After that, what will we discuss? Are you just here to politely request that I stop?" I hesitate, and she adds, "Hypothetically. You’ve done this before, what did you talk about with them?"
I consider, and then nod. "Okay, hypothetically..." I take another sip.
"The official word is you have to stop. The government does not need or want the assistance of self-appointed masked vigilantes who answer only to themselves. You’ll stop, or face possible criminal and civil charges."
She’s watching the pancakes begin to bubble as she says, "I could just leave." I nod in agreement.
"You could. I certainly can't stop you. I wouldn't even try. But if you stay in this country, I'd just find you again. Unless someone else found you first."
She considers that while flipping pancakes. While she does, I add, "But you're smart, Sarah. You know I'm not the bad guy. You're not either. My being here today doesn't have to be a bad thing, and you can sense that. It's why we're talking over coffee and pancakes - both good, by the way - instead of still arguing at your front door, trying to convince me I must have the wrong house."
She looks up at that, suddenly curious about something.
"How did you find me, anyway? I thought I was pretty careful." I smile. They always think they were careful.
"You were careful, true. Your only major mistake was imagining it was possible in the first place. You live in a world where every person on the street has a camera on their phone, where security cameras, and traffic cameras, and high-definition satellites and DNA, finger and retinal prints, all manner of forensic procedures and computers with incredibly advanced software to track and reconstruct every aspect of your life." I sip my coffee. "Honestly, if anyone remains unfound, it's because we haven't tried looking yet."
She looks a bit sheepish. "Yeah, I guess it was pretty silly."
I throw her a bone. "You did a lot better than most. Changing your appearance so dramatically was a nice touch."
She smiles. "Thanks." Then she plates her first pancake and offers it to me. She points to where the butter and syrup wait.
"What’s the unofficial word?" she asks. I pause in spreading my butter, looking at her.
"You’re here on a Saturday morning, and you said official word. So what’s the unofficial word?" I have to shake my head again. She’s quick. I pour syrup on my pancake, and step back to the counter while she continues plating and pouring new pancakes.
"Okay, well you know my office is tasked with tracking people like you." She nods. "Well, the Masks as we unofficially call them generally fall into two types of person. The first are the scary ones. The ones who do more harm than good, who seem to think being Delta gives them the right to as much collateral damage as they like, or who endanger others through incompetence or callousness. When we find these, we turn their identities over to the FBI."
Sarah watches a new batch of pancakes. "I bet they knock a lot harder than you did." I nod. She's seen the news.
"Okay, that makes sense. And since you're not FBI, I guess I'm not one of them?" I smile through a forkful of pancake.
"Right. You're in the second group. You seem to genuinely want to help, to make the world better and to make a difference. We may not agree with your actions, but we respect your principles. Your heart is in the right place, and you're smart and careful."
I shift in my stances to look directly as Sarah for a long moment. She senses me looking and looks back.
"Sarah, I saw your last fight with the Fury." Dozens of people caught it on their cell phones. "You took a helluva pounding you didn't have to take. Why?"
"If I had clobbered her over the city, someone might have gotten hurt. I made her mad so she'd chase me, and I led her out over the water where it was safe to fight."
I nod. "That's why you get to talk to me today."
She smiles. "I appreciate that. Now... about the unofficial word?"
"I’d really rather wait for your mom."
"C’mon... you can officially tell her the unofficial word officially when she gets here. Can’t you unofficially tell me now?" She holds up the griddle. "I have more pancakes," she singsongs.
I can’t help but laugh out loud and then I hold out my plate for a second pancake. As she flips one from the plate of finished pancakes, I tell her.
"Okay, officially we track you down and tell you to stop. Unofficially, I know we can’t handle threats like the Fury ourselves. At least not without a lot of collateral damage. Unofficially, you can’t stop, because we need you."
Sarah listens, flipping the second batch on the griddle.
"Within the Marshal’s Service, there are a few like me, who agree. We need Quantum, and Polaris, and the other good ones like you. We have access to the software and all the tools. So, I'm here on a Saturday morning, sipping your coffee and eating your pancakes, to show you that I can find you whenever I want. I’m also here tell you, as long as you keep being careful, as long as you stay one of the good guys, I won't find you." I wait a moment before adding, "Officially."
"Officially," she repeats.
She looks at her pancakes, and then looks out out the kitchen window at the car just pulling up. She shakes her head and smiles, and looks at me.
"Paul, there’s only one flaw in your plan."
I look at her, questioningly. She glances back out the window at the woman now approaching the front door.
"I’m about to be grounded for the rest of my life," she says with a wan half-smile before turning to greet her arriving mother.