My friend T. Jackson King is to release his latest work soon. It is a new title called Superguy. Tom has also given us the First Chapter for a taste of what is to come. I will post the links when it goes live.
“Jeff Webster is a reluctant superhero. Ever since he was four years old he’s been able to teleport himself to distant places, read minds and move stuff around with mind power. But growing up in Los Alamos, home of the atomic bomb and lots of research scientists, taught him the dangers of standing out. With both parents dead, he holds down a simple job but wonders what he should do with his life. Help people in danger? Block terrorist schemes? Become famous for his unique abilities? Watching him is FBI Special Agent Janet Van Groot, newly assigned to monitor adult children of people who work at the national labs, in hopes of catching a hidden foreign spy. What happens after Jeff’s first rescue effort leads him, Janet and the entire nation into a future no one could have expected.”
Superpowers are overrated. I’m not invulnerable. Bullets and lasers can hurt me. I can’t fly like a jet. I can’t bend a steel rod, unless it’s soft pig iron. But I can ‘jump’ or teleport to anyplace I want to be. However, it has to be a place I’ve visited. And I can move stuff from one place to another like a leaf moving on the wind. The books call that levitation. Big deal. Mind reading is a pain, something I’ve done my best to block. It hurts actually. My eyes are normal, not heat ray powered. Though I can see real good in the dark thanks to the heat from living bodies. My hearing is mostly normal, but I can hear a bird chirping from a mile away. Maybe that’s special. I like breathing, so I can’t live in outer space. And I have no friends, family or anyone but me.
Once, when I was four, I saw the clouds in the sky. Something inside me wanted to touch a cloud. Before I knew it, there I was up close to the bottom of a puffy white cloud. I touched it, then realized I was falling. It was a long ways down. Somehow I ended up back in our basement playroom. The place with books and toys where I usually felt safe from everyone else. Even my parents. After that, I learned to be very careful about feeling impulses. I could have died when I was just four.
At five I caused a fire in my Mom’s kitchen. I’d seen the stove’s gas burners and thought it would be fun to make fire happen in the sink. I was alone then, while my Mom was out hanging clothes on a clothesline in the backyard. The blue flame scared me. Before I knew it the water knob had turned on and water fell from the faucet onto the globe of flame, putting it out. Years later I learned that was called pyrokinesis, or causing fire at a distance. Turning on the water knob without touching it was called psychokinesis or telekinesis. I admit to having fun mind-tossing rocks at the squirrels in a nearby tree.
First grade was when I learned other kids could not do what I could. Reading the answers to a simple math question by reading the numbers in my teacher’s mind was easy. Then I learned adults were suspicious of what they could not explain. She thought I’d memorized the math book. She insisted I use pencil and paper to show her how to do a simple multiple addition. I couldn’t. That gave me my first experience of being punished for being different.
Being different was bad. That’s what first grade taught me. But when I first heard the story of Jesus walking on water during a reading of Mark’s gospel at the local Unitarian church attended by my parents and me, it made me wonder if Jesus had been like me. Born with strange abilities.
Running faster than other kids, jumping farther and being the first to catch a soccer ball made me unpopular with the other kids at Aspen Elementary. I didn’t know I was ‘jumping’ myself through the air in order to win the race or catch the ball. Other kids and the grownups said I ran like a blur. Later on in junior high I learned how the human mind creates an ‘explanation’ for things people see that they do not understand. Made me glad there were no cameras or smartphones in the play yard. But being unpopular taught me the simplest lesson of my life so far—only behave the way I see other people behaving. That included making good grades and being smart, which the Los Alamos school system focused on a lot, due to so many parents being scientists who worked at the nearby national lab. Being smart and getting good grades were easy for me. What was hard was making friends. I always felt like an outsider, due to the abilities I had that I kept secret. It didn’t feel good hiding away a part of myself that I thought was pretty nifty.
My sophomore year on the JV track and field team of Los Alamos High School was normal, not unusual. I made the four hundred yard relay team. We did good in regional meets. But I made sure not to look too different. Even though I’d learned by then how to run faster than a car by levitating myself ahead in short ‘jumps’. But I couldn’t do that in public. Too many smartphones at every field practice. Nor could I do teleportation, like jumping instantly to my favorite camping spot close to Jemez Falls on the East Fork of the Jemez River, northwest of Los Alamos. It’s not good to suddenly disappear in front of people. Though I do admit to walking on the water of the nearby river when I first visited the small meadow spot that was my earliest place to escape to when life got too crazy.
My only girlfriend in high school left me when I shocked her while making love in her parents’ home. We were both naked on her bed, having a good time. When I came hard inside her, the pleasure peak overcame all thought. Before I knew it we were both in the dark basement of my parents’ home, with Sally underneath me, her bare back on the cold concrete floor. She yelled. I instantly teleported us back to her bedroom, which was brightly lighted. My effort to explain the sudden darkness and coldness as her orgasm peak just made her look weirdly at me. She shoved me out of her house and I never saw a friendly look from her again.
My Mom knew I was different by the end of first grade. She’d caught me levitating dirty dishes from the dinner table into the kitchen. She sat me down, asked about how I did stuff and mostly I told her what I could do that other kids could not. She frowned, then gave me a happy smile as she said the words “You’re just super special, Jeffrey! But don’t tell anyone else what you’ve told me, or let other people see you do stuff. They won’t understand.” During elementary school she guided me in how to appear ‘normal’ to other people. But every night she gave me a hug in my bed, kissed me goodnight, and then left to be with my Dad. I loved her a lot.
I lost my Mom late in my senior year at LAHS. That left me with my physicist Dad, who pushed me to attend the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. I went four years there, living in a campus dorm, doing nothing unusual and earned a degree in information technology. He attended my graduation and gave me one of his rare smiles. It was the last time I saw him smile. Or be alive. On the drive home up Interstate 25, a drunk driver crossed over and hit our car head on. I ended up at the roadside, watching both cars burn in a flaming pile of wreckage, feeling guilty I had not teleported my Dad out with me. But I’d learned by then that I could only teleport other people by touching them or holding them.
The crash happened so fast that my instinct moved me out of the car faster than I could think to grab my Dad. He died there. The state police said I must have been thrown free, through the open window to the right of my Dad. They didn’t know I’d been seated in the back seat, reading a novel on my kindle. I didn’t tell them otherwise.
The wreck left me totally alone. I had no aunts or uncles, and my grandparents were all long dead. So I moved to Santa Fe and got a job working at the REI outdoors supplies store in the Railyard section of town, next to the railroad track. It fit with my camping out times and my love of the outdoors.
Now, I work five days a week, pretend an interest in baseball scores and football teams, drink a few beers with my coworkers Friday night, and laugh at their stories of weird customers. I fit in.
But I feel so alone. Why am I the way I am? What kind of life can I ever have? And will any woman ever love me for who I really am?
I don’t know. I just know that having superpowers does not mean I will suddenly teleport to Paris, use mind powers to make terrorists lose their guns, then apport them into the Seine River. Maybe I could do that. But then people would see me, cameras would record me and suddenly some dark federal agency would grab me and take me some place to be studied like a lab rat.
So I work at REI, guiding customers to the camping and hiking gear they need to roam the nearby mountains, pretending to be happy at their visit, and then guiding them to the checkout counter at one side of the store. Only fun I ever had there was one weekend when a fifty percent off sale was set and advertised. Suddenly, just minutes after the front glass doors were opened, the store lost all power. Minutes later we learned that all the stores in the Railyard had lost power. So the store shut down, customers outside made faces and I bicycled home, smiling because corporate policy required that I be given a full day’s pay for showing up.
Sometimes, at night just before I go to sleep, I fantasize. I think about teleporting into the vault of my local Wells Fargo bank, opening the locked trays with a crowbar, grabbing cash and jewelry and putting it all in my backpack, then teleporting back to my apartment. Or maybe out to my campsite in the Jemez Falls area until the local newspaper stops running stories about the secret robber of a local bank. Other times I imagine I’m in my Dad’s car and not reading. I see the drunk driver’s car running over the median and heading for us. I reach up, grab my Dad’s shoulder and teleport us both out of the car and to the grassy hillside where I ended up in real life.
Life. I live, Dad doesn’t, nor does my Mom. Why? Why am I the way I am? Am I a mutant, a genetic shuffle of the deck that became me? Or did my Mom and Dad’s exposure to radioactive waste while hiking a nearby Los Alamos canyon affect them and cause them to have a son like me? Don’t know that either. Just know that my Mom, years later, told me about those hikes they took when they first worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory. She said they had been caught by lab security while hiking in what was called Area G. They got washed down, decontaminated, their clothing taken from them and written reprimands were entered into their lab files. But they never got sick and pretty soon no one at the lab brought up their escapade.
Time to stop writing. My depression counselor told me to begin writing a journal about my life and my experiences with my parents. I’m doing that. But writing doesn’t change anything. Why should I live when my parents don’t? What use am I to anyone else when I’m afraid to be my real self? Or is there a chance I can put my superpowers to good use? To help people the way my Mom hoped would happen.
♦ ♦ ♦
Special Agent Janet Van Groot sat back from her computer screen, lifted her arms high and stretched. No one looked her way or said a thing. Her work station cubbyhole on the fourth floor of the J. Edgar Hoover building in downtown D.C. was not a desirable location, unlike the deputy director level offices with private outside porches. Two months earlier, fresh from training at Quantico, she had been assigned to the intelligence unit, Counterintelligence Division of the National Security Branch of the FBI, and given the dumb job of monitoring the adult children of geeks who worked at the national laboratories. Places like Lawrence Livermore, Oak Ridge, Argonne, Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratory. At the time, she’d asked her boss, a Mormon elder who hailed from Provo, what was the point? It was the adults now or recently working at the labs who posed a risk of selling nuke or cyber secrets to the Chinese, Russians or Iran.
The six foot six man, who always wore a black Brooks Brothers suit, blue tie and antique spectacles rather than contacts, had peered at her across their table in the eighth floor cafeteria and given her a patient look.
“Miz Van Groot, you are new here. Perhaps some day you will advance to work in our sister section, the Intelligence Branch.” His patronizing tone had made her clench her fists on her lap, below the table rim. The bald-headed bastard had no reason to act so superior. “You are assigned the social media, public behavior and private behavior monitoring of the adult children of current or former lab workers exactly because they may have observed some parental behavior that involved contact with a foreign agent. People your age are used to chatting loosely on social media places like Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook and the like.” His frown betrayed his opinion of those normal chit-chat venues. “Yes, there are thousands of such adult offspring. Yes, the work is tedious. But so is the collection of fingerprints from bomb blast sites. Our analysts review many prints in order to find the vital print or prints. Just as our video analysts review mediocre images from building security cameras.” He gave her a smile that barely moved his clean-shaven face. “Your assignment is the kind of background detective work that might reveal an intelligence mole before the branch’s executive assistant director gets a call from the bureau’s associate deputy director, demanding to know why we didn’t prevent the latest bombing or theft of a weapons design. Understand?”
“Yes sir, I understand,” she had replied, holding back on her opinion of the man. It was clear this fossil did not like women in special agent positions, let alone a woman who had completed a thesis on industrial espionage. “May I seek assistance from other members of our branch, the bureau’s other branches, maybe even the National Counterintelligence and Security Center?”
The man had grimaced. “Judgment, young lady! Learn some judgment. A new special agent does not go roaming into the inner workings of other national security agencies without explicit proof of a national security violation.” Joshua Lederberg picked up his glass of lemonade, took a sip and looked sharply at her. “Of course you may request assistance from anyone within our branch. Contact with parties outside the branch, but within the agency, happens only with my permission. Contact with outside agencies like the NSA, DIA or NCSC is only done with the approval of Executive Assistant Director Michael Wambach of the NSB.”
She nodded quickly. “Certainly sir! I do understand our chain of command.” The man put down his lemonade, looking thoughtful. “Will there be a chance for a field visit to any of the labs I am monitoring? At the academy I trained under the special agent who led the team that arrested Liew and Maegerle. He taught me the value of being in the field so that—”
“You are here solely because of that training by Special Agent McPherson,” Lederberg interrupted. “And also thanks to your thesis on industrial espionage and ways to detect it. Field assignments are given out on the basis of the agency’s needs. As you know, there are two operations units within our division. If one of them requests your assistance, I might consider loaning you out. Depending on the progress you make in reviewing the lab offspring files.” He looked at his iWatch. “Lunch is over. Should you not head back to work on those files?”
“Of course, sir,” Janet had said, standing up. “Thank you for your counsel. I will apply myself diligently to reviewing the databases on laboratory adult children.”
“See that you do.” The man stood up, turned away and then headed for another bald-headed man whom he hailed with a casual “Joe!”
That had been two months ago. Now, sitting in front of her large screen computer, where the Classified PDF file of all laboratory offspring held page after page of names, ages, locations and photos, she told herself the job she was doing was indeed important. In 1995 or earlier, China had stolen the design for the W-88 thermonuclear warhead, a design created in Los Alamos. The prime suspect in the theft was Wen Ho Lee, a computer scientist working on nuclear weapons designs. His Chinese wife had been invited to a high level computer conference in China, which he attended with her. He was later indicted by the Justice Department and pled guilty to mishandling classified data. The man then sued Justice and received a $1.9 million settlement for the leaking of his name. But Janet knew there was more to Chinese spying at Los Alamos. The Lee case and the later bureau arrests and prosecutions of Chi Mak and Greg Chung were the reason she was now reviewing the social media history of Gloria Chén. She was the grown daughter of Hui and Jiang Chén, two current Los Alamos National Lab employees. Gloria was the 297th name on Janet’s list, in alphabetical order.
“Screw this,” she whispered to herself. “Let’s see what’s at the bottom of the list.”
Janet reached up and finger-flipped the PDF to its last page. There were several youths with W names. No X, Y or Z names, thank the Goddess. Last in line was a Jeffrey Montgomery Webster, age 23, six feet three inches, 160 pounds, single, now living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The file photo of the young man showed him to be lanky with curly black hair, blue eyes and wide shoulders. Kind of attractive in a way. The image was a year old, taken at his college graduation from UNM. He wore a nice blue suit in the picture. The LANL initials next to his name ID’d him as someone whose parents had worked at the lab. She reached up and touched the blue Bio line below his name. A new window opened to the left of the PDF listing.
“Only son of John and Elaine Webster,” she murmured to herself, taking care to mask her voice from hearing by the other work stations of the intelligence unit.
Interesting. While the pic showed Webster as black-haired, earlier images of him showed him with red hair. Unusual since the images of both parents showed them to be black-haired people. Was he ashamed of being a redhead? She frowned as she looked below the parental images, each marked Deceased. The father had worked in the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Facility building of the Plutonium Science and Manufacturing section of the Weapons Programs division. He held a Q clearance with TS//RD and SCI annotations. He’d been assigned to the X Division of the lab. Webster senior had passed his most recent SSBI review. The mother had been employed doing database management at the Chief Information Officer’s building. Her DOE clearance was L level with S//FRD annotation. She’d passed her last Periodic Reinvestigation. The father held a Ph.D. in nuclear physics while the mother had earned a master’s in information technology. More interesting, both parents had traveled overseas several times, taking young Jeffrey with them on later trips. She tapped on the blue Details line for the parents. Another window opened to the right.
Those trips had included visits to London, Paris, Tokyo, Rome, Florence, Geneva, Berlin before the collapse of the German Democratic Republic, and a visit to Prague of the old Czechoslovakia, back when that nation was part of the Warsaw Pact. While the trips were listed as international nuclear physics conferences, where the father often gave approved papers, still, either parent could have been approached in Prague or Berlin. Or even Geneva, in view of that city’s nature as the host of the European headquarters of the United Nations. There were plenty of spy-type people attached to embassies in Geneva.
A radiation icon beside the names of both parents caused her to tap it.
“Damn!” she muttered, then looked up to see if any co-worker had noticed her blurting of an expletive. Her cubbyhole occupied one triangular corner of the inner work space of the fourth floor. To her left and right ran open walkways that separated the outer rim of offices and the inner cluster of work stations occupied by analysts like herself. Across from her were three work stations with open entries. The work space of her friend Helen Watanabe was dark. Helen was off today. To the right sat heavyset Richard Daunton, a young Mormon who clearly aimed to please their boss Joshua. To the left was trim, athletic Joshua Donohue, a former high school quarterback whose high grades at Purdue had earned him the attention of bureau recruiters. Joshua was leaning forward, his attention focused on his own large flatscreen, fingers tapping on his keyboard. Neither Joshua nor Richard looked her way. Taking a deep breath she looked back to her own screen and focused on what had surprised her.
The rad icon had taken her to a Medical Records window that covered both parents of Jeffrey Webster. It indicated that the two adults had gone hiking in a nearby canyon and had wandered into a part of the lab’s Area G, one of the zones where transuranic wastes had been dumped from WWII and Cold War weapons research. This Area G held dispersed plutonium residues and other heavy elements that came from plutonium pit production work at the lab’s building PF-4. Both parents had breathed in contaminated air and had residue on their clothing, according to a note from the 80s. They’d gone through decontamination and reprimands had been entered into their lab personnel files. Strangely enough, neither parent had signed up for medical assistance like that offered to Downwinders who’d been rad exposed during nuke bomb tests in Nevada, or to rad emissions at the Hanford, Washinton nuke production facilities. Why not? She tapped the Details line and scanned their medical records. The mother Elaine had died from cervical cancer during Jeffrey’s senior year at high school, while the father had been killed by a drunk driver just after the youth’s graduation from UNM college in Albuquerque. She tapped closed the parental med window, then the parental work history window and went to the image of Jeffrey Webster. She tapped open his Medical Records page.
A healthy young man with no serious illnesses or injuries was reported. He’d gotten measles at a young age and had fractured his left forearm at age six. No indication of opiate use after the casting of the arm. And the guy still had his appendix. She winced at her own memory of the pain of having it removed. Sitting up too quickly after her operation had pulled on the stitches. Still, she was back home within a day after that operation. This Webster youth had never been operated on or admitted to a hospital. She tapped shut the youth’s Med page and tapped open his Social and Education icons.
Strange. Jeffrey Webster had never opened his own Facebook page, unlike scores of his fellow supersmart students at Los Alamos High School. Nor had he ever been on Snapchat or any of the other online socializing pages like 4chan, 8chan and Redditt. He did have a Twitter account that had little info on it. But . . . she tapped a Tracking icon on her screen . . . he had maintained his parents’ Facebook page. There were no new entries on that page since his father’s death. But her Tracking worm said young Jeffrey visited his parents’ Facebook page a few times each week, using a four year old Vaio laptop. She tapped the computer icon and sent her worm to it. Jeffrey’s computer history showed regular visits to BBC Online, other news sites, local forest and state park info sites, some online shopping on Amazon for tools, outdoor gear and a watch, but no personal emails to friends or fellow graduates of the high school. Nor were there any chat links to UNM, where he’d earned a B.Sc. in information technology. So he knew the basics of computers. Another icon tap told her the guy did not own a normal Android or iPhone, but possessed only the simplest Kyocera cell phone. Its location signal was operational, she saw. Cell phone towers in Santa Fe showed the phone location as downtown, near his work place at the REI retailer.
What were his social activities from high school onward?
Almost nothing. He’d taken a Mercedes Johnson to his high school prom, then a month later they had broken up, according to an entry from the analyst who had compiled the PDF listing of lab adult children. No girlfriend since then. No online accessing of porn sites. No computer roaming of dating sites like Match, eHarmony, Tinder, OkCupid or Zoosk. Hmmm. What did he do for a sex life? She knew from her own college years that young men of Jeffrey’s age were hormonally driven sex seekers. Yet he had no girlfriend, let alone a wife. Was he penniless? She tapped the Tracker icon.
No. His only credit card was from Wells Fargo in Santa Fe, the bank into which his REI paycheck was electronically deposited. Plus a debit card. There were no other Visa, American Express or Mastercard accounts for him. His Social Security survivors benefits from his mother’s death had ended at age 19. Had his parents accumulated a secret pile of money that he had inherited? She tapped the Income icon within the Social page. Then she ordered her tracking worm to open the youth’s checking and savings accounts at the bank.
A total of $1,473 showed in his savings account, while his checking account showed a recent payroll deposit. That moved his checking account to a total of $1,193. Enough to pay his $800 monthly rent at a rundown condo apartment complex. And enough for food and utilities if he ate simply.
Too basic to be believed.
She sat back from her screen, thinking over what she had learned about Jeffrey Montgomery Webster.
He was a loner, with no aunts or uncles listed. His parents had no other children. He’d earned top grades in elementary and junior high school, then in high school his grades had dropped to Bs and a few As. His intelligence report from seventh grade showed him with an IQ of 148. Highly gifted, she recalled from her college psych class report on the Stanford-Binet Fifth Edition testing scheme. He’d visited nine foreign countries with his parents, plus trips in the US to the Grand Canyon, Empire State Building, St. Louis, Yellowstone National Park and other parks and national forests. He’d never been to Moscow or Beijing or Tehran. The sale of his parents’ home had gone to pay off debts of his father, after the man’s highway death. Both parents had been the high IQ types common in Los Alamos, and their son had done well at local schools. Except for the slight drop in grades in high school. Why had that happened? He had the brains to make the National Honor Society. But he’d never joined any of the debate or AP classes at his school. Curious. She tapped on the Social icon.
He’d attended the Los Alamos Unitarian Church with his parents, another factor common among lab scientists. And at present he worked as a retail clerk for the REI business in Santa Fe, a larger city not far from Los Alamos. She’d noticed on his Social page that Jeffrey had attended the local Buddhist temple several times, then had attended talks by some local gurus and self-proclaimed shamans. But he’d never become a rabid follower of any social or religious group. All right. But why did she have a feeling in her gut that something was not right about one Jeffrey Webster? He was not just loafing around like so many of her generation, hoping to win the lottery or get assigned the dream job they never earned by hard effort. He worked. He paid his bills. He used his cell phone for local calls, nothing international. There were no calls to a secret girlfriend. He had never written a letter to the editor. His senior year UNM thesis had been focused on the International Genome Project and the computerization of the resulting genetic data. There was nothing illegal or suspicious in his recorded activities. That in itself made her wonder about him. Why hadn’t this supersmart young man moved into a real career?
She sighed to herself. Jeffrey was less controversial than Gloria Chén, who had graduated from LAHS the same year he had. Like many young people who’d grown up in Los Alamos, she was very smart and highly competitive in school activities. And she had earned a UNM degree in COBOL programming and gone on to work at Honeywell in Albuquerque, doing computer database tweaking. She had a future ahead of her. This Jeffrey did not. Why not?
Well, she really wanted to get out into the field. Was the puzzling history of this Webster youth a basis for asking her girlfriend Beverly in the Terrorist Screening Center for an outside assignment? Maybe she could travel to Los Alamos and investigate Webster for potential foreign agent knowledge. His parents’ overseas travels were more controversial than the travels of Chén’s parents. Then again, it was common for most national lab employees to travel overseas to scientific conferences. And a third of the adult employees had prior service in the Air Force, Army or Navy. Not so for Webster’s parents. They had both grown up in a small town in Iowa, gone to undergrad and then graduate school in that state, been a couple since starting college, then had waited until the mother was 30 to have their first and only child. Not so unusual in today’s world. But the parents had been children of the 60s and 70s, the era of Hippies and political rebels. Yet they were both listed as Independent voters. Which made them unusual for the early 80s, when they’d first gone to work at Los Alamos. What else was unusual about young Webster’s parents?
That was it. The parents. Their son was so bland socially that she could not justify a field trip to check him out. But his parents, now, with their visits to Prague, Berlin and Geneva, those visits she could highlight in her analytical report. Beverly owed her a favor, thanks to the tip she’d passed on to Beverly. There had been a Russian woman scientist who’d entered the US on a visitor’s visa, then had overstayed her visa. Janet had been roaming outside of her lab datafiles and had taken note of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement visa entry records. One cold day in March she’d noticed the lack of an exit record for the Russian woman. Her heads-up to Beverly had enabled the operations people in her girlfriend’s section to track the Russian, document her visits to Brookhaven and the Princeton Plasma Physics lab, and caught her in cell phone chats with American scientists asking for access to the lab computers, supposedly for research purposes. The Russian had been arrested, then deported after State lodged a complaint with the Russian embassy in DC. Beverly owed her.
Janet touched on the Word icon and began typing her Analysis report on the strange activities of Elaine and John Webster, former employees of Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the potential for foreign agent contacts with them. She smiled to herself. She would get around Lederberg one way or another!