EXCEPTIONALS: DAWN OF POTENTIALS
15 Years Ago
“So what’s the alternative?” the board member asked, staring at the numbers on the spreadsheet. Scalers sighed, already knowing the answer. They all did. They’d known about it for weeks. Months really.
“I’m afraid there is none,” the CEO told them all from the front of the room. “None of the company’s projects in the last few years have panned out. The ones currently being worked on haven’t had any breakthroughs. We are spending more money than we’re making. We have been for a while now. This company is going bankrupt.”
There were a lot of deep sighs and slumps at that word. The word that had been going around the company and their rivals and the news for the last year. The word they all didn’t want to hear but needed to. The word that promised the future of the company was basically nothing.
“All our donors are backing out,” the CEO continued. “No more investments. We’ve laid off more than 50% of the staff and even that’s not cutting it. No matter how cost-cutting and careful we are, it won’t matter. The sad truth, ladies and gentlemen, is that unless we come across something big, we’re dead in the water.”
Scalers leaned back. At one point, this company would never have even considered this conversation. A few years ago, it had been one of the top companies in the world with cutting edge advancements in science. Now, they were practically a laughingstock.
Having had enough, he packed up his stuff and placed it in his briefcase.
“Where are you going?” one board member asked as he stood up.
“To get my affairs in order,” Scalers replied. “And I suggest you all do the same. Save what you can before the end.” With that, he opened the door and left them behind.
As he walked through the building, he passed the many laboratories they had, the see-through windows showing him a skeleton crew of scientists and engineers still hard at work. Most of them were only trying half-heartedly at this point and Scalers could hardly blame them.
He was just heading for the elevators when one of the projects caught his eye. At first he thought it was just a pile of trash. Then he saw the wheels, the metal plating, and the wires sticking out.
Scalers frowned and pushed his way into the lab. The engineer sitting beside the heap of broken metal started and looked around at him. “Oh, Mr. Scalers,” he said in surprise. “I wasn’t expecting you.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t stay long,” Scalers told him. He pointed at the heap. “Is that what I think it is?”
“The rover from our Pluto expedition,” the engineer confirmed. “The one that crashed, anyway. The other one’s still there. And this is basically garbage at this point. I’m kind of just salvaging what I can to see if it can be used on other projects.
Scalers didn’t bother telling him the likelihood of other projects was zip. He was too focused on the broken rover. He remembered the Pluto expedition. A little under a decade ago, when he had just started here, an assistant to the present-day CEO. Two rovers, sent down to the dwarf planet’s punitive landscape, with a mission to explore and report back. As far as they knew, the mission had yielded absolutely nothing. Another project that had come to failure.
“Hmmm.” He looked over the remains of the machine. None of them had known what had caused the destruction. It had simply hit something and then the screen went dark. It had been curious but after a while and not wanting to risk the other rover just yet, they had let it go, deciding to wait until the remains of the first rover were returned. Apparently, they had been. Now Scalers wondered what about it had caught his attention. “Any clue as to the crash?”
“Actually, I was just looking into it,” the engineer said. “I believe I was able to salvage the camera footage from the wreckage here. For the past week I’ve carefully pieced it all back together and removed anything that didn’t belong. I was just about to check the revised footage. Would you like to see it as well?”
Scalers looked towards the exit and then to the rover. For some reason, he had been called in here by this thing. Maybe it would yield something. Maybe it wouldn’t. But he honestly was curious to see what had happened. So he nodded for the engineer to proceed.
The engineer typed a few keys into his computer, showing the footage on the large monitor in front of them. “And here. This starts about thirty seconds before the crash.” He then pressed the ‘play’ button.
The footage came to life, grainy and slightly unfocused but not terrible, especially considering the distance the images traveled. The screen showed a frozen and barren wasteland, a wide expanse of stars and nothingness above. The rover trudged along, its wheels specially suited for traveling over nitrogen ice like this.
Scalers remembered seeing this from before, when they had first gotten word of the rover’s crash. So he wasn’t surprised when the screen suddenly jolted and went to black.
What he was surprised by was that the screen came back for only a few seconds. But that was all it took to see it.
“What is that?” the engineer gasped, staring at the screen, pausing it to get a good look.
Scalers stared as well, not knowing what he was seeing. It looked like a pool of liquid metal except it was slightly see through. There were no bubbles, just swirls in and out of the liquid.
“Play it in super slow motion,” Scalers said. The engineer clicked a few buttons and the few seconds turned into about thirty seconds. But that was enough to see the pool churn in real life. As Scalers watched, he could swear it looked like was pulsing with energy, tiny flashes in the liquid sparking in synchronization.
“Get this to the Board,” Scalers ordered. “Immediately. They need to see this. To know that we aren’t dead yet.” As the engineer went to do just that, Scalers stared at the strange substance on the screen. “What are you?” he asked aloud.
The substance continued to pulse and shift around until the video went to black. Scalers stroked his chin. That substance, whatever it was, fit none of the descriptions of the materials on Pluto that scientists had made. It was something new. And thus, something potentially profitable.
“We’ll get to the bottom of this,” Scalers promised. “One way or another.”
It took seven and a half years, but he kept that promise. In the time it took for the second rover to return to Earth with a sample of the substance, the company had gone bankrupt. Now, it and all its assets (not that it had many of those) belonged to the Delphi Corporation. Scalers, always able to adapt, had taken on a position there and had now risen among their ranks to manager of all projects. Especially this one.
“Give me the news, Professor,” Scalers ordered, walking into the lab.
Professor Grace looked up. “Well, sir, we don’t really quite know what to make of it.”
Grace licked his lips, thinking for a second, before saying, “this material is nothing like anything we’ve ever encountered.”
Scalers’s eyes narrowed. “Go on.”
The rover had arrived last week after a long journey across the solar system from the distant dwarf planet of Pluto. The second it had arrived, a sample of the mysterious substance that Scalers had been unable to get out of his head for the last seven years was sent to the lab and scientists had gotten to work on it, trying to understand what it was.
“Well, sir, we know for a fact now that whatever it is, it has none of the elements within our solar system. It’s definitely not an undiscovered periodic element as we can tell that it is made up of other substances, but we don’t know what they are either. Whatever it is, it shouldn’t be here.”
“But it was found in our solar system,” Scalers said, though he phrased it almost as a question, as if deep down he himself wasn’t so sure.
Grace took a deep breath. “Honestly, sir, from what we can gather, it may have been found here, but that doesn’t mean it originated here.”
Scalers sucked in his teeth. “Are you suggesting this substance is of alien origin?”
“Unknown sir. We’re still looking into it. But before we get into that, there’s something else you need to see.”
Grace then led him through several doors into the dressing room in front of the lab of hazardous materials. They quickly zipped up a pair of hazmat suits and stepped into the lab. The few scientists working in there all stopped what they were doing.
“No changes to the subjects of Phase 1,” a scientist from one end of the room told Grace.
“Subject 2C has developed new behavioral patterns while the other subjects remain the same,” a scientist said from the other end of the room.
Grace nodded and led Scalers over to the first scientist who was standing next to five containers, each packed with dirt and containing a plant.
“After a few days of studying the substance, we decided to see what happens when we inject it into a living organism and started with these five plants,” Grace said, showing him one of the plants.
“And?” Scalers asked, leaning in to get a better look at it, not seeing anything out of the ordinary.
“And each plant experienced major changes to their DNA structure. It was like the substance awakened something inside it, something it didn’t realize it even had,” Grace explained.
Grace nodded and then took a hammer from one of the desks and then slammed it down on one of the plants. Scalers gasped out of instinct but then he gaped when the plant, instead of cracking in half like he thought, held firm. In fact, Grace seemed to stumble from the blow.
“That’s incredible,” Scalers muttered.
“Invincible skin,” Grace told him. “We tried everything. Match, chainsaw, sledgehammer. Nothing. The thing’s unbreakable.”
Grace quickly showed him the other plants. One seemed to have frozen the dirt around it. Another seemed to be glowing different colors.
“What about Phase 2?” Scalers asked, looking at the other end of the room
“Ah, now that’s where things get a little more interesting,” Grace said, leading him to the other end of the room. Scalers saw more containers but instead of plants each one had a mouse inside. “We tested each one yesterday and the results were instantaneous.”
“What results?” Scalers asked.
Grace gave him a small smile and then nodded at one of the scientists. “Show him Subject 2C,” he said. One of the scientists grabbed the third container and brought it to an empty desk.
Scalers stared at the mouse inside. The mouse glared right back, seemingly unafraid. In fact, it seemed to have almost an intelligence in those little eyes.
“2C hates having the container shaken around,” Grace said as he picked up the container. “But see what he does when it happens.” He began to shake the container, causing the mouse inside to squeak in anger. For a few seconds nothing happened. And then the whole interior of the container caught fire.
“Whoa!” Scalers stepped back in surprise. He looked closer and saw the mouse still there, completely unharmed by the raging inferno surrounding it.
“Yep,” Grace nodded his head. “It seems like this substance seems to activate something inside the organism, something to allow them to become something more. Some sort of…potential.”
Scalers stared at the flaming mouse as the fire drifted into embers. The mouse looked at him with an expression of contempt, its eyes looking like circles of flame now. “How much of this substance did the rover bring back?” he asked.
“Not much. A few vials worth of it. We’re still running more tests, trying to understand it.”
“Good, good, keep at it,” Scalers told him. “I have to inform the board about this. This…” he laughed awkwardly, staring at the plants and the mouse. “We need more. We need all of it. This new resource will change the world. And with it in our hands, we can change the world.”
Daniel Coders walked down the street carefully, nervous about being in this neighborhood at this time of day, just as the sun went down. Several homeless people were loitering around and Daniel could feel several of their eyes watching him. None of them were hostile, yet. But he had no wish to stretch his luck.
“How much farther?” his friend Silas Deans complained, also feeling the eyes on them.
Jenny Henderson, their other companion, looked at her phone. “According to the address from Daniel’s mysterious friend, it should be right up ahead.”
Daniel rolled his eyes. “Stop calling him my mysterious friend. He’s just a guy who keeps me informed on…stuff like this,” he said, sparkling his fingers so that electricity danced across them. He had developed that power a couple years ago for still unknown reasons. Hopefully, after tonight, they would be known.
“Here,” Jenny pointed, looking up from her phone. All three stared at the large warehouse painted dark blue with a sinister aura around it. The two large windows and large doors shaped in the way of a human skull and the two burly guards standing in front of the doors didn’t do anything to dissuade that.
“You know, I think there’s a pleasant Ben & Jerry’s right around the corner from here,” Silas suggested.
“This is the address,” Jenny confirmed, glancing at her phone again as if wishing that it would show her an address far from here. Daniel couldn’t blame her. This looked like the place crime bosses dragged victims to beat their heads in. But Wayne had told him to come here, said it held all the answers he wanted. And after two years, he had a lot of questions that needed answers.
“Let’s go,” he told the others. Jenny nodded and tucked away her phone. They started walking across the street, Silas still making protests about how good the Ben & Jerry’s was.
“Hello,” Daniel said to the guards, smiling. He wanted to make a good first impression on them, show that they were friendly. He nodded at the others and they all started smiling as well. That is until Silas started smiling ear to ear, giving off a Joker impression. Daniel decided to stop since it seemed to be freaking out the guards. “We’d like to go in.”
One of the guards huffed. “Why would a bunch of kids want to go in there?”
Daniel frowned. “I’m 23.”
“Really? Bit small aren’t you?”
Daniel looked down at himself curiously. True, he hadn’t reached the height he’d wanted but he wasn’t that short. “I think you’re just really tall.”
The other guard snorted, causing the first one to glare at him. He then turned back to them. “What’s the password?” he asked in a tone saying he didn’t believe they had it.
“Clarity is the key to eternity.” Daniel wanted to say it smoothly, but he stumbled over to the last symbol, his nervousness coming in. The other guard snorted again. He seemed to do that a lot.
The first guard nodded, his eyebrows raised. He knocked twice on the doors and waited as they grinded open enough to let one person in at a time.
“Much obliged,” Daniel told them, causing the other guard to snort again. Daniel started to wonder if maybe he was one of those pigs from the end of Animal Farm.
Silas and Jenny nodded politely as they entered through the doors. As Daniel walked in and took in his surroundings, he couldn’t help but mutter, “whoa!”
It was a fortune teller’s paradise.
Mirrors crowded the walls, which was probably for the best anyway consider how hideous the walls were on the outside. The floor was entirely made of patterned carpets, made of different shades of green, blue, violet, red, and orange, causing a cascade of rainbows across the floor. Two fog machines were releasing plenty of mysterious mists into the building, mostly staying at ankle level but providing the right level of suspense and intrigue. And then, of course, there was the large table covered in purple satin with a crystal ball on top and a woman sitting behind it wearing a long gown and what Daniel believed was a sari. The gown was a deep blue and the sari soft green.
The woman herself was a young woman, her hair almond-colored, her skin a light tan. But her eyes were what really caught Daniel’s attention. A deep cloudy gray that seemed to both see him and not see him at the same time. God, he wished Uncle John was here to see this.
“Daniel Coders, Silas Deans, and Jenny Henderson. Welcome to my sanctuary.”
All three looked at each other, confused. How did she know their names when they hadn’t introduced themselves? “Uh, hi?” he greeted. “You seem to know our names, but I don’t think we’ve met before.”
“Oh, but we have,” the woman informed him.
Daniel frowned, trying to think back. He was pretty sure he’d remember meeting her. Even without the elaborate clothing, she wasn’t hard to miss.
“Were you that coffee girl who kept getting my order wrong?” Silas asked.
The woman sighed. “You’re just as tiresome as I thought you’d be.”
Silas sniffed. “Rude.”
“Ok, hold on a second,” Daniel held up his hands. “Who are you? Straight answer please.”
The woman turned his gaze on him and he instantly regretted his words. The way she was looking at him right now, like she could glean into his very soul and spill every one of his secrets and thoughts to the world made him want to run out of there screaming.
“My name is the Oracle,” she told him.
“That cannot be your name,” Jenny said decisively. To her, everything had to be logical, follow a certain pattern. And apparently, one’s name being the Oracle didn’t fit a pattern.
The Oracle turned her gaze on Jenny and held it there, her expression becoming a hint darker. Jenny took a step back. “Fine, your name’s the Oracle.” The Oracle leaned back then and faced all of them at once.
“What are your questions?”
Daniel stepped forward, licking his lips and rubbing his hands nervously. He was starting to think that coming here had been a huge mistake. Even worse than eating three whole bags of Doritos before going on a rollercoaster (which was something he never thought he’d say). But he needed answers.
“How did we get these powers?” he asked and showed off his electrical abilities. Like tiny lightning bolts they crackled in his hand. The lights of the room dimmed and the fog machines sputtered from his abilities. The three other guards in the room stepped forward but the Oracle waved them back. Her eyes took on a more fascinated expression. Daniel had received these powers one night two years ago. He had no idea how or from what but he had done everything he could to find out. He’d gone to the hospital to get tests done and come back clean, nothing wrong with him except low potassium levels. But they had come from somewhere. His powers, not the low potassium levels, although that was a mystery as well.
The Oracle turned to the other two and both took a step back. Jenny slowly touched the table, bypassing the satin cover. Her hand slowly took on the qualities of wood, becoming firmer and taking on a deep brown shade. The Oracle took her hand and examined it all over, her interested even more peaked. Jenny had received her abilities six months after Daniel when she touched the kitchen counter and all of a sudden her entire body turned to marble. After a wild freak-out in her apartment and the destruction of 20% of the kitchen and 90% of the bathroom, she had managed to calm down enough to return to normal.
Or at least, a new version of normal.
Silas had discovered his powers while playing a match of kickball. It had been his turn to kick the ball out and then run, and as he kicked it, the ball somehow flew overhead at the speed of a bullet and disappear from view. They later discovered that he could do that with any object, pulse it out at high speeds. His aim was atrocious which was why Daniel tended to stay as far away from his line of sight when he was holding something. Silas picked up a coin and pulsed it into a mirror, causing the glass to crack from the impact. He grinned and wiggled her eyebrows at her to see if the Oracle was impressed.
“I expect that to be paid in cash,” she informed him, causing his eyebrows to crash back down. She turned to all of them again. “Your powers are…interesting,” she told them. “I sense great potential in each of you. As for your question, Mr. Coders, let us see.”
She placed her hands on the crystal ball and closed her eyes. Daniel noticed that all her fingernails were painted black except for the thumbs. Those nails were painted white. The Oracle muttered something under her breath and the ball seemed to fill with mist. Silas was enraptured by the performance but that was no surprise. He was enraptured by puppet shows. Jenny, as usual, was rolling her eyes at what she thought was just another smoke and mirrors performance. Daniel wasn’t sure how he felt. It all felt rather fake, another way to make money. But then why all the guards? Why all the privacy? It was almost as if she was trying to hide from the public. Or something else.
The Oracle gasped suddenly and Daniel noticed the mists in the ball grow dark. Probably not a good sign. Then the Oracle opened her eyes and they were pure white. Definitely not a good sign. Silas made a sound like a cat making a hairball and Jenny fell backwards in her chair from shock. Daniel remained where he was, determined not to let his fear show. The Oracle gasped again and then let go of the ball as if it was burning hot. She sat in her chair for a moment, breathing in deeply. Her forehead was covered in sweat and her hands were shaking. Either she was an excellent actress or what had happened was real. Daniel didn’t know which one he wanted more.
“I am sorry, Mr. Coders. But my visions were blocked,” the Oracle shook her head in disbelief. “That has never happened before.”
“I’m sorry,” Jenny interjected. “But could you please tell me what is happening here?”
The Oracle sighed. “So rooted in the present, never looking beyond what you can see. Perhaps this will change, in time. To answer your question, I have the ability to glimpse possible outcomes of future events, see how each thread in the fabric of reality connects to the others.”
“Ok,” Daniel nodded along. “So what does that mean?”
“It means, to put it plainly, that I can see the future,” the Oracle told him. “Or at least probable versions of them. The past as well and sometimes the present.”
“Whoa,” Daniel breathed. “So that’s how you knew all our names. And that we’d met before. Because we had, for you, in the future.”
The Oracle sighed. “Close. I have seen possible futures where we have met and one came to pass tonight, although in each of those futures you ask a different question. That’s how I knew who you were. Now, as for your question,” she shook her head again. “For the first time I cannot see the answer. It’s as if something purposefully is keeping that information from me. I am sorry Mr. Coders.”
Daniel sighed and clenched his fist in disappointment. Another failure. Another dead end. He stood to leave, not wanting to waste another minute here.
“However,” the Oracle said softly, causing him to pause. “There might be another way.” She was speaking more to herself than at him at this point but still he watched closely as she gripped the crystal ball again. She gasped, her eyes rolling back again. The ball seemed to tremble in her hands. As Daniel watched, a crack formed around the base. Now she was shaking like she was having a seizure.
“We need to pull her out,” Daniel said, leaping around the table. Two of the guards came forward as well to check on her. Clearly, this wasn’t normal. Then the Oracle screamed out. That did it. Daniel rushed forward and grabbed her arm. He instantly regretted that decision.
He fell to his knees, his mind flooded with visions he could barely understand. He saw a man standing in the ruins of a building, his skin glowing. He saw a teenager with dust floating in front of him that seemed to be forming into objects. He saw a group of armed men surround a building, a snake logo on their shoulders. He saw a man running so fast that the world blurred around him. The last thing he saw was another man, this one with skin the purest white, walk slowly forward, his eyes appearing to him like endless voids.
“Daniel!” someone shouted in his ear and he was jarred awake. Jenny and Silas were standing over him, looks of concern on their faces. “Are you ok?”
Daniel slowly stood, his hands shaking from what he had seen. “Yeah, yeah I’m fine. How’s the Oracle?”
He looked up and saw her sitting back in her chair, drenched in sweat. One of her guards handed her a water bottle and she drained it in ten seconds. Her eyes were back to normal but also seemed slightly vacant, as if they weren’t seeing at all.
“I’m fine,” she said quietly. “Just…disoriented. Whatever is hiding this information clearly doesn’t want it to be discovered.”
“But I don’t understand,” Jenny interjected. “How could they hurt your mind when you’re looking at…whatever you were looking at?”
“I don’t know,” the Oracle replied ruefully. “But I was able to get some answer for you all.”
“Really?” Daniel leaned forward desperately. “What? What’s the answer?”
The Oracle looked at him with sympathy. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple. I still don’t have the answer for you, but I do know how you can get it.”
“How?” Daniel asked, willing to take what he could. After these last couple of years with so few answers, he would do anything to get as many more as he could.
“This may not make sense but you must find five other potentials-”
“Potentials?” Daniel interrupted. The Oracle gave him an annoyed look. “Oh, those are the names of the powered people. Got it. Please continue.”
“Five other potentials such as yourself and unite with them,” the Oracle continued. “The blur in the wind. The creator of anything. The one that cannot be broken. The runaway psychic. And the girl with more skills than you can count.”
Daniel whispered the descriptions back to himself, memorizing them. He had no idea what they meant or who they could be describing but he was going to find out. Anything to get those answers.
“Thank you,” he said to her and took out his wallet, placing four 50s on the table as told by Wayne. The Oracle yanked them up and placed them in her pocket.
“Good luck,” she told him. Then she gave them a dismissive wave. Their audience was over. Daniel walked out with Jenny and Silas, still going over those descriptions. He wondered who those people were and what kind of powers they had. Hopefully they would have more answers than he did. And what about those visions he had seen while touching the Oracle. Those made no sense.
“Are you ok?” Jenny asked him.
“Yeah,” he told her. “Just got a lot to think about.”
“So what’s our next stop?” Silas asked. “I recommend Ben & Jerry’s. Especially after all that…” he rotated his finger to the side of his head, insinuating that the Oracle was crazy.
Daniel shook his head. “She’s not crazy, man.”
“Daniel,” Jenny looked at him with her eyebrows raised. “Please tell me you weren’t buying that in there. That was all showmanship. Smoke & mirrors, literally. She’s just an actor, conning you. You way over tipped her.”
He opened his mouth to tell them what he had seen when he touched her arm, the visions in his head, but then thought better of it. These two were realists, unwilling to accept much beyond what they knew was real. Even with the powers they knew they had, Jenny refused to accept this meant there were aliens or radiation leakages happening (some of Daniel’s recurring ideas). They wouldn’t believe him, thinking it was just coincidence. But he knew what he had seen. And he knew the Oracle was legit. So he was going to follow the breadcrumbs she had laid out for him. Find the people she had described. And he only knew one person who could help with that.
“Come on, I know where we need to go.”
“Ben & Jerry’s?” Silas asked hopefully.
“No,” Daniel told him, then thought better of it. “We can stop on the way. But there’s somewhere else we need to go.”
“Where?” Jenny asked.
“My mysterious friend,” Daniel told them. “He runs a comic book store down on 3rd street. And he knows every single powered person in the city. If anyone knows who the people the Oracle described are, it’s him.”
“Daniel.” Jenny’s voice stopped him. “Daniel, it’s late. We’re tired. Let’s get some sleep. Think on this. Ok?”
Daniel nodded. She was right. He was tired, even though the adrenaline was keeping it at bay. “Ok. Yeah, tomorrow.”
But all through the night, those visions he saw haunted him, running through his mind, refusing to leave him alone. And he wondered, were they only possible futures? Or were they real?