Strongarm's Story: A Question of Loyalty

The doubt started when Chief Interrogator Washington asked–no, ordered Strongarm to kill Cleopatra. He had seen the logic, but still knew that with that action, a line had been crossed. This was not what he had signed up for…well, actually, he hadn’t signed up for any of it, but Reese insinuated the alternative was not one Strongarm wanted to consider. But he wanted to do the right thing once he realized he had been given powers, and Robert had felt operating as a Powers Division officer under the codename Strongarm was it.

It hadn’t hurt that he was also gaining a little notoriety through the efforts of the Deputy Assistant of Information. He had always been attracted to the spotlight; one of the reasons he worked as a stuntman before the accident was to get in front of the camera. In order to increase his exposure, the Deputy Assistant had referred him to a Mr. G. That man exuded an aura of oiliness that reminded him of some of the worst entertainment agents he had encountered while working in the industry. From the way he talked to his sallow skin and gaunt cheeks, Mr. G. gave Strongarm the creeps. It made it difficult to work with him, and it began to rub away the shine of Emperor Cole’s Praetoria.

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Robert snapped upright in bed, drenched in sweat. He could still see her in his mind: the shoulder-length red hair, white corset that pushed up ample cleavage, and thigh-high boots–it was everything he expected from a fantasy dream.

Except for the mask.

The mask turned it into a nightmare, with its dead, china doll expression. But that wasn’t the worst. What woke him was the realization he had seen the woman before, when Praetor Tilman had sent him to apprehend the psychics from the Syndicate. The woman had appeared in front of him each time he had engaged one of the psychics, then he would blink and she would be gone. Was she real? Why was he seeing her?

He hadn’t known there were psychics outside of Praetor Tilman’s Seers until he started working for the Powers Division and had run-ins with Syndicate bosses. Now, Robert found himself questioning, once again, the rightness of what he was doing. Those psychics had begged him not to take them in. One in particular, who called herself Beholder, had swore she would rather kill herself than go back.

And Tilman’s insistence on calling herself Mother was disconcerting. Her whole “Mother” persona seemed…unstable. Robert chuckled. That was an understatement. He didn’t want to end up on her bad side, that was for sure. But he also wasn’t sure he wanted to work with her anymore.

Who was he kidding? She was a Praetor. He worked for her.

He suddenly remembered one of the last things Mother had said to him. She would be keeping an eye on him, no matter where he went. Was she watching him now? Reading his thoughts? He tried to clear his mind, but the image of the red-headed woman still hovered there. How was he going to get out of this mess?

Robert threw the sheets off and got up, walking to the bathroom, where he splashed water on his face and stared in the mirror. It was shadowy, streetlight filtering in from beneath the blinds providing the only illumination. He half expected to see the red-headed woman behind him in the reflection, but she didn’t appear. Well, the only thing he could do at this point was try to get some more sleep. In the morning, he would get up and see what Mother had next in store for him.

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Vanessa DeVore. That was the name of the red-haired woman from Robert’s dreams. That was the name of the woman Praetor Tilman hated, and wanted him to capture.

Strongarm descended into the tunnels of the Neutropolis Underground. Immediately, he knew something was different, something was wrong. A purple haze clung to the columns of the Underground, giving Strongarm a feeling he was in one of his dreams. He held his breath without thinking, anticipating the appearance of DeVore.

And there, in the distant, he thought he could just make out a slim, shadowy figure materializing through the fog. With a surge of will, Strongarm summoned the flame that dwelt within him. It burst from his containment suit and wrapped around him like a protective cloak. Another thought, and it began to pulse from him in waves, in time with the beat of his heart.

“Vaneesa DeVore!” Strongarm considered the foolishness of alerting DeVore, but he needed to do something to dispel the eeriness of the tunnels before it shattered his concentration.

“Strongarm. I should have guessed Tilman would send you.”

“Surrender, DeVore. I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Your arm may be strong, but my mind is stronger. I will not be taken today.” DeVore raised a hand to her temple and Strongarm charged. He could feel her mind in his as he reached her and he staggered a step, but not before he swung a flame-wreathed fist. The fire singed DeVore’s corset as it passed, but Strongarm failed to actually connect.

He did not make the same mistake twice. Stepping up, he raised both fists above his head and brought them crashing down on DeVore’s shoulders. Flames leaped from his hands to engulf DeVore, and she screamed. But it was more than a scream. Psychic energy resonated within the howl and tore at Strongarm’s mind. He grasped his head within his hands and squeeze shut his eyes as he fought against the pain.

When he opened his eyes, DeVore was gone.

“Did you think it would be that easy to arrest me, Strongarm?” DeVore’s laughter echoed through the haze. Strongarm turned this way and that, trying to locate his adversary. He did not have to look hard. Eight different DeVores charged out of the fog to surround him. He lashed out with his fire, striking at the women, and each time he connected, they vanished. They were illusions!

But their attacks felt real. Or perhaps his focus on them allowed the real DeVore to concentrate on him. His mind reeled from the assault. He felt his energy draining and his movements slowing. A pink nimbus surround DeVore’s head, and Strongarm knew he had one more chance to take her down before she unleashed her final, devastating attack.

He was too slow.

A blast of psychic pain tore at Strongarm’s mind, dominating him and breaking his remaining resistance. He fell to his knees, then slumped to the floor.

“I am sorry it came to this, Strongarm.” DeVore’s voice seemed to echo from a distance as Strongarm struggled to stay conscious. "I cannot allow Tilman to have me. That would only make things worse. Those elements in the Resistance whose souls have been tainted by the darkness of Cole’s regime would no longer have anything to hold them back from the extremist path they have taken.

“And…what would happen to my daughter?” DeVore’s voice seems to take a turn toward despair. Strongarm tried to shift his head and turn his eyes to see DeVore’s face, but as his view climbed up from her boots to her waist to her neck, he was greeted by the expressionless mask. "Who would free her from Tilman’s clutches if I were captured? She has greater potential than I or Tilman do. I cannot allow her to become one of Tilman’s Seers. And I…just want her back. I miss her. Would any mother do different than I to get their daughter back?

There was a pause, and Strongarm could feel himself fading. Blackness began to wash over his vision.

"Farewell, Strongarm. I want to help you realize that I am not a monster, and that there are many in the Resistance like me. It is Tilman who is the monster. She is a leech, salivating at the thought of absorbing my psychic energies, draining my mask. That is what she does. That is why her Seers have such short lifespans.

“I want you to think on that. Who are you really fighting for? Who are the real monsters of Praetoria?”

Strongarm watched DeVore’s boots turn and walk back into the haze, the click of her heels echoing off the tunnel walls until the sounds were swallowed by the darkness. Then he, too, succumbed to the darkness.

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There is another earth!

The revelation rocked Strongarm. A part of him had not wanted to believe Anti-Matter. His skepticism of those who claimed to serve Praetoria, of Cole and his Praetors, had been growing steadily since he had joined the Powers Division, practically exploding into full disbelief when he met and worked for Praetor Tilman. Anti-Matter was different, however. A disgraced, former Praetor, the man definitely held a grudge and it was clear he felt unappreciated, so Strongarm ignored or dismissed much of what Anti-Matter said as false bravado or vain self-promotion.

Until he encountered Longbow. And Arachnos. Or, perhaps more accurately, a man who called himself Dark Watcher. Standing in the middle of Anti-Matter’s lab, his fedora and trench coat hiding his features in shadow like some cliche from a noir movie, Dark Watcher had revealed to Strongarm that Longbow and Arachnos came from a place called Primal Earth, a mirror dimension. He warned that Arachnos was the real enemy.

Which proved to be true when they attacked the reactors. With the help of Interrogator Kang, Strongarm stopped the raid. Afterward, Kang asked Strongarm to meet him at C.D.E.C. later that evening; Kang had discovered something he needed to show Strongarm.

The sun was setting behind the towers of Imperial City as Strongarm opened the door to the Cultural Direction and Education Center. He had only been here a few times to research some enhancements to his containment suit. From corner of his eye, he saw Kang nod as he walked into the shelves of the C.D.E.C. library. Strongarm followed.

“Glad you decided to come, Strongarm.” Kang kept his voice low; his eyes flicked back and forth, full of wariness.

“Sure. What’s up, Kang?”

“Remember when we fought those Longbow agents? And those ‘Destined Ones’ from Arachnos? And I said I was going to do some more investigating about who they were and where they came from?”

“Is that what this is about, Kang? I already know. They come from a mirror dimension called Primal Earth.”

Kang paused. “How did you find out about that?”

Not sure how far he could trust Kang, Strongarm skirted the question. “I have my own resources.”

“Fine. Then I can skip right to the recording.” Kang pulled out a mobile playback device from his pocket, removed a small memory chip from under the wrist of his glove, and plugged it into the device. Then he handed a bluetooth earbud to Strongarm and pressed play.

“We’ve been ordered to mobilize.” Anti-Matter’s voice spoke as the video started. It appeared to be camera footage, looking down at a large bay filled with men and women in lab coats circulating through ranks of giant clockwork, though they hardly resembled the maintenance bots that littered Praetoria’s streets. These monstrous hulks had cannons and rocket launchers for arms, and their eyes glowed with a menacing light, if they had faces at all. In the background, some sort of conveyer was moving the robots through the bay to another location.

“The target is Primal Earth,” Anti-Matter’s voice continued. "Each of the War Walkers can handle at least a dozen of Primal Earth’s super-powered beings. I have designed them with a microwave band emitter that should disrupt the medi-porter technology used on Primal Earth.

“Once the attack is launched, Cole predicts the war will be over in a week. No super-powered being on Primal Earth will be left alive. In Cole’s words, ‘There will be no survivors.’”

The video ends and Kang pockets the device. “Strongarm, this has to get out. Cole is planning a slaughter, and innocents will be caught in the crossfire. We can’t allow this to happen.”

“And you think leaking this video will stop him?”

“I think it will be enough to get people to rally against Cole. This army could be used against the threat of Hamidon. I’ve tried so hard to do what was right, only to see people like Tilman and Berry put their own selfishness ahead of the needs of the people. And now Cole is planning to do this. I sacrificed my own daughter to help Praetoria. My own daughter! I can’t continue to do it anymore. I can’t continue to support Cole and his government. Are you going to help me?”

Strongarm let Kang’s words wash over him. Could this little video really do all that Kang thought? He felt Kang’s anguish and disgust, and shared it. Praetoria was not the country he once thought it was. From the inside, the tarnish had become much clearer. But what could one man do to change the course? Strongarm had seen more than one protestor shot down by PPD officers. And how many Resistance plots had he personally stopped? It seemed like any effort to bring down Cole was futile.

But could Strongarm live with himself if he didn’t try. “All right. What do you need me to do?”

Kang grinned. “Take this.” He handed Strongarm a burner. “Call the number. Ask for Jessica Flores. She’s a reporter with TPN.”

“You want me to give her the video? There is no way TPN will play it.”

"Jessica has other…avenues to get the footage out. Call her. Send her the video. Then dump the burner.

“Look, Strongarm, you do this and your done in the Powers Division. It may take them a while, but they’ll trace it back to you. And me. I’ve made contact with the Resistance. A man named Steven Sheridan. He knows what I’m planning. Once the video has been released, he’ll contact you.”

Strongarm nodded as he took the burner from Kang.

“You’re doing the right thing, Strongarm. Good luck.” Kang turned and left without another word.

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