A/N: This is a follow-up to "Tech Support." I've had this chapter written out for awhile before I wrote that story. It's funny - it actually follows something that is going to happen in Justice League fairly soon. Ah, good to know I think the same way as Dwayne McDuffie. Thanks for reading and enjoy!
Chapter One: Shutdown
"Night vision. Night vision would have been cool."
The words came out slightly muddled from Richie's mouth, mostly due to the small flashlight stuck between his teeth. The white beam of light illuminating the dark path in front of him wavered wildly with each word and each cautious movement through the tight space. Crawling on his hands and knees, ducking his head to avoid the wires dangling down from above, Richie slithered forward like a snake, fumbling with an ammeter and a few other tools.
"Or extra hands," he said, rolling over on his back and balancing the flashlight between his knees to shine light on the area he needed to see. "Or telekinesis might be better, so I wouldn't get funny looks. But, oh, no, I had to be smart one."
Hooking up the ammeter to the circuit in question, he frowned at the number that flashed back at him, making a mental note of it. Too low, the power wasn't flowing through the circuits as it should, which explained some of the problems he was encountering. Why the power was so low, however, Richie hadn't yet quite figured out.
Scooting backwards to take a look at the next power relay, he felt the plating at his back start to shift, heard the metal groan unhappily, and had a feeling about what was going to happen next.
"Aw, crap," Richie said as the floor suddenly disappeared and gravity reared its ugly head.
In a hasty move to prevent himself from falling, Richie reached out and grabbed the edge of the duct he'd been crawling through, hearing the metal plating he'd been sitting on clang to the floor a few seconds later, but not before somebody shouted. Wincing, his feet dangling in the air while his fingers turned white clutching the edge of the duct, Richie groaned.
"Sorry," he called out in apology, not able to see who'd been hit.
Bracing himself, he reached up and grabbed the most solid thing above him he could find as the rest of the crawlspace fell away, waving lazily on the two bolts that still held it in place. He hung there in resignation, looking down at the floor far, far below. Down in the distance, a few brightly costumed figures looked up at him with varying expressions of surprise and amusement.
"Flight," he added softly. "Being able to fly would be definitely cool."
Superman floated up next to him at that moment. Richie wasn't sure how to feel - grateful or embarrassed. He settled on a combination of both.
"Are you okay?" Superman asked, reaching out a hand to his lower back, essentially holding Richie up with absolutely no effort.
"Fine, fine," Richie said, shrugging, taking the opportunity of not having to hold onto the ceiling to prevent his own messy death to gather up his tools. "I think I hit somebody, though."
"It's just Booster. He'll live."
Richie put the flashlight in his pocket, then glanced down at the floor once more. The distance from the duct to the ground was nothing short of impressive. The artificial gravity was working, at least, even if nothing else seemed to be going right. Richie strongly regretted ever coming up, not for the first time.
"J'onn wanted an update on your progress." Superman said. "Want me to carry you down?"
Putting his arms around the hero's neck, Richie sighed. "Sure, I mean, as long as it's dignified, right?"
Superman smirked, which put Richie off-guard. He wasn't even aware Superman could smirk. Apparently, the man of steel had been hanging around Batman too much. Feeling rather foolish, Richie hung on as Superman lowered them back down to beautiful, beautiful solid ground. Disentangling himself from the other man's cape as soon as they touched the floor, Richie brushed himself off and tried to gather up what was left of his dignity. There wasn't much.
A few of the more seasoned superheroes and heroines were laughing at him. Richie ignored them, shoving his hands in his pockets and following Superman to the control center. He missed Dakota more than ever at times like this. At least there, he and Static were the top dogs. Sure, Adam was older than them, but he rarely engaged in crime fighting, too involved with Virgil's sister and his music career to take the time. The Justice League had grown so large, on the other hand, Richie didn't even know half the members very well and all of them either had years of experience or super skills in such excess, it had the effect of making he and Virgil look like little kids playing dress-up, regardless of how tough their Bang Baby enemies happened to be.
To make matters worse, everybody was so freakishly tall! Richie thought he might have a major crick in his neck before this house call was finished. Silently cursing his mother's side of the family and the short genes he inherited as a result, Richie ducked his head, avoiding Booster Gold's angry glare in his direction, finally leaving the common area behind.
J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter, yet another freakishly tall super hero and an alien to boot, stood in his customary place behind the main Watchtower control console, a small frown on his face as he stared down at the readouts. He didn't look especially happy, and Richie couldn't blame him. He wasn't especially happy either that the Watchtower was acting up and he had closer ties to it than J'onn did.
"Gear," J'onn said, not looking up, "have you made any headway into the malfunctions?"
"Only that they shouldn't be happening," Richie said with a sigh, hopping up onto the dais to stand next to the Martian. "I'm really confused and that doesn't happen very often."
Ever since that fateful day a week or so ago, when J'onn had called him in a near panic, or as close to panic J'onn ever got, concerning the failing climate controls on the Watchtower, all of Richie's energies had been focused on figuring out the exact cause. The few short hours he'd spent up at the Watchtower when his mother graciously let him slip out only gave him enough time to slap a patch on the problem. It hadn't been a perfect fix, but it held until he was able to come up and spend more time trying to figure things out.
This made it only the second time Richie had ever come up to the new Watchtower. He tried to avoid it as much as possible, which confused a number of the original members of the Justice League, given his excitement about visiting the place with Static the previous year after the power drain. Call it paranoia or some other form of mental hang up, but the thing made him nervous. Even though the layout had completely changed, he still had visions of the station randomly lashing out to attack him.
Which was stupid, of course, since Richie had been the one Batman called upon to design it and all of its systems in the first place. The Watchtower was his creation, a child of his imagination, a task that, a year or so ago, would have made Richie squeal with girlish glee. What sci-fi geek hadn't designed their own space stations on paper? And for it to actually become a reality? Fantastic!
But a niggling voice in the back of his mind gave him pause. The new Watchtower was so incredibly powerful, the individuals that dwelled in it much the same. It worried him. True, Brainiac was no longer in a position to override the systems, but that didn't change the potential for abuse. No, he was sorry he ever accepted the task, but he couldn't say no at the time.
Richie blinked, shaking off his thoughts, realizing he'd been staring blankly, lost in his own mind. It happened quite often, especially after the second Bang. Virgil was used to it, but Richie had a feeling it made people that didn't know him a little nervous. He gave J'onn and encouraging smile to prove that had not, in fact, lost his mind.
"If I didn't know better," Richie said, his fingers flying over the console's controls, pulling up the bare bones programming, "I'd think the Watchtower had a virus of some kind, but that's impossible."
"Why impossible?" Superman asked, frowning at the code flying across the screen, which Richie knew probably made no sense to anybody but himself. "Computer viruses are fairly common."
"Yes, and if the Watchtower was Windows-based, it wouldn't surprise me," Richie said patiently. "However, the programming language I used doesn't exist anywhere but here. I designed it. It's completely unique. For someone to create a virus designed to affect things on this level of the programming, they'd have to be, well, me."
The room went silent at that and Richie looked up, seeing the various collection of superheroes giving him wary looks.
"But it's not me," he said hurriedly, holding up his hands.
"If it is a virus, would it be possible for you to isolate it and remove it from the system?" J'onn asked, graciously changing the subject.
Richie shrugged. "Sure, if I could find it." He sat down heavily in a nearby chair, kicking his feet up on the console and crossing his arms over his chest, eyebrows drawing together in thought. "I've been through every sub-system and file, personally examined every single line of code, but I don't see anything out of place. There's just no reason for any of this to be happening!"
"Perhaps a flaw in the programming then?" J'onn suggested.
Richie barely resisted the urge to glare at the Martian. "J'onn, if the programming was flawed, it wouldn't have worked perfectly up to this point. You would have seen cascading system errors such as this long before now. No, this is new." He stood up, kicking the console lightly in admonishment. "I thought it might be something wrong with the hardware. I discovered some unaccountable power fluctuations in several of the circuits, but it's well within safe limits. Everything else is sudsy."
J'onn wrinkled his nose at the unfamiliar slang. "Then if it is not the programming or the hardware, then the only other possible explanation is..."
"It's coming from outside," Superman said, sounding amazed. He looked out the windows of the Watchtower, eyes narrowing as if he could see whatever it was that was mucking up the works and smash it.
Richie nodded sadly. "Somehow, some signal or something like that is breaking through the Watchtower's shields and altering the programming protocols once the commands have already been executed. That's the only thing I can think of, except..." Richie shook his head in frustration. "Even to do that, a person would have to understand how my programming works. Nobody would have that information."
"This is highly troubling," J'onn said darkly, stating the obvious. "Can you trace this signal back to its origin point?"
"I can't even find the stupid signal," Richie said. He took off his glasses, rubbing his eyes in frustration. Too many hours spent bent over the main console, followed by too many hours spent shimmying through incredibly tight crawl spaces was taking its toll. He didn't like enclosed spaces to begin with and knowing that somebody was purposely mucking up things annoyed him. It almost felt... personal.
A too-warm hand came down on his shoulder and Richie put his glasses back on, looking up. Superman was looking at him with concern. Richie, not one for being touched often, normally would have thrown the hand off, but as this was Superman, he didn't want to hurt his feelings.
"We'll figure it out," Superman said with that strange cheerful optimism of his. "Somehow, will find out how to track where this signal is coming from and we'll take care of it. In the meantime, what do you think we should do?"
Richie knew exactly what they should do, but he knew J'onn wouldn't like it.
"Shut it down," he said, sighing. "All of it. Not just turning things off - we have to disconnect all the power relays and evacuate the station. If someone has figured out a way to tap into the Watchtower's systems, we can't risk them being compromised. There's too much fire-power up here."
No, J'onn didn't like that. He didn't show emotion very often, but Richie could read the tiny frown and the slight tightening of muscles in his jaw well enough. The alien's hands tightened into fists for just a second and he walked back over to the console, looking down at it as if hoping the answers to their problems would magically appear.
"You feel that is absolutely necessary?" J'onn asked, actually sounding pained. "If the Watchtower is shut down, the signal will stop. We will not be able to track it. How will we trace the problem in order to continue operations?"
"I have a few ideas," Richie told him consolingly, understanding the alien's pain. After all, the Watchtower was Richie's baby, too, for all his private grousing about what a bad idea it had been to build it so powerful in the first place. "If the signal is as carefully masked as I suspect it is, we wouldn't have a hope of tracking it anyway. There are other ways we can find out who could be capable of doing something like this. Give me a little time, J'onn."
"If it must be done, it will be done," J'onn said with a heartfelt sigh. "I'll begin organizing the evacuation procedures. We can have everyone but a skeleton crew down to the surface in approximately two hours."
"Don't use the beaming thing," Richie told him. "The last thing we want is..."
"Anybody turned inside out, yes," J'onn replied. "Six hours, then."
"Man, this just ain't fair."
Richie looked up from his computer, watching as Virgil strolled into the gas station, tearing off his mask and throwing it to the ground. He looked tired and a tad singed, using his powers to grab a soda from across the room and collapsing on the dilapidated couch they'd rescued during bulk trash pick up day in the neighborhood. Richie tried to hide his amusement as Virgil kicked his feet up and made himself comfortable.
"What's not fair, bro?" he asked, spinning around in his seat.
"Here I am, stuck out there fighting the bad guys in scorching summer heat while you get to lounge around in the comfort of the gas station." He popped the top of his soda, taking a long drink, grimacing when he realized it was much too warm. "That just ain't fair, man."
Richie snorted, turning back to his computer. "I wasn't the one that suggested a black costume, V. It's all on you."
"Yeah, well, it looks cooler, even if it's not in the literal sense." Richie heard him standing up, not looking up from the computer when he sensed him hovering behind him. "Any luck on the Watchtower stuff yet?"
Richie shook his head, frowning. "I've been trying to do a process of elimination. You know, who couldn't possibly do this to the systems. Narrow the suspect field, or something. It's not helping, though, because really, nobody should be able to do this."
"Except you," Virgil said, leaning down and giving him the biggest shit-eating grin Richie had seen in awhile.
"Except me," Richie agreed with a grimace. "That's not going to win me any popularity contests, is it?"
"Being popular is so overrated, Rich." Virgil dragged a chair from nearby with a wave of his hand, making himself comfortable shoulder to shoulder with his best friend. "So, talk me through it and tell me what you've got. Maybe it'll shake something loose."
Richie smiled gratefully at Virgil. Only his best friend would be willing to sit there and listen to him ramble, would allow himself to be a sounding board like that. When he thought too hard about a problem, he tended to think himself into a corner, and Virgil knew it. Yes, he'd spotted Virgil nodding off once or twice while he paced around his bedroom, babbling for hours at a time using technical jargon that even Virgil's scientifically leaning mind couldn't follow, but the gesture was always appreciated on good-faith.
"My first thought was that maybe somebody had managed to hack into my systems here, to get the keys to unlock the code inside the Watchtower's programming," Richie started, pulling up a few files for Virgil's inspection. "Thing is, though, I haven't found any evidence that we've been hacked. I've got these computers so firewalled, it would even give Hotstreak pause."
"It's nice that something would," Virgil grumbled, brushing at the ash clinging to his shirt.
Richie patted his shoulder. "Anyway, if my systems weren't compromised, then there must have been some other source where my code was readily available for viewing. The only other place I could think of was the Batcomputer. I called Batman to ask him and, well..."
Virgil laughed. "I'm guessing he didn't like having the integrity of his computer questioned."
"Gee, you think?" Richie laughed, too. "I'm pretty sure he muttered something about me being a smart ass just as I was hanging up."
"Well, that's pretty much a given, man."
Richie flipped Virgil off good-naturedly. "Point is, I'm running out of ideas. This programming language is a language all its own. I've encrypted everything so many different ways, it would take an average person twenty years to crack the code and by then, I'd have changed it several times."
"Maybe it's not an average person," Virgil said thoughtfully. "Maybe the system was hacked by another super genius. We know there's a few running around and most of them are evil."
Virgil had a point on that front. Most super geniuses were evil super geniuses. The only problem with that theory, though, is that Richie couldn't see any place where the systems had been hacked. He'd made sure the Watchtower and his computers were programmed so that, should anyone go in and try to change or examine anything, it would trip a cascading series of alerts that would tell him instantly if someone was mucking up the works. While it was possible for another super genius to hack the system, theoretically, the probability that they would be able to disable all the safeguards at the same time was astronomical to the point of being impossible.
"I'm missing something," Richie said, sitting back in his chair with a sigh, frowning at his computer screen. "There's something go on here that I can't see and it's pissing me off, bro."
"Could be time for a break," Virgil suggested. "What do you say we head down to the community center and hijack a foosball table?"
"Tempting, but I can't." Richie took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "They're counting on me to figure this out."
"Yeah, but if you burn your brain out, that's not going to help anyone," Virgil insisted.
Richie was saved from replying by the chirping of Virgil's cell phone. It was playing a midi version of some boy band. Slipping his glasses back on, Richie smirked at him.
"I can't believe you haven't changed that yet, bro," he said, laughing.
Virgil snorted, fishing his cell phone out of his pocket. "I have changed it. Sharon keeps changing it back. She's sadistic." Punching the answer key, he held the phone up to his ear. "Yo, you got V. Oh, hey, Pops."
Virgil rolled his eyes and mimed yacking motions with his free hand. Richie shook his head at him, turning back to his computer, only half-listening to Virgil's end of the conversation. The readouts of the Watchtower's operation statistics scrolled across the screen, reflecting off his glasses.
"Yeah, Pops, I'm fine," Virgil was saying. "No, I didn't get burned. My shoes are a little melted, though. No, I'm just kidding. I am! I am! I'm fine. Yes, Richie's here. He's trying to give himself a stroke. Yeah, long story. When? Okay, yeah, I can do that. Okay. Yes. Okay. Yes. Okay. I will! Okay. Bye."
Sighing, Virgil ended the call. "Pops needs me at home," he said regretfully. "Something about the grass getting higher than the bushes or something. Man, he likes to exaggerate."
Thinking of the last time Richie saw Virgil's yard, Richie didn't think he was exaggerating that much. "It's cool, bro," he said, fingers flying across the keyboard. "You know I've got a lot of work to do here."
"Too much work," Virgil said with admonishment. "You are going to have a stroke. Tell you what - I'm going to come back here in about four hours and regardless of if you're done or not, I'm dragging you out of here by force and making you go get pizza with me. Sound fair?"
"Sounds like I don't have a choice," Richie said, looking over at Virgil over the top of his glasses, "but so long as you're paying, I'll say it's fair enough."
"I always end up paying," Virgil said, whining, but getting to his feet.
"That's because my allowance keeps going to making little devices for a certain superhero to use," Richie reminded him. "Or would you rather I let you run into battle unprepared?"
Virgil gave him a flat look. "Guilt is totally not adding anything to your image, man."
"Yes, but it's effective."
Waving him off, Virgil shed his super hero costume, turning his shirt inside out to hide the emblem on the front. "Fine. I'll pay. Someday, I'm gonna start a spreadsheet with a tally of how much each of us spends to see how well it actually matches up."
"I already have one," Richie replied. "Currently, I'm about six hundred dollars ahead of you. Want to see it?"
"Didn't think so."
"Alright, man, I'm snuffy," Virgil said, holding out his fist.
Richie hit it back in a shortened version of their handshake. "Have fun mowing the yard."
"The glamorous life of a superhero." With one final wave, his backpack hanging off one shoulder with the rest of his costume hiding inside, Virgil left the gas station.
Richie leaned back on his stool, putting his hands behind his head, frowning at his computer. Once again, it was just him and line after line of complicated code to keep each other company. Richie was really starting to hate his computers.
"I need a vacation," he said to Backpack, who was currently crawling around on his desk, keeping itself amused by reorganizing his tools by height. Reaching down to the mouse, Richie clicked between several windows, trying to spot something, anything, that would shed some light on the situation. It was looking dimmer by the second.
Suddenly, Backpack stopped its organizing, its electronic eye snapping up. Richie looked at the robot in surprise, spinning around in his chair. Squinting in the muted light of the gas station, he scanned the room quickly in an attempt to see what Backpack had seen. When nothing out of the ordinary jumped out at him, Richie linked his mind with the robot's artificial intelligence, accessing its memory banks and protocols with a flick of thought, pushing aside the purposely rudimentary AI program he'd given to the thing. From what he could tell from the digital readouts that went flashing across his inner-mind, Backpack had picked up on something Not Right.
No other details than that, just a vague sensation of something not being quite copesedic. All in all, Richie found that extraordinarily unhelpful. Extracting his mind from the robot's, he blinked a few times, looking down at it with disdain.
"Don't tell me you're getting all buggy, too," Richie admonished, hitting the top of the robot with his fist.
Backpack went back to organizing his tools. Richie frowned at that behavior, so highly neurotic. Given that Backpack was more an extension of his own mind than a simple machine, Richie had the growing feeling that Backpack's actions were a sharp reflection of his own personality. That didn't put him at ease.
"Definitely need a vacation," Richie groaned, getting up. He turned around, intent on going to fetch a soda from the mini-fridge back behind the counter.
Later, when Richie thought back on the day, he'd found he had some semblance of pride at the fact that he didn't scream like a little girl and jump ten feet into the air. At the moment, though, Richie found himself slightly mortified at his choked back cry and the way his leg smashed into the desk when he hurriedly stepped back. Putting a hand over his too-fast beating heart, Richie glared.
"Hell, J'onn, you trying to give me a heart attack?" Richie snapped, trying to catch his breath from his shock. "Make a little noise, will you?"
"My apologies." The Martian Manhunter was standing in the center of the gas station, where he certainly had not been standing two seconds ago. He looked vaguely abashed, if aliens could look abashed, holding a plastic bag from Wal-Mart in one hand.
At least Backpack wasn't getting all buggy on him, Richie thought. He wondered how long the alien had been standing there, invisible to the naked eye and, apparently, to most of Backpack's sensors. He'd have to work on that.
"How long have you been here?" Richie asked, sitting back down in his chair heavily.
"Only a few moments," J'onn replied, still standing far to still to make Richie comfortable. The alien didn't seem to blink quite enough. "I came to see how you were progressing towards getting the Watchtower operational again."
If aliens could suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, J'onn fit the bill. Richie sighed, quickly executing a few keystrokes. The old dot matrix printer next to his computer ground to life, the shuttle moving back and forth quickly across the ribbon, printing off a single sheet. Ripping it off the printer, Richie got to his feet and crossed the room in two easy steps, shoving the paper into J'onn's hand not currently occupied with the Wal-Mart bag.
"As you can see from that status report I was about to send you," Richie said, walking over to the mini-fridge and retrieving his soda at last, "I've made absolutely none, save for eliminating a few of our usual suspects."
"I see." J'onn was frowning down at the paper. "Still, that qualifies as some sort of progress."
J'onn sounded incredibly disappointed, but Richie didn't miss his attempt to be encouraging. Taking a deep breath and forcing himself to relax, Richie popped open the top of the soda, crossing over to sit on the couch. Yes, J'onn was obsessed with the Watchtower, but Richie could understand why, could understand his concern. It wouldn't do for Richie to get irritated with him just because he was frustrated with himself and his lack of headway into the problem.
"Grab a seat," Richie said, tossing a pair of PlayStation controllers onto the floor and patting the now empty space on the couch next to him. "You want a soda or something?"
"No, thank you," J'onn said, sitting awkwardly on the couch. It almost made Richie laugh. The Martian looked terribly out of place in the old gas station. "Do you have a glass I could use, though?"
"Yeah, sure." Richie directed Backpack with a flick of his mind and the little robot jumped off the table and over to the cupboard, fetching a clean, tall glass for J'onn and carrying it back over to them. Richie was about ask J'onn what he wanted it for when the Martian opened up his bag from Wal-Mart and pulled out a carton of milk and... "Oreo's?"
"They're very good," J'onn said by way of explanation, nodding a pointless thank you at Backpack before pouring the milk into the glass. He pulled open the bag of cookies, sliding out the try, taking one. Then, he hefted the tray to Richie in offer.
"Thanks," Richie said, taking one of the cookies, beyond incredulous.
"I'm told there's a preferred method for eating them, if you are not aware of it," J'onn said, brandishing his cookie. "First it is necessary to dunk them in the milk, then you twist the cookies on either side in an attempt to get all of the white cream-like sugar based substance onto one of the chocolate cookies, then you first lick the cream off before eating the cookie part itself."
"I've heard about that, yes," Richie said, smothering a smile with his hand.
J'onn, on the other hand, apparently took his Oreo eating very seriously, demonstrating with aplomb the exact method he just described for what Richie supposed was his benefit. "Superman tells me this is comfort food. If there has ever been a time for food-based comfort, now would be that time."
"I suppose that's true," Richie agreed, dunking his cookie in the milk and trying not to laugh at J'onn's nod of approval.
They sat in relative silence for a few moments then, both of them working their way through the tray of Oreo's. It all felt very strange, lounging about in the Abandoned Gas Station of Solitude, sitting on a couch clearly on its last legs next to a Martian, all while eating Nabisco's finest. Richie couldn't hide it anymore. He laughed.
J'onn looked over at him curiously. "Is something the matter, Gear?" he asked, holding half a cookie in his hand.
Richie shook his head, forcing himself to stop laughing. "No, not really," he said, looking down at his cookie and smiling. "I was just wondering when my life got so strange."
"Perhaps at the... Big Bang?" J'onn suggested, frowning a little at the term for the industrial incident out on the docks.
"Yeah, maybe, except there's only one problem with that." Richie licked the cream off his cookie, swallowing it down before continuing. "I wasn't at the Big Bang, J'onn."
J'onn's frown grew, if possible, deeper. "I do not understand, Gear," he said, eyes narrowing. "I was under the impression that your evolution into metahuman status was precipitated by your exposure to the chemical agent when..."
J'onn trailed off when Richie shook his head. "I wasn't at the docks," he said with a sigh, leaning back on the couch and grabbing another cookie from the tray, fiddling with it in his hands. "The night of the Big Bang, I was tossing and turning in my bed at home miles away, worrying about Static, since I knew he might be stupid enough to go down there, even when he shouldn't have. Sure, there's been pollution from the Bang in the environment for ages on, but I never came in contact with it, not at the levels necessary to make a change. If my minimal exposure was high enough to do that, the whole city would be made up of mutants, not just an irritating handful."
"Then, if it was not the incident at the docks that began your change, then what do believe, in fact, caused it?" J'onn asked.
"I have a theory, but it can't be right." The cookie crumbled in Richie's hand and he dropped it onto the table, reaching for his soda instead.
"Why do you say that?"
Taking a thoughtful sip of his soda, Richie debated telling J'onn what he suspected. He hadn't even told Virgil about it yet, not wanting his best friend to panic when he found out. It was certainly panic-worthy, which was the main reason Richie desperately hoped he was wrong and didn't care to think about it.
Then again, if Richie was right, this was a huge deal and certainly not something he should keep to himself. He knew J'onn wouldn't go around telling everyone, wouldn't tell anyone without Richie's own approval. J'onn was one of the few people in the Justice League Richie inherently trusted. If J'onn hadn't been the one behind the controls of the Watchtower, Richie would not have designed it, hands down. No one, not Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, or any of the other super heroes did Richie trust enough to operate such a powerful machine.
If he could trust J'onn with that, Richie figured he could trust him with this, too.
"About a year ago, I started creating a database of every Bang Baby Static and I encountered," Richie began, balancing his soda between his knees. "I was hoping, with enough raw data, I might be able to predict where new mutations might occur and what those mutations might be, so that Static and I could be more prepared in the future. Flying in as a crime is in progress is great and all, but it often means we get our butts kicked at least once. It seemed logical, to approach it in a more scientific way, so I took what I knew from the Bang Babies we'd already dealt with to see if I could unlock a pattern. I knew there had to be one."
"And did you find a pattern?" J'onn asked, munching on an Oreo and staring at Richie with rapt interest.
"I did," Richie said with a nod. "The mutations at the docks all seemed to be affected by external elements in the environment. When the chemical agent hit Static, he was close to a set of downed power lines. Hotstreak, who has the ability to control fire, was near the flames. Aqua Maria fell into the water, Chainlink was climbing a fence at the time, and so on. When external elements weren't readily apparent, it seemed frame of mind played a large role in how the mutations manifested themselves, at least on some intrinsic level. Nearly all of the mutations fit into neat little boxes easily explained and extrapolated into raw data that I could manipulate, with one exception."
"You," J'onn said, nodding thoughtfully.
"Yep, me." Richie put his soda on the table and crossed the room, beckoning J'onn to follow him over to the computer. He closed out the windows still showing information regarding the Watchtower, digging into an encrypted folder and pulling up another spreadsheet. "You see here? When I'm out of the picture, the pattern fits, but when you put me back in..." Richie hit a few keys.
"The pattern falls apart," J'onn said, watching the data reorganize itself. "Curious."
"I thought so, too, and to be honest with you, it was driving me crazy."
Richie shook his head, remembering those days and nights spent pacing anyplace he could find space to do so, the algorithms attacking his brain like a cloud of gnats. Even Virgil noticed something was up and tried to distract him from what he feared was Richie's pending mental breakdown. Then, fortunately, or unfortunately, he supposed, they found themselves being contacted by the Justice League to go up to the Watchtower to solve a power problem they were having. After the three longest weeks of Richie's life that followed, the mystery of his own mutation became, if not the least of his worries, certainly much lower on the list.
"I thought the best thing I could do at that point was to try to pinpoint when my exposure occurred, to see if it would give me some idea of how and why I started changing." Richie moved the mouse to bring up a different file. "This was important, you see? If I was a wildcard, there must certainly be others lurking out there, and those were the ones we had to worry the most about, the unpredictable ones, the ones I couldn't track. I worried there might be something lurking in the environment and the last thing I wanted was some eighty year old grandmother taking a wrong turn and ending up a slime monster."
"That makes sense," J'onn said, looking carefully at each file Richie brought up for his inspection. "Such unpredictables would easily prove more dangerous than you're typical adversaries."
"Right." Richie hovered the mouse over the last file, hesitating. He swallowed the lump in his throat, but didn't open the file yet. "The only way I could think of to track my own mutation was to track my own growth in intelligence over a period of time and extrapolate it backward. Unlike Virgil, who pretty much only changed once, I could tell my own mutation was coming upon me slowly, day by day. I discovered that my intelligence was growing almost in an s-curve, which of course means it started out slow in the beginning, then changed by leaps and bounds, only to level off at some point. By calculating where the curve was going, I was able to figure out where it started. This is where it gets weird, J'onn."
With that, Richie double-clicked on the last file, a graphical display showing where Richie tracked and the overall picture of how the whole thing lined up against time. Stepping back, Richie let J'onn study the graph, watching the Martian's face. At first, his expression was tight with concentration, then, like a bolt of lightning, he suddenly saw what was so weird, his eyes going wide.
J'onn stood up straight, shaking his head firmly. "That cannot be right."
"I know," Richie said, sighing deeply, "but it is. Now do you understand why I don't talk about it much?"
"According to these calculations, Gear, you were exposed to the mutating agent almost six months prior to the Big Bang," J'onn said and he didn't sound happy about it. "How can that be possible?"
"I've never once thought the 'accident' at the docks was actually an accident," Richie replied. He left the computer behind, not wanting to look at the graph, going back to the couch and grabbing an Oreo from the tray. "It always felt contrived, like a giant experiment, done using subjects who belonged to a facet of society where, for the most part, they wouldn't be cared about or missed. I checked the shipping logs. The order to move the chemical agent to the docks didn't come until after the date of the gang rumble had already been decided. The canisters were not placed on the docks until the end of the day. It was all planned, J'onn. It had to be."
"Planned," J'onn repeated, crossing his arms over his chest. He gestured with his head back to the computer monitor. "Is there anything significant about the date you calculated as when you were exposed to the mutating agent?"
"Yeah." Richie pulled his knees up to his chest, chewing unhappily on his cookie. "My mother took me down to a local clinic to get a tetanus booster after I accidentally cut myself on a nail in the shed."
J'onn said something in Martian then, and while Richie didn't know the meaning in its entirety, the force and anger from which the words slipped from his mouth told him it was probably a curse.
"I hacked into the clinic's records," Richie said quietly. "Every kid who received a vaccination that day is currently either dead or dying of various and extremely rare cancers. It looks like I'm the only one who survived phase one of this little experiment. It was at that point that I realized we probably didn't have to worry about wildcards."
"That is unforgivable, that someone could do such a dreadful thing," J'onn said, his body tight with fury. "Have you discovered who is responsible?"
"Yes, but I can't prove it," Richie told him. "The records pertaining to the guilty party have been wiped clean. The few bits of information I was able to gather told me everything I needed to know, though. It was done under contract as a government experiment by Alva Industries."
Richie nodded. He didn't like Edwin Alva, to put it mildly. The man exuded sliminess and evil, and he wasn't even subtle about it, like Lex Luthor. The worst thing about Edwin Alva was that he was motivated almost purely by greed, interested only in the money that came from that government contract. He didn't have designs on world domination, only desired to maintain his bottom line and make his stockholders happy. As far as evil rich businessmen went, Alva didn't even rate as a proper villain by contemporary standards.
"I should have known much sooner," Richie said, laughing a hollow laugh that contained no mirth. "How else could his men tracked me the way they did, kidnap me like that? They've known who I am all along because they created me. It took me getting experimented on in a secret facility offshore to find the pieces. I'm ashamed to admit how long it took me to pull them together."
"You were kidnapped by Alva?" J'onn asked, going to sit down next to Richie. "When was this?"
"Awhile ago," Richie said with a shrug. He wrapped his arms around his knees and hugged them to his chest. "I was supposed to go on a visit to my aunt's house in Central City. Backpack gave an alert just as I was finishing up something here and I went to investigate. The whole thing was a setup. Static rescued me several days later, but when I got home, nobody missed me. It turns out they'd somehow called my aunt in my mother's voice and told her I wasn't coming after all. Nobody was the wiser. They couldn't have orchestrated that if they didn't know every detail about me."
"Kidnapping, as well as the experiments you described using the vaccinations and the incident on the docks is illegal under every state and federal statute." J'onn's voice was dark and bitter. "If you could find the evidence, the Justice League could assist you in getting it to the proper authorities. Such blatant violations should be brought to the public eye."
"Nice, in theory, except that the proper authorities already know about it, J'onn," Richie said, sighing and resting his chin on the top of his knees. "That's why they call it a conspiracy. The government organization responsible for funding it is well entrenched in the highest levels of government. Even if I could gather enough evidence, everyone would be pointing fingers and covering their asses so well, no jury in the world could convict beyond a reasonable doubt."
"The corruption inherent in the people meant to serve the public good is highly disturbing." J'onn rubbed his chin thoughtfully, frowning deeply. "Would you happen to know which government organization was responsible for the funding?"
"Yeah, and you do, too," Richie replied. "This is why I didn't tell anybody. I don't need anybody flying off the handle, not now, not when everything is so tense. What's done cannot be undone. The best we can hope for is to keep it from happening again."
The word slipped off J'onn's tongue like a curse. Richie nodded miserably. It all made sense, didn't it? The organization was dedicated to the cause of having the potential to wipe out the Justice League if they ever proved to grow too powerful. You couldn't fight superheroes with conventional weapons. When Alva Industries inadvertently produced a mutating chemical agent, a chemical agent that allowed mutations to be focused in specific ways when applied correctly with things in the environment, they saw profit potential. A person could easily make an entire army of super powered individuals to fight the Justice League, which was just what the government was looking for.
Too bad about that tendency of those affected by the Bang Baby gas to turn completely psychotic.
"The situation seems to be more complex that we originally realized," J'onn said. "Is it possible CADMUS is responsible for the malfunctions in the Watchtower?"
Richie shook his head. "Not that I can see. They have a lot of resources and a lot of really good people on staff, so to speak, but even they don't have the ability to hack into my programming that way. CADMUS fancies itself as better than it actually is. Tracking their activities isn't that difficult. I'm sure The Question could tell you a great deal about it."
"I wasn't aware you and The Question were collaborating."
"We're not." Richie grinned broadly at J'onn. "I sorta hacked into his files. Don't tell him. I think if he knew I bypassed his encryption, it would break his heart."
J'onn gave a tiny smile back. "Your secret is safe with me," he said. "All of them."
"Thanks," Richie said sincerely, then gave a huge sigh, stretching his arms above his head and kicking his feet to the floor. He glanced at the table. "I guess, since we're all out of Oreo's now, I should get back to work. This problem isn't going to solve itself."
"No, it won't," J'onn agreed. "However, you are looking quite tired. Perhaps you do need, as you said, a vacation."
Richie laughed, standing up and stretching his back. "A mental vacation, J'onn, and you just gave me one. Superman is right. Oreo's are comfort food."
"I do not want you to push yourself too hard," J'onn insisted. "While the Watchtower is important, the fact that its currently inoperable doesn't mean the Justice League can't continue their work. It doesn't pose a danger to anyone when all of its power relays are disconnected."
"Now you're starting to sound like Virgil, man, and that worries me." Richie walked back over to his computer, closing out the windows displaying his research into the Bang Baby phenomenon, pulling open the Watchtower logs once again. "No, J'onn, the sooner I figure this out, the better I'll sleep at night. We need to find out who's responsible as soon as possible."
J'onn didn't argue with him, just nodded. Richie smiled to himself. He knew the Martian only suggested he give it a break so as to not make it look like he was pushing him too hard. J'onn wanted to know what was happening as badly as he did, and it probably only disturbed him a fraction as much as it disturbed Richie. Somebody poking around his programming felt like somebody poking around his guts - very unpleasant and far too personal.
"If you discover anything or require any assistance..." J'onn began.
"I'll contact you immediately," Richie promised him. "I'm not so full of myself not to scream for help when I need it. I won't keep you in the dark, J'onn. It's been too dark lately to begin with."
"Too true," J'onn said solemnly.
The door to the gas station flew open then, ironically filling the room with bright sunlight. Virgil strolled in, looking pleased with himself, but stopped short when he saw the Martian sitting on their couch next to an empty bag of Oreo's. Richie tried not to laugh as Virgil blinked several times at their visitor.
"Yo, did I miss something?" he asked, looking between Richie and J'onn with concern.
"Just updating J'onn on my status as far as the Watchtower is concerned," Richie said lightly, giving Virgil an easy smile. "Aren't you supposed to be mowing the lawn, bro?"
"Like any good enterprising American, I outsourced it to a neighbor kid for ten bucks," Virgil said cheerfully, "which means I get to kidnap you from here before you lose your mind."
"You said four hours," Richie admonished him lightly. "It's barely been one."
"Yeah, but I'm hungry now," Virgil countered. "All that outsourcing built me up a fierce appetite."
J'onn, who had been watching the exchanged, stood up then, a tiny, barely perceptible smile on his face. "Perhaps it's time I leave."
"Nah, man, it's cool," Virgil said, waving him off. "You can come with us. Don't even have to change your skin. We're pretty used to different-looking people wandering around the streets of Dakota."
Richie, knowing he Virgil as well as he did, was fully aware he was not going to be left alone to work while Virgil was in his mother hen mode. If last time was any indication, Virgil was likely to start singing O-Town's greatest hits at the top of his voice until Richie cracked and gave in. Rather than suffer through that, Richie set about shutting down his computer.
"Yeah, J'onn, why don't you come with us?" Richie agreed, turning off the monitor. "Antonio's on fifth has the best pizza in the country."
He was almost certain the Martian would decline, but J'onn nodded. His skin rippled, the green disappearing into a much more normal peach, a shock of brown hair on top of his head. He looked completely human, even if he still didn't blink quite enough.
"Very well," he said, putting his hands in the pockets of the inexplicable trench coat that had appeared around him. "Superman tells me that, too, is comfort food."
"Superman's got it right," Virgil said and he sounded relieved. Virgil didn't like it when the people around him were drowning in doom and gloom, Richie knew. Maybe he couldn't help with the Watchtower problem directly, but he could keep them all sane long enough to figure it out. For that kind of friendship, Richie was grateful. "Let's blow."
"Right." Richie followed Virgil out of the gas station, J'onn following close behind. "Hey, whose turn is it to cook dinner at your house tonight?"
"Pops," Virgil said, giving Richie a grin, then looked over his should at the Martian. "Want to come to dinner, too? You and Rich can shove your heads together on this after we get back from pizza and you can come chill at my house for awhile. Pops would probably be thrilled to meet you."
"I think I would like that very much," J'onn said and for the first time, his smile was broad and genuine.
"Cool," Virgil said, nodding happily that he got his way. "Welcome to Dakota. You'll finally get a chance to see how the other half lives down here. Just don't drink the water and you'll be fine, man."
Richie shared at laugh with Virgil at the old joke, the two of them doing their handshake. J'onn followed behind them, watching them as they joked and laughed. He already seemed more relaxed.
No, Richie thought, they weren't as experienced or maybe even as powerful as some of the other folks in the Justice League, but they had their own ways of doing things. He'd suspected for awhile that J'onn wanted to get more of a handle on the way they worked the whole superhero thing. Wonder Woman once accused him of taking comic books too seriously, that being a superhero really wasn't anything like those fictionalized serials Richie idolized.
Maybe that was true, Richie decided, but there was no reason why they couldn't try to make it as true as possible.
"I want pineapple," Richie said suddenly.
Virgil made a face at him. "Bro, that's disgusting. We're getting pepperoni."
"Do you know what pepperoni is made of?" Richie asked.
"No, and if you tell me, I'll kick your ass."
"I like pineapple," J'onn said.
"Yes!" Richie pumped his fist in the air. "Two to one, bro. You lose."
"All this and you guys didn't even save me any Oreo's." Virgil shook his head in mock-disgust. "Fine. We can get pineapple, but I won't forget this and I hold grudges."
"And you're paying, remember?"
Virgil flipped him off and Richie laughed.
To be continued...
Next time on House Call:
"Guess Who's Coming to dinner?"
Robert Hawkins, tapped the side of his glass, looking at J'onn curiously. "So," he said, taking a sip of his soda. "Virgil tells me you're a Martian. That must be interesting."
"It has its moments."