The Axiom Project | Introduction. (Part 1)
Kindergarten, 1995. My classmates were rattling off the things they wanted to be when they became adults. I’m sure you had that rite of passage, too. There was Jovan, who later became my closest friend throughout my time in Catholic school, always with a big tub of pasta from his mother. One day, gnocchi, another linguine, no matter the day, he had something delicious and yeasty steaming from his lunch bag.
Anyway, he wanted to be a teacher. Now, he’s a nurse. Good guy.
Then you had Chris-Anne. She was the only other kid in class with Jamaican parents, her name made that evident. She rocked braids all the time, sometimes sporting beads that made her look like Serena and Venus’ Far Rock cousin. She was sweet, and the only one who’d invited me to a party. She thought about it a bit and said she wanted to be a doctor. And a policeman. Actually doing the Police Academy thing now, while taking care of a pair of twin girls. I got to put in a good word for her with the commissioner.
Typical me scanned the room, listening to answers and reactions all over the classroom as I scrunched towards the back of the crowd of 5 and 6 year-olds. We were all “indian-style”, and I waddled with my knees past Jovan and whatever girls were in the way. I felt eyes on me the entire time, but I just wanted to escape from the imminent embarrassment of my answer.
“Ben?” My teacher was a kind 50-something with chest-length curls and a kind smile, the kind that a parent had when cooking breakfast on your first day of school. Except that she had that smile every day: Ms. Barrett’s students couldn’t do wrong, even adventurous, confused and shy-ass Benjamin Benson. This was before I had glasses, but I was beginning to feel life in front of me fuzz and fray away. I wasn’t good with questions, and my parents were talking about placing me in ESL as their way of turning my moments mumbles and verbal jitters into high-definition speech.
Anyway, “Ben… are you trying to run away from the question?”
5 years old, but I knew this was something that’d stick with me like my favorite facial expression: the plastic smirk — I hated my smile. “Uh… yes, Miss Barrett.”
“Don’t be shy. See, everyone’s gonna be something wonderful when they’re older and we want to know what you’ll be.”
What I’ll be. In hindsight, that’s as scary an answer for a kindergartner as responding to a promposal is for a 18-year-old as responding to your expired love when they ask if your feelings still exist. The same eyes stare at you, same breath held out hoping to breathe easy again. Those moments are nothing but pressure and test the threads of your character. And if you give the wrong answer, shit’ll haunt you for life.
Ms. Barrett started prodding at me to answer. “It’s okay, Benjamin. There are no wrong answers.” There were smiles all around, except for the curly haired girl to her right with the golden skin and glowing amber eyes. She, she was the one who had her eyes on me the entire time, watched every move I made. I don’t know why she didn’t care about what everyone had to say, and that was scary. Like she was there, her existence in the room was to make sure I impressed her.
“I… I, uhhh…” My speech impediment was kicking in: tingles, as if I was sweating on the inside. The room started to darken just a bit, like the times my parents would talk at me about every thing I could do better.
I hadn’t quite known about the word called hyperventilation, but I knew that something was going way too fast and I needed to stop somehow and slow down.
My fingers relaxed. The lights brightened again. My vision sharpened up to the point where I could see a family of ants marching out the classroom door to the playground. I pretended that I was in my bedroom reciting the old issues of Readers’ Digest— oddly, that was when I felt most like myself—and whatever radio static filled my ears dissipated into pure silence. I was back to normal.
“I want to be a superhero.” The response was crazy, almost as if my response made me a hero in front of the other kids. Jovan nudged me to say how cool that was. Chris-Anne gasped, but with more excitement than fear. Ms. Barrett beamed, probably more proud that I said something at all than the content itself.
Everyone reacted—cheers, gasps, claps—except the girl hovering above Mrs. Barratt’s left shoulder. She stood there, with copper-hued hair in perfect curls to her shoulders and her eyes, the purest raw amber, ablaze. The class quieted down to take note of the standoff that had started between me and her. She had this gravitational pull with attention, always had it, like first day of class when she first said her name.
“Clarissa.” I had asked if I could call her Reese, something about her features reminded me of the peanut butter cups. She smiled, the only time she smiled to me (for that entire day). The next day, she took my box of apple juice and squirted some on my shirt, yelling at me that she hated me for trying to kill her. She was allergic to nuts, deathly allergic, and I didn’t know. Nothing’s worse small school than making the most popular, prettiest girl mad for any reason. That girl undoubtedly was Clarissa Palmeiro.
The class kept staring at us, until she finally spoke. Her straight lips curled upwards on one side, like my smirk except laced with malice.
“Superheroes are corny.”
“What happened after that? Agent Benson?” I’d kinda zoned out for a bit, and an agent-in-training snapped me out of it, a solid amount of concern in her furrowed brows. “What happened to Clarissa Palmeiro?”
“Her… her dad pulled her out of school soon afterwards, so I never really saw her again.” That was the only response worth giving her and her fellow trainees. There were 3o of them in the room, all of them wide-eyed and expecting me to give crazy battle stories. The perfect bragging rights to have over the rest of their 200-strong cluster. Instead, they were getting a terrible sliver of my life story.
“’Never really’?” She was pressing me. I was growing used to this, but years later, I’d grown out of needing to field every question fired my way. Even if they were hard-hit grounders from agents-in-training.
“I’m sure she’s alive,” I lied—of course she was, but since these trainees were fresh as spring grass, certain topics were off-limits, including her. The door to the lecture hall opened abruptly and an agent, hair in an up-do, notepad and tablet grasped tightly to her midsection. Eyes alert, she caught my attention and tilted her head towards the door. Somehow, I took relief from that. “Guess I’m needed.”
I didn’t have time to catch the waves or applause or anything—my eyes (and glasses) locked in on the agent, who immediately reached for a handshake once we stepped into the hallway. " Alice Regalado, assistant to Director Benson. Pleasure to meet you, Agent Benson.”
“You’re an agent. I’m an agent. We’re on the same level, Alice.” Technically, I held a higher rank, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t mind formalities, but I wasn’t my brother, Aaron. “Just call me Ben.”
She was taken aback by this. Knowing my brother, she’d been given a crash course in groveling and speaking to people as if rank was the end-all, be-all for who deserved respect in this agency. This caused her to slouch a bit, her eyes sliding away from full contact with mine.
“Okay… Ben?” I smiled, and she gave a toothy, slightly embarrassed smile. “We need you out on Manhattan’s East Side. Surveillance footage is being sent to you…”
My glasses buzzed my ears and gave a couple of chirps.
“Got it.” My VISOR, technology integrated so seamlessly into my glasses that they were now one in the same, projected nine different feeds from cameras surrounding an office building near the edge of East 43rd Street, some shots giving way to the East River. Alice, with the help of VISOR, toyed and toggled with the footage; until I got a good idea that the building’s windows were being fired at.
Alice narrated, “We’re pretty sure that The Rouge is behind this.” She’d tried to explain who exactly they were, but once she remembered who she was talking to, she shut up and zoomed in on one of the windows. A round, beetle-shaped object was embedded onto a pane. “That device transmits ultra-high frequency pulses through the glass, effectively vibrating the glass until it crumbles into powder.” Sure enough, once the video played again, the glass seemed to melt. No shattering, nothing.
The Rouge grappled their way in. VISOR identified the building tenant as Enterra, a mid-sized pharmaceutical company. “They’ve been a hot news topic lately. Contraceptives and other drugs that they’re marketing for women are doing horribly in clinical research trials right now, and they haven’t been abiding to cease-and-desist letters from activist groups.”
My pace quickened as I started looking for the nearest exit. “Guess the Rouge is doing Rouge things: making sure they take these matters into their own hands.”
“Right.” Alice turned to the right, leading us into a restricted clearance section of regional headquarters. “There’s about fifteen of them in all, wreaking havoc. NYPD was called, but I’m sure you know how they’ve fared in the past.”
“New York’s Finest against the Mutate Fatales?” A door to the Factory’s massive courtyard sprawled out for acres under the calm, vast ripples of Long Island Sound. “There’s so many ways that can go wrong.”
A lazy sun hung over the fortress behind me. I looked up and over my shoulder to spot it, squinting my eyes as VISOR calculated my flight pattern. Looking back down, I spotted faces and bodies lined up down the endless row of windows on the first floor. Somehow, word spread that Director Aaron Benson’s kid brother was at the Factory and they wanted to sneak a photo with him.
Probably not how it went, but that’s definitely how I looked at it.
“Ready, VISOR?” He chirped again. “Good.” I reached in my pocket and pulled out my SuitSwipe. On the surface, it was an ID card (Agent Benjamin Benson). But once I swiped it—
—the world stopped in a flash of light, ground and gravity leaving my feet. All that was left was me and the light. Liquid black fabric melted on top of my skin from my chin down, sensors and circuits barely visible once it cooled off. The first bits of my main armor appeared: chunks of cobalt-dyed armor covered up the black layer, with grey-white chainmail mesh over my joints kept me flexible.
The light enveloped me completely. Once my eyes adjusted, I found myself covered in the visible part of the armor. A motorcycle-style helmet covered my face and two tritanium-alloy “wings burst out from the back of the armor. I felt a couple of clicks from my calves — another set of thrusters. The sound of revving came from my forearms: each had a turbine charging up light energy. I reached back to grab the hilts of the swords sheathed in my wings, as if I expected them to not be there.
The darkness dissipated, and a screen in front of my face greeted me with a lush view of the grass blowing in the wind. A heads-up display appeared with everything I needed. Vitals, communications, and a map leading me to my destination. Straight to the Rouge.
I turned to see the faces of the trainees; the one who’d been asking me all those questions was rendered speechless. Her peers were either mouthing expletives or holding their phones out to snap photos of the occasion.
Regalado smiled. “Aaron did tell me drawing in large crowds seems to be your thing.”
“Hmm. You called him Aaron?”
“Oops. Sorry, that was a lapse.”
“Don’t worry.” I’m sure my voice was being drowned out by the rising roar of my jetpack. “Actually, call him that to his face.”
I rose up 25, 50, 200 feet, until there was more water in my line of sight than land. I was barely visible, but Alice could hear my voice clear as day.
And I could hear hers. “He could use the humbling.”