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The Secret Return of Alex Mack

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This story is No. 3 in the series "A Brane of Extraordinary Women". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: Alex is back from her 5-day trip to Hermione Granger’s world. But she's going to need everything she learned if she wants to survive, starting with finding her world's Willow Rosenberg. (Cross with BtVS, SG-1, HP, DCU...)

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Multiple Crossings > General
Harry Potter > General
Stargate > General > Characters: Jack O'Neill
Television > Secret World of Alex Mack, The
DianeCastleFR132351,177,0232896485753,04512 Dec 1215 Nov 14Yes

Spencer Reed

A/N: Alex’s powers and new knowledge will make more sense if you go read the first story in this series: “The League of Extraordinary Women”. The disclaimers, spoilers, and other information are all in previous chapters.
A/N2: Despite the title, I will not be bringing in Spencer Reid, Ph.D. from “Criminal Minds”, which has already been established as fiction in the AlexVerse. It’s just a pun. A really bad pun.

Alex waited until her folks were both home and they were all eating dinner with Shar. Then she broached the subject. “Mom? Dad? I need to fly back to Davenport for a couple days next week. Like flying on Sunday and coming back maybe Thursday or Friday. And it’s photojournalism, not Terawatt stuff. My Corcoran College mentor’s Frank West. The big-name photojournalist?” She could tell her parents had no idea who he was. “We’re gonna take photos of the big excavation of the Oswell Spencer Building. Even if there’s nothing left alive in there, it’s still big news.”

“Oh Alex!” her mom sighed.

“I don’t want you to go! Every time you go to Iowa it’s full of icky monsters and creepy people!” Shar whined. “I want you to stay here with me!”

Her dad let out a long breath. “Alex, are you sure this is what you want your life to be? It’s going to make it hard to be normal, and have the other things you want out of life.”

Alex nodded carefully. “Yeah. I’ve thought about it a lot. And my life isn’t gonna be normal no matter what. I can’t be Terawatt and have a normal 9-to-5 job, or just be a housewife, or anything like that. And I can help people every day like this. I was thinking about interviewing some regular people in Davenport about how the Umbrella thing has wrecked their lives, or just turned them into a bundle of nerves. Because people still don’t know how awful it was, or how awful it could’ve been.”

Her mom said, “I talked to Dottie, and she’s perfectly happy to come over here and keep an eye on Shar, and I got the feeling she was looking forward to getting out of the house more. Ever since Andy retired, he’s been a stay-at-home, while Dottie’s still playing bridge a couple times a week, and she goes to a book club, and she has an exercise class, and things like that. So we just need Shar not to get carried away and try to grill a steak sandwich without using the stove.”

Shar fussed, “I never did that!”

Alex mussed Shar’s hair and smiled, “I think she’s teasing.”

Shar frowned, “I knew that. I was just pertending I didn’t know.”

Alex’s dad pretend-whispered to Shar, “It doesn’t work when I say that either.”

Alex just said, “Mainly, don’t take advantage of her, even if you pick up something you could use to get her to do stuff. And I know you’ve got a ton of playdates next week anyway.”

Shar nodded, “Yeah, so I don’t need a sitter for a whole week, And I’ve been working real hard on not hearing what people are thinking or saying or anything, and I totally didn’t listen when Sophie’s mom called her dad at work, so I don’t know why she was really sad after. Maybe I should’ve listened a little bit?”

Alex’s mom pursed her lips and insisted, “No, it’s better you didn’t, even if she got sad. You don’t need to know that, and eavesdropping wouldn’t make things better, and it could make things a lot worse and maybe make Mrs. Moore not let you play with Sophie anymore.”

“That’s not fair!” Shar complained.

So Alex called Jack and Willow next, even if it was ten o’clock in West Virginia.

“O’Neill-Rosenberg Ranch, Charlie speaking.”

Alex grinned to herself. “Hi Charlie, it’s Alex. Can I talk to Jack? Or Willow? Or both of ‘em?”

Charlie pretended to think it over. “Hmmm… Well, I don’t know. They’re right in the middle of season thirteen of the Simpsons, and you can’t interrupt that kind of thing.”

And in the background, a certain general called out, “Fer cryin’ out loud, Charlie!”

Charlie just said, “DOH!” and handed the phone off.

“Jack O’Neill.”

Alex explained, “Hi Jack, it’s me. I don’t want to interrupt stuff, but I wanted to let you know I’m going to Davenport with Frank West to take pictures of the excavation work on the Spencer Building.”

Jack told her, “Okay, first thing, you can call me any time, day or night, no matter what. Or Willow. It’s like those first-class ticket perks I hear someone got. You deserve some perks, because you have one of the hardest jobs in the world, and you do it really, really well. Even if the President and the Secretary of Edumacation are being complete dickweeds about your anti-bullying platform.”

“Jerkheads!” called out Willow from a couple feet away. “They’re being mega-jerkheads.”

Charlie couldn’t have been very far away, because Alex heard him say, “Of the jerky.”

Jack went back to business. “Next, I wasn’t going to ask you to drop in on the Quad Cities, because Finn and Valentine and Marshall are there for the big dig, and they’re kitted out, and the National Guard is in force around the building too. And you deserve some Alex time. But if you want to get your Peter Parker on and take cool pictures, the SRI is going to be very accommodating.”

Alex replied, “Great. Because I want to have my gymbag there just in case, but I’ll be flying a regular airline, and I can’t carry it through security.”

Jack told her in a bad Arnold Schwarzenegger imitation, “No problemo.”

Willow had a way worse Arnold Schwarzenegger imitation. “Cohm wid me if you want to change clothes.”

Jack said, “Look, you’ll be carrying your camera gear on the plane, right?”


“Then we’ll make sure no one snitches your suitcase at the airport, and we’ll slip one of your gymbags into the baggage transport system for you. I’ll make sure you’ve got plenty of energy bars.”

Willow leaned in, “I was gonna make brownies this weekend, so there might be a surprise in that bag.”

Jack pretended to complain, “I’m having to run an extra couple miles every day because my lovely fiancée is such a great cook. And baker. Pretty soon, Walter is gonna be making cracks about my waistline, like my mean, mean son already does.”

Like Walter would ever say stuff like that to his commanding officer. No, Alex could only think of one Air Force guy who might say stuff like that to a superior officer.

Willow snorted with laughter, and then added, “Hey, Dr. Finn is in the Quad Cities with Riley. She’s recuperating from her injuries, so she’s mostly stuck behind a desk, but she’s helping with the CDC vaccination program. They’re trying to get everyone and every animal vaccinated against the four different types of t-virus, and it’s like a four-state program. So you and Frank will have to get vaccinated to be near the dig. Don’t worry. You didn’t have any reactions when you got the shot the first time, so think of this like a booster shot.”

Jack cut in with an ‘old guy’ voice. “And make sure you have separate rooms, young lady. That Mister West looks scruffy and untrustworthy, and there’s no telling what he might try to do to a fair maiden like yourself.”

So then Jack and Willow started taking turns giving her a pretend lecture, like she was their naïve, helpless daughter and she was going off to the big city where she would be surrounded with ne’er-do-wells. It was part really funny and part really embarrassing. And judging by the background noise, Charlie thought it was a hundred percent funny.

She didn’t even know people still said ‘ne’er-do-well’ unless they were on Masterpiece Theater.

Alex left from San Francisco International Airport early Sunday morning, so she could get into the airport in Moline at something approaching a reasonable hour. This time, she was using her mom’s nice rolling bag as check-through luggage. She was assuming she’d get dirty sooner or later, especially if she and Frank were trying to climb up on places to get really good views of the digging, so she had extra shampoo and a bottle of Woolite and a stick of stain remover and a bar of Lava handsoap, along with jeans and overalls and an extra pair of sneaks. And just in case, she had one nice outfit with a pair of nice shoes. Her mom’s bag had a folding dress-holder and a separate dirty clothes bag and places for shoes and all kinds of nice pockets and stuff. On the other hand, she kind of doubted she was ever going to get any use out of the flat, thin pocket for men’s ties, except as an energy bar holder.

The important thing was her camera bag. She made sure she had everything in the padded compartments and the big front pocket and the bigger back pocket. Two camera bodies, four different lenses, a packet of filters, her GoPro and the sound system for it, and all the cables and spare memory cards and lens caps and extra stuff you needed for cameras. She even had a couple extra batteries in there along with her special charger. She had her tablet tucked away in the big front pocket, along with a flat halogen light panel and half a dozen energy bars that she was going to need since she wasn’t flying first class this time.

She checked her roller bag and took her camera case to security. Then she had to show the nice TSA agent pretty much everything in the bag, because it all looked high-tech and suspicious. He said it would have looked even more suspicious back in the day when everybody shot onto film instead of memory cards, and the photographers carried dozens of rolls of film in lead-lined cans to protect them from the x-ray machines.

Boy, she really felt guilty about slowing up everything when there were like a thousand people waiting to get through security. And how was that lady in the next line wearing the five-inch heels not feeling guilty for wearing ten pounds of metal bracelets and ankle bracelets and necklaces and earrings that all had to come off before she could get through that metal detector? Oh, and the thing in her hair set off the metal detector too. Maybe she’d never been in an airport before.

And then Alex had an hour to wait, just to get on the plane, before the four hour flight to Chicago, before the two hour layover, before the connecting flight into Moline, when it would probably take her less time to grab her junk, turn into Terawatt, and fly on her own from Chicago to Davenport.

Having superpowers was not good for your patience.

She bought two small bottles of diet coke and two sandwiches and a lunch salad. At least they came in a plastic bag she could carry onto the plane. Then she just found a nice seat, put her camera pack between her feet, and read on her tablet until the gate agent called her section of the plane for boarding.

Okay, that was her plan. A teenaged guy sat down next to her, and two more guys sat across from her.

“Hey. I’m Chuck.”

She was careful not to give him a big smile, but she wasn’t rude or anything. “I’m Alex.”

“Wow, that’s a really sexy name.”

Oh crud. But Chuck and his two pals Tom and Eddie thought she was the prettiest girl on the flight, and they just wanted to ‘be friendly’. She was pretty sure if she gave any of them any encouragement in the least, there would be an offer to join the Mile High Club during the flight. Ick.

Fortunately, when her section of the plane got called, she found she wasn’t seated anywhere near them. Instead she was stuck in between a forty year old lady who was dressed and made up like she was eighteen and was wearing WAY too much perfume, and a really, really, really hairy guy who not only was covered in hair except for his shaved head but he was wearing a tank top so the hairiness was right up against her for the whole flight. And he took over the armrest so she had a gross, hairy arm against her every time she even moved.

The lady acted like Alex was trying to steal her boyfriend or something and didn’t want to talk or even be nice. The hairy guy wanted to talk to her too much until Alex told him what she was reading on her tablet. She sort of channeled Willow and acted way too enthusiastic about awk and sed as tools for unix systems administration. After that, the guy did pretty much everything except beg the flight attendant to move him to another seat. Mission accomplished.

Then she had two hours to waste in Chicago O’Hare Airport. It only took half an hour to walk from her concourse, through the entire airport, to the concourse for her connecting flight, which was on a ‘United Airlines partner’, which meant it wasn’t United Airlines at all, but a small airline that flew small planes to places not too far from Chicago. Pretty much like most of the airlines that flew in and out of the Paradise Valley airport. So she sat at an empty gate and read on her tablet for a while before she walked over to the small gate where her plane was. And boy, was it a tiny plane. Jack’s Cessnas were small but roomy and well-designed for comfort. This was designed to cram the most seats possible into the smallest space imaginable. And the little plane looked like a cardboard mailing tube with wings.

She didn’t think of herself as big, but the plane was too small for her. She had to duck down to walk down the aisle. She had to step over a big step-thing halfway down the aisle. It had to be part of the system that held the wings on. There was only one narrow seat on each side of the aisle, and there was basically no overhead storage, and the last row was three narrow seats side-by-side without even chair arms to separate them. She had the seat in the back right corner. Maybe there wouldn’t be anyone else in the back.

Oh crud. After the plane filled up, including a crabby-looking guy in the back left corner, one huge guy got on the plane. The guy was mega-huge. He was like an NFL lineman in a gray suit. He had to duck way down to get down the aisle, and there was only one seat left on the whole flight. Right in between her and Crabby Guy.

Yep, that was where Mister Big had to sit. And he pretty much squished Alex and Crabby Guy against the walls. He did say ‘sorry’ but she wouldn’t have wanted to be sitting that close to anybody unless it was Ray. And Crabby Guy complained the whole flight about it.

She was so glad when she got off the plane and grabbed her roller bag – and also the gymbag that had mysteriously gotten into the hold – off the open-air baggage rack and she walked up the stairs into the Moline airport.

At least Frank was waiting for her on the other side of the security stuff. He had his long coat on, and he had a really nice camera slung around his neck with a big 50-200mm lens dangling down like a weird necktie.

He shook hands and said, “The backpack’s your camera pack?” She nodded. “And you’ve got a gymbag and a roller bag both for less than a week here? I guess lesson one is going to be how to pack light for travel.”

She grimaced. “I’ll explain in the car.”

He had a vehicle, which was good because there was no way she could rent a car until she was like twenty-five. It was a five- or ten-year-old pickup truck with a big cab and a solid cover over the truckbed and Iowa license plates. As she put her gear in the bed of the truck, he told her, “Don’t go for anything flashy that might get stolen or targeted, or even noticed if you’re trying to follow people, like, say, a sports car or a huge brand-new SUV. Go for something you can use to drive off-road if you have to, and make sure you can protect anything or anyone you pick up along the way.”

Yeah, being able to rescue people was good. She was good with that.

She glanced again the Iowa license plate. It didn’t look as dirty as the rest of the rear bumper.

He spotted where she was looking and told her, “Yeah, I slapped on some local plates I borrowed so the truck blends in better.”

She hopped into the passenger seat, and he drove out of the airport. He checked, “You’re not really carrying enough clothes for a month, are you?”

She admitted, “The gymbag is my Terawatt gear, just in case. And a disguise valise, just in case. And a lot of energy bars, because I need stupid amounts of calories and it’s not convenient to eat way too much in a restaurant because that attracts attention. In the roller bag, I’ve got jeans and overalls, and one nice outfit in case I have the chance to do an interview. And some Woolite and stuff to wash anything that gets really filthy, because I figure this isn’t gonna be a clean job.”

He nodded. “Good. Sometimes, if you’re doing the kinds of jobs I’ve done, you want to have everything fit in one backpack: clothes, toiletries, weapons, and your camera gear. Granted, you’re your own weapons and your own transport. But toilet paper and an entrenching tool. Some places are about as third-world as you can get. Pull the cardboard roll out of the center, and a roll of toilet paper squashes down more than you’d think. Plus an entrenching tool with a sharp edge makes a hell of a good weapon in an emergency.”

She peeked in the back of the cab, and she saw he had a bunch of stuff hidden under a blanket. He supplied, “Yep, just in case. Pump-action shotgun with five boxes of ammo, a baseball bat, a crowbar, a machete… and an entrenching tool. Because most of the time shit like that is just a waste of your time and effort. But that one time when you need it? You’ll really, really need it.”

Then he changed topics again. “Do you have your own passport? And are you keeping all your receipts?”

She told him, “I got a passport so I can go with Aunt Ashley to Paris at the end of the month.”

“Ooh, big jetsetter already!” he teased.

She rolled her eyes just a tiny bit. She was used to a lot more teasing, after hanging around Jack too much. “Well, she’s a flight attendant. So I’m using her ‘family miles’ and flying standby there and back. My mom’s not thrilled about me traveling alone there and back.”

He glanced over at her. “Kid, you look like you’re sixteen and the easiest mark in the whole state. Plus you’re pretty. Expect every pickpocket, thief, con artist, and womanizer to make a beeline for you.”

She just pointed out, “I’m not as naïve as I look. At least, not anymore. And I do have defenses that no one’s going to expect.”

He glanced at her again. “Yeah. Even knowing, it’s hard to believe. You just do not look like Terawatt. You look like some dainty little prom queen.”

She blushed a little. “Maybe I was a prom queen. And a homecoming queen. But I’m not exactly dainty anymore.”

He sighed, “Oh yeah. I did some research since we met in D.C. There’s a lot of video of you out there. AP, UPI, Reuters, some chick named A.L. Mack…” He gave her a smirk to show he’d made a little joke. “You are one seriously bad mofo. If there’s one person in the entire city of Davenport I’m not gonna have to worry about being safe during this dig, it’s you. You just don’t look it.”

“That’s the whole idea, you know. I even keep my hair short and dyed brunette, and I only wear flats these days, just to separate me more from the way she looks.”

He nodded a tiny bit. “Yeah, I found an archive picture of your family when you were a kid, when your dad was doing something at his plant that made the local papers. You used to be really blonde.”

“I still am if I don’t dye my hair. But I don’t want to have Terawatt hair and have people say ‘gee she really looks so much like Terawatt it’s uncanny’ because that leads to problems.”

He nodded again. “Okay, open the glove compartment. There’s a manila envelope in there for you for this trip.”

That sounded interesting. She pulled out the envelope, but it just held a piece of notebook paper and a paperclip and a pen. The notebook paper was headed, ‘A.L. Mack – Davenport’ and the date.

He said, “Hold all your receipts for each trip together with the paperclip. Food you bought to bring on the trip, photography supplies, parking fees, plane ticket, car rentals, gasoline, taxis, restaurants… everything you spend. You need to do a really good job of record-keeping if you’re gonna be a freelance photographer, and you need to start paying your taxes quarterly.”

She fished the food court receipt out of her pants pocket using a little tk, and she slid it into the paperclip. “And the paper?”

“For your records. Write down every item you can expense, and add explanations if you need to, like ‘energy bars for plane rides there and back’. I date ‘em and put ‘em in datetime order just for my own records, and I go ahead and figure the total cost on every trip. Then I paperclip the expenses to the sheet, and when I get home I put the sheet and receipts in my tax file for the quarter. New gear you buy goes into a different category, but you need to keep those receipts for taxes too, and you may want to amortize the cost on some of the expensive stuff, but an accountant can show you how to do that. Also, keep copies of all payments you get, and set maybe twenty-five percent of each payment aside for your tax payments, just in case, if your client doesn’t do it for you first. Then, when you do your quarterly taxes, you’ll have everything ready and at hand, and you can get ‘em done in a couple hours every time. The first time, meet with a really sharp accountant and have him go over everything and see if he can come up with any new tax breaks or deductions. He’ll know the rules on deductions for things like your work website, clothing that’s work-only or that gets destroyed on a job, an office if you have one, or what you can deduct for a home office if you go that route, and any state-specific tax rules you need to know. After that, you ought to be able to do ‘em yourself if you want. And working out the costs for each trip also tells you how much you need to be charging for your work so you can afford an apartment and food and a website and maybe an office.”

“Okay.” Boy, she was learning stuff from Frank that would have taken her years to pick up on her own, and this wasn’t the kind of thing they taught at Corcoran.

He went on, “And if you go with a home office, make it one separate room that’s used for nothing else, or you’ll have trouble deducting that proportion of your rent or mortgage off your taxes. Or else you need to have one segregated part of a room that’s work only, and you’ll only be able to declare what the taxman can see as ‘work only’. Which means if you have a work area with a work computer, but you also use that computer for emailing with friends, or videogames, forget it. Or if your ‘home office’ is one dedicated desk in a room, then you’ll only be able to claim maybe a few square feet out of your whole apartment as ‘your office’.”

“Maybe I’ll have to skip the home office deduction until I’m out of Corcoran, because I’m pretty cramped for space with my apartment right now.”

He gave her a quick glance. “Then you’re way ahead of me when I was in college. I spent my first year in the dorms sharing a crappy dorm room with three other guys. Then I spent my other three years renting a really small room in someone else’s house and sharing the bathroom and kitchen. You already have your own apartment and some sweet hardware. And your very own Pulitzer.”

They drove across a huge bridge that spanned the Mississippi, and they headed into Davenport proper. Frank said, “I got us two rooms at the hotel most of the site bigshots are using. Jack said ‘some of your friends’ are staying there. I figure that means some important SRI types.”

Alex confided, “It probably means Colonel Riley Finn and his wife, Dr. Samantha Finn, and S.T.A.R.S. officer Jill Valentine – I still don’t know what her official title is right now – and Professor Hank Marshall, U.S. Naval Lieutenant. Lieutenant Marshall’s really smart and a biophysicist, and the rest of them are Orphans. But they’re on our side. And Sam just got shot three times in March, so don’t be mean to her.”

He smirked, “Pro tip number seven: never be a dick to people who are soon going to be holding your life in their hands. And pro tip number four: never pick a fight unless you know there’s no way you can lose. Granted, you probably can’t find anyone who can beat you in a fight, even if they bring mil spec weaponry. Plus pro tip number four and a half: don’t pick that fight if it’s going to come back on you later.”

Alex told him, “For me, there’s an extra rule. I can’t be in a fight if it could even look like I have powers. I’ll let someone punch me instead of using my powers, so don’t expect you’ll have Terawatt alongside you in a bar brawl. You’ll have a scared little girl who’s trying to hide under a table.”

“Yeah, but if the shit hits the fan for real, like we run into Umbrella zombies, then you won’t pull that. You’ll disappear and Terawatt will fly in to save the day.”

Why did everyone think Terawatt always had to fly in and save the day? People could save the day without her. And she wasn’t the only superhero out there. She just admitted, “Yeah, when we take photos this week, I’m bringing the gymbag just in case.”

He grinned, “Awesome!”

They checked into the hotel, and she hid her gymbag in the plinth base under her king-sized bed that she totally didn’t need. Then Frank bought her dinner at a restaurant around the corner. She ate a reasonable amount for a growing girl, and then they both ordered big desserts. Only Frank waited until she finished her hot fudge sundae, and he switched dessert plates, and he hadn’t eaten any of his chocolate cake. He’d gotten it just for her. Then he pretended he hadn’t bought it just to be a really nice guy, and he’d just decided after he ordered that he was already full.

After dinner, there was a meeting in one of the hotel meeting rooms. There were about eighty photographers and journalists. Lucas Kincaid was there, so Alex went over and said hi and asked how his wife and daughter were doing. Alex was so not surprised to find out that his daughter was still crushing on Bruce Paine.

Riley was running the meeting with a CDC doctor who gave everyone a shot in the arm. She wasn’t surprised that they wanted to make sure every person who showed up around the dig site was properly vaccinated against the t-virus stuff. And she wasn’t surprised that they had a nice area near the dig site where all the photographers could set up their stuff. She knew a lot of them would want to set up big tripods or else wear fancy steadicam systems. She didn’t need that.

After the meeting, Frank asked her, “Do we need to use that site?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, there’s footage of Terawatt flying around the Spencer Building the night after it dropped. She might know if there’s a flat rooftop overlooking the dig where we could get much better pictures than anyone else. Oh, and she might know if it’s possible to even get onto said rooftop.”

She thought about it for a second. “A rooftop in Davenport in June? It might get really hot up there.”

He grinned, “I can probably scrounge up a couple folding chairs and maybe a beach umbrella.”

“And a cooler full of ice. With drinks. And sandwiches.”

He grinned, “Right. I’ve got the cooler and the folding chairs in the truck already. I’ll see what’s open at this time of night on a Sunday. In Davenport, Iowa.”

She replied, “And I’ll go to my room and not go out for a few minutes.”

She went right up to her room, which had a window that was sealed shut. But it also had a big air conditioning unit under the window that had a switch setting that said ‘outside air’. She flipped the switch to that setting and heard something flip inside the unit.

She went silvery and dove under the bed, into her gymbag, and she changed into Terawatt. Then she stayed silvery as she oozed out past a filter she had to pull out of the way, past a fan that wasn’t running right then, and past an outside filter with a heavy screen to hold it in place. She had to use her tk to unscrew several screws, and then she just pulled the filter and screen and screws into her morph before she darted up to the roof of the hotel and took off.

It only took her a minute or two to get to what was left of the Spencer Building. It was surrounded by heavy fencing that was right up against the sidewalks across the streets around the wreckage. And on the west side inside the fence there was a lot of construction equipment and some special stuff she’d never seen at an ordinary dig.

She checked the buildings to the south of the wreckage. Ooh, perfect! One rooftop looked like the perfect vantage spot. She flew down and puddled under the roof exit door. Crud. The roof exit was locked shut on the inside. And the stairwell had locked doors at every level. And the ground floor door into the stairwell was barricaded on the inside and sealed all around the edges so nothing icky could get in. Or out.

She flew back to the hotel, flew into her air conditioning unit, and fixed the outside screen and filter back the way they were. Then she fixed the inner filter she had sort of squished, and she changed back to Alex.

An hour later, Frank was back with a pleased smile. They met in his room. “Okay. One large beach umbrella with a hollow base you fill with water to hold it in place. Ice, plenty of diet coke for you and plain water for me, and a stack of cold sandwiches all in individual ziplock baggies. How about you?”

She explained about the stairwell and the ground-level door and the roof exit door. He just nodded. “Okay, now I’m not going to have to teach you about lockpicking, but it’s a very useful skill that you’ll probably want to be able to fake, given your powers. I’ve got a set of lockpicks and a lockpicking gun in my toolbox in the truck. We’ll go in the back door of the building, walk up to the second floor, cut over to that inner stairwell, open the second-floor door, haul our stuff up to the roof, and unlock the roof door. Then we’ll set up shop on the roof where we’ve got a nice view. We’ll leave our umbrella and chairs up there at night. I’ll risk it.”

She figured there weren’t a lot of thieves in Davenport who ripped off stuff sitting on top of locked ten-floor office buildings. But she asked, “Aren’t you lugging around a lot of illegal or at least really suspicious stuff?”

He nodded, “Yeah. But as long as I’ve got a DHS or DOD contact I can call, I can get away with it. And as long as they owe me a ton of favors instead of the other way around, it works.” He glanced at her. “And I’ve needed every damn one of the things I’ve got in there at one time or another, so I’d rather get arrested for possession of burglary tools or an illegally modified shotgun or whatever, instead of being extremely dead.”


“Yeah Alex, being an American photojournalist in some parts of the world is like walking around with big signs that say PLEASE SHOOT ME and PLEASE KIDNAP ME. Granted, I’d feel a hell of a lot safer having you at my back if we were in a place like Colombia than I’d feel if I was alone.”


“Yeah, well a great ‘tog who also has a ton of useful abilities and also can whip out some incredible superpowers in an emergency? That’s who anyone would choose to work with.”

The next morning, Alex ate two energy bars and three of Willow’s really yummy brownies before she joined Frank for breakfast at the place around the corner. A ton of the other journalists were in there too. She noticed that none of the SRI or CDC or EPA or National Guard people she had met before were in there. She figured they ate somewhere else to avoid the journalists.

The other journalists hopped in their fancy rentals or their fancy local tv and newspaper vehicles, and rushed off to the area where they were going to set up so they could fight over who got the best spot. Frank took his time while Alex fetched her gymbag, and they took a different route. They parked in a dark corner of a multi-level parking garage a few blocks south of the Spencer Building, and they lugged their gear over to the building. Alex had her camera pack on her back, her gymbag over her left shoulder, and two folding captain’s chairs in their nylon tubes hanging by their straps off her other shoulder. Frank had a backpack, two cameras hanging in front, the box for the beach umbrella under his right arm, and the cooler’s handle in his left hand. It was a good thing they didn’t have much else to haul over.

The back door wasn’t locked, probably because people were entering the building that way, instead of going around to the front where you had to walk on a narrow sidewalk behind a huge fence and keep getting reminded about the Spencer Building because its ruins were just across the street. Instead of going over to the elevator where they were likely to run into someone they didn’t want to meet, like a security guard or maybe someone who knew all the people who worked in the building, they took the back staircase up one floor and walked over to the inside stairwell.

Frank told her, “I might need ten or twenty minutes to pick a lock like this one, so I’m just going to scratch up the lock a little.” He pulled his lockpicks out and scratched around inside the lock where the key would go. When he looked over at Alex’s puzzled expression, he said, “Now anyone investigating will be sure we used regular lockpicks.”

Alex nodded at the explanation. Then she did her tk trick. She felt around the lock cylinder with her tk and slid the lock pins out until the cylinder would turn freely. It only took her maybe fifteen seconds to get it, and Frank was totally impressed. They slipped up the stairs as quietly as they could.

Frank repeated the whole deal at the roof exit, scratching around where the key would go and letting Alex open the door. The roof door had one of those doors that didn’t lock from the other side, so no one could get stuck on the roof. So she just grabbed the latch and pulled it back into the door, then swung the door open. And they had the whole vantage point to themselves.

Except Alex still needed to sneak down to the top floor with the base of the umbrella, fill it with water from a bathroom, and bring it back up to the roof. Since she could pull the base into her morph, she just puddled under all the doors to do it. Even if the base was really heavy once it was full of water. She could still lift it and herself and fly, so it wasn’t a major problem.

They set up the big beach umbrella in the stand, placed the two folding captain’s chairs in the shade of the umbrella, and unpacked their gear. Frank was already wearing his cameras, but Alex had to open her camera bag and set up her good Canon camera body with her 70-200mm lens, and get her GoPro ready in its steadicam frame.

Frank told her, “Next lesson. Even if you have superpowers, always have a camera ready. Always. You never know when your best photo op is going to appear. If you need a minute to get the shot, or even ten seconds, you may have already missed it. And believe me, I’ve missed enough amazing photos in my life.”

“Thanks.” She was starting to feel like she was learning more from ‘apprenticing’ for a couple days with Frank than she was going to learn in her whole freshman year at Corcoran.

“Now this is a great spot. Really good job on the site selection. We have the best lighting for most of the day. We have an excellent height for the first couple days of the dig at a minimum. And we’re at a good distance for safety but we’re close enough to get all the details we want. Normally, someone like me needs a way in to the spot where I set up, and at least three ways back out again in case things go haywire, but you’re your own transport. Still, plan that way. If I wasn’t with you, I’d have the roof exit gimmicked, I’d have an emergency rope or an emergency slide set up on the back side of the building, and I’d have at least two different doors in the stairwell ready for instant access. If you’re doing journalism with someone not in on your secret, you’ll need to do the same.”

“Okay.” Those were really good ideas she hadn’t thought about. Maybe she was way too used to having superpowers.

“And in buildings, check out the ductwork. Most places have ducts that are far too small to crawl through, even for you. But some places have ductwork big enough to move through. Knowing about that can mean you have ways in and out of places, or you know other people might be able to sneak up on you through the ductwork. And even if the interior ducts are too small, there may be really massive ducts in and out of the HVAC systems that will let you into buildings without using a door or a window. Or they might just be really useful places to hide for a while. Okay, those won’t matter for you, but they may matter for anyone working with you.”

“Gotcha.” Wow, it really sounded to her like he’d had to know all that stuff at one time or another.

The workers were getting started, so Alex used her Canon’s telescopic lens to capture them getting all the equipment ready and getting into the equipment. Riley had explained about all the gear the night before, but it was cool to see it getting set up. Each of the six huge hydraulic excavators was near a wicked-looking rock grinder to dump loads into. Each rock grinder dumped stuff onto a big conveyor belt that sprayed a special viricide and a wide-spectrum disinfectant and a biocide on everything before it got dumped in a huge dump truck, so the stuff that got hauled away was safe. Even if they were only hauling it out and dumping it into the hole that was all that was left of the Spencer Mansion, since the Army Corps of Engineers had finished excavating the crater that was left from that stupid self-destruct thing.

He checked, “How many spare memory cards do you have?”


“And are they all interchangeable with all your cameras?”

“Umm, yeah, but I might have some stuff on one of ‘em already.” She really should have checked that before she packed.

He frowned, “Okay, here’s what you need to do.” He pulled out a clear plastic case. It was full of memory cards, each in a thin plastic holder like some of them came in from the store. And every plastic holder had a blank piece of paper in it with the card. “Every card you fill up, you immediately label and close up in its holder. That way, you never overwrite good stuff, and you always know which cards are full and which are empty, and later on you can always find the memory cards you’re hunting for.” He showed her one holder that had a memory card in it. The piece of paper had yesterday’s date and the word ‘Davenport’ on it and the note ‘prep for dig, faces of the workers’.

She grinned, “That’s great. You’re really smart.”

He scowled, “No, it’s just the school of hard knocks. These are all things I learned by screwing up somewhere and having to find a better way after that.”

She said, “I wanted to get some human interest photos, and you’re already beating me to the punch.”

He nodded carefully. “Every one of those guys knows he might unearth something so horrible that he’ll need those DOD guys like Colonel Finn to save his ass. Or else he could end up like people he’s heard about, and in a couple cases, even knew. If something happens, we have the ‘before’ photos, and I even managed to get a couple short interviews.”

She had her fingers crossed that nothing would happen. But this was the Umbrella Corporation they were talking about.

She spotted some movement way off to the side, and she got a couple telephoto pictures of Riley and Jill and Hank moving into position with heavy weapons, so someone else was planning in case of badness.

The construction guys got into their huge Cat excavators and started tearing chunks off the top of the rubble and dumping them into the rock crushers. But nothing happened.

Alex waited patiently, her Canon around her neck and her GoPro at her side in its fake steadicam so Frank could see how cool her dad’s invention was. Frank even tried it out a little.

After a while, she was waiting impatiently. She had a sandwich. And then, after another long stretch of boredom, a diet coke. And then, after a while, an energy bar. Still nothing.

Frank spotted her moving around, and he told her, “I know it’s hard, but you have to learn to be patient. You can’t go read a book. You can’t go watch tv. You just have to wait and pay attention the entire time, or you’ll miss that one moment.”

She took a deep breath and tried to concentrate on nothing but the digging. “I know. I mean, I know it in my head. Making my body cooperate is a lot harder.”

Nothing happened all morning. As they ate lunch out of the cooler, he reminded her, “There may be nothing all week. I mean, we don’t want these guys to get mutilated and killed, so you should be hoping nothing happens.”

She sighed, “I am hoping nothing happens. But I just… well, there’s a reason I brought my gymbag.”

He gave her a lopsided grin. “And that would be the reason you’ve got an earjack in your ear?”

“Yeah,” she admitted. “It’s my Terawatt earjack. Just in case.”

After lunch, the crews got back to work. And with six huge excavators, they were working fast. The entire roof level was already cleared, and they were into the penthouse levels like the IT level. Alex could tell, because the asphalt-y roof parts were all gone, and big chunks of crushed computer stuff were now turning up in the rubble going into the rock crushers. She figured that at the rate they were going, they could be at the aquarium level by quitting time, and maybe at the atrium level by early Wednesday.

She sent up a silent prayer that Birkin wouldn’t be its former still-moving, still-angry, still-indestructible self when they got down there.

Then her earjack finally clicked. “Finn to team. Cat 3 is reporting something wrong with its treads.”

She yanked her camera up and focused in on Cat 3. Its treads looked stuck, even though the cab was moving. She took photos as she zoomed in.

“Frank! Cat 3! The treads!”

There were huge vine-like things wrapped around the bottom parts of the treads, holding them in place.

She clicked her earjack with her tk. “Terawatt to Finn. Do not let Cat 3 bail. Something has the treads. It looks like one of those plant monsters.”

The worker in Cat 3 used his huge bucket as a lever to try and pull his treads loose, and the rubble erupted all around the excavator. Vines the thickness of a man’s arm snaked around the excavator’s bucket and then up the treads until they were surrounding the cab of the excavator too. Massive toothed mouths at the ends of the vines bit and snapped at everything.

Alex handed her steadicam GoPro to Frank and snapped into her earjack, “Terawatt here. Inbound.”
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