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Chapter 3

            Michael Wallis stepped back and stretched his arms, pausing to survey the damage. Actually, it was a repair job… um, make that an upgrade of the Rogue Isle Protector’s Arachnos Flier. Parts and electronics lay strewn all over the hanger bay. He was already several hours past the schedule down time and the two technicians assigned to help him slept sprawled over the workbench using a toolbox and box of sandpaper for pillows. They had long since given up assisting the new young Protector. The hero, formerly known as Voltech, debated how much of an electrical charge to release from his mutant ability and into the workbench. Too much of a shock and they would become worthless too him. He would be damned if he is going to put this aircraft back together.

            Secretly nestled on the Isle of Port Oaks, the building Michael worked in belonged exclusively to the Rogue Isle Protectors. It was their headquarters, gymnasium, dormitory, training facility, and was one of the most secure buildings in Arachnos. Only Arbiter of the Protectors, Arbiter Veran, along with Arbiter Leery and Lord Recluse himself had unrestricted access. Each Protector had their own large office that served as personal quarters, mini-gym, or any other type of room they desired. During assigned patrol duties, it served as a mini base of operations.

            When not saving the civilians on the Isles from the heroes of the United States it was common for a Protector’s obligations to lead them to Arbiter Leery, who was responsible for Internal Affairs of Arachnos and settling disputes among the different divisions. Veran reported directly to Leery who managed other resources and materials for rooting out traitors and those that are disloyal to Arachnos. This made the Protectors feared, envied, loved, and hated within their own organization. Their presence generally indicated trouble was brewing. They were either looking for information or somebody is about to be re-educated. If it was three Protectors, something really serious was about to happen. What that meant varied but at a minimum, the individual was dragged off never to return. Imagining more than three Protectors in one area outside their building was unfathomable. It could only mean war or something worse.

            Protectors had broad powers across the organization thanks to Lord Recluse. They are the uniformed secret police. Technically, they operated to protect Arachnos and their homeland, the Rogue Isles. They were allowed to use any means necessary to achieve the security and protection of the innocent. The free nation of the Rogue Isles was safer now then at any time in the past. It was common for a veteran Protector to actually work through covert means and establish themselves secretly in the United States of America, especially Paragon City of Rhode Island. Many threats had been stopped cold because individuals were oblivious they were working alongside a hidden Protector.

            Michael again slowly surveyed the pile of parts and electronics scattered about. He was beginning to realize Arachnos did not have a clue on how to put an aircraft together. Granted, he never built one himself, but he saw what he considered many flawed theories and a mix-n-match wiring systems. If he truly wanted to improve the flier, he may have to redesign it all together. Really, the one sprawled out in front of him made no sense.

            “Michael?” A voice from behind asked.

            “I am really going to have to redesign the whole thing,” Michael responded turning to the source of the question, “Oh, hi Chris.”

            Christopher Wentworth stepped beside Michael surveying the chaos. “You know that was scheduled to patrol Grandville soon.”

            “Pfft,” Michael responded dismissing the nonsense with a wave of his hand, “It is just poorly designed. It may still fly again.”

            “Arbiter Veran wants to speak with us. On the bounce!”

            “Really?” Michael asked noting the mocking catch phrase the two noticed when they joined the program. He glanced at the wall clock realizing for the first time it was one in the morning. “It’s the weekend, what’s he even doing here?”

            Christopher shrugged, “He wasn’t in uniform and he was pretty ticked off.”

            “What’s new,” Michael replied. “Let’s go… On the bounce!”

            Both laughed at the phrase and Michael quickly pondered whether he should change into uniform, Chris already was. He would have been if it were not for the fact he was working in the maintenance bay. Reasoning if Arbiter Veran was not in uniform then he would not be either.

            The two newest Protectors walked the dimly lit hallways of their building. Christopher Wentworth and Michael Wallis had both been former members of the Skulls gang back in Paragon City. Michael had been newly initiated when he had heard of Chris’s plight.  The city was in flames due to Hellions starting to mass firebomb buildings. When the heroes of the city responded against them especially in Perez Park, the sudden power vacuum left in their greatly diminished numbers was obvious. Chris, who was hiding his emerging mutant powers stepped forward and took command of his local sect. He started a wave of attacks to claim Perez Park in the name of the Skulls. He even negotiated an unsteady treaty with the Circle of Thorns who liked to use the forested center of the park for their rituals. The seclusion of the trees was desirable to hide their dark magicks. In exchange, the homeless known as the Lost would find themselves pinched between the Circle in the middle and the Skulls around the outskirts and would also be forced out.

            The plan was genius, but Chris failed to get approval of the true leaders of the Skulls who immediately put a stop to his renegade venture. Michael had talked to others that were involved and they said Chris damn near succeeded, handing Perez Park easily into the lap of Skulls. Rumors consist even today that the Family and Skulls had a secret pact and the territory grabbed was viewed as takeover. Chris ended up fighting against the Bone Daddy, Marrowsnap, and left for dead. His skull had been crushed on the right side, but some heroes came across his broken body and were able to give him immediate medical attention. He now wore a metal plate on the upper right of his head, his reward for all the good he did for the Skulls.

            Michael himself had joined the Skulls after losing his family, friends, school, and home during the Rikti War. There he thought he too had found a home achieving even greater success in the gang than Chris did. Norman told him the fact that because both he and Chris grew beyond the Bone Club it was a testament to their abilities. Ultimately, thanks to Arachnos, he has come to understand that his abilities truly are limitless, especially under Norman’s guidance.

            Arbiter Veran stood behind his desk in what was the largest and plushest offices shuffling through the many stacks of papers scattered about. A ghostly strand of smoke undulated leisurely up from the cigar resting in a dark glass ashtray on his desk. Many found the scent of the stick odd if not unique. It was more citrus and herbal scented, but not flowery. The office reeked of the aroma that even held itself against Veran following him like a lost puppy dog wherever he walked. It was said one could smell the Arbiter coming down the hall before you even heard his footfalls.

            Veran was still in civilian clothes, a bit odd because he was hardcore Arachnos and rarely seen outside his uniform, they even had the stench of fabric softener and starch. Michael thought the dark trench coat made the Arbiter look cool. However, he could not help but stare at their boss’s dull silvery faceplate covering half the left side of his face from forehead to lower cheek. Veran had received his injury near the end of the Rikti War and suffered further injuries to his face during the 5th Column’s civil war. The mask covered not only his deep scars, but generally kept his face attached to his head. Seeing the two newest Protectors, he sat down. For some reason between Chris’s skull faceplate and Veran’s, Michael felt the odd man out.

            “You sum’a bitches call that on the bounce!” he yelled smoke from his cigar bellowing forth, “Michael, why the hell are you not in uniform.”

            Michael snapped to attention along with Chris. Veran was definitely upset about something. “Sorry sir, I was supervising the maintenance of our flier.”

            “Well, holy spider’s crap,” Veran boomed. “You didn’t take apart another piece of equipment did ya!”

            Michael wondering how exactly a spider would crap swallowed his laughter. “Well sir,” his mind searched for something positive, “the submarine works fine.”

            “About as fine as installing a screen door on it, the damn thing leaks!”

            “Sorry sir,” Michael gulped. “Nobody informed me that there were micro-fractures in the hull.”

            Veran shook his head and looked the pair over. Never had he seen a sorry bunch of recruits. Both were mutants and their DNA contributions to the program were quite valuable, these two seemed destined for other Arachnos experimental programs.

            “I’ll be blunt, maggots,” Veran began picking up his cigar and puffing on it. He chewed on the end letting the tension build in the room. “There have been some irregularities in your loyalty test, but Norman swore to your training and placed faith in your future allegiance. Frankly, I am sick of his shit and I am wondering whether a mistake was made with you two.”

            Michael let a small sneer slip and felt his pulse race. He tried to remember the relaxing techniques Norman taught him to keep his fury in check. His mentor had taught him to hold it off and release at his choosing for devastating results. He swallowed his pride, but really did not know how long that would be.

            Norman has been nothing but trouble lately and you two have been chosen for remediation. You have one chance to prove the irregularities were quirks.”

            “Excuse me sir,” Chris dared to interrupt, “what had Norman done. Everybody praises him for his skills and judgment.”

            “Well, I might as well tell you. We believe Norman may be getting ready to go rogue.”

            Michael could not help but snicker slightly at that absurdity and wondered who we actually were.

            “Yah, laugh it up. You two will share his fate if we do not uncover the evidence and prevent him from violating his oath.”

            “Should we notify the other Protectors?” Chris asked. Typically, the Protectors took care of their own dirty laundry. It was rare for a Protector to go rogue on Arachnos, but it happened. Michael and Chris both witnessed two separate incidents with Norman. One they confronted and stopped in the Protector building in front of all the team members and the other rogue Rogue Isle Protector was in Warburg, a place forbidden for any of them to go to without special dispensation.

            “Not yet, you two are apprentices of his so the process of discovering the truth falls to you. If he goes rogue you will follow the same fate.”

            “I just find it hard to believe.” Michael said and Chris nodded.

            “Yeah, you two ex-Skulls would. Norman’s attention is shifting farther from Arachnos then you think. Sirocco’s has been undermining my authority by instructing Norman in the magicks of Mu so he may reclaim a heritage. He even went so far as to create a new Mu-Protector uniform to wear. That alone sets him out and above the rest of the team. My objections to Leery and Recluse have been carelessly dismissed. Norman is also under suspicion of consorting with an enemy of Arachnos, the drake known as Ockham’s Claw a known associate of Crey and the Saurian cult of the Dark Lord. Furthermore, he has been increasingly spending more and more time in Paragon City and less in the Rogue Isles. And I mean more than usual. Even by your admission Michael, he loves another woman, one of Paragon’s finest heroes at that.”

            Michael tried to enhance his calm not expecting his past comments to be twisted back at him or worse, against Norman. His mentor had never shirked his patrol duties on the Isles. He had even covered other Protectors shifts when their counter intelligence schemes held them up.

            “Worse,” Veran continued, “he has revealed his true identity to her and others of the…” he glanced down at some report prepared on his desk. “The Onami Strike Force.”

            “That’s where I came from,” Michael tried to protest.

            “Yes,” Veran agreed, “Don’t think I am not holding that against you. In addition, I have been receiving complaints about him and Protector Claire. Jealousy? No doubt, but you’re aware of the rules and the penalties of fraternization.”

            Both new Protectors could only stand silently during the accusations. Both worried about what happens to him if Norman indeed go rogue. Seemingly, they were going to share the same fate.

            “Also, with Norman’s respect and popularity within the team, I am aware that there are those among you that look forward to the day a Protector will become an Arbiter of all the Protectors. If indeed this is Norman’s ultimate plan it will be considered a mutiny and treasonous.  Lord Recluse’s punishment will be swift, especially against the Protectors, which are the epitome of Arachnos loyalty. Your silence and assistance in this matter will clear your records and remove any doubt about your fidelity.”

            “Yes, sir,” Chris and Michael said in unison responding to their new charge of duties.

            “Further evidence of his plans of betrayal lie within this report,” Veran said stabbing the paper on the desk with his finger. “You are probably not aware that when your activities take you beyond normal operations and into counter-intelligence all activities are to be reported in a timely matter with full disclosure. Late yesterday he just submitted his involvement in an Out Source Incorporated. I was merely going over his files when I noticed he has been the silent partner for over ten months now. He helped found the organization and failed to report it. I am considering taking action against them as well. Arachnos funds have been misappropriated, although he claims many plots of being uncovered and stopped. I suspect he is at the center of it all. This will not stand. We will stop him and handle his punishment like all others before.”

            Michael nodded in unison with Chris, but only because Veran looked like he was expecting them to agree. He knew Norman well enough that he would rather kill himself then betray Arachnos. Then again, Norman seemed to have picked up the talents of the ever-living phoenix from his Mu heritage. In addition, Veran did have some good points. The argument would continue to rage on in his mind while the got to the bottom of things.

            “Back to your duties then,” Veran finally said. “On the bounce! And so help me Michael, if that flier isn’t ready, I’ll make sure your patrols take place in the deepest darkest snake pits I can find. And that’s for starters.”

            The newest sworn in Protectors of the Rogue Isles saluted and left their arbiter’s office. Michael stole a brief, but informative glance, at the folders on Veran’s desk. Under a slim pair of night vision goggles, he noted Norman’s medical records among the papers. He found that quite interesting. Norman had requested access to the records several times only to be denied repeatedly. Michael began to think a Protector’s medical history was a top secret even from the very person to which it belonged. He guessed the secrets of treatments and scientific methods would prove invaluable to the medical community, especially the enemies of Arachnos.

            Michael was not exactly sure what Chris thought, but found himself torn between his newfound loyalty to Arachnos and that of his friend. Arachnos gave him a wide berth to do whatever he wanted as long as the security of the Isles was maintained. Norman had not only brought him over to Arachnos, but also helped him gain insight into his own powers. This enlightenment shed light on a new path to a greater destiny. Michael truly was in the direst of straights. In the meantime, he had to go jolt some technicians, and eliminate their lethargy.

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