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Mystery Men Part 7

by John Coleman

MARCH 19, 9:36 PM

It was a mile and a half run around the perimeter of Fort Nicholas. Private Specialist Joe Williams had watched hundreds of soldiers make the run around the inside of the perimeter wall in the months he had been stationed there. The fastest he had ever seen anyone make the mile and a half run was in six minutes and fourteen seconds.

Looking at the watch on his wrist, he had just passed the six minute mark and he was going into his third lap. Almost four and a half miles in six minutes, he thought. I think that’s about forty-five miles per hour…not too bad.

It had been almost nine months since he had come to Fort Nicholas and had taken part in Professor Klein’s training regimen. None of the other participants had lasted more than three months. His superior officers seemed to think he was what they were looking for… the real thing. A new breed of soldier.

Maybe they’re right, he thought. But was it all worth it for one soldier?

He hadn’t been the only soldier to receive the treatments. What they were calling Project: Champion had existed before he had become involved. He had personally watched six other men die as a result of the experiments…six good men. He could only imagine how many there had been before them.

Joe’s entire family had been in the army. His father had fought in Europe during the Great War. His grandfather had charged up San Juan Hill with the Rough Riders. His older brother Nathan had attended West Point and was still stationed there. Since he had been a little boy, Joe Williams had known exactly what he was going to be. Only now, he felt unsure that this was what he wanted. America wasn’t even in the war yet and already he had watched half a dozen soldiers die. It was not something he wanted to see again.

Professor Klein, who had been in charge of the experiments, had spoken to Joe on a few occasions. “You know, Joseph,” the old man had said only two weeks ago, right before his disappearance, “it is almost a shame that you are the most successful recipient we have so far. You have the desire to be a soldier, I know, but the temperament is where you are lacking.” He had been insulted at first…then he remembered how easily the other soldiers in the program had taken their comrades’ deaths. He knew now that the old man was right. He just didn’t have it in him to be a killer.

You must not let them know everything, Joseph,” Klein had told him in an earlier conversation, this one soon after he passed the critical three month mark. “All they want is to use you, my boy…remember that, and be used only as far as you wish to be. That is, after all, what soldiers do. However, remember also that the less they know about you, the less they can do to hurt you.

It was that conversation that made Joe keep some of his abilities a secret. When he realized that he could hear people from far off distances simply by focusing, he did not let on. When he realized that he could read the text on a newspaper from a hundred yards away, he told no one. His reflexes and strength were hard to keep hidden during the routine tests they put him through, but he held back when he could. And of course, his increased healing process was something they could not fully gauge without him sustaining serious injury; the minor wounds he had received during training had healed within hours, or a day at most.

With his enhanced senses, he had learned a lot about the history of Project: Champion. He overheard conversations and saw files and reports that were never meant for him. He even learned that he was not the first super-soldier that the U.S. had…apparently, there was a man called Ranger working covert operations over in Europe, helping the British and the French Resistance. From what Joe understood, Ranger had been working for the Army for years. It seemed that this Ranger had somehow laid the groundwork for what Project: Champion was trying to accomplish.

He also knew that they were bringing in two dozen new recruits to the project…new “raw materials” as one of the doctors had put it. They were Negro soldiers on lend from the Air Corps, coming up from Tuskegee. The way some of the doctors and officers had talked about these men had made Joe ashamed to be associated with them.

One of the things that his daddy had always spoken so highly of was the brotherhood that soldiers shared. He hadn’t felt any of that since his first week here. The other soldiers on base knew he was some kind of special operative. They didn’t bother hiding their contempt for him.

He finished his run near the northeast tower and checked his watch. Ten minutes, and he had made just about five laps. Seven miles in ten minutes…not bad at all.

“An impressive run.”

Joe whirled around toward the shadows at the base of the tower, from where the voice had come. His eyes allowed him to see clearly in near total darkness; with the night clear and the moon nearly full, he had no problem seeing the man standing there, leaning against the perimeter wall.

At first, he took the young man for another soldier. He was dressed in a dark jumpsuit similar to a soldier’s uniform. Upon closer examination, though, Joe quickly saw that it was not an American issued uniform. The man’s boots and gloves were of a dark red leather, and they were in almost as bad repair as his uniform itself. The bottom of his right pant leg and the top of his right boot were shredded, the right shoulder of his jumpsuit was marked by three long gashes, and there was a decent sized tear in the left breast, as well.

“Who are you?” Joe said, quietly. No need to alert the guards in the tower above until he was certain it would be necessary. Until then, he was perfectly confident that he could handle anything that happened.

The man stepped from the shadows. “There’s no need to whisper,” he said. “No one will hear us.”

He was roughly the same age as Joe, but it was hard to say for sure…his features seemed young, but his eyes…his eyes reminded Joe of the nights that his father would wake up screaming, lost in memory of the trenches. Whoever he was, his eyes had seen much. “Fort Nicholas has the best soldiers in the country, mister…I don’t know how you got in, but you won’t stay hidden for long. Now…best tell me what you are doing here.”

“Trust me, they won’t hear us.“ The stranger raised his hands in peace. “I’m not here to cause any trouble. I just came here to see you.”

Joe cocked an eyebrow. “To see me? Why is that?” He took a readied stance, preparing for any sudden moves the man might make. Stories of German saboteurs had been spreading for weeks now. He was sure that was all they were…he’d never heard any mention of it during his eavesdropping… but it was better to be safe than sorry. “Do I know you?”

The man shook his head. “No…but I know you.” He paused and then shook his head again as if just realizing something. “Wait…that’s not true…I never learned your real name.”

“What do you mean my ’real name’?”

The man shrugged. “I only know you by the name Champion.”

That put Joe on guard. Whoever this stranger was, there was no way he should know about Project: Champion. “I don’t know what you are talking about and I’ve had just about enough…”

“I want you to help me find Professor Klein,” the stranger said. “That is why I came here…to ask for your help.”

That gave Joe pause. From what he had overheard, there had been no progress in locating the Professor. It even seemed like the officers in charge of Project: Champion were just as ready to continue on without the old man. “What do you know about the Professor?”

“I know he is in danger,” the stranger responded. “But I know that I can save him…with your help. And the help of others like us.”

“What do you mean?”

“I know what you are…that you can do special things. I can, too, and there are others like us. Together, there is much we can do in the coming conflict. We can start by saving Professor Klein.”

“Why should I trust you?” Joe countered. “Why shouldn’t I just take you to my C.O.s and make you tell us what you know about Klein?”

The young man eyed him for a moment. “Do you really trust them, either?” When he saw that his words had affected Joe, he went on. “What kind of Champion do you want to be? One that is simply a weapon for America to aim at its enemies…or the kind that helps save lives?”

The man walked up to him and placed one hand on his shoulder. “You aren’t alone,” he said. “You’ve heard stories about the Mystery Men. There are at least two more of us in Century…maybe more. There are others in Europe, as well. Like I said, together we have a chance. A chance to do some real good… not just for America, but for the whole world.”

Joe thought for a moment. The stranger’s words reminded him of that sense of brotherhood that he had lost weeks ago. Perhaps there was something to all this. “What can I do?”

The man smiled at him. “They created you to be a living flag for their soldiers to rally around. They want you to be a symbol… so be a symbol. But be a symbol for so much more than they ever thought of.”

“They won’t let me leave here. You know that.”

Again, the stranger smiled. His eyes lit up as he did so, and the pain that Joe had seen there became something else entirely. He saw hope. “How can they stop you?” he asked with a shrug.

As inspired as he felt right now, Joe was still not sure about this. It seemed like he was facing a decision that could have huge ramifications not just for himself, but for his fellow soldiers. “I don’t know,” he said. “I need time to think about it. It all seems so… so crazy.”

“Tomorrow night,” the stranger said. “Decide by tomorrow night and meet us at the top of the Spire if you’re in.” The stranger turned, moving back toward the wall. “I’m sorry, but I can’t give you any more time than that. Things will begin happening soon that we’ll have to deal with.” He looked back over his shoulder at Joe, his eyes as tortured as they seemed when Joe first saw them. “You can do a lot of good here, Champion… but you can do a lot more with us.”

Without another word, the strange young man jumped up at the wall. His feet planted firmly onto the concrete and he ran right up its face, as easily as if he had been jogging down the street. In a moment, he slipped over the top of the wall and was gone.

Watching him go, Joe realized he had never asked the one question he had wanted to right from the start. “Who are you?” he said out loud.

The only answer he got was the sound of shuffling boots above. He looked up to see the soldier on watch staring down at him. Most of the men on base knew he was some kind of special operative. Only a handful knew he was connected to Project: Champion, or that the Project even existed. The night time sentries were selected from the soldiers who knew at least a little about him, so that he could be free to go on his nightly runs. They treated him as if he was some kind of freak. He was an outcast in most of their eyes. He saw that look now.

“Something wrong, Private?” the guard asked with a smirk. “Running at night make you talk to yourself?”

“No,” he responded, turning to head back toward his barracks. “I think everything is just fine.”

Century and all related characters are © and ™ 2005-2006 John Coleman.
Metahuman Press is © and ™ 2005-2006 Nick Ahlhelm.