Portal – Chapter 9

Since the trial nearly a week ago, things at home were a lot different for Michael. His mother had tossed out all the alcohol in the apartment and attended her first  Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. She was home every night with Michael, cooking his meals as he worked to clean up and repair the damage to the apartment from years of neglect. She informed her boyfriend that she was moving on with her life and he was to move out immediately. At first he resisted and started to argue but when Michael walked in, he quickly grabbed all his possessions and left.

Michael zipped up his bag, thankful he did not own many clothes. A package had arrived a few days ago from Butler congratulating him on his selection for the Joint Task Force program and his orientation instructions. Michael was sure it was just a standard form because Director Lehrer’s signature was at the bottom. He doubted the Director would sign anything welcoming him to the JTF facility on the former Butler campus. The university was less than two miles away  from his mother’s apartment so he decided to walk there. His mothers repeatedly tried to call a cab for him but he refused.

“I need the exercise,” he told her. She was trying to be a good mother but Michael and she both needed time to adjust to this new family dynamic.

Michael gave his mother a hug and kiss goodbye when he left just after 7 am. His expected arrival time was 9 am and he did not want to be late. As he walked north, away from downtown, he noticed the large number of people on the streets. The people going to work were mostly walking south. There were also the homeless and mentally unstable just sitting on the sidewalk with signs asking for money and always ending with ‘God Bless’. Michael was not sure feeding drug and alcohol addictions was something God would bless. There were also groups of men, some with no shirts on, making obscene gestures and catcalling the women trying to walk to work. The women simply turned away in disgust and hurried away. Michael was ready to step in and tell them to stop, by force if needed, but he stopped himself. He needed to control his thoughts for once and let it go. When he watched interviews of JTF Enhanced, the most common theme about their powers was control. Ronald had warned him his power was weak on the Enhanced scale but he could seriously hurt a mundane if he was not careful.

Michael continued walking north, noticing the distinct change in architecture in the homes once he was north of 38th street. Before the Greater Depression, this area was home to some of the wealthiest people in the state. Although many homes were still occupied, the influence of the area had greatly declined after several major companies in the area went bankrupt. The families with the capability to leave had scattered to other areas of the country looking for a new opportunity.

Just north on 46th Street, Michael turned west for Butler. As he approached his destination, he could tell the JTF had made a significant modification to the Butler campus. On what used to be Sunset Avenue, the JTF had constructed a 20 foot concrete wall around the perimeter. Michael wondered if the wall was to keep people out or the Enhanced in. He noticed several JTF agents in their standard power armor armed with automatic rifles at the front gate.

“Sorry civilian, you will need to leave the area immediately,” ordered one of the guards, “No groupies allowed.” Michael laughed. Many famous Enhanced had dedicated PR teams with the sole mission of making that Enhanced look good to the American people. The Enhanced would appear in commercials for certain causes, Save the Animals, Save the Starving Children, Enhance the Vote, and tour American cities in support of the JTF anti-terrorism efforts. Many mundanes wanted to believe they were helping the effort so they joined these various fan groups for a specific Enhanced. It did not hurt that most Enhanced were in top physical condition and were extremely attractive. Some psychologists believed the breast augmentations that many Enhanced females opted for was detrimental to young girls. Michael was not sure about that but he did recognize that the Enhanced world had a lot in common with show business.

“No,” Michael started, “I have paperwork right here.” As Michel unzipped his bag and looked inside for his welcome packet, he saw movement in peripheral vision.

“Freeze!” yelled the first guard. As Michael looked up to a M4 pointed at his face, he felt a large armored arm grab him by the neck and pull him backwards. His head stumbled down and felt his face slam against the ground. Against a regular mundane, Michael’s new his Enhanced powers gave him more than enough strength to fight the hold but these guys were wearing Harris armor, the JTF’s way of equalizing the battlefield against Enhanced. Against someone like Judge, the armor would get crushed with the man inside. Against a low category Enhanced, the armor provided an even playing field. The mundane agent was stronger and was completely isolated from the outside environment, cold, heat, and auditory weapons had no effect on the wearer. Michael could feel the weight of the armor on his back, even if the structure was self-supporting for the JTF agent inside.

“Get off me, you asshole!” he screamed into the asphalt.

“Sir, take a look at this,” said another JTF agent holding the packet Michael had received in the mail. They continued to search through Michael’s bag, tossing his clothes on the street to dig deeper. Michael could only see his clothes landing on the ground. The agent with his armored leg spread over the back of his head and on his spine would not let him move at all. Michael was quite uncomfortable with the gravel digging in his face and his arm pulled backwards.

After a couple of minutes, the agent on top got off Michael but not before giving him a final shove. As Michael stood up, he wiped the rocks embedded in his cheek, noticing a small amount of blood on his fingertips. Michael grabbed his bag off the ground and quickly tossed his clothes back in.

“Recruit,” said the JTF agent that spoke to Michael before, “you are cleared to enter. HQ said you were a late addition. No one told us. You were expected at 8 am. Hurry up and get to orientation.”

As Michael gathered his things, stuffing them back in his bag, he heard muffled laughter coming from the suits. This is not what he expected.

“Always wanted to slam one of those bastards down,” said the agent, his voice still muffled from the armor and obviously talking over the internal radio with the squad.

As Michael started to walk on the  Butler campus, the initial agent put out his armored arm to stop him.

“And recruit, the next time you risk our safety by reaching where we can’t see, we’ll shoot you first and sort it out later in the infirmary,” he said flatly. Michael knew they were confusing him with a high category Enhanced. If they had shot him, they would be sorting it out in the morgue.

“Got it,” Michael replied with a mock salute, “jerkwad,” he added silently a few seconds later.  He continued to dust his arms and legs off as he walked towards the middle of campus.

I guess I was wrong, Michael thought as he hustled to the largest building to west. It looked like a good place to find an orientation. Director Lehrer did sign the welcome letter. The petty asshole gave the wrong start time.

Michael looked at his phone. The time was 8:23 am. Since Michael was fired from his UPS job, his mother insisted, and Michael agreed, to let her pay the cellphone bill to get it turned back on. Michael promised to repay the money when he could. He hoped his JTF pay would be more than just one day’s worth.