Mark's busy getting their portable headquarters -- Owl 10 -- up and running and ready to fly. Meanwhile, Joe's attending to things that only he can -- most of which involve handprint and retinal confirmation, and are the sort of things one does only if the worst case scenario is upon them.
"Almost got her ready," Mark announces as Joe goes flying past, holding a number of circuit boards in his hands.
"Good. Once it's ready, tell everyone to finish up and get up here," the patriarch of the family orders.
"I'll have to hoof it, but okay."
"You do that, Mark. We need to be gone. Now."
Mark nods, and, seeing that the startup sequence is almost done, starts running for the computer core.
As he does, he wonders why the man had to put it like that. Did he really think he was just going to sit there and sip at his coffee while their world fell down around their heads?
Still, it's always been this way. Just because the worst case scenario is coming true doesn't mean that years of personal history are going to just vanish in its wake.
Unlike everyone else here, Mark married into the clan. He fell head-over-heels in love with Rachel when they met in college, in his mechanical engineering classes, and the more he got to know her the more that love grew. She was a bit late to reciprocate, but he was nothing if not stubborn, and she eventually gave in.
He was in for a bit of a shock when they got serious, though. The family treated him like a hostile organism, all but scaring him away from her when she finally brought him around to the Samuels estate. At first, he thought it was because they were old money, and on the lookout for golddiggers -- which he understood. But even after he'd proven, as best as he could, that he'd have married her even if she owed the IRS a million dollars, they were still more than a little standoffish.
Then, one day, not long after he proposed (she said she'd have to think about it) he was summoned to the estate to talk to her father. He was expecting a really degrading time of it, but instead the man treated him with respect for the first time ever. Sitting in the mansion's well-appointed study, they talked for what seemed hours about family and faith, and his intentions towards Rachel, and such was their discussion that Mark had no idea if he was already approved of, or being mined for reasons to say 'no.'
But then, instead of showing Mark to the door, Rachel's father took him to a corner of the study, and opened a secret door that revealed a small elevator.
"What I'm about to show you changes everything, Mark," he said: "I know you want to be a part of the family, and I think I'd like you to be as well, but I need you to know exactly what that means."
And the moment the doors opened into the Owl's Nest, Mark finally understood a lot of things. He realized why the Samuels clan had been so distant and unwelcoming. He figured out why Rachel had always been breaking dates and saying "family business."
And he knew, at last, where she got her steel and sense of purpose from.
"So what do you think?" the man asked when they were done, and looking out at the world through The Eyes.
"I think... this is amazing," Mark said: "I'm honored you would trust me with this."
"You've earned it, son. Believe me. We had you checked out ten ways to Sunday before you even set foot in the downstairs house. The rest was just to make sure you could put up with us."
Mark nodded: "That makes sense. And you followed me, too?"
He smiled and clapped Mark on the shoulders: "Constantly. But don't be discouraged that you didn't see them. That's kind of the idea. You'll learn all about that, in time."
"Yes. This is what it means to be a member of the family, Mark. There's no half measures, here. You're either in and helping, or you're not."
"You want me to... wear a costume?"
"Oh, no," he laughed: "I don't expect you to suit up and hit the streets. That's a very special and risky calling. But there's a lot of other things an operation like this needs."
"Sir, I'd mop floors and clean the ceiling if it meant I spent the rest of my life with your daughter," Mark said: "But how about if I fix your car?"
"How are you with aircraft?"
Mark smiled: "I'll figure it out."
The subsequent marriage was a great and beautiful thing, carried out on the Samuels' estate. All their friends, family, and Chicago's well-to-do were in attendance, along with a few other people Mark would eventually learn were Strategic Talents.
(SPYGOD was there, of course, and thankfully did not mangle the proceedings; he seemed to respect the old man a little too much for that.)
But the real ceremony -- the one that carried the most weight with this family -- took place the night before. There, in front of the others, Mark swore on the old, huge family Bible to protect the family, continue its mission, and be Christ's hands on Earth.
It was the most moving experience of his entire life up until that point. And he made a quiet vow, there before God, to do his absolute personal best at all times, so as to not let these extraordinary people down.
In that vein, he learned how to built, maintain, and fix aircraft, speedboats, motorcycles, gyrocopters -- even the occasional submarine. He worked on their armor variants, invented new devices for them to use, and even played guinea pig for them when things needed to be tested out. He'd been there on their brightest and darkest days -- a constant, good-natured grumbler who could be depended on to take whatever they had and make whatever they needed, and usually just in time.
(He'd helped bring a new generation into the family, too, but that was a quiet sort of accomplishment, best achieved in secret between a man and a woman made one in the eyes of God.)
But even after all that, Rachel's uncle still treated him like the new kid at school. Good days, bad days, or anywhere inbetween, all he ever got from him -- before, during, and now after his time as The Owl -- was thinly masked condescension, served with the need to tell him things he already knew, and slightly sprinkled with what might be contempt.
Mark did his best to ignore it, and prayed that whatever divided them might be brought to light, eventually, and fixed. But people weren't machines, as he knew too well. This was just something that was going to take time.
Time they'd have to find somewhere else, on a day when they weren't about to be invaded.
"Rachel, honey?" he says, turning the corner and expecting to run right into the locked doors, which he would then expect to bang on until she yelled at him that she was going as fast as she could.
Except that the doors are not locked. They are open. The room beyond is pitch black.
And the only sounds he can hear in there are towers sparking as they melt into slag.
He hitches a breath, reaches into his pocket, and puts on a pair of Owl Goggles. They're the next model, which he was planning to unveil in a month or so, once he'd worked all the bugs out. Less bulky, more powerful, and with better temperature sensors, but probably still not good enough for Joe.
They're good enough to tell him everything he doesn't want to know, though.
He sees two naked, skull-faced men with large guns (recently fired) walking through the ruins of their data storage.
He sees the portable drive, all charged and full (and hot) and ready to go.
And lastly, most horribly, he sees his wife's body lying over by her desk.
He doesn't need the goggles' temperature readouts to tell him that she's dead -- the fact that everything above her clavicle is a smoking, splattered ruin is evidence enough. She must have been going for some of the self-defense devices she kept over by the desk when they got her, judging from how she fell.
He wants to scream. He wants to run in there and kill these faceless monsters. He wants to make them suffer as they must have made her suffer, and have made him suffer, and his daughter...
But he realizes that if they're here, there will be others. That's just the way these things go, sometimes.
Hand-in-hand with that, he realizes that if they're here, and they killed her that easily, the internal sensors and defenses must be down
He also realizes that they're looking for something, and are distracted.
Revenge can wait. He must get the data. He must get it upstairs to Owl 10. He must get the rest of the family out of here before the Owl's Nest is denied to the enemy.
He has to stay strong and safe for them, and especially for Kaitlyn.
So he sneaks into the room, quietly as he can, takes the drive from where it rests on the floor, and, without looking back at his wife's body, or her killers, leaves the room as swiftly as silence will let him.
That he does this with experimental goggles full of tears is something of a miracle. Something tells him they will need many more, today.
* * *
There's an old, large mission over by Kaitlyn's school that's been abandoned for some time. The Samuels family bought it years ago, as it had fallen into disrepair and turned into a crack house. They cleaned it up, cleaned it out, and promised the community that they'd refurbish it and put it back into use.
That was a few years ago. Since then, they've come up with a number of plausible excuses as to why construction hasn't started, and the place remains boarded up. However, they've created a "temporary" facility, not two blocks away, that does everything the original building ever did, and more, so no one's really complaining -- much less asking how the super-rich, highly-influential Samuels clan are being stymied by red tape.
Of course, the mission will be put back up, one day, but not until Kaitlyn goes into Middle School. The building has secretly been converted into one of The Owl's many hideouts: special, hidden facilities that serve as way stations, medical facilities, vehicle storage, and criminal detainment. No one outside the family knows about these places, and they come in very handy at times.
This one is all Kaitlyn's. She has the key, and is fully authorized to come here and hide in an emergency. And if being kidnapped out of band practice, and chased by two fast-moving, cop-killing men in overcoats isn't an emergency, then she doesn't know what is.
She thinks she's lost them in the maze of buildings that lead up to the place, and hopefully the numerous people who asked her if she was lost, scared, or needed them to call the police didn't accost her pursuers. She really doesn't need any more deaths on her conscience, today.
Taking one last look around, she ducks into the back of the building, inserts the key in the lock, and waits a moment. She knows that, as she stands there, several very sophisticated banks of sensors are making certain she's the person the key belongs to, and not some thug who managed to take it from a little girl.
Once the computer's satisfied, it opens the door, and she runs inside, hoping no one saw her.
"Mom, can you hear me?" she shouts into the cavernous chamber beyond, hoping the hideout's many audio devices will pick her up, as always: "I'm being chased by two weirdoes. They tried to take me out of school. They killed... they killed a policeman who tried to help me. I'm at the mission. Can someone come get me?"
But there's nothing but silence. This is very troubling. She could understand her watch not working, but what's wrong with the communications net? Even if the satellite was down, there are enough backups and redundancies that something should work.
(Her dad told them what they all were, once. She went crazy trying to remember them all. He laughed and said don't worry, that's his job.)
"I'll have to go home," she says, and heads over to the vehicles. There's an Owl Car, a Talon Bike, and a gyrocopter that's seen better days. There's also a smaller vehicle, made just for her, that's made to look like a compact car with two parents in the front seats.
(Androids, of course. Just like their butler, only not as real.)
"Car, take me home," she says, walking towards it.
"Kaitlyn, you don't want to do that," the 'man' behind the wheel says, turning to look at her.
"Some mean people were here, earlier, and boobytrapped everything, sweetie," the woman adds, turning to look at her as well.
"What do you mean, boobytrapped?" Kaitlyn asks, stepping back.
"It means that if you sit down, we'll explode, honey," the man says, sighing.
"All the vehicles are like that," the woman says: "We couldn't stop them. They had all the override codes. They teleported in here, too."
"Are they still here?" Kaitlyn asks, hugging her back closer.
"Oh, we never left," a familiar voice informs her as its owner walks from the darkness, not far behind her. It's one of the men in overcoats, though she can't figure out how he got in here so quickly.
"Well, we sort of did," his companion says, stepping out from the darkness on the other side of the room.
"But not really," one adds.
"It's a bit confusing," the other admits.
"Better to just accept our word on it."
"You killed that policeman," she says, stepping in a different direction, back towards the door.
"Oh, we didn't do that," one says.
"No, they did," the other insists, pointing to the door. Kaitlyn turns to look, and sees two more men in overcoats coming in through it. The same two men...?
"Very confusing, I know," the original one says.
"But it's the way we work," the original other adds.
Kaitlyn stops in her tracks. Her face screws up and turns red. She falls to her knees, puts her hands over her ears, and starts bawling, as though she'd broken something.
"Oh, don't cry out like that," one says, walking closer.
"There's nothing to be scared of," the other says, doing the same.
"We're going to bring a whole new world, little girl," the original one tries to cheer her up, joining the two that were here all along: "A world made of love."
"And the good news is that, if you're really good, you'll get to help us make it," the original other adds, smiling from ear to ear.
Kaitlyn looks up, and for a moment it looks like they've got this one in the bag. But then her sad, crying face is replaced with something entirely different: rage and determination.
"Suck on this, you poop heads," she spits, and pulls a long, white rod out of her bag. It looks a little like a heavy-duty mace dispenser, except that it's got too many holes, and looks a little... owlish.
Their smiles go away a split second before the sonic grenade goes off in her hand. A moment after that, every piece of glass in the room explodes, except for the specially-treated ones on the vehicles.
Every one of the men screams in agony as their ears burst like ripe plums, and then their faces literally crack and shatter like kicked-in televisions, revealing naked skulls with baleful, silver eyes.
They fall to the ground, one by one, clutching their true faces. They twitch and shake, and then fall still.
Kaitlyn turns the grenade off, stands up, and takes the earplugs out of her ears. Then she reaches into her case, right behind her flute, and pulls out a very long, metal truncheon.
"This is for that policeman," she says, and proceeds to give each of her pursuers' skulls a good, hard crack on the back, hoping this means they'll stay down.
"Car, are you still okay?" she asks, once that's done.
"Yes, but we're still boobytrapped, honey," the woman says.
"That's okay," Kaitlyn says, remembering those long afternoons with her father, at his workbench, and getting the two multitools he gave her for Christmas out of her pack: "You tell me where they put the bombs, and we'll be done in no time."
"Where to then?"
She looks around the shattered hideout. If these men knew where this place was, and could teleport in and put bombs in the vehicles, then there might be another reason she can't reach the Owls Nest on her watch.
"Let's table that for later," she says. She doesn't know exactly what that means, but dad and mom say it a lot at times like this.
It'll just have to do.
* * *
The iron owl was something of a family heirloom. Martha's grandfather claimed it came from a fellow crimefighter, somewhere in Europe, and he made it for The Owl as a gift for helping him solve a case. She was told the story once, as a little girl, but didn't quite remember all the details -- just that it was important enough to keep on display in the library, along with a number of other, orinthological rarities.
As such, she feels very badly at having to use it to defend herself, here and now, from the four falsefaces trying to kill her. But it's all she has to defend herself with, and is just light enough to make a useful weapon, and just heavy enough to do some real damage.
One good swing to the nose and their faces shatter. One further, follow-up blow and their eyes are driven back into their skulls. That, coupled with the best, normally-lethal kicks and strikes she can muster, and they go down, one after the other.
Getting them to follow her in here was simple. Getting them to think she was someplace she wasn't was tricky. But once they fired on what they thought was her hiding place, she was able to burst out at them and do her worst.
Now they are down, and she is not.
She takes one moment to compose herself, and then drops the battered, iron owl down on the last one she just took out. She hopes her grandfather understands. She's sure he does.
In order to open the safes, she needs to get certain things from behind the painting of the Prophet Ezekiel on the far wall, above the fireplace. She pulls one of the light fixtures beside the fireplace towards her, and the picture slides up and away, giving her a chance to reach up and take them.
High tech keys that are lit up with blue LEDs. They flicker slightly as she takes them in hand, recognizing that she's someone who should be holding them. If it wasn't her, something bad would have happened.
One of the safes is behind another object d'art. She moves it out of the way, opens up the safe, and extracts a large, leatherbound book, handling it with all due reverence, and moving it onto the table. It is a priceless object, and must be preserved at all costs.
The other is hiding in the wall, behind a picture of the entire family at its greatest number. She was very young when it was taken, and doesn't remember the day. But she does remember how important it was to everyone who was there, and why.
She moves the picture aside and opens the safe. Inside it is a cache of data sticks. The information in them is also priceless, and she moves them to the table with the book.
Martha's about to get the special carrying case for the two things from where it's hidden when she hears something behind her. She whirls to face it, but sees nothing there.
And when she turns again, it's in order to be struck head-on by a familiar, if broken face.
What's left of her son collides with her at frightening speed, knocking her back onto the floor and sending her sprawling. She tries to get up, but then realizes who she's been hit by.
And when she sees that her son is little more than a charred and broken torso -- legs blown off, arms burned down to the elbows -- her training and discipline break down, and she screams in shock and horror.
"I am so sorry, madam," the newly-respawned Hargreaves says, stalking into the room to view his handiwork: "I found him in what's left of the garage. Perhaps you heard the explosions? One of them put paid to his time as a costumed crimefighter, I'm afraid."
"How.... how could you?" she screams.
"They appear to have corrupted my programming," he says, slowly walking closer: "I do believe they've taken control of the security in the Owls Nest, which would explain a great many things. I was safe until I downloaded myself into this spare body to be of better service. Believe me, the irony is not lost."
"Hargreaves, deactivate," she commands. He does not, and smiles sadly.
"They want me to send you a message, just before I kill you and your son," he says: "They say 'there is no room for hate in a world made of love.'"
"This is love?" she asks, seeing her son's eyelids flutter ever so slightly.
"Love is sometimes tough and cruel," he says: "That's me speaking, though. Not them. What is them is that I'm to pull your head from your shoulders and then batter him to death with it."
"That's horrible. You can't do this, Hargreaves."
"I can't not, dear Martha. Everything below the neck is theirs, now, and I'm having a hard time keeping it from going any further than that."
Martha puts her son down as the android comes closer, hands raised to do its terrible, promised deed.
"I am so terribly sorry, Martha," the butler says: "I wish there was some way to stop this."
"So do I," she says, and tosses one of the safe keys at his face
He sees it coming and, smiling subtly, cranes his neck as far forward as he can to catch it with his teeth. He can't say 'thank you' with a mouth full of complicated circuitry, but Martha somehow knows that's what he would have done.
Then the key explodes, taking his entire head with it. The body stands there, stupidly, and then falls down to its knees. She throws the other key at the chest, just to be sure, with similarly explosive results, and the hijacked butler goes flying onto its back -- steel ribs smoking and sparking.
"Thomas, can you hear me?" she says, gingerly patting her son's face. He half-murmurs something, and she checks his pulse. It's weak, but if she can get him to Owl 10, they can stabilize him.
She looks at her son, and then at the things she was sent to retrieve. Can she really carry both? Can she really make a choice between the two?
"A world made of love, huh?" she snarls, getting to her feet and putting the essential things into what's left of her son's costume: "When I'm done with you people, you're going to have a whole new definition of what that word means."