Chapter 1

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A lonely intercom echoed music all throughout the small office building. It was a pop song considered to be too old to be relevant anymore, yet too new to be nostalgic either. It faintly traveled through the main hallway just to fall on deaf ears. A well dressed young man was wearing earbuds, listening to his own music. To the left of him, a punk-ish young woman was taking a nap. The two of them sat side by side, waiting next to a door marked with the letter ‘J’.

The young man’s name was Maxwell and the young woman’s name was Sam. Both had exhausted any and all possible options they could think of to kill time. Every magazine displayed all they had to offer, the simple furniture had quickly lost its charm, and the checkered wallpaper refused to keep them distracted. The pair had no choice but to wait long and patiently for their promised interview.

Maxwell sat comfortably while waiting. He had one leg over the other and one elbow leaning on an armrest. Sam sat with her arms crossed, legs stretched out, and eyes closed. Her snore had a slight whistle to it that would have been annoying to Maxwell, if not for the loud industrial music playing in his ears. The only other noise to accompany them was the sound of the air conditioning. The late summer weather was as per usual in Southern California: hot. Luckily for them, the air had been on blast ever since they walked inside the building.

Whenever one of Maxwell’s songs finished, he would look at the wall clock above him. How many songs will I listen through before we get interviewed? He thought. One song finished, then two, then five, and eventually a whole 12 song album. Maxwell judged that both he and Sam had been waiting for over half an hour in that hallway, not even counting all the time spent before they sat down.

Annoyed by this fact, Maxwell contemplated knocking on the door to see if anyone was in the room to begin with. Perhaps walk back to the reception desk to see if the interview was still happening. He took a glance at the door, and by sheer luck, someone opened it from within. A woman, with a clipboard in hand, slowly walked out of the door. Her high heels clacked upon the tiled floor, alerting the duo of a new presence.

“Ah, you two must be next. Come in,” the office woman said in a calm and monotone voice. She wore a simple black office dress that fit tightly around her hourglass-shaped body. Her hair was contained in a well-groomed pompadour, framing her unemotional visage that was behind a pair of cat eye glasses. Her dark skin, complemented with darker makeup, gave her an even further mix of beauty and mystery.

Maxwell rose from his seat, putting away his earbuds and MP3 player into his pockets. Sam was much slower to the trigger. She took several long blinks before stretching her arms out and letting out a yawn.

“Took you long enough,” Sam said as she got out of her chair to crack her back. While the two of them stood up, the office woman saw a better comparison of all of their heights. Although Sam looked to be fairly average while sitting, She was taller than the office woman, and even Maxwell, by several inches. Sam also looked a lot more built and physically fit compared to Maxwell’s slender physique.

“You must be Samantha Perez, correct?” the woman said as she reached her arm out for a handshake. Sam obliged to it. “I wasn’t expecting you to . . . well, nevermind. We can discuss it more once we begin the interview,” she said as she took quick glances at Sam’s choice in clothing.

Sam was wearing what seemed to be average goth punk attire; a torn cotton shirt over a tank top, ripped up skinny jeans, worn out Konverse brand knee highs, and a hoodie with a fur lining on the hood. All of which were either black or a darkly toned red. Sam also had a short and messy bob of dark brown hair, tan skin, and amber eyes that created a natural array of warm colors which heavily stood out from her attire.

“And you must be Maxwell Esperit,” the office woman said as she moved on to shake his hand.

“A pleasure to meet you, miss . . . ?” Maxwell said while trying to ask for the woman’s name. Unlike Sam, Maxwell’s attire suited the look of a prim and proper business professional. He wore a blue dress shirt, with its sleeves rolled up, under a dark suit vest accompanied with fitting dark slacks. He had what many would call a cliche emo hairstyle; long bangs over one of his eyes in a light brown color. There was also a hint of eyeliner on his visible blue eye. It seemed obvious to the office woman that Maxwell came along with Sam and was in a similar goth clique as her, but with much more refinement.

“You may call me J. Or Ms. J if you’re feeling respectful today. I’m the head secretary in human resources here,” J replied. “Now before you two come in, I need both of you to give me your cell phones for the duration of the interview.”

“Hold up, you for real right now?” Sam said with a befuddled expression on her face.

“We understand, we’ll g- . . . wait, what?” Maxwell said as he turned to face Sam. “Come on Sam, just do what she says and not ‘start something’ again, please?”

J stretched out her arm and beckoned for Sam’s phone. “It’s company policy, miss. We take our privacy and security quite seriously here,” said J. “And you also signed the waiver,” she added as she brought her clipboard closer.

Sam glanced back and forth between Maxwell and J. Ultimately, she took out her cellphone and relinquished it. “Alright, fine. But I don’t want you going through my contacts or messages, got it? Because I take my privacy quite seriously too,” Sam retorted.

“Oh don’t worry. I won’t.” J replied as she snatched the phone out of Sam’s hand.

While the two women settled things, Maxwell had already prepared his phone in one hand and his MP3 player and earbuds in the other. “Do you need these too?” he asked.

“I just need your phones. You can put that back,” J said. With both phones collected,  J motioned both Maxwell and Sam into her office. While they complied, J moved over to the side of the door and tossed the phones into what seemed to be a metal trash can. The phones made worrisome clanging noises as they hit the insides of the bin, until falling towards a hollow bottom. The pair both took notice and made panicked gasps before being lightly nudged into the room by J. “Don’t worry, those are phone receptacles. They are perfectly fine and you can pick them back up once we’re done.” J said in a slightly more assuring tone.

Once they were all inside, J closed the door behind her and motioned the two young adults to sit down again. This time, there were two metal folding chairs positioned squarely in the middle of the room. Other than that, it looked and smelled like any other personal office. Both Maxwell and Sam were confused as to why this place was supposed to be so secretive. The room, even with all its organized supplies, dusty knick-knacks, and decor scattered about, emanated no emotions; even less than the already pedestrian themed hallway. The grays, the whites, and a few faded colors of hope made for a sterile environment. An environment that not even the most offensively flamboyant or vibrant decorator in the world could ever hope to fix.

Maxwell sat with his legs straight and hands grasping on his kneecaps. His expression simply read ‘anxious’ to J. Sam sat with one leg over the other, an arm hanging from the back of her chair, and a less than stellar glow of pent-up annoyance plastered on her face.

J paid no heed to Sam’s apathetic response and sat down at her desk. She began to rifle through the various files, briskly flipping through folders to the pages she needed.  With hesitation shaking his very core, Maxwell made an attempt to wave his hand and say something to regain the secretary’s attention. Before his agape mouth could even utter a sound, the secretary instinctively raised her hand and wagged her finger back and forth to silence him. The young man receded into his previous position.

However, as if threatened by her previous actions, Sam gave the secretary a more apparent glare as she began to finally situate herself in the uncomfortable metal chair. A tiny hint of irritation tinged the secretary's eyes, but not an ounce of acknowledgment was displayed on her stone-faced expression.

After a moment of perusing through the files, J appeared to have found the papers she needed. At last, she turned her attention towards the two people in front of her as she gave them proper eye contact. Her prey was in her sights.

“Now that I’ve got these, let me restate my intent here,” J said. “I am here to conduct an interview. Specifically to see if you can meet our general expectations and find out what positions fit you.” J looked over to Sam again and said, “Before we begin though, I want to ask you something Ms. Perez. You do know that this is a very impressionable and selective interview, correct?”

“Well, yeah?” Sam chided.

J gave Sam another quick glance before letting out a sigh. “Then why exactly are you wearing all of . . . that?” J asked again as she pointed her pen at Sam, motioning up and down to target specific parts of her outfit. The torn up shirt, the jeans, the shoes; all of it.

“I thought these types of clothes were ok here? Like, don’t they fit in with what the job is all about?” asked Sam.

“Your friend, Mr. pretty boy, didn’t think the same,” J said as she pointed at Maxwell.

Sam recognized the stark difference. “Yeah yeah, but it’s not like I dress like that everywhere I go like he does. Don’t we wear uniforms on the job anyway?” she asked.

"If you even get the job, you’d start out with a basic uniform. The opportunity for ‘self-expression’ comes at much higher positions," J responded in quick succession.

“See? I told you they wouldn’t like it,” Maxwell whispered as he leaned his head over. He did warn her about dressing-up back at their shared apartment. Maxwell didn’t remember exactly what he called her, but it wasn’t pretty.

“Oh come on, the thing didn’t even say I had to be that dressed up,” Sam whispered back.

“This is a job interview, you’re supposed to look presentable,” Maxwell whispered back even louder.

“I am presentable. I’ve gone through like a dozen job interviews like this and still got hired,” said Sam who talking in her normal voice at this point.

While the two were having an escalating conversation, J took out another piece of paper and began to write notes in it. “He’s right honey. If you wanted my first impression of you to be mall rat, you did not disappoint,” said J. Sam’s amber eyes immediately locked on to J’s amber eyes in an intense, albeit short-lived, stare down. J scoffed and returned to the interview. “Mr. Esperit?”

“Y-yes ma'am!” Maxwell gave J his undivided attention while one of his feet began to tap on the carpeted floor. J wasn’t sure if Maxwell was going to await her next order or start breaking out in a sweat, or both simultaneously.

“It seems that all of your forms are in check; even hers," J said as she nodded her head towards Sam. “Let’s start off with something easy. Tell me more about these jobs and positions I see listed here.” J read off her notes for the duo to listen. “Says here, you used to be a stagehand at some local theatres.”

Maxwell took a deep breath and began to speak. “Yes, while I haven’t had many jobs, I’ve worked a lot in theatre.” J’s eyes widened as her usual disinterested expression began to take new form.

“Alright, now we’re getting somewhere. Can you go into more detail about that?” J asked.

“It’s mostly been academic, but I’ve been on a few professional plays and musicals. I was just starting out as a stagehand working on sounds and lights. But many of my peers, including some of my professors, dumped other theatre work on my lap that I had to learn on the spot.”

“Such as?”

“Costumes and makeup. At first, I wasn’t really excited about having more responsibilities, but making costumes and putting on makeup for actors just clicked for me; you know?”

“Hmm, those skills could be beneficial.”

“Oh! I also did a bit of acting too, but I’m still a little shaky on that.”

“That’s good to know still. So how come you want to be hired here? We’re not a theatre production and you don’t seem to be the type who’d take on this sort of job.”

“Well it’s the down season right now, so there’s nothing in production quite yet. At least nothing that I’m personally interested in.”

“I understand,” J replied. Her face had softened up as she looked back at Maxwell, jotting down notes whenever he talked. The change in expression was short-lived, as J’s head turned to face Sam.

“Now it’s your turn, Ms. Perez,” J said as she flipped a few papers over to Sam’s forms. She looked through it briskly but was stopped near the bottom of the paper. She squinted to more closely see a jumbled mess of writing and ink splotches; list of jobs scattered all over in confusion. “So you’ve worked as a cashier, fry cook, shoe store sales associate, a dishwasher, a furniture mover, a barista, and a . . . costumed mascot?”

“Yep! I’ve got experience with all sorts of jobs. You could put me anywhere,” Sam said with an arrogant smile. J continued to read through the list to herself. However, it became so hard to read Sam’s handwriting that she gave up on it and set the paper down. What Sam purposefully did not mention was how she got fired from all of them. It was either by getting into fights with other employees and even customers or showing up late one time too many. “Lots of other manual labor work too. That’s how I got these,” said Sam as she proudly flexed an arm to show off her well-defined biceps. J looked more unamused than usual.

Maxwell began to worry and nudged Sam. “Hey, don’t forget to tell her about your last job,” he whispered.

“Oh and also, I was an assistant fitness instructor for my last job. Took a few courses in sports medicine and all that stuff back in college too,” said Sam who gave Maxwell a light jab to the arm as thanks.

“So how come you still aren’t working there?” asked J.

“Well, let’s just say that the rest of the staff and I had a few ‘disagreements’,” said Sam.

J simply made an mmm sound with her mouth as she wrote more notes. She looked less annoyed than before, but still didn’t give Sam an inch, unlike Maxwell. After jotting down more notes, J proceeded to the next question on her agenda. “Next, do either of you have a criminal record or know of someone in your families who has one?”

“I probably have someone in the family who does, but I don’t know them too well to confirm,” Sam explained.

“Nope,” said Maxwell right after.

J wrote down another quick note and said, “Well, that’s good to hear from the both of you. Obviously, in this line of work, we accept former convicts. But blank slates are still reliable to work with.” J flipped to another sheet of paper and continued reading. “Could you tell me why you chose to join us specifically?”

Before Maxwell had time to answer, Sam blurted out an answer. “We’re just your average, in debt college grads that need rent money badly. And we heard, from some reliable sources, that you guys pay good!”

“Plus, uhhh, you guys are pretty cool and are local and . . .” Maxwell rambled.

“Alright alright, I get it,” J said trying to ease off from the subject. “Now I just have one final question,” said J. She stopped writing and placed her pen on her desk. A look of seriousness was in her eyes as she spoke once more, “Do either of you have superpowers?”

Maxwell and Sam paused. They both turned to each other in search of an answer. Maxwell had a look of concern which Sam immediately noticed. She shifted her own look of concern to one of understanding, acknowledgment, and even confidence. They did consider the chances of this question coming up during the interview being slim, but now that they were faced with it; they needed an answer.

Turning back to face J, after what seemed like an eternity, Sam gave her answer.

“I don’t have any superpowers.”

“Neither of us do,” added Maxwell.

The room fell quiet as the duo waited for J’s response. The faint hum of the ceiling lights was smothered out by more air conditioning. The atmosphere became cooler as air continued to enter the room. The frantic whir of the machines reminded the duo once more just how hot it was outside. J wasn’t writing anything down and was looking at the two of them dead on. Maxwell’s expression was blank throughout the staredown, but he could feel sweat starting to accumulate on his palms. Sam had her arms crossed, continuing to look at J with mild disdain.

“Oh well, that’s fine. Never hurts to ask these days,” said J as she broke eye contact with the duo.

With the last question answered, the interviewees breathed sighs of relief. Sam smiled at Maxwell and he smiled back. The exchange was quick, as J snapped her fingers to regain the duo’s attention before they continued.

“I can safely say that with your set of skills, Maxwell, you have enough qualifications to guarantee yourself several specialized position here at The RS,” J affirmed. “You, on the other hand, do not,” said J as she pointed her pen again at Sam. Sam’s grin turned into a frown of confusion and then into grits of dismay. “Now, I can see you two are close friends. I can work around a deal. Sorta like an internship.”

Sam sat motionless, processing what was said prior. "What?" was all she could muster the to say. Her hesitation was fleeting, however, her face slowly grew into a mask of anger as she jolted up from her chair. “What the hell? Is this a joke? Look, lady, we filled out all the forms you guys asked for and we waited as patiently for your slow ass to interview us. The least you could do is get me a real position here!” Sam argued.

Although Maxwell’s face grew more worried, J stood her ground. “Look, our organization has been in the negative for a while now and taking someone as inexperienced as you can still be a risk,” J responded. “However, if you want to work here so badly, I can put you on janitorial duty.”

Sam kicked her chair behind her, crashing it into the door. Maxwell attempted to grab Sam’s arm to stop her, but she forcefully shook him off. She began walking towards J and slammed her hands on the desk, shaking the papers and stationery on it.

J remained motionless.

“Please sit down, Ms. Perez,” said J.

“Nah,”

“Sit down.”

Sam scoffed back, imitating J from earlier, and began to think of ways to make her even more upset and annoyed. Sam wanted to test J to see if she had the backbone to stand up to her condescension. She wanted to test J’s mettle; perhaps even break it.

“You know what actually? I think I will sit down.” Sam moved closer and sat on the front edge of J’s desk. She then took a handful of expensive looking pens off of J’s desk and stuffed them into her pocket.

“Put those back,” J said as her eyes darted to look at Sam dead on. Sam could plainly see that she was getting on her nerves.

“Come on now, Ms. J. Why don’t you tell us why you really don’t want me in huh?” Sam said as she smiled coyly.

“Put those back.”

“Is it because you hate the clothes I wore today? Or maybe it’s because you realized that I could easily replace you? I mean, anyone can read off a piece of paper and look like a stupid bitch all day.”

J’s posture shook more and more in her rising annoyance of Sam. Her eyes were now twitching in steaming anger as she tried to hold any and all emotion in. Her right hand reached under her desk and she began to tap on it, contemplating her next move will be while Sam continued.

“You’re cute and all, but that’s all you are: cute. You’re probably just a plaything for your boss upstairs, right? You only got here because of your looks. Know somebody with clout who got you in? Or maybe you made some clout of your own?” Sam made an O shape with her mouth, raised her fist, and proceeded to move it back and forth from her mouth.

J’s glare grew into an intense scowl. Her twitch had increased in speed, growing ever more obvious. Her teeth began to grind on each other, and yet she didn’t speak a word. Her finger tapping grew faster and Maxwell both saw and heard it. His wild imagination began racing and his fears grew. What is she reaching for down there? Is she gonna call security?

“I bet it tasted good, right?” Sam said grinning.

J got out from her chair, rolling it back to the shelf behind her. She slammed both of her hands on the desk even harder than Sam had before, knocking down Sam and a few pen holders in the process.

“Would you shut the fuck up?! I’ve had it with you!” J yelled at the top of her lungs. The shift in intensity in J’s tone surprised the duo. Neither of them thought that J was capable of expressing such raw emotion based on their first meeting. Sam didn’t falter and immediately stood back up to face J, ignoring all the pens that were falling out of her pocket.  “It’s not the damn clothes, it’s your whole damn attitude! We get immature shitheads, just like you, applying here every week. And in all of those cases, they outright quit the next week. They last for maybe a month tops! All because they can’t handle the pressures of responsibility.”

“Hey! You don’t know me, bitch!” Sam said snapping back.

“I don’t need to know your life story to see that you’re a desperate fuck up! Of all the places you could have gone, you decided to come apply here and try to becom-,”

"Enough!”Maxwell yelled. The two women turned their attention to him now. As he had been helplessly watching for fear of interjecting, they had all but forgotten his presence. At first, Maxwell had no idea what to do next or how to approach the situation tactfully. He did, nonetheless think of something that could help. Maxwell took out his MP3 player put his earbuds to calm his anxiety with some music. J responded to this action with confusion while Sam recognized what her friend was doing.

Even though he only listened to one easy listening song for a few seconds, Maxwell entered a state of concentration that felt like minutes to him. He could feel his heart slow down after taking one deep breath. He was calm once more and thought to himself. Then he thought about J. How can I convince her? How can I fix all of this? Maxwell felt his thoughts flood throughout his body. Under his closed eyes, Maxwell envisioned waves of layered maroon and violet flowing through nothingness, until all those thoughts into a singular point in front of him.  A solution emerged. He focused it all towards where he last saw J and opened his eyes.

“Look, I know we’re not the best choices out there, but I know we can work up to your standards if you give us a chance.” Sam and J began to calm down and listen to Maxwell’s continuation. “I’ve been friends with Sam ever since we were little. She’s always been an aggressive jerk. I know that better than anyone else. But she’s tough and she’s passionate! She’s the one who suggested to we come here in the first place. You know she’s tough enough to stick through it to the end. And if she can’t get a proper position here, then I don’t want it either,” Maxwell said firmly.

Sam turned all her attention back to Maxwell. She could feel her throat choke up a bit before speaking again. “Hey uh . . .  thanks, man,” Sam said as she walked back Maxwell. Her eyes glimmered with slight tears of surprise and profound feelings of pride for her friend. In their shared moment, the tension in the room cooled over and Maxwell removed his earbuds and let out another deep breath.

“For fuck's sake, an ultimatum . . . really?” J slumped back down into her chair and smothered her face into her arms before letting out an audible moan. She peeked over her arms and saw the duo looking back at her, awaiting a response. J let out another moan before raising her head back up and rubbing the temples of her face. “Y’all are giving me such a massive headache right now.”

Sam’s surprised expression grew bigger after hearing the word ‘headache’. She looked over to Maxwell to see his reaction and was greeted with a quick smirk and a wink.

“I know I’m gonna regret this later, but screw it. There’s only, like, two months left before Halloween and we really need more people. You’re both hired.” J said with a disgusted expression on her face. She couldn’t tell whether the disgust was from the headache or the decision to bring them aboard. The duo couldn’t care less.

“Hell yeah! I owe you buddy!” shouted Sam as she went to give Maxwell a tight hug. She got so close that her cheeks started to rub against his.

“Hey knock it off. You would have done the same for me,” Maxwell replied as he attempted to break away from the hug. As Sam loosened up, the two of them did their signature secret handshake. They fist bumped each other first before ending with a chest bump that seemed to knock Maxwell off his footing a bit more than Sam. They’ve done it so many times now that it’s grown from a tradition into an instinct. The duo even giggled a bit after it was finished.

“Can you two be quiet for a second?!” groaned J who was continuing to rub her head with her left hand while her right hand continued writing. “And sit back down,” she added.

The duo went back to sit down. Sam had to go through the extra step of fixing her chair back up after kicking it into the door.  It was apparent from their new postures that they were much more pleased with the new outcome. Both of them had their feet on the ground and were leaning attentively to see what was next.

“That takes care of all the paperwork . . . for now at least. God, I gotta get some painkillers. So do y’all have any other questions before we move on?” J asked reluctantly.

Maxwell shrugged. He was quite tired from the whole ordeal. Sam thought for a moment and asked, “So when do we start training, a tour even?” J got out of her chair and reached her right hand down to the underside of the desk again.

“Right now.” As soon as she finished saying those two words, J immediately pressed of a button from under the desk.

Maxwell and Sam heard an audible click before the floor beneath them vanished. The two of them were sent spiraling down a trapdoor into a large metal tube way. It was almost like a water slide, except they were being pushed by frigid air rather than water. They were being sent deeper and deeper, their screams canceled out by the intense sounds of air vents pushing them farther inward. They were going so fast and the way was so dark that disorientation became inevitable for the both of them. Distinguishing up from down or even what direction they were going in was simply impossible at this point. All they could do was hold on to each other for dear life.

After a couple of minutes of steep drops and sharp turns, the duo saw a light in front of them; a glimmer of freedom. They felt prepared for anything ahead, they just wanted to get out. The two of them shot out of a vertical tube in a subterranean ceiling into a landing pad of precision airbags bellow them. They landed safely and unharmed, albeit still disoriented and in complete shock over what had just happened. Neither of them could have pictured where they would end up. The vibrant room around them, tucked away beneath the earth, had an unmistakable aura of malice and evil. They had never been in such a place, but they immediately recognized it for what it was. They had entered a supervillain lair.

Their new surroundings were colossal compared to the puny square office they were in just moments ago. Although it was much more spacious and lively here, the duo felt an oppressive feeling to it all. What was once the smell of old carpet and sprayed air freshener was replaced by the smells of gasoline and heated metal. Maroon banners and insignia hung on the walls and rafters displaying the symbol of a menacing skull with lightning bolts on top of it. The acronym “RS” also appeared on nearly all of the banners. The deep earth and metal walls echoed all manner of motion and voice throughout its confines. Machinery moved in a rhythm of neverending construction and maintenance. Masked henchmen in uniforms were scattered throughout it all, working their daily routine and unphased by the duo’s entrance. The lair itself felt like its own living entity.

As Sam and Maxwell began to climb off of the airbags and on to the metal floor below, a nearby elevator signaled its arrival with a loud bell and pulsating red alert light. J emerged from it with a glass of water in one hand and pills the other. She swallowed the pills wholeheartedly and took a drink of her water as she walked towards the duo. As she walked in short strides towards them, she relished in Sam and Maxwell’s bewildered and confused expressions.

The two of them also noticed that J almost looked completely different now. What was once a simple dress was now replaced with a buttoned-down blazer and a formal high waist skirt held up by an ostentatious belt. All of which was in black or tones of dark magenta and violet, almost similar to the colors Sam wore. J wasn't afraid to show off a bit of skin now with the blazer either. To the duo, it suggested that J had an affinity for her job, but a tendency to stretch the rules and display her own 'self-expression' that she was talking about earlier.

Once she reached them, J took off her glasses and finally smiled at the duo. Sam even noticed that J's eye color was different as well. No longer amber like her own, J's eyes were now a sea green color. But whether or not it was her natural eye color or just colored contacts, was yet to be determined.

"Welcome to the 'infamous' The Reigning Storm!" J exclaimed. "Congratulations, you're now officially henchmen."