Superpowers have turned out to be a disappointment. Heat vision? Super strength? Flight? They are nowhere to be found. Instead, powers like photosynthesis or the ability to spontaneously change hair color seem to be the best the world can offer. To make matters worse, the gifted individuals tend to suffer from psychological issues. Nonetheless, in hopes of finding enough functional meta-humans to form a squad, in 1965 the US military created The Guardian Project. The head of the Army's current incarnation of the project hires Dr. Adam Aiken, a psychologist specializing in the meta-human condition, to filter out the most dangerously unbalanced of the prospective super-soldiers. The screening process is to be done with all possible secrecy. This proves to be more easily said than done. A misfiring superpower leaks news of the recruitment effort to the public, attracting a flood of misfit meta-humans from around the nation, each hungry for heroic validation. A sleazy PR officer knows publicity when he sees it and converts the secret program into a nationally broadcast competition with all of the dignity and grace of a reality show. The ultimate prize is a coveted spot on a government sanctioned super team.
The Other Eight follows the exploits of the applicants deemed sane enough for consideration. On one side are earnest but underpowered heroes like the twitch-inducing Nonsensica or the fluorescent tube-hurling Phosphor. On the other are the better equipped but less dedicated recruits like walking good luck charm Johnny on The Spot and seed-spitting loose cannon The Hocker. Who will win a place on the team, and what will be done about the jilted heroes who didn't make the cut?
I used to play a game with my friends. How could come up with the most useless super powers. Because I was an intellectual packrat, rather than just laughing at what people came up with, I jotted them down. The Other Eight was the result of a bet. "I'll bet you can't make a story out of that list." The fact that I was the one who made this little wager makes no difference whatsoever. Despite having a well-earned place on my "oddities" list, The Other Eight is a story that I'm almost certain to continue one day. I've got the plot all put together. It'll be epic, I tell you. – Joseph R. Lallo
"Great set up, actually a thoughtful story on motivations and ego (and id!). But fun all the way. Fun read. Grassy Ass to Mr. Lallo. And, yes you need to read the book to get the joke."– kyose100 (Amazon Customer)
"The book follows the exploits of a bunch of not-particularly-super superheroes as they try to make the cut for the Army's nascent superhero team. … the excellent humor and fast pacing make it a short but very pleasant read."– Steven (Goodreads Reviewer)
"I made the mistake of purchasing and beginning this book as part of some relaxing light reading before bed. Big Mistake. 4 am came and went and I was glued to my kindle without hope of letting go. It is a wonderful underdog story full of some of the worst powers imaginable (like having the power to be called Sean when your name is Clark). The characters are funny and engaging, the villains perfectly absurd, and the background psychology adds just the right amount of reality to the world to keep it all from spinning off the rails."– Jesse (Amazon Customer)
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA. The headquarters was just an unassuming little office building in Arlington, Virginia. It honestly looked like it should be administrating health insurance or something similarly innocuous. Those in the know, however, were in general agreement that if something was going to end the human race, it would either be defeated by or created by eggheads at DARPA. They routinely recruited from the top research institutions in the country. Their hefty Department of Defense payroll included a legion of engineers, scientists, and contractors with the skills to build anything you could imagine. An alphabet of BSs, MSs, PhDs, CEs, EEs, and REs congregated under that roof, along with practically any other combination of academic letters you could think of. If it had to do with technology that could alter the geopolitical landscape, it was envisioned, developed, financed, and deployed from right here.
For a questionably stable scientific prodigy, getting a phone call from DARPA was a dream come true. For a psychologist like Adam Aiken, it was mostly just confusing.
Nonetheless, that's precisely what had happened. A crisp, businesslike voice had explained that the government was seeking expertise in his precise area of specialization, and there was a long-term consulting position open if he would like to enter the interview process. This was still more confusing because Adam had only just managed to secure his PhD in psychology after four attempts. Unless the specialty they were seeking was "defending an unpopular thesis" he wasn't certain what they hoped to learn from him. That said, he certainly wasn't going to turn down a government gig. One of the most useless members of his graduating class had somehow bluffed his way into a government grant and now spent most of the time since cashing checks and conducting blind studies. Adam wouldn't mind standing around with a clipboard and a bottle of placebos if it would keep the student loan bills under control.
Now he sat on a chair with a cushion that had been crushed beyond usefulness at some point during the Reagan administration, watching a fluorescent light flicker and wondering if the mustard stain on the cuff of his one and only suit was noticeable. Adam had been, until a few months ago, a career student. His undergrad and post-graduate work started fairly well, but he fell victim to an acute fascination with a certain psychological phenomena that was poorly viewed among his peers. This was mostly due to the fact that his peers were in near-universal agreement that the part he was most interested in wasn't even a psychological phenomena. Hence the repeated attempts to finalize his PhD. Through sheer stubbornness he'd been able to get some of his early findings published in an Argentinian medical journal, and he'd finally worn down the doctoral committee so that he could enter the impenetrable job market at last.
The tak-tak-tak of an obnoxiously loud keyboard filled the air as a military clerk with a rigid posture and a precision crew cut did whatever it was that military clerks did all day. He sat behind a waist-height wall made of old-fashioned stained wood. A black and brass nameplate labeled him Sergeant Roberts. Behind the starched, creased young man was a frosted-glass door with the name General Siegel painted on it, which hung nearly open. Inside the office beyond sat a gray-haired soldier in a fairly impressive uniform. With nothing else to do, Adam stared at the clerk as he typed with a mechanically steady tempo without pausing or slowing. It was utterly hypnotic, and though he couldn't be sure, Adam was fairly certain Roberts hadn't blinked once.
"Um. I'm sorry, but the lady on the phone said I should be here at 2 p.m.," Adam said.
"That is correct, sir. Fourteen hundred," the clerk said with regimented politeness.
"It's, uh, it's like 2:07 p.m."
"No, sir. The time is 1358." He reached forward and tapped a digital clock, black digits confirming his statement. The fact that he knew the precise time while the clock was facing away from him prompted Adam to add this to a mental "this guy is a robot" tally.
"My watch says 2:07 p.m."
"Your watch is incorrect, sir."
"Are you sure? I set this on the cable box in my hotel room this morning."
"DARPA's clocks are synchronized cooperatively with the atomic clocks of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the US Naval Observatory. Our clocks differ from Coordinated Universal Time by less than zero point zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, one seconds."
"I heard somewhere that the cable company has to keep accurate time, by law. Are you suggesting they don't know what time it is?"
"No, sir. I am informing you that we get the time from the government, and the government gets to decide what time it is."
"Oh… well, can I go in there now? It is practically 2:00 p.m."
"No, the time is 1359."
Adam glanced up at the general, who did not seem to be terribly busy. He sat in his office, alone, tapping the eraser end of a pencil against his desk absentmindedly.
"But do I really need to—?"
At the exact instant the digits of the LCD clock blinked over to 1400, the general leaned forward and tapped a button on his phone. There was a tone, and a sharp voice broadcast through a box on the clerk's desk. "Has Dr. Aiken arrived?"
"Send him in."
"Yes, sir." The clerk addressed Adam: "The general will see you now."
"Oh, uh, thank you," Adam said, gathering his decrepit leather messenger bag.
The clerk depressed a buzzer on the desk, and the gate in the low wall rattled and swung free. Adam pushed his way through the half door, taking a quick glimpse aside to see if the clerk's chair had an extension cord, before passing through the general's door.
It was a small office, little more than a desk with a scattering of yellow legal pads, a few expensive-looking ballpoint pens and cheap-looking wooden pencils, a complicated office phone, and a blotter. On the desk sat posed pictures of a savagely traditional couple, the general and a white-haired woman, who was presumably his wife. Scattered sparsely across the walls were coldly worded commendations, awards, official portraits, and press pictures of the general's various career highlights.
"Dr. Aiken," he said, standing and offering a bone-crushing handshake, "thank you for coming in on such short notice."
"Oh, uh, no problem. Anything to help out good ol' Uncle Sam, right?"
"Yes. If there's one thing you college types leap at, it's a chance to suckle at the taxpayer's teat," the general remarked.
Adam released a nervous laugh at what was either a staggeringly blunt indictment of academia or an expertly delivered bit of dry humor. The general's expression did little to clear things up, remaining flat and stern. Siegel had a straight and carefully trimmed mustache and the sort of hard jaw and down-turned mouth that didn't seem quite complete without a cigar chomped between yellowed teeth. His uniform was flawless and worn in full, right down to the multicolor pins on the jacket.
"Close the door and take a seat," the general said. As Adam did as he was told, Siegel sat behind his desk and swept away all but one pen and pad. "You're probably wondering why we asked you to fly all the way out here."
"It did strike me as a little, uh, unexpected."
"It wasn't my idea, I'll tell you that. The truth is, we have a project that needs some screening and assessment. There are only three individuals in the nation with any published papers on the topic. You're number three, in case you were wondering."
"See, that's why it was unexpected to me. The only thing I've published is the first version of my meta-human thesis."
In lieu of a reply, Siegel opened a drawer and removed the inevitable cigar from inside. He clamped it in his teeth but neglected to light it.
"You're going to screen and assess a group of superheroes?" Aiken asked.
General Siegel cleared his throat loudly, then leaned forward and pressed the intercom button on his phone. "Has Dr. Aiken signed all of the proper paperwork?"
"Yes, sir," came the clerk's voice in reply.
"Yes, Dr. Aiken, we are planning to screen and assess a group of superheroes. Or rather"—he cleared his throat again—"another one. And we are planning on having you do it. Until Thursday, I was under the expectation I'd be working with Dr. Richard Liefeld. Then three days ago we found out the marine brass extended the exclusivity clause of his contract. Who would have figured the jarheads would have the best bureaucrats? We have deadlines to meet, though, so instead of Liefeld, we get you."
Adam shuddered. Dr. Liefeld was the foremost expert in the so-called meta-human condition. "Meta-human" was the term scientists tended to use in situations where the general public would use "superhero" or "super villain." Dr. Liefeld had been doing extensive physiological and psychological testing in the area almost since the phenomena was first discovered back in the early 1960s, and his name became the byword for superhero science. He was also part of the committee that had rejected Adam's doctoral thesis the first three times. Liefeld had been "unavoidably detained" during the last thesis defense and could not attend, which was almost certainly the only reason Aiken was able to squeak through.
Siegel cleared his throat yet again, causing Aiken's mind to flash back to the term paper he'd written on complex motor tics. The general pulled open a drawer and retrieved a thick file folder and slapped it on the desk, flipping it open. With another grinding throat evacuation, he began to dictate the contents of the fact sheet within the file.
"Name: Adam Michael Aiken. Age: 28. Height: 6 feet. Hair: Black. Eyes: Brown. Weight: 200 pounds." Siegel looked doubtfully at the somewhat portly Aiken and made a note on the file. "Birthplace: San Diego, California. Education: 9 years, UC San Diego. No criminal record. No passport. Web-browsing habits are… interesting."
"Web browsing? How do you know what websites I've been visiting? And how exactly is that relevant?"
"You are interviewing for a position at the DoD. That should answer both questions." He flipped through a few more pages. "Well, Dr. Aiken. Your personal history has been thoroughly vetted, and at the very least you aren't a threat to national security. How much of an asset you'll be remains to be seen. It says here that you've done significant research on the subject of the meta-human condition. I've dealt with enough of you college boys to know that you write reports by the pound, so frankly I haven't got the time to listen to you summarize your findings. Here's the short version. As you know, a few decades ago people started to show up with 'special' abilities. Most of those abilities… hell, all of them, have been damn near useless so far."
Dr. Aiken nodded. As mysterious as the appearance of meta-humans had been, more mysterious was the bizarre assortment of powers they had been "blessed" with. The classics, things like super strength, super speed, heat vision, and the like, were nowhere to be found. In their place were things like the ability to see through yarn, or the ability to cause spontaneous dandruff. The most notable power currently belonged to a meteorologist from Massachusetts with the ability to flawlessly predict the weather for any town in the United States… as long as the town's name started with the letter G. Perhaps more confounding than the dearth of worthwhile powers was the fact that most of those who displayed those powers seemed blind to the fact that they were little more than human curiosities. With few exceptions, these people felt a compulsive need to use their powers on as grand a stage as possible. Many were able to keep these impulses under control, settling for being things—like relocating to become the most successful weatherman in the history of Gary, Indiana. The rest were more or less doomed to eventually show up on the news after getting shot trying to foil a bank robbery using their incredible ability to levitate raisins, making it fortunate, then, that superpowers were relatively rare.
"Regardless," Siegel continued, "those of us in the military cannot ignore the facts. Eventually one of these genetic misfits is going to show up with a worthwhile ability, and when that happens, we want to know about it. Not only that, but in their infinite wisdom, the strategists at the top of the food chain decided that any soldier that can do something that another soldier can't has a strategic advantage. Each branch of the military has been once again asked to identify and recruit a team of the most stable and effective 'enhanced individuals' that we can find. The marines have already started putting their team together. I've been put in charge of the army's equivalent team. Your job would be to filter out the yahoos until we end up with a squad of eight functional individuals. You think you can do that?"
"Uh… well, hopefully you'll give me something more official sounding than 'yahoo filter' to put on my CV," Adam said with another nervous laugh. It was met with the same rock-solid gaze. "Yes, I can do that, sir."
"Good." The general leaned forward and tapped the intercom. "Sergeant Roberts, get Dr. Aiken set up with a desk downstairs and get him started. And get Private Summers down there to assist him."
"Wait, that's it? I've got the job? I thought the process would be, I don't know, a little more stringent."
"Like I said, Dr. Aiken, all branches of the armed services are working on this. There are hundreds of eggheads dedicated to trying to figure out how these 'superheroes' work, but when it comes to how they think, the pickings are pretty slim. Now get started. If there's a super-soldier out there, I'll be damned if I let those leathernecks snap him up."
"Yes, sir. Thank you," Adam said, standing and turning to leave. "Gah!"
Sergeant Roberts stood in the doorway, a laptop under one arm and an identification badge in the other hand. There had been no whisper of a footstep to suggest he had moved.
"Here is your secure laptop and your RFID badge. Please follow me, sir." Roberts turned and walked briskly down the hallway, Aiken hastily in tow. As he walked, the sergeant ran through a sequence of instructions. "You will be working in Conference Room L until we can get you an office. When you boot the laptop it will request that you select a password. Minimum sixteen characters, at least one each of lowercase, uppercase, numeric, and special characters. User name is last name, first initial. On the laptop you will find a link to a server directory containing the profiles of the individuals we are most interested in interviewing."
Aiken tried to keep track of the litany of instructions while juggling his bag, a ruggedized aluminum laptop that looked like it could stop a bullet, and a badge with his photo on it.
"Hey, where did you get this picture of me?" Dr. Aiken asked.
By now they had taken a turn into the stairwell, and the act of speaking while navigating steps and trying to wrangle his other equipment finally overtaxed Aiken's already lackluster coordination. He stumbled on the final step, launching the laptop. Roberts stopped, turned, and neatly caught the device with one hand while holding the door at the landing open with the other.
"The photo was taken at the door while you were waiting to be allowed inside. It is a part of our automated visitor identification system." He handed the laptop back. "Please be careful with government property, sir."
"Uh, thanks. Yes, I'll do that. Sorry. Listen, I might need you to repeat some of that stuff. What was the deal with the password?"
Roberts pulled a small white card from his pocket. "All relevant information can be found on this card. If you require any additional assistance, I can be reached at extension 23838. That is also indicated on the card. Conference Room L is the first door on the right. Restrooms are at the end of the hall. All rooms are card locked. Attempted entry to unauthorized areas will be logged and investigated. Take a seat in any available chair in the conference room. We would like an initial assessment of the priority applicants by 1600. The young woman approaching from your right is Private First Class Jordan Summers. She will be assisting you."
With that Sergeant Roberts stepped back into the stairwell. Dr. Aiken was left in a sterile white hallway, arms heavy and head spinning. The woman Roberts had indicated—a plain-faced young woman with a sharp uniform, short dark hair, and a sunny smile—stepped up to him. Under one arm she carried a clipboard, and in each hand, a steaming paper cup.
"Dr. Aiken?" she asked.
"I'm Private Summers. I'll be assisting you."
"Yeah, the sergeant mentioned that. Um, nice to meet you. I apologize, things are going awfully quickly. What exactly is going on here?"
Her expression turned a bit sympathetic. "You just got recruited into the Guardian Project. And until you get up to speed, 'What is going on here?' is probably going to be a pretty popular question. Here. Coffee helps. Follow me and we'll get you started."