Unlike most of Marvel’s mutants who manifest their superpowers naturally during puberty, the “psiots” of Valiant’s comics must undergo a dangerous, experimental procedure that’s more likely to kill them than turn them into superbeings. What’s more, even if the process works, there’s no telling what power they will get.
Some of the psiots who survive the procedure develop incredibly powerful psionic powers such as telekinesis or technopathy, but others such as Nikki Finch, the hero of Valiant’s new Secret Weapons #0 written by Eric Heisserer with illustrations from Adam Pollina, end up with… the ability to talk to birds. No flight, no razor sharp talons or a keen sense of direction to guide her north. Just talking birds. Despite it being a gift, Nikki’s ornipathy ultimately led to the Harbinger Foundation (which transformed her) to see her as something of a wasted investment who was better off hanging out with the other Harbinger rejects.
But in Secret Weapons #0, a prelude to Valiant’s series about psiots who survived Harbinger’s eventual destruction, we see just how Nikki first came to learn about her abilities – and how they’re far more powerful than the people who created her ever really knew.
Secret Weapons #0 opens during Nikki’s last months in high school. Like most teens, she’s at an important crossroads in her life and feeling absolutely directionless. Though at one point she was a promising gymnast, her parents’ refusal to pay for her further training extinguished her dreams. As best as she can tell, all the future really holds for her is playing the flute in a local orchestra and going off to a university that doesn’t really excite her.
But Nikki’s life changes one day when she receives a call out of the blue from a recruiter from the Harbinger Foundation who claims to have seen a video of one of her old floor routines on the internet. Though she’s initially sceptical of the organisation’s aims, she sees the call as something of a godsend – a way out of a future that isn’t bleak, but one she’s still not looking forward to. Against her family’s wishes, Nikki journeys to Pittsburgh to see what Harbinger has to offer and, over the course of multiple days of testing, it’s determined that she qualifies for the procedure that will make her more than she’d ever been before.
Much to everyone’s delight, Nikki survives her activation. However at first, it seems as if she’ll never be able to figure out just what exactly it is that she can do. No super-strength, no healing factor, and no durability. But one day while having lunch in a park, Nikki overhears a conversation and is shocked when she realises that she’s listening to a couple of pigeons debate whether she has any food to give them.
Soon, she’s speaking to birds day and night, but Harbinger determines that because her skills aren’t particularly suited for combat, she belongs in “The Willows”, their equivalent to a remedial program – effectively placing her exactly where she never wanted to end up in life. There’s a profound hopelessness that Nikki feels despite the fact that she still has her whole life ahead of her. It’s an idea that deeply resonates, regardless of what age you are.
Disillusioned with her place in the world, Nikki eventually decides to go back home, only to learn that her parents have moved out of the house she grew up in and purposefully not told her, effectively leaving her homeless. If she could control birds with her mind, there’s a chance that Nikki could get by easily enough as a bird-powered thief, but she’s faced to accept the fact that she’s alone in the world with no support system other than the winged creatures who deign to talk to her.
The homelessness, isolation and sense that she made the wrong choice in leaving home hardens her at first, but her steel eventually gives way to suicide ideation. But even in her lowest moments, she isn’t alone not really. Even though everyone around her discounted her ornipathy, it’s a flock of pigeons who find her on a window sill as she’s preparing to leap to her death and they convince her to come down safely.
Because Secret Weapons #0 is an origin story, it’s light on the action that Nikki becomes a part of in books set later in Valiant’s universe, but daring, comic book-y adventures aren’t what this standalone is about. Rather, it’s about the fact all gifts, no matter how dismissed are derided by others, are still gifts – even if they don’t seem like them at first.