He’d changed. And it wasn’t a new change, not entirely.
Many small things he had noticed earlier now made more sense – the distance, the aloofness. He’d been acting deliberately ‘normal’, hiding the changes he knew they would pick up.
Or, perhaps, the changes only Tim would have picked up – Aimi wasn’t the most observant of persons.
Either way, Basil wasn’t hiding it, not here. He was sitting on the couch across from Tim, looking at him with a serious expression. He seemed both alert in that he was ready for trouble, but also relaxed in the way only a person could be who was sure they were capable of dealing with whatever came their way.
He’d beefed up, not like a body-builder, but more like a professional fighter, all lean muscle. His usual baggy clothes hid that, but right now his shirt was unbuttoned and he was wearing summer shorts despite the weather outside (apparently, he had been here in his hideout for a while). There was also a featureless black box about the size of a small water bottle or a large remote clipped to a metal piece on his belt.
But there was one thing that hadn’t changed. He still had the Basil-grin, that stupid grin where only one side of his face grinned and the other looked almost (but only almost) apologetic.
Putting a lot of little hints and facts together made Tim pretty sure that he knew what was going on.
“So”, he said to Basil. “Here we are. Finally.”
Basil nodded as if to apologize for the delay, but he did not say anything in reply.
“Aimi visited me last night, told me what happened the night she went out with the Onis, how she decided to join the Junior Heroes”, he continued, only pausing to sigh in relief. “You won’t believe how relieved I was to hear that things worked out like that.”
“Oh, I think I do”, replied Basil. “But that is not why you are here right now, right?”
Tim shook his head.
“Well, let us not beat around the bush. You are smart, so I guess you already figured out what is going on.” A statement not a question.
The pudgy boy nodded his head.
Basil stood up and walked over to the kitchenette at one side of the room. Pushing a hidden button made it slide open, revealing a metal plate large enough for two or three people to stand on it at once.
“Seriously? A hidden door in a kitchenette?”
Basil smirked at him. “Well, are you coming along?”
Tim stepped onto the platform.
* * *
The lift took them down to the upmost level of his lair in seconds. Basil watched Tim for his reaction upon seeing the wall screen and all the other equipment of the command center. He was not disappointed, as Tim’s jaw dropped down.
They stepped off the lift in silence as Tim turned his head, taking in the couch area, the fully equipped and stocked kitchen and, of course, the main computer console.
“What. The. Fuck”, he commented.
“Nice, is it not? My very own lair”, Basil replied, grinning.
“Lair? Not a secret base?”
“No, that would be just childish.”
Tim walked over to the bedroom next to the kitchen, looking in. Then he went to the stairs that went down to the workshop and laboratory.
Turning half around, he asked: “Can I go down there?”
Basil just nodded and followed after him.
* * *
It took Tim nearly five minutes of walking around the workshop, looking at everything, to finally talk again.
“You know, the moment I saw Brennus on TV, I pretty much knew it was you”, he explained while turning a half-assembled ravenbot around in his hands.
“Is my disguise really that thin?”, Basil replied, now sincerely worried.
“No, I guess not. I just know you well. Really, a black cloak on black armor with robotic ravens? That’s just you.”
Basil made a face that caused Tim to laugh out loud.
“Also, there was the fact that you already knew that Aimi was safe before the story hit the news. Also, we could barely get a hold of you these last few months. Put all of that together and there weren’t that many viable explanations”, he continued.
Sighing, Basil said: “Well, at least it is not something anyone could figure out.”
“True. But say, how does Amy think about this? I mean, she can’t be okay with you risking yourself like that.”
“Well, she is more accepting than I would have expected. She does not like me being a superhero-” She would prefer me being a supervillain, actually. “-but she has accepted that I am going to do it either way.”
Tim raised an eyebrow. “Huh? I wouldn’t have expected that.”
Well, you would need to know about her second life for that.
“Let us just say that the day she found out was a day full of surprises.”
“I guess. Who else knows?”
“My teammates. They both go to Diantha High and I already knew one of them. One of them has a friend who already knew about her costumed identity and we brought her in, more or less accidentily, as a kind of mission control. Also, Prisca knows as well. You can get to know all of them – except for Prisca – tomorrow after school. They are going to meet here at the lair while I go visit Prisca.”
“How’s she doing? I guess being kidnapped didn’t do any wonders for her health – I read up on her and, well, I can see why she wouldn’t want too many people to see her.”
“No shit. I bet once she recovers enough to really think about it, she will freak out over a picture of her being on national television.”
“Yeah. At least I finally know who your girlfriend is. I tell you, the way you refused to talk about her was really bugging the hell out of me.”
“Well, I do not really see a point in…”, Basil began to reply.
Tim cut him off. “Not to talk about the way you sprung her on us. One day, everything is as always, the next day, BAM! and Basil suddenly has a girlfriend”, he continued, slamming one fist into an open hand.
Basil rubbed the back of his head. “Well, I just wanted to wait until things were more definite, you know?”
“Yeah, but how about you never talking about her at all unless we prodded you first?”
“I do not know. It just happened that way. By the way, were we not talking about me being a superhero just a few seconds ago?”
“Yeah, but when I figured out that you were Brennus, I first thought that one of those girls on your team was your girlfriend and you’d been keeping your mouth shut so you wouldn’t accidently reveal anything. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think that Prisca Fion can put on a costume and go out fighting crime – unless she has some kind of superpower I don’t know about?”
Basil shook his head. “Unfortunately, no. She would love to, if only because it is, by now, her only chance to ever be cured. But no, she is not a member of the team, even as some kind of support.”
“Yeah, so taking the chance that I might be repeating myself: Why do you always avoid talking about her? Even now you tried to change the subject!”
He noticed that Tim was actually getting upset – and after a second, he could see why. He had been avoiding the subject, and now Tim was asking himself just why he had not considered him trustworthy enough to share something like that.
Now that I think about it… Why did I try to keep it quiet? How come I did not tell them about meeting this new girl? About falling in love, about, well, everything with her? Tim has certainly told me about his crushes and all.
He wracked his brain, but he could not come up with a reason why he acted like that.
So he looked at Tim again, who had been waiting for an answer.
“Listen, I really can not say why I kept things quiet like that. But whatever reason I might have had at the time, I am really sorry. I should have told you at least something. Both about Prisca and Brennus”, he said, lowering his gaze.
He did not look at Tim to see his reaction to this, instead waiting patiently. After a few seconds, Tim finally sighed and spoke up.
“Well, I guess that’s alright. Just as long as you remember to trust me in the future”, he said.
Basil raised his head, smiling at him.
Tim continued. “So, anyway, about those girls on your team…”
* * *
He saw Tim off nearly two hours later, walking him out of the warehouse. Outside, Tim turned to ask a question: “Are you going to tell Aimi?”
Basil shook his head almost immediately.
“Good. Because I really don’t think that she’d be able to keep this a secret, especially around her new teammates”, replied Tim. Basil nodded, as he had thought the same.
They said goodbye and Tim went off to get home before it got dark.
Basil stayed outside for a minute, enjoying the tuesday evening. The schools would only open again tomorrow and since Amy had been off for some kind of mission outside the country (now that he thought about it, what kind of international mission would the Dark send his telepath off to do? Maybe he ought to keep a close eye on any sudden changes in international politics…), he had spent all his time in his workshop, living off what he had stocked there while he worked on various projects.
<A question, father: Why did you feel depressed over withholding information from your civilian friend?>, asked Eudocia, her voice originating from the black box.
Ever since she had completed the installation of her personality routines, she had adopted a clearly female personality – and one that was quite capable in terms of technical knowledge. While he could not tell why this particular personality had been codenamed ‘Chance’, it had been quite pleasant to have someone to talk to who could actually understand his rants. Though it was quite irritating how she insisted on calling him ‘father’.
“It is not… nice to not tell a close friend about things that are this important. Tim has been my best friend for years and yet I have barely taken the time to talk to him these past few months, I was so focused on my work”, he replied while walking back into his lair.
She went silent as she processed the information. While she apparently had a processor fast enough and memory large enough to simulate a human personality, she sometimes had slowdowns whenever she had to work through interpersonal – or, to be precise, emotional – topics. Unfortunately, it was impossible to access her hardware or software. The black box was pretty much impervious to any means that would not completely ruin the contents, her software could not be altered in any way from the outside and she herself was restricted from accessing her own code. Not to speak of the fact that, according to some logs she had access to, the installation had overwritten her entire memory drive – making her a blank slate, basically.
What was really infuriating about it was the fact that she was learning. And she was learning quickly. In fact, just yesterday morning, she had been far more like a child, both in terms of knowledge and in terms of demeanor. By yesterday at midnight, she had ‘aged’ to a preteen. It seemed that now her mental ‘aging’ had slowed down, but her learning had not. It seemed that she could use some kind of device inside the box to access any electronic appliance that was directly touching her casing – simply by lying on a computer she could control and access it (though she still needed passwords to access restricted systems and she was no more capable of hacking into systems than he was unless he gave her additional equipment to work with). She had been surfing on the internet freely – or almost freely, since he had ordered her not to access any pornographic content as well as restricted content in general – soaking up knowledge like a sponge.
Whoever Macian was, Basil would have loved to meet him. He could not even begin to imagine how he had pulled off an actual, life-like AGI. He had put her through every kind of test out there and even designed some himself, but there did not seem to be a trick involved – she was really, truly sentient, at least as far as he could tell at this point.
Moreover, the hardware inside the box was beyond him, as well. He was pretty sure she was using quantum technology – nothing else would allow her to have sufficient calculating power and memory space in such a restricted space, along with the interface device, the speech device (it apparently vibrated her casing to generate sounds) and whatever kind of energy source she used (he hoped it was not a battery, because he was not sure that he would be able to recharge her). Not to talk of the fact that the box seemed to be perfectly insulated, not radiating any heat.
But at least he had someone to talk to about his work. And he had to admit that teaching her was quite fun, even if she would not stop asking questions sometimes.
She also helped distract him from Prisca, whom he was not allowed to visit until tomorrow, when she would be moved to her new room in the hospital. Visiting her was his prime objective for tomorrow after school.
Though he was also looking forward to school, for once. Not only were they going to finally start the Introduction to Metahuman Studies course – the lecturer for it was supposed to be Lady Light herself!
* * *
The next day, Basil met up with Tim and Aimi in front of the schools main lecture hall. He had already seen Dalia, Stephi and Vasiliki, but he did not want to draw attention to knowing all three of them. No reason to be even more lax about protecting their secret.
So he would sit with Tim and Aimi, the latter of whom was again looking subtly thinner and better than the last time he had seen her in her civilian form. She had also ditched her Goth look and was wearing simpler clothes, though nothing too flattering yet.
He could also tell that she could barely wait to ‘surprise’ him with something – almost definitely the ‘news’ of her manifestation and joining the Junior Heroes.
Hopefully, she would wait until they were somewhere private.
Entering the lecture hall, they moved to sit roughly in the middle. The hall was made to provide room for one thousand students along with a stage in the front for the lecturer.
They had arrived an hour early and still the room was already half full. The course was not only attended by the freshmen of this year, but also by several upper classmen who were either retaking it or coming just for the chance to see Lady Light – the latter group consisted mainly of males – as well as some college students and several faculty members – again, mainly males.
While Basil generally did not pay much attention to women’s looks, he had to admit that even simple photos of Lady Light had quite the… impact. He could not imagine what it would be like to have her in civilian clothing lecturing them. No wonder there were so many guys here.
He had actually done a search on fanfiction based on these famous lectures (Dalia had insisted). There was a lot of it. Three guesses what most of it revolved around…
Basil sat down next to a brown-haired girl with a pretty face but a very unflattering dark blue pullover and pants combo that hid any traces of her figure.
He greeted her politely and she greeted back with a nod, but then turned back to her notebook, where she was drawing a picture of the lecture hall from her perspective.
Basil turned around to where Aimi was sitting next to him, with Tim next to her.
They spent the next hour chatting about unimportant stuff, until the door next to the stage in front of the seat rows opened.
* * *
“I mean, my God, that guy’s a creep!”, whined Aimi as she slowly shifted back into her civilian form while standing in front of her locker.
Watching the new heroine shift forms was quite the experience – in battle as well as during training she always flowed from one form to another within seconds, but now she was taking her time to slowly settle into her new form. Her flesh was, for lack of a better word, flowing into the new form – it was oddly pleasant to look at, even though her brain was running into a wall trying to work out the implications of the movement – where is that part flowing into?!.
<Why does it take you so long to shift right now?>, Melody asked.
Aimi raised a hand, motioning for her to wait, while she finished her transformation. Then she began putting on her underwear, followed by her school uniform.
“If I shift too quickly, I get random stuff mixed up in my form. Since I want a single, specific look for my civilian identity, I need to concentrate on it”, she answered.
<How do you know you got everything right? You didn’t use a mirror or anything – do you have some kind of enhanced awareness of your body?>
“Right. I can picture myself perfectly. It’s just difficult to keep everything straight if I shift too quickly”, Aimi replied. “You know, you’re the first one to come up with that question that fast?”
<It seems to be an obvious. Now, back to your remark – who were you talking about?>
Aimi blew up: “That creep, Patrid! He wanted me to come talk to him before I get ready for school!”
“He explained to me that I needed to ‘improve’ my cape-form. Said it was too ‘cartoony’ and that I had to change it into a more realistic shape to look sexier!”, she half-shouted. “I mean, he’s got to be three times my age! That’s just creepy, when a guy who could be your dad talks to you about looking sexier! And shouldn’t they be more concerned with me not looking too sexy at my age?”
<You know, Patrid really creeps me out as well – but this isn’t his fault>, she replied while she finished putting on her clothing for the school. She didn’t wear her uniform; it was beautiful, which was a problem if you didn’t want to draw attention to your adonis-type body shape. There weren’t that many drop-dead gorgeous mute girls out there. <For starters, did you notice how I run around in public?>
Aimi thought about it for a moment. “Yeah, your armor is, like, half see-through and you only wear glorified underwear under it. What kind of institution is this!?”
Melody made a placating motion with her hands before going back to typing on her vocalizer. <There’s a good reason for that>, she said.
Aimi raised an eyebrow. “Alright, I’m game. Why do they want us girls to look sexy?”
<Ever heard of ‘Metahuman Shock’?>
<Well, you’re going to learn the details in the seminar, but it basically describes how normal humans – and even most metahumans – react adversely to metahumans, especially those whose powers are more unreal than usual>, she explained.
“You mean like when people go crazy just from having been too close to DiL?”
<No, that is more a direct effect of her power. I mean, for example, how the Protege basically destroyed Christianity just by being, well, himself. Of course, that’s one of the most extreme examples. But there was the mass panic back when Lady Light and The Dark first manifested in the twenties. People don’t react well to metahumans.>
“Alright, I get that. But what does that have to do with us looking sexy?”
<One of the main purposes of the United Heroes, apart from coordinating metahumans, is to integrate them into society. Since it is very, very unlikely that we’ll ever be able to truly fit in without standing out, they at least want us to stand out in a positive way – depending on power set and appearance, that could mean looking as sexy as possible – even if it means turning a fourteen-year-old into a sex symbol – or as cool as possible. Outstep summed it up like this: ‘It’s better – and healthier – if they wave their cocks at you than pitchforks and torches’.>
“I get your point”, Aimi said.
<And this is doubly important for people with more dehumanizing powers and even more so for those with the really scary stuff – like shapeshifting. Now, I know what you want to say. ‘Shapeshifting ain’t that scary, right?’ Wrong. Your power lets you be anyone at any time – no one can be sure whether the person they are letting into their home or lying in bed with is really who they think they are. That’s right up there with mind control and mind reading on the paranoia-meter. So it’s important to carefully control your public image, so that people don’t even start getting scared.>
Aimi thought that over while they left the locker room and took the elevator. They took it to the garage downstairs, where what looked like a normal taxi waited that would drop them off close to school.
“Alright, it makes sense. I still think Patrid is a creep, though”, she said.
Melody giggled – though Aimi didn’t notice it, since she wasn’t looking at her and she didn’t make a sound.
<Yeah, I think the only one of us juniors who isn’t creeped out by him is Irene>, she replied.
“Makes sense, I guess. What could creep out someone who grew up with the Dark for a dad? Can you spell ‘Worst Dad of the Millenium’-Award?”
<From what I hear, he’s more of ‘Best Dad of the Millenium’-Award material. She actually likes spending time with him.>
Aimi shuddered a bit. At the same time, the taxi left the garage. They were both sitting in the back and they were separated from the driver by bulletproof one-way glass – they could see him, he couldn’t see them. The driver would also close his eyes for three minutes once he dropped them off, minimizing the chance for them to be identified in any way. Then, he would do several rounds like a normal taxi driver to maintain cover.
Melody wanted to steer the conversation to safer territory. Unfortunately, for her that meant talking about music and/or technology. And she had already had to find out that Aimi could not keep up with her on either account, nor did she react well to feeling less smart than others. That left…
<So, you’re going to show me your two pals? What were their names again?>
“Basil and Tim. Yeah, I’m going to be sitting next to them. Why are you so curious about them?”
<Simple curiosity. After all, one of them knows about your cape and you said the other one might figure it out by himself.>
“Well, Basil might figure it out – if he manages to get his head out of whatever cloud it’s stuck in at the time”, Aimi replied with a smile. “That’s actually one of the reasons why I like him so much.”
“You may not have noticed yet, but I tend to really lash out at people if I am in a bad mood. It’s gotten better since I got my powers, but I had a real anger management problem.”
I noticed already, Melody thought, remembering the scene in the training room yesterday. <What do you mean?>
“Well, the two of them are the only ones who haven’t been avoiding me after being on the receiving end of one too many insults from me”, explained Aimi. “Tim’s got a real thick hide, so he doesn’t really care about stuff like that. And Basil never even notices snarking or any insult that is not delivered with a rocket-powered sledgehammer.”
Rocket-powered sledgehammer… Replace the rockets with sonic repulsors for enhancing the strike…
“Hey! Melody! Can you hear me?!”
Melody shook her head. <What? Sorry, I got lost in thought.>
“Yeah, I noticed. We’re here”, Aimi said as she got out of the Taxi. Melody followed her and they went on their way – the taxi had dropped them off a block away from the school.
A sonic-powered sledgehammer…
* * *
After Vasiliki’s powers had manifested, she had done what any sensible metahuman should do (at least in her mind): read books about it.
One of the first things she tackled was how to protect her secret identity. The greatest problem for most newly manifested metahumans was that they went through large, if not extreme physical changes in a very short amount of time – scrawny geeks turned into bodybuilders, overweight girls with bad skin turned into visions of beauty that made most models green with envy – due to the extremely widespread Adonis-power. People tended to pick up on that.
Fortunately, for her, she’d always been a very good-looking girl from a family with above-average looks. In fact, she wasn’t even the most beautiful member of her family. There were two family members she could bring to mind immediately who were more stereotypically beautiful than she was, even after she manifested powers, and she was pretty sure the two of them (her mother and one of her many female cousins) were not metahumans. So there hadn’t been any extensive, sudden changes to her outward appearance.
Still, there was no use in taking chances. Reading a guide to how to dress in public to avoid attention, she had reorganized her wardrobe. According to the guide, there were two approaches an Adonis-type could take: one could hide in their clothing, doing whatever they could to conceal their physiques. Or they could follow the approach Vasiliki had chosen: hiding in plain sight. Instead of outright hiding her looks, she chose good, but not outstanding clothes and she did not hunch her shoulders or anything – instead, she moved about with an air of self-importance, which was the easiest way to make people dismiss her as unimportant.
It helped that Diantha High, for some reason, had a high number of good-looking students. And they weren’t required to wear their school uniforms outside of special events. The uniforms were not off the rack, but rather tailored by a (superpowered) seamstress that had an exclusive contract with the school.
Her books told her that years ago, it had been the standard for schools with uniforms to expect their pupils to have them tailor-made. Much like it had been a custom for men to have tailor-made suits and women equally personalized dresses, instead of buying off the rack. Apparently, Lady Light liked sticking to tradition.
Then again, she still wears the same costume and hair-cut she had back in the twenties, she thought.
She’d tried to teach this to Dalia herself only to get frustrated again – the girl had been homely for so long that she simply couldn’t resist the chance to be one of the popular girls, turning heads wherever she went.
At least she’d agreed to wear something other than the miniskirt and microtop she had put on her first day at school.
Vasiliki had seen it coming and had ambushed Dalia outside her house, all but forcing her to change into more modest clothing. The redhead had only agreed after she’d all but beaten her over the head with how quickly she would pop her secret identity – and how she would have to give back the money she’d won at the lottery, since she’d technically cheated. Even if she had no control over it.
At long last, the two of them had reached an understanding – Vasiliki would be allowed to help Dalia choose her clothing for school but in return she would stop complaining about her costume.
Now, she, Dalia and Stephi entered the lecture hall for the Introduction to Metahuman Studies. They were a bit late and so had to take some seats in the back of the hall. At least they wouldn’t have to sit on the steps.
“Oh, I can’t wait – I’ve been looking forward to this lecture ever since I signed up for this school!”, said Stephie, all but vibrating on her seat. The lecture had been the main topic of discussion these last few days.
“Yeah, wonder what she’ll be wearing”, replied Dalia with one of those disgusting leers of hers.
Vasiliki looked around, hoping that no one had heard Dalia – fortunately, the hall was quite loud and no one seemed to have noticed.
She let out a relieved breath, then said: “Please watch what you say. We don’t want any unwanted attention.”
Dalia waved her off. “Yeah yeah, I’ll play nice.”
Vasiliki huffed once while Stephi, who was sitting between the two, looked nervously from one to the other.
Then she said: “Umm… so, why do you think is Lady Light giving these lectures? I mean, she ought to be really busy, especially with the situation over the wall!”
The distraction worked and they spent the time until the start of the lecture guessing at possible reasons.
Then the door next to the stage opened.
* * *
Basil could hear jaws hitting the tables all over the hall.
Why do I still bother trying to predict how my day will go?, he asked himself. He really did not have a good track record with that, at least not since he had put on his costume for the first time.
The lecturer was not Lady Light. She was a Whitaker, so he guessed that this was not a case of false advertisement. And she was probably competent enough for the job (there were more than enough academics of the field who would sell their soul for a chance to hold this course in Lady Light’s absence).
But he would never have expected to attend a lecture held by Gloom Glimmer.
Then he had a horrible, horrible thought…
According to her public profile, she gets whatever power she needs to deal with any given situation. What if she gets the power to detect metahumans?!