He walked aimlessly for about an hour, ignoring the biting cold – weather had turned bad, and he could see storm clouds in the distance. It made him think of that weather machine he’d started working on but never finished. His power had just run into a wall over and over, then shifted over to his three-d maneuvering gear. Twenty-four thousand, eight-hundred and twelve dollars, wasted. No wonder he was running out, he aborted more projects than he ever finished; add maintenance costs, not to mention the stuff for Tyche and Hecate…
I need more money. Once he got back to the workshop, he would sit down and go through his scripts for getting money the less legal way. Maybe I can rip off organized crime again. Just have to be careful not to go after any Syndicate accounts.
His cellphone rang, but he turned it off after looking at the caller ID. Eudocia. He kept walking. He was near the Goldschmidt Park (the family had been some of the best the city had ever known; the Dark had been an exception to the rule) when a light snow began to fall. Nothing compared to what the storm clouds in the distance promised, but snow nonetheless.
I love the snow, the man in the moon said, wistfully. Could you look up for a moment?
Basil complied, looking up at the clouds above, and the falling snow. It does make me feel… strange. Always did, as far back as I can remember, he replied, not moving from where he stood. Skyscrapers were rising up to the left and right of him, but in front of him the city opened up for the park, and the wind was coming right at him. Just strong enough to make the snowflakes dance towards his face. I wish I could paint, capture this moment.
I knew a guy who could paint better than anyone. He’d turn this into a masterpiece.
Just who are you? Basil asked, with little weight behind it. He had far bigger issues to deal with right now. Why are you in my head?
I… I can’t answer. Not really, I’m sorry, he replied, sounding genuinely apologetic. I could probably manage a cryptic clue, if you want. But I imagine that’d be really frustrating.
Basil sighed, and continued on his way into the park. He heard wings flap, and a low mechanical sound, and one of his ravens landed on his left shoulder. It was quite heavy – one of the upgraded ones, for combat purposes. Another money sink. They’re really useful in a fight, but are too fragile for their cost. Best to save them for surveillance purposes. “I don’t want to talk right now,” he said to Eudocia.
The raven nodded, and simply remained on his shoulder, its weight oddly soothing. He walked into the park, following the still visible path through the trees – the park was huge, having been rebuilt bigger than it had been before Lennston had been destroyed and subsequently reconstructed from the grounds up, as the foundations in this part were judged compromised beyond being worth fixing. They had added a huge memorial for all the people who died due to Desolation-in-Light’s attack. There were several of its kind all throughout the world – monoliths made of solid black marble, so dark they seemed to eat the light. Like giant ‘fuck you’s to DiL, the man in the moon commented, and he was not wrong. The name of every identified victim was carved into the monolith, and marks for unidentified ones. Even from the edge of the park, amidst the trees, the monolith could be seen rising into the sky.
Basil turned away from the main path, looking for one of his favourite places for just being by himself and thinking. A small glade with a park bench right underneath a wooden roof that had once been painted white, but was now covered in amateur imitations of some of Ember’s early work. Mostly superhero motifs. There was a small pond right in front of it, and it would probably be frozen over by now. Another nice picture.
The raven flew away just as he entered, and for good reason – there were people there. Three of them.
Basil almost turned around and left on the spot, but two of the three caught his eye and stayed where he was, for a moment, just watching. There was someone – a man in a very expensive three-piece suit – sitting on the bench, reading a newspaper. Behind the bench, two women flanked him. They looked utterly identical, and were very obviously superhuman. Attractive in a sharp, predatory way, their black hair cut to just below their ears. Their eyes were black all the way through, abysmal pits, their lips pale and they wore simple grey suits cut to their slender forms, with black shirts and grey ties. They turned their heads in a synchronized motion the moment he got within view from the glade, then seemed to dismiss him and stared straight ahead again. There was a portable electric heater visible right behind the bench, where the man sat. It was turned on and glowing with the promise of warmth.
I know them from somewhere, he thought, but could not quite recall from where. He was more curious about the man they seemed to be protecting, anyway. Few men would run around in public with so openly scary metahuman bodyguards.
After a few moments, the man lowered the newspaper and looked at him. No way. What is he doing here?
He was lean, like he could use a few more meals a day, and had a distinctly… aristocratic look to himself. His blonde hair – which left the front half of his scalp bare – was threaded through with silver, as was the goatee that looked like it was shaved with precision tools. The aristocratic look was topped by an elegant nose and rimless spectacles with what appeared to be a pure gold frame. “Young man,” he said in a pleasant, sharp voice, enunciating his every syllable with deliberate precision. “You’ll catch a cold, standing in the snow like that. Don’t be shy, and sit down and warm up.”
Basil was moving almost before he realized that he decided to do so, and he sat down next to the man, sparing a glance at his suit. It looked like it was more expensive than his power armor. And that did not even account for the gold chain that indicated a pocketwatch. “A good afternoon, Sir,” he said, sittind at a polite distance to the man – but close enough to benefit from the heater.
The man threw a glance to his side, and the woman closest to Basil moved the heater over to stand beneath the center of the bench, warming them both.
Ohh, this is nice. “Thank you, Sir.”
“You’re welcome, young man. What brings a youth like you to this place, at this time, alone?” the famous man said.
“Long story, Sir. My name is Basil, by the way. A pleasure to meet you,” Basil replied, a little uncomfortable, and a lot curious. He had put a lot of research into this man.
“Oh, please excuse my manners!” the man said, holding out a hand. Basil shook it – his grip was stronger than his lean build suggested. “Magnus Amadeus Karlson, a pleasure.”
“I never thought I’d meet the richest man in this little retreat from the world,” Basil commented after they let go of each other’s hands. Pretty much everyone (except Dalia, most likely) knew the founder and main shareholder of Magnus Incorporated.
Magnus chuckled as he folded his newspaper up and lifted it up over his shoulder. One of the twins took it and put it into a suitcase that stood at her feet. “I grew up here. Not many people know that,” he replied. “My parents’ house stood right here. I was born and raised on this ground.” He looked up and pointed at a point four meters in front and five meters above them. “That’s where the bed stood in which my mother gave birth to me,” he explained.
Basil looked up past that point at the falling snow. It was growing stronger. “Did your family survive the attack?” he asked without looking at the man.
He missed the wry smile on his face. “What a straightforward boy you are. My parents died long before that poor little girl attacked this city.”
What? Basil’s head whipped around to look at the man. “Poor little girl? I do not think I have ever heard anyone describe Desolation-in-Light as a ‘poor little girl’.”
This time, he did see the wry smile. It looked oddly natural on the man’s face. “Think about it,” Magnus said. “She was born with power beyond mortal comprehension, at its mercy, unable to control herself or her power, forced to grow up in seconds and has now been rampaging across the world, alone, for more than two decades. There seems to be plenty to pity there,” he continued in a calm, precise manner. “Many compare her to a nuclear weapon that flies around by itself, or a natural catastrophe, but I only see a broken little girl in a woman’s body at the mercy of powers none of us – except maybe her parents – are capable of understanding.”
Basil thought it over for a minute, and Magnus seemed content to just sit there and relax. “I have to say, this is the most… empathic view I have ever heard anyone express towards her,” he said, slowly.
“It doesn’t change much. She still needs to be put down. But I, at least, shall mourn the necessity – so much potential, wasted,” Magnus commented, wistful.
He nodded, leaning back on the bench. The heater had turned it toasty warm, and it felt surprisingly good to just talk to someone. What are you thinking, mate?
“May I ask a complicated question, Sir?” he asked.
Magnus looked at him, blue-grey eyes sparkling. “Of course. I may not answer, though.” The corners of his mouth turned up just a little.
“What would you do, if the person closest to you – a relative, a wife, a friend – was, hypothetically, evil?”
* * *
Magnus chuckled and turned to face him fully, putting one arm over the back of the bench, a casually interested posture. “Now, why would a teenager ask me that?” he asked with a smile.
Now, to keep it vague. “Well… my sister is… into some bad stuff. And I don’t know how to deal with it,” Basil explained.
“Hmhmm. Have you talked to your parents about it?” the lean man inquiried.
“They’re dead,” Basil replied bluntly, without any particular emotion. He had not thought about them in a long time. “It’s just me and her now, and…”
“And you’re afraid of pushing away the one piece of family you have left by taking a wrong step,” Magnus stated.
Basil looked away, idly taking measure of the twins while he blinked the tears away before they could show up. If he was honest with himself, that had really been the problem from the begin with. He did not have anyone, really, apart from her. His friends barely knew anything about him, his girlfriend was somehow tied into his memory issues… but he had always had Amy.
Except she was part of the problem, was she not? He was not stupid. He trusted her… but he had considered the possibility that it was her screwing with his mind. Not maliciously, maybe not out of her own free will. She might be coerced, or trying to protect him in some twisty way. What spoke against that was that it was his memories that were fucked up. He had looked the subject up, and there were two known cases of metahumans being able to affect long-term memories over an extended period of time without devoting constant attention and effort to do so – the Dark could cheat by possessing someone with one of his wraiths which would then devote said attention and effort to it and Hannibal Storm had, too – but he could not imagine the Dark making such a sloppy job of it, if he even had a reason to mess with him like that, and Hannibal Storm… not an option. To his knowledge, there was no one else who could do it, but then again, how would he know? It was the kind of power one would do their best to keep secret, and being able to affect long-term memories…
“What are you thinking about, Basil?” Magnus asked, having waited half a minute for his answer.
Basil shook his head. Not the time for that. “I am sorry, Sir. You are right. That is exactly the problem.”
“Hm, quite the conundrum. What are your options, as far as you know?” he prodded.
“I could just… keep ignoring it. But that is not doing something, that is just… ignoring the issue, and that would be wrong. I could turn her in, but… no. She is my sister, I can not do that. But… how can I consider myself a good person when I am not willing to take every possible step to stop her?”
Magnus’ face turned sympathetic at the sight of Basil’s expression, and he leaned back. “Have you tried talking to her? About her stopping with whatever it is she’s doing?”
“I… I tried to raise the issue, but it never went anywhere. She would not budge from her own opinion, anyway. She never has.”
The lean man frowned at him. “Sounds to me like you’re just too afraid to confront her. And you should. Make it clear how you feel about it all, and that you want her to stop?”
“I… I would like to, but I am… afraid. Not of her – she would never actually harm me – but-“
“But you’re afraid that she might leave,” Magnus completed his sentence. “That you might be alone, and that terrifies you.”
Magnus sighed. “What a conundrum. Look, I’m not the best person to ask about this – I was born a gutter boy in Lennston’s worst parts, and I went to be the richest man in the world. I didn’t achieve that by being nice, or even good.” He looked over his shoulder at the twins. “I wouldn’t need H and M here if I hadn’t given a lot of people reason to want me dead.” The twins nodded in a synchronized motion.
“And yet you invited a complete stranger to join you on the bench. Aren’t you the least bit worried I might be a super-powered assassin?” Basil asked with a wry smile. “Not to mention the fact that you are out here, with only two – admittedly very intimidating – bodyguards to protect you, in a place not nearly safe from metahuman or mundane assassins – such as snipers.”
It only elicited a chuckle. He pointed over his shoulder at the twin to his right. “H here is a rather peculiar precog. She can calculate probabilities, to a certain extent. It only works within a short ‘range’, but is very, very accurate. If you meant me harm, she would have warned me, and the two of them would remove me from the premises,” he explained.
“I could have some perception power myself, to counter her precognition,” Basil replied.
“In which case she’d see her numbers being messed with and would remove me immediately,” Magnus continued. “M here is not here just for being eye candy, either. And they are just the defenses you can see.”
Basil nodded. Quite sensible. “Are all your bodyguards metahumans?”
“No,” he replied with a smile, but did not elaborate. “Now,” he added, half-turning on the bench and steepling his fingers in front of his face. “Since we have established that I am not a good man, I ask you to take everything I say with a grain of salt… but I think turning her in would be the worst thing you could do. That would be both easy and simple, and you can usually tell the wrong decision among a line-up by it being both of those,” he elaborated. “But neither should you ignore it – that would be easy and complicated, a dangerous combination. No, the best thing you can do is hard. Really hard, but simple.”
“An interesting way of evaluating options,” Basil commented.
“No one ever achieved anything worthwhile by going down the easy route,” Magnus stated simply. “Turning your sister in, or ignoring the issue, would just mean giving up on her.” He moved a little closer, licking his lips as he prepared to continue. Basil noticed that he was getting animated for the first time during their conversation. “About fifteen years ago, there was this hero, Silverstreak. He had one of these archnemesis relationships with a villainess named Scarlet Starlet. What neither of them knew was that they knew each other in their secret identities. They actually fell in love and married, keeping their costumed lives a secret from each other for ten years. They had seven children during that time. Then he found out, and he immediately turned her in.” He sneered with contempt. “He explained his decision as such – he still loved her, but he could not justify putting innocents at risk just for the sake of their family.”
“That… sounds like a good reason to do that,” Basil said, lowering his head. He had never heard that story before.
“Not at all, my boy. Look at what he achieved – he tore his family apart, betrayed the woman he’d sworn he would stand by through every trial, inadvertently exposing his and her true identity to the public due to a mess-up,” Magnus explained. “His children were bullied so badly, they had to leave their home and go into witness protection on top of that.”
“What should he have done, then? Let her carry on?”
“No!” Magnus replied, startled. “He should have tried to change her. Stick with her. Don’t stop believing in her. No one’s ever achieved anything by giving up. It would have been hard. He would have had to shoulder a lot of weight on his consciousness, a lot of guilt. People would get hurt. But at least he wouldn’t have given up.”
“Hmm.” He had never looked at it this way. He was not sure he could… shoulder that. “You despise people who give up?”
“Very much so. Look, there are only two ways to really lose, you know? To truly fail. It’s to die, or to give up,” Magnus explained. “I never punish employee’s if they couldn’t achieve their objective, so long as they fought for it to the end – only if they gave up before exploring all options, do I get… cross with them.” He raised a finger, shaking it in front of Basil’s face. “Now, you seem like a bright young man to me. Too young, really, to have to deal with something that haunts you as much as your sister’s deeds do. But, I will expect of you the same I would expect of anyone – fight for those you love, and for what you believe in. You obviously love your sister, or you wouldn’t be so conflicted. And you believe in morality, in some form of ethics, or you wouldn’t feel conflicted over her deeds. So I advise you to walk the hard path. And it is so very hard – but also quite simple. Don’t give up on her. Do everything you can think of to convince her to change her ways. Only once you have exhausted all other options should you turn her in. Do you understand?”
Basil nodded, fighting not to cry. He felt like this was something his father should be doing, and for some reason, it was tearing him up now. “I’ll try.”
“Good. Do that. And furtherm-“
M touched his shoulder, cutting him off. “You have a dinner appointment, Sir,” she said in an ice-cold, precise voice. “We need to go on our way, soon.”
Magnus sighed. “Ah well, duty calls.” He stood up, straightening out his suit and putting on a coat that had been hanging over the bench with help from M. “We should talk again some other time. I feel that you’ll be a very engaging conversational partner.”
“You sure, Sir? Most people find me annoyingly… ‘geeky’, I think,” Basil asked, smiling up at him after he dried his eyes.
The lean man only smiled. “I know people. I know them very well. And I’ll be here, next week, from… seven to eight pm?” He looked searchingly at H.
“Seventy-nine percent chance for that to work out, Sir. Eighteen percent that you will be late, but still present. Three percent chance that you will miss it entirely. Forty-five percent chance he will be here, twenty-three percent chance he will be late, thirty-two percent chance he won’t make it at all,” she replied with machine precision.
He turned back to smile at Basil. “Well, those are rather good numbers, all things considered. Have a nice day, Basil, thank you for the conversation and I wish you the best of success with your sister.”
Basil rose, and shook the lean man’s hand. “It is me who should thank you. And you have a good week, Sir. I will be here, if at all possible.”
Magnus nodded and walked away, M smoothly drawing out an umbrella to protect him from the falling snow, while H walked ahead to open up a path in the snow, so he wouldn’t get too dirty or wet.