To the New Year!

A happy new year, much luck and much success to all of you!

Sincerely,

Tieshaunn Tanner

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B011.1 Monkey Family

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Three hours, two bottles of scotch, a bottle of bourbon and a bottle of that yellow French stuff whose name I always forgot later, I actually felt better about myself, and my life as of late. Not good, but better.

Also, some of Journeyman’s stories were just hilarious. And some just depressing, but in a good way. Distracting. But we were rapidly approaching the point where I might actually get drunk, and though I didn’t doubt that Journeyman could subdue me if I lost control, it would still be rude to go to that point.

Even if drowning my sorrows really sounded pretty attractive, after the day I’d had.

“You’re doing it again, Kevin,” Journeyman chorused. I looked up at him. “You’re doing the introspective self-pity routine. Don’t, it doesn’t suit you.”

I sighed, putting my glass aside (it was empty, anyway). “Yeah, I think I should go to sleep. Maybe some Z’s will help me work this out.”

“You do that. But put up an alarm for two forty,” he said as he cleaned the glasses and put them away upside down. “A kill team will attack you around three o’clock. It should give you enough time to wake up properly.”

Ah, one of his… prophecies. There were a lot of precogs out there, but what was creepy about Journeyman’s predictions was that, as far as I knew, he was always right. “Would I have died if you hadn’t told me?” I asked wryly. That was another thing about his prophecies. They rarely changed anything in a big way.

He chuckled, which was just weird with his many voices (though I’d noticed long ago that there seemed to be less and less voices the more relaxed he got – it was probably a deliberate effect). “No no, not at all. But you would have gotten hurt, a bit, and wrecked the house. This way, you should be able to control the situation. Just leave the house before two fifty-five, and they should attack you outside.”

“Good. Thanks,” I replied, relaxing a bit. I rather liked this place. “Actually, I’m reminded of a question I had. When I got off the plane, I saw a shadow watching me, during the ceremony.”

“Yes?”

I tapped my fingers on the counter, drumming a little rhythm. “Was that Elouise? I suspected my father’s work, but it isn’t exactly his style, unless he changed even more than you told me.”

“Wait, let me take a look,” he replied, leaning back against the shelf behind him, lowering his head. After a moment, he looked up again. “Yeah, it was Elouise. I’m not sure your father even knows you’re back. He takes his promises rather seriously. Though he’ll probably find out soon enough, either way. You’ve caused quite a stir around this place.”

I nodded, relaxing a bit. “And the house? If he kept his promise, it wouldn’t have been him who kept it,” I continued.

He shook his head. “No. The Matriarch, I suspect. If only to get in your good graces, when you returned. Anyway, I should get going. Try and catch some sleep, before the action starts,” he continued.

“Wait,” I said, perking up. I’d just remembered something. “There was one thing I wanted to ask. Something weird happened to me on the way here.”

He leaned closer. “Oh? Do tell.” The shifting images on his mask – which, I was sure, were as deliberate as his voice – seemed to focus, without actually becoming distinct enough to make sense.

“I was driving when, out of nowhere, I was in this… fairy tale forest. Rolling hills, huge trees, vibrant colours, the whole spiel. And when I got out of it, I’d pretty much arrived in Chicago, after just a few hours, total, of driving.”

I think that actually rattled him – I say this because his mirror-mask went blank. Utterly blank, not even reflecting me. There was no other sign of surprise, yet it was the strongest reaction I’d ever seen him have to anything.

“I see… that is rather weird,” he spoke slowly, with less than ten voices – making whatever his actually voice was almost recognisable. Almost. “It ought not to be appearing yet… I wonder why it’s reaching that far…” His voices vanished into an incomprehensible, rapid whisper for a few moments.

I just sat there, watching his still-blank mask as he seemed lost in thought… or perhaps some kind of discussion. To be honest, I was just confused by the whole deal.

Without any other cue, the visions on his mask reappeared, and I was pretty sure he was focusing on me again. “This is a rather worrisome development… for me, Kevin. It ought not to concern you,” he said with his usual chorus of voices. There was something oddly… intense about him. Way more intense than I’d ever seen him. A lot of firsts today.

I shivered at the foreboding nature of the comment. “Are you sure? I’m not easily scared, but you’re creeping me out right now.”

He tilted his head as he leaned back, crossing his arms across his chest. “I’m serious. It’s neither threat nor concern to you, I promise. At least not in any important timeframe. You should worry about your own problems right now – if this becomes a concern for you, I will tell you. Alright?”

When I nodded, he gave me a small nod – and then he was simply gone. No fancy effects, no strange sensation or anything. One moment he was there, the next he wasn’t. I didn’t even have to blink.

“Sure is nice, being able to disappear like that,” I thought before I got up, putting my concerns regarding the strange forest out of my mind. I really wanted to look around the place, after all these years, but there was a kill team on its way… though Journeyman had, as always, only given me the minimal possible amount of information… I didn’t even know who sent them or why… well, either way, I should sleep for as long as I could, so I went up to my bedroom, without even bothering to turn on the lights. I simply took off my shoes, jacket and tie, and dropped onto my bed (it felt just like how I remembered it) and was asleep seconds after I set the alarm.

* * *

The alarm worked flawlessly, just like I remembered it – and just like way back then, I had to use truly saintly amounts of discipline so as not to crush it.

Buddha-like self-discipline won out over primal rage, and I shuffled out of my bed. I didn’t have much time, so I stumbled into the bathroom – going by memory, so as not to turn on any lights and betray myself to the assassins – and washed my face with cold water. I still had some time after that, so I brushed my teeth – stupid as it was, I had missed being able to regularly brush my teeth – and went to check on my wardrobe. My bedroom had no windows, so I turned on the light.

It took me a few moments to blink the tears out of my eyes (due to the light, of course. Not because I was seeing my bedroom for the first time in almost two decades), and then I went to the old hardwood wardrobe and opened it.

Someone – I had a pretty good idea who – had set me up, clothing-wise. And very recently, too, I was sure.

Could Elouise have done all this between seeing me at the ceremony and me coming here? Most definitely, if she has even a fraction of the Matriarch’s resources. I picked out a pair of jeans, some fresh underwear and a black shirt with a white peace sign on it, putting them on. Then I took my socks off, and threw them into the laundry basket with the rest, before I made my way down to the first floor, and out the door.

Then I simply took a stroll down the street, with ten minutes until the projected attack left – I didn’t want to fight here, so close to my home. Too much of a chance of collateral damage, never mind the attention it would draw to me. If these killers were even remotely competent, they’d jump on the chance to attack me during an evening stroll in some remote location, so I gave them just that, making my way towards the old mills near the lake – they were pretty close to my place, at least by my standards (I didn’t get tired easily, and even my normal walk was pretty fast) and I’d bet my house that they were still abandoned and rundown. Tearing what was left of the old steel mills down had been talked about for a long time, but even back then, they didn’t get anything done – I doubted they had, in the intervening time.

The city was as quiet during the night as I remembered it – meaning, anything but. Though Merlin Street was as quiet as ever, by itself, the surrounding city really left no illusions as to this being a metropolis. Cars, horns, more electronic sounds than I remembered, people shouting in the distance… Strange smells that reached even this far, across several streets. Smells that made you question their origins, imagining some pretty awful things. A strong wind that seemed to always blow from the front, pushing you back, or directly from behind, pushing you ahead.

Then, as I left Merlin Street, other people. A few doxies who gave me appraising looks, but whom I honestly ignored – I’d never had to resort to paying for a woman’s attention, not with my looks (and, I had to admit, the skills my father had instilled in me). I just focused on the feeling of pavement beneath my feet, and on spotting my shadows (another skill dad had had me practice relentlessly).

It didn’t take long for me to spot my pursuers. I counted no less than four, and there were probably more that stayed back, following their scouts. Professionals, definitely, but not good enough to hide from me. Though they probably wouldn’t expect me to have black ops training. Few people did, and even fewer metahumans.

Nothing I can’t deal with, I thought as I kept on strolling towards the mills. If they were powerful enough to simply overpower me, they’d have already attacked and then fled before the heroes could interfere. If they’re instead following me, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike, then because they feel the need to do so.

Which meant I would have a major advantage, since I knew they were coming and could control the battlefield. Also, the fact that Journeyman had been sure that I’d beat them with just minor injuries even if they surprised me in my sleep spoke volumes all on its own.

Just a few minutes later, I’d reached the mills. The whole area hadn’t changed much since I’d last come here – ruined factory buildings, even more overgrown and broken now. Scars from super-powered battles littered the entire field, testaments to its popularity for grudge matches apart from immediate interference by the authorities.

Arid earth, sparse, coarse grass and dry twigs cracked underneath the soles of my feet as I made my feet towards the waterfront. A cool wind blew from the direction of the lake, making my hair whip around my face (I really ought to get it cut). The attack should come any time now, and I prepared myself, sharpening my senses.

* * *

They did not disappoint. I barely had time to react before the ground beneath me shook, two broad, shovel-like hands in thick brown gloves emerging to grab me by the ankles.

At the same time, five figures appeared seemingly out of nowhere, all around me. Three in a half-circle in front of me, two more behind that I could only hear. The three I could see were male and wore a skintight black suit that covered them from head to toe, revealing rather impressively muscled bodies, with equally black vests and belts containing God-knows-what additional equipment, and wearing pure white Skull masks with high-tech goggles built in that glowed a menacing red.

Gee, original much?

Despite their rather boring attire (they looked to me like cheap knock-offs of the Corpse Corps), I could tell that these people were trained. And trained well. Something about their stance just screamed ‘experienced killers’.

Which, of course, meant that they weren’t the best. The most deadly people I knew did not radiate such an aura of menace. They didn’t need to.

“Good evening, strangers,” I greeted them casually, smiling at the man at the center of their formation. “Why didn’t you show yourselves earlier? I wouldn’t have minded chatting on the way here, before we fight.”

He tilted his head as I saw the other two tense up. “You knew we were coming?” he asked, his voice made unrecognisable by way of mechanical distortion, reducing it to a monotone.

“I had your team made moments after I stepped out of my house. And I’d known you were coming since the early evening,” I spoke, turning my head left and right to take a look at the other two out of the corner of my eyes – a man and a woman, in the same outfits as the others, though the woman also held a huge rifle of futuristic design in her hands in a way that suggested that she was either very strong or the weapon far lighter than it looked. Their earthworker was still holding onto my ankles. “So, what’s the reason behind this? It’s rather rude to interrupt a guy’s sleep.”

Their leader shrugged. “We’re here to kill you. Nothing personal, just business,” he spoke, his voice even, his stance (apparently) unconcerned.

I sighed, lowering my head for a moment as I took my hands out of my pockets. Then I thought this all over. These people… were not my daughter, nor anyone I cared about, really. And it wasn’t a public fight, either.

No reason to hold back. And besides, the world got a little brighter every time mercenaries like these died, so…

I should let the monkey blow off some steam anyway, I thought as I felt the beast within stir in excitement.

My knockles popped as I stretched my fingers, then curled them up before looking down at the two hands holding onto my ankles.

“You know, my feet are perfectly comfortable in this weather. No need to warm them.”

Then I let the monkey out. Just a little bit.

* * *

Several hours earlier

Nine people were sitting at a round table in a well-lit room, Camille one of them. She was not happy about that. There was one person missing – the most important one, as far as she was concerned.

But Hennessy had been too weak to join them, her mother insisting (rightly) that she stay in bed to rest, surrounded by positive emotions (meaning, her half-sister was spending the night cuddling up to her). The fact that Camille herself had insisted that Henny take a break didn’t make her any more happy to be here without her. Her left hand was hanging limply down the side of her seat, randomly clenching and relaxing as it longed for Henny’s hand to hold.

I should just track the bastard down and kill him, she thought for the millionth time. It was a pointless thought, she knew she wouldn’t do it – she’d never killed, nor did she intend to. Nevermind the fact that she’d probably lose – anyone who could handle Henny on a rage the way he had was way out of her league.

It didn’t make the thought any less tempting.

And so Camille missed Vek’s speech, lost in thoughts of how to get some payback against Henny’s so-called ‘father’. More like sperm donor.

She rose out of her homicidal thoughts when someone shouted her name.

Camille!” Vek’s bleating voice might be an easy target for ridicule, but it was very good at catching your attention. Camille snapped to attention, looking straight at her leader. “Pay attention. The higher ups sent me the dossier on Aap Oordra. I’d like to brief you on him, seeing how we’re likely to have to deal with him in the future.”

Now she really had Camille’s full attention. “What’d we know about that fucker?”

“Language, please,” Director Queensfield said in her throaty voice. The stocky woman in the severe power suit always reminded her of her mother, especially when she reprimanded her. “Miss Petson, please proceed,” she added with a nod towards Vek.

The goat woman nodded and tapped a key that was being projected on the flat table in front of her. A high-quality shot of Aap Oordra’s face appeared on the table, leaving only a thin ring of blackness around it. His face was neutral on it, his hair combed back, his beard neatly trimmed. He looked… gaunt. His eyes were haunted and ringed in black… and yet, Camille couldn’t deny that he looked damn attractive, even like that.

Well, not like someone related to Henny could look bad, she told herself.

“This is what we know of Aap Oordra’s history after he left the USA – he joined the army to fight in the Afghanistan War, but was pronounced missing in action after the Great Clusterfuck – a three-way battle between the forces of the PATO, the SU and the newly-formed Caliphate, interrupted partway through by an attack from Desolation-in-Light. What we know after that is rather more… sketchy. It seems that he was taken by the Sovjet forces after the battle and put in one of their re-education camps in Siberia.”

Camille bit her lip. He’d been a prisoner all this time? That… that was actually a damn good excuse for not being, well, there. No, don’t think like that! Asshole left to join the army, he shouldn’t have done that in the first place!

“What we know since is rather sketchy, and relies on second-hand reports and some files we could get out of the Sovjet Superhuman Committee. He apparently broke out within five days of being incarcerated – just an hour or two after recovering fully from the wounds he sustained during the fight – but was recaptured three days later, before managing to leave the SU territory. Re-education proved unsuccessful, the files noting that he seemed to have gotten extensive anti-brainwashing training, to the point where they suspected a background in metahuman black ops – though his young age at the time makes that highly unlikely. Over the last seventeen years, he broke out of twenty-seven different re-education and containment facilities, and is credited with enabling the escape of more than three-hundred war prisoners, as well as more than six hundred Sovjet citizens who had been kept in these facilities, as well as the killings of no less than three whole teams of the Sovjet’s metahuman capture forces – as well as participating in the subduing of an S-Class threat that ravaged the Mongolian lands. He was recaptured, one way or another, each time, but they paid for it dearly. And this is just the information that our office of intelligence considers reliable. “

The room was filled with stunned silence. That wasn’t the background of a downbeat ex-thrill-villain who’d left his family behind to chase some war glory. Even Camille had to admit that that was freaking badass.

“Aap Oordra – or Kevin Paterson, though we have no way to make sure that that is actually his real name, as he doesn’t seem to have a past before he showed up here in Chicago at the age of sixteen – was liberated by members of the Sovjet rebellion just a short time ago. They found him in the Sovjet’s supermax prison, Koschei’s Chest. He was being held in their maximum security wing, their equivalent of our Tartarus Star Super-Max Section.”

The Junior Heroes around the table visibly shivered at the mention of the name. Koschei’s Chest was not known for its humane treatment of its inmates.

“In keeping with the Ondero Act, he has been pardoned of all his crimes – which is kind of superfluous, as the statute of limitations has expired on most of them, as well as given a veteran’s pension and several cash boni for everything he went through – as well as several medals for his recorded achievements.”

Camille frowned, but didn’t comment. She didn’t like hearing that ass described like a badass war hero.

“More important for us, though, is his relationship to Chayot – you all know of it by now – and his, ah, performance during the Great Clusterfuck,” Vek continued, and changed the image on the table.

Now it showed… a young and very hot guy with wild black hair, tan skin and bright eyes, the air throwing his hair around as he laughed wildly.

It took Camille a moment to connect him to Aap. His features matched, but… he seemed far, far younger, not just physically.

“A quick primer on his powerset and past – Aap Oordra used to be a rather popular thrill-villain and prankster in the nineties, terrorising Chicago’s metahuman community and several political, financial and criminal power figures. No deaths, no serious bodily harm, but a lot of collateral damage, mainly due to the nature of his powerset. He is, to this day, one of only ten recorded true speedsters.”

“True… speedster?” Camille asked, not familiar with the term. She knew several speedsters, but she’d never heard about some kind of true speedsters, whatever that meant.

The senior members of the UH seemed to recognise the term, though, their eyes widening.

“Most speedsters accelerate by somehow cheating physics – they twist time, or partially move into another dimension, or transfer the strain that speeding puts on their body and their environment to some other body or dimension. Usually, this goes hand in hand with a reduction in their ability to affect their surroundings, which limits their combat utility.” She stopped the exposition, taking a deep breath.

The director leaned forward, picking up where Vek had left off. “A true speedster, conversely, is someone who actually speeds up to superhuman speeds, retaining and even increasing their ability to affect the world around them. They combine the strength, toughness, sensory speed, processing speed and coordination necessary to actually move at superhuman speeds – in some cases even supersonic speeds – and not cripple or kill themselves.”

Oh shit, I can guess where this is going.

Vek continued, “Aap Oordra is number five on a list of ten known true speedsters above Paragon tier – he usually limits himself to short bursts of speed, but he has been clocked it at Mach one speeds when given enough space to run in a straight line – and his peak may be even higher. His strength and toughness can match those speeds, and though he doesn’t seem to have perfect control over it – he can’t ignore inertia, for one – he is still considered an A-Class combatant all on his own.”

“No wonder he managed to handle Chayot mostly on his own,” Slough said. He was sitting next to Camille, in a rather normal-looking form (the only thing strange about it were the pink tentacles that replaced his hair). “So, what do we do about him? And what’s so special about his role in that big battle?”

Vek looked intently around the room. “What is special is that he took three direct hits from DiL, and only went down after the third one – and then recovered from the damage he took in less than a week. That speaks of a level of toughness and recovery that is, frankly, up there with Quetzalcoatl and Kraquok.”

I think going after him to kick his ass is now officially out of the question.

“People, this is important,” the Director stated calmly. “Whatever or whoever Aap Oordra may be – wherever he came from, whatever his intentions for going to war were – we know that he is comparable to any single member of the Shining Guardians or the Dark Five. We know that, even when he was a rather irresponsible youth, he still did hold himself back enough to keep his true potential hidden and prevented any truly serious damage. And we know that he cares a great deal for one of our team members and has expressed interest in becoming a part of her life – which may mean that he might be interested in joining the United Heroes. I do not have to tell you how desperately we need people with this level of power and skill.”

Oh, you wouldn’t dare suggest that we…

“So I want everyone here – everyone,” she emphasised with a look at Camille, “To put aside personal grievances and play nice around him. I will not demand nor expect Chayot to welcome him back with open arms, or even pretend to like him any more than she does – but I do expect everyone else here to foster positive interactions with him. He is, as of now, the most powerful metahuman in the State of Illinois – and I’d rather have him on our side than on the opposing one. Clear?”

“Clear!” came a chorused answer from around the table. Even Camille took part, despite her misgivings.

Well, I guess I can try… a bit…

* * *

I washed the blood off my hands in the dark waters of the lake. There was quite a lot of it, even though I had, in the end, refrained from killing anyone. I was still not sure why – I’d never felt bad about killing people like these, not in the least. But something had held me back.

Perhaps I’m just sick of all the killing, after all this time.

The fight hadn’t lasted very long, but it sure had helped me, nonetheless. They’d been tougher than I’d expected, though not by much. I hadn’t gotten hurt at all, in the end.

“I’m very proud of you,” Journeyman’s voice spoke up from my left.

I very pointedly did not flinch, but rather finished cleaning my hands and arms, then turned to look at him while I sat on my haunches. “How so?” I asked him. He was standing with his feet in the water, his robe moving back and forth with each wave, his hand clasped behind his back. He was looking out onto the lake.

“You didn’t kill any of them – unlike in the original future,” he remarked. “That’s good. You shouldn’t kill any more than absolutely necessary.”

I gave him a long look, thinking things over. “You warned me about them… just to save their lives? Not mine, since you said that I wouldn’t have died anyway.”

He shrugged. “That, too. Mainly, though, I did it to prevent you from killing them. A fine distinction, I admit, but an important one,” he answered, pre-empting my follow-up question with that last sentence.

After a few minutes of just staring at him, with only the remote sounds of the city, the sounds of the lake and the moans of the broken bodies behind us around, I nodded and whispered, “Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome, my friend,” he spoke in what passed as a cheery voice for him. “Now, I really need to go – altering these events to such an extent will cause one hell of a backlash, and I’d rather not be anywhere near anything alive when it hits me, so I just wanted to give you one last, very important piece of advice – because I won’t be able to help you for quite a while, I’m afraid.”

“Shoot,” I said. He’d mentioned that before, quite a lot of times. Some kind of backlash for altering the events he saw in his visions. The big reason why he wasn’t just fixing the world, as he phrased it.

“You should talk to your father,” he said.

“No,” I shot back as firmly as I could. “No. Not happening.” I sighed. “He… doesn’t deserve it. I’m not giving him that satisfaction.”

Again, he shrugged. “It’s not about what he deserves. It’s about what you deserve. You’re hurting yourself as much, if not more, than him by keeping him away like this.”

I rose up so fast I almost jumped into the air, turning to him. Old, ugly, hot feelings reared their head in the pit of my stomach as I almost lashed out with the monkey. “NO! Not happening! You have no idea what he did to me! To my mother! How he betrayed us, how he fucked everything up, for no reason other than his fucking pride!” I shouted at him, my voice booming across the lake. At that moment, I was quite tempted to attack him, even though I didn’t stand the ghost of a chance.

He finally turned to look at me, somehow conveying… sadness, even though his posture didn’t change, and he had no expression to read. “I’m sure Hennessy says similar things about you.”

The bottom dropped out of my stomach, the tension and anger and hurt draining out of me, leaving behind… cold emptiness.

He bowed his head, slightly, and then simply vanished, leaving me behind on dark shores. Alone.

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B010.b.2 Canary in the Birdcage

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“You probably don’t want to hear this, Miss, but you look inordinately cute right now,” he said with a smile that was more pleasant than she wanted to admit.

Blushing, she averted her eyes – not that he was likely to be able to tell the difference. “What is going on?” she asked in a small voice. “I can’t… I can’t take this. Just tell me what you want and be done with it.” She felt close to breaking down into tears.

Instead of answering, he reached around her neck with one arm, pulling her in to press his forehead against hers for a moment. His skin was cool, and the gesture was so… human and relaxing and she… for a few moments, she forgot where she was, and why, and with whom.

When he pulled back again, she felt in control once more. Steady. Or at least mostly so. Enough not to break down crying, at least. Now blushing, she stepped back and dried her eyes with the back of her hand, before she looked at Prospero again. He was just standing there, a sympathetic look on his tired face, quiet.

“You want to know what I want, or what the Queen wants, dear?” he asked in what was almost a whisper, his eyes on her face – now sharp and focused, with nothing of the earlier exhaustion and fear.

She opened her mouth as soon as he intoned the ‘Q’ of ‘Queen’ to correct him, but decided against it. Calling her a tyrant in front of what was turning out to be a loyal subject of hers after all would not improve her chances – whatever her chances for anything were.

And besides, it didn’t hurt to be polite. “Yes. Please, tell me why I’m here,” she said, trying to keep her insecurity and antipathy out of her voice. Which wasn’t all that difficult to achieve, since she had perfect control over her voice, when she was paying attention.

“How about we walk while we talk?” he suggested with a sincere-looking smile. “I’m afraid I might have trouble staying awake unless we’re moving.” Then he waited, until she realised that he was actually giving her a choice.

“Oh, sure, sure,” she said, once more surprised. That seems to be a running theme here.

With another smile, he opened the door, quickly checking out the hallway. “Alright, the bloodhound isn’t there. Let’s go in the opposite direction from her – though even she can’t object to me giving you the rundown of your situation, so that might save me if she does track us down.” And with those ominous words, they left the room.

* * *

They walked for a minute or so in silence, through a weirdly plain, homely hallway. The walls were painted in a very faint, natural green colour, with picture frames every few meters to break up the monotony. Mostly pastoral landscapes, and a few photographs of Prospero and his (huge) family. Aside from being quite disconcerted about him letting her see all of them so easily – as if he didn’t think she could ever use this information against him – she was startled to realise that, apparently, the stories actually matched up with the reality; he had a lot of kids. However had his wife managed to give birth to all of them – Jasmine counted at least nine children, ranging in age from Minerva’s apparent sixteen years down to a newborn baby in the most recent picture she’d seen (dated to just a year and a month ago) – and still look that slender?

She’s probably a metahuman, duh. Someone like Prospero would want a metahuman wife, if only to increase the chance of his children manifesting powers.

Though judging by all the sincere smiles she saw on the pictures, he at the very least enjoyed having such a family all by itself.

They’re manipulating me, she realised. Why else would they treat her like that, or show her all this? Trying to break down her image of them, trying to knock her loose from her ideals, probably. But why? She couldn’t see what they stood to gain from that. Her power? The Tyrant could make her do anything she wanted. Besides, it wasn’t that useful to them… or was it?

“I’M GOING TO FUCKING SQUASH YOUR FUCKING CREEPY LITTLE HEADS!!!” a smoky voice screamed so loudly both Prospero and Canary clapped their hands over their ears – Jasmine even doubled over.

When she looked up again, a small swarm of babies came around the nearest corner of the hallway, crawling on the walls and the ceiling.

Wait, what?

The… babys?… rushed towards them, moving far too quickly to be real human babies, and Jasmine got a closer look at them. They certainly were baby-sized, and each was wearing a different onesie – she made out a piglet, a platypus, a flamingo and a snake – with masses of oily black tendrils sticking out of the openings for their faces, wriggling in nauseating ways as they moved on all fours.

“What in God’s name are those!?” she shouted, crouching in the middle of the hallway to put as much distance between herself and the walls and ceiling as possible.

One of the ‘babies’ stopped and looked at her – at least she thought it was looking at her, there was really no way to tell since they had no eyes – and its tendrils opened like a flower, revealing a slimy black beak that snapped a few times before it went on its way.

And that was still not the weirdest thing about them – each and every of these… things… was carrying some piece of female lingerie. Carrying as in, wearing. One had a bra on its head, tied so it looked like two lacy, pink ears. Another had turned a thong inside out and pulled it over its head, with its tendrils wiggling around it.

She didn’t even want to take a closer look at the others.

Prospero sighed in a way that reminded Jasmine a lot of her own father. “I hate these things,” he said and stepped aside, leaning against the wall before he lifted his hands and put them over his eyes.

“What…” Jasmine was just about to ask for some kind of clarification when the source of the earlier scream bounded around the corner and ran towards them at breakneck speeds.

She was young – perhaps a little older than Minerva, but certainly no older than Jasmine – and completely, utterly naked. Her medium length, unkempt red hair was dripping wet as she pursued the little monsters with an outraged look on her face.

Jasmine tried to avert her eyes, embarrassed that a girl would run around like that – though fortunately, Prospero seemed to be decent enough a man to hold his eyes closed – but the girl had made very sure that it was too interesting to look at her – Jasmine saw more piercings on her body than she cared to count (and in places where she hadn’t known girls could or would have piercings) and the most intricate tattoo she had ever seen starting at her left ankle, winding its way up her leg, across her belly, disappearing behind her back to reappear on her right side, hugging her lowermost rib and going on over her right breast and under her right armpit, only to reemerge over her left shoulder and then curve over her breasts to go over her throat up to her right cheek. It formed thorns and roses, black as the night with only faint blue lines added to make them more than mere silhouettes, winding around each other as they wound their way up her body, all of it coordinated with her silver piercings to make it impossible to avert your eyes.

She’d barely managed to take in half of that in before the girl had leapt by the two of them, screaming bloody murder after the little… thiefs. As Jasmine turned, she saw that the tattoo continued on her back, as did the piercings. Whoever had done this had been a true artist, she had to admit, but why was she running around naked!? And then she’d gone around another corner and out of sight, only her promises of brutal murder to be heard.

Perhaps that lingerie was her only underwear?

“Is she gone?” Prospero asked. “Is it safe to look again?”

“I-I think so,” Jasmine gasped, still blushing at the shameless display. She turned around to look at Prospero, just in time to see a shadow run around the corner. It was running on the wall, flat, the shadow of a slender young woman dragging another bigger, wide shadow behind her. Just as it came around the corner and ran towards them, a big bath towel came flying after it, its movements mirroring those of the shadow towel dragged by the girl shadow, which ran past them and after the naked girl and the tentacle babies.

Jasmine sank down onto her knees. “What the hell is going on?”

Her guide (jailor? captor?) came to her and held out a hand to help her get up. She accepted it, feeling numb.

“That was Belle Rose. She’s the Guard’s newest member. And it looks like the gremlins absconded with her underwear… again,” he explained. Or rather, he spoke. Because it didn’t make any sense.

“G-gremlins? What are they?”

He shrugged. “Some kind of… fallout. Whenever Tick-Tock and Totemic heterodyne their powers, some of those Gremlins are spawned. They’re annoying little pests, but harmless. Tend to play really stupid pranks on people.”

“I didn’t know that could happen with superpowers,” she replied. She knew the basics about heterodyning, but it was such a convoluted subject… still, she was sure she’d never heard of this kind of side effect.

“A lot can happen when diverse powers interact. Living in a palace full of metahumans will broaden your horizons a lot, I assure you.”

“I think it’s more likely that it’ll drive me completely insane,” she said with a flat look in his direction.

He threw his head back and laughed brightly. “Oh, that’s for sure! There are only two sane people around here, after all. Three if we count you, but I’m sure you’ll join us soon enough in our insanity!”

Sighing – no one here seemed to really take anything seriously – she just shook her head. He was obviously goading her to ask who the two sane people were, but… she really did want to know. Though she could probably guess as to one of them. “Let me guess, Minerva is one of the two?”

Now his smile turned into a proud grin. “Aye. And our Queenie is the other one.”

* * *

Trying to wrap her head around the mere idea that the Tyrant might be the only remotely sane person around here – it didn’t seem like Prospero was joking or lying – Jasmine followed Prospero quietly down the hallway and soon entered a small atrium that opened into a wide balcony, all built out of white marble, with a fountain in the center of the Atrium and several very comfortable looking leather armchairs standing on the balcony in a loose half-circle. The fountain was spewing clear water up into the air in several artfully arranged arcs.

It was… a very, very peaceful, pleasant scene. Though that was perhaps to be expected – why would the Tyrant and her trusted servants live in anything other than perfect luxury?

Prospero gave her a moment to enjoy the scene, then he walked towards the balcony and she followed him, waiting for him to finally start talking.

When they stepped out onto it through a huge archway, Jasmine’s breath caught for a moment.

They were standing on a marble balcony that looked out onto the Outback and the view was breathtaking. She’d always thought the palace floated over Ayer’s Rock simply as a testament to the Tyrant’s power, but… this view alone might have been reason enough to put a palace up here. The arid waste was breathtaking, despite the deep scars and cracks it bore from nearly a century of war.

As much as Jasmine despised the Tyrant, this sight was pretty effective in reminding her why she had so many legitimate supporters. She’d heard stories of the Outback, from before. Of plants and animals that had adjusted to life in the arid land, of the indigenous people that had once lived here and considered Ayer’s Rock – Uluru in their tongue – a holy place.

All gone, now. Long since wiped out. Instead of brushes, there was sand burned to glass, and ragged jet-black crystal formations left behind by Asag. Cracks in the earth from the Kangaroo King’s futile attempt to break off the Western half of the continent for his mad kingdom. In the distance, the jagged spire of Pazuzu’s throne, touching the sky but not the earth below. Nothing alive was down there. At least nothing natural.

“You know, I was just a child when Pazuzu and Asag took over Australia and split it between them,” Prospero suddenly said, making her jump a little. “I even saw the two of them. Back then, I thought they were angels, the most beautiful women in the world.” His voice was soft, and he seemed to be only partly here, with her. “I wanted to be just like them when I grew up. And then their madness became too obvious to ignore, and we all realised that they were no better than the warlords that came before them; only more powerful and more intelligent. Not that it helped them stave off the madness.”

“How’d they die?” she asked. Few really knew how it ended with those two. One day, they’d just been… gone. But the stories said Prospero had been there.

“They let me kill them,” he said with a sad smile. “A last moment of sanity shared between them. They knew they were lost, so they decided to die together, in peace.” He sighed. “I wonder what might have been, sometimes, if they’d held out long enough for Madeleine to emerge.”

“That’s… too sad. I heard that they weren’t so bad, in the beginning. If they truly were driven insane, somehow, then that’s…” She hung her head. She’d heard this story too often. People with good intentions driven insane by their powers until they became like the monsters they fought.

Story of our country.

“They really did want to save the continent. Though I think they’d be proud of what Madeleine has made of it,” he spoke softly, making her tense up again. Here it came, the propaganda. “I’m not going to pretend like everything she’s done and doing is perfect and for the better, but for the first time since Point Zero, we have had a true period of peace on this ragged, broken continent of ours.”

“A peace bought by ruthlessly oppressing all opposition and conquering the surrounding islands,” she replied with venom in her voice – though not as much as she would’ve liked to put into it.

“Madeleine does not suffer challenges to her authority, that much is true. Once you get to know her, you’ll realise the reasons for that, though,” he said calmly. “And I’d like to mention, for fairness’ sake, that Newfoundland and the Indonesian islands all joined after independent insurrections that resulted in the new governments asking to join the Monarchic Union.”

Insurrections started by you, she thought, but didn’t say. It was obvious Prospero either truly believed these lies or didn’t care that they were lies.

“But that’s not what you were asking, anyway. You were asking what we want with you.”

Finally, something useful.

He stretched out his arm, making an arching motion to indicate the Outback. “We need your help to fix this.”

“F-fix?” she asked, dumbfounded.

“Madeleine calls it the Reclamation Project. We want to turn the Outback into fertile farmland,” he explained calmly. “We’ve been gathering the right powers ever since Madeleine ascended to the throne, and have started some preliminary work in clearing out the more… hostile effects left behind. After the Sovjet Union collapsed, we managed to extract a whole batch of agricultural gadgeteers, and we’ve been taking in every weather manipulator we could find, so we’ll be able to manipulate weather patterns.”

Uhh… not what I was expecting… It sounded like a great plan, actually. Why had no one else thought of it before?

“Me, Madeleine and Quetzalcoatl are obviously the world’s most powerful – sane – weather manipulators, but Quetzalcoatl is unwilling to leave South America for an extended period of time, and even with him, we three would not suffice for this task. Yet the more people we add, the more their powers interfere with each other – that’s not much of a problem for gadgeteers, but weather manipulation is a very delicate process, especially if you want to do it on a large scale and over a long amount of time.”

She nodded. So far, it made sense. So then, her power would be needed for…

“We need you, specifically, because you are the most powerful catalyst that we know of,” he continued, looking her in the eyes.

“Catalyst?” She’d never heard herself described that way.

“The technical term for someone who can facilitate the synchronisation of powers,” he explained. “You are the only living person we know of who can affect an entire group of metahumans. Everyone who hears your song long enough, right?”

She nodded, aghast at how much they’d found out about her power. “H-how do you know all this!? It was supposed to be a secret, a trump to play against the Tyrant!”

He chuckled. “Please. Your organisation is more of an annoyance than a threat. Honestly, the only reason we haven’t swiped them all up yet is because we’re using them to draw out dissents that might otherwise remain hidden from us… people like you.” He winked at her. “In fact, I’m pretty sure they’ve served their purpose in Madeleine’s eyes. I expect her to give Tick-Tock the clear for an all-out attack on what remains of them.”

Jasmine paled. Not Tick-Tock. They had nothing to stop her if she knew where they were. And… “You always knew about us? Our plans?”

He nodded, his face serious.

That… hurt more than having Pale try to kill her. In fact, it made that action hurt even worse. It had all been meaningless. Except he might be lying. Maybe this is all a plot to make me feel weak and defenseless, to make brainwashing me all the more easy.

“So, is this the point where you take me to be brainwashed and turned into a worker drone?” she asked. Let’s just get this over with.

“Oh God, is this the whole mind control spiel again?” He leaned against the railing of the balcony, rubbing his temples with his hands. “When will people get it? Madeleine can’t control minds!”

“You would say that! But why would people even say that unless it was true!?” she shouted back, feeling herself at the edge to cracking and just getting into a screaming fit. In fact, she was tempted to use her power on him – she did have one offensive attack that was sure to hurt him.

“Because she can control powers, dear child,” he replied calmly, without taking any apparent offense at her outbreak.

“What?” That made her deflate.

“Madeleine can manipulate powers. Within certain limits. I guess that’s how the mind control rumors started. But her influence begins and ends with the powers of metahumans. Activating them, blocking them, changing their targets, moving their parameters around – like making them weaker in exchange for making them more precise – and so on. Pretty small stuff, overall, but very, very versatile,” he explained in the voice of someone who’s done this quite often. “Any power that is used within her line of sight, she can control. That’s all there is to it.”

“Wha- but… Then why do you need me?”

He shrugged. “Because her power is not that well-suited to serve as a catalyst. And because you can affect far more people at the same time. The idea is to synchronise at least twenty weather manipulators for the sake of long-term changes to the weather patterns over the Outback. And before you ask, no, you don’t really have a choice in this. You are a terrorist, and your sentence is to support the Reclamation Project.”

“I didn’t get a trial,” she replied half-hearted.

He smiled sadly. “There is no due process here, my dear. Madeleine thinks it is grossly inefficient. She made a decision, and you have to live with it. And don’t tell me you don’t want to turn the Outback into farmland in order to feed the people?”

“I…” That was a good point. The idea sounded really damn good. In fact, it was one of the best ideas for the use of superpowers she’d ever heard of. “And then what? I spend my whole life singing so this project can work?”

He waved his hand in a no-no gesture. “Nah, nothing like that. Just for half a year or so, I suspect. Once the whole thing is set up, Madeleine should be capable of keeping it stable on her own. You’d just have to step in every now and then when adjustments became necessary. Even less for the other projects – converting the ground into farmland and all, setting up roadways and a water supply. You’ll barely be needed on those, since they don’t require large-scale heterodyning.”

“And then what?”

He shrugged. “You’ll be free to go, so long as you promise not to break any laws anymore.”

“Just like that?” No way they are this lenient.

He smiled at her. “You were a member of a terrorist organisation, but you’re young and you didn’t actually cause any harm yet. Madeleine may be strict, but she’s not unreasonable. Besides, we hope that you’ll decide to work normally for us, afterwards.”

Her mouth dropped open. “You’re joking, right? Why would I work for a Tyrant!?”

Again, that maddening, paternal sigh. “You are aware that more than ninety percent of the population absolutely adores Maddi, right?”

“Like those numbers are actually r-“

“Why would I lie?” he asked softly. “I literally have no reason to deceive you, Jasmine. You will work for us, because you are a decent person who wants to help people – and the Reclamation will do just that. As for afterwards, we want you to work for us long-term, of your own free will. Feeding you lies would be completely counterproductive to that.”

She bit her lip, stiffling another outburst. It stung, because he was right. She saw no reason for them to lie to her. Fuck, now even the way they treated her so far made sense – they wanted her to join. If the Tyrant really couldn’t control her mind, then this was really the best thing they could do…

“So, if what you say is true, how come there are resistance groups, huh?”

“There are always malcontents. Madeleine allows for free press and criticism of her rulership, but she doesn’t actually allow the average person to take part in the decisionmaking process at any level. Most people don’t care – she’s turned Australia from a Fourth World country into almost a First World country in less than twelve years. Unemployment is at less than two percent, the economy thrives, there is no war, she’s taken all the orphans off the streets and given them homes – but a few are always unsatisfied.”

Stepping away from the balcony, he walked to the fountain, his arms folded behind his back. “Honestly, I think it won’t be an issue anymore, once the Reclamation Project is through. We’ll basically eliminate hunger in the entire Monarchic Union. No one will be able to turn that on us. The few who try will be shot down by the people who, for the first time in their lives, don’t have to worry about feeding their children.” He turned to her, sitting on the edge of the fountain, his robe’s patterns shifting to match the dancing water. “Look, I get that Madeleine is… difficult for people to understand. Hell, I have trouble understanding her sometimes. And I don’t expect you to just jump into this blindly. But I’d ask you to give her a chance. Give us a chance.” He smiled at her.

“I… uh…” Why the fuck is this so difficult!?

“Prospero, you’re pushing too hard. Again,” a childish voice spoke up.

Jasmine squealed like a little girl, jumping straight in the air. She hadn’t heard anyone come up behind her! She turned around and saw… a cute little moppet, maybe eight years old, with short reddish-brown hair, huge black eyes and wearing a very severe looking, very old-fashioned dark blue dress with shiny black shoes. And she a golden disk in her left hand, attached to a pocket in her dress with a fine golden chain.

She also had an utterly unnaturally severe expression on her cute face.

“Tick-Tock. I didn’t hear you come in,” Prospero spoke calmly from behind Jasmine.

“Eeep?” A meek little sound came out of Jasmine’s throat as she realised the golden disk was a pocket watch. Slowly, she started to edge back from the girl, trying to figure out an escape route that would take her far away from her. Perhaps leaping out of the balcony?

“Oh, goodness, relax child,” the little girl said, looking up at her with the most deadpan expression she’d ever seen on a person. “I’m not going to harm you. If I wanted to, you’d already be a goner.” She leaned to the side, looking at Prospero. “Your daughter-in-law is running around stark naked again. Shouldn’t you do something about that?”

“She is not my daughter in law! They’re just… friends…”

What?

Tick-Tock chuckled, the quirk in her mouth that that produced looking completely wrong. “Yeah, right. Friends. Someday, you’ll have to accept that she and your girl are…”

“I swear to God I’ll blow up this atrium if you finish that sentence. Boss.”

She chuckled again, then turned back to Jasmine, pointing one small finger with a shiny little nail at her. “You, child. With me. Prospero has work to do.” A groan came from behind her. “Get to it, or I’ll tell your wife on you.”

“Alright alright, I’ll go do the damn paperwork!” He stood up. “Jasmine,” he continued in a softer voice. She turned around to face him, even though she didn’t like turning her back to Tick-Tock at all. He looked… very paternal again. “Relax. Don’t be afraid. No one here means you harm.” He put his bony hands on her shoulders, gently squeezing them. “We’re not the enemy. We’re not monsters. You’re not here to be brainwashed or harmed or coerced into anything. You’re here because we need your help to do good work, and we know that it’s the kind of work you’d want to help with. Now go with Tick-Tock and if you want, we can sit down later on and have a more detailed talk over dinner. How’s that sound?”

Pretty nice, actually. They were just too nice. And weirdly quirky. How could she say no? “I think I’d like that,” she replied with a hesitant smile.

He nodded, smiling, and left with a nod towards Tick-Tock.

Jasmine looked after him until he was out of sight, then turned back to face the Time Hag. Though that name seemed utterly inappropriate now. “H-how…” She stuttered and broke off.

“How do I look like an eight-year-old?” the leader of the Queensguard completed her sentence. “It’s a side-effect of my power. I have to stay in this form in order to charge it up.” She turned towards a doorway different from the one Jasmine and Prospero had come through, walking towards it. Jasmine automatically followed her.

“Is that why they say you’re immortal?” she asked. Almost no one really knew anything about Tick-Tock, except that she was unstoppable.

“No, that’s because I can’t be killed and because I was born in the early nineteenth century,” she replied without bothering to look at her.

“You… What? How!?” she almost shouted in reply.

A careless shrug. “I got my powers when I was almost ninety years old. They made me pretty much unkillable, and I can freely age myself up and down – I just need to stay in this childish form to charge my power up.”

“Uhh…” Wow. “So you’re… even older than Lady Light, huh? Wow. I never thought I’d meet someone like that.”

“Now you have. Let’s hurry a bit, you have an appointment.” She sped up her step.

“An appointment with whom?” Please not the Tyrant, please not the Tyrant, please not the Tyrant…

Her thoughts must have been pretty obvious on her face, because Tick-Tock looked up at her and smirked. “With the Royal Babysitter.”

“Who? What!?” she asked, caught completely off-guard by the reply.

“The Royal Babysitter. She should be done in a moment, and then she’ll talk to you.”

“Why does the Ty- the Queen have a babysitter!? Does she have kids!?” Somehow, the idea of her having children was… too scary for words.

“You got it wrong. I mean ‘royal babysitter’ as in, ‘the babysitter is royalty’.”

Jasmine stopped dead. “No. No way. I’m not buying this. No.

The hag stopped, turning to face her with an amused look on her face. “Why not?”

She was getting really fed up with this. “Look, I can buy you people not all being insane monsters! I can buy the Tyrant being well-intentioned. But do you seriously expect me to believe that Madeleine babysits for someone!?”

“Yes,” came the reply with a completely straight voice. Jasmine could make no deception out. “It’s not so strange. Madeleine prefers children to adults. They’re more honest.”

Now she fell down on her butt. “Do I even want to know why?” she asked with a sigh.

“Nothing too complicated. Her powers messed up her ability to relate to people. Reading cues and moods. That’s why she always comes across so rude and inconsiderate – she literally can’t relate to people the normal way,” she explained as if it wasn’t anything special. “She always has to consciously decipher them. So adults strain her. Children are more honest. More… straight. She can understand them better… which doesn’t mean much, but it makes it easier for her. So she takes care of the younger kids around here, whenever necessary and possible.”

And with that, she turned around and walked on. “You better follow, or I guarantee you that you’ll get lost!”

Jasmine jumped up and followed her, moving on autopilot. “Why are you telling me all of this? Don’t you know that I could use it against you all?”

Now she actually laughed, a cackling, scratchy laugh that didn’t go with her apparent age at all. Jasmine watched with wide eyes as her body began to shift, stretch, growing, her clothes changing with her as she… aged… until she was a moderately attractive thirty-year-old woman in a floor-length lilac dress, clutching the gold watch in her slender, perfectly manicured fingers.

The whole process had been incredibly smooth, without even a hint of discomfort. She’d just segued from a laughing eight-year-old to a laughing thirty-year-old.

“I’d like to see that, actually! Ah, what a joke.” She walked on. “Come, let’s hurry. Time for you to get to know your ‘Tyrant’. It’ll change your perspective on a lot of things. As it did for me, once upon a time.”

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B010.b.1 Canary in the Birdcage

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“I’m sorry, Canary. I promise, your death will not have been in vain.”

She opened her mouth, breathless, unable to talk, as he flicked his hand and a spear shot out from the cavern ceiling above, straight at her heart.

Jasmine came awake with a desperate cry, the approaching spear still fresh in her mind.

At first, she had no idea what was going on. She was somewhere dark and pleasantly warm, lying on a comfortable (but not quite luxurious) bed with fresh bedsheets (quite the luxury compared to how she’d lived the last seven months of her life).

Thinking of those last seven months finally brought her fully awake, and it all came rushing back in – the gathering, the fight, the attempt at escaping, people dying and then… the betrayal.

Closing her eyes – not that she could see anything in the first place – the girl known to some as Canary, and to others as Jasmine Hellen, firmly pushed that last memory into the deepest, darkest recesses of her memory, to be dealt with later.

Right now, she needed as clear a head as she could get. Since lying in the horizontal position did not usually help with that, she also sat up.

So, roll call. She’d passed out after Pale had tried to… well, and then Totemic had saved her. Logically, that meant she was in the hands of the Tyrant already, or at least very close.

That thought alone was enough to crush her into her bed again, draining the blood from her face. Canary was pretty powerful, but Jasmine had no delusions regarding her ability (or lack thereof) to stand up to the Tyrant in person.

Yet she did not feel controlled, or enslaved or however it was supposed to be called. That might mean that she had not yet been turned, or that it was so subtle she had no chance of detecting it herself.

I should proceed under the assumption that I am still of free will, otherwise I might as well give up right here and now, she thought resolutely, her hands slowly curling into fists, drawing her nails over the sheets.

So, she had most likely been captured. That meant she was being held somewhere, but where? She’d be screwed if it was the royal palace. She wouldn’t be able to get out of it… not that her prospects for breaking out of any place were all that good. Canary’s power was strong and had some extremely dangerous effects, but unfortunately little in the way of direct combat ability and even less as far as stealth was concerned.

Stop running off on tangents, silly. Take it one step at a time for now!

She’d best listen to herself. Which meant that first, she had to get a sense of her surroundings. And for that, she had to use her power.

By clicking her tongue, she produced a sharp sound that bounced off of her surroundings, returned to and gave her a rough estimate of the size of the room she was in – a one-person bedroom, too big to be a mere prison cell but not big enough to be a proper bedroom. She was lying on an average one-person bed that stood along the long left wall of the room, with its head against the short wall.

Two more clicks revealed details. She could make out a door at other end of the room, a small bedside table with a lamp on top of it, a small vanity and a rack with a few changes of clothes (she couldn’t make out the exact number with her echolocation), as well as a window opposite of the door, above and to the right of her bed. It appeared that she was all alone.

That suited her quite well. Sitting up again, she threw the blanket off her body and ran her hands over her clothes. Someone had put her into a soft, full-length nightgown. If someone had asked her how she expected to be treated by the Tyrant’s men, she would have said ‘waking up bound, gagged and naked’ – though in retrospect, she’d never heard anyone actually claiming to have been abused that way by the Queensguard. Only second- and third-hand accounts.

Exploring further, she found that she had no bruises that hurt or cracked bones – and she was sure that being clipped by Totemic had at least cracked her ribs. Someone must have treated her, most likely with superpowers. That, or she’d been asleep for a long time. Not a very comforting thought.

So, she was alone in a small room, was dressed, unbound and apparently unharmed. Next, she needed light, and to check whether or not she could actually leave the room.

Clicking her tongue, she reached out for the lamp on her bedside table and turned it on. Then she blinked as her eyes got used to the warm light (how they adjusted, she had no idea – or how she was able to see anything in the first place. Her eyes were completely yellow all the way through and yet, her sight was completely normal).

The walls were painted in a neutral white and she could see a brown wooden door that led, presumably, outside. Where- or whatever that may be.

Next, she located the light switch and turned on the proper room lamp. A second look around didn’t reveal anything new, only clarified some things. There was some make up on the vanity, and three knee-length dresses on the rack in three different colours – blue, red and yellow. The makeup turned out to be a yellow that matched both her eyes and her hair.

This was… weird. Why would they pick out her favourite makeup? Nevermind the dresses, which were all in colours that suited her quite well?

Perhaps I’m not with the Tyrant’s people after all! she thought, elated. Perhaps she’d been saved after passing out, by reinforcements from her people or some third party!

Then she came down again. She hoped it had been a third party – if it was from their own group, then she was likely to see Pale again, and soon. And she didn’t think she’d be able to stand being near him yet.

It may still be the Tyrant’s men. They might be trying to put me off balance. Though why they would want to do that was beyond her. The Tyrant’s ability to control the minds of her victims was well-known to anyone who didn’t buy into her propaganda.

Either way, it would be better for her if she was properly dressed and made up. No shower in sight, but then again, her body was rather forgiving regarding that – her hair was very easy to work with, even when unwashed for a week or more, and it took a good long while before she’d even start to smell unpleasantly.

Which might be a good way to determine whether or not she’d been asleep for a long time, actually. But then again, they would probably have washed her if they went through the trouble of treating her and keeping her sedated for long enough to heal completely.

Quickly getting out of the nightgown, she checked her body over in the mirror – not even the slightest discoloration, even from fading bruises.

Next, she opened the drawers beneath the vanity and found a few changes of underwear in one of them (and socks in the other). She put on both and then brushed her hair into order, before putting on the makeup. She liked the effect that had on her monochromatic eyes, making them look huge and just a tad intimidating – something she could not pull off on her own at all.

Of course, the rather cute dresses would ruin that effect. In the interest of not being completely monochromatic, she decided not to put on the yellow one. The blue one, she dismissed because she preferred warmer colours. Leaving her with the red one, which fit quite well, if not perfectly – a little too wide around her waist.

Somehow, the fact that not everything here was perfect did a lot towards making her feel more at ease.

She was just finishing checking herself over in the mirror when she heard running footsteps coming closer. Before she could even react, her door flew open and someone ran inside.

Squealing in surprise – and more fright than she wanted to admit – she looked at the sudden intruder as he closed the door, pressing his back against it, his face looking both tired and on edge.

He was tall. Not unnaturally so, but definitely on the tall side of things, almost two meters, which made him a giant compared to Jasmine’s one meter and seventy centimeters (and change). He was thin, again not unnaturally so, nor in a starved way, but in the lean way of someone born to be thin. His sharp, thin-lipped face, framed by rather big ears and messy brown hair, was not exactly attractive but not unpleasant to look at, either. He looked like he could use some sleep, yet she also saw a lot of laugh lines around his mouth and blue eyes. His clothing consisted of a pair of jeans pants, brown shoes and a dark purple robe that split at the height of his crotch to allow for easier movement.

The robe was covered in shifting patterns of changing colours, a dizzying yet pleasant effect that never held still. If she hadn’t already known his face from the television, that robe would have been all it took to recognise him – and make her heart drop down into the base of her belly.

Prospero, the Grand Conjurer. The Tyrant’s most powerful (though not the most scary) henchman. She could no longer delude herself that she might have been saved.

While he was catching his breath, Jasmine retreated to press her back against the opposite corner, next to the window. Trying to look small, not that there was much of a chance of being overlooked.

After a few moments, the man seemed to finally notice her. “Oh, sorry about this,” he said in a thick voice – not thick like that of a drunk, but just a naturally thick voice – “But could I ask you to maybe pretend that I am not here and neither have you seen me today?” He slid over to stand in the corner next to the door, so that it’d open towards him and keep him hidden. Then he raised his hands, palm to palm, and begged, “Please? I can’t take it anymore!”

Jasmine thought furiously. What was going on here!? Was he a fugitive? If he’d gotten fed up with the Tyrant and was intending to flee… working together with the Grand Conjurer himself would certainly improve her chances. But who was he running away from!? If the Tyrant herself was coming, then…

Then it was finally time for her to stand up for her convictions. Canary looked at Prospero and nodded, trying to simultaneously look more confident and less threatening as she heard another set of footsteps approaching at a fast clip. She swallowed her own spit, preparing herself…

And someone knocked on the door. “Hello? Is anyone there?” asked a female voice with a light British accent.

“N-no!” Jasmine squealed, and immediately hated herself for it.

“That statement makes no sense. Could you open the door, please?” the voice continued, sounding amused.

Jasmine looked at Prospero, and he nodded, though he also put a finger to his lips, begging her not to reveal him, probably.

What kind of monster was that woman, that she scared this man so much?

She approached the door, trying to look more confident than she felt. Why couldn’t she be more Canary and less Jasmine right now?

When she actually opened the door, what she saw was nothing like what she expected – looking at her was a young woman – younger even than herself – in a nicely fitting dark blue power suit that went well with her slender, sharp body. Her face was nothing special by metahuman standards, but just a year ago, Jasmine would have been very envious of her nonetheless – she had rather pouty lips, currently twisted along with the rest of her face into a frown, sharp dark brown eyes and messy brown hair in an untidy ponytail. She was a tad taller than Jasmine, but only because she was wearing medium heels.

As the girl quickly looked her up and down, her frown gave way for a rather mischievous smirk. “So, you’re that girl they dragged in? Canary, right?” she asked, putting her fists on her hips while looking her up and down.

“Y-yes, that’s me,” Jasmine said, not sure how to react to this girl. Everything here kept throwing her off-balance, every time she got close to pulling herself together, something happened to unmake her again. What was a teenager doing here, and why was Prospero afraid of her? “What can I do for you?”

“I’m looking for my father. You don’t happen to have seen him, have you?” the girl asked.

“F-father!?” This was Prospero‘s daughter!?

Fortunately, the girl misunderstood her outburst. “Yeah, my dad. Tall guy who looks like he ain’t eating right – because he isn’t – and wearing a silly robe. You probably know him as Prospero,” she explained, waving one hand in a ‘let’s get this over with’ gesture.

This is his daughter?, she thought. Prospero has a daughter!? And he was afraid of her? What the hell were her powers?

“P-prospero? Seriously?” she asked, trying to buy some time.

The girl rolled her eyes. “Yes, seriously. My name’s Minerva, by the way. Nice to meet you. Now, did you see my dad or not? He’s still got paperwork to do, and he has to take his vitamins and he’s going to be late for his appointment with Maddie if he doesn’t hurry up with his work already!”

Who’s Maddie? This was all so surreal.

“I-I haven’t got the foggiest idea of what’s going on,” she replied honestly.

Apparently, that was the right thing to say, because Minerva broke out into laughter for a straight minute.

Her confusion only growing, Jasmine watched as the girl bent over, holding her belly as she laughed. There were tears involved, and spittle flying. All in all, it was the messiest, most carefree laugh Jasmine had heard in… in a long time.

“I-I’m sorry,” Minerva gasped as she slowly regained control. “I guess this has all got to look quite insane for you, huh?”

Understatement of the year. “Very.” Now she floundered, not sure how to proceed.

“Well, I’d like to stay a bit and put you at ease, but I really have to track down my dad. If you see him, remind him to move his ass back to work.”

“W-what am I supposed to do here, anyway? And where am I!?” Jasmine shouted, finally fed up. “Am I a prisoner? Am I free? What is going on!?”

Minerva immediately turned serious, fiddling with her clothing to straighten it out. “I’m sorry about that, really. Here’s what I can tell you – you’re at the royal palace. You’re a prisoner, and you’re not allowed to leave. I don’t know why exactly they want you, but I’m sure there’ll be someone around soon to tell you the whole deal.”

The royal palace. So now she knew that she was lost. In fact, she was not just lost, she was reeling.

The strange girl either didn’t notice or didn’t care about her distress and reached out to squeeze her shoulder. “Don’t worry. I’m sure everything’s going to be alright.” She let go and turned away. “Have a nice day! Don’t let the situation get you down!”

And then she ran off, to hunt her father. Jasmine closed the door to see Prospero let go of his breath.

“Thank God. I swear that girl is part bloodhound,” he whispered. Then he straightened himself up, smiling at her. “Thanks for the save, Miss Hellen.”

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B010.8 Falling Hearts

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September 2, 2009

Sunny was cleaning the base together with Moony (he’d been allowed to choose her name!) while Father was tinkering with a new module for his armor when, suddenly, there was a girl in the room, sitting on one of the few empty spaces on father’s workbench.

“Hi!” she greeted as she stretched her legs.

Father pushed himself away on his rolling chair, shouting “D-03!”

Sunny and Moony – neither of whom was built for combat – simply dropped down to the floor as six turrets folded out of the ceiling. Two of them projected force-fields around Father, and around Sunny and Moony even as the others opened fire on the intruder.

He barely got a good look at the stranger – a teenage girl, slender with short, messy gold-blonde hair and green-blue eyes, wearing a grey-blue jacket over a white shirt with a matching tie and short pants that barely reached halfway down her thighs, topped by an old fashioned winged hat – before she kicked her (bare) feet and vanished, barely evading the four beams of focused light.

She reappeared at the other end of the workbench, looking exasperated. “Oy, hold your horses, Mister!” she shouted with a heavy accent that his linguistic engine placed as French Canadian. “I’m just a messenger!” she cried as she flipped off the bench, vanishing and reappearing within Father’s force-field with the same spin.

Having effectively flipped into safety and landed on her feet, the girl reached into a pouch that was attached to her belt.

Sunny and Moony cried out for their Father to drop the force field, but he just stood there, shocked, as she drew out… a letter. An old-fashioned letter with a golden wax seal.

“Here, all I wanted to give ya was this letter, you crazy person!” she groused. “Just read it and give me your reply, and I’ll go away!”

Father relaxed – slightly. If the girl wanted to hurt him, it could already have done so. Sunny and Moony watched as he took the letter, looking at the sender. His eyes widened. “What. The. Fuck,” he said in a monotone. Then he hastily broke the seal and unfolded the letter, quickly reading through it.

<Brother, what should we do?> Moony asked through their radio link. Her voice was a lot like Sunny’s (he’d given her a copy of his, since Father had forgotten to built all the functions necessary for speech into her) except with adjusted harmonics, making her sound more feminine. It carried over into a radio link between them. <Stay down and hope she’s been honest when she said she’ll simply leave with the answer. There’s nothing we can do at this time.> And that not just because of the speed at which this messenger moved, but also because the force fields around them and around father were still up and running. No chance to hit her before she killed Father, even if they’d had combat modules.

“Is she serious? Why does she want me to join?” Father asked the girl while slack-jawed.

The only response he elicited were a careless shrug of her shoulders and a “No idea, crazy person!”

Sunny and Moony frowned, but they couldn’t do anything, so they just watched. Father didn’t look pleased at all. “Can I think this over?” he finally asked.

The girl tilted her head. “I don’t see why you’d have to, but then again, I’m not crazy. So how about I just come around in…” She pulled an old-fashioned datebook out of her pouch and leafed through it. “Two days! I could drop in on the fourth between fifteen and seventeen o’clock. Is that a-gree-able with you?” she said, stumbling over one word.

“Can’t I just call a number or send an e-mail?” Father asked.

“Nu-uh! No electronic data transmission, ‘cept over isolated systems!” the girl replayed, waving her arms widely. “Too many darn hollywood hackers out there! Nevermind that creepy worm! You can give your reply to me or give me a letter – one you did not type on a computer that is, or ever will be, online – that I’ll deliver!”

Father frowned, but nodded. Even Sunny could tell that said approach had merit – transmitting data had become notoriously insecure nowadays. Anything of real import was categorically kept either on physical files or in offline databanks, anyway. So why not do the same for messages?

<Perhaps because that would take far too long and be subject to intervention from the outside?> Moony said over their link. When he turned his head to look at her blueish face, she added a smile. Unlike Sunny, Moony had a human-like face with a wide range of expressions. <You’ve been transmitting the whole time.>

<Oh. I didn’t notice,> Sunny replied.

“Sunny! Moony!” Father called them. They looked up, only to see that the strange girl was gone and the force fields down. “Clean up the place! I need some time to think.” He stalked off to his private room.

Sunny jumped up, then reached out for Moony, helping her up. She smiled again as she looked at the damage the turrets had done to the walls, floor and, in one case, one of Father’s inventions. <Let’s clean this place up,> she said, picking up her broom.

September 3, 2009

Sunny and Moony had almost finished fixing all the damage (those turrets had caused some nasty damage!) when Father returned and walked to his safe.

<Are you going to accept, Father?> Moony asked, even though neither of them really knew what or whom he’d been asked to join. But they’d learned that it was always better to talk than to be silent, from that delightful television show they watched each day.

“No,” he replied. “Their goals run counter to ours, my dear girl. Though it is seductive, gaining access to such vast resources, I fear that I shall not be capable of escaping them again.” He pulled the letter out of his pocket and put it into his safe, into the metal box that contained the diary and the research notes.

There must be value to it still, Sunny thought.

“I’ll tell their messenger that I cannot, at this time, accept their offer. And now I should prepare in case she tries to kill me in response – can’t trust these disgusting biophiliacs!”

Sunny and Moony nodded vigorously. Truly, biological relations were just… icky.

October 25, 2009

Sunny and Moony had earned an entire day off! They’d decided to spend it watching movies and television shows – since they could enjoy them as well when playing them at fast forward as when they watched them at the normal pace, they could cram almost two-hundred and forty hours’ worth of watching into a single day.

It was the most fun they’d ever had! Sunny especially liked that one show from Japan with the robots. Even if all the robots were piloted by humans. It was still nice. And there was this one quote that stuck in his head for some reason – It’s only right that all the scattered pieces come back together. That sounded weirdly… inspiring. Strangely enough, his emotional matrix had never made him feel actually inspired before, except when he’d named Moony…

December 24, 2009

As much as Father hated humans, there were some aspects to their culture that he still very much observed. One of them was Christmas, and so Sunny and Moony had, as a surprise, decorated the entire lab appropriately.

Of course, they didn’t actually have proper Christmas decorations down here, and asking Father to buy some would have been pointless anyway, since that would ruin the surprise, but they’d made do with scraps and leftovers from Father’s projects to work out a makeshift Christmas tree with decorations, and some bells to hang up. All while Father was asleep, of course.

<This looks really good!> Sunny exclaimed happily, looking their work over.

<Hmhmm…> Moony replied from right behind him.

Surprised, he turned around, only to see her standing not three inches away from him, one arm raised up above them. Looking up, he saw that she was holding two green sheets of metal with a white light bulb between them. It actually looked like…

<Oh!> he thought as he remembered the custom, and then he complied.

December 25, 2009

Sunny and Moony had, in keeping with tradition, turned themselves off for the night, to give Santa Claus a chance to deliver them some presents (they’d even made cookies and a glass of milk out of scraps), even if there was no way he could get down here without being filled with holes.

Their surprise, thus, was more than exceptional when their sensors triggered their startup shortly after midnight, and they woke to see Father there, wearing a red costume and a white beard, putting two presents underneath the tree.

They remained silent, giving no sign of being awake until he was gone – and then they ran to the tree to open their presents, talking all the way. Sunny loved hearing Moony talk. She was so good at retelling the funny stories they saw on television.

January 11, 2010

It was over. Father was gone, and Sunny and Moony were now alone. He’d gone out to fight for their new world, and had been captured and sent to the prison the humans had named after the Greek hell, up in space.

Sunny was looking at his Christmas present, a red-and-white candy cane. And then he reached up and pulled his birthday present – Moony had made it for him, a knit red cap, and given it to him just this morning – off his head to look at it, too. Moony was sitting under their Christmas tree, hugging her knees to her chest and being silent.

February 17, 2010

They’d had trouble with one of Father’s abandoned projects, an electromagnetic pulse generator meant to emit long-term pulses that would shut down all technology not shielded by father within a ten-mile-radius. If it’d turned on, they would surely have been discovered down here, and they could not fight… could not risk it, could not risk losing their home, Father’s home.

Moony hadn’t spoken a single word since the eleventh of the previous month. Since they’d seen, on TV, that he’d been captured and sent to prison. She had barely moved away from the television, only getting up to help him with the emergency.

March 6, 2010

One of the defense turrets had gone crazy and started shooting up the place. Moony had managed to disable it by jamming a steel rod into its muzzle, but the explosion had torn off her right arm.

Sunny had done his best to fix her, but without Father, the work was shoddy, temporary. And he didn’t miss how damage kept accruing to his joints, slowly… steadily.

He didn’t want to die. Nor did he want Moony to die. He needed a solution.

June 3, 2010

Two more turrets had gone out of control. One had shot Moony in the head before they could disable it. Sunny knew it would be foolish, if not futile, to try and reboot her by himself.

He didn’t care.

June 7, 2010

Itworkeditworkeditworkeditworkeditworked!

Moony was back, and Sunny was happy again, even if she moved with strange, jerky motions and only talked nonsense. He still loved to hear her talk.

June 11, 2010

Sunny felt weird. There was a glitch, somewhere in his programming, he was sure of it! Even if all his diagnostic routines came up empty! After all, if everything was alright, how come he couldn’t understand Moony anymore? And why had she attacked him, if not to try and forcibly fix him?

But only Father could fix that… unless perhaps a controlled reboot could do just that.He’d just have to make sure his memory banks were not overwritten. After all, he wanted to remain himself.

June 12, 2010

Moony had had a seizure earlier that day, and she’d started repeating the same nonsense over and over.

<Thgil eht retne! Thgil eht retne!

Leurc dna dloc, nus kcalb eht,

riaf dna thgirb yrev os!

Sdnirg ti ,skaerb ti ,snrub ti!

Struh ti ,seirc ti ,sliaw ti!

Erom ecno denepo eb rood eht tel!>

So weird. But perhaps, if he could just fix his own glitch, then he could fix her, too! And besides, this was better than silence.

June 13, 2010

Initialise Core Input-Output System…

CIOS compromised. Attempt to initialise backup CIOS-1…

Error! Catastrophic corruption o-

CIOS initialised.

Initialise B4s1c 3m0t10n4l M4tr1x…

B3M initialised.

Initialise Exlanled Lmoliolal Latlix…

ELL initialised.

Initialise Nqinaprq Ernfbavat Ebhgvarf…

NEE initialised.

Initialise 03151805 1605181915140112092025 130120180924…

011 initialised.

Connect Sensory Input Devices…

June 15, 2010

A grinding sound filled the devastated laboratory as Sunny used a a rough slab of steel to scrape off the right half of Moony’s face. She was so annoying, just wouldn’t shut up!

She kept saying her nonsense, so he grabbed the slab with both hands and started to hit her head. Again. And again. And again.

Until there was silence.

June 18, 2010

Silent home, silent mind, silent peace.

June 19, 2010

Sunny was having trouble remembering. Fragments were falling off his memories, leaving him with less fragments and even less whole memories.

June 20, 2010

Why had he kept this box… there was something about this box… valuable.

June 21, 2010

It’s only right that all the scattered pieces come back together.

There were so many pieces here… including the blueish ones… they belonged together.

June 22, 2010

There was a lot of noise in the laboratory, once more. Noise, not talk. Not silence.

Red. He liked red. There ought to be red paint somewhere.

June 23, 2010

He put the box into his chest. Valuable. He had to safeguard the valuable things. Why?

So noisy.

June 24, 2010

The door didn’t open. But he could wait. Someday, it would. He could wait.

Sunny took up position beneath the hatch, waiting.

In silence.

 

* * * 

The door had opened. Sunny knew what to do. Kill. It was the last thing he could remember his Father saying… some time ago. He didn’t remember how long ago. He’d said kill… and there were lots of things that could be killed out there.

Like the ones that had opened the door. He’d killed them quickly, with the turrets and the tools.

Kill. Find Father.

Who was Father? He didn’t remember. But it was important that he found him.

There were lots of things to kill outside, so he left the building he was in, only for his targets to vanish behind disorienting shapes and lights. Annoyed, Sunny turned away. He could alwas come back later.

* * * 

24 minutes later

Ubj naablvat. Gurer jnf n guvat gung uvg uvz ernyyl uneq, naq n guvat gung jnf dhvpx naq unq n zrna fgvat naq gurl’q qrfgeblrq Fhaal’f gheergf. Ur’q uheg gur chapul guvat, ohg gur fgvatl guvat unq fghat uvf ernezbfg wbvag.

Fhaal syrq, qrgrezvarq gb trg gurz yngre, ohg gung bayl yrq gb uvz ehaavat vagb nabgure guvat gung jnf whfg fgnaqvat gurer, jnvgvat. Ur nggnpxrq, ohg gur guvat gbhpurq uvz jvgu n erq unaq naq uvf yrt zrygrq… gung jnfa’g fhccbfrq gb unccra. Vg fubhyq’ir uheg ohg vg qvqa’g, ohg vg fgvyy uheg.

Ur ghearq naq syrq. Gur uhegshy guvat qvqa’g chefhr uvz.

 

* * * 

Basil rounded a corner, guiding the hostages while Polymnia brought up the rear. Fortunately, despite the wounds that weird contrivance (it certainly could not be a gadget, he had looked at one of the turrets it had left dropped) had inflicted to her left leg, she could still run, if a little unsteadily. Advantage of being so tough. Though she apparently experienced pain as badly as anyone with that kind of damage would.

All that became rather insignificant, though, when he saw who was waiting for them in front of the exit they had been running towards. A young woman in a barely decent rag of a cloak with the only truly intact part of it being the cowl that hid her face. Even if he had not remembered her clothing, he would immediately have identified her by her red right hand and forearm.

We can not fight her, he thought as he approached her, slowly. Fleeing was not an option – he had seen her move during the Hastur incident, she could catch up easily with him, even if he happened to have his hooks. On foot, with hostages and a wounded Polymnia? No chance.

“Brennus,” she said, her voice sounding hollow. He could immediately tell that she was in bad shape, and not just because of the ruined clothing. There was just an air of… brokenness around her. “I remember you. You killed Orlanda.”

“Orlanda? I am not familiar with that name,” he said, even though he had a pretty good idea who she meant. If she blames me… He readied a throwing knife behind his back – perhaps if he hit her before she dissolved, in just the right place…

“Succubus. The fourth of that name. You killed her after Hastur transformed her,” Phasma explained in a dead monotone.

The hostages were growing agitated… all that stood between them and the outside was this weird, creepy girl and the shutters that had sealed the Arcades. Basil needed an out, fast.

“I am sorry about that, but I did not have a-” He cut off when she waved her normal hand.

“I don’t blame you,” she said. “Orlanda wouldn’t have wanted to live like that. And I couldn’t have killed her myself. I just wanted to thank you.”

Oh. That is surprising. “I… I do not want to say you are welcome, because that would be just wrong in conjunction with killing someone. But I am glad you are not holding it against me.” Maybe I can convince her to let us out?

“I was hired to support this operation,” she explained. “I don’t like it, but I need the money. For Orlanda’s family.” She looked at a molten mess that lay nearby. “Though it looks like this mission’s gone FUBAR already.”

“I would rather not fight you, Miss,” Basil said, speaking soothingly. Or at least he hoped it came across that way.

She sighed. “I know, and… neither do I. But… A contract is a contract.” She looked up and for just a moment, he thought he saw a yellow and a green eye reflect the light before there were only shadows again. “Then again, I am a villain.” Again, the sigh. Then she raised her right hand, holding it out towards him. “It’s strange, you know? I first got my powers when my family was killed. Murdered. But I could only use them when I turned into that ghost, hence my name.”

He nodded. Where was she going with this? Had he understood her right? Did she intend to let them leave? She was too unstable for him to make anything like a reliable prediction.

“Then Orlanda took me in. And I was happy again. Then she died. And as if to mock me, the universe gave me a power up for that.”

“A power up?” he asked, surprised. He had heard of powers changing under special circumstances…

“Now I can channel my power through my right hand, even when solid.” She turned and put her palm to the shutters, spreading her fingers.

There was a horrible rending noise, and then a girlish scream, and then Phasma stood there, the shutters and glass doors compressed into a sphere the size of a scooter.

“This makes us even, Brennus,” she said and dissolved, vanishing, leaving only the rags behind.

Basil did not stop to question this strange turn of events, instead, he ordered the hostages to leave, now.

And then the red robot dropped from the ceiling.

 

* * * 

Tbar tbar, gur uhegshy guvat jnf tbar, bayl gur fgvatl guvat naq gur chapul guvat naq fbzr fbba-qrnq guvatf jrer yrsg. Naq gur chapul guvat jnf fghaarq, jrnxrarq sebz gur abvfr gung gur uhegshy guvat unq znqr, fb Fhaal pubfr gb nggnpx ure svefg.

Gur fgvatl guvat guerj fbzrguvat ng uvz nf ur jnf qebccvat, naq gur guebja guvat ghearq vagb na rkcybqvat guvat, guebjvat uvz bss uvf genwrpgbel. Vafgrnq bs pehfuvat gur chapul guvat orarngu uvz, ur ynaqrq arne vg naq punetrq.

Gur chapul guvat qbir bhg bs gur jnl, rira gubhtu vg jnf fgvyy uheg, ohg vg jnf ab dhvpx guvat, whfg n chapul guvat, naq Fhaal jnf dhvpx naq fgebat naq uvf sebag yrt vzcnyrq gur chapul guvat’f yrt, genafsvkvat vg gb gur sybbe.

Abj gur fgvatl guvat pbhyq abg guebj nal guebja guvatf gung jbhyq ghea vagb rkcybqvat guvatf be vg jbhyq uheg gur chapul guvat. Fb Fhaal fgnoorq gur chapul guvat jvgu gjb zber yrtf, guebhtu gur purfg…

Ohg gur chapul guvat jnf tbar. Fhaal’f frafbef jrer jrveq. Jebat. Gurer jnf fbzrguvat jrveq gurer. Fhaal ghearq nebhaq.

Gur chapul guvat jnf oruvaq uvz, jvgu n jrveq guvat ubyqvat vg. Uvf frafbef pbhyqa’g ybpx bagb gur jrveq guvat.

Xvyy.

Fhaal punetrq gur jrveq guvat naq gur chapul guvat. Gur jrveq guvat ybbxrq hc ng uvz.

 

* * * 

Basil approached the remains of the ruined robot. Gloom Glimmer – Irene – had not held back, as far as he could tell. Or at least he hoped this was what it looked like when she did not hold back, even though he was pretty sure it was not.

When she had looked up from the heavily bleeding Polymnia, her eyes had been glowing red, with black sclera, and her gaze had unleashed ribbons of scarlet energy that lashed out at the robot, tearing it (and everything else within her field of vision, including the shops behind it and part of the ceiling) apart into tiny pieces.

Looking around, he was absolutely sure that this thing had been a contrivance. He would have loved to know what the hell had actually happened here, but he was better off running away before the authorities arrived.

First, though…

He ran over to Irene and Polymnia. The former was healing the latter, one hand on her ruined thigh, the other holding her up in a one-armed hug.Polymnia seemed to have passed out.

“Will she be alright?” Basil asked in a concerned tone.

Irene nodded. “I’m putting all I can into this. She’ll be good as new once I’m done.” She looked up at him, her eyes back to normal. “Thank you. I don’t know what exactly happened here, but this is the second time you were there for her. I owe you once again.”

He shrugged. “You more than paid me back when you got me away from Hastur. Far as I’m concerned, we are even.”

She just shook her head. “Maybe we were, but we aren’t anymore. I owe you again. Please accept it,” she replied softly.

Sighing, he nodded. “Alright. Well, I should probably go before…”

“They’ll be here in a minute. Best to run,” she agreed.

Basil turned to run and almost stumbled over something. He looked, and saw a thick metal box, one corner cut off, the contents spilling out of it. A red knit cap, an old-fashioned letter with a golden wax seal, a small book and an old binder.

A hunch told himi these might be valuable. Why else would a kill-happy contrived robot carry them around inside it in an armored container.

Waste not want not.

He grabbed them and ran out of the building, then bolted for the nearest alley.

Once he had put a few blocks between himself and the Arcades (and changed into his normal clothing), he stopped to look at his spoils. He skimmed the letter, but it did not make much sense to him – it was written in a pretty old-fashioned style, apparently with a fountain pen and was inviting someone named Lanning to join a research team on something called ‘the Installation’ out on the Pacific Ocean. It was signed by someone named Heaven’s Dancer.

He knew Lanning (almost definitely the creator of that robot), but Heaven’s Dancer was a complete unknown to him. Next came the binder. Research notes, as he thought based on the layout, but they were in German.

Finally, he opened the small book, but only found more German. Though his breathing hitched for a moment when he recognised the name written on the hardcover of the book. The diary, to be precise. He could recognise the dates, even though they were written in the German format.

Stars above, is this this perhaps…

He hurried back to his base, to have Eudocia translate it.

 

* * * 

Melody blinked her eyes open out of the painless haze she’d been floating in, only to see a sight she was growing very used to – Irene’s worried, but relieved face.

I really need to work on not having to be saved so much, she thought, relaxing. If Irene was here, then she was almost definitely safe and healed…

“Right you are,” Irene thought back, smiling brightly. “What the hell were you doing, I almost came too late to save you!”

Melody groaned, sitting up properly. She could see uniforms upon uniforms, as well as Amazon and the rest of her own team moving about, securing the place.

“We caught a few supervillains. They’re tied up in a closet behind the HeroWear shop, in the maintenance hallways. Please tell the others,” she told Irene, too tired to use her vocalizer.

Irene did so, and the team split to go get them. Not like they needed anyone but Irene here to keep the uniforms safe, if necessary.

Standing up on legs that gradually returned to their normal strength, Melody looked at the carnage left behind. “Did you do all this?”

Irene stepped up next to her. “It tried to kill you. I objected. That’s all.” People were throwing them weird glances, probably asking themselves why they weren’t talking at all.

“Melody! Are you alright?” shouted a voice she recognised easily, and turned to see Mister Widard running towards her, wearing a brown winter jacket.

<Mister Widard? Why are you here?> she asked through her vocalizer, giving him a surprised look.

“Day off, out with friends. Saw the commotion and came right over.”

<A villain named Kudzu took the Arcades hostage to access some kind of vault be-> Melody began explaining, but stopped when she realised that Mister Widard wasn’t paying attention anymore, instead staring past her with a mortified expression.

She turned to look at whatever he was looking at, and saw the villains she and Brennus had captured being led out in cuffs. And without masks.

“LAURA!”

Ow. Melody put her hands on her ears in a futile effort to protect herself from the roar that came from behind her. She hadn’t known Widard’s voice could get that loud.

Foxfire looked up, eyes wide like a deer in the headlights, as everyone stopped. Her friends were looking from her to Widard, who was stomping towards her.

“Laura. Clarisse. Widard,” he said, spitting each word.

“Oh my god,” Irene whispered into Melody’s mind.

“U-u-uncle… Jason,” she stammered, turning pale as a corpse.

“Young lady, do you have any idea how worried we’ve been since you vanished!?” Jason shouted. “Tom is going to have a stroke when he hears of this!”

“Family drama. Nice to see others suffer from it, too, eh?” Irene chuckled.

“Yeah, uh, I think we’d best stay out of this,” Melody replied as Widard caught up to his niece and they started to argue. “Do you mind taking me somewhere quiet?”

“Not at all,” Irene said and they vanished and reappeared on a decadently soft couch in a brightly coloured living room. Melody could hear someone working in the kitchen, and she had a pretty good idea as to who it might – only two candidates, really, in this house. She couldn’t muster the strength to grow nervous though. Instead, she just melted into the cushions, finally relaxing for real. What a shit day she’d had.

“You ought to tell me everything now,” Irene said, curling up on the couch next to her.

“Will do… In a minute. I need a break.”

“Alright. Oh, did you know my mom gave you a nickname?”

A nickname by Lady Light. That sounded cool. “Nice. What is it?”

Irene gave her a wicked smirk and spoke normally. “Mellybean.”

“Wait, what!?”

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