Brennus Files 09: Gadgeteering

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Gadgeteering. Basil’s bread and butter. Obviously, there should be some definition of it. How does it work? How far can it go? Why isn’t everyone using Gadgets? Or at least all the superheroes?

We won’t be going into Basil’s Gadgeteering in particular, because that’d be spoileriffic. Instead, I will explain the basics of Gadgeteering by using one of my favourite characters as an example. Be very afraid.

I call him Smileyboy.

First, becoming a Gadgeteer has nothing to do with being technically inclined, or being a smart person or interested in science. Nor does it come with an enhanced understanding of science or technology. A Gadgeteer may have secondary abilities that cover that, but being a Gadgeteer does not require understanding.

Smileyboy’s real name is Jory. Jory was never a very smart boy. Most of the time, he was (and still is) quite dense. He sometimes has trouble tying his shoelaces. TV remotes just confused him, especially if they had blinking lights. Jory doesn’t know how to get bored. He could just sit around, staring into space and doing nothing for hours on end.

Then Jory had a very bad day, and Jory manifested some heavy duty Gadgeteering. This did not make him any smarter. TV remotes are still a mystery to him.

All Gadgeteers have a theme, a field in which they work best. This can be something as specific as Covert Communication Systems, or something as wide open as sonics, man-machine integration, multi-purpose vehicles or, at the high end of the scale, High-Energy Systems, autonomous Systems and Communication. No, Basil’s speciality is not among these.

Jory’s power falls into a middle point of Gadgeteering – it’s both very advanced and very versatile, but not excessively so. Specifically, he specialises in High-Mobility Power Armor. His power is unusually versatile, and can also provide him with weapon systems that fit this theme, though they are never as advanced as the core systems he specialises in.

Next, Gadgeteers don’t actually invent their work themselves – their power does. No understanding required (or even possible, in some cases). Many a Gadgeteer spends their life building Gadgets they do not actually understand at all – they just get a basic idea of how they work and can describe that (sometimes), but it doesn’t (usually) give them a deep understanding. They are more channels through which their power works (think of Gadgeteering as something akin to the classic concept of Divine Inspiration). Usually, the power works off of random impressions and impulses, using them as seeds from which it grows a new invention.

Jory is stuck in a scrapyard. His legs are broken and his throat has been damaged. Not so much that he’ll be crippled for life, but he can neither leave on his own, nor call for help. As he lies there, in the burning sun, he notices a discarded toy – an old robot, cheaply made but still mostly intact save for its missing legs. Jory reaches out and starts to play with the robot. His power takes in the impression of the armored fighter, the movement of the joints, the tools he can reach, improvise or fabricate, the heat of the sun, and gets to work.

Despite what many may think, the average Gadgeteer has surprisingly little control over what they actually end up creating. They can guide their power, focus on specific ideas and needs, but ultimately, they have to work with what they get (to varying degrees). Some, like Melody, have a very high control over what they work on, and can focus their power on specific projects without much trouble. Others, though…

Jory has little to no control over his power. In fact, his power would become less reliable the more he’d try to control it – it works at its best when he simply lets it run its course, working with whatever he gets. Fortunately for him, Jory’s lack of scientific knowledge and rather airheaded attitude mean that he’d be barely capable of guiding it anyway, so he achieves a very high level of synchronisation with his power without even trying.

Once the power gets going, it draws on various (unknown) sources of information, recombining elements from those sources, ideas from the Gadgeteer’s mind and observations of their surroundings, creating a design. Then, the design is passed onto the Gadgeteer. Even if the Gadgeteer has no technical skill of their own, their power can compensate for that, but only for the sake of constructing, maintaining and operating their gadgets.

Jory used to have trouble operating a television via remote. In fact, he still has. But as soon as he gets into his suit, he just knows how to do it. He knows every inch of it, every button and every control stick. He might lack actual practice, but he knows the theory on an instinctual level that allows him to operate his power armor on an acceptable level right off the bat. Better later on, once he gets some practice in. Just don’t ask him to actually teach someone else to do it right.

This lack of innate understanding, coupled with their mostly instinctive approach to construction and operation, makes it more than a little difficult to replicate a gadgeteer’s work. Furthermore, the ‘blueprints’ they write down (if they write them down at all – some record sounds, or fashion three-dimensional models, or just plain don’t make blueprints at all) are rarely actually usable as blueprints for anyone but them – they are meant more to remind their power of the gadget in question (essentially, they record a coded version of the impulses that led to the invention of said gadget, which then replicates the same process in their power), so that it can be reconstructed.

Jory’s first invention can barely be called power armor. It has two rusty-looking legs (built out of all kinds of scrap found, mostly car parts) that end in wheels (scavenged from a dirt bike) instead of feet. Its chest is actually a cockpit with an armored front (controls cobbled together from car electronics that weren’t scavenged yet, a few radios and an old television; the armor is made of two thick black car doors, reinforced by a few sheets of steel that he found lying around). Since his legs are broken, Jory couldn’t properly operate a normal power armor, anyway. This one allows him to strap himself in the back (seatbelts from cars and the saddle of the dirtbike), while providing some additional armor to protect his legs from frontal attacks (white, made out of a fridge, actually). His back is exposed, but he has neither the time, nor the material to really fix that right now. He does have a camera built into the ‘head’ of the armor (which is actually a decoy made out of a microwave – his head is hidden behind the chest area, where the armor is at its thickest), feeding into a screen in front of his eyes. He can slide the screen down and open a simple slit to look through, in case the cranial camera is disabled.

Furthermore his armor is already armed for combat. It has a crude shield (reinforced fridge door) on its left arm (built out of the same scrap he used for the legs, which can rotate to protect about fifty percent of his back at a time, when necessary, and provide additional protection from the front. The right arm extends into a lance (axis of a car, reinforced with welded sheets of metal scavenged from a few pick up trucks) with a built-in concussive missile (car pistons and a few other parts, mainly from said cars), which would fire off the outer layer of the lance with enough force to penetrate a concrete wall.

The whole product is powered with solar energy, to which Jory’s power was inspired by the blistering heat of the sun that was tormenting him. The panels and batteries are handcrafted, and took about as much time to get right as the rest of the armor put together. They fold out of the shoulders, usually hidden behind them, and it takes a while for the armor to charge to full capacity – afterwards, they can be opened to recharge even while operating it, but that is too risky to do in combat, as he can’t armor the panels themselves.

Some gadgeteers have an amazing construction speed, often to the point where they are given a secondary perception or manipulation rating. This often comes with trade-offs, though.

The entire project took Jory about eleven hours to complete – it’s night by the time he finishes, and he’ll have to wait until morning to charge his batteries. Unfortunately, the whole thing really is just a jury-rig, and probably won’t last for long.

As a final touch before he goes to sleep, Jory paints a smiley face on the front of the armor, out of a childish desire not to leave it blank. He then goes to sleep in a car whose heating he fixed haphazardly for the night. Next morning, he’ll take his armor for a ride, and go after the jerks who hurt him and dumped him in a scrapyard.

They’re going to regret it. A lot.

***

Now, this is all well and good, but why can’t Jory just let someone else operate his armor, instead of risking life and limb on the frontlines? Sure, in the beginning, he wants revenge and he doesn’t have anyone to entrust it to, anyway. But later on he’ll have a support structure, access to professional pilots and other heroes who might benefit more from having power armor to complement their powers than from having one more teammate on the frontlines.

The answer is manifold:

  1. Jory really can’t explain how to properly maintain or operate his inventions. Anyone who took possession of it would have to at least figure the latter out on their own, and they’d always be lacking compared to him, as his power only provides custom-made controls. Furthermore, many aspects of the operation are, simply put, up to the power. Only because someone can physically operate the controls, doesn’t mean that they are mentally equipped to. Jory’s armors may require a peculiar sense of balance to properly operate, or an instinctive grasp of gravity interaction, none of which he can pass onto other pilots. Even if they figure the controls out, they’d never be able to be as good at it as he is. The same goes for maintenance.
  2. He is, partly due to his power and partly due to his personality, rather possessive about his creations, and doesn’t like handing them off in the first place.
  3. In order to actually improve on his work, Jory needs as much input on it as possible. Watching it on video is a poor substitute for actually being in the field with it, seeing, hearing, feeling and even smelling it in action. Even where he to do that, his power wouldn’t work as well as if he was piloting it himself, feeling the pressure it puts on his body, the delay from giving a command and it being carried out, the issues with balancing on rough ground or navigating tight corners. All that is additional information his power can use to make improvements, information he’d plainly lack if he stayed in the lab. Even if someone could achieve the same level of detail in their reports as he can get firsthand, it still wouldn’t feed his power half as well as the real thing. His progress would be greatly stifled in any case.

Gadgeteers deal heavily in information, even if they may not do so consciously. Getting input on their work helps them immensely in improving and expanding it, which is why they are so prone to delve into long-winded explanations or detailed discussions of their work, especially with other gadgeteers – the short time Basil spent talking shop with Melody, when they were preparing for the fight against Hastur, was more fruitful for him/his power than the last two months of lab work put together – and that’s before they heterodyned their powers and created a weapon that can level a building in one shot, from scratch.

The same issues hold true for almost all gadgeteers there are. Some can circumvent parts of it – there are gadgeteers who are more suited to lab work, rather than active duty, and then there are all the non-combat gadgeteers, whose gadgeteering has no combat application in the first place. But, as a rule of thumb, if a gadgeteer mainly works with combat technology, then they’re best off actually using it themselves, in order for their power to work properly.

Some gadgeteers might be better off in their labs, but those like Basil, Melody, Tin Can, Hotrod or Warren are better off in the field, using their inventions themselves.

***

Now, lastly, a few samples of various Gadgeteers to put all this information into perspective:

  • Smileyboy (Jory)
    • Specialises in high-mobility power armor. Mentally handicapped, which his power compensates for where his gadgets are concerned. He can work incredibly fast, but shortens the lifespan of his work to do so – for every percentage he shaves off his ‘standard’ construction speed, the lifespan of his gadget is reduced by half as much. His standard construction speed depends on his current mood, available material, equipment, workspace and motivation.
  • Pollepel (Hannah Wenderman)
    • Dutch cooking gadgeteer, currently employed at the New Lennston UH HQ. She specialises in creating meals of all kinds, and the equipment needed to make those meals. The need for input causes her to moonlight as a participant or technician for cooking shows, so as to further improve both her recipies and her equipment.
  • Armitage (Jean Fries)
    • Counter-Cyber-warfare specialist. Writes sophisticated protective programs, with a secondary specialisation in computer equipment. He works for the American government, specifically to defend the stock exchange from cyber attacks, spending most of his waking time holding the fort, while a small army of beleaguered assistants support him (mostly by providing a steady supply of coffee and snacks).
  • I<3U (real name unknown)
    • Mysterious cyber-warfare specialist. Used to hack various companies and offices to steal funds or just prove her mettle, but lately she’s been focused on a private war against Armitage, whom she considers her archenemy. The two of them are nearly constantly at odds, not-so-incidentily supporting each other in continuously refining their programming.
  • Dory (Nikos Pavlopulous)
    • Greek gadgeteer. He only has a single creation – a high-tech spear that he is constantly working on, making incredible improvements and pushing the boundaries of technology, as well as the boundaries of space in how he manages to cram an insane amount of equipment into his spear. His power cannot work on anything but the spear, and so he has to make do with mundane body armor to provide protection.
  • Armory III (Molly Hastings)
    • Canadian gadgeteer and member of the Drakainas. Non-combatant. Her power focuses on futuristic military equipment (laser guns, reactive body armor, jetpacks…), but she has a mental block that prevents her from using any of her creations herself – she only ever makes equipment for other people. This does not mean that her work is easily reproduced, at all – she still has to make everything by hand, she just can’t use it herself.
  • Sovereign (real name unknown)
    • Possibly the most powerful living gadgeteer – or at least in the top three – and ruler of Central Africa. When he first appeared, it was believed that he specialised in creating combat drones, but he soon turned out to have the incredibly broad specialisation of autonomous systems. He seems to mostly work with military equipment – combat drones, artillery and the factories to produce said gadgets en masse – but has at least some ability in almost any field he has, so far, tried his hand in – he has created automated mining assemblies, autonomous farms, airports, public transport… there is a good reason why GAIN is considered the most advanced nation on Earth, and that reason is its ruler Sovereign. Despite his speciality lying in autonomy, actual AI seems to elude him. Furthermore, his most advanced work still requires his personal attention – such as his dreaded Subjugators, each of which is considered a challenge for the average combat team of metahumans.
  • Su Lin
    • The highest-rated Gadgeteer of all time, Su Lin’s speciality was never determined conclusively, as she died before thorough testing could be performed, but she was tentatively classified as a High Energy specialist, as all her gadgets were of rather… impressive scope and energy consumption. She’d developed a force field generator that was supposed to protect an entire city, an energy-canon that burned a visible furrow into the moon and was supposed to be working on a teleporter before her death. Unfortunately, both Su Lin and all her work were lost during the Viridescent Dawn incident.

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B011.12 Monkey Family

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“You know, I always thought it was freaky how you could just pretend to be someone else at a moment’s notice,” Warren spoke through his armor, as we were making our way down into the Undercity. He’d been forced to hunch over and contort his armor in order to get it into the former shop, and now he was bent over, using the large wheels on its ankles and a set of smaller wheels that folded out of its elbows (with its arms bent until they were forming a V) to roll down the tunnel. “But that was just wrong. Has he always been like that?”

I nodded. We could afford to talk, as my father had gone off through the wall to scout the Undercity, connect to Wyrm, do whatever to locate the Ascendant’s base of operations (or at least his current location). So I felt safe in talking openly – though I was keeping my monkey skin up in its entirety, walking on my knuckles to match Warren, trusting my superior senses to alert me to any trouble. “Always, since mother died. I once saw him go through twenty-seven personalities in a little over an hour, while we were going from shop to shop to strike up conversations.”

“God,” he just said, emphatically. There wasn’t really much else to say. After a minute or so of silence, he spoke up again. “Where are we going, anyway?”

“We’re pretty close to the lair of a guy I met recently. His name’s Malphas, in case that means anything to you,” I replied.

“Malphas… yeah, I’ve heard some of him. Some kind of charity cape. Takes care of the homeless. Or at least some of them,” he said. “He got some fame for taking down the local Alpha chapter.” The armor’s head swerved around to look at me. “You know the guy? Is he really a preteen? Rumors say so.”

It took me a moment to reply, since I was digesting that tidbit of information – the Alphas were a big gang, and the Chicago chapter had been their original one. Taking them down was… more than just merely impressive (I’d had my fair bit of trouble with them, back in the day). “I’m not sure whether he’s a preteen – I thought he might already be into his voice change, but I might’ve been wrong due to his armor – but he’s most certainly very young. No more than fourteen, I’d say, less is likely.”

“And why’re we going to meet him?”

“Because he’s powerful, and he has a stake in this – two of his tenants are very probable targets of the Ascendant’s people. And besides, his tenements are at a pretty good spot to work from, once the Rhino gets back with some information.”

“Alright. Oh, before I forget it, take one of these,” he said, a hatch on the side of his armor opening. Curious, I reached in and pulled out an earpiece with a flat penny-shaped disc sticking to it out.. “So we’ll be able to talk,” he explained. “There’s a throat microphone attached to it.”

I nodded, pulling the throatpiece off the earpiece, and put them where they belonged, doing a quick check as well.

We went on in silence, for a while. The Undercity had only become more labyrinthine since back in my youth, and even the two of us together had to take care not to get lost.

I wasn’t sure what Warren was thinking about, but I myself was mostly busy placating the monkey. It was seriously pissed, and I could feel the telltale pressure behind my eyes that I usually felt when it was trying to take over. Calling my father in, not fighting him, not charging in to kill the Ascendant and everyone even remotely cooperating with him. Not punishing Volca and Lag for their transgressions had pissed it off, not punishing Sara, not…

Well, the monkey always had its reasons to be angry, no matter what I did or didn’t do. I’d just have to pacify it once I got my hands on the Ascendant… neither it nor I would have any objections to what I was going to do to him, nor would anyone else I suspected…

The ringing sound of my cellphone made me jump, and I pawed for it in surprise. Not used to having a cellphone, I didn’t get it, as it was beneath my monkey skin. I had to stop, reach through it and carefully pull the phone out with my real hand, the monkey’s flesh and fur vanishing like a dream.

I checked the caller ID (I could still remember a time before there was such a thing as caller IDs), but it was an unknown number – no surprise there, I only had Warren and Elouise in my contact list.

“Hello?” I asked. Not the smoothest opening, line, but I was in a hurry.

“Hello,” said a young female voice back, and it took me a moment to place it – Camille. “It’s me, Camille. Hennessy is with me, too.”

Oh. Of course, I thought, chiding myself for the momentary surprise I felt at being called by her. Of course someone other than Hennessy would have to call me for her. “Hello, Camille. Hello, Hennessy.” I assumed she was listening in. “What can I do for you two?” I noticed Warren’s suit’s head swerving around to look at me.

“Look, we, ah…” she began, but stopped. She seemed uncomfortable. “We were talking, and… Tamara kind of… spilled the beans. On what she asked you to do.”

Ah. “I see.” Don’t confirm or deny. She might be fishing for information. And that though, right there, showed how paranoid I got when my father was around. “You want to talk about that?” If they want to get at him personally, they’ll be mighty disappointed, I thought quietly to myself. There was no chance in heaven or hell that I’d let Hennessy anywhere near the guy, ever again.

“Yes, we… we talked it over, Hennessy and me,” she said carefully. Something wasn’t right. She didn’t sound angry at all, nor eager. “And we want you to stop.”

I did stop, standing still. What? “You don’t want me to go after him anymore?” No way, dear. He’s going down, today.

“No no, not that,” she replied, now more agitated. Once again, I noticed that her voice really was extraordinarily pleasant to listen to. “He’s a criminal, and a monster, and he has to be stopped.”

“I don’t see the problem then. I most certainly am going to stop him. Hard.”

“I said he has to be stopped. I never said he has to die,” she countered, and her voice became harder. “I… we want you to bring him in. Alive. So he can stand trial.”

“He deserves to die, Camille. For what he did to you, to Hennessy, to everyone he’s harmed,” I replied. “It is only just that he suffer for his sins.” As we all do.

“There’s a difference between justice and vengeance. Please, do it for us. We don’t… we don’t want anyone to die on our account,” she said, voice faltering towards the end. “And if you hurt or kill him now, you’d be doing it for us. For Hennessy. She doesn’t need that on her conscience.”

She was making it very hard for me to object. “Does Hennessy agree with that?” I really, really wanted a reason to object.

“She didn’t, but… we talked, and she’s agreed with me. The Ascendant has to be punished, but he has to be punished right, or we won’t be better than him. We don’t ask you to risk your life just to bring him in alive – but if it’s possible, and not suicidal, then please, don’t kill him. Bring him in to face justice.”

I can see what father meant. I resumed my walk, taking a deep breath with the first step. “Alright.”

“Alright? Just like that?” she asked, surprised.

“Yes, just like that,” I said, a smile tugging at my lips. “What did you expect, that I declare my hatred is too great to be contained?”

“Kinda? I mean, with your dad’s rep…” She was back to sounding insecure. Careful. “I mean, there was this whole thing with him going after people who… who hurt his family.”

She’s afraid of saying the wrong thing. I’d misjudged this girl a great deal. “I am not my father,” I said lightly. “And besides, that wasn’t him, actually. He just took the blame to protect the actual culprit.”

“Oh. That’s… unexpected,” she replied. There was a pause, as if she was quietly talking – or perhaps communicating in another way – to someone. “Who did kill that mob?”

“I did,” I said, pushing down the sudden surge of rage from the monkey. “They killed my mother. I was there. I manifested and killed them back. Father came in too late to do anything other than whisk me away and destroy the evidence.”

Oh,” she said, quietly. “I… uh…”

Great conversation killer, Aap. “That’s in the past now,” I said. “Look, I have to hang up – but I hear you. Both of you. I’ll do my best to bring him in alive and able to stand trial.”

“Alright. Thank you, uh… I don’t actually know how I should call you. Aaron Goldschmidt, I guess?”

I chuckled. “No, my parents never married. My birth name is Aaron Alexandrou. I guess I’ll go back to using it.” Mother would have liked that.

“I see. Well, thank you, Aaron. And… be safe, I guess.”

“You’re very welcome, both of you. I’ll see you soon.” She hung up, and Warren and I continued our way to the tenements.

***

The tenements were under attack.

We’d heard the noise of battle long before we actually reached the old sewage plant, and we’d both hauled ass (Warren’s armor was fast, and it actually cornered better than I did at top speed), but by the time we got there, the fight was already well under way.

Civilians ran by us, forcing us to dodge (I ran along the wall on all fours, while Warren drove along the wall, one set of wheels on the floor and one on the wall), giving more than a few people one hell of a scare they really didn’t need. Even Warren actually looked pretty fearsome in that armor.

The people running away… I recognised the smells and voices of a few of Malphas’ tenants, and I assumed that the others – mostly really young and really old people, with more children than I was comfortable seeing in such a situation (that is, there were children) – were also from the tenements. No one seemed to be hurt, though, at least not beyond a few cuts and bruises here and there.

We didn’t even slow down for them, rounding a corner that led, through a broken wall, into the old sewage plant, and right into a piece of expressionist artwork.

The tenements had been smashed, the whole structure distorted as if a giant fist had slammed into it from one side. Tendrils of steel extended out of it, some having sprouted blades, but they were inert now.

A figure shrouded in an aura of blue light was flying around, casually dodging orbs of blazing heat. I could hear him laugh from all the way across the plant.

“Blauschwinge!” I said, for Warren’s benefit. “He’s one of the Ascendants people.”

“So, that’s his name,” Warren said calmly. “Fucker nearly punched a hole into my niece.” I heard gears shift, his armor’s stance lowering, somehow becoming more… threatening. “He’s mine.”

I had a wildly inappropriate thought along the lines of Wow, Warren’s grown some balls, before I nodded. “I’ll take out any support he has, and run interference when necessary.” The monkey howled within me, ready for battle, but I didn’t let it out. Yet. Soon.

Warren took off in his armor, wheels screaming on the concrete that the plant was based on, and I leapt into a mass of pipes, out of sight, overtaking him. I needed to get a lay of the land, find out who was there and what to do. I hoped Malphas wasn’t dead, at least, but I had to be ready for anything.

I was also keenly aware of the fact that I had no idea what Blauschwinge was actually capable of, short of some manner of ranged attack that took down both Volca and Lag in one go (the fact that he’d apparently circumvented Lag’s power was… worrisome to say the least).

The terrain, at least, favoured me. Pipes and other equipment were still around, where it hadn’t all been scavenged, and even where the metal was gone (no doubt harvested by Malphas for his tenements), there was still plenty of cover left over in the form of holes in the ground and slabs of shattered concrete that were rising from the ground.

I snuck towards Blauschwinge’s general position, though ‘snuck’ might’ve been the wrong word there – I was moving faster than most cars, just really, really carefully, and I got close enough to get a detailed look in less than a minute.

Bri- Volca was on the ground, firing blasts of super-heated air at Blauschwinge, who was dodging them rather easily – whenever he didn’t just remain in place, letting the blast splash harmlessly against him. All the while, he was laughing, sometimes shouting something in German – unfortunately, my German wasn’t good enough to understand what exactly he was saying, especially since he had a pretty weird accent, but I was pretty sure he was throwing some manner of insults at the young woman fighting him. She, in turn, was screaming incoherently with every blast.

Something’s off, I thought as I watched him. Most of Volca’s blasts were completely ineffectual, actually shrinking until they were barely visible before they touched the man, barely ruffling his long, curly blonde hair. But some weren’t diminished much, or at all, and he dodged them instead. Curious.

I couldn’t make out Malphas, Lag or any other combatants – had this guy really come here on his own? Either he was an idiot, insane or just that powerful.

Hope for the first, prepare for the second, be ready to run from the third.

First, however, I had to find Malphas. If nothing else, I wanted to make sure that he was still alive. I’d have to trust in Volca and Warren while I did that.

Sneaking around the fight – if you could even call it that, with Blauschwinge not bothering to actually attack Volca – I contacted Warren. <Cartastrophy, be careful. This guy has a weird defensive power. It seems to only work occasionally, though I can’t pick out the pattern yet. He’s fast, though, and I know that he has a powerful ranged attack.>

<Don’t worry, fucker won’t know what hit him!> came the excited reply.

Oh well. Let’s hope he’ll distract him long enough for me to find Malphas. Then I can help. I just hoped he wouldn’t get himself killed… or that the monkey wouldn’t snap before I got into the fight and go on a killing spree.

And then there was the Ascendant himself, and whatever he could bring to bear apart from Blauschwinge. And whatever scheme my father may or may not have got going. And…

Feels just like the good old days, really.

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Delay…

Yeah, it’s becoming a running theme here.

Fun fact. When your weekends are your only free days, then that means they’re both the only days for writing and for doing stuff with friends and family. Hard to prioritise there.

Nevertheless, there is progress on the chapter, and strong progress, too. Since this is basically a giant fight plus plot, I don’t want to rush it though. So, I guess, it’ll be done when it’s done, and I’ll have to come up with something special to make up for the fucking delay. Please excuse the language.

Sincerely,

Tieshaunn Tanner

B011.11 Monkey Family

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As usual, he managed to deliver such heartwarming words with casual, deadpan routine. And the saddest thing was, I believed him.

I decided to focus on something else. “Cartastrophy,” I said, looking at my old friend in his chromed costume. “Did your niece get through it?” I’d been so worried about Elouise, I hadn’t even considered that his niece had been in that fight – and that she might’ve been among the casualties.

Fortunately, he just shrugged – couldn’t be that bad. “Girl got knocked around a bit, but she’s nothing if not tough.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” I crossed my arms, looking at the passing scenery – there weren’t that many entrances to the Undercity this close to the lake.

Nevertheless, we reached one soon. It looked like an abandoned storefront – one of those old retail stores that you expected to see a kindly old lady in, asking what she could get you. It looked like it had been cleared out a long, long time ago, the window glass long gone and replaced by boards, but there was a subtle Undercity tag over the door.

There were a few people out and about at this time, even here – mostly teenagers – but no one noticed Warren’s car, or the Dark in the backseat.

Warren turned to look half at me and half at him. “So, what’s our next step?” he asked, and I knew him well enough to be able to tell that he was pissed.

I looked at Dad – he’d want to lead this one, and I’d asked him to help, anyway.

“Don’t mind me,” he said to my surprise, as unreadable as ever when weearing his wraith.. “I’ll follow your lead on this.”

Huh. Fancy that. I hesitated for a moment, before I crossed my arms and thought it through. “What resources can we tap?” I asked him. “Is it just you and me-“

“And me,” Warren threw in. “I’m coming along, as well!”

We both looked at him, and I, at least, was surprised.

“Are you sure? Can’t really bring a car along down there, and he’s way out of your weight class, anyway,” I cautioned him, feeling my face twist into a concerned frown.

“I don’t give a shit,” he replied angrily, leaning in closer to me. “They hurt my niece. I pretty much raised that girl. What would you do?”

I just nodded, but I had to add, “How do you intend to help? You’ve never been much of a frontline fighter, and…”

He leapt out of the driver’s seat. “I’m a gadgeteer, Aap,” he said as he walked around the car, to its trunk. Me and dad got out and followed, with him staying quiet on this. “I may be bottom-rung, but I’ve had my powers for twenty years. I’ve had money, I’ve had a workplace, I’ve had time.”

The trunk opened as he approached, and a huge assembly folded out of it, as he himself turned his back to it, spreading his arms.

Two mechanical clamps connected to his shoulders, then one each to each wrist and another to the back of his waist. I watched as a mass of… stuff… folded out of the trunk and wrapped around him, lifting him off the ground. Gears shifted, connectors snapped into each other, pistons worked and a few moments later, there was an eleven-foot-tall metal giant standing where the barely five-foot-tall gadgeteer had been.

The armor was big and very bulky around the shoulders, getting more narrow towards the ‘crotch’. Its main chassis was big enough to contain all of Warren’s five feet and there was another foot added by its head. The legs looked comparatively short, ending in claw-like feet with big wheels on the sides that weren’t touching the ground. Its arms were disproportionally long and got bulkier from the elbows onward, the left one ending in what was unmistakably a huge gun – a cannon, really – and the right one tipped by a metal claw that was reinforced by honest-to-god industrial pistons. A sharp claw that looked better suited to cutting or crushing than holding things. Judging by the size of the ‘forearm’, there were probably more gadgets hidden in there. The head itself was basically a chrome dome with a single red eye… it was basically a simplified Zaku head, from that anime he never, ever would stop gushing about. The whole thing was mostly painted a dull black, with chrome details and a flame design on the cannon.

“Dude, when the hell did you start making power armor?” I asked, flabbergasted. Dad was already looking the thing over, his inner tech geek drawn to the huge claw and the assembly beyond it.

The eye turned to look at me. Warren’s voice came, barely distorted, out of the headpiece. “I’ve been trying to upgrade from cars to power armor for years now. Since you left, actually. Never got really far at it, I mean, I just couldn’t get a good chassis and joint system going, but I’ve been fiddling with the weaponry and overall design for almost fifteen years. Then I got lucky – my nephew specialises in heavy-duty power armor. The joints, chassis and the leg assembly are mostly his work.”

“You’ve been stealing your nephew’s designs?” I asked, surprised.

“What? No!” he said, sounding insulted. “He knows. I mean, the statute of limitations ran out on my crimes a long, long time ago. Even my work on the Matriarch’s cars is not illegal, and he doesn’t know about that, anyway.” He made the huge machine shrug, which looked… very expressive, thanks to its articulate, piston-supported shoulders. “He’s new to the game. Having free access to my work has given him one hell of a boost. And in exchange, he helped me with this baby, though I had to promise not to commit any crimes with it.”

“Vigilante justice is a crime,” my father threw in as he inspected th cannon. “Napalm cannon? Nasty. I like it.”

“This asshole hurt his sister. I’m sure he’d understand,” Warren replied. “And the cannon fires a semi-solid napalm-like compound. Ignites upon contact with the air, and it burns even underwater. I have a spray to put it out, though.”

“Oh, I like that! But this,” he pointed at a few bits that looked… pretty much like the rest of the cannon to me. “It’s modular – what else can it do?”

“I have a rocket launcher, containment foam, acid spray and a diamond-tipped chainsaw in this one, for when I’m out of ammo,” Warren replied, happy to present and explain his work. I opened my mouth to interrupt the geekfest, but he just went on. “And I have another chainsaw here, in my right arm, and the claw, and a drill. And some more stuff in the shoulders and chest, and some light weaponry and heat decoys in the legs. Also…”

“Oi! Enough!” I shouted, interrupting him before he could get really going. Both of them turned to me. “We’re on a schedule here, guys! Leave the nerdgasms for later!”

Father sighed, and turned to Warren. “He’s right. Still, we ought to talk later on. I’d be willing to pay top dollar for this work, or arrange a trade.”

“I can’t share anything my nephew made, not with the Syndicate or other criminals, SIr,” Warren said. “I promised him.”

“Understandable. But I’m honestly more interested in these modular weapon mounts, and your napalm cannon. I know a lady who’d pay good money for the designs, and I’m sure she’d be willing to share some of hers, too.”

“Sounds good to me, Sir. But lets focus on the job, now, before Aap’s head explodes.”

“Thanks for your consideration,” I said between clenched teeth. “So, back to my original question. What kind of resources are you willing to commit?” I asked my father.

“Any necessary. I’d obviously prefer to keep things small and contained, of course – if only to obscure the connection between me, you and your children – but I am willing to call in anyone whom you feel necessary, up to and including Wyrm and the Five.”

I blinked. Wow.

“Who’s Wyrm?” Warren asked, his ‘eye’ moving back and forth between the two of us.

After a moment, I turned to look up at him (any other time, I’d be laughing about the Irony of me having to look up at Warren). “Someone I wouldn’t like to set loose on anyone less despicable than the Ascendant.” I looked at my father again. “If we want to keep your involvement down, then you shouldn’t appear as yourself. Nor should the Five meddle. As for Wyrm… a cyber attack would be useful, I can’t imagine someone like the Ascendant not using a network of some kind, but I’d rather she didn’t show up in person.”

He nodded. “I think I have something in mind,” he said, and the wraith around him began to move. Warping, it changed him. Gray armor plates emerged as his form became shorter, closer to a normal person’s height, but bulkier, like someone who worked out.

Warren and I watched as he changed into a well-muscled man in a jetblack bodysuit, with gray armor plates on his chest, shoulders and arms, as well as gray greaves and boots. He was wearing a bulky gray helmet with a thick, curved horn emerging from the forehead, and intelligent brown eyes looked out from the only openings in his costume – though even they were covered by a clear plastic of some kind.

“Holy shit, the Rhino?” Warren asked. “The Rhino is actually the Dark?!”

Typical, I thought. “Have you been moonlighting as random supervillains again?” I asked, frowning again.

“Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a good workout when most people shit their pants at the mere mention of your name,” he said. His voice was different, nothing liked the polished perfection he used when he was ‘normal’, and not the Dark’s usual chorus. A gruff, strong voice, but not as brutish as you’d expect from a person of his appearance.

He seemed to follow my train of thought, because he immediately added, “Playing a role too perfectly is just another way of betraying that it’s a role. Controlled flaws in the performance help sell it.”

I could still remember the lesson, back then, and I had to blink for a moment. It was, perhaps, not the best thing he could have done to put me at ease – he had to know that his lessons were still a sore point for me – but it helped to know that he wasn’t acting too hard.

Unless it was his lesson at work here, him inserting deliberate flaws in his performance to sell it… but then again, I’d long since given up any hope of being able to trust him unconditionally. Best not to dwell on it.

“Why would this Rhino help me in fighting the Ascendant?” I asked, instead of responding to his comment.

“The Rhino is a pure mercenary. He fights for anyone who can pay him, hero, villain, government, it doesn’t matter,” he replied smoothly – a tad too smoothly, he wasn’t quite into the performance yet. “He only takes jobs that promise combat, preferably combat against capes or cowls, and he only kills against a big raise in pay. He never breaks a contract once he’s been paid, and he’s notorious enough to demand being paid in advance.”

“So I hired the Rhino and he’s supporting me for purely mercenary reasons,” I asked, while I watched a group of teenagers pass us by, their eyes turning glassy. “How much did I pay him?”

“A lot, but you don’t have to quote a rate. The Rhino does not discuss his contracts with people not directly involved with them.”

I nodded. Nice and simple roleplay, then. “What can the Rhino do?” I should now what I had to work with, so I didn’t depend on him doing anything out of character.

“He seems to be a straight brute at first glance,” he replied. “Not as tough as you, but tough. Almost as strong as you, and he regenerates. A quirk of his power allows him to regenerate his clothing, as well. He also has a limited ability to teleport through non-living solid objects – for example, when he’s charging a foe and he runs into a wall, he does not break it, but rather runs into it and out of another surface of sufficient size and made of the same material, with a range of about three hundred feet. The faster he is upon entry, the farther he can teleport.”

Interesting. “I can see how that would catch people off-guard,” I admitted. And it’ll be a killer in the Undercity. “Alright, do I need to know anything else?”

“Not really. I’ll just beat up whoever you tell me to,” my father replied before laughing quietly. “It’ll be a novel experience, if nothing else.”

“True that.”

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B011.10 Monkey Family

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Light yellow/green-dark red-… Hennessy blinked, trying to focus. Her mother was talking to dark dark blue-darkest purple/dark blue-light orange… to her father. She couldn’t hear them, but it was easier to keep track of their conversation by way of their emotions than their words, anyway – a physical screen meant nothing to her. She was…

Her attention was drawn away by the constant pressure of darkest yellow-darkest light blue…

She shook her head, trying to push away the intense emotions that her en- her ri- her sister was radiating. She moved her eyes away from dark blue… the D- her father’s… her grandfather, and looked at her, her…

All she saw was a tangle of colours, an impossibly complicated effigy woven out of pure light in more colours than could be counted. There was a blinding yellow tinged with light green and a blazing blue. There was a very light red tinged with a brighter blue. None of the shades of purple, though, that she was used to seeing from her whenever they fought, or the dark red and occasional darkest red, or…

She blinked, and she saw a white-haired girl with eyes like hers, wearing a pretty dress and trying to jiggle closer to her without sitting up, making small hops with her chair. Again and again, Camille reached out to push her away, connecting to her with light dark green-dark red-dark light blue strands.

Hennessy could feel Camille’s emotions like a warm blanket and cool armor, wrapping around her. She knew how hard a situation like this was to her, and she was trying to drown out the storm of emotions from her sister and her parents… but she was only partially succeeding. Too much, it was too much, her sister was like a furnace of emotions that were pushing against Hennessy’s consciousness, strands of brilliant colour wrapping around her as if for an embrace – or to choke. She was having a hard time telling them apart from what she herself was feeling, which was why she wasn’t reacting to anything… she didn’t know whether the joy and the surprise and the fear and the remorse she was feeling were her own, or whether everyone around her was influencing them, and she had to disentangle her own emotions from theirs.

Sadly enough, the one revelation that should’ve shook her the most – being the granddaughter of the Dark – was the easiest to deal with right now. When they’d arrived, she’d felt her father inside, and the strangely muted employees of the restaurant – she could tell that someone was dampening their minds – and she’d been able to tell that someone was there with him, because of the way his emotions were focused on a present person… but she hadn’t been able to tell who it was, because everyone else was so muted.

Then they’d come in, and she’d seen him. Really seen him, without the tangle of emotions blinding her to his appearance. Usually, she had to take a few seconds to focus her sight on the real world, as opposed to the sight her tenant had gifted her with, but he was so muted, his effigy barely visible, a tightly controlled dark light blue of surprise, a little light dark blue of pensiveness, a light orange of interest, the telltale mixture of dark light blue and light dark green, that being awe… but so little of it, the strands so fine she could see through them to the matter beneath.

Right now, as things were, he was the least troublesome person in the room to her, and so she focused her gaze on him, focusing on his emotions. Normally, she used Camille or her mother as an anchoring point, because she knew perfectly well how they felt about her, and how she herself felt about them. Extrapolating from there to untangle her own emotions from those of her surroundings had become almost an instinct to her, one of the few ways she had to preserve her sanity. But her mother was a tangle of colours and emotions right now, and Camille was too angry and surprised and terrified to help. So instead she focused on the Dark, on his muted emotions, and on what she felt about him. She focused on the tangles of light yellow and light dark blue and darkest light blue and dark dark green that connected from her to him, compared them to the strands which emerged from him towards her, and worked from there to untangle all the colours that were choking her.

Of course, that was all grossly simplified. She saw so many more colours than the human language had words for, not just shades of colours that humans knew, but whole new colours that she’d never seen before or since, except when viewing people’s emotions… and sometimes those of their tenants. It was there that she usually found these eldritch colours that made no sense to anyone else.

Still, during therapy, her counselor had suggested that she simplify the process, using clear colours to break down what she saw and classify it. Amazingly, it had helped get a measure of control over her tenant and lately, she’d actually been able to walk through a mall with Camille and see the world, not just the tangles of colours from everyone around them.

Her parents were still talking to each other, their emotions straightening themselves out. That made it a little easier to distinguish what she felt and what they imposed on her through simple proximity; it helped that her father’s (it still felt unfamiliar, applying that term to a real person she wasn’t fantasising about) emotions were always threaded through by those strange other colours that she’d come to associate with a particularly strong influence of a person’s tenant on their emotions – she knew it from her own, but from few others, though no metahuman was completely free of it. Soon, she’d cut them out as well, much like her grandfather before. Next, she untangled Camille’s emotions – which were ever so familiar and dear to her, but nonetheless, she needed some space in her head right now – from her own (there’d be time to drown in each other later, when they were alone and safe). Finally, she slowly separated herself from the wellspring of emotions that was still trying to come closer to her, though it took her two whole minutes to do so and actually look at her newfound sister… half sister. She looked so… stunningly normal. So unlike any other time they’d met (which had almost always been in battle). She was a tangle of emotions, of course, but somehow… simpler than most metahumans.

Usually, she had to disentangle a metahuman’s from those weird ones that came from their tenants, but the Mat- Elouise’s effigy (a word suggested by her counselor) was two-fold, half around her, half within her shadow – and the eldritch parts were mostly limited to the shadow, which she could ignore completely. She was almost as easy to read as Camille was, to her, despite the lack of familiarity.

She looked at her new family member and thought about how weird it felt that, after spending her whole life dreaming of having a father, and a sibling her own age, she’d get both in the span of just two days, and a grandfather as well… only two of them were villains and her father was… almost as twisted inside as she was

Her eyes moved from her sister to her grandfather and then to the screen that her parents were talking behind, and back to her grandfather.

She probably shouldn’t be surprised that they were all messed up, seeing how his blood ran through their veins.

Hennessy released a breath she hadn’t even realised she’d been holding, just as her parents came back. Her head was starting to hurt, as it always did when she tried to focus on words and faces. She blinked, having long since figured out that her tenant didn’t like it when she relied on normal human communication. It punished her, usually starting with migraines, whenever she spent too much time blocking out peoples’ emotions.

But she needed to hear this. To see their faces, to be human just for a little while.

Just give me a few minutes, she thought, not sure whether her tenant could even understand her. I just need a little time.

***

Tamara sat down to join Hennessy, taking a chair between her and Elouise – which put a hold to Elouise’s attempts to get closer to Hennessy (though by the look on her face, she was already plotting how to close the distance regardless of the new obstacle).

I, on the other hand, sat down on the empty side of the table opposite of Elouise, with my father to my right. “Alright,” I said, drawing the attention of everyone other than Camille, who was watching my father like a hawk… a very obviously scared hawk.

Please, God, don’t let her try and use her power on him. If she did… I didn’t believe for a moment that he didn’t have something lined up in case she tried, or else he wouldn’t be here anymore. But if she lashed out, it might provoke a reaction from Elouise, which would provoke a reaction from Hennessy…

No, best to keep everyone focused on me and busy. “I apologise for springing this on everyone so suddenly,” I said once I was sure that everyone was focused on me.

“No shit,” Camille helpfully threw in. “What’s next, is Di-fucking-L gonna walk in and join us?”

“Language, young lady,” Tamara reprimanded her.

I ignored the little exchange. “So, obviously, you’ll all have some questions. How about we get them out of the way? Ask, and I’ll answer to the best of my ability. No lies, I promise.” I looked around the table, to see who’d speak up first.

To my surprise, Hennessy was the first one to move – literally, she raised her hand onto the table and tapped a finger on the polished wood covered by white cloth. There was no projection of emotions, though, for whatever reason.

Instead, she looked at me, then pointed at Elouise. Then she spread both of her hands in a questioning gesture.

It was the single most normal way she’d expressed herself to me, so far (while awake, at least), but I shelved my curiosity for now. “You want to know how I happened to have a daughter with the Matriarch,” I translated her question. She nodded, and so I regaled to them the (really uncomfortable) tale of how Elouise came to be.

Afterwards, everyone just stared at me; or at least Hennessy, Tamara and Camille did. Elouise seemed embarrassed by the tale, but mostly she was still focusing on Hennessy, while my father was… being very quiet. He was just looking at Elouise and Hennessy (or so I guessed – hard to tell, since he might not even be facing in the direction his wraith was looking) and not doing anything.

“So… the Matriarch basically tricked you into putting a baby into her in order to… control you?” Camille asked slowly, as if she couldn’t quite believe it. “Isn’t that a tad extreme? Even if you’re a real speedster, having a baby with you just to get her claws into you seems… way over the top.”

“Not at all,” Elouise countered. “To my mother, that was just a ‘strategic initiative’. Truth is, she’d done it before, over the decades.” She looked at my father, then at me. “To be honest though, seeing who my grandfather is, makes me believe that she probably knew about your connection to him – she was always a little too insistent in using him as an example for my training; she was probably hoping that he’d feel flattered by me and thus support her endeavours more openly.”

So, you don’t have any illusions about her feelings for you, either? I thought to myself, trying to swallow the bile that I felt creeping up my throat.

Hennessy was giving Elouise a look that told me she probably felt the same.

“Wait wait wait wait,” Camille spoke up again. “Your mom had you just to impress that guy!?” She pointed at my father (I was starting to doubt that the girl could feel real fear). “And you knew it?” She was looking horrified.

Elouise shrugged. “I love my mother, but I’ve known since I was eight that the feeling was never mutual.” She turned to me. “Who’s your mother? She must’ve been quite the character to… um… draw your attention, Sir,” she finished in a more respectful tone directed towards my father.

I felt one side of my mouth quirk up. “She sure was. Her name was Wanda Alexandrou. She was an immigrant from Greece, by way of Britain. You may have heard the story of a psychologist trying to ‘cure’ him,” I replied, nodding towards my father. “And falling in love with him in the process. That was… well her.”

Camille gave me a weird look and opened her mouth. “Wait, weren’t that woman and her child l-“

Hennessy either picked up on my emotions or simply remembered how I’d reacted back when we’d looked at the photographs, because she put her hand on Camille’s shoulder, silencing her.

My father was still not reacting. At all. I was starting to get worried.

“Any other questions?”

“Is this connected to the Ascendant’s return, and do you know why he’s attacking me, as well?” Elouise asked.

“Wait, he attacked you? Why would he?” Camille exclaimed, and Hennessy’s body language revealed similar shock to what I heard in her girlfriend’s voice.

“I just asked him that, so I obviously don’t know,” Elouise replied with a rather annoyed look on her face.

I decided to interject before Camille could reply, because I was pretty sure the two of them couldn’t stand each other. “I don’t know why he’s doing what he’s doing – what I’ve been able to find out about him only makes his behaviour more baffling,” I said urgently, now focusing on Elouise. “I gathered you all here because… well, because I saw where this was all heading. The secrets, the unknown factors. I decided to cut the Gordian Knot, so to speak, and just put all the cards on the table. And I was hoping to enlist your help in taking the Ascendant down for good,” I finished with a look towards my father.

He still didn’t react.

“Is something… wrong with him?” Camille asked carefully, as if she was afraid of insulting him (she did have some common sense, then). “He’s being so… quiet.”

What’s wrong with him? Where to begin? Still, it was a valid question, and so I turned to him. “Father. Father! Dad!” I shouted, and he flinched.

He flinched. In front of others. Not a good sign. Then he looked at me. “Yes, Aaron?Using my real name when there is someone other than me present.

Tamara mouthed the words ‘Your name is Aaron?’, but I ignored them and focused on him again.

“Is something wrong? You are being… uncharacteristically quiet in the face of this scene,” I asked as diplomatically as I could.

He looked at me, then at the girls. Then at Tamara, and back at me. “You’ve… had children,” he said, his choral voice at odds with the flat intonation of his words.

“Yes, that is rather the point,” I replied. What is going on here?

You had children,” he said again. “You. Not just one, but two. I am man enough to admit that I never truly considered the possibility.

Ah. That explains it, I thought, even as I felt a (hopefully) faint blush creep up on my cheeks. “Well, it happened. I don’t see why it’s such a big deal.” For all his brilliance, he’d never been that good at accepting things he’d not seen coming at all. Not that I knew what was so unexpected about this.

He tilted his head to the side. “I remember a certain someone swearing, with the help of various invectives which I shall not repeat in this company, that he would never, ever, under any circumstances, even if he was the last man on Earth, have children.

I sighed. “I was thirteen. It’s been more than two decades since then.”

It’s been twenty-two years, three months, a week and a day since the last time we spoke,” he said. “You will excuse me if it takes me a little while to update my mental image of you.

He rose up from his seat – and everyone except for me tensed up. I saw Elouise’s shadow partially rise from where it’d been clinging to her chair, and I thought I saw a glimmer flash in Hennessy’s eyes, for just a moment. My father, however, ignored that, and then…

And then his wraith faded away. I didn’t expect that. I don’t think anyone expected that.

I hadn’t seen this form since I’d been twelve years old. A tall, slender figure wearing a jet black, featureless bodysuit that extended seamlessly into a pair of equally black, featureless boots and gloves. Over that, an equally black coat not unlike Journeyman’s – it was, in fact, identical down to the wide sleeves. The face beneath the hood was hidden in shadows, though I knew that the bodysuit he wore extended to a completely featureless, skintight mask. All in all, his costume and Journeyman’s were identical, save for the colour of their light robes.

He ignored the stares he was getting (or perhaps he enjoyed them) to walk around the table and put a hand onto Elouise’s shoulder. She shivered as he continued to walk, his gloved fingers sliding over her bare shoulders, and rose from her seat when his hand wrapped gently around her biceps, pulling her along. He took her past Tamara – who looked more tense than I’d ever seen her, turning on her chair to watch them intently – and reached with his other hand for Hennessy.

Camille didn’t give him the chance. “Keep your hands off of her!” she shouted as she rose to interpose herself between my daughter and my father, and something struck him, knocking him off his feet and at least ten feet away!

Oh, she did not just do that! I thought to myself, half-poised to leap across the table and interject myself, but to my eternal relief, father just got up with a chuckle, dusting himself off while Elouise just stared at him, mouth open, and Tamara and Hennessy stared at Camille.

“Excuse me,” he said, his voice normal for once. Still finely honed steel wrapped in silk, as I so often pictured it, but now recognisably human. He approached again. “I mean none of you any harm,” he said calmly, as if she hadn’t just knocked the King of Supervillains around. “Camille, would you please allow me to properly greet my granddaughter?” he asked her in a soothing, polite tone of voice.

She looked at him, then looked over her shoulder at Hennessy, then back at him. She chewed on her lip for a moment. “Alright. But do anything weird and I won’t hold back next time!”

He nodded, as if there was any possible way for her to actually harm him. But it seemed to be enough for her – barely – and she stepped aside.

Hennessy rose up and approached him, together with Elouise. He looked them both up and down, and Elouise at least seemed pretty embarrassed – like she was afraid he’d disapprove of her appearance in some fashion.

Is that just how a normal child would react when first meeting her grandfather, or is that her mother’s education, her desire to please the Dark? I couldn’t be sure, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be sure.

“I’ve never had grandchildren before,” he said quietly. “If I’d known, I would’ve brought presents.” He looked at me, as if telling me that we had to go shopping for several year’s worth of presents.

I was seriously getting creeped out by his casual attitude right now.

“Nevertheless, let me just say this – I’m perhaps not the ideal grandfather you could wish for, but I do intend to be there for you from now on… provided that you want me to.”

And then the jerk hugged them both, if briefly. I haven’t even gotten to do that yet.

Hennessy gave no indication at all as to what she was feeling, but Elouise looked ready to burst with joy.

Before she could blow up and make a mess, though, he let go, and Hennessy was pulled back by an invisible force, straight into Camille’s arms. The young blonde hugged my daughter close, throwing murderous looks at father and me.

Elouise looked at her, as if she couldn’t believe how she was acting.

“Now, I believe there are some urgent matters to discuss,” father continued, and he turned to look at me. “I presume that you are worried about the Ascendant?”

Thanks for steering the conversation back on track, I thought. Not that I was sure we’d ever been on track before, but still. “Yes. I’ve found out some troubling news – namely, that he’s a member of the Gefährten.”

“Ah,” he replied simply. “That makes sense. You need my help to deal with them.” It wasn’t a question.

I didn’t even bother to nod.

“Who’re the Gefährten?” Tamara asked. “Their name is German – that can’t be a good sign.” She was focusing on me, not my father, and I was pretty sure she was feeling way out of her depth.

I’m sorry for putting you through this. “They’re an old villain organisation. Older than the Syndicate. They’re the kind of people that made monsters like Weisswald possible.” There was no use in sugarcoating things – they had to know, so they’d be careful.

Elouise and Tamara both paled, while Camille and Hennessy hugged each other tight. Way to scare the most important people in your life, Aaron.

“You needn’t be afraid,” father interjected in his smoothest voice. “I shall take care of this. Aaron,” He turned to me, then hesitated, then looked at the girls, then back at me. “I shall wait outside. Join me when you’re ready.” His wraith rose up again, wrapping around him, and he left the restaurant.

I exhaled, relaxing a bit. That went better than I expected.

“I think… that’s more than I can take for a day,” Tamara said, leaning back on her seat. “Kev- Aaron, what were you thinking?”

“I was thinking that I need the biggest guns I can get in order to keep my family safe,” I said as I went around the table and to Elouise, who was standing there alone. I put my arm around her shoulders and walked towards Hennessy and Camille.

My daughter disentangled herself from her girlfriend and met us halfway, and I pulled her in for that long overdue group hug.

“No matter what else happens, or what you may think of me, or each other,” I whispered to them, “I’ll keep you two safe, by any means necessary.”

They both shivered and hugged me back.

***

I left the restaurant a few minutes later, after organising a family get-together of sorts (I was exploiting their stunned state of mind for all it was worth, trying to set things up as favourably as I could while I still had the momentum on my side), to find my father waiting there in plain sight, in his wraith form, leaning against a lamppost.

That was expertly played,” he said when I approached him, while I sent a message with my phone.

“I wasn’t playing, Dad,” I replied, annoyed. Of course he’d think that. “I wasn’t intending to manipulate you, or them. I simply want to keep them safe, and to stop with the lies.”

He looked at me for a moment. “I believe you,” he said simply and turned to look down the street just as Cartastrophy’s heavily modified vehicle raced around the corner. “What’s your plan?

“Take down the Ascendant and his people with extreme prejudice,” I replied. “If possible, take slow, long, delicious vengeance on him for what he put my child and her loved ones through.”

That is acceptable. Let’s turn it into a father-son outing,” he said as Cartastrophy pulled up next to us, retracting the roof of his patchwork car to goggle at the two of us. “I know you dislike my ways, but they are more appropriate for this than yours.

“I wouldn’t be asking you for help if I wasn’t ready to work with you,” I replied, opening the back door of the car for him. He got in while Cartastrophy was staring at me (I didn’t need x-ray vision to picture his facial expression behind that face-concealing helmet). Then I got in on the passenger’s side. “Cartastrophy, take us to the nearest entry into the Undercity, please.”

“Seriously?” he asked, even as he took off. “You called him in? It’s gotten that bad?”

I give him an ‘isn’t that obvious’ look.

He knows?” Father asked with some surprise in his voice.

“Of course he knows,” I answered him without bothering to look at him. “He’s my friend. You do know what that is, right?” I couldn’t stop myself from saying.

He gave me one of his patented maddening chuckles. “I am aware of the concept, though I’ve never bothered with any myself.

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