Final Exam

Finally done with exams! Good riddance! Ate an utterly decadent (not to mention unhealthy) lunch at McDumb in order to celebrate.

I’ll finally get to finishing Les Aspirantes today, I think; no more exams to distract me!

Then I’ll have at least a month, if not more, off to relax, recover and write… unless something unexpected happens (again) and I have to get stuff done (again)…

Nope. Let’s not go there. Let’s stop at “write”. If I think too much, I’ll get depressed again. Sometimes I wish I’d been born less imaginative, it might’ve led to a happier life… then again, I probably wouldn’t be writing my stories if I was less imaginative, and seeing how much happiness these bring…

Overthinking it, again. I have at least a month off now. Time to enjoy it!

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To Pass Time

Since I probably won’t publish anything until Sunday at the earliest, here’s a few other works you might like:

  • Goodfae
    • An urban fantasy/mob story during the time of the prohibition
    • A serial with a lot of work put into the setting and premise. It’s quite the entertaining read.
  • Raising Angels/Defection
    • One’s an urban fantasy story about a girl-turned-angel, the other a superhero tale
    • Not much to comment on. Two different stories, solid writing and a lot of thought and love put into the settings and characters.
  • Twisted Cogs
    • Where do I even begin with this one? Urban Fantasy during the time of the renaissance, with magic superpowers and weird artisan guilds thrown in. Definitely give it a try!
    • Has, in my opinion, a very nice pace, far better than most serial authors usually manage at first.
    • Has a smut option.

B012.2 Born At Sleep

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<We really shouldn’t be laughing about this!> Melody complained during torrents of giggling and laughter. <This is so awful! And we’re awful for laughing about it!>

“Th-then let’s be awful!” Jared squeezed out between bouts of laughter, wiping tears from his eyes; with his beach-blonde hair in disarray, he looked like every girl’s dream prince having a joke, and Melody would never admit it out loud, but if he wasn’t such a jerk, she’d probably take him up on a date. “C’mon, let’s put on the next one!”

Irene seemed to agree with him, or at least her incessant giggling on the floor in front of the couch caused her to spasm and show a thumbs-up by accident.

Harry and Thomas, who were sitting on the side of the couch opposite from Jared, just leaned back, an arm around each other’s shoulders, and enjoyed the show on the huge television in the Junior Heroes’ common living room.

Osore – actually Takahama Goudo – and Aimihime – Aimi for short – were also there, sitting in between Melody and the two boys.

Everyone but Aimi (who was currently curled up on Osore’s lap in the form of a huge red-brown cat) was in casual clothes, sweatpants and shirts, fresh out of the showers after training and a shared lunch. Even Irene had participated, not that working out did her any good. Melody was pretty sure she just did it for the team bonding experience.

Of course, as it turned out, watching these stupid videos was an even better bonding experience. Jared had suggested them, and Irene had agreed wholeheartedly. Aimi did, too, and Goudo usually just went along with things, anyway (Melody had never seen him so much as vary his facial expression and his voice was even less expressive; she never knew how he felt about anything). She and the other two had just gone along, as well.

She had to admit, awful as they were, these ‘Darwin Awards’ were really quite funny – in a morbid, dark humour kind of way. And she’d never even heard of them before! They’d just finished watching the runner-up for last year’s award, and were now getting to the actual winner – Jared had promised that it’d blow them away.

The drumroll started while Irene pulled herself back up onto the couch, face red, and pulled her knees up to hug them, giggling in anticipation.

With the end of the drumroll, the clip began. The video was shaky, amateurish, and there were odd distortions to it; it showed a heap of rubble, mostly concrete and rebar, which shook in irregular intervals, as the light played odd tricks with the image, creating random slowdowns and ghost images.

“Oh no,” Irene whispered, suddenly subdued.

The image moved a bit, slowly, as if the cameraman was slowed down for some reason. Or just afraid, judging by how much it was shaking. As it moved, it became clear that the cameraman was on the upper floor of a building, and at least half the room he’d been in had caved in from whatever had created the mound of rubble it was looking at. There was another impact and a muffled scream from behind the camera as the image shook again, but then it settled down.

<What’s wrong?> Melody asked her, taking a quick look before turning back to the video. Irene was hugging her knees close to her chest and looked miserable all of a sudden.

“I know this one,” she replied, her eyes glued to the screen, even though she clearly didn’t want to see it.

The viewpoint shifted, moving up the heap of rubble it had been pointed at. Bodies came into sight, four men in five times as many pieces, their bodies cut apart cleanly and precisely, as if someone had used a line of silk to dismember them – and the silk had left behind a clingy, incandescent white on the wounds that was eating into their remains. Even in pieces, it was easy to make out that they’d been wearing costumes, and so had probably been heroes – or at least villains who died heroically.

It moved further up, and strands of pure white light came into sight, moving slightly like hair under water, dissolving whatever they came into contact with.

The image moved up, and up, and up, over almost twenty meters of glowing white hair, until it focused on a nude form whose modesty – what little there was – was only preserved by her own hair, which partially concealed her impossibly perfect shape. Her eyes were glowing the same colour as her hair, wide open and featureless, her jaw slack with more light spilling forth from in between her partially open lips. Her arms, tipped by long nails, which glowed the exact same colour as her hair, hung loosely down her side as she slowly, almost ponderously, lowered herself until she was floating barely half a foot over the top of the rubble, the remains of the heroes who’d fought her destroyed by her hair. The random distortions to the recording only became worse as it focused on her.

A caption appeared as the cameraman stopped moving.

Desolation-in-Light; Galveston, Texas, March 3rd, 2011

“Fuck me,” she heard Thomas whisper, his soft voice surprisingly sharp. “Don’t tell me these assholes are gonna show some poor sob that got ‘imself killed tryin’ to fight that thing!” Irene flinched, but didn’t comment.

Jared, however, did. “Don’t worry,” he said “This one deserves it. Wait and see.”

They watched as DiL’s body was briefly surrounded by a multi-coloured haze, before she was surrounded by an aura that glowed somehow warmer than her normal light, the colour more yellow than white. It focused into a lens about the size of her torso, extending a beam – not like an energy blast or anything like that, no, more like a spotlight – out in front of her and into the distance. Then the ‘spotlight’ began to move, even though DiL herself didn’t move an inch, rotating around her as if she was a lighthouse atop a mountain of rubble, angling up and down, always with her as the centre as it moved. Once, it passed over the rubble beneath, touching on parts of it not covered by her hair, and the concrete and metal and wood began to distort, forming bubbles as if the light was hot enough to boil it in moments, even though it didn’t seem to heat up at all – nothing caught fire, and the wood should have. The deadly spotlight passed on.

And then they saw someone enter into the periphery of the recorded image – and so did the cameraman, who focused the image on the new arrival.

It was a guy. Probably in his early twenties, he looked like what Melody imagined when she heard the term ‘doughy guy’. Not fat, or anything, but pale, really pale, with a wild shock of hair on his head and a weird thin beard and moustache. He was wearing an ill-fitting suit and tie, black and red respectively, with a white shirt, and he was running for all he was worth – towards DiL.

Melody looked at Irene again, who seemed even more miserable now – though Melody didn’t know if it was out of sympathy for the man who was clearly about to die, or because of Thomas’ phrasing. She reached out, gently squeezing her friend’s shoulder and Irene responded by tilting her head to rest her cheek on the back of her hand.

The video continued as the man ran around the boiled pieces of rubble – judging by his facial expression, it didn’t smell good, either – dodging strands of lethal hair in a way that was both surprisingly nimble and embarrassingly clumsy at the same time. One time, he actually rolled under the passing spotlight, barely evading having his face boiled off.

The cameraman seemed to have been as entranced by the guy’s actions as they all were, because he followed him on his way, the image mostly steady as the impacts which had shaken the earth had now stopped.

The doughy guy finally reached the top of the heap of rubble, standing on a spot that was untouched by DiL’s hair and the spotlight, and he…

Melody blinked, not sure if she believed what happened next. Fortunately, whoever had edited the video had found it hard to believe, as well, and so the video rewound and showed it again in a close up. She still had trouble believing it.

The doughy guy had dropped down on one knee, holding up a small black box he’d flipped open. A box with an engagement ring inside.

What?

Irene whimpered, and a quick look showed Melody that she’d finally averted her eyes, focusing instead on her own toes.

She herself, though, just had to see what came next, even if she felt sick to her stomach.

The glowing woman didn’t appear to notice the doughy guy just three or four feet from her, even when he started to talk.

He kept on talking until the spotlight moved towards him – he tried to dodge it, but accidentally stepped into some strands of her hair, losing his foot in the process. And then the spotlight passed over him.

With a scream, he tumbled back, his face literally melting off his skull, bubbles forming and bursting so violently they revealed bare bone beneath. His suit cracked, bubbled and fell apart, all at once, and the body beneath was no better off – turning red, then cracked, then bubbling, then bursting off his bones.

He screamed more and tumbled into her hair – and that was that. The video ended with a shot of the Darwin Awards’ logo (a yellow street-sign showing the march of progress, with the homo sapiens sapiens walking off a cliff) spinning.

Everyone save for Osore (who didn’t do laughing, it seemed), Melody and Irene was laughing – until the television blew out.

“Oi, what the fuck!?” Jared shouted.

Perhaps everyone had the same thought Melody did, because everyone turned to look at Irene, who was still curled up on the couch, her face hidden behind her knees and her hair.

<Irene?> she asked, worried, squeezing her friend’s shoulder again – then she flinched back when, for just a moment, a sensation of utter, complete horror gripped her heart – and not just her; she could hear everyone else gasp, their heartbeats quickening as it, too reached them. But then, it was gone as quickly as it had appeared.

Irene flickered and vanished from her seat, suddenly standing a few feet in front of the couch, with her back ramrod straight.

She flickered again, to the door out and back, as if she couldn’t decide whether to leave or not.

“The fuck’s wrong?” Jared asked. “Why’d you have to bust o-“

“I’ll fucking tell you what’s wrong!” Irene shouted, and the lights flickered as she whirled around, her long hair flying wildly – and just barely covering her left eye as she focused on Jared. Melody hoped only she’d seen that it had turned red-and-black, a sure sign that she was losing control again – and there was the almost imperceptible, even to her, sound of that weird song her power generated when it came to the forefront.

Irene didn’t seem to notice, or mind, because she thrust a finger at Jared, who flinched back from her. “This isn’t funny! Where do you get off laughing about what she does!?” She whirled around to look at Harry and Thomas, both of whom had gone pale. “And you!” she shouted, pointing at Thomas, who looked both confused and frightened. “She’s not a thing! You of all people should know better than to call her a thing!”

Her hand dropped, and she shivered for a moment, her other hand reaching across her torso to grip her forearm. Then she turned away and stomped towards the exit.

Melody was just about to hurry after her when she whirled about and looked at the lot of them, eyes wide – though fortunately back to their usual colour. “And fucking stop fucking calling her DiL! She’s got a name, so fucking use that!” she screamed at them before she simply flickered and reappeared in the same spot, only facing away from them – and she stomped towards the door.

She really ought to run after Irene, to catch up to her and console her – but all she could think of at that moment was She has a name? She’d never even considered that Desolation-in-Light, the White Calamity, would have anything like a normal name – yet that was what Irene meant, surely. I wonder what she’s called? And who gave her the name? Probably Miss Whitaker, right?

Irene almost reached the door when it opened, and three men stepped inside.

Melody blinked as she recognised Mister Widard, Mister Patrid and Director Ryan walking in side-by-side. All three were wearing suits, though their styles were quite telling of the differences between the three men commonly considered to be the leaders of New Lennston’s United Heroes Division, now that Rounds was stationed on the Iron Wall (Amazon was a great field leader, but as far as Melody could tell, she had little to nothing to do with the political side of business).

Patrid was, as always, immaculately dressed in pure white – white silk suit, white silk shirt, white silk tie, white leather shoes. The only thing that wasn’t white about him were his bright blue eyes, his healthy skin and his bright blonde, slicked-back hair and neatly trimmed goatee. His perfect white teeth showed thanks to a boyish grin he had as he walked into the room. He looked ready to go to a high-class party or dance, visit the White House for dinner or make a deal for one’s soul. Possibly all three at once. And he still had that ever-present aura that only Melody seemed to pick up on, that presence which made her uneasy, slightly nauseated. She couldn’t bring herself to like the man, even though he’d been nothing but courteous and even supportive so far – it was hard enough to even tolerate his presence.

Mister Widard was wearing a much cheaper grey suit with a simple white shirt and a striped blue tie. As always, he was slightly dishevelled, his black-brown hair a mess accentuated by his five-o’clock shadow, his eyes made huge by a really unflattering pair of glasses he was balancing on his nose, and he even now, he had a communicator in his left ear, with a directed microphone extended halfway to his mouth (one of Melody’s patents, actually). Much unlike Patrid, Jason was just plain endearing. He was like a chronically overworked but nice and warm favourite uncle. She felt awful about all the trouble he’d been in lately, since she’d helped capture his niece the teenage supervillain, and she wished she could just walk up to him and give him a hug; but she didn’t feel that she knew him well enough for that.

Director Ryan made a contrast to both of the other men. He was heavily built, both muscular and fat at the same time, his body at least three times as wide as Widard’s stick-thin physique; and he was short, too, not exceptionally so, but short enough to look like a dwarf next to Patrid, who was at least six foot ten, if not eleven. His hair was red, which made them a brunette-blonde-redhead trio, cropped short and his round face was as smooth as Melody’s own. His suit was brown and functional, not as immaculate as Patrid’s but far more well-kept than Widard’s. Melody used to respect him, but her opinion of the man had taken a nosedive since he’d tried to get her to stay away from Irene – even if she understood that he thought he was doing the right thing.

There was one thing that was out of place between the three men – Melody had never seen them share a mood. Usually, Patrid was chipper, in good spirits, with a wide grin plastered on his too-perfect face; Widard always looked slightly confused and slightly exhausted, not to mention wary; and Director Ryan tended to have a very stern, to-the-point mood and facial expression.

Not today. All three looked quite pleased with themselves – though only for a moment, once they saw Irene walk up and past them.

Widard and Ryan turned to look at her, and Melody lost sight of their facial expressions, but Patrid surprised her – he made a dance-like step, almost a pirouette, and put a hand on Irene’s shoulder – and she stopped and turned, looking at him.

The other two men continued on their way towards the junior heroes, while Patrid talked quietly to Irene.

Melody missed the first few words they spoke, before she focused her hearing on them.

“… can tell me if anything’s wrong,” Patrid said softly. “I’m here for you.”

“I know, and I’m grateful, but this…” Irene whispered back. “It’s nothing. Just… my own issues.”

“You’re a horrible liar, lil’ one,” he replied affectionately. “I promised your mom that I’d keep an eye out for you – so don’t shut me out.”

Miss Whitaker asked him to watch out for Irene? she thought, confused, while her teammates stood up and tried to look more prim and proper than they currently were to their bosses. I wonder how they know each other?

Irene sighed, but didn’t reply.

“Now, I need you to calm yourself down and join us,” he continued whispering while Director Ryan and Widard took up position in front of the big screen (the director looked none too pleased at it being broken), “there’s some important stuff to talk about.”

After a few moments, Irene nodded and pulled her pill bottle out, downing a small handful of pills. She relaxed almost immediately, and the nearly subsonic siren’s song vanished, too. Melody felt herself relax, glad that her friend wouldn’t have an episode that’d just scare the rest of the team away from her any more.

Within moments, Irene was sitting next to her again – closer now, close enough for Melody to put an arm around her shoulders and hug her – and even Aimi had shifted into a form more appropriate for conversation, though the lack of clothes to wear forced her to improvise. In this case, she had shifted into a humanoid cat – not a cat girl, no, she was quite clearly a cat – with the same colour and pattern to her fur as before, now sitting next to Osore, who’d been the only one not to react to the entire scene up until now.

Patrid joined the other two adults, and the director spoke up.

“Good afternoon, everyone,” he said, sounding almost as pleased as he looked. “I have good news!”

Hopefully good enough to make up for this scene, Melody thought glumly as she felt Irene press a little closer to her.

“In light of all the successes we’ve had lately,” the director continued, “Our very successful fight against the Rabid Eight and the Spiteborn, as well as the fight against Hastur and her monsters…”

Melody heard Aimi’s heart skip a beat at the mention of Hastur and the people she’d affected – she didn’t know the full story, but she’d found out that Aimi had apparently gone through her own little horror show during that dark episode of New Lennston’s history.

“Well, we have reason to celebrate, especially since the Black Panthers and the Morning’s Children both have been routed entirely, save for one or two stragglers,” Ryan continued, as Melody thought over the implications of that.

While organised crime was always a problem, and supervillains working for organised crime even more so, they tended to be more… subdued. More interested in heists and subtle actions; more than three fourth of all public cape-and-cowl battles took place between heroes and gang members, or between rival gangs; with two of the oldest and most powerful gangs gone, New Lennston was now at least safer than New York or Chicago, and worlds ahead of the West Coast Triad.

“And so, the mayor has decided to hold a celebration with you children as the guests of honour!” he finished.

For a moment, no one said anything; then, Goudo had to ruin it.

“Shouldn’t Brennus and his girls be the guests of honour?” he asked in that infuriatingly monotone voice of his. “They contributed more to all of that than anyone else here, not counting the Rabid Eight thing.”

Patrid covered his mouth with his hand, though everyone could tell he was laughing behind it; Widard seemed to miss the comment, as he was busy doing something on a tablet he’d pulled out of his jacket’s pocket; but the director’s face fell immediately.

“We’re not going to acknowledge teenage delinquents,” he said firmly, throwing Goudo a warning look – after all, the boy had been a delinquent himself (he’d never really done anything to qualify as a villain, really). “Even if their contributions were… impressive, they are criminals.”

The meaning was clear – the spotlight had to be on the legal heroes – though Melody really didn’t agree with that. They’d risked their lives as much as any of them had, and Brennus had been instrumental in taking down both the Spiteborn and Hastur; Hecate had been no slouch, either. The only one who hadn’t really done much was Tyche, whose role in that group she still couldn’t guess at.

Patrid stepped forward and pulled the conversation back on track. “Anyway, aside from such concerns, here’s the important parts: there’ll be a gala on Monday – I know, it’s rather short notice, but at least you’ll be excused from school for that day and the next! Everyone will have to get a dress or a suit if you don’t have one already, and you should all practice some dancing… speaking of which, who here has any experience dancing? Other than Irene, of course.”

Melody gave Irene a curious look – he’d asked about experience, not skill, which her power could readily supply. Irene had never told her about dancing before, though.

Irene smiled at her. My parents are rather old-school, she spoke into her mind. Of course I had to learn how to dance properly.

Melody giggled involuntarily, though no one seemed to notice as the team was rapidly split down the middle. Melody, Irene and (surprisingly) Aimi knew how to dance – though Melody felt that she was probably quite rusty by now, as she hadn’t practiced since she’d manifested. Harry, Thomas, Goudo and Jared all had little to no idea about dancing, though.

“Ah well,” Patrid said with his usual grin. “Looks like a little practice is in order, then! After all, it’d be horrible for our image if our juniors couldn’t even dance on the celebration of their own heroic deeds!” He clapped his hands. “In the interest of getting you ready, I guess I’ll have to train the lot of you personally, over the next few days. That includes you three, just in case,” he added with a wink at the three people who actually knew dancing.

Everyone but Irene and the other two adults groaned, but before anyone could say anything more, Widard suddenly looked up from his tablet.

“Someone turn on the television,” he said. “HeroView channel, quickly!”

Everyone looked confused for a moment, but the junior heroes were so used to following his commands that they moved nonetheless – Aimi was the first to get the remote and she pushed the on-button.

Nothing happened.

“Ah, bugger,” Jared said, looking sullenly at Irene. “Our big girl here blew out the tellie throwing a hissy fit.”

I will slap you once the adults are out of the way, Melody thought resolutely, though fortunately, Irene didn’t lash out at him, nor did she seem to react to his jab at all.

Widard sighed and took the remote from Aimi. Pressing a few buttons, the wall-mounted screen flipped over, revealing a second screen behind it.

“We have a replacement television?” Harry asked in surprise, the first time he’d talked today, as far as Melody remembered – he’d been mostly content to let Thomas speak.

“Of course,” Widard said. “With all the powers that tend to gather in here, it’s not too rare that something breaks; so we have replacements for most major pieces of equipment. That’s not an excuse for you to go around breaking them, though!” he quickly added.

They all nodded, while he turned on the television and switched onto HeroView, the major channel on metahuman matters in the Western Hemisphere.

It was showing an abandoned apartment building in a rather dirty neighbourhood – the captions identified it as Paris, France, and it appeared to be live, too.

“What’s going on, Jason?” Patrid asked as he sauntered over to sit on the couch next to Irene, who shifted around to put her legs across his thighs, leaning even more fully into Melody at the same time.

“The Blackguard has been tracked down, it seems,” Jason said as he and Ryan joined the others on the couch. “Looks like there’s a whole bunch of aspiring new Chevaliers getting ready to wrest the cross and fleur-de-lys from him.”

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B012.1 Born At Sleep

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I write these words into this book, not because I wish to remember. Nor do I wish to preserve my thoughts for future generations to know of them. I do not write this so as to beg for sympathy. I do not wish to explain or excuse what I believe is yet to come. I do this because if I do not, I shall surely go insane. I have to put it into words, in some way – and anyone I could speak these words to is now dead by my own hand.

Or perhaps it is wrong to use that phrase. My hands did no wrong. No, they did not slay those I loved. It was, rather, mine own blood, passed down to me by my parents. The same blood that ran through my sister’s veins, until my own blood spilled it.

No. No, this is wrong. This is not my blood’s fault. My parents had the blood. My sister had it. Hundreds of others have it, all over the world. It was not my blood which slew Friedrich and Anneliese, or sweet little Adelheid. It was not my blood which slew my beloved Gerlinde, or her brother Gilbert, bravest of all.

It was my own weakness, my weak heart and my brittle mind, which could not contain the power of my blood as it awakened. I… I killed them. All of them. Just two days ago, I slew everyone I’ve ever loved, and more besides. I am alone now, with naught by my blood left – and the hope that, perhaps, our glorious Leader can give meaning to this accursed blood of mine.

Yes, that is it. The one good thing to come of this – our Leader has taken notice of me; how could he not. 8644 people dead in minutes, by the power of one foolish child. Perhaps he wishes to punish me. I hope he does. I deserve punishment, yet I cannot devise one of my own which befits the crime I have committed. Or perhaps he, in his wisdom, can see the purpose of this – there has to be a purpose, right? Why would God bestow such power upon one such as I, if not with a greater purpose in mind? Why let me slaughter all these innocents, if not to prepare me for a grander fate?

Please, please, dear God, I beg of you, don’t let this have been for nothing! I can still feel my own sisters blood on my face, on my hands, please, please, don’t let this have been for nothing!

***

November 16

Basil looked away from the screen. Eudocia had finally finished the translation of Hartmann’s diary, and he’d sat right down to read the first entry.

None of the entries were dated, and Eudocia had commented that the only order to them appeared to be that in which they came to the author’s mind. The translation was precise, if a bit formal; translating from German into English lost a lot, unfortunately.

It didn’t lose enough, though, to make it easier to read. Basil had of course heard the stories of how Hartmann had manifested. The sudden onslaught of his power, the forest he’d created nearly instantaneously, destroying his birthplace. An entire village gone in moments, with less than a hundred survivors.

What few eyewitness reports remained of the event had spoken of the young man – a boy, really, younger then than Basil was now – standing in the centre of the forest, covered in blood as he looked up at the corpses of his family and laughed.

Obviously, this being Weisswald, it had largely been interpreted in the worst possible way – but unless this diary was an utter fabrication, he’d felt remorse – at least for a while.

<Father, is something wrong?> Eudocia asked him. <Did I make any mistakes?>

“No, no, that is not it,” he said, though his voice came out rather raspy. He reached for his throat, touching it gingerly. It’d been inflamed for a few days now. “Just… a difficult subject matter.”

<You are not well, Father,> she said. <Your throat infection has gotten worse. You should go to the doctor again.>

“There is nothing he can tell me which I could not figure out on my own,” Basil replied with some annoyance, turning back to his reading. “I only went there to get my medicine legally.

<The medication isn’t working though, or it wouldn’t get worse, Father!> she said, exasperated. <You need to take care of yourself!>

He looked straight into his computer’s webcam, trying not to show just how fed up he was growing with her constant meddling. He’d already snapped at his friends too much lately, he would not do it to her, too. Even Prisca had been walking on eggshells around him lately.

Maybe that ought to tell him something.

With a sigh, he closed his eyes and admitted to himself that he should at least rest a bit. “I am fine. I will just go to sleep early before school,” he said.

<Father… it’s seven in the morning. On a friday. Classes start in two hours,> she said gingerly.

When he looked at the camera in surprise, she made an apologetic sound. <I tried to tell you, honestly, but you were just… completely down the rabbit hole for the entire night!>

Wait, that can not be true, he thought to himself as he looked down at his hands, which he’d put on his lap. They were pale, like the rest of him, thinner than was usual even by his standards. I… I was thinking about… about something… just an hour ago, or so… it was just barely past the afternoon!

“What did I work on?” he asked gingerly. Some part of him didn’t want to look for himself, not after the failures of the last week.

<I don’t know, Father,> she admitted. <I think you started out with a new power armour design, but then you scrapped it for… I don’t know. You went through at least seven different projects, but you didn’t get anywhere near completing even one. That is the only thing that’s left.> Her webcam turned to point at something, and he followed the motion.

His gaze drifted out over his workshop… or rather, the joke it had become. Whereas he’d used to have a lot of projects going on simultaneously, switching from one to another as the inspiration took him, he’d slowly but surely been forced to downsize, focusing his meagre remaining resources on fewer projects. Or at least he’d tried to do it, tried to conserve resources and focus his attention – but the more he’d tried to, the less it had worked. He just couldn’t get his power to focus, no matter how much he tried to guide its focus; he’d even gone online and searched out dedicated gadgeteer message boards (there was actually one, known as the ‘Think Tank’, which was exclusive to confirmed gadgeteers; the same place where he’d gotten many of the blueprints he’d used in his early days) to research techniques for handling your power.

None of them had worked. Instead, he’d only wasted more resources, started and aborted even more projects. Now… no, yesterday, he’d only had two left, one a garbled mess of an attempt to create a new power source for his equipment (he couldn’t even remember what it had been supposed to be, never mind knowing what it had ended up as) and a new weapon system, a glove that used electrical capacitors to massively enhance striking strength. It hadn’t worked out, either, as he’d lost track of what he’d been doing partway through.

Now… now that was gone, too. His workshop now mostly consisted of a few tables with but three computers and twice as many screens left (he’d resorted to cannibalising even his basic equipment to somehow try to make something, even though he was regretting doing so now… even though he’d known he would even when he’d done it), and several scattered remnants of projects – he’d worn through a lot of material, and there’d even been several catastrophic malfunctions ending in, at least, the materials being spoiled and useless and, in the worst cases so far, in explosions that destroyed even more material.

He’d never had to deal with malfunctions like that before. He’d never have thought he’d have to wear his armour for lab work.

Speaking of which, he’d finally gone through with his design to reduce his power armour to a more economic set of body armour with a few gimmicks. That, at least, had worked out well, and now he had a surprisingly tight, lightweight set of armour that was nonetheless almost as tough as his power armour had been, and far easier to move in without the need for servo motors. It didn’t absorb blunt hits as well as it used to, as it wasn’t rigid, but he wasn’t planning of getting as close to his enemies as he’d used to, anyway. The new set also lacked the enhanced strength, obviously, but he could live without that – Gilgul was stronger than he was ever going to make it, anyway.

At least his ravens were still running. He’d stopped producing new ones, but he had been able to keep up with maintenance.

On the other hand, whatever he’d been working on over the night would not be running. He’d be very surprised if he’d even be able to figure out what it had been supposed to be.

Let’s not waste any more time, he thought, making himself get up… only to realise just how tired and worn out he really felt. He fell back into his chair with a surprised grunt, unable to stay up. “Eudocia,” he said slowly. “How long has it been since I have slept?”

<Actual sleep, or microsleep and naps?>

If she even has to ask… “Actual sleep,” he specified.

<Five days, eighteen hours and twenty-three minutes,> she said immediately. <Furthermore, it’s been two days and forty-four minutes since the last time you ate an actual meal.>

Wow, that is… I did not even notice that. “I did not even notice,” he told her truthfully.

<I’ve repeatedly alerted you to the issue, but you ignored or brushed aside my warnings,> she said, and though her voice was still mostly monotone – she had trouble operating voice synthesisers, and he hadn’t had the time or inspiration to make one for her that she could use easily – he could still tell that she was quite petulant.

Or perhaps he was just projecting his own emotions onto her. “I…” He sighed, leaning forward to rest his head on his hands, and his elbows on his knees. “I do not know if I can make it through school today.”

<You are in dire need of nourishment and, above all else, rest, father,> she said through the speakers near him. <There is nothing high school could teach you which you could not teach yourself better once you’re recovered.>

“N-no… I have missed too many classes… people might… get suspicious,”  he groaned, though he wasn’t even sure why it was so important to him to go to school. “Besaaa-” his sentence drifted off into a big yawn.

Once he was done with that, he pushed himself to his feet. “No, I will go to school. At least for the first two periods – then we will see,” he decided. “I should check out the new invention first, though. Just in case it’s actually useful.”

<Father, you are not well! You need to rest!>

“Enough,” he ordered her. “Leave it be.” She stayed quiet and he turned to his latest effort at inventing something.

To his surprise, the gadget actually looked functional. Not complete – but functional. At the very least, all parts seemed to be connected to each other and there weren’t any obvious faults.

It looked, at a glance, like an egg the size of a football made of metal and wire, with several plates of what he had left of his ceramic to armour the upper, thinner half. The lower half had several more such pieces, shaped almost like flower petals, which could open like a flower, attached to the bottom of the ‘egg’, which exposed several fin-like protrusion along their insides.

The egg lacked any discernible propulsion system, but it was too big to be a grenade or something of that kind. When he picked it up, it proved to be lighter than he would’ve expected.

Is it hollow?

His fingers felt along the shell, and into the openings exposed by the petal-like parts of the armour (carefully avoiding the razor-sharp fins – he could not think of a use for them, it wasn’t like they were positioned in a way that would allow using them as weapons, and they weren’t long enough to be able to cause serious damage anyway), but his power was not co-operating – it did not help him understand his invention.

He tried to open the petals fully, but found that they only opened by about sixty degrees – which meant that the fins would always be aimed towards the inside of the egg, anyway.

Finally, he figured out how to open the egg properly – a little pressure here, a little pull there – and the incomplete gadget opened fully.

He could immediately tell what was wrong, and this time, his power actually did jump in and help.

The core of the gadget was missing. It had no less than four of his crystal programming cores built into the insides of its shell, one on each side of the ‘egg’ – which suggested that it would require some heavy programming to work properly – but the connections to whatever was supposed to actually make it work were sticking out, unused.

He’d wasted an entire night’s sleep and… yeah, about half of his remaining materials to build the world’s most expensive (and useless) Easter egg. It wasn’t even colourful, just dull black.

Really, you’re gonna waste time thinking about that? the Man in the Moon whispered into his head. You ought to rethink your priorities, mate.

“Shut up,” he said, too tired to raise his voice.

<Did you say something, Father?> Eudocia asked.

He sighed and shook his head. “No, no, it is all alright.” He put the egg down again. He still had no idea what it was meant for.

What a waste of time. What made it sting even more than just the waste of time was the level of craftsmanship on the inside – what little of the wiring he’d completed was among the most complex he’d ever made – and just the fact that it had four programming cores, when even his ravens – which contained programs far more complex than even his power armour used to have – had only ever needed one per unit. His armour had used a grand total of two, and one of them had been redundant, just in case the primary core was ever damaged.

He’d never made anything which had actually required so much as two programming cores, and this one had four. What could it possibly be meant to do?

I will probably never know, he thought surly.

You’ll survive, the man in the moon replied.

That does not help me, Basil rebutted angrily, anyway, where’s the other one? This ought to be the Blazing Sun’s job.

That one’s… busy, the other one replied.

Busy with what?

Can’t say. Literally, so don’t bother asking, the other guy replied. Seriously, I’m not enjoying this any more than you do, but I can’t even begin to guess what’s going on with us. And before you ask why I care, I am in your body, and a part of you – I feel everything you feel.

<Father, Vasiliki has just entered the base,> Eudocia chimed in, oblivious to the exchange going on inside his head.

Better go greet her, the man in the moon suggested. And tell her you’re not going to school today.

Fuck that, he threw back empathically. Not that he wasn’t going to go greet her. It was just that second part he objected to. At least Vasiliki won’t pester me about that. She’s the last person who’d skip school, no matter the reason.

Throwing the image of a webcam onto a monitor, he used it as an impromptu mirror – and found himself rather wanting. He had to do something about his hair, and he needed fresh clothes; he was pale and drawn out, with dark bags under his eyes and he probably didn’t smell all that nice, either.

How did I let myself go like this? He was usually so intent on staying clean. But there was nothing he could do about that now – he’d just have to take a shower before he left for school.

Shutting down all the electronics down here – save for Eudocia’s webcam access, of course – he threw one last look at the empty egg, and took the winding stairs up to the common room of his base.

***

He hadn’t even had a chance to greet her or even look around for Vasiliki before she assaulted him with food.

Just as he stepped off the stairs and into the room, she shoved a fork into his mouth, before he’d even realised she was standing next to the doorway.

“Eat,” she ordered firmly, her hair pulled up in a tight knot that made her look a lot like a stern (if disconcertingly pretty, for the average student) teacher.

The taste of grilled meat, fresh onions and thinly cut French fries filled his mouth, and though he felt barely any appetite, his body was more than happy to start chewing once she’d drawn the fork out of his mouth again.

In spite of said lack of appetite, it still tasted wonderful. He chewed, though it was surprisingly difficult to swallow it, even once he’d chewed it to paste.

“Hey-” he tried to say, but she just shoved the next forkful into his mouth the moment he opened it.

“Don’t talk,” she said firmly. “Sit and eat.” She pointed to a chair by the table he’d set up next to the kitchen, and she was reminding him way too much of a grade school teacher to disobey her, so he went and sat down while he chewed the food and swallowed.

Before he could say anything, she put the plastic plate and a fork down in front of him – it was from her family’s restaurant, a pretty big meal and still hot – and walked around the table to look at him from the opposite side, looking at him as if to make sure he actually ate everything.

He got a good look at her – unlike him, she was immaculate, her handmade replica of the school uniform (far superior to the genuine article) looking just-pressed and utterly spotless, her hair in a perfect bun, with a pair of fashionable rimless spectacles on her nose (she’d admitted that she’d used to need glasses, and now she mostly pretended to use contacts, but apparently she still liked wearing glasses). Right now, she had the facial expression to go with the look, stern but not unkind.

“Eudocia told me everything,” she said while he tried the salad that came with the meal. “I should’ve known something would be wrong, when you didn’t show yourself for days and cancelled your patrols. But this? What have you been thinking!? Do you want to get yourself killed?”

She ratted me out? Damn, he thought, though he couldn’t get particularly worked up about it. “I just got a little caught up with work.” He picked at his food, trying to make himself eat the rest.

“And how much, exactly, have you invented?” she asked calmly, going straight for the kill. “Let me guess – you haven’t actually finished anything, or am I wrong?”

Ow. He looked away, unable to respond.

She sighed, and he heard the fridge open and close again. Then she put a chilled bottle of water and a glass next to his plate, filling the latter with water from the former. “Drink.”

“I’m not thirsty,” he said, sounding almost petulant. He hoped.

He couldn’t see her facial expression, as he was still focused on the floor next to the table, but he was pretty sure he was picturing it right when she said, “Drink, or I swear I’ll get a chute, jam it down your throat and empty the entire bottle into you.” She sounded dead serious.

The water was used up in moments, an entire bottle emptied in pretty much one go – he’d ignored the glass. He didn’t feel thirsty, but apparently his body had different ideas.

“Now eat, or do I have to chew it for you and feed you with a chute?” she asked.

Again with the chute… “Alright, alright, I’ll eat already!” he said and focused his attention on his meal.

“And afterwards, a shower. You stink. Be glad Prisca isn’t here, I wouldn’t blame her if she dumped you for that,” she continued as she leaned against the fridge, her arms crossed beneath her chest.

“I love you too,” he replied calmly, before he filled his mouth again.

“I certainly hope so, considering I’m giving up first period for you,” she shot back.

He chewed thoroughly, then swallowed his food. “What are you talking about? We still have plenty of time before school starts…”

“Not if you keep talking instead of eating. So eat, shower, dress and we can go. And don’t think I’m not telling Prisca you’ve been letting yourself go – I can’t look after you all the time, after all.”

“Oh, please do not! You know she will overreact!” he begged half-heartedly.

“Tough luck for you – it was your choice to have a girlfriend like her,” she shot him down. “Now eat your meal, empty that bottle and go shower.”

“Yes mother…” he mumbled.

“What was that?”

“Nothing.”

***

The hot water was doing wonders for Basil. He couldn’t believe he’d gone almost an entire week without a shower! He usually showered every day, and twice on hot days. Wasteful, perhaps, but he loved it too much.

And yet I completely spaced out on cleaning up. He was taking too long, really, and if he didn’t finish soon, he’d probably have Vasiliki storming in to finish the job, and he really didn’t want that.

He took the soap and a long scrubber (he could have invented an automatic full-body washing machine, but he’d decided it was better to leave some things be) and went to work, cleaning himself up thoroughly. They’d probably be late to school… but then again, it was kind of weird for him to worry about that. It was just school. Compared to fighting spiteborn and Hastur, school was really barely a blip.

But for some reason, there was a part of Basil that was just… so firmly attached to the idea of a normal life. Living with his sister. Going to school. Going out with his girlfriend.

Just thinking about it made him feel fuzzy and nostalgic, in a really weird way. And even though he’d been… pushing himself lately, he’d barely missed a day of classes, even though, thinking about it in retrospect, he’d avoided his friends.

I wonder why.

Maybe it’s because part of you knows you’re going wrong, and you didn’t want them to help you, mate.

Why wouldn’t I want their help?

I cannot say.

Yeah great, that’s so… wait. That’s what the Blazing Sun always says!

No response.

Moonboy?

No response.

“Great, now he’s giving me the silent treatment,” Basil said, before he wondered just what it meant for his mental health when his own multiple personalities were ignoring him to avoid questions.

I am so fucked.

***

The downside of taking a nice hot shower was that it was even harder now to stay awake. He’d have to focus a lot to stay awake through the drudge of school. Maybe Vasiliki can help me with that…

He stepped out of his bathroom, wearing a shirt and shorts, only to see Prisca sitting on the table in a cute red minidress and black thigh-high socks. He froze, staring at her, for more than one reason (reason a) cute. Reason b) what was she doing here at this time? She was supposed to be awake!).

Which was why he didn’t notice Vasiliki step up to him from next to the door.

“What i-” he began, before she blew a handful of green dust into his face and the world drifted away.

***

Prisca watched as Vasiliki caught Basil as he went slack, and quickly glided over to take him off of her – if anyone got to manhandle her boyfriend, it’d be her!

“Alright, you got the plan?” Vasiliki asked as they carried him to the single bedroom he’d built into the base.

“Let him sleep, if he wakes up make sure he eats and drinks a lot and above all, no letting him work on any inventions until we’ve all met up and talked to him,” she said in a serious voice.

“Right. And you’re sure you’ll be able to stay asleep for this?” Vasiliki asked to be sure.

“Sure, I pushed myself to stay up late just for this, so I’d sleep through to noon at least,” Prisca replied.

“Good. I’ll be back after school then,” Vasiliki said and left. “Then we’re going to figure out just what’s wrong with Basil…”

“And we’ll damn well fix it,” Prisca agreed.

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B011.b Recreation

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Somewhere else…

Three people were sitting in comfortable beanbag chairs in a room with a panorama window, which showed the scenery of a tropic island at noon. The window was open, allowing a cool ocean breeze inside. The room itself was richly furnished, though not excessively so. A dining table was being cleared off by four identical-looking teenage boys in red valet suits, their black hair neatly parted into old-fashioned bowl-like haircuts, their faces missing eyes, ears or mouths – only thin skin stretching over where the sensory organs should be found. This particular lack didn’t seem to impede them at all, though.

The people in the chairs were looking out the window, relaxed, each with a glass and a bottle of their drink on a small table to their left. There was an air of quiet power around them, power that was rarely unleashed.

On the leftmost chair sat a glamorous woman who appeared to be in her early thirties. Dark brown hair formed delicate ringlets, framing a face that came straight off of a World War Two fighter plane, with scarlet lips and sharp blue eyes accentuated by a subtle purple eye shadow. She was wearing a pure white dress that clung to her torso like a second skin, stretched tight around a bust that could be best called ‘heroic’, leaving her left arm and shoulder free, while extending into a skin-tight glove on the right side. It was cut like a dress from the waist down, with a slit going up the left side to allow for easier movement and show off her leg. Her feet were clad in equally white pumps with high stiletto heels. She was drinking wine, the glass held in her right hand, a lit cigarette in her left one, as she watched the scenery beyond the window with a kind of serene amusement.

Next to her sat a man well-known across the Western world, though mainly in the USA, as the founder and leader of the Humanity First group, Richard Svenson. He was tall, well-muscled, his blonde hair and beard carefully trimmed to convey a serious, trustworthy image. His blue eyes were dark, intelligent and currently focused on a four-winged humming-bird with golden plumage. He was wearing a light blue suit with a white shirt, the jacket and tie currently held by another senseless valet who stood near the door. His polished brown leather shoes lay next to his seat, and he was very obviously relaxed, sipping from a glass of green juice – Adonis on a break.

The third person was easily the most distinctive, if only for how different she was. She was young, a teenager at that point in her development where she might be an adult-looking fourteen-year-old or a petite nineteen-year-old. Or anything in between. Her skin had the colour of a child of mixed races, dark but not dark enough to be African or African-American. Her features hinted at Eurasian ancestry, her face pretty but not really beautiful, though promising to be quite stunning once she fully grew up and filled out. In contrast to her skin, her hair was of a natural platinum blonde colour, long but tied back into a practical ponytail. To further distinguish her from her two companions, she was wearing loose black sweatpants and a dark blue sports bra that held a modest bust. Her feet were bare, and she had them pulled up onto the chair, while she drank directly from a red bottle of scotch. Unlike the other two, she seemed more bored than relaxed, her eyes half-closed as she apparently focused on something that wasn’t there.

“It’s been too long since we’ve had a chance to relax like this,” the glamorous woman said, her voice slightly rough from a long, long time of smoking. “I’ve missed it.” She looked at her two companions with a warm expression.

The young girl yawned, drinking from her bottle. “I should be working. I have four different projects going on right now, and two of them are entering their critical phase,” she replied, her otherwise beautiful voice taking on a nasal quality that betrayed annoyance.

“You always have projects running, my dear,” the glamorous woman replied warmly. “You need to learn how to unwind, or you’ll burn out.”

“Listen to her,” the man said. “She knows what she’s talking about.”

You, dearest, need to learn to unwind a little less,” she admonished him with a long-suffering smirk.

“Impossible!” he replied in an exaggerated manner. “I am always sharp!”

The young one sighed, yet couldn’t help but smile a bit. As much as she was annoyed by her companions’ attitude, it was amusing, especially in contrast to their usual behaviour.

***

Ten minutes later, the young one had almost emptied her bottle of scotch, while the glamorous woman was still on the same glass of wine as before, and the man had just had his glass refilled by one of the faceless boys, who’d mixed his cocktail in seconds, refilling just after he emptied his glass.

The glamorous woman emptied her own glass a few minutes later, but declined a refill.

“What’s wrong? You usually drink more than just one glass,” the man commented.

In lieu of a reply, she stretched slowly, pleasurably. “Just not in the mood for more,” she said. “Though, you know what I am in the mood for?” She gave him a smoldering look.

“What?” he asked, while the young girl perked up, looking curiously at them as if expecting something.

The glamorous woman raised a foot, wiggling it in his direction.

He rolled his eyes. “God, you’re like a cat!” But he got off his seat and sat crosslegged in front of her on the ground, taking both of her feet onto his lap. He took her pumps off, carefully putting them aside, before he started giving her a foot massage.

“Are you two going to have sex?” the disappointed looking girl asked.

“What? No!” the man replied, looking horrified. “She raised me! That would be just… just wrong!”

“Yeah, sorry, I can’t look at him without seeing that little boy who’d try to hide behind my skirts and bribe me with chocolate,” the glamorous woman said, closing her eyes in obvious enjoyment of his hands’ work.

“How disappointing,” the girl replied, emptying her scotch bottle. “Aren’t we supposed to be having crazy orgies and all?”

“First of all, we’re not that uncultured,” the glamorous woman admonished her.

“And second of all, you just emptied an entire bottle of eighteen-seventy-five Saint Miriam Rock of Scotland scotch in less than twenty minutes. That’s twenty-six thousand US dollar you just chugged down,” the man complained as he worked on the glamorous woman’s toes.

“Oh, stop complaining, Cloudlander,” she complained right back. “Also, twenty-six grand? Really? I mean, it was good, though I guess it would be better with some root beer mixed in.”

Cloudlander looked at her like she’d just told him she was going to eat babies. “Don’t you dare!” he almost shouted. “I killed the last guy who did that. Freaking idiot internet millionaire,” he grumbled. “I shoved his entire entertainment system up his ass and out the other side.”

“Cool. Next time, take me along,” the girl said unperturbed. “We can bond over slowly murdering people. That does count as a bonding experience, right?” One of the faceless boys replaced her scotch bottle with a black-labelled wodka bottle, and she immediately took a swig.

“It certainly does,” he replied, throwing a look at the glamorous woman.

She caught it, and giggled girlishly. “Oh yes, it sure does.”

They both laughed out loud, while the girl complained about not getting the joke.

***

Half an hour later…

They’d moved outside, sitting under the shade of several palm trees, while three faceless boys used big fans to keep up a cool draft.

All three of them were barefoot, enjoying the warmth of the sand. Cloudlander and the glamorous woman had changed into bathing suits – blue for him, white for her – while the girl was still wearing the same clothes as before.

“Since we’re all here anyway,” Cloudlander said, “I was meaning to ask you something, Skyfall.” He looked at the young girl, who was taking her time with her wodka bottle, having only emptied about a third of it so far.

“Shoot,” she said, with just the slightest slur in her speech, mostly in her ‘S’.

“What was up with that debacle in Chicago?” he asked. “I haven’t had the chance to look into it myself, but… why’d you throw the Ascendant to the wolves? He may not have been the most successful bearer of the title, but it wasn’t necessary to boot him out like that.”

She snorted in a decidedly disgusted manner. “Y’know, I strongly object there. I’ve inherited lots of weird stuff from the previous Skyfall, but I’ll never understand why he ever gave a position like that to that loser!” She took a long draught from her bottle. “He was a failure through and through! And besides, I had someone way better for the job!”

“Oh?” the glamorous woman perked up – she’d been relaxing more than the other two, even, her reclining chair almost flat, but she rose up on her elbows. “Who? And what makes them so good?”

“Well, she’s a gadgeteer, for one. Not a contriver. Why everyone acts like contrivers are the be-all end-all go-to guys for this stuff, I’ll never understand,” Skyfall complained. “Her work’s actually real. It’s going to be useful even after she dies!”

“Admittedly, that’s a big advantage that all gadgeteers share,” Cloudlander agreed with her. “But that doesn’t make contriver useless – they are considered to be among the most powerful kinds of metahumans for a reason.”

Skyfall dismissed the sentiment with a wave of her hand. “Bah. I’ll stick with gadgeteers, thank you. They’re stable, at least. Or tend to be.”

“You still haven’t told us what makes this woman so worthy of the name,” the glamorous woman gently reminded her. “The Ascendant is a rather great lineage after all.”

The girl reached out for a nearby small table on which lay a tablet computer. Though she fumbled and missed it, one of the faceless boys gave her the tablet. She tapped around on it for a little while, then handed it over to Cloudlander, who passed it on to the woman, who began reading whatever was on the screen immediately, her face quickly growing more and more alarmed.

“This is her main project,” Skyfall explained. “I think it’s got a great chance of working out, and even if it doesn’t, her preliminary research alone-“

“We have to bury this,” the glamorous woman snapped. She looked at Skyfall, her eyes hard. “This must not come out, under any circumstances! You are going to move her, and all essential personnel even remotely aware of the project, to the Installation! And you are going to kill everyone else who might even know a hint of this!” She was almost shouting by the end of it.

“Geez, Heaven’s, calm down!” the girl complained, looking almost – but only almost – frightened. “What’s so bad about this?” she asked as Heaven’s Dancer handed the tablet to Cloudlander, who quickly skimmed it.

“I agree with Heaven’s Dancer,” Cloudlander said. “And I strongly believe that our fearless leader would agree as well. We have to make sure none of this gets through to Whitaker.”

“The fuck? Why would that be a problem?” Skyfall asked, though she was looking a little concerned now. “Double L is always a problem, sure, and I guess this might get under her skin, but we can deal with h-“

“No!” both of the others shot her down in unison. They looked at each other, exchanging nods, and then Cloudlander spoke in a gentler voice.

“You don’t know Whitaker. You haven’t seen what she’s really capable of. The world has forgotten that, or at least chosen to ignore it – but if she finds out about this, she’ll stop playing nice. She won’t stop coming after us, though, and she won’t stop until everyone even remotely connected to this… this project is dead and gone!”

“How’s she going to find out, anyway?” a petulant Skyfall asked. “It’s not like I’ve let anyone untrustworthy know about the project…”

“Whitaker has greater resources than some might think,” Cloudlander said.

“To be honest, her intelligence-gathering capabilities are still a mystery to us,” Heaven’s Dancer admitted. “Which also means we have a hard time making sure everything crucial stays secret from her.”

Skyfall frowned, thinking it over, but then she nodded. “Well, you know her better than I do. I would’ve suspected her to be rather happy about this, really, but I’d be a fool not to defer to you two in this.” She sighed and took another draught. “Alright. I’ll move the Ascendant to the Installation, and I’ll kill everyone who knows about it but can’t go along.”

The other two nodded, relaxing again, as one of the boys took the tablet away. “Damn it, and I was just unwinding,” Cloudlander complained.

“Language, young man,” Heaven’s Dancer admonished him. “And besides, unwinding has never been an issue for you. Just do it.”

They all fell quiet for a short time.

“Oy, since we’re talking about the Installation already,” Skyfall spoke up after a few minutes, “How’s Project Wake coming along?”

Heaven’s Dancer groaned. “It isn’t coming along, at all. We’ve done nearly everything short of throwing nukes at the Sleeper – not that we have any at our disposal right now – and it’s failed to so much as make her stir.”

“After all this time, I’m starting to think that Project Wake is doomed to fail anyway,” Cloudlander said calmly. “Maybe we should stop wasting so many resources on it?”

Heaven’s Dancer dismissed the thought with a wave of her hand. “No no, even if Project Wake itself has so far had no successes, the other projects centered around the Sleeper have been paying huge dividends. We’ve learned more about powers and the Starchildren in the last ten years than in the seventy-nine years before that, just by studying her and all the derivates.”

“Speaking of derivates,” Skyfall interjected, “What about Project Sarsaok?”

“Oh, right, I was rather looking forward to the result of that one,” Cloudlander added. “How is that one going?”

“It’s… a reasonable success, actually,” Heaven’s Dancer replied. “Actually, if it weren’t for the fact that the team working on it was aiming for something completely different, and them having no idea how it turned out like this, I’d even call it an exceptional success. It’s rather useless to our original designs, though, as we can’t replicate it.”

Skyfalls face fell. “What a shame,” she said in between drinking from her bottle. “I would’ve liked having an-“

“Actually,” Cloudlander interrupted her, “if we can’t use it for anything else, why not just let it loose?”

“What, on Japan?” Heaven’s Dancer asked, surprised. “That would be rather… crass, don’t you think?”

He made a dismissive gesture. “No, not Japan. They’re already getting enough of a pounding as is, especially with the collapse of the Sovjet Union throwing most of Asia into chaos,” he replied, “I was thinking of the USA, actually. Esperanza City, perhaps.”

Skyfall chuckled. “What, still sore about how that business with the Afolayan family turned out?”

He groaned. “No! Yes! But that’s not the reason! Actually, I’m thinking this could actually serve the whole thing, maybe get the boy to finally manifest.”

“Why’re you so interested in him manifesting, anyway?” Skyfall asked. “I know he’s got a weird condition, but what about it makes him special?”

Heaven’s Dancer answered that question instead of Cloudlander. “Actually, he’s very interesting to us, because he’s not the only one of his kind – there have been a few other children like him, all over the planet. Four that we know about, though we haven’t been able to snatch any of them away – either Goldschmidt or Whitaker managed to snag them up before we could, putting them out of our reach,” she explained. “The Afolayan boy was the only one we knew about, but of whom neither of them had found out… until his sister went and joined the United Heroes, of course; now Whitaker probably knows.”

Cloudlander gave her an annoyed look. “And remember who exactly didn’t want to just kidnap the boy put the blame on some anti-Humanity First villain and have an actual test subject to work on?”

“Puh! Don’t be so negative,” Heaven’s Dancer dismissed his outrage. “I doubt we could’ve learned so much more than we can if we push him to trigger like this!”

“Guys, what the hell is up with this squirt that you’re so into him?” Skyfall asked with exasperation, as she threw her arms up (and spilled a good quantity of wodka).

“He’s a vector-less second-generation metahuman,” Cloudlander said simply, sipping from a fizzy green drink one of the faceless boys had put into his hand at his behest. “Shows all the signs of pre-manifestation second generation, but has no metahuman vectors from which to have inherited it – and like the other cases we know about, he’s suffering from regular fits that play hob with his brain chemistry in ways that really ought to kill the boy.”

“Wow, that is interesting,” Skyfall admitted. “How about I just go snatch him up? We could vivisect him and-“

Or we just send Sarsaok to Esperanza, which will massively bolster anti-metahuman sentiment and potentially kill his remaining sister and might push him to manifest in a dozen other ways,” Cloudlander interjected. “We need to drum up some more support for Humanity First, anyway. With war on the horizon, the good people of the USA are suddenly growing brains and realising that having lots of metas on their side is an invaluable advantage.”

“Well, we can’t have that,” Heaven’s Dancer agreed. “Let’s send Sarsaok to Esperanza. And we’ll send an observation crew along to observe how the project goes,” she decided. “I’ll get the ball rolling tomorrow.”

“Wonderful,” Cloudlander said, and leaned back again. “It’s promising to be a wonderful week, all things considered.”

“Yeah,” Skyfall groused. “If only it wasn’t for me having to move a major, sensitive project halfway across the world in total secrecy. Nevermind how that whiny bitch-“

“Language, young lady!” Heaven’s Dancer interjected, making Skyfall roll her eyes.

“Alright, never mind how that whiny female dog,” she continued, “Dusu has been just a huge disappointment, ever since the Hawaii job. I’m honestly considering putting her up for a performance review next.”

“My, you’re going through your ranks quite quickly, Skyfall,” Cloudlander said, half in jest and half seriously.

“I think my predecessor was too soft,” the girl in question complained. “Too much stagnation is not good for progress. Especially when looking at a loser like Dusu.”

“Actually, your predecessor was considering getting rid of Dusu after the Hawaii debacle,” Heaven’s Dancer told her. “But our fearless leader objected, asking him to give Dusu a few more years.”

“Probably one of our great leader’s many visions,” Cloudlander said wisely. “So far, they’ve never really steered us wrong.”

Skyfall rolled her eyes again. “Well, I’m not betting on that. Dusu’s got a little time left, then I’ll put her up for performance review, even if the boss says otherwise.”

“Do what you think is best,” Heaven’s Dancer advised her. “Just keep in mind that gadgeteers like her are hard to replace, as you well know.”

“Oh, I’m sure I can manage,” Skyfall said with a small smile. “It’d be more important to keep things in motion than to keep every slot filled, anyway. Even if there weren’t lots of eager aspirants to our legacies, anyway.”

She sighed and stretched luxuriously on her seat. “One month. If she doesn’t come up with something amazing until then, I’ll put her up for a performance review.”

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B011.a A Dark Day

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November 11, a day after the Brights Debacle

“Denied. Denied. Oh, this looks interesting… no, denied. Denied… denied… ah, this one is good! Approved!”

In a brightly lit room, which was actually the whole penthouse atop the 112-story Empire State building (which he secretly owned), the man known as the Dark to most, Peter Goldschmidt to less, Father to two and Petey to one, sat behind a huge antique hardwood desk, in his human form, dressed only in a skin-tight black bodysuit, his back to the gorgeous view showing the city of New York at night and read a series of documents detailing various proposals for schemes of all kinds on a screen, one hand on the keyboard to scroll through them, denying most, approving some.

Despite what one might think, the true power of the Syndicate lay not in its access to nearly unparalleled organised criminal power, nor in its various elites – it lay in its powerful bureaucracy, which managed criminals both superpowered and mundane, all across the globe – even in places where the Syndicate was thought to have been fought off by other criminal organisations, like in the Sovjet Union. The system, though not free of many of the pitfalls of bureaucracy, was effective, efficient and tightly monitored, though not too tightly controlled – he’d learned that giving his people a sliver of freedom made them more likely to remain under control than ruling with an iron fist. Thus, the Dark was working through the high level requests for material, minions, super-powered operatives and much more, to keep an active hand in the day-to-day business of his Syndicate (even if he was only the official leader of about a third of it).

He was, in a word, bored.

Said boredom was making him more and more irritable. His secretary, who was as skillful as she was beautiful (a man of his position had to keep up appearances, after all, even if he had zero interest in her as a sexual or romantic partner), had already picked up on his mood and only forwarded him the most interesting requests. He also suspected that she’d subtly cancelled several appointments for the evening, but he wasn’t going to pry. Slivers, slivers, slivers. Besides, she really was exceptional at her job.

“Denied… denied… hmm… This one is actually good. Approved. Oh, another one. Approved.” He kept going for a few more minutes, then he stopped. “Seriously? An island base for… research into the next step of human evolution… again?” He looked at the name of the woman who’d sent the request. The Evolutrix. “Her again. When will this woman crack a biology book and learn how evolution actually works?” He sighed, resting his head on his hands, and his elbows on his desk for a moment. He’d already taken off his mask and hung up his robe, as no one was likely to see his true face here, at least no one he would mind seeing it. The windows were actually polarised so that one could only look outside and he’d have time to dress up before anyone came in, since the only ones who could just waltz into his office without paying with their lives were people he didn’t mind seeing him, anyway.

He groaned, refocusing his thoughts on the matter at hand again. The Evolutrix. In many ways, he supposed, she was not unlike the late Ascendant, except her insanity and methods were actually manageable. Most of her research was performed on animals anyway, and as to the rest… well, dead’s dead, whether one dies by a bullet through the head or by being experimented upon. There were always people the Syndicate had to dispose of, anyway.

Unfortunately, like most contrivers in the upper level of power, she was also stark raving bonkers, as Irene liked to put it. And it was getting worse, year after year. She used to be so reasonable, back in the day.

The problem with having a memory as astute as his was that he still remembered the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed teenager that he’d been introduced to by a former member of his Five, and who’d almost made the cut into the Five herself – only she wasn’t suited to being the face of his power, at all; her talents lay outside of combat.

And then she’d started becoming less stable. Less and less and less. Just this year, she’d blown through three research centers, with barely any results to her name apart from rapidly breaking down, insane mutants with random superpowers. She’d used to create custom-made powered combatants (though always with a countdown to their death attached) with various superpowers, but the quality of her work had dropped along with her sanity.

Now she was requesting another base to work in. An island base, because she wanted to experiment on whales, and she’d need both access to the ocean and a lot of space for that. Her goal being to retrace the steps of human evolution (which had nothing at all to do with whales, to his knowledge) and unlock a way to reliably grant powers to normies.

Even though he’d repeatedly tried to explain to her that powers had nothing to do with genetics. But she didn’t want to – or more likely, couldn’t – give up on her delusion.

Which, in the end, meant he had to make a tough choice. Just denying her request would not solve the problem. Cutting her off would be irresponsible – no one wanted a contriver like that alone and mad at the world. Killing her was out of the question; she’d been a loyal subordinate and hadn’t broken any of his rules in all her time as a member of the Syndicate. Which only left imprisonment or exile.

Both are cruel prizes to hand to such a loyal subordinate, he thought to himself. Yet I can’t ignore the issue anymore.

Exile would be too cruel. So, imprisonment. But a soft one. Retire her, set her up with the means to live comfortably, with access to a small, limited lab so she could keep her power in use. Assign someone to watch over her and manage her insanity. Arrange therapy – who knew, maybe she could conquer her madness and return to the fold?

Yes, that’s the way to go.

He made all the necessary arrangements, but before he sent the order, he specified that he’d escort her to her new sanctuary himself, once all was set up; he owed her that much, at least.

Then he went back to working through the remaining requests.

***

“I can’t take this anymore!” he shouted when his patience finally snapped, throwing his arms up into the air. Then he pressed a button on his intercom. “Denise, I need something to do that does not involve request forms. Now.”

Her cold, measured voice came through the speakers; he’d only known her to deviate from cold professionalism once, when he’d… pushed her, to see what she was made of. Aside from that occasion, she’d stared down even Walker and Amanda. “There is the matter of Kudzu’s disastrous showing yesterday, if you wish to interact with someone directly,” she said, as if she’d just been waiting to present it to him.

Come to think of it, she probably had. She knew his moods all too well, after working for him for the last three years.

“That sounds better than request forms. Get him and his team out of bed and gather them in conference room twenty-four,” he ordered her without bothering to hide the relief in his voice.

“Already done,” she replied. “They’ve been waiting for half an hour now.”

“Perfect.” And he meant it. Better to let him stew. “You continue to amaze me, Denise.”

“Naturally,” she replied before she went back to her work.

Ah, the confidence of youth. He got up, pulled on his mask and his robe, and took the elevator down to conference room story, calling up his wraith as he walked by Denise.

Time to have some fun.

***

Kudzu and his people had been roused from sleep for this, which was all well and good in the case of Kudzu himself, but he would’ve preferred not to torment the two kids who’d escaped along with him like that.

The man himself looked quite cowed, even before he saw him enter through the tall door (it would not do to have the king of supervillains have to stoop over to get through doors in his own fortress, not even when said king’s usual form was ten feet tall). He was still wearing his ‘costume’, save for his mask, and looked like he hadn’t slept at all. No surprise there. When he saw him enter, he went pale as a ghost, which Peter enjoyed far more than he should, really.

The other one, the boy – Leet – was sitting on a chair wearing a sweater and sweatpants hastily thrown over his pajamas, his short hair a mess. Coupled with his rather pear-shaped physique, it made him look quite pitiful. It didn’t help that he looked like he hadn’t slept at all since the caper, which was no surprise considering all his closest friends had been apprehended (and they hadn’t been broken out, yet). It was also no surprise to have him throw venomous looks at Kudzu, who’d been responsible for the whole thing, in-between giving the third person in the room love-struck puppy-dog eyes. He was looking at him with a mix of awe and fear, which also suited him just fine.

The third one – Calculass, and wasn’t that a pun of a name? – was the only female in the room right now, and she looked like the only one who’d gotten any sleep since the caper went off, as well as the only one who was relaxed, her chair tilted backwards with her feet resting on the table. She also looked like she’d actually had the time to shower and just generally get in shape, because her black hair was clean, shiny and finely braided. She was wearing a skin-tight dark green bodysuit with a few white details and apparently nothing else. Her face showed mixed heritage – Caucasian and Japanese Asian, if his guess was right – with a pleasant heart-shape and a small upturned nose, along with sharp black eyes. Unlike the others, she didn’t seem disconcerted by his appearance, the only change in her behaviour being a gleam in her eyes and the lowering of her feet off the table as she put the electronic toy she’d been playing with aside (he’d long since given up trying to keep up with the names and models). It was probably easier for younger people (she was fifteen, by his recollection).

If what he’d read about her power was correct (though her file was still woefully incomplete) then she’d probably expected being called in to begin with, and prepared accordingly. Likewise, she’d probably predicted that it wouldn’t be just their supervisor who’d show up for this.

Speaking of which, their supervisor was also present, a short, round man of Italian cast, with an ill-fitting, oily mustache and no other hair at all, in an expensive business suit. He was sitting on the side opposite to the one the three supervillains had taken their seats on, with several folders spread out in front of him. He nodded reverently at the Dark. Peter barely remembered his name, even though he made a point to know every member of his organisation. Luciano… something. He couldn’t tell, which annoyed him.

“Good evening, he began as he walked around the long table on the side of Luciano, then took a seat at its head, facing the door. “Let’s get down to business.” He looked at Luciano with all six of his red eyes. “Luciano, if you would please refresh everyone’s memory as to why we’re here?”

“Of course, Sir,” the short man said, his chest swelling with pride at being addressed with his first name by the Dark.

If only he knew it’s merely because I can’t remember anything else about him, Peter thought to himself with some amusement.

Luciano rifled through his files and pulled what had to be the official report out, several pages of small writing.

“The cliffnotes, please,” he intercepted before the man could get started. If I have to listen to one more full report tonight, I’ll have to kill someone.

“Oh, of course. Well,” the man floundered for a moment, before he caught himself and put the notes down, beginning to recount the events. “Yesterday at two pm and eight minutes, Kudzu and his associates, which include the currently present Leet, his apprehended teammates Foxfire, Fulcrum, Razzle and Lag, as well as the currently absent mercenary Phasma – who refused shelter after the event – and Calculass, junior member of the Pre-Apprentice program, who was sent along as an observer, attacked and took over control of the New Lennston Brights Arcades, so as to access the last remaining vault of the supervillain Lanning, currently incarcerated with no parole; to that end, Kudzu also hired a team of specialists in breaking into such buildings. Furthermore, he was also granted thirty trained baseline combatants equivalent to SWAT combatants.”

Kudzu shifted on his seat, growing more and more uncomfortable. The Dark ignored him for now, ostensibly watching Luciano, though he was, in truth, mostly paying attention to Calculass and Leet. Their behaviour was so different, yet both clearly showed impatience and an intense interest in him… probably waiting to hear him speak, to find out what he had to say.

Luciano continued to sum up how the operation had progressed, all the way up to the disastrous end. “Finally, though the vault was successfully opened, one of Lanning’s now-rampant creations immediately attacked the specialists and killed them, then went on a spree through the Arcades – with greater casualties prevented only thanks to Razzle safeguarding the hostages – which was stalled by the intervention of junior hero Polymnia and the vigilante Brennus, then ended by junior hero Gloom Glimmer when she broke through the shielding that had been thrown up to disguise the entire event. Kudzu, Calculass and Leet were able to escape, though everyone else was either killed or detained.”

The Dark nodded. “All in all, a complete disaster,” he concluded before he turned his head to face Kudzu, who shrank into his seat. “Do you have anything to add?”

He watched as the man pulled together what little remained of his self-esteem and set his jaw. “Yes, Sir. I do not dispute any of the statements Mister Calientri made, but I wish to add that I could not have predicted the presence of two superheroes – one of whom had apparently kept a major aspect of her power secret until then – nor Lanning’s rampant robot monster,” he explained. “Nor was I expecting Phasma – who could’ve easily put the robot down, as well as subdued the two heroes long before reinforcements could’ve arrived – to prove so… passive.”

“Phasma’s lack of cooperation, though understandable considering her connection to Brennus, has been noted and she willingly returned the advance on her payment to us; she won’t be hired again until she has proven to have worked through her issues,” Luciano replied after a glance from the Dark.

Basil, Basil, Basil, he thought. So adept at meddling in everything you are connected to even remotely. And I can’t touch you, of course, since you’re Amanda’s brother. Nor could he touch Melody, not that he would’ve retaliated against a junior hero, anyway, not for this kind of interference. But even if he would’ve, her relationship with Irene prohibited any and all actions against her, if only to preserve the peace at home.

“Phasma’s performance does not concern us, though,” he said. “She is an auxiliary operative at the best of times, a mere mercenary most of the time. This meeting concerns the catastrophic way in which the opposition encountered was handled by you, Kudzu.” He fixed the man with a hard look, making him shrink back into his chair again. “Frankly, I am quite a bit more concerned about the way you managed to get no less than four of our new talents arrested than the loss of the other personnel, or the failure to procure the diaries.”

Kudzu gulped, and Leet gave him a grateful look for prioritising his friends (and calling them all ‘talents’, he suspected); he was unlikely to blame the Dark for this disaster, anyway, but it was always good to solidify peoples’ loyalty.

Calculass only smirked, as if she’d seen through the act.

Interesting. I wonder whether she is simply astute, or her power helps. If she’d managed to get placement in the apprentice program without a team, then she ought to be a special talent.

And yet her file had not been flagged for him to read, even though he’d explicitly ordered that he be kept up to date on any special talents within the organisation. Maybe it was just an honest mistake. Maybe someone was trying to keep her off my radar.

Or maybe he was just so bored that he was reading way too much into a single smirk.

Fortunately, Kudzu drew his thoughts back to the matter at hand when he tried to evade responsibility. I wonder how he’ll try to achieve that.

“Sir, please, this is being blown way out of proportion,” he began. “Yes, there were multiple factors I hadn’t predicted, and yes, I failed to achieve my objective, but the talents you assigned to me are all still alive, and since the ones that were captured are all minors, and lack unmanageable powers, breaking them out of whichever juvenile detention facility they will be put into should not be an issue – and I will gladly do it myself, on my own dime-“

“Enough!” he shouted, slamming a fist on the table. Time to end this charade.

Everyone went quiet, even more so once he began leaching the light out of the room, casting an oppressive gloom about everyone. He rose, slowly, reaching out for Kudzu. The fool leaped off his chair and ran for the door – he’d probably set up some crazy escape plan, just out of habit – but Calculass reached out with one foot, tripping him.

He fell on his face with a yelp, and then the Dark was upon him. Lifting the man by the neck, he held him up so his head was almost touching the ceiling.

“On your own dime, eh?” he growled, making his wraith pulse for extra effect. “How very gracious of you. How noble. How utterly asinine! Of course you’ll break them out free of pay, and you know why? Because otherwise, I will break you! Does your intellect suffice to understand that?” He shook the man until he nodded. “And as to why I’m doing this myself, instead of letting Luciano rip into you – I know you accessed our files on the capes of New Lennston, so you ought to have known that Polymnia and Brennus both are hands off! Had you actually killed either of them, your punishment would’ve been far, far harsher than you can imagine, boy.

The man paled, though Peter was sure he didn’t realise just how close to a gruesome death he’d gotten. Amanda had been screaming bloody murder within an hour after the whole thing had become known, and he’d just barely talked her down before she went after Kudzu – fortunately, Basil hadn’t actually been hurt, and so she’d finally calmed down, after he’d promised to personally take care of the issue.

Calming down Irene had been considerably easier – the girl was taking much more after her mother than him, and she’d been willing to let it go, so long as she never had to see or hear of Kudzu again.

“As if all that were not enough, you lost the diaries! They were either destroyed or picked up by someone we don’t know about, which at best means the Syndicate will have to pay top dollar to get them back, if we ever get them at all!” he shouted at the man, his eyes flaring up like blood-red stars. He could smell the man soil himself as he threw him towards the door, before he calmed himself down, letting light fill the room again. “You have forty-eight hours to draw up a plan to break the survivors of your failure out of prison, and another seventy-two hours to pull it off; don’t you dare show your face to me again unless you succeed.”

The man nodded fearfully, all but crawling out of the room and breaking into a run.

The Dark returned to his seat and took a look at the three who remained. Luciano looked calm and professional, though he could see the signs of nervousness and fear in him… ah, he’d been the one to sign off on this operation, and he was fearing that he’d be punished as well.

“No blame lies with you, Luciano,” he soothed his worries. He’d have preferred to use his last name, now that he knew it, but he’d already used his first name before – switching to his last name could be seen as a kind of punishment, and that was not the message he wanted to bring across. “You followed procedure perfectly, and Kudzu’s failure will not reflect back on you.”

“Th-thank you, Sir,” the man breathed in relief.

“The same applies to you, Leet,” he continued, turning to look at the boy. “Your performance was exemplary. I fear you were simply outmatched against Brennus, which is no fault of yours.”

“Yeah, uh, I didn’t know anyone could work like that. He was shutting me out of any system he got access to without even trying, even though he had barely any resources and I doubt he studied the Arcades’ security systems beforehand,” the boy said with a blush that offset his annoyed look. “I read up on the guy, and I can’t even begin to guess at what he’s capable of – what is even his speciality?!” he asked, sounding as exasperated as he looked.

You’re not the only one who’d like to know that, he thought to himself. “Sooner or later, a pattern will emerge and then we’ll figure out just what his limitations are.” He turned away from the boy and looked at the girl. “Do you have anything to add, Calculass?” he asked curiously.

“I think Kudzu could’ve dealt with the heroes, or with the rampant contrivance – it was just that both together were too much, especially since Polymnia turned out to have an ace in the hole like that,” she stated firmly, her voice carrying a French accent… French Canadian. “He completely failed to adapt his pre-conceived plans, though; I think that’s a limitation of his power, not of himself – he needs to work in advance, not on the fly. He really should never have been allowed to actually lead a mission himself.”

“His power may be thus limited, but being aware of that and knowing ones own limitations – or rather, not doing so in this case –  is on him; he’s been active for years and has still failed to figure it out, it seems.”

She just shrugged. “Well, that’s all I had to add, I guess.”

Liar. He didn’t know why, but his gut was telling him that there was more that she wanted to say. But why was she holding it back?

He looked closer at the girl. She was relaxed in a calmly detached sort of way – her profile suggested sociopathic tendencies and a certain amount of general detachment from the real world – but she was definitely holding something back…

Ah. That’s how it is.

“Luciano, Leet, you two are dismissed, please, return to your rooms – you’ve both earned some sleep,” he said. He looked straight at the girl. “I would like to have a private word with Calculass, anyway.”

They nodded and got up to leave, though Leet threw the girl a worried look which she ignored. “Um, good night, Calculass. And good night, uh, boss,” he threw in at the last minute.

The Dark acknowledged him with a nod, though Calculass gave no sign of even having noticed him. He left after Luciano.

“That was rather mean, to ignore him like that,” he said lightly. “Why the cold shoulder?” The more he knew about her, the better.

She looked up at him, sitting up straight. “It’s more likely that he’ll stay infatuated with me, without demanding actual reciprocation, if I give him the cold shoulder in between a few sparse responses; responding too much might lead to him growing impatient and demanding a definitive answer as to my interest in him,” she said coldly.

“So you’re just stringing him along in order to exploit his talents?”

“No. He does that all on his own – even if I rejected him, I doubt it would end his interest in me, and it might merely lead to him growing actually obsessed with me; better to make use of it while it lasts.”

“How very calculating of you,” he joked.

She rolled her eyes. “Wow, I’ve never heard that one before.”

“What did you expect with a cowl like that?” Not that it’s nearly the worst cowl I’ve ever heard, he thought, reminded once again of ‘the Evolutrix’.

She actually blushed a bit. “It’s from my favourite book series, alright!?” Then, as if as an afterthought, she added, “Sir.”

“I see. So, what’d you want to say earlier?” he finally got to the point.

“I noticed some weird interference, during the mission,” she said at once. “Sir.”

He tilted his head. “Define interference.”

“Interference with my power,” she complied. “Do you know how my power works?”

“I’m afraid I only know that it’s based on numbers and that you have been classified as a potential A-Class Esper – which is very curious, as I am supposed to be briefed on every such individual as soon as they’re classified, yet I’d never even heard of you before this debacle.”

She looked down at her hands on the table. “I, ah, wouldn’t know about that…”

He chuckled good-naturedly, making her look up at him in surprise. “Who’s your master?”

“Dominaria,” she said before she swallowed dryly.

Ah, light dawns. “You know why she tried to keep you hidden from me.” A statement, not a question, backed up by as stern a glare as he could manage (he could manage a very stern one, especially with six eyes).

She looked down again, her shoulders slumping a bit. “She… she’s planning a coup. Not that I think that she’s got any chance, but… she’s planning.” She hunched her shoulders, then looked at him with wide eyes. “Please don’t hurt her. I know she’s… but…” Words failed her, obviously.

“Oh, I’m not going to hurt her, child,” he said. “I’ve known about her little schemes for a long time now; I just didn’t know about you.”

“You know…” She cut herself off, and her eyes… flickered for a moment, her pupils refocusing visibly. “Oh. Better the devil you know.”

Interesting. Quite so. Dominaria is quite useful despite her overblown ambition; better to let her think I haven’t seen through her little games and make use of her, instead of inviting someone more competent to take her place. But enough of that, please tell me about that interference.”

She cleared her throat, then she sat up straight, instead of lounging or being hunched over. “As you know, Sir, precognitive powers, as well as some other Esper-type abilities, interfere with each other when being focused on the same or closely related subjects – for example, when multiple espers are part of the same operation, especially when they are on opposing sides.”

“I am all too aware of that, believe me,” he said, reaching up with his hands to massage his temples. “And I have very vivid memories of the migraines that come with it.” That was a straight lie – he’d never had to deal with the downsides of esper-abilities himself – he had his wraiths for absorbing the unsavory side-effects of powers like that.

She smiled in sympathy. “Yeah, me too, Sir,” she said, shuddering a bit as she no doubt remembered suffering through the backlash of her power. “So, anyway – my power is partly precognitive, and even its present-focused components appear to suffer from the same interference; it wasn’t so bad when I was working together with Kudzu, as his power mostly works in advance, and not while we were together out on the field; and even then, we were on the same side, and I was just an observer, not an actor.”

He nodded, to show that he was still following her.

“But then it got weird. It was like someone with a major esper-ability – some kind of serious precog, probably, since they always cause the worst interference – had suddenly, and out of nowhere, inserted themselves into the situation. I only dodged a migraine because I was, as I said, just an observer, and holding my power back in general; and Kudzu probably didn’t even notice, he doesn’t seem to be too aware of his power’s workings – but I have no doubt that it contributed to his catastrophic failure to adapt to the changing circumstances.”

Well well well, I guess I might’ve been a little too hard on the man. Just a little bit. “Do you have any idea who might’ve been responsible?”

She shook her head. “Only wild mass guessing, Sir. Nothing based on any evidence.”

“Tell me your top theory, please,” he asked nicely. The girl was quite astute – few people her age were that aware of the inner workings of the more subtle powers, even other espers; even veterans like Kudzu often lacked the proper awareness of the subject matter.

“I suspect one of the heroes, Sir,” she said. “Polymnia already concealed an impressive level of brute power – it would not be too much of a stretch to assume that she’s kept another ability secret. However, multiple powers are rare, and three powers of such diversity are even less likely. So I’d probably bet on Brennus. We barely know anything about his abilities anyway, it is reasonable to assume that he has a precognitive ability on top of his Gadgeteering which he doesn’t advertise.”

Not as far as I – or he – he can tell. “Reasonable. Of course, there might’ve just been a precog hiding among the civilian hostages. Then again, they wouldn’t have been able to interfere too much in the situation without giving themselves away, which they didn’t…” He made a break in his speech, inviting her to conclude the thought. Just to see if she’d realise what he was talking about.

“And a passive precog is not really going to interfere with active ones – they need to actually use the information they get in order to force our powers to try to account for them… which would cause their power to have to account for ours, provided we’d be interested in and able to respond… which would initiate the cycle of interference, which it did, which implies that the precog actually did act, and did not merely observe as I did; they would’ve caused far less damage if they’d acted like I did.” She shook her head. “This is so frustrating, Sir.”

“That’s the life of an Esper, dear. Believe me, it’s even more frustrating for those who aren’t blessed with that kind of ability. Why didn’t you want to say this in front of the others? Your observation would not have put you at a disadvantage in any way.”

“I’m naturally secretive, Sir,” she said. “I prefer to keep the circle of knowledge small. Controllable. There was no need to share it with the others.”

“My, you’re already talking like a veteran. I approve.”

She blushed and smiled a bit, shifting around on her seat in a pleased way; then she fixed met his eyes directly for the first time. “So… what now, Sir?”

“Now you will explain your power to me. And then I’ll decide whether you’re more useful as Dominaria’s subordinate, or whether to use you somewhere else.”

She swallowed dryly, but didn’t speak up, looking… really rather scared, her earlier cheer gone. Sociopathic tendencies? Either she’s a world-class actor, or she’s more normal than her psychological profile suggests.

“Begin.”

She nodded, and took a deep breath. “Well, my power relies on numbers, as you already know. I… see numbers, everywhere. She looked around the room. “The length of things, the height, angles, weight, whatever – it starts simple, but builds up. For example, I look at you, and my power immediately compares your height to my own, and so I know that you’re exactly three metre tall.”

He raised a hand, interrupting her. “It uses the metric system?”

She frowned. “Actually… now that you mention it, no. Not really. But… when I have to express the numbers, they come out in the metric system… it’s hard to put into words, I only see and work with numbers in a system that has no words, no descriptions. Just numbers and graphs, but as soon as I try to put it into words – whether in my head or vocally – it just naturally parses into the metric system; but I can also parse it into the imperial system. I just… prefer the metric system. It’s way more elegant.”

“Not to mention sane,” he added.

She smirked, relaxing a bit. “Yeah, that. So, to get back to my power… I start with simple numbers. Like your height. Then, I calculated your weight, which is only seventy-three kilogram, which suggests that you’re either insanely underweight, or this appearance of yours is not really your physical form.”

“That is correct,” he admitted. I’m liking this. “How did you calculate my weight? Did the number just come to you, provided by your power?”

She shook her head. “No. I mean, I can do that, too, but it… no, let’s not do this out of order. I’ll get to that later, alright?”

“It’s your power – you ought to know how to explain it,” he agreed.

“I had trouble with your weight, for a moment, because it’s so disproportionate to your height – normally I compare a person’s height to the noise they make when they walk, the way their body moves, how much they sink into their seats, and so on. With you, those numbers were out of proportion, or plain hidden – I can’t tell how you move beneath those shadows, for example – and it took me a little longer than usual to get your weight. I had the same problem with lung capacity and fitness; normally, looking at a person’s body, listening to their voice and their breathing is enough to determine those numbers; but with you, it’s all skewed.”

“We keep coming back to that problem. Please use someone other than me as an example,” he told her.

She nodded. “Alright. Let’s take Kudzu. He’s one meter and seventy-three centimetres and nine millimetres tall – which I could tell by comparing his height to mine – and he weighs sixty kilogram and two-hundred and fifty gram. He has slightly below-average lung capacity at five-point-five litres and his muscles show slightly blow-average density, too. His bones are average for men of his age, in terms of density. All these numbers were inferred from observing his height, movements, breathing and speech. I also have numbers on his reflexes – again slightly below average for men of his age – and other statistics,” she recounted with some pride in her voice.

“Impressive. But that is hardly the reason why you’ve been given a Esper classification.”

“No, that’s just how it starts,” she corrected emphatically. “I can add any number about a subject to their… their profile. And the more information I already have, the more I can compute. But I have to be careful how far I stretch it – if I work off of too little hard information, I not only tend to reach wrong numbers, but I risk my models collapsing and causing me a huge migraine. Also, it’s easier for other espers to block me if I rely on too little hard information.”

“I think you’ll need to explain that more elaborately,” he admitted suspiciously.

“Well, for example – let’s say I want to calculate a weak point in a person’s body, to cause the maximal damage with a simple strike,” she said, her eyes staring off into the distance. “Even if, say, I only have a person’s height and weight – and nothing else yet – my power can jump ahead, giving me numbers I haven’t worked up to yet – like the shatterpoint of a person’s right arm’s bones. But if I use that… that soft number to calculate how to hit for maximum damage, and that other person is also an esper of some kind, then my calculations are far more likely to be off than they would be if I were to work up to the shatterpoint by analysing bone density, muscle density, previous damage and so on and getting the same, but hard number to use.”

“But if you already have those numbers, you are resistant to the effect?” Please say no, please say yes…

“Yes, that’s it. I become more resistant to interference the more hard numbers I have. And the effect is even more pronounced if I have hard numbers on an esper’s power – if I really analyse it, and I let my power work out their power by processing observations, reports and so on, then I can start to work against them without their power interfering with mine.”

Oh, this is going to be a problem… “How very… interesting. But I assume there is a limit to this?”

She nodded. “Yes, very much so,” she admitted sullenly, as if the thought of her power being less than perfect offended her. “Figuring out powers is really hard, especially the more subtle ones. And even more so if they don’t have external effects. I mean, calculating the strength and toughness of a brute is trivial. As is range, accuracy and heat of a laser beam,” she said off-handedly with a shrug. “But working out a person’s precognition, or their enhanced intelligence or to which extent they can mimic powers? Not so much, not usually. And when I work with complex, subtle stuff like that, I have to be even more careful not to slip and leave too many gaps in my calculations – it can happen unconsciously, without me noticing it – which leads to migraines again.”

“You mentioned earlier that you have precognitive abilities. Explain that, too.”

“If I have enough numbers on something, I can calculate probable future actions and events, as well as how likely they are to happen,” she replied with a proud grin. “The more I know, the further into the future I can look, and the more accurate it becomes. It gets even better if I have information on previous behaviour – or, even better, if I have first-hand experience. Which is why I could tell that there was a seventy-nine percent chance of Kudzu trying to escape when you increased the pressure on him, and I’d already calculated how to stop him – a simple trip was enough – as well as how to trip him the best way – maximised effect, minimised risks for me; after all, I didn’t want to twist my ankle, or have him step on my foot,” she finished with a disdainful sniff.

She’s adorable. “And you can predict anyone so long as you have numbers on them?”

“No. I can’t predict DiL, not really. I can create a… a model of her, something to fill in the gap, but it’s still a gap, and so my predictions are largely useless, at least in the long term – I can’t predict where she’ll strike next, nor even where it’s most likely to happen – and I can’t figure out any weaknesses, either – I just get a migraine out of trying. I might be able to predict her behaviour in the short term, if I was present during an attack, but I wouldn’t bet on it. There are some people who’re just… living gaps for my power, no matter how much or how few numbers I have on them.”

I almost wish Gwen was here to hear this… though she’d probably snatch the girl right up. “Let me guess – Ember and Pristine are also living gaps to you?”

She nodded. “Yes. And… uh… I tried to… to analyse Gloom Glimmer – just as a thought exercise, of course!” she admitted, making a rather ridiculous-looking calming gesture, as if she was afraid he’d lash out at her for even thinking about it.

“And what was the result?”

“My power works normally on her… sometimes. And sometimes, she’s as much of a gap as… the others. I can still predict her using a… let’s call it a theoretical model, I mean, I remember the numbers I use when my power is working normally on her, and I can use them to create a gap-filler, but even though those same numbers worked just fine before, my power treats them as if they were soft numbers, and not the hard numbers I was using before. It doesn’t help that I don’t really have any firsthand experience with her, only reports and videos on the internet.”

“Numbers from firsthand experience are more useful?”

“Yes, extremely so. Far less risk of unconscious gaps if I’m actually there, experiencing things firsthand.”

“What about non-sentient targets?”

“Easy stuff,” she said, her grin returning to her face. “A rock falls the same way, every time. I just need to know its weight and shape. Animals vary. The more complex they are, the more information I need to predict them; insects and the like are trivial, mammals are more complex; no animals are half as difficult as humans, though.”

“I must say, your power is impressive. No wonder Dominaria would like to keep you to herself.”

She blushed. “Uh, yeah. She’s said that, too.”

He noted the blush. Considering Dominaria’s usual modus operandi, he wouldn’t put it past her to have used her power to make the girl fall in love with her… whether or not she was interested in females.

Then again, she didn’t seem to have that strong a hold on her… espers tended to be more resistant to mental powers.

I see quite a bit of research coming my way… though I could also outsource it, I guess.

“I think I’ve heard enough for now,” he concluded. “Thank you for your cooperation. You may go to your room – sleep, for you will need to be on the top of your game tomorrow.”

She paled. “W-why, Sir?”

“Can’t you tell?” he asked curiously.

“I don’t have nearly enough numbers to predict you, Sir,” she said.

“It comforts me to know that my mysterious mysteriousness remains mysterious to you,” he chuckled as he rose up and walked around the table – on her side. She didn’t flinch or shrink away when he reached out to run his palm over her head, but she did shiver. Not fear. Not arousal… but something else. Ah, she’s attracted to power, he deduced. She wasn’t the only esper in the room, after all. “You’ll need to be well-rested for the first day of the rest of your life. I wish you a good night… and sweet dreams.” And with that, he left the girl and took the elevator back up.

***

He dismissed the wraith while on the elevator, and walked by Denise’s desk – taking the time to give her blonde-haired, pale face a look that implied appreciation of her beauty, to appease her vanity – with a light step. “Denise, I want you to re-assign Calculass,” he told her.

“Where to, Sir?” she asked without preamble, and without even asking who he was talking about.

“To me. I’m taking her on as my personal apprentice.”

That got a reaction out of her. Her cool, collected mask slipped for just a moment, betraying surprise, before she got herself under control again. “I will do so, Sir.”

“Call her up tomorrow at eight o’clock. She is to assist you the whole day,” he ordered.

She nodded, already tapping her keyboard. “Shall I put her through the wringer, Sir?”

“Absolutely. I want to know what she’s made of, whether she can swallow her pride and do work that, to her, would be beneath her and her power,” he elaborated. “Don’t be too obvious about it, though – with her power, she’ll probably figure out that she’s being tested sooner rather than later, but the longer it takes her, the better. Best not to mention that she’s to be my apprentice, either – only tell her she’s supposed to assist you. Don’t mention me, and don’t let her contact me; as far as it concerns her, she’s been assigned to be your bitch, and nothing more.”

The corner of her left mouth ticked up. “Oh, I think I’m going to enjoy this a lot, Sir,” she admitted as she made the necessary arrangements.

“I’m sure you will,” he said with a gentle touch to her shoulder. “Also, make sure she doesn’t contact Dominaria in any way.”

“Of course, Sir.”

He nodded and walked to the door. “I’ll be in my office then.”

“Yes Sir. I sent a new batch of request forms to your computer – the urgent ones have been added to the front of your queue, the rest to the back.”

He groaned with as much feeling as he could put into it. “You know, if I see just one more request form, I’m going to take over the world and wipe out the very concept of request forms!” he swore.

“You make that oath three times a week, and the request forms are still here. I suppose they are mightier than you,” she said in a perfectly level voice.

“No one respects me anymore,” he complained as he entered his office.

“The request forms certainly don’t, Sir,” she said to the sound of her fingers flying over the keyboard.

***

Sitting at his desk, he reached for his phone before he’d get back to those infernal request forms. He pressed the first speed dial button.

The phone barely had a chance to ring before it was picked up.

“Hello Petey!” said Gwen’s bright voice, and immediately, he felt at ease. Much more pleasant than request forms.

“Hello Gwen,” he replied warmly, as he put his robe and mask aside. “How’re you doing?”

“Oh, I’m quite well, my dear. Just hunting down a few annoying villains. Same old, same old,” she answered. He didn’t hear anything other than her voice, since she usually used a directed microphone that picked up only her voice when in the field.

“Anyone I know or should be worried about?”

“No. Just a bunch of teenage hotheads who think it’s funny to advertise online that they’re planning to sexually assault heroines – I’m going to teach them a lesson,” she said, with a little annoyance and a subtle thread of outrage sneaking into her otherwise happy voice. “What about you?”

“Oh, I just found a possible proof of your theory on the mechanics of precognition,” he said off-handedly, as if it wasn’t anything special.

“What? Really!” she spoke, her voice rising a little higher. She sounded very pleased. “Who, or what, is this proof?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” he asked and hung up on her. Then he blocked her number on his phone, for the time being, laughing to himself all the while. Oh, this would annoy her for hours. She’d get all worked up and annoyed with him… and then, maybe, he’d let her ‘convince’ him to tell her, later on… perhaps in bed. Yes, that would serve nicely. They hadn’t had much time together lately. So busy, the both of them.

His mirth lasted all through the first ten request forms, four of which he approved. Then he was back to being deathly bored.

***

He had slipped into a mercifully numb fugue state, as he worked through his queued up work, when his intercom buzzed him back to life.

“Yes?” he asked, just in time for the door to open and Wyrm to simply walk in. She was one of the few people who were allowed to do that. “Nevermind,” he said into the intercom. Then he turned to her. “Hello, Wyrm,” he greeted her as he looked her up and down. “How are you doing?”

She was wearing a new power armor again – she never left her den without wearing power armor, though a quick check with his wraith confirmed that it was her at least, and she wasn’t trying to pass a remote-controlled drone off as herself again.

This armor was remarkably sleek, even considering her usual designs, which had actively avoided the clunky look of her early power armor (she was still getting embarrassed about that) for decades now, and it even hinted at some female curves underneath. Her helmet looked sleek, with a smooth faceplate and a stylised draconian design on the sides and top, extending out to the back. A backpack of sorts extended from her back, with what looked like two folded dragon wings attached to it which lacked the skin between their bones. The whole armor was coloured mostly black with glowing neon blue bits all over. It would most likely look pretty eerie in the dark.

“I’m just/ fine,” she said in her usual way of combining various soundbites from various sources, as she walked up to his desk and let the wooden panel which hid his projector flip open.. “It’s really/ inefficient to/ have me come personally/ for every report./ A video conference/ would be much more efficient,” she brought up her usual argument while she began to remove the old projector and install a new one she’d brought with her.

He smiled at her, already looking forward to whatever new gadget she’d come up with. “Perhaps, but if I didn’t make you come here for reports, you’d never leave your den at all, except on a mission,” he reiterated his usual response.

“What is the purpose of/ a den/ with every possible/ comfort and/ tool/ if I have to leave it?” she asked without bothering to look away from her work.

“None whatsoever!” he said cheerily, which earned him a deadly glare (though anyone who didn’t know her well enough to read her tells would think she’d only looked up from her work). “What do you want to talk about, my dear?” It can’t possibly not be more interesting than request forms.

“You asked me to/ investigate the source of/ Brennus’/ income,” she said, and he immediately became more serious, straightening himself out.

He’d been waiting to find out about that. “What did you find out?”

“I found out/ where it came from,” she replied. “Robin Hood.”

“Robin Hood?” He hadn’t heard anyone use that handle in… a long time, really. “Who is that?”

“Not who/ what?” she corrected him as she finished working on the projector and closed the panel. “I wasn’t sure/ at first/ but I’m now sure/ that it’s an/ AGI.” She walked a few feet away, letting the screen roll down, which she promptly dismantled.

Now the last bit of his cheer went away. “What kind?”

“I am absolutely certain/ that it’s a Gadget,” she replied, and then fell quiet to let that sink in while she carried the old projector and the screen out of the room for housekeeping to take care of.

He leaned back in his seat and raised a hand to put his palm on his forehead. Just great, he thought. A contrived AI was one thing – they were only rarely able to interface with non-contrived systems, and even if they did – they inevitably caused damage to whichever normal system they managed to interact with, which both limited their utility and their ability to use subterfuge, as their impossible nature caused glitches and worse in the programming of actually functional computer systems. An AI created by a gadgeteer… was not so limited.

They’d learned that the hard way, just a few years ago.

“What do you know about it? Is it anything like Morgana?” he asked, referring to the AI which had very nearly destroyed the British finance system in her effort to wipe the Syndicate off the British Isles.

She thought it over for a moment, sitting down on his desk right next to his left hand, then she spoke up, turning her head so her helmet was looking straight at him – though he knew she was using micro-cameras all over her helmet and armor to have a constant field of view of three-hundred sixty degrees anyway.

“My report/ took this long to complete/ because I wanted to be sure/ of what I found,” she began. “My conclusion/ after extensive research/ is thus:/ Robin Hood/ was created by/ the same person as/ Morgana.”

He groaned softly, rubbing his forehead. “Any clues as to who that person might be?”

“None,” she replied. “Occam’s Razor/ suggest that it’s/ one of four people./ Unless we assume/ it is someone who is/ entirely unknown/ in which case we/ would have nothing to go on.”

He motioned for her to continue. She turned to look towards the door, and the projector she’d just installed popped up. It promptly projected a file into thin air.

The image was crisp and looked almost solid, showing the image of a young Chinese woman, perhaps in her early twenties, with long, straight black hair and an arrogant look on her pretty face that belied the usual stereotypes about Asian women.

Peter, of course, knew that face. “Su Ling,” he said, even though her name was being projected next to her image, along with several bits of information on her – birthdate, height, weight, etc.

“Though there is/ little reason to/ believe that she is/ alive/ Su Ling has proven/ herself capable of/ creating true AI./ They may have been/ created before/ the Viridescent Dawn/ or perhaps/ she survived and/ has been creating them/ ever since.”

A chilling thought – if Su Ling survived, I wouldn’t be surprised if she were mad at the world, and out for blood. There was no telling what kind of damage she could cause. “We did find and positively identify her corpse, though,” he said.

“True, but/ considering her abilities/ it would be foolish to/ entirely discount her/ after all/ she could’ve made them in advance, as I said.”

“Alright. Go on.”

The file changed, showing the face of a preteen girl. She was cute, as all children were, with rosy cheeks and curly blonde hair, though perhaps a little heavier than was the average for a child. Her bright brown eyes were glittering with mischief. Her codename was also displayed in the lingo of internet denizens and English both: I<3U/I Love You.

“Though she is/ rather young/ I Love You/ has proven herself capable of/ creating Artificial Specialised Intelligences./ She may well/ have made the jump to/ Artificial General Intelligence.”

“If it’s her, then we can at least deal with it easily,” he replied. “We know where she lives, we can talk to her, convince her to take any AGIs she has down – or turn them to our purposes.”

“I have been/ talking to her/ through an Instant Messenger./ She is/ too enamored with her freedom/ to toe the line./ That is all/ I can say about her,” she admitted.

“Still, it leaves us options, if she really is the one – though I doubt it,” he concluded. “I hope not. I’d rather not have to move against a child that age… not again.”

“Fortunately, there are/ two more options,” she continued, and the image changed to show the mask of an angelic, porcelain-skinned woman with vermillion-coloured eyes. “Though/ Atrocity/ is not a/ gifted programmer in the sense that/ she is extremely limited in what she can produce/ her speciality is, after all/ man-machine integration./ She may well have managed to/ encode a human brain/ or fuse a/ human brain/ to a computer system/ thus allowing it to/ operate not unlike/ an AGI.”

“That’s a stretch, dear, even considering the Savage Six’ predilection for defying expectations.” He tapped drummed his fingers on the desk in a short staccato. “Nevermind that I sincerely doubt she wouldn’t just go for the maximum possible amount of damage all at once.”

“Perhaps, which is why/ she is only the/ third-most/ likely known choice,” she replied. “Robin Hood’s/ nature suggests/ a more benevolent creator,” she continued. “Speaking of which.”

The image changed to show an image from a battlefield – a city, torn asunder in metahuman combat, under a jet black sky. In the center of the image was a young boy, older than eight but younger than ten, in the middle of leaping from a crashed truck towards several of the Six’ heavily armored minions, who were shooting at him with assault rifles.

The boy was laughing as he pointed a gadget gun at the men, wearing jeans, sandals and a black shirt himself, and bullets bounced off of a force-field around him, projected by the harness he’d strapped over his shirt.

“Macian,” Wyrm said simply. “No other name/ known. Only this one/ image/ exists, and the image quality/ does not allow/ reliable face-matching./ Known connection to/ the Savage Six./ Suspected connection to/ Brennus.”

“And then there is Eudocia…” Peter whispered. “Basil believes that Macian made her. I am inclined to agree, which would indicate Macian as the source of all our trouble.”

“You should/ just let me/ take/ Eudocia/ for research,” she said, sounding almost petulant.

“There’d be no way to hide her loss from Basil. And you know the rules – he’s safe so long as he doesn’t become an active threat to the Syndicate. Even then, Amanda would have to be consulted.”

“I’m not proposing that we/ attack/ him/ I just want the/ box!” From petulant to annoyed.

“No. Not yet. Besides, Eudocia is merely a very sophisticated ASI, as far as Basil himself has been able to determine,” he replied calmly. “It may not be connected to Morgana and Robin Hood at all. Do you have any other information to tie them together?”

She shook her head.

“Alright,” he replied. “Let’s shelve this for now. We should focus on what we do know – namely, this Robin Hood AI. What is it capable of? What does it do and where is it located?”

The projector shut off. “I have not/ been able to/ determine its/ physical/ location./ It deals in/ money./ Exclusively so,” she said. “Stealing money from/ criminals and corrupt governments/ as well as/ some/ other politicians./ Redistributing it to/ people in need/ charities/ and hero organisations lacking support.”

“So the money it gave Basil may not have anything to do with a connection between them and merely have been him helping out an up-and-coming superhero?” he threw in.

“Possibly not./ Though/ it/ usually only donates to/ proven heroes/ with very few exceptions,” she answered. “It is/ very good at/ what it does./ Where it not for/ me/ tracing/ Basil Blake’s money/ I would probably not have/ found it.”

That good?”

“Yes./ It is an AGI/ after all/ yet one which/ focuses on/ a single field of/ activity,” she admitted. “Its ability to/ evade notice and/ escape pursuit/ is nearly on par with mine/ but stealth is much easier than/ tracking on the internet/ especially for something like/ that.”

He opened his mouth to respond, but stopped and leaned back to think it over. An AI that was limiting itself to redistributing money like that… was a reason to worry, but probably not a threat. Maybe. Possibly.

“Has he stolen from us?”

“Yes/ though only/ small amounts.” She threw up a file of a middle-aged hispanic man. “This accountant/ of ours/ has been stealing/ from us,” she explained. “Robin Hood/ found out and/ has been taking money/ from the accounts he manages./ As doing so would also/ reveal his own duplicity/ he has not reported this.”

Oh, the irony. “So Robin Hood inadvertently helped us find out about a leak in our own finances,” he said humorously. “How much did our accountant steal? And how much did the AI take?”

“Eight hundred and/ forty-four/ thousand dollar and/ twenty-two thousand dollar/ respectively.”

“Robin Hood took relatively little money,” he observed.

She nodded. “From what I could find out/ it prefers to deal in/ small amounts./ Five hundred here/ two thousand there./ The money it/ gave to/ Basil Blake/ was among the largest/ amounts it ever/ moved.”

“Interesting… did you interact directly with it?”

“I attempted to/ but it is rather/ skittish./ It seems to/ prefer to/ abandon any project/ it is/ working on/ rather than risk/ being found/ and/or/ analysed,” she replied. “It took me/ three days/ just to confirm/ it exists/ and two weeks/ to determine its/ nature.”

He put his fingers together in front of his face, tapping his chin with the indices. “So we have an AGI of unknown origin, which steals mostly small amounts of money to redistribute among heroes, charities and generally needy people; which is doing its best to stay hidden and not draw attention; and which has been active for… how long?”

“I was able to/ confirm activity/ over the last/ two years and/ seven months,” she answered immediately. “Should I/ attack it?/ Given some additional resources/ and two weeks/ I ought to be able to/ track down its/ physical location.”

He thought it over for a few minutes, quietly. She wouldn’t mind waiting – a few minutes were little to her, provided they were well-used.

“No,” he finally decided. “We ought not antagonise it, so long as it is… tame. That might push it into rampancy, or worse. No, we ought to reward it.”

“What?” she asked, surprise showing through in her (limited) body language. Mostly in the abruptness with which she moved her head to lock onto him again.

He nodded, quirking his mouth into a smile. “It did help us find a traitor in our midst. Transfer the usual reward – subtracting the money it already stole from us – to the account it was moving the money from ours to. No additional messages.”

“It used/ several accounts/ just for that one/ source.”

“Then to any one of them,” he replied, dismissing that issue. “Just make sure it gets the money. That way, we’ll both express that we are aware of it – and of its theft – and that we are… reasonable. Who knows but that it will cooperate with us some day.”

“Very well./ What of/ the accountant?”

“Have an example made of him, and anyone else involved in his treachery,” he replied with a hard voice, the mirth gone. “With extreme prejudice.”

She nodded simply, and had probably already sent off the orders before he even finished his sentence.

“Is there anything else?” he asked. He knew she disliked wasting time, so best to press on.

“Yes/ there is,” she replied. “You have/ chosen an/ apprentice again.”

“Yes, I have. Calculass caught my interest, and work has been… quite boring lately,” he explained, not surprised that she’d already known about it. “Do you object?”

“Not directly,” she answered. “I am more concerned/ with your habits regarding/ your apprentices.”

He raised an eyebrow, looking up at her ‘face’. “Whatever do you mean?”

“You/ only took apprentices/ twice before,” she explained. “You took/ Sweetspot/ after/ Aaron/ ran away/ and you took Cataclysm/ shortly after DiL’s/ birth.”

He frowned – he’d never really paid attention to that happenstance before.

“Now Irene/ is striking out on her own/ and no longer needs you/ as much as before,” she continued unabashed, “She/ has chosen being a/ superhero/ pursuing her mother’s path/ instead of yours./ And now you take/ an apprentice/ and a teenage girl/ near her age/ as well.”

He sighed, putting his right elbow on the armrest, and resting his cheek on his hand. “I never… thought about it that way. Do you think I should… abort?” he asked honestly.

“I don’t think/ that that is necessary/ so long as you/ are aware of/ just what you want,” she replied simply. “An apprentice will/ certainly alleviate/ the moods you’ve/ found yourself in/ since Aaron returned/ and Irene left/ and it never hurts to/ encourage great potential.”

He nodded. “Thank you for pointing all that out. I shall take her as an apprentice – she is talented enough to warrant it, even if you disregard my… empty nest syndrome, I guess.”

“Good./ There is/ one more/ subject which/ we need to talk about,” she said, getting off the desk and walking around it again.

“Do tell,” he said curiously.

The projected image changed, showing… Amanda, in full costume. “I have to question/ your decision to/ hand over full/ operational control/ of North America/ to Amanda Blake,” she explained. “Though she is powerful/ she is too unstable/ to shoulder the responsibility./ As I have said before/ she is unfit to be a/ full/ member of the Dark Five.”

“Objection,” he… objected, sitting up straighter. “She has vastly improved lately, ever since her and Basil’s relationship has become strained – and their falling out has pushed her to excel, where before she mostly slacked in her criminal duties.”

“Which is/ admittedly/ impressive/ and worrying at the same time,” she replied, calling up a picture of Basil next to Amanda’s.

The boy was looking rather unhealthy on this rather recent picture, making Peter frown. He’d known, thanks to his wraith, that Basil was cutting back on both sleep and proper eating lately, but he hadn’t known it had gotten this bad. I might have to intervene before something irreversible happens.

“The fact that/ her brother has/ such a massive impact/ on her efficiency as a/ villain/ would suggest that/ removing him from the picture-“

“Stop,” he cut her off sharply. “Don’t even finish that sentence. You know the rules.”

“I know them/ but they are still/ largely incomprehensible to me/ or rather I should say/ your rigid adherence to them/ even when responsibility could be diverted/ seems inefficient to me. We could/ be rid of the boy/ and pin it on/ someone undesirable/ so as to/ motivate/ Amanda Blake/ to even better performance.”

“Or break her, instead,” he replied. “Nevermind that rules really aren’t worth the ink they are written with, if one does not adhere to them even when safe from repercussions – it’s not a Contractualist tenent that one obey the law even in the absence of repercussions for nothing.”

“Contractualism/ is not for/ supervillains,” she shot back. “Nevermind that your decision/ as to this subject matter/ is largely driven by/ sentiment/ rather than/ philosophical deliberation.”

“Sentiment is important.”

“I find it largely confusing.”

He smiled sadly at her. “I know. But you could understand it; if you did, I would feel fully comfortable handing the Syndicate over to you, and retiring. But you do not, yet, and thus I am still the better choice to lead.”

“I doubt that/ I shall ever/ understand this,” she said with an indifferent shrug.

His smile turned knowing. “Is that why you still wear the nightdress Hurton gave you?”

She froze for a full minute. Then she turned away. “I wasn’t objecting to/ Amanda Blake’s/ promotion/ solely due to/ her brother’s influence/ on her,” she said, obviously hoping he wouldn’t pursue that point. “She is an/ unstable serial rapist/ and her status as a/ member of the Five/ reflects badly upon us/ despite our best efforts to/ foster as positive a/ public image/ as possible. Nevermind how/ unreliable she is/ or need I mention/ her loss of control/ during the Hemogoblin incident?” She turned around to look at him again.

Oh, I’ve been waiting for this.

“Why are you/ grinning like that?/ It’s creepy,” she said. “And annoying.”

“Well…” he reached into a drawer of his desk and pulled out a thin folder. “Take a look at this – it’s Walker’s report on the incident.”

“I’ve already read it,” she replied.

“Not this one,” he said, his grin almost splitting his face. “This is the actual report, which he didn’t transfer into the system at my behest.”

She walked over and picked the folder up, reading through it in moments.

“What… what is this?” she asked, and the soundbite fit just perfectly. “Why would you/ keep this a/ secret from me?/ What does it/ even mean?”

“I wasn’t keeping it a secret from you, specifically,” he told her, standing up. He held his wrist with his hand behind his back, and walked around the desk. “But considering Amanda’s abilities, keeping it unknown to anyone but me and Walker was the best option for making sure she did not learn of this… also, I wanted to surprise you, once my research into the matter was complete – which it now is.”

“Explain,” she demanded.

He smirked. “As you can tell from the report, something isn’t quite right with Amanda’s… perception of things,” he began. “She reported torturing Switchbitch,” he spoke the name with distaste – really, the taste of some people!, “to death, and according to Walker’s official report, she also abused the woman sexually… or so it seemed. After Amanda had left, Walker decided to eat the woman’s remains, and found them to be… changed. His curiosity piqued, he investigated and found that she had been killed before her weapon was forced up her anus, nor was there any sign of sexual contact of any kind.”

He paused and reached out for the floating projection. To his delight, it still recognised his hand signs and it called up several news reports.

‘New Supervillain seduces Hero to the Dark Side’

‘Fallen Superhero revealed to have been brainwashed and abused!’

‘Mindstar declared S-Class threat. No Kill Warrant yet – why?’

The articles continued like that, showing the progression of Amanda’s career as Mindstar, including all her sexual escapades.

“I decided to make a new background check, to see whether there’d been any history of mental illness in her family,” he explained. “Imagine my surprise when I found out that her entire past – including her parents – is entirely fictitious!”

“No,” she contradicted him. “I ran the/ background check/ myself/ before we contacted/ her./ They are real.”

“They were, at the time – or at least the documentation was,” he replied firmly, but gently. “But they are not. Amanda’s and Basil’s life in New Lennston is real. They have lived there for more than five years, and though numerous people remember interacting with their parents, I am absolutely sure they never existed to begin with.

She stayed quiet, probably doing research of her own even while she listened. He decided to continue.

“Considering all this, I decided to dig further; their past before coming to New Lennston is entirely made up,” he elaborated. “Basil’s memories of his family and life before that are very real – but they have no basis in reality. The same for his memories of financing and building his own base. As an aside, the fact that their parents – and their deaths – were never real to begin with certainly explains why even Basil does not appear to mourn them, or to have been actually affected by the loss – even if he has false memories of the event, he lacks the actual experience.”

“I can count the/ number of people/ who have proven to be/ capable of affecting/ long-term memories/ in anything but the/ crudest/ way possible/ on one hand/ and still have/ fingers left,” she stated simply.

“Quite so,” he agreed with a nod. “But it becomes more interesting still,” he threw in. “You see, though Mindstar’s career is quite real… her escapades are not.”

“What?” she asked flatly.

“You heard me. I went after and investigated all her supposed victims in the time since the Hemogoblin incident,” he explained. “From the sorority to Amazon, I investigated them all. Hell, I even did some deep mental probing, just to be sure!”

She nodded, waiting for his verdict.

“I couldn’t believe what I found! It made no sense at all!” he said with exasperation in his voice, throwing his arms up as he dramatically walked up and down the projected screen. “So I snuck into the Blakes’ residence and-“

“Probed Amanda Blake?” she asked. “That is/ incredibly risky/ considering her own/ powers.”

He waved her off. “No, I didn’t probe her… not mentally. I did do a full physical on her while she slept, though.”

“You/ snuck into a young woman’s home/ and did a full physical examination on her/ in her sleep?/ That is rather/ creepy/ even by/ your standards,” she commented, though he doubted that she disapproved.

“Compared to killing people, that’s really rather tame,” he defended his decision. “But never mind – what is important is not what I did, but what I found.”

“And what/ did you find?”

He walked over to his chair and sat down again. “As far as I can tell, both from the physical on Amanda, and the deep probing of her ‘victims’ and other partners, I can say with confidence that Amanda Blake…” He paused for dramatic effect. “Is a virgin.”

She tilted her head to the side. “Impossible,” she replied. “She has/ numerous lovers/ chief of all/ being Markus Birkovich./ He would not/ be satisfied with a/ merely platonic relationship.”

“And he isn’t. He’s very satisfied by their deeply physical relationship,” he replied. “Though he is as wrong about that as Basil is about financing his projects on his own, or as wrong as Amanda is about abusing her numerous victims.”

Her head tilted to the other side with a mechanical whirring sound. “What is/ going on here?”

He shrugged. “I am not quite sure. Amanda believes herself to be a rapist, she has even admitted that to her brother – not that it’s a secret. Amazon is absolutely certain she was sexually abused. The sorority girls Amanda visited still have wet dreams of the night they spent with her. Markus vividly remembers their frequent trysts. Notice a pattern here?”

“Yes/ and I am very worried,” he she replied. “Why are you/ promoting her/ instead of/ cutting all ties/ before whatever this is/ causes any damage/ to us?”

He spread his arms. “What, and ruin the suspense? This is the most interesting thing to happen in years!” he answered with a wide grin.

She slapped a hand to her armored forehead. “Oh please/ not this again.”

“C’mon dear, you can’t tell me you don’t want to know how this’ll play out! And besides, we know something is wrong – we can plan accordingly, keep her away from any truly sensitive information and keep an eye out for whomever is responsible for this – I don’t know about you, but I want a metahuman that powerful either on our side, or dead. And we won’t find them if we cut Amanda off.”

“So we…”

“We watch. We stay vigilant,” he said firmly. “And when the time comes, we’ll strike without mercy.”

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Heat Death of the Universe

My friends, I think the time has come – the end is upon us.

It’s either that, or it’s just plain that hot right now. Classes were pure torture (most rooms I’m in have broken ACs and no or too small windows) and I very nearly passed out during the train ride plain home. I did see people pass out, including one baby, which made its mother flip out entirely (fortunately, it could be roused and was just cranky in the end).

Now I’m sitting in front of my pc, with two bottles of iced water, and I’m still melting T_T