Everyone was eating, even though Basil had joined late – it seemed that Vasiliki had brought enough food to feed the entire group thrice over.
Or at least it would have been enough to do that, if it was not for Aimihime. She was putting the food away like crazy, faster and in greater quantities than any two of them put together.
“What?” she asked in between bites, once she noticed that everyone was staring at her. For good reason, too, as she had been not-subtly shifting her jaw to fit more food into it and, judging by some of the movements that showed through her skin, had been using shapeshifting to chew even when her mouth had been too full to actually chew the normal way. “Geez, sorry, I just need the food, you know? For my power.”
“You mean, it’s fueled by food?” Stephi asked curiously – the only one in the room who was holding back on stuffing herself (none of the other girls had to watch their weight, thanks to their powers; Tim did not care about it and Basil was working out so much, he could afford to eat extra, even if he had not skipped meals for a while now).
Aimi made a ‘so-so’ gesture with her hand. “Kind of. It’s not like I lose my power if I don’t eat enough,” she replied in between eating half a plate of french fries in one go. “But… I can’t really change my mass, you know?”
Dalia made a series of sounds garbled by the food in her mouth, but Aimi seemed to get her meaning.
“Well, if I want to take on bigger, stronger forms, I need to, uh…” She actually blushed. “I need to put on weight, you know? Lots of it.”
Basil looked her up and down from his seat on the love seat opposite of Tim, looking past Prisca’s head to do so (she had just plopped down on his lap and started feeding him). “I suppose you compress the extra mass?”
She nodded. “Yup, I mean, I can just turn the fat into bone or muscle, you know? I’m like, five foot nothing, but I weigh like, two hundred pounds now – and I wanna hit two-fifty before Christmas… why are you looking at me like that?” she said, looking uncomfortable at Stephi, who was giving her the death glare.
“I… you know how much I have to watch what I eat and work out to keep this figure!?” she asked in outrage. “Bad enough Vas can just eat whatever she wants at keep her perfect weight – now you can and want to put on as much weight as you want, and it doesn’t even show!?” She was shrieking at the end.
Tim chuckled and wrapped his arms around her waist, hugging her to his broad chest and belly. “Relax, babe,” he said as he kissed her cheek. “No reason to get worked up.”
“And how did this happen, anyway?” Basil asked, pointing at the two of them. When everyone was looking at him, he continued. “I mean, Tim and Stephi? When? How? I never noticed this!”
Everyone shook their heads, but it was Tim who spoke up first. “Dude, I told you like, two weeks ago,” he explained. “You were working on… something. But you nodded when I talked to you and all, and you congratulated me.”
“Oh.” Now he felt like blushing. “I… must have been running on autopilot.”
Now everyone just rolled their eyes at him, which he felt was just unfair… at least a little.
After that, they finished their meal in silence. Everyone threw their paper plates and plastic cutlery into the plastic bags the meal had come in (so much more handy than using actual cutlery you had to clean up afterwards), which were promptly disposed off by Basil and Tim, who took them up the elevator and out of the building to throw them into the trash containers.
“You’re better now,” Tim said simply. Not a question, but an affirmation.
“I feel loads better now,” he replied while he took a moment to stand in the sun, taking slow, deep breaths. Despite the light snowfall (which he had completely missed) and the sub-zero temperatures, the sun shone brightly; the air burned pleasantly in his lungs, creating white mist as he exhaled again. “The wonders of sleep and good food, I guess.” Though I do not think that could be all.
Tim patted his back. “I’m glad you’re human again, pal.” His calm, low and very worried-sounding voice was the only sound in the cold winter air, aside from their breathing. “I got really scared after a while, you know?”
“I am really sorry about that. If only I knew how to really fix it.” Basil turned to look at him.
Despite his words, and his tone of voice, Tim looked pretty… calm and stoic, really. “That’s what today is all about, pal,” he replied. “That’s why we’re all here. Why I brought Aimi in, too.” He paused for a moment. “Sorry about springing that on you, by the way.”
Basil shrugged. “No, you were right. She is my friend, and she deserved better than what I gave her. I am glad she knows.”
“Glad to hear it. Now, let’s go back in and get this done.”
They both made their way back down.
Five minutes later, everyone was sitting again, if in a slightly different configuration, except for Vasiliki, who stood facing Basil on the opposite side of the table from the couch, while he was sitting there with Prisca and Aimihime by his side. Dalia sat on the couch, as well, on Prisca’s other side, while Tim and Stephi were sharing the love seat on the other side of Aimihime.
“So,” Basil said, though he didn’t know what to talk about. He just wanted to break up the uncomfortable silence of the last few minutes.
“So, here we are,” Vasiliki continued. “To talk about you.”
Basil felt his mouth’s corner tick up in what felt like a bitter smile. There’s less to know than one would expect…
Dalia leaned forward, turning her head to look straight at him. “Let’s say it out loud, alright? Something’s wrong with you, and we wanna know what it is, and how to fix it!”
“What she said,” Aimihime said, looking at Dalia with an expression Basil couldn’t quite put a name to.
“How about we start with you blowing us all off lately” Tim suggested. “And not just us, but the whole world, it seems!”
Basil opened his mouth, though he didn’t know what to reply with, but Aimi spoke up first, “Actually, that’s one thing that doesn’t surprise me, now that I know he’s a gadgeteer.” She shrugged, smiling as she looked around at everyone. “Polymnia is just like that once she gets one of her big ideas. She just spaces out for hours at a time, sometimes even a day or two, even forgets to eat…”
“Basil has been doing it for weeks, though,” Prisca refuted. “He hadn’t eaten or slept for days at least.”
<Five days, nineteen hours and two minutes without sleep,> Eudocia supplied. <Two days and fifty-nine minutes without proper food.>
“And that,” Aimihime said, pointing at Eudocia’s symbol on the screen. “Is she… really an AI? Because I’ve only ever heard of one person making an AI. Su Ling herself.”
Everyone looked at Eudocia, mostly with pensive looks, except for Basil, who was looking at his hands on his knees. “She is an AI… though she does not appear to be a classical Artificial General Intelligence, like Su Ling’s Galatea.”
“She ‘does not appear’ to be one?” Vasiliki asked, her gaze now focused on Basil rather than the screen. “Shouldn’t you of all people know exactly what she’s capable of?”
<Touchy subject…> Eudocia said.
“I did not actually make her, not really,” Basil admitted. “I merely put the finishing touches – mostly just booted her up and performed some calibration.”
“You just… found an AI,” Prisca said, looking stunned.
“Kind of…” he admitted, looking down in embarrassment.
“Maybe… maybe we should start at the beginning,” Vasiliki threw in. “There’s a lot off here, and Eudocia isn’t even the biggest issue here – no offence.”
<None taken!> Eudocia replied cheerfully. <I’m just glad we’re finally going to clear the air!>
Vasiliki nodded towards the screen, before focusing on Basil again. “Alright, do you want to start? You’re probably the only one who can, actually, unless you want us to just list all the odd stuff we’ve noticed about you lately.”
Basil tapped put his hands together in front of his face, tapping his index fingers. It wasn’t that he was stalling… he just wasn’t sure how much to tell them. There was… a lot.
I can’t tell them about Amy, he thought. That’s not my secret to share. As to everything else…
He looked around at the faces of his friends. Vasiliki looked intense, as so often, though tempered with concern. Dalia seemed as carefree as ever, though she was paying attention and not doing anything else at the same time. Prisca looked concerned and curious. Aimihime seemed to be just concerned. Stephi didn’t seem to know what to think and Tim was had a concerned frown on his face.
Well… what do I have to lose, really?
So he just told them nearly everything he knew.
“So, to sum it up,” he finished. “Both Amy and I are having issues with our memories. Blank spaces, false memories, the works. Our parents do not exist, as far as I can tell, and have never existed to begin with. I do not know where my money came from, or who built this base – though I suspect it is connected to this ‘Macian’. I have voices in my head and they are quite annoying. My power is not working the way it should, or at least not the way it used to. I cannot seem to… where did that whiteboard come from?” He interrupted his summary when he realised that Vasiliki had produced a whiteboard on wheels from somewhere, and she’d been taking notes, organising… all his issues on it, with little notes attached by way of magnets and black sharpie.
“Bag of Holding,” she said simply as she drew a line connecting two points (‘Funds from unknown Source’ and ‘Who made the base?’).
“You have a… whiteboard in your… bag of holding…” Aimihime said slowly, as if she could not believe it.
“Well, of course. I have lots of different things, just in case I end up needing them,” Vasiliki replied as she put the cap onto her pen and stepped aside, giving everyone a clear view of the board.
Basil looked at it quietly, while the others commented on Vasiliki’s use of her bag, or inquired about what else she had stashed in there.
Seeing it all on that board, in Vasiliki’s neat, precise handwriting… made it seem somehow smaller than it had felt. Or at least not quite as insanely confusing.
After a minute or so of staring at it, he realised that everyone else had fallen quiet again, and they were looking at him.
Prisca was the first one to speak up – “Can I just say, I never expected to have to deal with this kind of plot? Even in our world, I thought this kind of thing only happened in comic books.” She gave him a teasing smile. “That or cheap romance novels.”
Basil rolled his eyes. “I think even the dime novels would be more imaginative than… that.” He gestured at the writing on the board.
“How about we focus on resolving this then, so we can get on with more ‘imaginative’ matters?” Vasiliki steered them right back on track. “As far as I can tell, everything comes back to your memory issues, Basil. Yours and your sister’s. So, let’s start with the basics – what could be the cause of that?” She uncapped her pen again.
Dalia waved her arm as if she was in class. “Oh, oh, I know! Someone’s brainwashing them! Some kinda uber-telepath!”
Vasiliki wrote ‘affected by powerful telepath’ on the board, right under ‘potential causes’. “We can safely assume that anyone capable of this kind of mindbuggery is very powerful.”
“Mindbuggery,” Dalia whispered loud enough for everyone to hear. “I can’t believe you said mindbuggery.”
Vasiliki ignored her and pushed on. “This is probably an exercise in futility, but whom do we know of that would be capable of this kind of mental manipulation… you said you haven’t even been able to discuss it with your sister?”
He nodded, taking a deep breath to try to relax. “Yeah. Now that I actually think about it… we always got sidetracked… or just plain blacked out, I think. I am not sure. I do not think I could be sure. I am kind of surprised I have been able to talk to you about it at all.”
“Have you tried to talk to us before about it?” Prisca asked.
“Not that I can remember,” he admitted before he had to stifle a laugh. “Which is kind of the problem, is it not?”
<At the very least, you have never talked about it to me,> Eudocia said. <And I am pretty sure that I am not susceptible to telepathy like you meatbags.>
Dalia gave the finger to the screen.
Vasiliki, on the other hand, now seemed intent on her. “That’s a good point, actually,” she said. “If anyone here should be capable of seeing through all this, it’d be you, Eudocia. Did you notice anything?”
<Well, I noticed Father’s insomnia and obsessive behaviour,> she said, causing Aimihime to look at Basil and mouth the word ‘father’ with a questioning look on her face. Basil just shrugged and mouthed ‘because I booted her up’ back. <But I never researched his family or the base, so I can’t say anything about that.>
“Why didn’t you?” Tim asked. “I’d be curious in your place.”
<Father didn’t tell me to,> she replied simply.
“She does not have much in the way of motivation,” Basil explained. “Unless it is about games. She will seek out, research and play them all on her own. But if she is to do anything that is not related to playing games, then she has to be told to do it, or it just will not occur to her.”
<Well, that, and taking care of you,> she threw in. <I certainly can think of that on my own.>
He nodded to show that he agreed. “Once she has actually decided to do something, she can figure it out on her own, but it is that initial decision-making ability that she lacks, and why I hesitate to call her an AGI.”
<I’m quite happy with the way I am, thank you very much,> she said brightly. <Just so long as I can keep playing my games!>
“Is that why you gave me a direct link to her?” Prisca asked with a wry smile. “So I’d be her playmate?”
He shrugged. “So you would be playmates to each other.”
Vasiliki cleared her throat. “Guys, we’re so far off target, we’re missing the darned range!” She gave everyone a stern look. “Now, focus! So, Eudocia can’t tell us what’s going on – we know that now.” She added a note under Eudocia about that. “Let’s look at the telepathy issue again,” she continued, tapping that section of the board. “Whom do we know of who might be capable of pulling off this kind of mindbuggery?”
Stephi raised a hand, speaking up for the first time in this meeting. “Isn’t that kind of stupid to ask? I mean, the really good ones wouldn’t be publicly known, unless they’d already been caught.” Tim nodded in support of the argument.
“That’s most likely true, but we still ought to brainstorm, just in case,” Vasiliki said. “If anything, it might spark an idea somewhere down the line. So, suggestions, please!”
Ten bucks say Amy will be first on that list, Basil thought, though he was not sure whom he was making that bet with.
“Mindstar,” Aimihime said after raising her hand. “She’s the most active true telepath we know of, and according to the files I have access to, she’s believed to be based here in New Lennston.”
Vasiliki wrote ‘Possible Perpetrators’ and drew a line from it to ‘Memory Issues’, adding ‘Mindstar’ underneath it. “She’s kind of the big name that jumps to mind, right? But as far as I know, messing with memories would be big, even for her,” she said calmly, though with a hint of anger to her words.
Basil shifted on his seat uncomfortably. Amy had told him about the… interesting revelation Vasiliki had shared with her and Dalia over dinner. Another thing to worry about.
“I don’t think she’s a likely suspect,” Aimihime said. “According to our briefings – you can bet Amazon has made sure to brief us all on her – she has to have someone within a relatively short range to control them, and she has to constantly concentrate to keep up her power; when she had… well, when she had Amazon under her thumb, she had to knock her out and lock her in a safe vault overnight, because she couldn’t keep up her power while asleep.”
Everyone in the room but Basil (who already knew, much as he’d have preferred not to) and Aimi shivered at the thought of Amazon’s ordeal and what that particular revelation meant.
“Another one would be the Hannibal Storm,” Prisca broke the silence. “There are numerous verified reports of permanent changes to the memories of people it passed over.”
“Except the Hannibal Storm is locked up in Tartarus Star, its effects are never subtle nor this refined and we would jolly well notice if it had passed anywhere near here anyway,” Vasiliki replied, though she did add the name to the list.
“I never said it was likely, just an option. There aren’t that many people who can manipulate memories out there,” Prisca defended her suggestion with an annoyed sniff.
Basil kept quiet as he watched them go through all known cases. Vasiliki kept it methodical and organised (though it was still just speculative), while they discussed pretty much every big name in the interesting (horrifying) world of telepathy. Mindfuck (unlikely, seeing how he was basically dead), the Dowager, the Mentalist, Occulus…
“Listen, everyone,” he finally spoke up when it seemed like they were about to get into even more obscure names. “I’m really, really grateful that you all care so much… but really, all you’re doing is speculating wildly. There is nothing to go on, I know, I looked.”
“Well, we’re not exactly going to find out how to help you without figuring out who’s responsible, you know?” Prisca replied as her face turned concerned. “We need to figure this out!”
He sighed and turned to her, taking her hand in his to intertwine their fingers. “Yes, but there is no point in going about it with random speculation,” he said softly. Not like I know what to do, anyway.
Vasiliki cleared her throat. “He brings up a good point,” she said. “We really don’t have the information or means to uncover this.” She sighed. “Much as I hate to admit it… until I figure out a spell to block telepathic influence, we’ll have to hope that whoever is responsible makes a mistake and outs themselves in some way.”
“That doesn’t sound all that promising,” Prisca complained. “So we’re basically down to just hoping it all fixes itself on its own?”
“Maybe not…” Vasiliki replied. When she had everyone’s attention, she continued, “Maybe we can’t figure out who or what is responsible for Basil’s memory issues… and I don’t know how we could figure out who really built this place or provided his funds, at least in a reasonable time frame… but there is one other issue you have, right?” She was looking him straight in the eyes when she finished.
Basil looked back, thinking it over. She was right, there was one problem, which… had haunted him for a while… and rarely slipped his mind, actually, unlike his many other issues…
“My speciality,” he half-whispered, making Vasiliki nod. Everyone else seemed confused, though.
“Mind explaining that to me, B-Six?” Dalia asked. “I never really got this talk about gadgeteer specialities at school – you certainly don’t seem to do just one thing, after all!”
“It is not so simple,” he tried to explain, ignoring Vasiliki’s annoyed sigh. It wasn’t like many people actually got how gadgeteering really worked. “Every gadgeteer has a… a theme, a field they specialise in, some quirk. Like Polymnia, who works with audio technology, or Hotrod and his vehicles. Then there are those who don’t specialise in a specific field, but rather in an item or a kind of item that they can do much more with – like that Greek hero Dory, who can only really work on his lance, but can do some incredible stuff with it.”
“Or Su Ling, who… well, we don’t really know what she specialised in, she died long before anyone figured out the specifics of her power,” Vasiliki added.
“Alright, if that’s how it always works, how come you don’t know what your power’s like, Basil?” Dalia leaned closer, looking at him with a questioning look, her long hair brushing over Prisca’s legs as she leaned over them.
He shrugged. “I just… use my power, but I have not been able to really… pin down a theme.” He waved his free hand in a helpless gesture. “And lately, I think that has been sabotaging me… or perhaps something else is, I do not know. I used to have a nearly one-hundred percent success rate,” he explained, thinking of that ray gun he’d never gotten to work. “Yet over the last four weeks, I have burned through nearly all my resources and I have nothing to show for it. The only working gadgets I have left are the last of my ravens, my ceramic production, my sword, my rifle, the armour and the three-dimensional manoeuvering system!”
<There’s also all the explosive ordinance you have stockpiled,> Eudocia commented.
“I am talking about my gadgets, Eudocia,” he replied. “The explosives are from that deal at the harbour we busted two weeks ago.”
Prisca snorted in a rather unrefined fashion. “Wow, you remember that?” she asked, annoyed. “You barely noticed me then, but you noticed the explosives? You’re such a boy.”
He decided not to take the bait on that one and just kept on going. “Lately, it is like… my power is unfocused, jumping from idea to idea, losing track of one while already working on two new ones that it abandons halfway through for fourth one. I have even started having catastrophic failures – gadgets that blew up at me or had a meltdown! That never used to happen before!” He ran his fingers through his hair, momentarily letting go of Prisca’s hand. “I have had to wear my armour for lab work. How pathetic is that?”
“That… actually sounds like a good idea,” Aimihime said carefully. “I ought to tell Polymnia. She gave herself one hell of a bloody nose, a few days ago. Gloomy had to heal her.”
“Not the point right now, girlfriend,” Dalia said with a chuckle. “Though that does sound like a funny story.”
Vasiliki cleared her throat. “Off-topic, people. Let’s focus. Basil, you say this has only been happening lately. Can you pin down a point in time where it started? Some kind of event that took place, which may have influenced it?”
Basil sighed, leaning back on the couch to look up at the ceiling. He tried to remember just when, exactly, he’d started noticing problems with his power… with everything, about his life, really.
His eyes tracked the grey, bare concrete of the ceiling (he hadn’t bothered… no, whoever had built this place hadn’t bothered to pretty up the place, they’d just installed electric lighting… though that one may well have been his work, really. He was pretty sure he’d done at least some things, like…
Stay on track, he chided himself for losing focus again. Answer the question. He thought back, trying to pin down a point in time where he first noticed issues with his power.
“I suppose…” he began slowly. “If I had to point at one event, it would be the Hastur Incident.” He reached for his left arm, rubbing it absent-mindedly as the ghost of a memory of pain ran through it. Leaning forward again to look at Vasiliki, he rolled the thought over in his head. “That is it, I think. After that beating I took, I started noticing the first issues.”
They all fell quiet as everyone spent a few moments reminiscing about what each of them had gone through back then. No one here had pleasant memories, though Basil was pretty sure he and Prisca had them all beat.
Vasiliki and Dalia had fought several monsters, and the former had been hurt pretty badly, too. Dalia had had nightmares, he knew. Tim and Stephi had both ridden it out in shelters, with Stephi stuck in a public one with her family – not a pleasant experience, either. Aimihime… he knew something had happened to her, but he didn’t know what – yet. He decided then and there that he’d find out as soon as possible.
<You did start to sleep irregularly shortly after the Incident,> Eudocia provided.
“Not to mention ignoring us,” Prisca said with an insulted look. “There I am, finally having a proper body and all, and you start ignoring me.” She smirked at him. “A lesser person might accuse you of only having loved me for my sickness.”
He snorted and flicked her nose. “Not bloody likely, love,” he replied. Then he turned to see Vasiliki add a timeline at the bottom of the whiteboard, followed by her filling it out.
Soon, everyone was pitching in, offering observations and grievances… and honestly doing a lot to make Basil feel quite embarrassed. He knew he’d been ignoring and blowing off his friends, as well as just plainly forgetting commitments he’d made, but… this was rather hard to accept. In the month and a half that had passed since the Incident, he’d pretty much spun entirely out of control. And he was only now noticing just how bad it had been.
“Did I really forget your birthday?” he asked Prisca in a wistful voice.
“Don’t worry about it,” she replied, leaning closer to bump her shoulder to his. “I’m not mad. And you’ve more than made up for it, with all you’ve done for me.”
“Still.” He really would’ve liked to get her a proper present. Maybe it’d still be good if he got her one now.
“Say, guys, gals,” Dalia spoke up suddenly. “I think we’re going about this all wrong.”
They all looked at her in surprise. “What do you mean?” Vasiliki asked.
The usually scatterbrained redhead stood up and stretched, then looked at Basil with a sly smile. “Look, there’s lots of stuff here I can’t imagine how to figure out, even with my luck to help us along,” she explained. “But there’s one rather obvious thing we can do.” She reached down and took Basil’s free hand, pulling him up. “Come on, B-6! Let’s do this!”
“Do what, exactly?” he asked, his mind still mostly on the timeline they’d drawn up.
Her next words did manage to catch his full attention.
“Figure out your speciality, of course!”