B013.3 Call of the Sleeper

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Travelling with Irene was always an interesting experience to Melody, no matter how often they did it (and they did it quite a lot – Irene loved taking her all across the world at the drop of a hat); it always went a little differently. Even when they just teleported somewhere, the transition tended to happen in all kinds of ways; from the seamless ‘we’re-here-now-we’re-there’ that she’d employed to get them to Esperanza City, to that one time when they’d spent a few minutes walking across these strange, dark grey rock-paths floating in a vast sea of darkness, with stars all around – she still regretted that she hadn’t thought to bring a camera along to preserve that image.

Flying could also be pretty fun, if for no other reason that her power seemed to almost never use the same method twice; right now, for example, they weren’t so much being lifted as it was like space itself had wrapped around them, somehow, and was just… moving them along through the air. There was no pressure on them, no air in their faces; they simply moved.

Melody had quickly caught on to it and just relaxed, loosening her limbs to enjoy the ride, while Irene’s power held her pretty much in place. The others had followed suit soon, once they realised that they didn’t need to hold themselves up anymore. Apart from Tyche, that was, who’d taken to trying out different ‘flying poses’, sometimes asking Hecate whether one was cool or not.

For her part, Hecate seemed to be lost in thought, barely taking notice of her teammate, let alone the others that were travelling with them.

She closed her eyes and focused on her latest invention, a pair of earpieces that connected to her visor (pink, of course), which protected her ears from sudden spikes of noise (such as the one that’d taken her out for most of the fight against Crocell) while also improving her hearing by several levels.

Hecate’s heartbeat was a little uneven, faster than would signify calm. She was worried, and trying not to show it. Melody felt a pang of sympathy for the girl, she was clearly unhappy about this whole operation, even if she’d agreed to come along.

Tyche, on the other hand, was ecstatic. She didn’t even really need her gadget to tell, wouldn’t even have needed her already enhanced hearing – the girl was grinning like a madwoman, while she enjoyed the perks of this strange weightlessness. In other words, she was the same as every other time Melody had interacted with her. She was kind of envious of how that girl could seemingly enjoy any situation, no matter how horrible. And she still didn’t know what power she, because she sure as hell didn’t have just some minor physical enhancements!

Spellgun – Thomas – was quite scared, if in a different way than Hecate. He was more obvious about it, fiddling with his insane rifle or checking the bandoliers of ammunition strapped across his chest. He’d get more and more worked up, until Tartsche reached out to squeeze his hand, or his shoulder, or just pat his back, all but instantly calming down again, until he started to get anxious once more.

Tartsche’s heartbeat was the same as everything else about him, warm, steady, steadfast. She’d never known a person whose power fit them better, never known someone who was so at peace with himself. She’d never known Harry to lose his cool or lash out, or even appear to be nervous. Instead, he was spreading his calmness to his boyfriend, while also looking at the others to see if anyone else needed some encouragement.

One such person was Aimihime, Bakeneko, currently in her favourite form, that of a darkly furred catgirl (though thankfully with sane proportions, as opposed to what she used to look like in the past – not that Melody had any right to really complain about others sporting ridiculous bust sizes), trying to look calm while her eyes moved alternatively from Brennus to her boyfriend and back.

That brought a frown to Melody’s face, though she tried to hide it. Aimihime had been way too eager to come along and help them… she’d all but been lurking outside in the hallway, jumping at the chance to join Irene and her when they left, almost as if she’d known something was going to happen beforehand… but how would she?

It’s none of my business, Melody chided herself. She might just have felt stir-crazy, after having been unable to really contribute at all since the Hastur fight. If Melody hadn’t had the chance to help with the Arc Caster, she’d probably have felt quite badly about herself, too.

Underneath them, the scenery changed from land to ocean, as the day got brighter still.

Melody looked out over the wide, wide Pacific Ocean – surprisingly, she’d never actually seen it before, in spite of Irene’s frequent jaunts around the world. She took a few seconds to just look and pay the beauty of it its due.

Afterwards, she focused on Osore, curious about how the strange, quiet boy who’d joined them together with Aimi was feeling… only to barely hear a thing, his heartbeat being so calm she thought, for a moment, he might have fallen asleep; but no, he was quite awake, his dark eyes just barely visible through the eyeholes of his oni-style mask, calmly surveying the room.

She’d never known him to be anything but detached and calm. Or talk, really. She didn’t even remember his name from his introduction, it’d been so short and they literally had not exchanged a single word since. She wasn’t even really sure why he’d agreed to come along on this mission, other than perhaps for Aimi’s sake.

I’m just distracting myself, aren’t I? she thought quietly to herself, focusing her gaze forward, where Brennus was floating-standing next to Irene. Not that it’s surprising. This isn’t exactly the smartest thing I’ve ever done. Not even Top Ten.

That made her think again. Why was she going along with what was, essentially, a huge shot in the dark hoping to find something which could heal Dusu’s victims.

Or rather, one victim in particular, even if Melody was sure that Brennus was going to help each of Dusu’s victims equally, given the chance.

She focused her eyes (and ears) on Brennus, curious how he was dealing with the pressure…

Only to find him almost as calm as Osore. Cold. He wasn’t unnaturally calm – she could still make out his heartbeat as well as she’d expect, through his cloak and body armour – but he was definitely calmer than she would have thought, his heart beating steadily, quietly, his breathing as even as can be. There was something intense about him, his posture, his aura, as if his entire being was focused ahead at their mission.

Isn’t he nervous at all? If I’d been the one to organise an undertaking like this, I’d be a nervous wreck. How can he just ignore the pressure and remain so calm?

It wasn’t like this was new, either. When she thought about it, Brennus had always been way too calm during a crisis – when he wasn’t being maniacal, that is. She’d wondered, more than once, just what must have happened for him to turn out the way he did, thriving in situations in which she’d rather curl up and scream.

The fight against Crocell had been just another in a long list of occasions that had demonstrated to her that he was just on another level than her, no matter how much she tried to improve herself – while she’d been taken out in the first moments of the fight, he’d fought the entire time, pursuing and analysing the beast, until he actually came up with a way to defeat it – and then he’d led her and two other gadgeteers to implement it on the spot, even getting Sovereign (or rather, whomever or whatever controlled that Subjugator) to cooperate.

Melody was rather starting to feel inadequate, really, even though Hotrod had assured her that Brennus was very atypical for a young gadgeteer and that, compared to most, she was already plenty advanced.

It didn’t help that every time they’d run into each other, he’d sported a new or completely reworked gadget, like that gauntlet of his, which seemed to have replaced the sword he’d previously wielded, as well as the strange ovoid attached to it, both made out of metal rather than the strange ceramic which Brennus normally used for his inventions, their surfaces covered in circuit-like grooves and she really wanted to know what it did. However, with the way the mood was right now, she really didn’t want to speak up just to ask about what his newest gadget did.

She was quite certain it was going to make her feel envious and at least slightly inadequate, anyhow. Especially since most of the equipment she had on her was a downgrade, built from spare parts and some handouts from Hotrod (in exchange for her help with his own project) to be a more portable, if less powerful, version of her usual rig. Not that she’d had a choice, really, after the flood Crocell’s death had caused had ruined most of her equipment beyond repair.

Then she’d found out that the EMP countermeasures he’d gifted her as an afterthought, a little gesture of goodwill after taking some samples from her tech, way back during the fight against the Rabid Eight – God, it’s only been a few months! – without asking her, was being implemented all across the United Heroes’ infrastructure, nevermind their field equipment.

Even her own armour used it, all over, to protect against the dreaded bane of gadgeteers everywhere – a reliable EMP protection that was applicable to personal equipment was a rarity even among their kind, at least one that could easily and relatively cheaply be replicated.

She seriously doubted he’d gotten even a quarter as much out of sampling her tech as she had out of his handout, nevermind the boon it was likely turning out to b-

You’re obsessing again, Irene’s warm voice whispered into her thoughts.

Huh? Melody perked up, looking forward at her friend, who was looking at her over her shoulder with a gentle gaze, her hood thrown back to reveal her head. She blushed, thinking about how obvious it must have been for Irene to pick up on it in this situation. S-sorry. I didn’t mean to, it’s just…

I know, he can be pretty intimidating, Irene replied, turning forward again even while keeping their mental conversation up. He’s kind of like mom, you know? Seemingly effortlessly out doing everyone around him.

Having him compared to Lady Light of all people does not make me feel less inadequate, Melody grumped mentally. He’s my age, for crying out loud! He’s had his powers for less time than me. And yet both his technology and his skill in combat make me look like an amateur… I’ve had my powers for years!

Some people just get lucky, her friend tried to soothe her. Exhibit A, I myself. Exhibit B, my big sister. Exhibit C, Brennus.

Wait, which sister are you…

The one who’s not going around wiping out entire cities at a time.

Oh. Yeah, uh… sorry, but that doesn’t make me feel better, either.

You’re putting him on too high a pedestal, Irene continued calmly, while the day grew darker around them.

You’re the one who just compared him to Lady Light, yourself and Elysium in basically one breath!

I was merely illustrating that some people get luckier than others. And I bet he’s not as good as he appears to be. You of all people should know that – you see the end product, you don’t see all the hours he spent training, or working on an invention just to have it turn out to be a dud, the sleepless nights…

Alright alright! Melody had to restrain herself a lot not to throw her arms up – that would just have looked strange, considering the circumstances. I’ll stop feeling sorry for myself!

Irene looked over her shoulder again, briefly sticking out her tongue at her and winking, before she faced forward again.

Ohhhhh…

***

Almost an hour of relatively quiet travel later – a brief argument between Spellgun and Tyche regarding her opinion that he really should call himself Spellrifle, as he didn’t actually wield a gun, notwithstanding – there was finally a change in the scenery (Melody never would have thought the ocean would get so boring when you were just flying across it).

In the distance, there was, at first, a glint, followed by, as they approached, a a multitude of lights – they’d travelled far enough west quickly enough that it was still dark, even if sunrise wasn’t far away – in an irregular line, clustering around the middle and the edges, like a W.

“Is that it?” Aimi asked, her form shifting slowly, teeth and nails lengthening slightly as her whole appearance grew less cute and more feral. An unconscious effect, Melody knew.

“That’s where Brennus’ coordinates are leading,” Irene confirmed. “Wait, I think I can zoom in…”

The view in front of them distorted itself, then rapidly came closer much faster than they were actually moving across the water.

“Oh wow…” Melody couldn’t help but say, even if it felt kind of silly at times to type that kind of sentence fragment into her vocaliser.

“Yeah, ‘wow’ is a pretty good description,” Hecate whispered as they stared at the floating city.

An actual, floating city. At least, it was big enough to be a city, with skyscraper-sized towers in the centre and the edges. They were looking at it from above, at an angle, and so could see that it was a huge disk roughly divided into six projections out from a central cluster of towers, with more towers at the tips of the two biggest extensions, the ones pointing directly to the left and the right, from their perspective – the Northern and Southern ones, that is – the whole thing forming a pointed star-shape that was further divided into two, with the Southern part looking somehow… stranger than the Northern one.

Melody didn’t even know where to start describing it. The Northern part looked like it had jumped straight out of one of those Japanese Cyberpunk shows, all grey, black and silver, with glowing neon lights all over and more cables, wires and pipes than she could easily count, or even guess at the number of. Everything, every single building – if they really were buildings, and not just extentions of the structure underneath – was interconnected not just on by the platform they stood upon, but also by a multitude of pipes and free-hanging wires, some of them glowing in various neon colours, others coloured a dull, boring gray. The whole thing looked like a riot of colours alternating with dull steel, in winding, twisting shapes that made her brain twist itself in knots trying to follow, except for the circular tip of the North-Eastern extension, which instead looked like a bonsai tree four or five storeys high, surrounded by floating platforms holding even more bonsais, as well as other, more exotic plants, some of them in colours that no natural plant should have, as pretty as they looked.

It was nothing compared to the Southern half. Melody’s eyes watered just from looking at it.

It was… it was…

It was impossible to put into words, unless she took the time to write an entire book. There were… floating parts and crystal spheres… obelisks covered in glowing runes… patches of greenery and twisted trees with glowing leaves… and so much, much, much more, the most impressive bit being a huge sphere of what appeared to be liquid mercury floating above a circular pit at the Southern-most tip.

The only remotely normal part was in the centre, a cluster of skyscraper-sized towers that gleamed even in the darkness, serving no purpose she could easily guess at.

“Two halves, one for Contrivers, one for Gadgeteers,” Irene said calmly. “They’re keeping the two apart to avoid unfavourable interactions between their work, yet keeping them close enough that they can both study whatever it is they’re studying at the same time.”

“How do you know that?” Spellgun whispered, sounding awed.

Irene tapped her temple without averting her eyes from the… whatever it was, Melody couldn’t think of a good name for it. “I want to know it, and this time, my power is cooperating. I’m getting all kinds of data on this place, it… it’s amazing. It’s even bigger than it looks, below the surface. This is just the tip of the actual structure.”

“Alright… we’re all sufficiently intimidated, so how about we turn around and go home now?” Hecate asked in a nervous voice, her hands clutched tightly around her staff.

“May I remind you that I did not want any of you other than Gloom Glimmer to join me in this endeavour in the first place?” Brennus asked flatly. “If you want to go, please, go and be safe. It is bad enough that I have to drag her into this, nevermind all of you.”

“N-no,” Hecate stammered, sounding embarrassed. “I said I’d help, and I will. I just wish you would stop, but if you won’t, then I’ll back you up.”

Brennus turned around to look at her, for the first time during the flight.

Though Melody couldn’t see his face – obviously, with that featureless full-face mask – she could hear his heartbeat, and she could tell that it briefly sped up.

“Thank you kindly,” he said softly.

“Yeah, I think it’s a wee bit late to turn around now, unless we abort entirely,” Aimi added, with Tyche nodding her assent.

“I just hope you actually have a plan for this,” Spellgun mumbled, his eyes glued ot the huge construction before them. Tartsche reached out, putting a hand on his shoulder.

“Mmm,” Brennus turned to the front again, as everyone focused on him. “It’s relatively simple… though now that there’s so many of us, I’m not entirely sure it’s still the best way to go. I was planning to infiltrate this place quietly, under the guise of Gloom Glimmer’s powers, track down Dusu and her lab and either steal the cure for her plague, force her to give it up or kidnap her back to New Lennston to get it out of her there.”

“That still sounds good,” Tyche said, slamming her fist into her open palm. “Especially if we add beating this bitch up a bit,” she added with what Melody was sure was a savage grin beneath her mask.

Tartsche gave her an uncomfort glance. “Let’s focus on getting the cure. Vengeance is not our goal here, so let’s stay focused.”

Brennus and Irene both nodded to that, as did the rest, except for Tyche and Osore (who’d remained completely quiet so far).

The black-and-white-clad gadgeteer pivoted around, weightless, to look over them as he folded his hands behind his back, his intense gaze coming to a stop on the quiet boy from Japan. “What about you, Osore? Are you in on this? No one’s going to hold it against you if you decide to sit this out.”

Finally, the young hero showed a reaction, lifting his head to look straight at Brennus. “In all the way,” he said, his voice quiet, gentle even.

Brennus nodded, briefly looking down. “Alright. Let’s get to it then.” He turned around to look at the city, of sorts, that lay ahead of them. “There is no way this thing is staying hidden from satellites, ships and over flying planes without some serious security measures, nevermind what they probably have to detect intruders,” he explained, as the vision ahead of them moved back again, then came closer naturally, the actual distance between them decreased enough that it no longer required a zoom to see. “We will need to find a way to pass into their perimeter without setting off their alarms.”

“I can probably teleport us inside,” Irene supplied, drawing closer to the structure. “I can see some kind of… force-field, around it.” She waved a hand, and the air in front of them rippled, refocusing until it showed a kind of net spread in a dome over the entire structure, flickering with electricity. “I’m not sure what it does – it’s a Contrivance, those are always hard to figure out – but it shouldn’t be a problem if we just teleport past it… no wait, yes, that’ll work.” She clapped her hands, lightening up. “It’s both an early warning system and an interceptor – if anything without the proper authorisation tries to fly through it, the entire field will focus its power on that spot and fry the interloper – but it won’t affect teleportation.” Melody could hear Irene’s grin, with no need to actually see her face.

“Can’t you just port us straight to Dusu and out again?” Tyche asked.

Irene’s shoulders slumped a bit. “No, I wish I could, but I can’t home in on her. Dunno if that’s because they have something that hides her, or because I don’t know her well enough or…”

Or because you don’t want to get to her enough, Melody finished the sentence in her thoughts, feeling sorry for her friend. As powerful as she seemed to be, she doubted most people ever considered how frustrating it must be to have so much power and not be able to use it as well as you’d like to.

“She will most likely be in the Northern half of the structure,” Brennus pointed out, moving the conversation along. “If you can teleport us onto the Northern half of the central disc, there might be some map or some other way to determine Dusu’s location, or that of her laboratory… or someone we can simply extract the information from.”

Irene nodded. “Ok… ok, I can do this. Hmm…” She crossed her arms, concentrating. “Teleportation… yup… a stealth power… remote targeting… danger sense…” She took a deep breath, then let it out. “I love it when my power plays along. Everyone ready to go in?”

There was a chorus of agreements, some more firm than others, and Irene raised her arms as if about to conduct a ceremony.

“And here we g-“

Space began to warp around them, drawing together in a mind-twisting way – and the sphere to the South of the construction rippled all at once, tendrils of liquid mercury shooting out at incredibly speed, even as time seemed to slow around them.

Irene’s eyes flew wide – “Wha-“

***

Melody’s head hurt abominably, as she picked herself up off the floor she suddenly found herself on, her display flickering with some kind of interference.

What the hell…?

She could hear someone next to her… Brennus, she recognised him by the particular sound of his heart… and there were more people, just outside the room she was in, as she slowly pushed herself up, looking around in confusion.

They were in a bare room, the walls, ceiling and floor all made of steel, with three large radio dishes above them, all pointed to the central area of the room she and Brennus lay in.

Brennus picked himself up just moments after her, standing up and looking around. “My head is killing me…” he groaned, raising his right hand to touch his mask’s forehead. He twitched, his head dipping to the right. “Some kind of… teleport interdiction? Did they know we were coming, or was it an automatic response to someone trying to teleport into their territory?” He looked at her, but she knew no more than he did, and so just shrugged.

Then he looked around them, and up at the radio dishes. “Shit. Those are EMP dishes,” he said, causing her to suck in a startled breath. So that was why her interface was flickering – the EMP shielding still held, but it wasn’t perfect and they were being bombarded with electromagnetic waves at point-blank range.

Yet her armour was working, and guessing by his ability to instantly analyse what those dishes did, so did at least the sensors in Brennus’ suit. And if the most sensitive parts of it worked, then so would the rest.

Right then, she didn’t feel jealous of him anymore – she just wanted to kiss him.

“No reason to smile, I am afraid,” he spoke, looking at her, causing her to realise that she’d been doing just that. Then she blushed, of course, stupid cheeks. “Even if our equipment is safe… I assume yours is safe, at least…” She nodded. “We were still split up, apparently sent into a room meant to specifically lock Gadgeteers down.” He took a deep breath. “Which means our friends were likely also split up and teleported into similar rooms, tailored to their abilities.”

She took in a sharp breath, blanching. Irene was probably safe, almost definitely, having so many powers at her disposal, but the others

“We need to find them,” she spoke, the words coming out slightly distorted.

He nodded, and turned towards the only visible exit out of the room, a very solid-looking, circular door that was very, very tightly shut.

They walked out of the circle in the centre of the room, out of the dishes’ area of effect, and her interface stabilised again; though she had no doubt in her mind that, without Brennus’ EMP shielding, it’d all be destroyed entirely by now, its circuits fried beyond hope of repair, much less use.

“There’s… twelve people outside. Calm, confident heartbeats,” she said, causing him to turn his head to look at her in surprise. She smiled at him again, this time more confidently, tapping her ears. “New earpieces. Protect and enhance my hearing.”

“Interesting. I could use something like that, if you do not mind a trade, later on,” he said, almost making her giggle at the thought that he wanted something she made.

“We’ll see. Let’s survive this, first,” she said instead, as she focused on the door, trying to figure out how to get through it… trying to ignore the gnawing, paralysing fear in her chest, trying to reach out and strangle her…

He nodded, turning towards the door. Then he reached for his new gauntlet and… pulled the ovoid off of it, as it detached at his touch, then touched its long side to the side of his thigh, attaching it there with a clicking sound.

“Step back, please,” he said, lifting his left arm, fingers spread, to aim his palm at the door. “I have not had the time to test this thoroughly.”

She breathed in, sharply, and stepped back, though watching eagerly to see his new invention at work.

His arm was pointed straight at the centre of the door, his right hand resting on his left forearm, steadying it. A light humming sound began to emit from the gauntlet, clear to her ears, likely barely audible to normal people’s, as light began to fill the circuit patterns on the metal, a blue-white light that moved from the back to the front, like water flowing through channels dug in the earth.

“Here goes nothing…” Brennus whispered, and then the gauntlet flared, momentarily.

There was a huge booming sound, a flash of light, the screeching, ear-rending sound of torn metal, followed by the screams of startled and injured people.

When Melody could see again, she saw a huge hole where the door had been, the edges torn and ragged, the door itself gone, shoved into the adjacent room by the force of the blast.

Brennus lowered his arm as the light faded from its grooves, as he looked at it, turning his hand up and down as if studying it in awe.

She certainly felt awed.

“Well, that went well,” he quipped, chuckling.

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B012.7 Born At Sleep

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“I don’t like this,” Amazon grumbled as everyone gathered on the rooftop of the UH’s headquarters.

As one of the three principal divisions of the organisation on the North American continent (the other two were based in San Diego and Toronto), it housed a great many parts of its bureaucracy, thus justifying the fact that the building it was housed in was one of the tallest ones in the city.

The fact that it made an impressive statement was a deliberate bonus. It was also a good place to look out over the city from.

It was a pain to get up on, at least for Basil, as there were no other buildings nearly as tall within a block of it. It would’ve taken a while for him to get up on top with his grappling hooks, so Prisca had picked him up and carried him to the top, trailed by the entirety of his unkindness of ravens (he’d originally deliberated whether to use ‘conspiracy’ or ‘unkindness’, then settled on the latter; merely calling them a ‘flock’ was just too boring).

They’d been greeted by Amazon, still the only adult superhero in town who wasn’t a street-level vigilante. With the cold war now growing rapidly hot, that was unlikely to change any time soon.

The entirety of the Juniors was present, save for Polymnia, as well, from Gloom Glimmer (whom Basil was quite glad to have on their side in any crisis) down to Spellgun and Osore, whom he wouldn’t have expected to join, based just on their powers – Spellgun had some nasty shots, but was otherwise just a normal human, lacking any versatility beyond what his rifle and ammunition provided, while Osore’s ability to make people afraid – devastating though it had been in its accidental use against Basil – didn’t seem that useful in the usual S-Class situation.

He was still glad about every bit of added support.

Amazon, though, didn’t seem too pleased with the situation. The first thing she’d done had been to protest taking teenagers into an unknown S-Class situation, new laws be damned. Even Gloom Glimmer was only supposed to provide transportation, not engage.

No one wanted to hear that and she was quickly convinced to let it go; now they were just waiting for Polymnia to get there – she’d been in the middle of some work and was just now stepping out of the elevator.

Basil took the chance to look her power armor over, feeling a pang of envy – of course she could still afford one, unlike him. It even looked like she’d improved it since the last time he’d seen it – the armor was noticeably more streamlined, more form-fitting, the transparent purplish-pink material (he still wasn’t sure what kind of alloy it was made of) more opaque than before, probably because it was also more dense – either that, or she’d sacrificed protection in exchange for making it more skin-tight, and he doubted she’d do that. Her robotic arms had been redesigned entirely and, unless she’d been hiding or developed a different specialisation, not by herself – they were less like a spider’s legs now and looked more like segmented metallic tentacles, with the segments painted with the same colour she used on her hair and lips. He’d done some research on that a while ago – the colour did not react to movement, per se, but rather to vibrations in the air – to sound. Which was why her hair always turned into a light show during her concerts, as Vasiliki had been all too happy to demonstrate by playing all of Polymnia’s concerts on the big screen and speaker system in his lair. Right now, the colours moved rather lazily across the metal and her hair. Since they all reacted to the same sounds – which, currently, came mostly from Amazon, Tartsche and Hecate arguing about who’d get to come along – the effect seemed to start at the four tentacles closest to the arguing trio and travel across them, over her hair (tied into a high pony tail today), her lips and onto the other four. As before, the top two tentacles held a selection of speakers, the two below were lacking in anything but the clawed tips all eight shared, meant for combat and movement, the next two held the two pieces of her keyboard-like control system and the last two were like the second set, currently on the ground to help balance the weight of the others.

Maybe she just took the servo-motors out of her armor, he thought as he appraised her work. She is strong enough to move her armor on her own and her tentacle-rig can carry and balance itself. Yeah, that made sense. It would make her armor more reliable, as well – less parts that could be damaged or fail.

The only part of her setup which seemed unchanged was her visor.

He noticed her eyes roaming over his load out, as well, as she appraised his new setup the same way he’d done with hers. Normally, he’d have approached her and started talking shop, but today… he just had too much on his mind.

So he just nodded to her and turned around, walking up to the trio.

Tartsche was just making a point about them needing every bit of firepower possible when dealing with an unknown S-Class – especially if the people in question had already proven to be reliable in no less than two such events – but Amazon didn’t seem convinced.

“Amazon,” Basil said as he stepped into the triangle they’d formed. She was, amazingly, taller than he was – no mean feat – so he had to look up at her, if only slightly. “I understand and appreciate your concern for our well-being,” She smiled, relaxing a bit, “but we are determined to participate in this. You can either take us with you and integrate us smoothly into whatever command structure will be in place there, or you can leave us behind – in which case we would arrive by alternate means.” She tensed up again as soon as he pronounced the ‘but’ and only got more agitated from there.

“Why’re you here, then?” she asked between clenched teeth.

“Because Gloom Glimmer is still our fastest, most reliable way to Esperanza and we’d also like to be, as I already explained, integrated into the local command structure, which should go much more smoothly if you take us along as reinforcements – S-Class protocols allow you to recruit any volunteer without an extended kill warrant on their head for such a situation.”

She growled at him under her breath, trying to transfix him with her gaze – but honestly, compared to Amy’s scowl, her’s was rather cute and pleasant.

He stood there, giving her fifteen seconds to process his words before he continued in a softer voice, “Look, we just want to help. We are heroes, and we live dangerously, anyway. So just let us do our job.”

“It’s not your job,” she said softly, deflating. “None of you have a duty to do this.” She turned to the junior heroes. “There is no shame in sitting this one out. You don’t owe it to anyone.”

“Oh, good, I’ll wish you all a nice d-” Outstep began, before Spellgun slapped him over the back of the head.

“We’re coming,” Tartsche said. “At the very least, we can help with the evacuation. Gloom Glimmer is probably our most powerful healer…”

“Not a reliable one, though,” Gloom Glimmer whispered, her face hidden in the shadows of her cowl. Polymnia put an arm around her shoulders, giving her a friendly (if stiff) squeeze.

“Brennus has excellent medical and field aid knowledge,” he continued unperturbed.

Not that I have any idea where I have it from, Basil thought in turn.

“Spellgun, Tyche,” he pointed at her sniper rifle, “Hecate and Polymnia can both support from long range,  I can tank any hit and no one’s better at high-speed evac than Outstep,” he concluded.

“Speaking of high speed,” Basil interjected before the speeches could continue, “We are wasting time.”

To his annoyance, it looked like she was going to further object, but she was interrupted by a cabin – an elevator – rising up from the ground next to the helipad, and a slovenly dressed, unshaven man rushed out.

Basil barely recognised Jason Widard – he’d never been one to pay too much attention to his appearance, even when he appeared on television, but he was looking positively run-down now!

“Why’re you still here!?” he asked, his face tight. “Our precogs just upgraded their threat assessment! From Green to Yellow!”

Amazon looked at him, briefly, then turned to the teens. “Alright. I’ll take you along – but you do as I say, when I say it, got it? I have more experience at this than all of you put together, and by God, you will obey me and the other veterans!”

“Yes ma’am!” they all replied at once, before they gathered around Gloom Glimmer.

***

Basil blinked, feeling more than a little confused. He’d expected some manner of effect, something to mark the transition, but… one moment, they’d been clustering around Gloom Glimmer (who’d stayed uncharacteristically quiet, judging by what he’d seen of her before), the next they stood on a large market square, with numerous other capes and cowls gathered near them. The transition had been instant.

First things first… He checked – Prisca was there. They’d been worried, briefly, about whether or not a teleportation ability would work on her, and whether she could sustain her projection at such distance.

She looked at him, nodding with a small. Everything appeared to be alright.

Whispers rose among the gathered metahumans – and there were really only metahumans around. Unless Esperanza had had a sudden surge in non-powered costumed figures.

“Stay where you are,” Amazon told them before she walked towards the stage.

Basil recognised a few of the people gathered. The United Heroes’ Esperanza Division stood on a portable stage, their Juniors stood in a small cluster off to one side.

Father Manus, their field (and spiritual) leader, in his priestly black robe with the stiff white collar, wearing no mask, his porcelain-like face sporting a serene yet determined expression. Basil didn’t know whether he was permanently transformed or whether he could change into a normal form.

Hollywood, his daughter, stood to his right in stark contrast, her risqué outfit looking like something halfway between a ball gown and a bikini, made from pure white silk that contrasted with her caramel-coloured skin and jet black hair. She eschewed a mask, much like her father, but wore professionally applied make up.

To Hollywood’s left stood her husband Waverider, looking quite boring next to his inhuman father-in-law and his glamorous wife in spite of his movie-star-slash-surfer-dude looks. He wore a practical set of body armor over thick pants, the only difference between it and standard special ops gear being the light blue wave patterns covering it. He had one arm wrapped around Hollywood’s waist, holding her close.

Next came Little Boy, a man who seemed to be morbidly obese, with no hair at all, wearing a thick long coat he barely seemed to fit into. Yet a second look revealed that he was growing, getting fatter and bigger in small increments as he kept building up his destructive power.

Finally, another pair stood to Father Manus’ left, a man and a woman holding hands.

The man, Silver Falcon, wore a skin-tight dark blue bodysuit with a wing-like, silver cape and beak-shaped mask. He looked more slender than muscular, but there was a kind of natural grace to his stance.

His sister Charybdis, the West Coast’s heavy hitter (even more so than Little Boy, really), was the shortest person on the stage, shorter than her own brother by more than a head at least, even though they were supposed to be twins. She wore a thick blue-black bodysuit with tight, molded armor reminiscent of blue-green scales on her chest, with matching greaves and bracers, as well as a similarly designed helmet which enclosed her head entirely, save for her mouth, showing off pale skin and even paler lips.

There were even more figures gathered, at least fifty capes and cowls, not counting their own group. Quite a few villains he recognised, as well…

Oh shit.

Amy was there. With Kraquok and Lamarr. They stood a good deal away from the heroes, with the local street villains clustering around them.

Kraquok looked the same as every time Basil had seen him on television or on the internet. Big, freaky beyond belief with his crocodile-like double-face and his weirdly patched-together physique, combining elements from human, saurian and weirder anatomy into a world-renowned nightmarish blend.

His teammate, Lamarr, looked positively average next to him in his three-piece magician’s suit with the purple velvet top hat and wide cape, holding a black-and-white wand in his gloved hands. Unlike the thirty or so villains around him, he looked utterly at ease, as if he was just out on a walk.

Amy… was staring daggers at Basil. She was, in fact, shaking with barely restrained anger, apparently barely held in check by Kraquok having placed a clawed hand on her shoulder (not that physically restraining her would mean anything).

Vasiliki growled next to him, her eyes fixated on Amy. Though he couldn’t determine her expression, it was no big deal to guess what she was thinking.

Amazon did not seem pleased to see Amy, either, and she was much more obvious about it than Vasiliki.

Fortunately, though, the two groups stood far enough apart from each other for it to not be obvious that Amy was looking at him specifically.

I am going to feed your spleen to you through your nose, Amy spoke straight into his head, her mental voice fairly bubbling over with rage.

Provided I still have one, and a nose, after this, he couldn’t restrain himself from thinking back at her, feeling a flash of irritation. She hardly had the right to criticise his choices, considering her own.

If you die here, I’m going to kill you, she replied calmly.

I love you, too. Be safe.

Look who’s talking.

“-ing at?” Vasiliki said, pulling his attention back to his immediate surroundings.

“Huh?” he asked, momentarily confused.

She was looking at the stage again, though throwing suspicious looks over her shoulder every now and then, glaring at Amy. “I’d like to know what the hell that bitch is looking at,” she replied angrily.

“Language!” Dalia reprimanded her with a grin. Vasiliki almost blew up at her, visibly, but the redhead just pressed on, “Look, I know what you got against her, but we need to keep our heads clear here. Put your issues with her off until after this.”

“You…” Vasiliki tensed, almost lifting her staff – but then she deflated, lowering her head. “… are right. Thanks.” She took a deep breath and pointedly turned away entirely from Amy.

And just in time, too, as two armored figures approached the group.

Ah, finally, good news! Basil thought as he and Polymnia stepped forward immediately to meet them.

The two figures looked as different as night and day, yet there was an odd sense of… similarity about them which went beyond their outward appearance. Both were wearing power armour, but that’s where the similarities ended.

The taller of the duo was clad from head to toe in blackened,  steel. His armour was blocky, so broad it looked almost like a cartoon, and it moved quite stiffly, with exceedingly heavy steps which threatened to crack the pavement. The only colour to it, aside from several heat vents at his sides, were the circular red lenses over his eyes. The armour’s left arm ended in a huge cannon instead of a hand, looking as blocky and ragged as the rest of his equipment (though Basil was guessing about the gender – there really was no way to tell how the person inside that armour looked).

His name was Boom-Boom, one of the few teenage gadgeteers currently active in the USA – and a supervillain, as well.

In stark contrast to his appearance, the girl next to him looked like she’d come out of a science-fiction comic book. Her armour was sleek and – Basil had never thought he’d use the word in relation to power armour, except in jest, but it just fit – quite sexy. It was so thin and tight, it looked more like simple body armour, yet he knew that it was definitely powered. Her armour was made of some manner of silverly-golden metal, covering her from head to toe. It was segmented and sported an old-fashioned clock face with three brassy hands indicating the time in Roman numerals. The armor was so form-fitting, there was no doubt that there was a slender girl underneath – it was even molded to fit her breasts like a second skin, a feature not even Polymnia’s body-accentuating armour sported. Furthermore, each step of hers was accentuated with the sound of a ticking clock. A mass of long black hair tied into a ponytail poked out of the back of her armor, and a red-golden visor made up the upper half of her helmet’s faceplate. Two sleek guns rested in holsters on her hips, and a long, sleek rifle was strapped to her back. Each piece of her equipment ticked, much like her armour did, and they were all in perfect tune.

Her name was Tick-Tock. Second-youngest – though senior – member of the local Juniors, an up-and-coming Gadgeteer much like Basil and Polymnia.

The four of them came to a halt just a few feet from each other, looking at their respective equipment. Polymnia’s tentacles even folded back so as not to obstruct their sight.

Finally, after a few moments of quiet analysis, Boom-Boom spoke up, holding out his hand towards Basil.

“Cowl’s Boom-Boom,” he introduced himself, his voice modulated by a voice-changer and further distorted by his thick helmet, as they shook hands (his massive right gauntlet made his entire hand disappear). “Everything I make explodes.”

“Brennus,” Basil replied in kind, “Speciality still up in the air, though I currently trend towards some manner of Electromagnetic theory as part of it.”

“Ah, you’re still trying to figure it out,” Tick-Tock replied as she and Polymnia shook hands. “I remember that time.” She focused on Polymnia again, “Tick-Tock’s my cape, and everything I make involves a timer of some kind.”

<Polymnia,> the pop princess replied. <I specialise in acoustic effects. As well as music.>

Boom-Boom shook hands with her as well, while Basil exchanged greetings with Tick-Tock. “Nice to have some more techies on the team,” the blocky supervillain said. “Maybe we’ll even get a chance to work together on something. Here’s to us making a bigass electro-acoustic time bomb!”

Tick-Tock slapped the back of his helmet, making a bell-like ringing sound. “All you ever think of is stuff blowing up,” she complained. “Please don’t use this situation as an excuse to blow even more things up than you already have.”

He just shrugged, a truly impressive motion given his frame, despite the limited movement he could actually put into it.

<If we’re really lucky,> Polymnia interjected with a wistful smile, <We won’t have to fight at all, this’ll all blow over and we can all work on something fun.>

“Explosions are fun. They’re all the fun!” Boom-Boom countered with unsettling intensity. Tick-Tock slapped him over the head again, causing him to continue in a more normal voice: “Besides, we’re unlikely to work together outside of an S-Class party like this, seeing how I’m a supervillain and all.”

“Well, I am a vigilante, so technically that is not an issue for m- is that what I think it is?” Basil looked up at a nearby building – a bank, though he didn’t bother to check which one – along with everyone else as a penetrating hum filled the air, and a gleaming silver shape rose up over the roof, smoothly gliding through the air and over the market square.

It looked, at first glance, like a particularly blocky jet fighter, except it was the size of two school busses standing next to each other, with a squared snout sporting four black spheres, one on each side, which moved around like a chamaeleon’s eyes. Its wings were similarly squared, thicker than any jet’s wings were ever going to be; clearly, streamlining the craft had not been a priority. A huge cannon’s barrel – some manner of railgun, Basil guessed – extended almost from the very hind of the craft over the tip, facing forward. It had no other visible armaments. There were several depressions worked smoothly into the metal, almost like channels, which covered most of its surface, from the tip all the way to the back end, emitting a pale silver light. It moved with no visible means of propulsion, producing only that pervasive, pulsing humming sound. The air around it seemed to almost cling to its shape, causing slight distortions in the light that passed through, blurring the edges of the craft.

“That… that is…” Boom-Boom stammered. If he wasn’t covered in more than a ton of steel, he’d probably be trembling.

No matter, the other three were trembling more than enough to make up for him.

“That is a Mark VII Subjugator,” Basil whispered in awe as their companions from New Lennston joind up with the small group of Gadgeteers. “It is the third-latest model of Subjugators, and the latest mass produced one. Why is it here?”

“It’s not public knowledge yet,” Gloom Glimmer replied to his question, her silken voice barely audible over the pulsing sound of the Subjugator touching down on top of the city hall, projecting a shimmering force-field in lieu of other landing gear, “There’s a major conference planned on the subject of nature protection and endangered species in particular. They expected delegates from all over the world, including GAIN and the AMU. In fact, unless I’m mistaken, there should be-“

She stopped speaking as the hum cut off and people started whispering among each other – but not about the Subjugator, no. Instead, their attention was drawn to the stage, where two new arrivals had joined the local heroes.

One was a very tall, almost freakishly thin man with a long, care-lined face, wearing a dark blue robe and wizard’s hat, while holding a long wooden staff in one hand.

The other looked, at first, like an elongated fur ball standing on four wooden sticks. A second glance, though, revealed that the sticks were actually its brown, gnarled arms, ending in over-sized, clawed hands; the fur ball was its body, wrapped in dirty brown fur which moved almost as if a breeze was running through it, despite the stillness of the air. Zooming in, Basil could see hints of shapes moving within the fur, like small ghosts.

“There they are,” Gloom Glimmer concluded. “Prospero and Totemic.”

“That’s one hell of a hippie conference,” Dalia said half in jest. “I wouldn’t have expected those people to be so environmentally minded.”

Gloom Glimmer shrugged casually. “It’s not something which comes up often in the media, but Sovereign is actually very environmentally sensitive. He’s backing most charities that share his passion for protecting nature – he just doesn’t care about humans the same way. As for Madd- I mean, Queen Madeleine, she’s not exactly an avid believer herself, but Totemic is a very active defender of endangered species. He owns the world’s largest zoo, as well. I suspect Prospero is here to serve as a translator and to keep an eye on him. The Queensguard never operates solo by principle.”

“Wow, I suddenly feel like we’re not even needed here,” Vasiliki breathed. “What’s next, are the Shining G-“

There was a loud sound, like a huge cord being strung tight, a booming explosion in the air, and a whirling golden portal opened on the stage, a tall, muscular woman in her mid-thirties stepping out of it; She wore leather pants, a white shirt and a leather jacket stepping out, sporting two bandoliers which held numerous vials and leather pouches, her dark brown hair cut into a practical bob cut. She was followed by fifteen others, all in similar garb – dressed like adventurers from Pulp novels – who took position in a line at the back of the stage, as she joined Prospero and Father Manus at the front.

<That,> Timothy spoke up through their comlink, his voice hushed, <Is Doc Feral. This is rapidly turning into one hell of a crisis crossover roster. “What’s next, are Lady Light and the Dark gonna show up and join in on the fun?>

Everyone around – including a few of the gathered heroes and villains who stood further away – turned to look at Gloom Glimmer.

The girl seemed to briefly shrink into her cape, as if startled by the sudden rush of attention. Then she replied, “I really don’t think so… I tried to reach them, but Mom and Dad are both… off. I don’t know where to or why, I don’t even know if they’re together, I just know that neither of them is reachable right now, even for me.”

“Unless we are about to fight DiL,” Outstep spoke up in an amused tone, “I don’t really think they’re going to be necessary for this one.”

As he spoke, Basil saw Gloom Glimmer twitch, briefly, her eyes flashing red for a moment before she got herself under control again.

What is that about? he asked himself, though he only said, “Way to tempt fate, mate.”

Outstep laughed out loud, though despite his bravado, he looked pretty nervous.

Before anyone could further comment on the issue, Father Manus stepped away from the other two capes and looked at the gathered heroes, clearly preparing to speak to them all.

***

“My dear brothers and sisters in arms,” the porcelain man spoke in a deep, sonorous voice, spreading his arms wide to include everyone on the square. “Welcome and thank you for appearing in such numbers to help protect our home from whatever calamity is fast approaching. We – by which I mean the local division of the United Heroes, as well as Doc Feral of the Shining Guardians – are well aware that many of you are volunteers from remote locations, and we deeply appreciate your willingness to help us in our hour of need.” He briefly bowed towards the people on the square, before he turned around to do the same towards the AMU delegates and the Subjugator up above.

Afterwards, he turned around again to adress the people on the square again. “Unfortunately, we’re still unclear as to the exact nature of the prophecised threat – we only know that it is a considerable one, tentatively classified as a Code Yellow S-Class event.”

“That’s just two steps below DiL,” Vasiliki whispered as she and Dalia moved a little closer to each other for comfort. Basil himself was already holding hands with Prisca, and most others had paired up. Boom-Boom and Tick-Tock were holding hands, as well.

“Since we don’t know when exactly it is going to make itself manifest, nor where exactly, we must move quickly into position!” Father Manus continued speaking while Waverider created a crackling blue-white disc of energy, on which Little Boy loaded a stack of small black boxes. The disc moved around the people on the stage – except for the heroes, who already had boxes such as those attached to their belts or chests. Everyone it passed by took one of those boxes. It came down and moved through the crowd as well.

“Waverider is distributing communicators,” the porcelain man explained. “They attach to your costume or body through a vacuum. Please speak your cape or cowl into them, confirm by pressing the blue button and keep them on your person at all times – they will allow us to contact you, coordinate your movements and…”

He went on explaining how the communicators worked, while Basil took one and attached it to his belt, next to his knife sheath (well, one of them) after entering and confirming his name.

“As we don’t have sufficient information to create an elaborate battle plan, I’ll ask you all to remain in your teams with the people you have already worked with. If you don’t have a team, please find at least two other people to team up with for the duration of this event,” the priestly superhero went on. “Each group will be given a location to get to and await further developments.”

The gathered capes and cowls listened quietly, with not even any whispers to break the quiet in between his sentences.

“There is not much time, but let me say this – thank you for being here. Be safe. Stay together. Take care of each other. And God be with you.”

***

After briefly exchanging well wishes, Basil and his team had been directed to a high-rise apartment building near the waterfront, where they’d landed on the rooftop to take up positions. Someone had turned the roof into a garden with benches and tables, and they spread out, taking seats to try and calm down a bit before the storm.

“If I’d known it would take this long, I’d have waited before coming here,” Prisca said after five minutes of nothing happening, as she sat on a sun chair, in full armour. “I’m wasting time. Literally.”

“You could not have flown here that quickly,” Basil replied. He was the only one not sitting, having instead taken up position at the West edge of the roof, staring towards the bright blue ocean. “Not without burning more time than you would gain from waiting. And teleporting here would require Gloom Glimmer’s cooperation, which would require explaining your power to her.”

She made a grumpy sound, but didn’t press the issue.

“Hey, B-Six,” Dalia spoke up from where she was lounging on a swinging bench. “What’d you mean when you said we had other means of getting here?” she asked curiously, one leg dangling from the bench, using her toe to cause it to swing back and forth. “I didn’t know we could do something like that.”

“I’d like to know about what you meant, as well,” Vasiliki added, turning to look at him – she’d been sitting at a table, sketching something on a pad she’d pulled out of her bag of holding. “You pressured Amazon a lot there.”

“I was bluffing,” Basil admitted without turning to look at them – he was too busy distributing his ravens across Esperanza.He felt their stares on his neck.

<Duuuuuuude,> Timothy breathed. <That’s… I didn’t know you could bluff like that.>

<Yeah, I figured you were one of those ‘always speak the truth’ types,> Stephi commented.

Basil barely held himself back from laughing out loud. Well, they do not know me very well after all, do they?

“It was just a simple bluff, nothing worth mentioning, really,” he said. “Though I do feel bad about being so pushy. But then again, her concern really was misplaced.” Honestly, compared to what we have already been through, how bad could this be?

As if trying to reprimand him for even thinking that, there was a loud beep from their communicators at just that moment.

<Unknown object coming from the West,> spoke a calm woman’s voice. <Something massive is approaching the city from beneath the water. All teams, be ready to deploy.>

The girls leapt up and joined Basil in watching the ocean, forming a single line. Prisca stood to his left, and her hand found his, gently squeezing it. He squeezed back, as they saw a large shadow approach the beach littered with sunshades and various booths – fortunately, the civilians had already retreated into the numerous shelters built all around the huge metropolis.

“That… looks big,” Dalia commented lamely.

The approaching shadow looked like it was the size of a football field.

As it came closer, the water rose, bulging as the colossal shape rose up, simultaneously moving forwad and somehow shrinking back, as if the act of rising up forced it to redistribute its mass, changing its shape.The water rose higher, until a pillar of water forty meters tall stood just in front of the beach, with a darker, slightly shorter shape standing within.

The creature – whatever it was – appeared to be humanoid in shape, though very roughly so, its torso nearly pear-shaped with no visible neck between its conical head and its barely distinguishable shoulders – if it even had shoudlers – visible in this state. It was barely possible to distinguish two thick, round arms which reached down to the knees of its disproportionally short legs.It seemed to just stand there, for a few moments, the water around it never falling off until it suddenly leaned forward, taking a slow, lumbering step onto the sandy ground in front of it.And with that, its water shroud fell off, revealing…

“Oh, come on!” Basil shouted. “First a giant pile of shit, and now… now this!?”

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B012.6 Born At Sleep

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Dalia pulled Basil across the room and to the staircase leading below. It was easy to forget that she was very strong, and quite fast, as well – he had to run to keep up with her purposeful strides.

Feeling quite confused by her attitude, Basil threw a helpless look over his shoulder, but the others looked as confused as he felt; they quickly followed, however.

For a moment, Basil felt a flash of shame as they entered his lab – some part of him didn’t actually want them to see the sorry state of his work. But that part was quickly ignored by the larger part which argued that he’d already told them everything, anyway. There was no reason to feel self-conscious about this.

Nevermind that his friends honestly wouldn’t care about him only having a few projects left to work on.

Yet he couldn’t help but feel embarrassed. This was his power. He was a gadgeteer. Unlike Prisca, Dalia or Aimihime, he was just a normal person (or as normal as someone with messed-up memories could be considered to be) – until he took up one of his creations.

Even Vasiliki wasn’t quite the same – to her, creating a new enchantment or improving an existing one was like making art, like painting a picture. It was creative, explosive, driven by sudden bursts of inspiration and power. The actual work was rather short, rarely more than a day – usually, it could be counted in single-digit hours. Fitting her ideas and needs into the larger thesis her power worked with was the actual challenge. Furthermore, each creation of hers was a thing of its own, as powerful as she could make it – any improvements were largely focused on making them more versatile, adding additional capabilities to them.

Basil, on the other hand, had to sit down and spend hours and days at a time to devise improvements, nevermind new creations. He was constantly laboring to maintain and improve his existing gear, to make it so it could keep up with his friends’ innate abilities, which only required training with them in order to improve – something which Basil had to do as well, in order to be able to use his creations well.

The truth of the matter was that he really, really needed those extra hours he took out of his sleep- and schooltime, simply to keep up with them.

Only now he had to admit that, for the last few weeks, he’d been wasting his time. He’d kept up his training, of course – barely – but the other half of his labour, the work on his gadgets, had dried up entirely.

He’d started out as the most powerful member of their little group, in no small part due to the months he spent preparing for his career as a vigilante. It wasn’t something he’d been particularly proud of, certainly not something he paraded around – but it had been a quiet, steady conviction in the back of his head. He’d been forced to update that to admit that, at least within her sphere of specialisation, Vasiliki was more powerful and more versatile than he was. Nevermind that, when her power was actually cooperating, Dalia was basically invincible.

Despite that, he’d been the toughest member, definitely the best frontline fighter (Dalia’s power was just plain too fickle to rely on in melee combat most of the time) and far and wide the most versatile one.

Then Prisca had joined and there was no question as to whom belonged the title of toughest frontline fighter. Her projection was basically invulnerable, had proven itself capable of slicing through the most resistant material he’d been able to provide as if it was warm butter and it was entirely expendable besides – at worst, she’d have to spend a few hours away before she could pitch in again. Or just minutes, if need be.

That hadn’t been reason enough to feel surly, though. In truth, Basil had felt delighted at the thought of reworking his entire approach to combat. Frontline fighting was exhilerating and he was good at it, but there was so much more he could do. Whatever his speciality was, however his power was limited, it was certainly broad enough to supply them with plenty of options for any role in combat.

Granted, that necessitated a certain success rate which he’d been lacking lately. With the way his arsenal had deteriorated, there was just plainly no way he could lay claim to the title of the most versatile team member anymore.

The only one more limited than he was Dalia, at this point, and that was almost entirely due to the fickle nature of her power, instead of any fault of her own.

Basil didn’t like to admit it, hadn’t even been aware of it, but he’d gotten used to being one of the best, at least within his small circle of acquaintances. Had taken pride in it.

He would never have expected it to hurt so much, to lose that proud conviction. He’d never considered Pride to be something important to himself, at least not on a level where it’d hurt him to have it wounded so.

I really am a shallow person, he thought to himself as they reached the center of his workshop. In front of them stood his main work table, with the empty egg-like construct and a few other bits and pieces. A rack to the left held his armor, rifle, sword and three-dimensional movement gear. To the right stood his ceramic fabricator, now still as he hadn’t used it in a while – Vasiliki, Dalia and he all had body armor (in various styles) already, and Prisca had no use for it – they’d tried to augment her toughness by letting her borrow Dalia’s suit for her projection (the two were the closest match, figure-wise) based on the idea that, if she wore armor that absorbed part of a blow, she’d have to expend less of her limited power to resist it, thus letting her last longer; it hadn’t worked, as her power just stretched to encompass the armor, protecting it as well at the cost of her time limit.

He’d felt a little disappointed to know that he couldn’t help her out with some body armor or such.

She could use his sword to impressive effect, however, but he didn’t have the materials to fabricate another one right now and he didn’t want to give up his main melee weapon, not with how often he’d found himself forced into close quarter combats against tougher opponents.

In the end, though, he…

“Hey, earth to Basil!!!”

“Ow!” He flinched, slapping his hands over his left ear as Dalia screamed into it. “The hell!?”

She snorted at his angry and confused glare. “You spaced out again,” she accused him. “We’re here to help ya, so how about you focus?”

“You are right. I am sorry,” he said while rubbing his ear. “I figure the pain will help me focus now, anyway,” he couldn’t stop himself from saying.

“Pah. You’ve taken much worse with far less complaints,” she replied, brushing it off. “Now that everyone’s here,” Everyone had gathered around them, most of them looking as confused as Basil felt, “how about we get this done, huh?”

“How?” he asked. “How are we going to figure out my speciality? I’ve been trying to pin it down since I started, and I have-“

“A whole lot of mental issues that probably prevent you from figuring it out!” Dalia replied seriously. “I mean, what else could keep you from figuring it out? Any ideas?” She spread her arms, looking around at the others.

“Maybe it’s something that changes?” Prisca asked, sounding unsure. “Like, maybe he doesn’t have a fixed specialty or he specialises in copying or improving other stuff. He’s worked in so many fields, after all…”

“That would be a nice power to have,” he admitted. “But I’ve never even heard of a gadgeteer’s power anywhere near that level.”

“Doesn’t mean it can’t happen,” Tim suggested. “I mean, most powers tend to be…” He moved his hands up and down, as if weighing options, “not balanced, but they are kinda manageable. But there’s always been some who’re just way out there. Lady Light. The Dark, Kraquok, Weisswald, freaking DiL, Gloom Glimmer, the Hannibal Storm… there’s always been some crazy-out-there powers, since the beginning.”

“Still, it’s less likely than him just having a relatively obscure but fixed speciality,” Vasiliki threw in. “If we approach this with the mindset that anything is possible, then we’ll ne-“

“Oh, come on!” Dalia shouted in exasperation. Everyone turned to look at her in surprise. “Can you lot just stop talking for once? Why do you make it so complicated?” She turned around and pointed at the egg-shaped gadget. “What’s this?” she asked firmly.

“No idea,” Basil admitted, feeling an uncomfortable sting. “I do not even remember making it and it is not finished.”

Clearly, she hadn’t expected that and she blinked, a little off-balance. Then she caught herself and pointed to the next object – his rifle on the rack. “Ok, then what about that super-rifle of yours?”

Everyone looked at the large rifle. It was, truthfully, rather cumbersome, a boxy shape with sharp edges and a barrel that was three times as thick as the muzzle. The stock and the grip were quite over-sized as well, just barely manageable even though Basil was on the tall side for his age. Most of it was made of his ceramic compound, giving it a dull black colour, though there were several metal parts showing, adding silvery lines to the whole.

“I’ve been wondering about that monster as well,” Vasiliki admitted. “It looks like it could stop a tank.”

“That would depend on the model,” he admitted, which earned him a round of shocked stares. “What? We have been fighting enough enemies who could take that kind of damage. So I made a weapon to fit.” He looked at the rifle again. “It is essentially a scaled-down rail gun. It uses the principle of a homopolar motor to accelerate a projectile to high speeds without the use of any explosives or propellant.”

“You managed to build a portable rail gun?!” Tim exclaimed. “Holy shit, Basil, if that thing can fire like the ones they use on battleships…”

He shook his head. That would be awesome, but… “I can not reach that kind of firepower. The system can accelerate a projectile up to Mach 7, but doing so causes a lot of stress to the weapon and depletes the batteries I load it with quite quickly,” he pointed at the belt of tube-shaped black batteries attached to his armor and at the opening at the side of the barrel, near the trigger, where he would put them in. “I have to lug around both ammunition and battery packs for the thing. The upside is that I do not have to deal with any meaningful recoil.”

“Alright,” Dalia said with a nod. “So, what about this one?” She pointed at his sword.

The current version of the sword was mostly unchanged from the one he had made shortly after the Hastur Incident, except he had scaled it down to adjust for the lack of strength-enhancement, now that he was no longer using power armor. It had a blade that was a meter and twenty centimeters long, with only one side having an edge and the other one being rather thicker than normal to hold the machinery that powered it. As his armor now ran without its own battery pack, he’d installed one in the tip of the grip, where he could easily exchange it – it used the same tube-shaped batteries which he used for his rifle.

“Well, it is a vibrating sword,” he said. “Basically just a normal blade, but hollow, with a series of magnets arranged along the length, opposing each other – let’s call one row up and one down. A rigid rod is placed in-between the rows, connecting through several smaller rods to the blade itself. A current is run through the sword, alternating between two different circuits,” he explained, starting to relax. “Each circuit alternates between the rows, powering an up-magnet, a down-magnet, an up-magnet, and so on. As the current alternates, the magnets cause the rod, and thus the blade as a whole to vibrate at supersonic speed, creating the humming sound that caused me to name it the Humming Blade. The vibration’s main use is to massively increase the cutting power of the blade.”

“Moving on!” Dalia said, cutting off Tim, who seemed to have a question or a comment without even noticing. “What about these puppies?” She pointed at a belt of small, palm-sized boxes.

“EMP grenades,” he said simply. “Just way smaller than the ones used by the military.”

“And this one?” She pointed at the three-dimensional movement gear.

“Basically just a very sophisticated set of grappling hooks,” he replied. This is actually quite fun. He rarely had the chance to just explain his work to someone. “Their tips… I used to think they employed the principle of the van der Waals force, but they actually use an electrostatic effect to stick to surfaces and allow me to swing around without having to cause property damage everywhere I go.”

“Yeah, and it looks wicked cool while you’re at it,” she replied with her usual broad grin. “So, how about this biggie?” She strode over to his ceramic fabricator.

“That is basically an oven for creating the ceramic I use for most of my equipment,” he said, leaning against the table. “The ceramic itself is actually pretty simple, the problem lies in fabricating it in sufficient quantities to be useful. The oven heats up the raw materials I feed into it and uses various magnets and coils to… I guess the process is best described as molding molecules, aligning them in the right way to achieve its final, rigid form. But since the process also makes it non-conducting to the extreme, it has to be molded into its final shape while it is being produced, and I can not adjust it afterwards except by completely melting it down and starting all over.”

Looking around at everyone’s faces, they were clearly listening even though at least a few of them were clearly out of their depth, despite him using the most simple terms he could think of to explain his work.

“So, what about her?” Dalia asked, pointing at the screen on the worktable that Eudocia’s emblem was currently on. “How’s she work?”

“Uhh…” He looked at the computer. “Eudocia… is complicated. I mean, as I told you, I found her, I did not make her – I believe. Mostly, I just booted her up and guided her initial setup, as far as that is possible considering her architecture – which appears to be unlike any computer I know of.”

<Of course, I’m not just some glorified calculator, after all!> she exclaimed proudly.

“Okay, so she’s weird and maybe not even a result of your own power,” Dalia continued. “But what about your birds?” She pointed at the production and loading station for his ravens, and the models that were currently being recharged.

“Most of them, I just took out of Toybox,” he admitted. “I just refined some parts by improving their motors and joints, and they use my processors instead of the standard ones.” He pulled a drawer out of the table and lifted a thumb-sized processor that looked like a fractal-like fusion of metal and crystal. “These ones are all mine. They work like regular processors, but they work faster and under much more stress than usual microprocessors. Also, they bleed off excess energy in the form of light instead of heat.”

“So they go all shiny when they’re in use?” Stephi asked with an interested look on her face.

“Pretty much, yes,” he affirmed.

Dalia tapped her foot. “Alright, one more. What about that glowing reactor you have below?”

“Uses an electrochemical process and Helium-3 to create energy through cold fusion,” he said simply. It was one of his less interesting creations, to him. “It produces a lot of energy at low heat – just above room temperature – with the only downside being an excessive generation of cherenkov radiation, thus the glow. Also, it can not melt down or blow up unless it is deliberately turned into a bomb.” Vasiliki gave him a stern look and he looked away, feeling sheepish. “Yes, I  included a self-destruct option. No, there is no big red button for blowing it all up.”

“Aww…” Tim seemed disappointed.

“Very disappointing, Basil,” Prisca said with an exaggerated nod. “You are in danger of losing your membership to the nerd club there.”

It wasn’t that good a joke, but Basil found himself laughing nonetheless, as did the others – relieving some of the pressure they’d all been feeling.

“Before we continue, I do have another question,” Aimi spoke up after everyone had calmed down again. “How come you can explain all this stuff so well?”

“What do you mean?” Basil asked.

“Well… when Polymnia starts to explain her stuff, everyone just tunes the fuck out,” she admitted. “Girl can’t put it into normal speech at all. A lot of the time, she can’t even really explain why something works, only that it does. And I’m given to understand that that’s how it usually works for gadgeteers.”

“That, I can actually answer,” Basil said with a smile. “Perhaps that is ironic, because it is probably the part of my power I personally enjoy and dislike the most.” He pushed himself off the table and walked a few paces down the table, just to loosen up his legs a bit. “Normally, a gadgeteer works mostly in a… kind of conducting capacity.” He was really enjoying the chance to actually expose a bit without everyone having a laugh interrupting him. “Their power does the detail work, while they have to… consolidate ideas. At least, that is the best way I can describe it. There is still room for error and it does take effort on the gadgeteer’s side – quite a lot, in some cases – but it is distinct from actual research and development the way mundane scientists do it. Polymnia, for example,” he continued smoothly, “creates her gadgets by composing music. The process, to her, is more akin to a composer creating a symphony than a scientist working out the minutae of, say, a sonic gun.” He waved a hand in an airy, unsteady motion. “Most gadgeteers work that way. That is why our schematics come out so weird, as musical notations or pictographs or stylised gears. If they mess up the process – if, for example, Polymnia messes up the melody she is working on – then their power produces a faulty blueprint. Perhaps they can not create their intended gadget at all, or perhaps it comes out wrong – thus the ever-popular cliché of gadgeteers blowing up their labs.”

He stopped to take a breath, then waited a few seconds to give them time to absorb the information. “For some, the process is even less involved. Like Smileyboy, whose power does pretty much all the work and he just has to do the actual assembly of his gadget.” He sighed. “For me, it is the opposite. My power… does way less than usual. That is why I had to build a high-end computer just to get started. The… concepts, the schematics it gives me are always… incomplete. There are gaps that I have to fill. It still comes out in a weird annotation – the pictographs I am sure you have all seen before.” He pointed at a whiteboard he used to take notes on, where some of his pictographs were visible. “But I still have to do a lot of the science myself, to fill in the gaps, or else it does not work at all, or it is faulty and might blow up or short out or have some other kind of malfunction. It is never a challenge I can not live up to – it almost feels like my power always gives me something that forces me to push my limits – but it can get very involved and difficult, and I have screwed it up more than once.” He shrugged and smiled at them. “On the other hand, it means I have a much better understanding of my gadgets than is usual for gadgeteers.” He looked at Dalia. “So… To get back to the main question – what do you take from this? Have you figured out my speciality?”

She smirked at him. “Isn’t it obvious?” she asked him. He shook his head, so she looked at the others. “C’mon, am I the only one who noticed it?”

“Dunno what you’re talking about,” Tim said. “This all seems very broad to me.”

“Same here,” Prisca said. “And you’ve forgotten all the medical equipment he’s made, or his skill at surgery.”

“To which I owe my life, or at least my continued uncrippled life,” Vasiliki added with a self-depreciating smirk. Basil felt himself twitch internally at the memory of that first night they met, when he’d had to perform emergency surgery on the spot.

He was still not sure how he’d managed to pull it off without screwing up, though Dalia’s luck may have had a hand in that.

“I’m drawing a blank,” Stephi admitted.

<This isn’t much of a game,> Eudocia said in a mournful tone. <I’m afraid I don’t see it.>

“Electromagnetism,” Aimihime said simply, causing everyone to look at her. She shrugged in response. “I mean… everything he’s described so far has used electricity, magnets and stuff as a major part of its function, from the rail gun to those crystal processors – light is a part of the electromagnetic spectrum, after all.”

Basil blinked. “So… you’re suggesting that my specialty… somehow ties into the electromagnetic spectrum?” Could it be that?

“That’s what I was thinking,” Dalia told him. “I mean… I’m hardly an expert on this stuff – I didn’t even really know about specialties and stuff until today, not beyond the basic stuff – but it seems to me that, if everything you make is based on a specific field your power specialises in, then the most obvious thing all your stuff has in common is gonna be it, right?”

“Yeah, but what about his medical stuff?” Prisca brought up her point again. “How does that fit in?”

“Well, I-” Dalia started to reply, but Basil tuned them out as he turned the idea over in his head.

Electromagnetism, he thought. Does that even qualify as a speciality? Everything I have made so far does seem to use electromagnetic processes of some kind to achieve its function… how come I never thought of it before? It was a rather seductive idea, really. The possibilities, the applications were… vast. However… where do my medical inventions fit in? What about my surgical talent or my cooking?

That was an issue… yet, now that he was actually thinking about it with some kind of focal point to work with – the idea of electromagnetism as the core of his power – he could actually tell that… well, that his medical work felt quite a bit different than his usual gadgets. The design process was less… smooth. It required even more input from him, and the end products were honestly not nearly up to his usual standards.

As for the surgery and the cooking… he’d simply assumed them to be a part of his power, as he never had to put much conscious thought into them… yet the presence of repressed or suppressed memories raised the very real possibility that he was simply sub- or unconsciously recalling learned skills… though that would also throw up the question of when and where he’d acquired those skills in the first place – performing surgery was not usually something a preteen learned at school.

So where does it all come from? Where did I… He shook his head, while the others kept discussing the subject among themselves, momentarily distracted from him. No, focus on the matter at hand. Your speciality. Could it be that Dalia is right?

He focused on his power – never a difficult thing to do, as it usually was more difficult not to pay attention to it than to do so. There was definitely something familiar about the idea of electromagnetism, something that felt…

Electromagnetism…

Electricity…

Lightning… I am…

He blinked, but all he saw was darkness.

***

The sky is dark, but not as dark as…

“Go on,” she said.

He looked back at her, warily. This was a trap. He was sure of it. It was always a trap. Or a test. There wasn’t much of a difference between the two.

She just stood there, looking almost normal, save for her skin and her eyes… those vermillion-coloured eyes. When she saw his expression, she smirked. “Not a trap, nor a test,” she said, sounding almost gentle. Almost.

The others just watched him, some curious, some bored, some inscrutable. He knew why they were here, of course. They were curious about his reaction.

They wanted to see how he’d react at seeing the real sky for the first time in his life.

If they wanted to hurt him, they’d do so anyway. He couldn’t stop them, had never been able to stop them, he’d just deal with it as it came…

Instead, he took a step forward, his bare feet touching the cool grass. He hadn’t felt grass in a long time.

He looked up. The sky was dark, but… not as dark as at home. There were little white points in it… stars! He’d read about them, even seen some pictures, but…

He looked up at the stars – he’d always wanted to see them, had dreamed about going outside – but there were so few, even though there was barely any light pollution around here, everything below the horizon was dark…

Clouds, he thought as he tried to make sense of it. Those’re clouds. Like in that movie. Black clouds blocking the sky.

In that moment, he hated those clouds more than he’d ever hated them.

Black, thick clouds… Something about that was important, but he was distracted when a cool breeze blew in his face, throwing his long hair about, carrying a pleasant, simple fragrance – grass and earth and… and…

Something he’d never smelled before. Something new. A kind of… he didn’t have the words for it. But it was pleasant, and it was fresh, something sorely missing back home.

He heard something behind him, an impatient sound from one of them, but it was quickly silenced by a meaty impact. He did his best to ignore them entirely, just focusing on all the new sights and sensations… they wouldn’t last long.

It would probably be best if he made a show of it, to amuse them, so they’d let him stay out longer… but he really, really didn’t want to ruin the moment by wasting breath indulging them, not now, not here.

He looked up again.

Black clouds, a cool breeze, he thought. That means something. Something that was alien to home. He could almost put a name to it. Something that he hadn’t experienced before, something that wasn’t a part of home, but existed everywhere else…

Something cold and wet and small hit his cheek and he yelped in surprise, falling back onto his butt.

They laughed, but he only stared upwards as his hand reached for his cheek, touching it and coming away… wet.

But it wasn’t blood. He knew blood, both his own and others. He’d be able to tell if it was blood. It would be warm, for one, and even if not, he knew how blood felt on his skin.

No, this was just… water, he decided when he licked his finger. Just water…

Another drop of water hit his cheek, causing him to look up again. He couldn’t tell where it came from, but…

Another drop.

And another.

Drop after drop fell on him, quickening…

Rain!!!

***

“Basil? Basil!” shouted a familiar voice and strong, yet gentle hands shook him strongly.

He opened his eyes and looked up at Prisca’s worried face. At some point, he’d sunk down onto the ground, half sitting and half lying on the concrete floor.

“What’s happened?” Prisca asked.

“You just collapsed,” Vasiliki explained when she saw his confused look. “We were talking and you just fell down and kept your eyes closed and mumbling something about black clouds.”

“I… I saw…” What did he see? He barely remembered. Something about… wind. The sky. A breeze and… rain. “Rain.”

“You saw rain?” Prisca asked, confused. “That made you collapse?”

“No,” he replied. “There was more. What I saw… it felt…” He blinked. “It felt… important. Somehow… heavy. Like something dear to me, only… more so. Not necessarily pleasant, or happy, but something I would not want to miss, ever. Something right… at the center of me. If that makes sense.”

“Well, it does,” Dalia said, then looked around at Vasiliki, Aimihime and Prisca. “That’s how it feels when I remember my manifestation. Same for you?”

They all nodded, then looked at him. “You… just now remembered?” Vasiliki asked curiously. “I can always remember every part of it with perfect clarity.”

He blinked, feeling off-balance and dizzy. “I… I never thought about it… my manifestation…” He thought furiously. “How did I… my powers they… they were just there, as far as I can tell. From one moment to… I do not even remember when exactly… how could I forget my own manifestation?”

“Maybe this is what you need,” Prisca said, her hands squeezing his shoulders. “Maybe if you remember it, it’ll help you! Try and focus on it, now! Remember the rain!”

***

The rain fell on his face, cold yet gentle, first a light drizzle but quickly growing stronger. He was cold, starting to shiver – he only wore short pants and a shirt, and the weather here had been colder than he was used to, anyway – but he didn’t care one bit.

He looked up at the clouds as they released their contents upon the Earth, and he loved them now, because it was so-

There was a flash of light, a massive boom and the sound of splintering wood. He yelped again, jumping off the ground for a moment, then looked up to see a nearby tree going up in flames as it feel to the ground in two pieces.

A lightning bolt!

He looked up just in time to catch the next lightning bolt, a stark white line against the darkness of the clouds, which now covered everything above.

The rain intensified.

The booming thunder reached him, shaking him to the core.

He couldn’t have looked away even if he’d wanted to.

Rain fell… lightning flashed… thunder roared…

There was no way, no way he could put a word to the feelings it was evoking in him… the cold, fresh air, the pounding rain, the bright lightning and booming thunder. It was like his whole world was being shaken, invaded and conquered by the elements without the slightest bit of effort or resistance, as he felt his heartbeat quicken, his brain going into overdrive as it tried to take it all in…

Lightning flashed again, but this time behind him and by the time he turned his head, it was gone again, soon followed by its thunder.

Another flash, from the side, at the same time as one from behind. Closer, both of them, but both gone before he saw them.

He leaped up onto his feet, ignoring the conversation that came from the group of spectators… he barely even remembered they were there.

Instead, he chased the lightning, mystified by its appearance, by the stark whiteness against the darkness above.

Clouds make rain.

He was drenched to the bone and for the first time, that weird phrase actually made sense to him. He was turning, whirling, trying to see everything, trying to predict where the lightning would appear so he could see it all, he did not want to miss any of this, not the stars, not the clouds, not the rain nor the lightning nor the thunder!

Rain makes… lightning.

The stars shone bright through the clouds, remote and mystifying, so very alien and yet familiar to him in ways he could not put words to!

The rain felt wonderful, despite the cold, it made him feel so alive!

At that moment, he completely forgot about them.

I can see the clouds! I can see the rain and the lightning! I can hear the thunder!

He stopped turning and just stared up, his eyes wide, his mouth having opened unconsciously so he could taste the fresh rain. Yet even that magnificent taste was not enough to draw his attention away from the stars above.

I can see the stars!

For the first time that he could remember, he was fre-

***

A loud, shrill ringing sound tore Basil out of a storm of wild, unrestrained shards of memories and impressions, and he hit his head against the edge of the table as he jumped up.

“Ow, dammit! I almost remembered!” he shouted louder than he’d intended to, then looked for the culprit.

Aimi was blushing as she pulled her cellphone out. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but this is the emergency tune so it must be important!” she explained herself as she took the call, holding the phone to her ear.

Basil rubbed the back of his head, feeling incredibly disappointed… he was sure he’d almost remembered something incredibly important, but all he was left with was the memory of rain on his skin and on his tongue, of clouds and thunder and lightning…

“Oh my God, of course, of course, I’m on my way!” Aimi shouted into the phone. “Don’t let them leave without me, I’ll be there in minutes!” She hung up and put her phone away, then looked around wildly at them. “Massive precog warning,” she explained to the questioning stares. “Probable S-Class event in Esperanza City. Any volunteers are to gather, Gloom Glimmer is taking us there!”

“I am coming, as well,” Basil said, pushing himself up and walking to his armor rack.

“Wait, you’re all underage, you can’t just-” Stephi began, her face gone pale, but Aimi cut her off.

“We can. They changed the law a few weeks ago. Keeping it on the down-low, but since so many heroes are on the wall or being drafted for war, they’re now allowing volunteering teens to participate in S-Class response, provided they are fourteen years or older,” she said firmly, and without a trace of the insecurity he’d grown used to hearing in her voice. “But how’re we going to explain you arriving with me? I don’t want to out you guys!”

“You were on the way to the United Heroes HQ,” Vasiliki said as she ran towards the corner she’d cordoned off with a curtain for her to work and change behind. “We saw you as you travelled, you explained the situation and we joined!”

“Right! Lying through our teeth for the greater good!” Dalia shouted as she ran to the stairs to get into her costume – which she kept in the bedroom with her other clothes – already stripping out of her clothes on the way.

“We’ll man the console,” Tim said as he took Stephi’s hand. “Good luck, and stay safe.” They left.

Prisca had already changed into her armored form and was looking worriedly at Basil as he put on a skintight black bodysuit and began strapping on his armor.

“I will be fine,” he tried to assuage the worry in her gorgeous eyes, and why was he noticing them so strongly now? “We will deal with the other stuff later.”

“Ok,” she said.

“Aimi, take that exit,” he said, pointing to a rapidly opening gate that he’d intended to use for his bike, before he’d had to scrap that project, as well. “It will take you to a scrapyard just half a mile from here. Fly straight towards the headquarters and we will catch up to you en route.”

She nodded and sped off, already changing, shifting out of her clothes and into a form like a furry bat.

Basil finished attaching his battery belt, and then the grenade belt. Then he slung his rifle over his shoulder and attached his sword to his hip, right next to the disc-shaped grappling hook system on that side.

Finally, he drew his white cloak with his emblem on the back over his shoulders and lifted his helmet – a lighter, tighter version that closed on its own around his head, with his full heads-up display and a direct link to Eudocia.

<All systems operational,> she told him as it booted up. <I’ll be with you all the way, father.>

Dalia and Hecate ran up to him and Prisca, and all three of them looked at him.

“Alright, let’s go!”

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B012.5 Born At Sleep

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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.”

<Good answer.>

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!”

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B012.4 Born At Sleep

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He opened his eyes and it was dark, so he closed them again, because he was tired.

He opened his eyes and it was dark, so he closed them again, because the bed was too comfortable.

He opened his eyes and it was dark, so he closed them again, because he felt like it was important to stay in bed.

He was drifting through a shallow sleep, both aware and unaware of his surroundings, until he felt warm, sweet lips on his, giving him a gentle kiss.

He opened his eyes and it was no longer dark, so he didn’t close them again. Instead, he looked into two huge green orbs, just millimetres away from his own, while the kiss continued, and he felt an additional weight on his chest.

Blinking, he realised that he was in bed, and that Prisca was lying half on him, kissing him!

His eyes widened when he realised it, and hers brightened in response. He felt her lips twist into a smile while still pressed against his, and he lifted his head, leaning into the kiss.

She hummed, seemingly pleased, and shifted a little more of her weight onto him. One of her hands ran up the side of his body, over the blanket, then under it, along his arm, pulling it out and putting his hand onto her waist.

He curled his fingers, gently digging into the firm flesh of her waist, feeling momentarily annoyed that her clothes were in the way, before he decided this was enough for now, and just enjoyed.

The kiss went on for an indeterminate amount of time, until she parted their lips, pulling back just enough for him to be able to see her entire face, and her cat-like smile.

“Wakey-wakey, oh sleeping beauty,” she said, showing pearly white teeth behind her (very) red lips. Is she experimenting with make-up? “Everyone’s waiting for you to join the party.”

He couldn’t help but smile, even though he’d much rather have stayed asleep. “Good morning, oh waking beauty,” he replied, which only made her smile bigger. “What party?”

“The one next door, where everyone is eating lots of food and not-so-coincidentally adding to the sales figures of Vasiliki’s family’s restaurant,” she explained. “Get up, get dressed and you can have some, too.”

Lots of food. That… sounded much better than it had, just a few hours ago. Basil was suddenly aware of every missed meal in the last few weeks, and his stomach demanded recompensation. He tried to – gently – push her up, so he could get up as well, but she didn’t budge; he pushed again, surprised, suspecting that he was, perhaps, more weakened than he knew, but the result was the same, even with all his strength making the bed beneath them groan.

She was as immovable to him as a mountain. He raised an eyebrow, looking at her with a flat expression.

“What, do you think I’m just gonna let you, after how you’ve mostly ignored me for the last week and a half?” she asked sweetly. “You have to earn your right to get up, buster.”

I did, did I not? he thought, feeling guilty now. Prisca could finally do all – well, most of – the things she’d only dreamed of for years (and going out with a boyfriend had been one of her top three goals) and he’d pretty much started ignoring her since she got her power… well, not all the time, they had gone on a date, and it had been pretty fun, but still…

“I am sorry,” he said, lowering his eyes from her face… and then snapping them to the side with a blush, when he realised that she had a few too many buttons open on her maroon-coloured shirt. She didn’t comment on that, but he felt her chest – which he just now realised was only separated from his by way of his pyjamas, his blanket and her silky shirt, and that wasn’t distracting at all, no really, it wasn’t – vibrate with the force of barely suppressed giggling. “I have been a horrible boyfriend.”

She surprised him by kissing his cheek. “I admit, you’ve lost some BF points lately,” she said, her tone of voice somewhere between teasing and earnest. “Then again, you got a huge lot of them, on account of sticking with sickly ol’ me and saving my life twice over.”

“Good to know,” he said, not sure how to respond to that. You’re welcome? “So, can I spend some of those points to get you off of me, so I can eat?”

She shook her head. “Nope, they may be your BF points, but I am the one who gets to manage them.”

“That is hardly fair,” he replied, though he couldn’t hold back an amused smile. It had been a while since he’d had some carefree fun.

“Life isn’t fair,” she said before she stuck her tongue out at him.

His hand darted up, grabbing her pink tongue with his thumb and index. “Got you now,” he said, even though there was no way he could possibly hold onto any part of her if she didn’t want him to. “How about you let me get up, and I will release my hostage in ret- hey!”

She’d just leaned in and closed her lips around his fingers, her eyes mocking him. He tried to pull out, but she just applied a little suction – and that was all it took, really, to make it impossible to get them out.

Then she started to chew on them, which just felt plain weird. “Stop it!” he said, though he didn’t try to pull them out – that would’ve been futile against someone who could render herself completely untouchable – and instead went for the low blow. “Two can play this game!” He reached for her side and started to tickle her.

“Mmmmh!” She trashed around, surprised, and rolled off of him – and off the bed (he filed ‘ticklish’ away for future reference); only, she was still holding onto his fingers with her mouth and it happened so suddenly, he failed to keep his balance or brace himself and he fell right off with her.

They smacked onto the ground with a dull thud, him atop her, briefly knocking the air out of him. At least she finally let go of his fingers.

When he blinked and brought his sight back into focus, he found himself on her, his arms to the left and right of her head, touching her fanned-out red hair as she looked up at him with a flushed face.

“That… wasn’t… fair!” she gasped and tried to grab him – probably to tickle back – but he snatched up her wrists and pinned them to the floor, now on his knees and hands over her. His legs brushed hers and both were bare, making him realise he was only wearing a white shirt and his boxer shorts, while she was wearing a skirt or hot pants – at least he hoped she was, and she hadn’t just taken her pants off, because he was not at all sure he could – or wanted to – say ‘no’ again.

“Life is not fair,” he said with a smirk.

“Haha,” she said, before demonstrating an incredible amount of maturity by blowing him a raspberry.

“You look so cute like that, you know?” he said, still smiling. “All blushing and messy like a little girl.” He didn’t mention that the contrast between her expertly applied make-up (where’d she picked that skill up?) and her disordered hair and luminescent blush were making it hard for him to string any proper thoughts together.

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” she said, her breathing slowing down again (he had not been sneaking glances at the way her chest strained against her shirt).

“Have I ever told you how gorgeous you are?” he said after a short while.

“Many times,” she said softly. “But that was always before. Never since that day.” She leaned up, giving him a soft peck on the lips. “Say it.”

“You’re gorgeous,” he obliged.

“Mmmh!” She squirmed underneath him, like a happy cat. “Feels good.” She cocked her head to the side. “So, are you going to do anything fun to me, or do you want to get up?”

He gave her as deadpan a look as he could manage, before he got up, offering her a helping hand. She took it (not that she needed it at all) and let him pull her up.

In spite of his worries, she was fully dressed, though not entirely decently, due to having left the top three buttons of her white shirt open.

“You’re incorrigible,” she said as she rolled her eyes while he buttoned her up.

“And you should not be taking fashion advice from Dalia,” he replied. “Nor copying her clothes.”

She blinked in surprise. “How’d you know?”

“I remember her wearing just this outfit three weeks ago,” he replied, taking a step back.

“So, my boyfriend memorises other girls’ outfits. Should I be concerned?” she asked, putting her weight on one foot and bracing her fists on her hips.

“I do not memorise them, I simply remember.” He turned away and went for the small closet he kept in this room (one drawer for him and each of the girls). “Who changed my clothes?”

“I did,” she replied, sounding a little annoyed.

“Should I be concerned?” he shot back while he took out cargo pants, a fresh blue shirt and socks.

She chuckled. “I wish, but no,” she replied, and she sounded sincere. “Though I was rather pleased to see just how… well you look by now.”

He looked over his shoulder as he was putting on his socks. “What do you mean?”

Her grin almost split her face. “You might not’ve noticed, but all that working out and the fight and manoeuver training – that’s gotten you a seriously nice body,” she almost-leered.

Oh. He took off his shirt (making her hum happily) and checked – she was right; he wasn’t showing a six-pack or anything (not that he seriously wanted one) but he was definitely not the stringy geek he’d been when he’d started out. “I did not notice,” he said honestly while he dressed.

“There’s a lot of things you don’t notice, it seems,” she said, now more seriously. “Speaking of which – are you feeling well? No headaches, or weird stuff?”

He took a moment to think it over. “No, I do not… notice…” He frowned – he really did feel alright. And calm. And, most importantly, without a headache.

In fact, he didn’t feel his power at all.

For a short moment, he panicked, before it all came back up again, the plans, the ideas, as bright and incessant as ever; but there was one thing missing…

I am not feeling that… pressure anymore, he thought, referring to that constant, driving need to actually apply his power all the time, the desire to improve and innovate without end. Hey, Man in the Moon – what is going on?

There was no response and Basil felt his heartbeat quicken as he stood there, frozen in contemplation.

Moony? Blazing Sun! Macian! he shouted into the darkness within his head, but nothing. No reply.

What had happened? He’d already lost contact to the Blazing Sun a while ago – though it did still supply him with designs – and he’d never even contacted the ‘Raging Heart’ beyond their first meeting, but now the Man in the Moon was gone, as well?!

Guys? Guys! Where are you?! What ha-

Pipe down, mate, the Man in the Moon replied, his voice sounding… weirdly distant. No need to panic.

What the hell is going on here!?

Can’t… say, he replied, as ever. It’s not… important just yet. Don’t worry. It’ll all be over soon.

And on that ominous note, the presence he’d come to associate with the Man in the Moon retreated, going quiet.

***

The whole exchange had lasted less than a moment, but Prisca had picked up on something disturbing him. He’d said that they’d talk afterwards, first, he really needed to eat something.

So they left the room to join the others – and Basil froze at the sight of the scene in front of him. Prisca hadn’t been kidding when she’d said that ‘everyone’ was there.

Vasiliki and Dalia where there, of course, sitting on opposite ends of the couch and eating off of plastic plates. Tim sat on an old, ratty but oh-so comfortable love seat he’d added to the furniture himself, mostly for his own use. Stephi was there, Vasiliki’s BFF – whom he couldn’t remember seeing or hearing from for a while now, sitting on Tim’s lap of all things in her prim-and-proper school uniform (obviously customised by Vasiliki). Eudocia had joined the group, as well, her emblem on a computer screen they’d put on one end of the table.

In between Dalia and Vasiliki sat Aimihime, though Basil had to look twice to recognise her and what was she doing here!?

She had lost weight, a lot, but that wasn’t all; she’d cut her hair short, was wearing boyish clothing (jeans, a black shirt and a leather jacket she’d thrown over the back of the couch) and had an air of… seriousness about her that he’d never seen on her before.

Also, there was the issue that she was right here in his secret base. And no one had bothered to ask him… but then again, it wasn’t like he’d talked to anyone lately, at least not really.

When he stepped into the room, everyone stopped eating – the smell was brain-numbing – and looked at him and Prisca.

Before he could say anything, or any of them could say anything, Aimi got up and walked over towards him. Prisca, meanwhile, made her way to the couch, obviously intending to give the two of them some space. Everyone else hurriedly looked away, as well.

Aimi stopped about an arm’s reach away from him, her hands in her pockets, and looked up at him (she was at least a head shorter than him).

“Hi, Basil,” she said, and her voice, at least, was the same as ever. “Long time no see.”

“Hello, Aimi,” he replied. “We saw each other just a few days ago, at school.”

She rolled her eyes. “Perhaps I should say ‘Long time no talk‘, where ‘talk’ refers to actually being open and communicative with each other.”

“Ah. That makes more sense.” He looked awkwardly at her, because she’d just brought up the big elephant in the room that had kept them apart for months now.

He had not told her about his powers and what he was doing with them. And she hadn’t told him, either. Yet both of them had told Tim and he, obviously, had told each of them about the other, as well.

And the worst part is… he was probably right to do so.

“I’m sorry!” they both said at the same time.

They looked at each other and smiled.

“We even?” she asked.

He shrugged. “I guess… yeah. I mean, there are obviously a few questions to iron out, but…”

She nodded. “I know. Uh… there’s one that’s bugged me for a while now, ever since Tim told me about you.”

“Shoot,” he replied, feeling a little nervous.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked.

Oh, right. The obvious one. “At first, I told no one because I wanted to figure things out for myself. Then I learned that you had joined the United Heroes, and I did not want to put you into a situation where you would have a conflict of interest.”

She blinked, looking stunned for a moment. “You… uh… wow, that’s… kinda rational,” she stammered. “Silly, maybe, but rational. It’s not like you’re secretly a villain.”

“I am not. Why did you not tell me?

She shrugged. “I… nothing as thought out as your reasoning. I didn’t even want to tell Tim, actually.” She looked aside.

“Why?”

She blushed a bit. “I… look, you guys… especially you… you’re always so good at everything, you know?” She looked really embarrassed. “Tim’s great at writing and stuff, and he gets straight A’s in everything. You’re even smarter than him, and you’re great at sports, even though you never really try that much and you were always great with technology, even before you had powers…” She rubbed the back of her head. “I guess I just… I wanted to do something awesome, then reveal that it was me to you. Not be the boring one of the group, for once.”

Now it was Basil’s turn to look stunned.

“Well,” he finally said. “I guess we were both being silly.”

She nodded, still blushing.

“Do you still feel like you need to stop being ‘boring’?” he asked her.

She shook her head. “No. Not anymore, not since… since Hastur.” She sighed. “God, I… I thought what I went through, that day, was the worst. I didn’t know… Tim and Dalia told me what happened to you.”

Yeah, that was not very pleasant, he thought, rubbing his left arm with his right hand – sometimes, he still felt the pain. Like it hadn’t been healed entirely.

“So, what now?”

She looked up at him with a kind of serious look he’d never seen on her before.

She has changed… and I did not even notice.

“Now… I guess I know now… there are monsters out there. Real monsters. And real villains, too. And they need to be stopped.” She set her chin. “Looking awesome isn’t as important as keeping people safe from the monsters and the villains.”

He nodded, before pulling her into a brief hug. “That is true,” he said, though he felt a little guilty. After all, Amy was one of those villains. “I am sorry we did not have this talk sooner.”

She hugged him back, briefly. “Same.”

Then they stepped back, and she was smiling again. “So, how about you introduce me properly to that girlfriend of yours? And your team?”

“It will be a pleasure.”

And they went and joined the others at the table.

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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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