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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B008.a The Epic Tier

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Jessica stood in a gray room, with six gray people in it. Well, five. One of them wasn’t really a person anymore. And another wouldn’t be one either, soon enough. So only four people, really, not counting herself.

The room had once been the ‘secret’ headquarter of a local branch of the Yakuza, or so she’d been told. Not that she cared. It took Hemming all of three minutes to deduce the location of the place and take them inside. They killed everyone there quickly enough, except for a girl with some kind of power Atrocity found interesting. That one wasn’t allowed to die.

Not that Jessica cared. No one here could have killed her. It didn’t help her mood that they’d finally been attacked by Desolation-in-Light, and she’d just ignored Jessica. She’d been attacking her, interposing herself to take attacks on the others, but she hadn’t even tried to kill her.

Slowly crushing the skulls of these Japanese criminals, watching the life fade from their eyes had made her feel… a little better. But she’d also felt jealous.

“Aren’t you done yet!?” spoke up a muted, annoyed voice. Jessica looked up, taking her attention away from her misery for a little. Not that she could ever fully forget it, since even sounds were muted. Gray, like the rest. Everything and anything that could possibly cause her discomfort filtered out. People could scream into her ear and she’d hear them just fine, while also hearing everyone else in the room talk, all their voices muted, filtered. She’d once gone into a rave concert, and yet she’d heard everyone’s screams and begging just fine, despite the blaring (muted) music.

She saw the closest thing she had to a friend, Fire Burial – Seanna – sitting on the lap of the thing that had once been her father, naked as the rest of them. They’d tried, once, to be together. But it just didn’t work, not when Jessica couldn’t feel anything. She could sense touch, but it was all the same, just raw sense with no feeling, muted like everything else. And Seanna was such a physical person, always hugging, kissing, slapping and just expressing herself through body contact. Jessica loved her, she was the only thing she’d miss if she died, and she loved her even more for at least trying to stay friends.

Seanna had spoken to the scrawny guy who was crawling around the floor of the hideout’s training room (there was some Japanese word for it, but she couldn’t care enough to remember), using a thick, black marker to write down diagrams that seemed to shift every now and then, as well as strange, flowing writing and numbers she couldn’t really read, no matter how much she tried.

The guy – he really looked out of place in this company, scrawny and not all that attractive, his brown hair wiry, his nose hooked – threw an annoyed glance at Fire Burial, stopping his work for a moment. “If you rush a miracle worker, you know what you get?”

“A pissed off nerd?”

Jessica really loved Seanna, but even she had to admit that she didn’t have enough brains to know when to not insult people (with one exception).

“Shoddy miracles. Now shut up.” Fortunately, he wasn’t the kind of guy to get easily pissed off. Instead, he continued drawing on the floor.

Seanna opened her mouth to retort, but Lars, who was sitting at a nearby table drinking tea, cut her off. “Seanna, be quiet please. Let the man do his work.” He was the only one in the room who was wearing clothes… technically. The blue three-piece suit he wore was actually a part of his body that he’d simply shaped to look and feel like a suit (not that Jessica could tell).

“But I’m bored!” she protested. “Daddy’s just drooling like a zombie – what a surprise – and we can’t go out and have some fun, you said! I’m going stir-crazy!” She pointed at her ‘Daddy’, the contraption that was left of Mindfuck. Before her manifestation, Jessica would probably have thrown up just looking at it – the body of a boy, older than twelve, but not yet sixteen, certainly, ephemerally beautiful with dark brown hair and brown eyes, and stark naked, connected to a metal frame that wrapped around his body from head to toe, piercing his flesh to connect to his bones, with tubes and other pieces extending into his body, keeping him in some semblance of half-life where he could still use his power… barely. His left eye was missing, with various wires and tubes entering his head through the empty socket. His mouth was slack, drooling, as his daughter (who looked more like his older sister), sprawled on his lap.

“If we go out, we’ll be found,” Lars replied, sipping tea. “We’re too vulnerable right now, and you know it, Seanna. So let him work, and we’ll soon return to our game.”

“Ugh.” She finally fell quiet, and silence returned to the room, save for the scrawny guy on the floor and occasional twitching gasps from the Japanese girl they’d caught, while Atrocity worked on her.

Jessica floated over to her (she’d long since stopped using her legs – there was no point to it, she never felt any strain, anyway) and looked, hoping for some distraction.

Atrocity had laid the girl out on a table and cut her suit off, leaving the eighteen-something girl naked… not that that was important in this company. Her small body was covered in tattoos, elaborate scenes from Japanese mythology. Of course, now, Atrocity had cut her back open from the top of her neck down to the crack of her butt, pulling the skin open with two of her arms, using pliers to move muscles out of the way and work directly on other pieces. The girl’s eyes were wide open, conscious (Atrocity did not use painkillers. Ever) but unable to do a thing – Atrocity had disabled her ability to control her own body, even for something like screaming, and she now only made sounds whenever her tormentor touched the wrong nerves. She’d probably also disabled whatever part of her body could numb the pain naturally, just to make sure she’d feel it all.

Said tormentor was standing tall next to the table, bent forward, with six of her currently eight arms working on her victim, replacing organs with artificial ones, reworking the girl to her liking.

Atrocity’s body was always a sight to behold. She varied it, almost as often as other women changed clothes, always working on it, improving it, adapting it. Right now, she was nine feet tall, though bent over to look down at her work. To go with the theme of the group, she’d designed the body to look like that of a nude woman… barely. The torso certainly looked human, with smooth white skin covering it, stretching over a modest (for her size) pair of breasts and an equally smooth crotch, both styled to look authentic (and even feel real, or so she was told). But everything else was… less human. The sides of her waist were covered by a clear plastic, revealing the white metal and clear plastic Atrocity favoured in her bodies. The legs looked like they’d been made by crossing an insect’s hind legs and those of a bird, ending in seven very dexterous, long toes (fingers, really, only even longer and with more segments) tipped by cruel claws. From her shoulders, four pairs of arms emerged, each a good seven feet long, with two forearms each sprouting from the elbows, one forearm of each pair tipped by long, slender, feminine hands and the other with four-fingered hands (without thumbs), tipped by vermillion-coloured blades.

Her head was the strangest part, though. It looked like that of an attractive, white-skinned woman with long, lustrous black hair and bright, vermillion-coloured eyes. But that face was too small, made for a normal-sized person. Behind it, a larger, stark white head that was actually big enough for the body was attached to the body itself by a long, sinuous neck to the torso. The skull had no face, but instead several cables that connected to the actual face.

Atrocity was humming some tune as she worked. It was the tune to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, that damned thing. Jessica didn’t get annoyed by many things anymore, but how that woman could keep repeating the same poem over and over was just… aggravating.

When the blazing sun is gone,

When he nothing shines upon,

Then you show your little light,

Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.

And so it went, while she turned her newest guinea pig into one of her cybernetic slaves.

Seanna was quiet, Lars was working on the sixth edition of the D&D rules (Jessica wondered if the people at the publishing house and the fans even suspected that he was applying his super-intelligence to perfecting their game, and if they’d even care), Mindfuck was drooling and she herself was just floating in place, alternatively watching Atrocity work (throwing pieces of the girl she didn’t need anymore over to Seanna, who roasted and ate them), Seanna eat, and Hemming drink tea.

She wished she could partake, but the… field that ‘protected’ her extended into her body, covering her tongue, her taste buds, and all her innards… if she ate anything, it just came out the other way undigested, since it never actually came into contact with her body in any way.

So she watched the others, while she herself did nothing. As usual.

Her train of thought usually revolved around her own misery, and her lack of anything to really care about. There really wasn’t much else to think about.

 

 

* * *

 

After about fifteen minutes, Atrocity closed the girl’s back, sewing it up so expertly you could barely see the scar. And Jessica had perfect vision (she always saw everything in shades of gray, no matter the lighting or actual colour – whether it was completely dark or a bright day).

“Now, let’s see how this works. Up with you!” Atrocity chirped, slapping her new toy’s butt.

The girl squirmed, arms and legs twitching, before she slowly stood up, moving in a crude, puppet-like manner. Jessica knew that she would eventually move in a much smoother manner, once Atrocity adapted the programming of the implants to her body, and implanted some more advanced circuitry (and more weaponry) into the rest of her body.

“Run a few laps, my dear. Be careful not to step on any of the drawings,” Atrocity ordered. “Also, sing ‘Doh Wah Diddy Diddy’ from Manfred Mann while you do so.”

The girl (who Jessica was pretty sure couldn’t actually speak English) twitched and squirmed for a moment, tears running from her eyes, then started to run laps around the room, stark naked and loudly singing that song.

Seanna laughed out loud. “Looks like another success, Auntie!” She began to sing along, which probably sounded much better (everyone told her that Seanna had a gorgeous singing voice), but to Jessica, she sounded no different from the cyborg Atrocity had just created.

“I need to work some on the voice module. Her singing’s off-key,” Atrocity complained in her usual monotone.

No, wrong. I only hear a monotone, but they speak in their own voices. It was hard to remember, sometimes, that the world wasn’t gray and monotone all over.

“Maybe we should pay a visit to New Lennston soon,” Lars threw in without looking up from his work. “Audio-equipment is Polymnia’s speciality, after all,” he added.

Atrocity looked up, all movement stopping. Jessica knew she was using her secret power, the power of her eyes now.

“No, we shouldn’t. Not yet,” she said. “I can’t… I need more information on Gloom Glimmer.”

“Why?” Seanna threw in. “She another of your blind spots?”

Atrocity nodded, ignoring what was probably an insolent tone of voice. “Not as much as Ember, Desolation-in-Light or Pristine are. She’s not an absolute blind spot, but rather a… flickering, like the way the picture looked on those old televisions, when the antenna wasn’t calibrated right. And she’s really close to Polymnia, so even kidnapping her would be too dangerous – not to mentioin that Gloom Glimmer could most likely follow her even into our pocket dimension, much like her sister can enter and leave at will, apparently.”

Now Jessica got interested. She hadn’t even considered this, but if anyone was capable of killing her, then it was Desolation-in-Light… except DiL had simply ignored her any time she’d run into her. But Gloom Glimmer…

“Do you think she could… kill me?” she asked Lars.

He didn’t bother to look up at her. “Maybe, but not at her current level. She may have the potential to become as powerful as DiL, she may not, but either way, she’s not quite there yet. I’m afraid it’ll have to wait, my dear.”

“Oh. Alright. Maybe I’ll get her sister to finally notice and kill me, meanwhile,” she replied, though she didn’t have much hope. She’d been thinking about it for a long time, but anything she’d tried so far had proven ineffective.

“I doubt it. She’d have to notice you first,” Lars replied.

“Why is that a problem? Jessy’s a rather obvious target, you know?” Seanna replied as she finished eating the last piece of the new cyborg’s liver (right when she passed by on her lap around the room).

Lars sighed, looking up from his work. “I don’t think Desolation-in-Light actually uses her human senses. And if she does, then they don’t mean anything to her. They’re just… background.”

Everyone in the room turned to look at him. He shrugged and put his pen aside, turning so he could look at all of them at the same time (without growing extra eyes).

“We all know that Desolation-in-Light seems to ignore non-powered people. She’s never directly attacked a powerless person, though her powers certainly cause enough collateral damage to make up for it. I think her problem goes further – she can’t even sense people without powers, and if she does, they do not register as people, much less as threats. If she’s even capable of comprehending the concept of a threat.”

He stapled his fingers in front of his face, still smiling. “That’s why conventional attacks are simply ignored by her, unless executed by people with powers. That’s why she seems to focus on the biggest threats within her range – not because they actually pose a threat to her, because they clearly don’t, but because they’re just the most obvious, easily detectable individuals to her. Everything else is just background noise.”

“B-but what does that have to do with her ignoring Jessy?” Seanna asked the question that burned in Jessica’s mind.

Sighing, he gave Seanna a disappointed look, like a teacher who’d just been asked a stupid question. “Seanna, please, think. Why have we been able to avoid detection so far? I mean, at the very least, powerful precogs should have been able to predict where’d we show up and station troops there. Yet that hasn’t worked so far.”

He waited, but no answer came. Jessica knew what he was saying, but she didn’t see the connection to DiL ignoring her…

“Look, Jessica’s power is absolute. It shields her both from all harm, and all powers – that includes perception powers. So she’s a massive blindspot to any precog, preventing a reliable prediction of our moves, since we act as a unit.”

“But Auntie can see her, right?”

“Not the point, but it won’t hurt to teach you some,” Hemming replied. “Atrocity, dear, do you want to explain it to them?”

“It’s nothing complicated. I know Jessica well enough to construct a reasonably accurate mental image of her and use it as a stand-in for the blind spot she produces, allowing my power to work despite her influence. It still degrades the visions I get, but it’s functional. That’s why I need more information on Gloom Glimmer, to better get around the effect she has on me.”

“But back to the original issue – since Jessica is completely shielded from power-based perception, Desolation-in-Light’s main senses most likely can’t detect her. She’s a non-entity to her, something that doesn’t exist within her ‘world’, so to speak. She’ll never notice her, unless Jessica learns to deactivate her power-” God, I wish I could, “But she wouldn’t need Desolation-in-Light to kill her, if she managed that.”

“Yeah, I’d do her in in an instant,” Seanna threw in, wiggling around to get more comfortable.

The promise almost made Jessica cry in joy, but she knew it was futile. She couldn’t deactivate her power.

“Finally! Done!” the scrawny guy shouted, throwing his arms up.

Everyone turned to pay attention, and a silent command made the cyborg stop next to Atrocity and watch, too.

“Will you begin the ritual now?” Lars asked, putting his work away.

“Yeah, let’s get this miracle done.”

 

 

* * *

 

I’ve been looking forward to this, Jessica suddenly realized. There were few things that excited her, still, and this was one of them, even if she saw it rarely enough lately.

Everyone retreated as far back from the diagrams on the floor as they could, even Jessica. She didn’t want to somehow interrupt this.

He stepped into a circle that was five feet away from the center of the ritual circle he’d created, knelt down and began to chant.

Almost immediately, the room seemed to… stretch. Jessica couldn’t feel any difference, but Seanna had explained to her that it felt like the difference between standing inside a building and outside one. When he cast his big spells, it always felt like you were in an open, infinite space.

His chant rang in the air, and somehow, just barely, she could almost hear beyond the dull monotone of her world. Almost.

The chant grew, or at least she had the impression it did, because it sounded just like it did at the beginning. The diagrams on the floor began to drift, then glide around, shifting from shape to shape, forming more and more complex patterns as a flicker of light gathered in the center of the diagram.

Then, there was an impression of collapse, as the light compressed into a sphere the size of Jessica’s torso. The monotone sound of an air cannon reached her ears, then another, and another.

And with each sound, another sphere collapsed into existence, as light was gathered and compressed. She knew the end result, but it was an interesting process to observe as his chants built and built, creating more and more spheres, then rods which were of a different shade of gray.

But then it wouldn’t stop. He made more and more spheres and rods, and instead of stopping with the usual humanoid shape, they kept gathering and building into a larger, less human form…

It took nearly a half hour for the ritual to finish, and by the end of it, a dragon was standing in the center of the ritual circle. Its body was the size of a minibus, made of two massive spheres comprised of countless smaller ones, connected to each other by rotating rods. Its hind legs were shaped like a cat’s, its front legs like a human’s. It had a long, long tail made of numerous shorter rods, large wings made of long rods that connected to each other via spheres and his customary halo of rods around the head, which was made up of that original sphere he’d created, and nothing else but the halo and the neck that attached to it.

“Gorgeous,” Atrocity commented as Ben rose to his feet, turning around to face them with a smirk.

“Behold, Heretic 2.0!” he spoke, and the dragon-thing behind him spoke in the exact same voice, creating an odd effect. “I increased its bandwith, so I’ll be able to channel more power in shorter time through it, and I’ve added every single concealment spell to its connection to me that I know – even DiL shouldn’t be able to follow it back to the pocket world I hide in!”

Lars clapped, slowly, smiling. “Why the new shape and power?”

“Well, if the bad guy is defeated, then he needs to come back stronger, don’t you think?” Ben replied, chuckling. “After all, the heroes levelled up, and we can’t have any Villain Decay, now can we?”

He stretched his body, and Jessica could hear some pops in his shoulders. He usually forgot to limber up.

“It’s good to know that you still remember my lessons from way back,” Lars agreed, chuckling. “So, are you ready to re-open the way into our headquarters? Our lads must be getting stir-crazy in there.”

“Sure, sure. I’ll get right to work, mate,” Ben replied, and Heretic spoke along.

 

 

* * *

 

Thirty minutes later…

They were back in their game room, a large, dungeon-like place with a massive, tricked out table in the center (Atrocity’s work), arrayed around it. Even Ben’s new puppet fit in nicely, and Lars was sitting at the head of the table behind his screen, with that ridiculous paper hat and mask on his head.

The table itself was displaying a map of the planet, with dots showing the cities.

“Now, it’s time to decide where we strike next!” he shouted, and threw a pair of dice in front of everyone, even Atrocity (she claimed that she didn’t use her precognition to cheat here, and why fuss about it?). “Everyone, throw in the place that is your first choice!”

“New Lennston,” Jessica said and threw a chip onto the dot denoting the city. If there’s even a chance…

“Toronto,” Atrocity said. “I’d like to tussle with the girls again.”

“New Lennston, too. I wanna play with this Brennus guy,” Seanna said and added her chip to Jessica’s.

Bless you, love.

“Versailles. They’re just getting into their world war, let’s cause even more confusion,” Ben threw in and levitated a chip onto the capital of the PATO.

“Hmm, I’m in the mood for Moscow, to be honest,” Lars finished, stretching out an appendage to place a chip. He might have been the gamemaster, usually, but this game was equal for all. He could override it and enforce a target, but he rarely did. “Any objections? I think Atrocity still has a veto saved up.”

“I’d like to veto New Lennston, but since two people chose it, it’d be a waste. I’ll save it up,” she said.

“Alright! Get your dice, get your sheets, and let’s roll! Let’s see if we can take our game to the next level!

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B005 An Ember of Hope: Little Giants (Part 8, Final)

Again, Henry’s mind reeled at the impression of Macian’s world, the endless activity of his power. No wonder he seems unhinged. His power alone is completely out of control.

This time, however, he noticed a system to the madness. All the pictographs were showing… well, inventions. Or rather, the process of inventing. Most of them were dropped pretty quickly, but there was always something that came of them, even if it was something different than what they’d started out inventing. Sometimes, they’d split into several lines of invention, sometimes merge into one. And there was a source to it, as well as a destination. They all moved in a kind of loop around the strange reality, whether they were black pictographs on white ground or white pictographs on those black geometric forms – they all flowed from a central core and fed back into it, a blazing sun at the centre of Macian’s world, the source of all of its light. A light which did not cast any shadows, as Henry noticed.

“Well, this explains why I always feel like I’ve got a flashlight behind my eyes,” commented Macian, making Henry jump. He hadn’t even noticed the other boy standing right in front of him, looking around within his own world.

“You recognize this?”

“Sure thing. That’s how I always work out my inventions. Pictographs and stuff.” He was looking around as much as he could while having Henry’s hand on his shoulder. “Sure looks crazy, huh?”

Henry nodded.

“So, this is the second world. I guess everyone has their own?” Macian asked, his face focused on the scenery. Henry noticed that two pictograph-lines had collapsed into one as Macian’s eyes focused on them.

“Yeah. How did you know?” replied a startled Henry with another question.

“You said that you pulled people into the second world and that you could move within it. I doubt that my world is the whole second world. So there must be other places, or even several distinct worlds. And why the hell can’t I focus my power on this?” he suddenly shouted with an annoyed expression on his half-face.

“What do you mean?” asked Henry, startled from the sudden outburst.

“I mean that I can’t analyze this with my power! I was trying to figure out how to make an invention that messes with this, but it runs into the same blindspot I had when I tried to figure out how to bestow powers!” He was actually pulling at his own hair with his good hand, frustrated as several lines of pictographs just cut off without feeding into anything else. “I hate it when that happens!”

“Calm down! Let’s focus – this is about my power, remember?” Henry tried to bring him back on track.

Macian nodded, rubbing his temple. “Yes. Right, right. You said you can see in both worlds? This and the real one?”

Henry nodded. “Yes. I can see both at the same time.”

Macian seemed to think about it, closing his eyes and opening them again. For a moment, Henry could tell that his senses weren’t in the second world anymore.

“I can see either the first or second world. If I try to see both, I just get dizzy. Your power must compensate for the added strain to your mind due to the doubled sensory input.”

He just nodded.

Macian went on: “You said you have control over whomever you touch? Try and turn my hair white.”

Henry nodded, concentrating, picturing Macian’s hair turning white.

Nothing happened.

“Won’t work,” he said.

“Alright. Two possibilities, in my opinion. Keep in mind that I can’t use my power on this, so no super-science support. Either you can only affect peoples’ powers, or you can’t affect me inside ‘my’ world. Can you pull me into ‘your’ second world?”

With a mere thought, Henry did so, and they stood in a far more colorful place, his wide plain of grass and flowers. The sun was still down, so they could see the starry sky above.

“Woah! Can’t feel my power!”, shouted Macian, staggered. Henry felt a profound feeling of emptiness, of calm, which simply hadn’t been present before in Macian. From one moment to the other, the turmoil of his mind just lessened down to the point where he was just merely off, instead of completely deranged.

Macian looked around, curious, and got hung up on the stars above.

“Man, I’ve never seen stars before, not unless you count my manifestation,” he whispered.

Henry’s eyes widened as he heard that. What? “How could… no way. No way, Macian.”

The boy looked at him with a sad eye, reflecting the emotions Henry could feel from him. “Did I say that out loud? Damn.”

Henry thought furiously. The minions that tried to take him knew and feared Macian. Fire Burial and Heretic were familiar with him. And he with them. With all of them, judging from his comments. Henry was sure he’d been mutilated by Fire Burial. He had extensive combat experience, as far as Henry could judge something like that. And he had never seen the stars before.

“You’re with them. The Savage Six,” said Henry, careful to only speak in the second world.

The young boy’s right eyelid twitched, as did his good hand. Anger, Indignation, Loathing. “I’m not one of them. I’m just… stuck dealing with them.”

“How long have you been in this place? And why?”

Macian, still looking up at the stars, started to say something, hesitated, then said: “Can we not talk about that?” His voice was soft, sad, even though there was a storm of emotions inside him.

Henry would have loved to skip this conversation, but he needed to know who he’d been travelling with. “Please, you can trust me. Just tell me…”

The cyborg boy turned to look at him, his eye sad and yet… relieved? Henry couldn’t begin to figure out the feelings behind the face. “I warn you. This is dangerous knowledge. With Mindfuck around, they’ll probably know I told you. Do you want to take the chance?”

He thought about it. Worried, hesitating. Then he remembered a line he’d heard, or maybe read, once.

Macian seemed quite put off when he started smirking. “What is bravery, without a dash of recklessness?”, he asked.

The other boy paused, thought about it too, turning the words around in his head as the feelings behind the face changed, though they were still too convoluted for Henry to truly define them. Then he smirked back. “Alright, Mister Proverb. Listen close, I’m not going to repeat this…”

* * *

They entered the building once Dunstkreis gave them the signal, Macian a bit out of balance due to carrying both his artificial arm and the other implants in his arms, trying to get used to the changed weight.

“Was zum- What happened out there!?” asked Dunstkreis when he saw the changed boy.

Even his hair was back and he looked, for all intents and purposes, like a normal eight-year-old boy. Even the madness behind his eyes had lessened, though it still made everyone who looked at them uneasy. He looked up at Dunstkreis, grinning a most boyish, normal grin. “Seems like Henry over here could be the most powerful healer ever. By my humble estimation, that is.” His voice had changed, drastically, sounding far more like a humans, without the electronic intereference or what Henry now knew to be off-sounds due to a burned throat.

Henry blushed, rubbing the back of his head as he looked around the room they were in. A back room of a tailor, judging by the equipment. How I’d love to work on a new coat. His old one had vanished together with Fire Burial.

There were seven more people there. The two adults – terrified, more for their offspring than themselves – and four children – just plain terrified, crying if they hadn’t fallen asleep from exhaustion, as well as a dark-skinned lady with an eye-catching pink-and-green peacock-pin on her strapless red dress. He remembered seeing her for just a moment back during the gala. Right now, she looked rather dishevelled – physically. But her face only showed composed interest, as she was holding a young girl’s head in her lap, softly stroking the child’s hair.

“Henry!”

He gave a start, turning to look at Dunstkreis, who’d been trying to catch his attention. “Yes, Sir?” He noticed that the older man was holding himself awkwardly, and remembered that he’d been wounded earlier. “Do you want me to heal you?”

Dunstkreis nodded.

“Alright, just relax, ’cause this is going to be a bit strange…” He put his hand on the older man’s forearm.

Dunstkreis looked around at the serene scenery of Henry’s world, but said nothing.

Henry concentrated. They’d found out that he couldn’t just imagine someone healed – the effect would be reversed the moment he let go of the other person (though he didn’t seem to have the same limitation in regards to non-attended objects, but to stuff like Macian’s gear) – but just like with the punch he’d delivered to Fire Burial – negating her powers as well as enhancing his own strength – the results of his power’s use remained.

After some very uncomfortable (for Macian) trial and error, they’d figured out that it worked best with symbolic effects. In Henry’s case, he imagined a golden ember that set fire to his patient, healing them – the healing effect faded after he let go, but Macian’s body remained healed (Macian had also insisted to make it so the fire first expelled foreign bodies from the patient’s body, so he’d retain his equipment).

And it worked. It worked exceedingly well, far better than any of the other effects they’d tried to manifest. Macian had only a few ideas as to why his power worked so much better with healing, since he couldn’t apply his power to the subject. One of them was that his power was simply primed for healing, another that it was Henry who was primed for healing, or rather for positive applications, and finally because humans naturally wanted to be whole and since his power was interacting with the “worlds” of other humans, they might be reinforcing the healing effect. Either way, it worked and Henry had been able to heal his friend, even regenerate his arm.

And now his fire spread over and into the older man’s body, burning the pain and the damage away, making him – within the second world – glow like a soft, warm bonfire.

The experience was thoroughly strange to Henry, so much so that he couldn’t even feel Dunsktreis’ emotions while doing so. There were no real words to describe it, apart from ‘an all-encompassing feeling of freedom and companionship’ mixed with ‘a strange eldritch (Macian’s word) touch’ unlike anything he’d felt before.

When the fire began to die down, Henry let go and stumbled backwards, still dumbstruck by the intense emotions of the process. When he looked up, he felt like fainting – Dunstkreis looked like he’d aged several decades – backwards. Not to the point where he was young again, but… twenty, maybe thirty years had been taken off by Henry’s estimation.

“Wha- what did you do, my boy?” the rejuvenated man whispered, looking at his hands in wonder. More than half of the liverspots that had covered his body were gone, and he looked closer to mid-fifty now, his hair having partially turned brown, his face, his entire body, gained muscle and strength. Fortunately, he’d been wearing rather wide clothes, so they still fit, if barely. He’d been an extremely fit man.

Maybe one of these Adonises?

“His power probably identified the degradation of your body due to aging as ‘damage’ and thus did its best to reverse it,” explained Macian with an audible smile in his voice, even as he was reconstructing his Kinetic Repulsor, having deconstructed the mechanical arm in less time than it had taken Henry to heal Dunstkreis. And he’d already reworked his eye into one-eye goggles that attached to his left ear. “Congratulations, you look like you’re literally thirty years or so younger.”

Everyone in the room save for Macian (who was quite pre-occupied) and the peacock-pin lady (who just looked intrigued) was staring at him.

“Umm… I…,” he turned beet-red, reaching for an excuse to get out of the spotlight. “I… I’m tired! Need to sit down after this…” Not even a lie.

He scrambled over to sit so Macian was working in between him and the others, while Dunstkreis was stretching, wondering at his newly rejuvenated body.

“I’ll keep them off your back. You just relax, mate,” whispered the young gadgeteer as he was reconfiguring his former arm into an armored glove.

“Yes… relax…” He knew some tricks for that, though he usually needed his coat or one of his self-made blankets. Still, it should help at least a bit, and he now had his power as well…

* * *

Henry opened his eyes, focusing almost entirely on his second world. Meditating was far easier when you could literally retreat from the world. He just kept some of his focus on the first world, so he’d react if anything happened – he couldn’t cut himself off, even if he’d wanted to.

Now he took a deep breath, taking in the fresh smell of clean air, green grass and fresh water. He was sitting under a tree, leaning against the trunk, with a small spring right next to him, coming up from between the roots of the tree and forming a thin stream down the hill it stood upon.

Looking up, he could see the brilliant night sky, filled with all the beautiful stars of mankind. No matter how many times he saw them, the sight still enchanted him.

I wonder…

A thought caught him. Everything in this world was his – but everything outside of it, all that was part of the firmanent, was from other people.

So what’s the sun stand for?

He focused on turning his world, until the sun stood in the skies, blotting out the stars around it. And there was something more…

Two suns. There are two suns. One was barely visible, a sun barely different from the surrounding blue of the sky. A sleeping sun. As bright, as massive as the main sun, but not awake, not shining.

He imagined a giant magnifying glass above him, to take a closer look. And, for the first time, he noticed something that he hadn’t before.

Turning the world around again to look at the normal night sky, he saw what he only now noticed, because it was so omnipresent, he hadn’t even noticed it before. They’re all connected.

A network of glowing tendrils connected the worlds of humanity among each other… and he was reasonably sure they represented relationships. And the reason he was noticing them now was because…

He turned the world around again, to look at the two suns. … because that one… it doesn’t have them…

The bright sun had none. No relationships, no connections whatsoever. It was brighter enough to blot out all the other worlds save for the sleeping world, unless he interposed his world to take a look at the others.

Could that be… Desolation-in-Light?! Zooming in closer, he could see the haze of light that accompanied DiL’s attacks – he’d seen them on TV often enough – only a million, billion times more concentrated. She’s… so alone…

But he couldn’t reach her world, not without touching her body, first…

* * *

It was many hours later, after they’d all slept in shifts (save for Henry and the other children, who had been allowed to sleep through and Macian, who it turned out never needed to sleep, at all), that Henry was suddenly woken from his reverie of exploring his second world and the firmament above it.

Someone had just appeared out of nowhere within his range. A world that had been too remote to feel before, but now he could sense it, and extending a thought, he tried to feel her out…

He was shaken awake again. “Mate! What happened!?” Macian propped him up against the wall, one hand shaking his shoulder. He still preferred to use his right hand for this, it seemed.

“Wu-what?” asked Henry, groggy and with a headache.

“You just bent over, retched and passed out!” said Macian with worry in his tone.

“I… Someone dropped into my range… it was… it was awful. Demented,” whispered Henry with a tone so serious, so fearful it made the gathered civilians flinch back.

“What? Tell me what you felt! It’s time for the next round, who did you feel!? I described them to you, remember?”

Henry nodded. “Yes, yes, I know. Let me… let me concentrate.” Macian pulled his hand away and Henry straightened, closing his eyes to concentrate on the second world.

He found the demented world again, a twisted, wrong star, oozing with greenish-black ichor, dripping instead of shining – seven tendrils extended from it, five of them to remote worlds, which Ember recognized as those of the other Six, one to a faded one… and one to Macian, an asymmetrical, but intense relationship. Black on Macian’s side with just a little red, and lots of red and green on the other worlds side.

Which one… He thought back to Macian’s descriptions.

“Heretic you’ve already met”, said the young boy, looking up at the brilliant starry sky. “He’s their security, in a fashion. The most powerful and versatile member in direct confrontation, a nigh-immortal nightmare. He’s smarter than you’d think, but willingly follows Hemming’s lead, mostly due to their friendship.”

“Fire Burial is their mad dog, a wide-area combatant and master of guerilla tactics, even if she’s usually too stupid to fight smart. She obeys Hemming because he’s good at manipulating her, but mostly because Mindfuck does, and she’s pretty much addicted to her father’s power. More of a pet-owner relationship than a daughter-father one.”

“Mindfuck is… pathetic. Massively powerful telepath, the strongest one ever. But he’s stuck, a nine-year-old in a thirty-year-old’s body who’s reenacting what his father did to him, over and over and over. Prime case for high-level mental powers completely messing up their owner. He follows Hemming because Hemming knows how to push his buttons just right and because he’s smart enough to know that he wouldn’t survive in the real world. He needs the Six, so he’s loyal and reliable. So long as none of them get between him and his new target boy.”

“Pristine is their heavy hitter, their first and major line of defense, apart from Heretic’s spells. She’s long gone insane from sensory deprivation and just does whatever Hemming tells her to, simply because he’s installed himself in her mind as the one person who understands her. Her power is the same as the one DiL uses for defense, only weaker. She’s untouchable, but she can be moved against her will, as well as restrained – if you can overpower her. And she’s really strong.”

“Hemming is… a mystery. He was Britain’s prime superhero, until he and his right hand, Hermetic, just switched sides all of a sudden. Massively powerful shapeshifter, most people think he’s also a probability manipulator, because things seem to always go his way – but he’s actually a perception-type. Super-smart. Smart enough to set things up so it always looks like luck, but it’s all planned. He’s a master at finding peoples’ psychological weakpoints and exploiting them, preferring to break people by talking instead of by physical force.”

“Finally, Atrocity… she’s a monster. Completely and utterly insanely evil. Even Hemming can’t really control her. Even Mindfuck is disgusted by her. She doesn’t have nearly as much combat power as any other member, she isn’t as smart as Hemming, she doesn’t have any kind of game-breaking technology or something… but she’s adaptable, incredibly fast and utterly unpredictable, to the point where even Hemming just cuts her loose and hopes for the best.”

Henry opened his eyes. “Atrocity. She’s coming.”

* * *

They left the building minutes later. Macian had insisted that staying in an enclosed space with Atrocity on the loose was no different from suicide.

“I hope we’ll get a chance for another ice-cream-and-chips-orgy,” said Macian as they walked away from the direction Henry felt Atrocity move in, flinching every time she reached another human and started to… do things to them. She didn’t kill, but they quickly wished she’d had.

“Me too…” replied Henry, tears in his eyes as he was forced to try and block out the mental screams of what felt like a little girl.

“Have you thought about a codename?” asked Macian casually.

Henry looked up, eager for a distraction. “Hm… I did, actually…”

Macian turned to him without stopping. “So, what is it?”

“Ember. Call me Ember,” said the newly minted superhero. “It fits on so many levels, it would just be wrong to take anything else.”

The other buy chuckled. “Well, it fits you, anyway. And… Ember & Macian vs. The Savage Six! Sounds like a good title for a comic book!”

Ember grinned back. “Yes. It does.”

B003 Forbidden Garden (Part 8)

“You’ll never catch me, squirt!”, shouted her brother as he ran across the beach, away from her.

She just screamed in frustration, unable to get to him – he was five years older than her and had much longer and stronger legs.

“Tom, stop picking on your sister!”, said their father from where he lay on his beach lounger, bathing in the sun. “Sweetie, stop chasing him.”

She ran over to her father and replied: “He ripped my bathing suit!”, she shouted, showing him how one shoulder of her brilliant green suit had a small, barely visible tear.

He looked at her like a man who had been through this a thousand times before – which was quite accurate, actually. “Sweetheart, please. We can buy you a new one. We can buy you a hundred, and a hundred red ones as well. So stop fretting about.”

She pouted at him, but… “Can I have some that are green and red?”, she asked hopefully.

“Sure thing sweetheart. Now, go and play some more, will you? And tell your brother to come to me for a second”, her father replied, dismissing her.

Watching him chastise her older brother made her almost as happy as the promise of new bathing suits…

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