B013.1 Call of the Sleeper

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Yesterday was a big day, for yesterday was the day, on which the first of the Chosen of the Blood, of whom our Leader speaks so much, has visited Germany.

They call her Lady Light across the sea, and by God Almighty, a more fitting name, I can barely imagine. Angel, perhaps.

Goddess.

She came to us glowing like the sun, brilliant and flawless, escorting the American President on his way to a peace conference. A sham, really; no one here in Europe actually wants peace, I think. But at least it allowed me to lay eyes on her.

Later, many of my landsmen spoke about how she was living proof of the Truth of Blood and Heritage, even if she was a woman, at least the first of the Chosen had been a true Aryan, the rumors of her relationship to one of the accursed Jews notwithstanding. Personally, I never saw the point in despising people merely because of race. Yes, some people are born inferior to others. Others superior. That is nature.

That is no reason to hate, though. Pity, perhaps, for those less fortunate, but certainly no hate. Disdain, for those who refuse to recognise their place, but certainly no rage.

Besides, even in my limited experience, I have come ot realise that the same differences exist within the German – or Aryan – race, as well. Perhaps not to such extreme extents – other races are definitely more different from us than we are among each other – but the difference exists. No one would ever say that I was an average member of my race and I say this without a hint of vanity. I had proven myself to be better than most even before my blood awakened.

Perhaps if I tell myself that often enough, I’ll even convince myself that I didn’t end up proving to be less than most, too.

I am rambling again. Mother always tells told me that I tend to ramble too much, if I don’t have others to keep me on track. Adelheid just says said I’m addicted to the sound of my own voice. It is quite likely that she is right.

Where was I… ah, yes, Lady Light. Such a simple name, to encompass such an enrapturing creature. At first I thought, this is it? This is the first Chosen? She was… thin. Almost a head shorter than I, and looking so fragile. Weak. I could pass for her older brother, even though I’m barely half her age.

And yet… and yet, there was something, something that drew one’s eye to her. A quiet confidence, a core of will, of conviction, as uncaring for what us mere humans may do as the sun itself is, and just as brilliant. A blazing sun in human form. I have never seen its like before, not even in the Leader.

She did not talk to me – why would she, I was but one lesser chosen among several gathered there? – but her gaze passed over me. It felt like she was staring right into my soul.

Whatever happens… whatever else comes of the next few years… I pray that I shall meet her again.

***

8 am, November 17, the day after the Crocell Incident

The door to the container ‘hangout’ that Basil used as a cover for one of the entrances to his base opened, and Vasiliki entered alongside Tim and Dalia, studiously trying to ignore her friend’s choice of clothing. Fashion was just one of the many subjects which they clashed on, and she wasn’t going to get into another discussion about how appropriate skimpy tops and miniskirts or hot pants with tights were, especially during winter. She’d just quietly stick to a nice (hand-made) long skirt and a comfortable (hand-made) sweater.

Maybe some day, Dalia would learn. And until then, she’d keep entertaining Timothy, who clearly did not mind her fashion sense at all.

They walked to the elevator, that would lead them down to the base.

“You think B-Six is already awake?” Dalia asked lightly, smiling as she moved with a casual, unconscious grace which Vasiliki greatly envied her for. “Or perhaps still? Could see him skipping sleep, after yesterday.”

She wasn’t wrong, though. “I can imagine that being the case, yes,” she admitted while they pressed the hidden switch beneath the counter to take them down. The elevator started to move without a sound. “Studying that monster, then getting a chance to work with three other gadgeteers, on Sovereign’s equipment, no less, well…”

“Basil got his hands on new tech?” Timothy asked, sounding like he couldn’t decide whether to be amused or horrified. “I bet he was… ecstatic.”

That elicited a giggle from Dalia. “He must’ve had such a huge nerdgasm!”

Vasiliki rolled her eyes at the crass language, though she couldn’t honestly object to the point made. Basil could be very easily excited by anything to do with his power, and the fact that he’d somehow convinced Gloom Glimmer to take him straight back here, right after the battle was over, spoke for him being almost out of his mind with new ideas. Otherwise, she was absolutely certain he would not have left them behind.

Not that Vasiliki wouldn’t have stayed anyway, to help with search and rescue. It had still been an unpleasant surprise to find out that he’d left so suddenly, and without even telling them that he’d survived.

Vasiliki had been scared for her friend.

He’d better have a damn good excuse, she thought to herself, while also trying not to think about all the corpses they’d pulled out of the flooded rubble and collapsed buildings.

So many corpses, even though an anonymous hero had been going around helping evacuate the civilians…

She was distracted from that train of thought when the elevator reached the living room and ‘command centre’ of the base, where they were immediately greeted by Eudocia’s emblem appearing on the large central screen.

“Hi you three!” she chirped, sounding to all the world like an over-exited preteen. Which, in some ways, she pretty much was. “How’re you doing?”

“We’re fine, thank you for asking,” Vasiliki replied. “Is Basil in his lab?”

“Yup, he’s been there since he came back. Didn’t even sleep. If it wasn’t for Prisca, he wouldn’t even have eaten,” Eudocia complained sullenly, as usual exasperated in how hard it was to pursue her self-imposed duty of looking after Basil’s oft-neglected health.

At least he keeps himself nearly obsessively clean, Vasiliki thought, thanking the gods for their small favours. “Do you know what he’s been working on?”

“Nope! Whatever ideas he got, they’re way beyond me,” the AI replied, chirpy again. “First thing he built was some kind of headgear he used on himself, but I have no idea what it really did, he wasn’t being too chatty. Seemed to give him a headache, though. Since then, he’s been working on some kind of bracer or gauntlet. He cannibalized most of his stuff to make it, even his vibrosword!”

Dalia whistled, though even she looked like she could see the issue with that. Vasiliki couldn’t help but frown, too. She knew that Basil’s resources were running thin, which explained why he had to take apart previous projects – or unfinished ones – to make new stuff, but sacrificing his sword?

Well, it wasn’t like he’d used it all that much to begin with – he didn’t like killing any more than Vasiliki did, and the vibrosword was pretty much only useful for taking apart inanimate objects, unless you wanted to kill your opponent.

“We’ll talk to him,” she stated firmly, sorting out her thoughts. “Try to figure out what’s going on.”

“Yeah, time for a little reality check,” Dalia said in a similar tone of voice. She hadn’t taken him just leaving them behind much, if any, better than her. “This is weird even by his standards.”

“Thanks. I hope you’ll talk some sense into him,” Eudocia said, opening the door that lead down to the lab proper.

The three of them walked down the short staircase and entered into the lab… which honestly looked not much different than usual, at least to Vasiliki’s eye. It had always been a strange mixture of obsessively neat and absentmindedly chaotic; several worktables with half-finished or just-disassembled projects laid out in what seemed to be utter disorder, to the point where she sometimes suspected Basil might have an eidetic memory, just to explain how he ever found anything, contrasting with the neat, orderly way that said tables and projects were laid out in the room, with clear, neat pathways between them, everything stationed so that, no matter at which one Basil was sitting, he could look at any other project by turning in the right direction.

She’d never admit it to him, for fear of his head swelling even more than it usually did, when it came to his gadgets, but watching him work, seeing all the strange stuff he was working on, was a really fun pastime for her, trying to figure out what the hell he was fiddling with at any time and all. The fact that he tended to get so absorbed in his work, he’d likely not notice her even if she was standing around naked and singing in Greek, made it all the easier to observe him in his ‘natural habitat’, as she and Dalia tended to joke.

It had changed over the last month or so, though. Vasiliki had been aware that he was having trouble continuing his work, both due to his power being baulky and due to dwindling money, he’d complained about it a few times, and Eudocia had shared some of it, as well, but right now, it was as obvious as ever that he was starting to run out of resources, at least.

Half the lab was empty, really, with only a few small parts and tools on most tables, his work mostly concentrated on the five centre tables, one of which being his computer station, at that.

She couldn’t even begin to guess at the purpose of most of the things he was working on, but one table, at least, was easily identified – the one he’d been performing maintenance on his battered armour (as skillful as he could sometimes be, somehow he still managed to get it wrecked a whole damn lot), the individual pieces laid out along with the bodysuit worn underneath them, looking like they were back in top condition.

The other tables were far less obvious. One sported what she assumed was a computer tower as tall as she was, standing at its centre. It seemed to have been built by cannibalising damn near every other computer in the room, fitting all the necessary parts together into an amalgam that would have made Frankenstein proud. With all the wires leading out of it, and the irregularly spaced amber-coloured cooling lines, it reminded her kind of of some japanese anime’s idea of a mechanical tree or such. And that was only the most obvious piece, as its wires connected to a variety of other devices, which were interconnected in turn, the whole construct so expansive it extended onto another table, all of it ending up in what looked like a twisted, uneven VR headset that had to weigh as much as a small child at the least, currently resting on the table in front of where Basil would normally sit.

Another table sported what looked like three hollow, egg shapes that fanned open like flowers, the insides of the petals covered in countless tiny spines, with one of Basil’s hand-made laptops wired up to them, running some kind of program with a progress bar that was half-done.

Finally, there was one last table on which lay a single gauntlet, sized to fit over Basil’s forearm and the back of his hand. Unlike the rest of his armor, it wasn’t made out of the black ceramic he tended to use, but of several overlapping half-rings of silvery metal, covered in gold and copper circuits which seemed to serve no purpose whatsoever (though Vasiliki knew better than to assume Basil would waste resources on mere aesthetics). The table was actually clean apart from that, all the tools put neatly away, signifying that this work, at least, was complete.

The one responsible for all that, Basil, sat at his computer terminal, wearing black dress pants and an unbuttoned white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his biceps, lounging on a swivel chair, turned halfway towards them.

Vasiliki felt her face heat up a bit, hoping to all spirits that her dusky skintone would hide the light blush as she was reminded that Basil had been… really getting more attractive, ever since she first met him.

Oh, he wasn’t turning into a supermodel, and he likely never would be; but gone was the gangly, messily black-haired, stick-thin nerd with the sharp black eyes she’d first befriended. His hair had grown long (and stayed messy, in spite of his attempts to keep it under control), nearly touching his shoulders by now, and his face had lost a lot of baby fat it’d still sported just a few months ago, making it look even sharper than before (which was saying a lot), his cheekbones looking like she could have sliced bread on them. His unbuttoned shirt and rolled-up sleeves showed the results of working out regularly, nevermind all the combat training they did whenever all three of them had the time, nevermind the regular patrols; he was still a little too thin and she doubted he’d ever look like a body-builder, and he often looked like he was tired due to what seemed to be some natural wrinkles around and underneath his jet black eyes, but…

Damn it, I’m feeling a little jealous of Prisca now, she thought. All in all, she wouldn’t be surprised if Basil wasn’t going to be getting a lot of hopeful suitors, come prom time – traditionally, Diantha High always had girls’ choice there, and Prisca wasn’t around to lay claim to him.

Oh Goddess, what the Hell am I even thinking? I have way more important things to worry about! she thought to herself as the two of them walked up to Basil.

“Hey, B-Six!” Dalia greeted him cheerily, and Vasiliki noticed that the red-head was clearly not as restrained as she tried to be about ogling the eye candy. “Did Prisca just leave?”

Timothy coughed suddenly, looking away.

Basil looked up at her, raising an eyebrow. “Just a few minutes ago, yes. Her charge ran out and she had to wake up. How did you know?”

Yeah, how did sh- ohhhh, Vasiliki caught up just a second later, and felt her face heat up even more. She really had to get herself a boyfriend already.

“Female intuition, I guess,” Dalia quipped brightly. “I see she got you to eat, huh?” she continued, nodding towards an empty plate on the table next to the computer.

Their friend shrugged. “I was not really hungry, but Prisca was really… insistent,” he said casually, as if it was nothing special.

“I really need to get that far with my girlfriend…” Vasiliki heard Timothy whisper from behind her.

Amen, she thought. And I need to find a boyfriend in the first place.

“Anyway,” she spoke up, trying not to focus on her relatively irrelevant relationship status. “We’ve got to talk, Basil.”

He turned his chair to face them fully and she realised that it wasn’t just his natural look she’d picked up on earlier. He really did look tired, though not as badly as he’d gotten before their intervention a while ago.

Perhaps we should keep a closer eye on him again, I don’t think that Eudocia is really cut out for watching over her ‘father’.

“Let us talk then,” he said with a smile. “What can I do for you?”

“What happened at the end of the battle?” she asked straight out, not wanting to beat around the bush anymore. “Why’d you just dump us to come back here, and why’d you risk showing Gloom Glimmer our base?”

He flinched a bit, looking actually guilty. “I… I am sorry for leaving you behind. I am not entirely sure of all the details, but when Crocell died… well, you noticed his death throes, right? They call it a ‘psychic scream’, I think.”

Vasiliki nodded, shuddering at the memory. It had been profoundly unsettling, not to mention painful – her headache had lasted for hours. She knew that Dalia’s experience had been no better, either.

“What did you experience while it happened?” he asked them, gesturing for her or Dalia to take over.

“Flashes,” the latter immediately spoke up. “Flashes of colours and shadows, and weird sounds, like whale songs,” she explained as she sat on a chair Timothy had pulled up for her.

Vasiliki looked around and saw that he’d done the same for her, and was now sitting on one of his own, too, so she sat down as well, the four of them forming a loose circle among Basil’s workstations.

“My experience was very similar,” she continued once it became clear that Dalia was finished. “But even less distinct. Just shadows and screeching, but muted, echo-y, like it was underwater,” she described as best as she could, while Timothy remained quiet – he was the only one here who hadn’t been present. “I think there was more, while it happened, but it… didn’t stick in my mind.”

Basil made a thoughtful sound as he intertwined his fingers beneath his chin, elbows on the armrests of his chair. “I saw… much more. Perhaps because I was so close to it. Images, mostly. Memories, I think, of Crocell. To be more precise, his birth… and his creators.”

“What!?” Vasiliki shouted, jumping up onto her feet. “That thing was made? And you know who did it?!” She’d track these monsters down and blow them to high heaven!

He raised a hand in a calming gesture. “I will get to that,” he said, standing up as she sat down and buttoning his shirt closed, before he walked over to the huge computer tower to flip a single switch, causing it to boot up quietly, numerous fans that were hidden among the already extensive cooling lines starting their work. “I can not say whether it happened due to Crocell’s presence, but during the battle, it was like my power… came unstuck.” He gestured towards the gauntlet with one hand, using the other to type something on the tower’s keyboard without even looking at it. “That is how I was able to figure out how to kill the beast. Anyway, my memory of the contents of its scream began to fade quickly, and that is when I came up with this.” He gestured towards the computer tower and the headpiece it was connected to. “A neural engram recorder and visualiser,” he explained. “It can read the neural signals of the brain’s visual cortex and record them, provided one focuses long enough on an image – I used it to save as much of these visions as I could, before they faded from my mind, as well.”

The three of them just gaped at the boy, but he didn’t seem to notice, or care, as he continued on.

“Now, as to what I saw…” he stopped, suddenly, and turned to his computer terminal. “Eudocia, how is Prisca doing?” he asked calmly.

“She’s awake and talking to her mother,” the AI replied. “It seems like it will take a while, but I can’t be sure, since I’m not allowed to listen in on private conversations without permission,” she continued, sounding sullen.

“Good,” he said, sitting down again. “She will have to hear this, too, but… I would rather discuss it with you all first.”

And with that cryptic comment, he tapped a few keys on his terminal, calling up an image of… some kind of underwater scenery, a trench maybe. A slick rockwall could be seen, covered in corals and illuminated from below in all colours of the rainbow.

A tap of a key called up another image, looking up said wall towards the surface of the water, though little could be seen of it.

“I was not able to save much,” Basil continued, as he moved on, going from picture to picture. Crocell – it had to be him – was swimming up, it seemed, approaching a jet-black shape that seemed to float on the water’s surface, something like a huge octagon. “Here is where it gets interesting.”

More pictures came up, until Crocell seemed to break through the water’s surface, looking up at the starry sky.

Then, he climbed on top of the water, and looked down and out over a huge, almost city-sized floating island of metal, formed like an octagon.

His gaze swept over several people who’d gathered on some kind of platform at the edge of the installation, and focused closer on them.

Vasiliki felt her heartbeat speed up as she saw what she assumed to be the villains behind all the murder and bloodshed these monsters had caused over the last day. There were many, and not all were distinctly visible – the image quality was not the best in every shot, probably because Basil had had trouble remembering every detail – but a few stood out.

A woman in what looked like a samurai-themed knight’s armour mixed with a black-and-purple ball gown, wearing a helmet which reminded her of a bird, and a katana strapped to her side. Another woman, short, Asian, in a lab coat, with an ecstatic look on her face, her black hair drawn back in a bun. Next to her, a pimply, gangly man who looked like the stereotypical nerd in an oversized labcoat. And finally, a black-skinned woman in a smaller, tighter labcoat, her hands in her coatpockets as she seemed to look almost condescendingly at the viewer – at Crocell.

Others were around them, but they were indistinct, blurry. The focus was clearly on those four.

“That’s them, huh,” Dalia whispered. “Anyone recognise the bitch in the fancy costume?”

“No, I have never heard of anyone with that costume,” Basil replied, both Vasiliki and Timothy saying the same.

“Nor have I found any images on the internet which match her,” Eudocia added, her voice much more serious than usual.

“I did recognise one of them, though,” Basil continued, zooming in on the short Asian woman and the gangly nerd. “Eudocia was also able to identify the man – he is known as ‘the Geek’, a legacy villain who disappeared a few years ago. But it is this one that I am most interested in.” He zoomed further in on the short woman. “That… is Dusu.”

You could’ve heard a pin drop in the resulting silence.

Vasiliki stared at the image of the woman who’d ruined Prisca’s life, and that of so many others – no wonder Basil didn’t want to confront her with this rashly. The crippled girl would go ballistic.

She very deliberately did not ask whether Basil was sure – he would never speak about this unless he was absolutely sure.

“Is there a way to tell where this place is?” she asked instead, her voice barely more than a whisper. “There were some images of the stars earlier, perhaps one could determine its location that-” She cut off when she saw Basil’s grim smile.

“I did just that,” he affirmed, tapping a few keys. The images of the starry night showed up on the screens, one in each, and graphs began to appear, measuring the distances between stars, shapes they formed and more. “I also calculated how deep the trench Crocell rose out of must have been, based on the speed at which he rose and the height we observed when he first surfaced at Esperanza City. With those values, I was able to determine that it must be built somewhere above the Mariana Trench, specifically this general location.”

He called up a map of the Pacific Ocean, zooming in on the relevant portion and highlighting an area with a red circle. One quite near to the Challenger Deep, Vasiliki’s geographical knowledge told her.

“It is only accurate to within about a hundred kilometres, but nevertheless – whoever these people are, their base is somewhere there. And I am going to tell the United Heroes about it soon enough.”

Vasiliki swallowed dryly at the thought of the kind of violence that information would unleash – there was no way the heroes, and even a lot of villains, would hold back, not after the massacres caused. Nevermind governments like that of Japan, who’d been hit the hardest hit.

She wished she could participate. She’d drawn children out of the rubble of Esperanza.

“Damn, B-Six, that’s just… that’s so awesome,” Dalia said, hushed, her hands on her cheeks.

“Yeah, man, this… this is huge,” Timothy agreed, after having been quiet for most of this. “Are you… are you certain? I mean, I know you wouldn’t say this lightly, but if you’re wrong…”

Basil shook his head. “I am certain in what I saw, and the conclusions drawn. Crocell was made and he was made there. And Dusu,” he all but spat the name, “was involved in some fashion.”

He smiled grimly, showing teeth, the sight making Vasiliki shiver down to her toes. “This will not just be a chance to punish them for the monsters they unleashed. I intend to take the chance to find a cure for Prisca’s condition; if anyone has it, then Dusu, the one who created that plague in the first place.”

The Greek sorceress leaned back in her seat, running her fingers through her hair as she took a deep breath. “By the Goddess, this is… this is so much, Basil. Too much. We need to, to think this over, plan… and we need to tell Prisca, too. She deserves to know.”

He nodded, sitting down again. “Yes, yes she does. And I will. As soon as she comes back – I want to do it face-to-face, or as close as it gets with her insisting on the projection over her real body.” He sighed, leaning back as well.

“So, how are we going to tell the UH?” Dalia asked thoughtfully, an expression that was just weird on her, in spite of the situation. “Just give them a copy of the images and all?”

“I can not think of a better way,” Basil answered. “It will probably take a while to convince them that it is reliable, but I do not think that they will dismiss it, in the end. They need to take the chance to nip this at the bud, before even more monsters are created and let loose.”

Vasiliki nodded in agreement – that was paramount. Followed by punishing them for what they’d already done, of course.

She wished she had the power to directly send such villains to Tartarus herself.

“Alright, let’s talk about how we’re going to get this information to them in the most efficient, convincing way p-” she began, but was cut off when Eudocia suddenly butted in.

“Father!” she shouted, sounding panicked. “You’ve got to help!”

Basil turned his chair around, sitting straight and with alarm. “What is going on, Eudocia?” he asked briskly, but calmly.

“It’s Prisca!” the AI exlaimed, seeming to grow more and more panicked. “She just had a stroke!”

Basils knuckles turned white as he gripped the edge of his table. “Status report, now,” he hissed as Vasiliki just stared in shock.

The screens changed to ECG readings and other information that Vasiliki couldn’t even begin to make sense of, making her briefly wonder where he was getting them from… until she remembered that he’d built most of the medical equipment currently sustaining Prisca, and there was no way he hadn’t left himself a connection to it for just such an occasion.

She watched as Basil’s eyes flew over the information, seeming to absorb it in record time. “Any reports on the other surviving victims?” he asked, his voice tight.

“Two of those whom I have access to had strokes over the last hour, one of them fatal,” she replied, her voice growing calmer, more mechanical, now that she was getting orders to pursue. “I’m hacking into what little there already is on their hospitals’ networks… nothing conclusive, as usual, but it seems like the plague is attacking their brains more aggressively than usual.”

She saw Basil tremble, even though his face – which she could see from the side, sitting where she was – was completely calm. “Keep collecting data. I want every byte you can get, he said calmly, leaning back on his seat.

Vasiliki couldn’t sit around anymore, though, and leapt up. “We should get to the hospital, see what you can do for her… or maybe me, if all else fails,” she said, turning around to go for where she had her spare costume stashed. She knew her healing magic -what little of it she was capable of – was not the most reliable, but if all else failed…

Dalia got up to join her, her face tight with worry.

“No,” came a sharp, cold voice, freezing them both in their tracks. “We are not going to the hospital.”

They turned around, both of them, and Vasiliki felt her blood run cold as ice.

Basil was leaning back on his chair again, his fingers intertwined as he’d put his hands together over his lap, his head slightly leaning forward.

His eyes were cold as ice and blacker than the darkness itself.

“W-why not? We need to help her!” Dalia protested, but Vasiliki just stared at her friend, who was looking into the distance with those cold, hard eyes.

“We will be of no help rushing to the hospital,” he spoke calmly, ignoring Dalia’s protests. It was like someone completely different was speaking. “I have already done all that I can for her, with just my skills and resources. Vasiliki’s magic is not compatible with my gadgets, and no one knows how it might react to Dusu’s plague.”

“W-what are we supposed to do, then?” Vasiliki asked, her voice trembling, and not just for fear for Prisca. This Basil… she’d known that there was something cold, and hard inside of him, some part of his that couldn’t be explained by the life he’d lead so far, but that was nonetheless there, but she’d never thought she’d see it so clearly.

He was scaring her.

“It is simple,” he said with that ice-cold voice. “There is only one person who knows how to save Prisca,” he continued, calling up the image of those four villains again. “We are going to go after the source of the plague.” He tapped her face on the screen.

“Are you crazy!?!” Vasiliki shouted, unable to restrain herself. “There’s no way we have enough time to wait for the heroes and the government to gather their troops and get there, Prisca will be dead or brain-damaged long before that!”

Basil remained maddeningly calm, in the face of her outburst. “I never said we would wait. Or I will not, at least. I will go after her as soon as I can arrange for some transportation, and gather up as much firepower as I can on short notice.”

She gaped at her friend, unable to believe he was being so reckless, so… so stupid, even with his girlfriend’s life on the line! These were some major supervillains, and there could be a whole army on that floating island!

The other two seemed just as shocked as she was, unable to protest, as they watched Basil pick up his cellphone from the table.

“How… how are we even supposed to get there on our own?” Vasiliki asked weakly.

“Yeah, unless you got a jet stashed somewhere around here, there’s no way we’re getting there anytime soon,” Dalia agreed.

Basil just punched a number into his cellphone and lifted it to his ear. Whoever was on the other end picked up quickly.

“Gloom Glimmer,” he greeted the other side. “Brennus here. I am calling about that favour you said you owed me…”

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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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B012.1 Born At Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

November 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe that ought to tell him something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<Actual sleep, or microsleep and naps?>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it hollow?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will probably never know, he thought surly.

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

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

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

Busy with what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ow. He looked away, unable to respond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes mother…” he mumbled.

“What was that?”

“Nothing.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder why.

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

Why wouldn’t I want their help?

I cannot say.

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

No response.

Moonboy?

No response.

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

I am so fucked.

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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B007.9 Hastur, Shrouded in Dread

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“I still can’t believe you’re risking this!”

Jason was not happy as he watched the heroes (and assorted vigilantes and villains) prepare to deploy. Polymnia and Brennus were handing out visors for everyone to wear – much like Brennus’ own helmet, they would protect them from Hastur’s power.

Or so they believe. Brennus might just have been immune due to a quirk of his power.

He’d voiced that complaint, and many others, but Amazon had firmly insisted that there was no time left. And he could see that, but couldn’t they at least take a few more minutes to try and get backup?

Of course, the fact that Hastur’s creations were running rampant through the city, keeping villains, vigilantes, police and army on their toes did not help in that regard, at all.

He knew they needed to put her down. He knew these were the only people likely to be capable of doing it. Didn’t mean he had to like it.

“Amazon, could I talk something over with you quickly?” he asked.

The young woman – too young to be burdened with the responsibilities of field leader – walked over to him, holding her new visor in her hands.

They stepped away (Polymnia’s hearing was just too good sometimes, and he had no idea what Brennus’ team was capable of) and turned their backs to the others, so no one could read their lips.

“I know your complaints, Sir. They’re good, but we n-” she started saying, but stopped when he shook his head.

“That’s not it. I get it. Really. No, there’s something else. Rising Tide and Gilgul.”

She raised an eyebrow. “I can guess what you want to say about Rising Tide, but why Gilgul?”

He looked around to make sure there was none of those damn ravens around (even though they were inside the building) and said: “You know as well as I do that Rising Tide can’t be trusted. I’d suggest not taking him into the battle. As for Gilgul… something’s off there. She just shows up out of nowhere, is apparently powerful enough to go toe-to-toe with that fecal monstrosity, is best buds with the out-of-nowhere vigilante gadgeteer and gets a recommendation from Gloom Glimmer after a grand total of one battle! Don’t tell me you don’t think there’s something fishy there!”

“Calm down, Jason. I know all this, and I’ll certainly keep an eye on her and Rising Tide both, but we need every bit of fighting strength we can get, and we’re running out of time, so I’m just going to cut this short now. Wish us luck.”

He looked after her as she turned away to join the others again. “I always do…”

* * *

“You built your base underneath the Goldschmidt Memorial Park?” He almost, almost slapped his forehead. Which is not a smart thing to do when you’re wearing second-rate spare armour (he had been lacking the time and material to make it equal to the main armour).

“Yeah, what of it?”, asked Rising Tide as he adjusted the goggles he was now wearing. The others were, too. They weren’t pretty, but they should protect them by showing them everything indirectly – Hastur’s power should be nullified just as it had been when he had looked at her through his mask’s camera.

<You guys are called the Forresters and the first place you come up with for your secret base is underneath a park full of trees?> Polymnia asked as she finished the calibration of the S.M.O.G. <How about calling yourself the Dolphin Squad and having a base underneath an Aqua->

“Happened,” Brennus threw in.

<What, seriously? That actually happened!?>

Now everyone except for Amazon and Osore was looking at him.

“The group was called the Dolphin Dames. Five female eco-terrorists active in the early nineties. They had their base underneath the San Francisco State Aquarium, right beneath the Dolphin tank. Had it expanded so the dolphins could swim into and out of their base, cause their leader was quite in love with them,” he explained.

“So she was an animal rights nut who really liked looking at dolphins?” asked Tyche.

“No, they were animal rights nuts who, among other things, wanted animals to be legally recognized as citizens with all protections and rights that come with it, and she was in love with them as in…” He threw a glance at Gilgul, who was showing no reaction (not hard to do with a fullbody armour and helmet) that went unnoticed thanks to his own mask. “… she, ah, swam with them.” If his eyebrows were showing, he would have wiggled them.

That shut them up as several people tried to get rid of a slew of unpleasant mental images.

He put in the last calibration code, then aligned the S.M.O.G. with Polymnia’s and Osore’s help so it aimed right at the hidden entrance to the Forrester’s base – a concrete wall and doorway hidden behind thick foliage. Amazon, Hecate, Tyche, Bakeneko, Tartsche, Outstep, Phasma and Rising Tide were standing nearby, ready to storm the base that was probably filled with more of Hastur’s victims.

The plan called for a quick entrance, but this was the only entrance safe for an emergency exit that would take too long to traverse and without Gloom Glimmer, they lacked the firepower to simply blast through it… except, of course, for the S.M.O.G. Amazon had even allowed them to fire it untested, due to the urgency.

“Alright, calibration is done, all systems are running…”

<…energy transmission spotless and the crystal array has been aligned.>

He held out the trigger, which was connected to the rest of the machine via wire. “Want to do the honors?”

Polymnia took it with a grin, looking at the entrance. <Boom.> She pushed the button.

* * *

7.12 seconds later

<I didn’t expect the explosion to be quite that big.>

They stared at the gaping hole in the ten feet of rebar-reinforced concrete… and the hill it had been built into. In fact, there was precious little of said concrete and rebar left to look at.

But there was a lot of dust, which Brennus thought might be symbolic.

“What does S.M.O.G. stand for, anyway?” Bakeneko asked, her eyes (all seven and a half of them) glued to the scene.

Sonic Impulse Overkill Gun,” explained Brennus.

Suddenly, the silence around him turned hostile. He looked around at the others.

“What? It is a perfectly good name!” he tried to justify it. “Do you know how difficult it is to come up with proper Acronyms that are not already in use?” he added, weakly. “The alternative was S.M.U.T., so I think this is an acceptable name…”

The others shook their heads. Gilgul in particular seemed… disappointed.

Amazon snapped her fingers. “Enough distraction people. You know what to do – let’s get going!”

They stormed into the base, with Amazon, Gilgul and Rising Tide on point.

Brennus and Polymnia split the S.M.O.G. into four pieces, and they, Osore and Bakeneko took one each.

As they ran inside, Polymnia leaned closer to Brennus: <I told you we should have gone with Sonic Impulse Overkill Generator.>

“Generator somehow implies something bigger. Maybe something to take down a city block?”

She thought it over. <Not practical, but definitely do-able if we can make a bigger set of synch-crystals.>

“Let’s keep it in mind for the two-point-oh version.”

* * *

They entered the underground base of the Forresters (technically a part of the Undercity, according to Rising Tide), following a tunnel that descended into the earth. Amazon was leading, her golden hoplite-armour already up and covering her from head to toe.

Brennus heard a ping from the secure short-range communication channel (Rising Tide and Phasma had no access to it) and heard Outstep say, <What is it with supervillains and underground bases?>

Gilgul replied: <Tradition, I guess. The Dark used to hide in Old Lennston’s sewer system, back in the beginning. During most of the twenties, actually.>

Everyone but Amazon and Brennus who was in the channel looked at her.

<What? I read a lot. History books can be really interesting, especially since Point Zero.>

Amazon spoke up, <Team, please fo->

Then Succubus stepped around the next corner.

* * *

Phasma made a small, incredibly hurt sound.

Hastur had gotten her hands on Succubus. Brennus had seen images of her succubus form before, and this form was much more monstrous. She had grown taller, almost two meters tall. Her legs had, from the knees and below, turned into cracked volcanic rock, with lava leaking from the cracks. Her wings were as before, only larger and she had grown a crown of black rocks made apparently of obsidian. Her nails were long enough to drag on the floor, and looked wickedly sharp. She was also naked, and her tattoo was gone even though it had been present for her transformed form before.

“Careful, do not let her touch y-“

Brennus was cut off when a wave of raw pleasure slammed into him – and the rest of the group.

His last thought before his mind went into overdrive was that, apparently, her power had been enhanced by the transformation.

He saw – barely – how Amazon and Gilgul charged forward, both unaffected by the aura. But Succubus had either been holding back a lot before or she had gotten a lot more upgrades than just to her appearance and power, because she engaged them in a fluid dance, despite her large wings, her claws flying around, blocking Amazon’s punches and Gilgul’s spearstrikes while scraping over their armours.

F-f-foc- He could not. His mind felt like it was filling up with a heavy, warm goo, shutting d-

<Neural disruption detected. Survival ability has been compromised.>

Eudocia’s electronic voice barely penetrated into his mind. Then, he felt a jab, and then a shock, but they were dim, muted.

<Unable to restore function through non-damaging electrocution. Initiating Override Protocol.>

A string of commands ran down his visor, blurred by his unfocused eyes into incomprehension. What do they mean? He could not remember.

<Armour Control Override complete. Assuming Direct Control..>

Suddenly, his armour started to move of its own, charging forward towards the fight ahead. She drew the humming sword and a stun baton and leapt onto the Succubus’ back, slashing horizontally with his sword to cut through her neck.

Succubus reacted faster than she had expected, though, and she whirled around and swiped her claws at his airborne form. She could not tell whether or not they could penetrate his armour, but she was not going to risk her father’s health here – she fired his hip-mounted grappling hooks while simultaneously calling in all the ravens he had kept just outside the tunnel.

Twisting about in the air as the hooks attached themselves to the ceiling further down the tunnel and reeled in, she flew over and past her quarry, but missed her chance at striking her.

However, she did distract her just long enough for Amazon to hit her knees with a swiping kick from behind, shattering them audibly.

As Succubus screamed out loud, Gilgul stepped up and plunged her spear into her chest, right through her heart. Once more, it cut into its target as if it was butter. As Succubus fell to her shattered knees, her own weight split her throat and head on the unnaturally sharp blade, killing her.

And just like that, her psychic attack vanished.

Brennus shook his head as Eudocia returned control of his armour to him.

Phasma screamed and ran over to the dead villain, kneeling down and craddling the two halves of her head in her lap, holding them together… a futile attempt, as she was already beginning to decay, her body slowly breaking down.

“Nononononononononono…” she whispered, as if it could stop it, trying to hold her together.

“We… ugh… we need to go. Quickly,” said Rising Tide as he recovered from the assault. “No time.”

Brennus nodded as his ravens caught up to them and flew past, deeper into the tunnel – only for the front mass to be obliterated just as they saw a trio of monsters approach, one in a deranged set of glowing power armour.

“Enemies ahead! Three of Hastur’s victims!” he said.

The others got ready for battle, but Amazon cut in, “No! We need to push through, get to the throne!”

They all looked at each other, then Rising Tide spoke up. “Alright, we split. Some attack the three ahead of us and create an opening for the rest to break through. I’ll stay, fight. My power needs time to build up, I’m better off fighting those here so I’ll be stronger later. Remember the floor plans I gave you, and you’ll have no trouble finding the throne.”

“Bakeneko, Tyche, Outstep – you support him!” ordered Amazon. “The rest, follow me!”

And with that, she took off, not giving anyone a chance to dispute her orders.

<Bakeneko, please hand your piece of the S.M.O.G. to Gilgul,> said Brennus as he took off after Amazon.

* * *

They ran down the tunnel towards the trio of monsters. Just when they came into sight – a man made of rough stone, a crab-like woman in contrived armour and a thing like a Chinese dragon crossed with a frog and a few thousand worms – Rising Tide, Tyche and Bakeneko surged forward, the latter morphing into a matching dragon-shape for the other monster and slamming into it.

Outstep surged forward too, attaching explosives to the backs of the enemies, knocking them into their quarries before they could react.

The rest took the opening and simply jumped through and raced down the tunnel, leaving the fight behind.

Brennus decided to take the chance to ask Prisca something he should have asked way earlier (but had been distracted from). <Gilgul, I have switched us into a private channel,> he said.

<Roger, Brennus. I hope you didn’t get hurt earlier?> she asked in return.

<No, I am fine.>

<How did you do that, anyway? Resisting her attack like that…>

<That was me!> Eudocia chimed in. <We have protocols for that. I can override his armour if he’s been disabled.>

<Cool. Always prepare.>

<Yes. Speaking of which… ‘Assuming Direct Control’? Really?>

<What? I always wanted to say that. It’s not like you don’t make quotes like that too, father.>

<Stop calling me ‘father’.>

<Yes father.>

Prisca barely restrained her giggle.

He sighed and focused on his inquiry again as they reached a locked door.

“I’ll take ca-” he began to say, but Gilgul plunged her spear’s blade into the steel door and cut a hole into it, kicking it into the next room.

“Done.”

<I was going to do that…>

<Hush now.>

They went into the room beyond – the ‘reception area’, really more of a hub from which several hallways led to the other parts of the base.

They were awaited by four more monsters.

Brennus did not waste time looking at them and instead sent his ravens in – all the ones he had left, save for two he kept on his shoulders, a swarm of forty – to distract them.

Luckily, Amazon already had a plan: “Brennus, Gilgul and Tartsche, go on and try to distract Hastur and her people. The rest of us will take care of these!”

“Yes madam!” replied the three of them.

“Polymnia, take the S.M.O.G., just in case!” said Brennus as he threw his piece of the gun to her, followed by Gilgul doing the same. They ran past the four monsters as the others descended upon them.

Following the floorplans he had uploaded into his HUD, Brennus pointed out the right corridor to take and the ran into it.

<Gilgul, quick question. I should have asked earlier, but have you noticed any limit to your form? A range, a time limit…> he finally asked as they heard the sounds of battle behind them.

<Uh, it’s kind of strange. I have this… this kind of charge. Anything I do burns through it, a little. Moving, just a little bit. Flying, more. Striking, depends on how sharp my weapon needs to be. So if I tried to cut something too tough, I’d probably burn through the entire charge, maybe.>

<Interesting. How much do you have left?>

She sounded a little worried. <Not much. Cutting through BigShit and Succubus took quite a bit out of me. And I think I didn’t manage to manifest fully charged, for some reason. Nor do I know if I can simply respawn once I run out, or if I have to recharge first.>

He nodded absentmindedly. <You seem to already know a lot about it.> They rounded another corner.

<It’s… it’s like I always knew. Or perhaps like an instinct. I just know this.>

Behind them, he could see the fight heat up as more and more of his ravens were taken out trying to attack or at least distract the enemies. One of them was manipulating gravity strong enough to smack Amazon around.

<We will have to look deeper into this once we have some free time.>

They reached the door to the storage room and Gilgul stepped forward, cutting into it.

<Oh, I have a very different idea as to how to spend our free time…>

* * *

Beyond, a large room full of crates and various memorabilia opened up. It was as large as any gym hall, with crates stacked neatly to the left all along the long wall, and several display cases along the right long wall… with one of them smashed open to reveal a massive, ornate (too ornate) throne with what looked like a mutant satellite dish on the top.

Hastur was sitting on the Super-Tele Throne, wearing a skintight black suit that was connecting her to the throne by way of various wires. Her face was uncovered, free for all to see.

And her power did not work, as Brennus had already switched to the delayed vision mode. Gilgul and Tartsche seemed unaffected, too and the latter heftd his friend’s spellgun.

All he saw now was a cute, but not exceptional girl with mediterranean features, olive skin and messy dark brown hair that really needed a good cut.

“Step off the fancy chair, Miss!” he shouted.

As if that is going to convince her.

The insane teenager turned her head towards them: “Good God, you guys never give up, don’t ya? Why won’t you just look at me!?”

Her companions – one of them was Panthera Avis, the other two looked respectively like a half-machine half-zombie and a snarling gerbil – turned towards them, interposing themselves between the throne and them.

“I don’t know how you got past my friends out there, but I kept the best for last! Nathaniel, Jerry, Lara, kill them already! Especially Brennus, I want him dead! Frederic, keep working on the throne!”

Of the three monsters, Avis and the gerbil charged forward, while the cyborg zombie turned back towards the throne which, as they could now see, was connected to several exposed powerlines in the wall by a series of thick cables.

She called out to three, but only two are attacking. Means there is another one nearby.

Apparently, Gilgul and Tartsche both figured that out, too. The latter whirled around on the spot as a centipede-like monster burst ouf of the ground behind them, charging… straight into Tartsche’s line of fire.

The spellgun fired thrice, twice into the gullet of the monster and once in between its human eyes, causing ice to violently expand from the point of impact.

Thrashing violently, it fell to the ground, its charge interrupted, as it almost burst from the two iceblocks that formed halfway down its long form – it looked like a centipede with a woman’s legs instead of the usual insectoid legs.

But Brennus had little time to take in its appearance as Panthera Avis blinked into position right in front of him, before he could even draw his sword or his baton.

Ah cr-

He was smacked right in the chest before he could even finish that thought and thrown back into the hallway behind him – but not before his ravens could take off of his shoulders and start pecking at his numerous eyes.

Brennus rolled with the punch, taking the edge off of it and landing on his feet, even as he noticed, to his delight, that the dodge protocolls were working – his ravenbots were evading Panthera Avis’ clumsy strikes and slowly blinding him.

Tartsche was standing tall, unconcerned about the charging gerbil-like beast as he aimed his long, ornate rifle at it, calmly taking aim and pulling the trigger only once before the monster reached him.

The contrived rifle – somday, Brennus was going to ask Spellgun how it supposedly worked, even if the answer might give him a headache – did not even flinch backwards, as its wielder was about as movable as a mountain range, but it spewed a massive gout of fire, and then a tiny glowing projectile shot into the gerbil-thing’s gut, piercing the dirty, coarse fur.

The gerbil-monster screamed aloud as it flew backwards, but its screams were cut short when the bullet exploded in its gut, almost severing it in half.

And just like that, Brennus could no longer focus on that as he had to deal with his own quarry, who had just destroyed one of the three ravens and was just refocusing his remaining eyes on him.

I know what is coming next.

He pulled his stun batons in a reversed grip and stabbed backwards the very moment Avis vanished from sight.

The tips stabbed into hard, unyielding flesh and discharged their entire reserve of electricity into his body, causing a multitude of screams from his many mouths.

He saw Prisca be attacked by a centipede-like woman with scythe-like elongated arms, who was rising out of the floor as if it was water, and retreating into it to evade strikes. Even though Gilgul’s blade cut into the concrete easily, her quarry moved fast enough to capitalise on the loss of line of sight to evade and strike out with her own blades, though she could no more penetrate Gilgul’s armour than the golden knight could hit her.

Steering his ravens to dive in on Panthera Avis, he spoke into his com-system, <Gilgul, I am going to distract your enemy. Take out Hastur’s throne, fast.>

<Roger roger.>

He swung around on the spot, kicking Avis in the gut just below where his torso split open to reveal all the twisted faces, throwing him back. As he swung back in response, he used the motion to throw a grenade at the centipede-woman.

<Grenade>

Gilgul reacted, flying straight up just in time for the grenade to detonate. It was a flashbang and a strong one, enough to knock out anyone without some serious protection – which the woman obviously lacked, as she reeled from the detonation.

Tartsche, of course, was utterly safe, Gilgul’s protection also held up and Brennus would never be throwing a grenade that could so easily harm him.

The gerbil-thing, already blown halfway to pieces, reeled from the explosion, as did Avis behind him.

“Nononono, you gotta stop them stop them stop them!” screamed Hastur on her throne, her power letting her recover instantly from the attack.

It was of little use as Gilgul flew straight at her, aiming her lance at the sitting girl, ignoring the contriver working on the throne.

“Hey, bitch!” she screamed. “Here comes some payback!”

Ignoring the attacks of the contriver-zombie, who was pelting her with what seemed to be shotgun-blasts, she plunged her lance into Hastur’s chest – and the throne behind her.

“Nononononononono!” screamed the insane teenager before Gilgul tore the lance upward, cutting cleanly through Hastur and the throne, spliting them both in half.

“And here’s some seconds for you!” She brought the lance down at an angle, splitting the already regenerated Hastur from her left shoulder to her right hip, further demolishing the throne.

“Noooooooooooooo!” Hastur jumped off the throne as it began to glow, spitting streams of sparks as the catastrophic damage caused a meltdown.

Before anyone could do much, the throne detonated in a scarlet fireball that threw everyone but Tartsche away.

The contriver-zombie, Hastur, Gilgul, the centipede-woman and the Gerbil monster were engulfed in the conflagration, while Brennus smacked into Avis’ body and the latter smacked into the wall outside the door with a sickening crunch. His ravens were wiped out.

<Prisca!>

The light vanished, revealing an unharmed Tartsche – and an unharmed Gilgul, too, floating above the crater where the throne had stood.

“I’m fine!” she shouted. “My communicator is gone, th- dodge!” She suddenly threw her lance at him, and Brennus just barely rolled to the side – evading Avis’ two-handed strike.

The lance impaled him easily, the crossguard beneath the blade catching and throwing him back to the wall, transfixing him.

Brennus saw Hastur, already recovered, run deeper into the trophy hall.

“Tartsche, with me!” he shouted and ran.

“Comin’ coming!” the other boy said and broke off his stance, running after Brennus as he darted past him, chasing Hastur.

Then, Gilgul screamed, “Tartsche, drop!

Brennus turned his head and just barely saw Avis, bleeding heavily, appear behind Tartsche and punch the boy in the back, throwing him across the room.

Shit.

Avis’ did not have time to follow up, though, as Gilgul cut him from his left shoulder down to his left hip. Not that it was enough to kill him, but it certainly got his attention.

I can not kill Hastur by myself, without Tartsche’s help. But he could restrain her long enough for Tartsche to catch up to him. His power might allow them to put her down.

He gave chase, and followed Hastur into another hallway, being far faster than her even without his armour.

With it, he caught up to her in seconds and tackled her down.

“Ow! Meanie!” she gasped as he turned her around, kneeling atop her.

“It is over, Hastur,” he told her calmly.

“Not unless you find a way to kill me, sugar. ‘Cause I’m not gonna stop, ever,” she said with something like pride in her voice.

“Why not?”

“Because I want everyone to see me. See my face and love me. Just like the others…”

He looked down at her, unsure how to feel. She looked… ecstatic. Not concerned in the least.

“What is your name, if I may ask? Your real name, I mean.”

She looked stunned for a moment. “Ciara… but why do you want to know?” she asked.

“Because I think the name Hastur is stupid. Besides, you already know my real name, so it is only fair. May I ask you a few questions?”

“Uhh… sure…” she said, seemingly unable to deal with simple politeness.

“What was your trigger? The reason why you manifested?” he asked.

“Why do you want to know?”

“Curiosity. I would like to know what made you into what you are.”

Her face suddenly turned serious, even wistful. “There once was a girl in a little village by a mountain,” she began. “That girl had a friend. They were bestest buds since childhood. More like sisters, closer even.” She stopped, blinking.

He waited until she continued.

“They grew up together, went to school together. Then, her friend found this boy. And what a boy he was, such a catch. He was smart, and witty, and nice and pretty and athletic and even rich, not that she cared. And he was in love with her as much as she was in love with him. And the girl was happy for her friend and supported them. Covered for them, telling their parents they were with her when they were out together, stuff like that. She didn’t mind, after all, they were both her friends.” She took a deep breath. “But as time passed, that stupid girl got a little jealous. She’d had boyfriends of her own, but no one half as close as her friend and the boy were. Worse yet, none of them looked at her the way the boy looked at her friend. Now, you need to know that her friend and the boy weren’t always peachy with each other. They fought, they screamed, sometimes they even broke up. Never for long, but they did… and one day, the stupid little girl thought she’d try and tell him how she felt… how she felt about him. She went to the boy a few days after he’d broken up with her friend again and told him how she felt…” She stopped.

“And?” he asked, suspecting several scenarios.

“He was really nice to her,” she said, taking a sobbing breath. “Told her that he liked her a lot, but not that way. That they could be friends, but no more. He still wanted to get back together with her friend, after all, and take it further even.” She sniffed.

He had not expected that particular development.

“But then… even though he was so nice, he still wouldn’t look at her… look at her the way he looked at her friend. All she wanted… all I wanted was for someone, anyone to look at me the way he looked at herrrrrrrrr.” She began to sob, what little composure she had had gone in an instant. Then she started to… giggle. “Now that’s over. Everyone will look at me the way he looked at her… everyone…”

“How did he look at her?” he asked.

That stunned her. “What?”

“It is a simple question. How did he look at her? Can you describe it?”

“Well, he… he looked at her face and he… uhh…” Her eyes widened in horror. “I… I don’t remember…” she whispered as her eyes overflowed with tears. “I don’t remember… I don’t remember the way he looked at her. Why can’t I remember!?” She screamed the last part, throwing herself around trying to get away… before she collapsed, the strength leaving her. “I can’t remember how he looked at her… I killed them all, and I can’t remember…”

“Ciara.”

She looked up at him.

“What happened afterwards? After you used your power on the village people?”

“I… they came. The companions. They locked me up. Killed all my friends. Sent me here, so I’d be set free in New Lennston.”

“The Companions of the Future? Why? What did they want?”

“A diversion. Just like the attack on the protectorate. I heard them talk about that a few times, when they weren’t somehow shielding themselves from my power. They also had other things planned, but I couldn’t find out. They know how to proof places from me.”

Holy shit, what kind of conspiracy is this? “Do you know what they wanted to distract people from?”

She shook her head. “I only know that potentially causing a world war is a bonus. They are looking to do something… they want to wake something they call ‘the Sleeper’. It’s kind of a slogan of theirs – ‘The Sleeper must wake’.”

“That sounds… painfully generic. Do you have any idea what this sleeper is?”

“No… but I can look, if you want. Not like I have anything else to do.”

“Please do.”

She nodded and closed her eyes. “Hmm, alright, looking, looking… there, there’s a place! In the pacific, a big floating city. The Sleeper is below… I can almost see it… deep, deep… oh, that’s it!” She suddenly smiled wide. Almost grinned. Her eyes flew open. “I can see it! It’s beautiful, so beautiful, I can see it all o-” Her breath caught as her eyes widened.

“What? Ciara, what’s happening?” he asked, worried. What the hell was going on there?

“It can see me! It’s asleep but it can s-“

Without warning, without a sign, without her even changing her expression, there was a crack in the air, as her whole body suddenly froze solid, ice-spikes erupting from her clothing and skin, her eyes cracking audibly.

Brennus was thrown off of her as he felt the cold through his suit, down to his bones.

He picked himself up from the ground and looked at her – her body was in the exact same position it had been before, only frozen, iced over, the ice covered in slush which was already running off, turning into cold water.

What the fuck?

* * *

“And she just said that it saw her and then she… died? Nothing else?” Widard asked, bewildered.

“Yes. I just showed you my recording, did I not?” replied Brennus, as the rest of both his and the junior hero team looked on. Gilgul was missing though, as her charge had run out (though she had only told him that. The others thought she had just left after the fight). The Dark was there, too – the fight at Kansas City was over, and apparently Memento, having reappeared after his absence during the Osaka fight, had managed to disrupt Desolation-in-Light’s powers often enough to make her lose interest, or whatever it was that made her go away.

Brennus elaborated, “Going through the recordings, I think that her body temperature was remotely lowered to extreme enough depths to flash-freeze her, which caused an implosion as the air around her condensed into liquid, drawing in the surrounding air to fill the gap, followed by an explosion of air as the liquified air mostly turned back into gas by absorbing the surrounding heat. Also, it damn near froze off several pieces of me.”

The others looked quite worried now. That kind of power, apparently used from around the world, was major bad news.

He, however, looked at the Dark. “Sir, do you have any idea what this Sleeper is, or what the Companions want with it?”

The Dark, having stood at the windows with his back to the rest of them, turned to look at them. “I know very well what it is, indeed.” He raised a hand, as if to scratch his chin, not that that could be seen underneath the shadows that wrapped around him.

“What? What is it?” asked an impatient Amazon.

“None of your business and way out of your league. Best you all forget you ever heard this,” he replied simply, not the least bit intimidated by her attitude.

“By God, if you’re going to screw us over here, I-” she began, but he cut her off with only a look.

I so need to take some lessons from this guy.

“Watch your language, young lady. I’ve been playing this game since long before your father was even born. And besides, if you can ask Gwen, too. She knows as much about it as I do… though her answer will be the same as mine, I assure you.”

He turned to look at the juniors and Brennus’ team. “To you, my dear children, let me say this: I am very impressed by your performance. I compliment you all, and hope to see more of you in the future.” He nodded his head, if barely, towards them. “But now I must leave you, and take care of business.”

And with that, he sank into his own shadow, vanishing.

They were left staring at where he had stood, more scared than flattered.

“Why do I think this ain’t good for us?” asked Tyche, who had her left arm in a sling.

“Because we apparently just got the attention of the King of Supervillains,” replied Hecate, who was wrapped in an emergency blanket to cover up her costume, which had been torn to the point of indecency, apparently. Again.

<And I thought my day started weird.>

Everyone else replied, “Amen.”

* * *

Basil walked up to his house, feeling quite tired. They had discussed the whole operation, along with some unsettling news about Desolation-in-Light’s attack on Kansas City. But now he was just tired and wanted to see Amy again – she had survived Kansas, as Amazon had grudgingly pointed out.

Can not blame her for hoping Amy would come to harm.

Aye, it’s her own fault, mate.

He mulled that over as he reached the door – and then his phone rang in the melody he had set for e-mails.

Taking a quick look, he found a single sentence in the mail:

I’ll be watching you.

Followed by the image of a dragon biting its own tail, circling a W.

He put the phone away again. Well, that is not foreboding at all.

But he would worry about that later. Now, he opened the door, stepping in.

Just as he closed it and took a breath to call Amy, he was suddenly caught by an invisible force, throwing him up.

He smacked into the ceiling, face down, arms and legs sprawled.

Amy stepped out of the kitchen into the hallway, hair wet and dressed in a bathrobe. And looking pissed.

“We need to have a talk, little brother.”

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B006 Big Game Hunt (Part 2)

Okinawa was sinking.

It began slowly, barely perceptible at first, but soon one could see the island rumble, throwing up waves around its coast.

And then you could see it slowly sinking, even as the newslady grew frantic, and heroes and villains together did their best to slow the collapse down and evacuate those inhabitants who had yet to be evacuated.

“Why the fuck is the island sinking!? She didn’t use any uber-power before she vanished, right?” asked Dalia with some exasperation.

Basil squatted down, folding his fingers in front of is face to think. Then he looked up at the video feeds again. “The power she used to twist the buildings – it must have reached downwards just as quickly. Judging from her position… I’d say it reached about one-thousand-and-nine-hundred-and-fifty metres into the ground… more than enough to compromise the foundations of the island. It just took some time for the damage to spread further and have it break down.”

They both fell silent, just in time for them to see Fleur use her power to try and delay the collapse, her ‘garden’ spreading out much like DiL’s ‘Desolation Field’ did, a sphere formed by a green-and-pink haze.

And once again, we see the difference between an S-Class metahuman and us mere mortals, thought Basil with some sour grapes in his thoughts. Sometimes, he thought he’d have preferred to just get a straightforward superpower like that of Fleur or Lung Moo or Sky High or the Boogeyman or even Defender, boring though the latter’s power might be.

Tears in reality opened above and below water from which giant, no, titanic trees emerged, shoring up the crumbling foundation of the island.

“Doesn’t look like she can stop it,” said Dalia.

“No way. Holding up an entire island like that? Weisswald may have been able to do that, create enough trees to stabilise it. But Fleur is far, far more limited than he was – for one, her trees are not permanent, they cannot exist outside of her ‘garden’.”

“A shame,” she replied, without her usual snark at his exposition. “It’s funny, though, don’t you think? How they all use spheres?”

His gaze turned from the news feed to look at her. “What do you mean?” he asked, momentarily confused… then he started making the connections.

She continued. “DiL, the Savage Six, Fleur, Defender, they all…”

“They all work with territories.” He stood up from his squatting position and went to the closest keyboard, moving the news feeds aside to the left end of the screen to call up several older recordings.

DiL’s Desolation Field at Okinawa, of course. Followed by Fleur’s Garden, Defender’s… Defender Field (he had no imagination), the Boogeyman’s Metaphobia, Sky High’s Heroic Wind (he had too much imagination), Heretic’s Pocket Dimensions (the latest one had stolen Osaka two days ago – Japan had no luck lately, with the Six in Osaka, DiL in Okinawa and the Kaiju attack on Tokyo)…

“Not spheres, that is just the form, the shape… they all have territories, fields within which their powers work… and not just them. Lady Light’s Aura, Cataclysm’s Domino Field. Most god tier metahumans with outwardly aimed powers have effects that evoke the sense of a territory, an area around them which they can affect with their powers.”

“You think there’s a reason for that?”

He nodded, writing these thoughts down. “There has to be. There are so many themes that are repeated among metahumans, and this one seems to be another one.”

He looked directly at her, throwing her a wry look. “You really sell yourself short, usually. You are far more perceptive than one would think from your usual behaviour.”

She snorted, then smiled. “Don’t tell Liki, she’d have a heart attack.”

“Ha, tru- You call her Liki?”

“Drives her nuts. She’s so easy,” she explained with her trademark leering grin.

He just shook his head. Mostly because he realized that she’d just managed to distract him from the tragedy onscreen, if only shortly. And she might not have noticed it. Full of surprises, she is.

They both turned back to the newsfeeds, just in time to see a close-up of Fleur.

“That chick is so hot,” commented Dalia.

Basil had to admit that Fleur was very pleasing to look at. She was tall, even for a metahuman, somewhere between one-eight and one-ninety, with fair but slightly tanned skin, bright green hair, light pink eyes and an elf-like, slender body (and pointed ears). She didn’t so much wear clothes as she had flowers and leaves grow around her body, winding and twisting to form a dress that ended at her mid-thigh in front, but hung down to her ankles on the back, and exposed a good deal of her back. She had more flowers grow in and out of her hair, but wore no mask (only some subtle make-up) and was barefoot as well.

Currently, she was atop a piece of rock floating above Okinawa, together with the metahuman responsible for levitating said rock – her younger brother, Terre (a legacy hero, the fifth of that name).

“She is good-looking, yes. Also, did you notice that her trees a-“

“Oh God, you see an essentially naked super-hottie and you think about her trees? You really are hopeless – poor little Prisca…”

He snorted at her.

* * *

About half an hour later, Okinawa was gone, sunk beneath the waters of the sea.

According to what little information was available at the time – the situation was quite chaotic – more than sixty percent of the civilians on Okinawa had been evacuated in time. The rest…

Also, as was usual for a DiL-Attack, the secondary consequences were often far worse than the initial ones (barring Caracas and a few other notable disasters). Fleur, later boosted by Lady Light and supported by the Dark, as well as aided by several hydro- and terrakinetics, had slowed the collapse of the island, allowing it to sink beneath the waters without causing a tidal wave… only for the support of the island crumbling almost instantly the moment their endurance was exhausted, the moment their powers failed.

The resulting tidal wave had already devastated the Ryoko and Okinawa Islands, and would shortly hit the Japanese, Korean and Chinese mainlands. Worse yet, though, was the chain reaction started by this – three more islands had sustained critical damage to their foundations and threatened to collapse, too.

“This… this is one of the really bad ones, isn’t it?” asked Dalia, her tone subdued as she watched the images on the screen.

Basil, once again squatting, his forehead on his folded hands, replied without looking up: “Yes. And she did not even have to build her power up – she just used what she had intelligently.”

How? She’s not smart, that’s supposed to be her only real weakness!”

He had thought about that, and was pretty sure he had figured it out. “Invulnerability, flight and the devouring light that sticks to her hair and nails are her standard powers. There is also a theory that she has another permanent power, some manner of enhanced perception maybe, but her immunity to perception effects has prevented any deeper analysis. Apart from those, she usually has three powers, one offensive, one defensive and one for utility. Only, during the final phase, she only had that one offensive power, the matter animation effect. Or so it seemed.”

“You think she had another perception power, stacked onto the one she’s supposed to always have? And what was the defensive one?”

He shook his head, again without looking up. “She does mix it up sometimes. And we know from Gloom Glimmer, who seems to have an almost identical base power, that perception effects take a tremendous amount of potential to manifest. And that animation effect was far more intense from the very beginning than her usual offensive effects. She probably split the potential that usually goes into added defense between offense and utility.”

They both fell silent, watching the tragedy unfold.

* * *

An hour later…

Dalia had gone to sleep before school (she needed far less sleep than a normal human, though she was not sleepless), chosing to stay at the lair and sleep in what was supposed to be the emergency bedroom, but was quickly becoming her bedroom.

Basil himself went back to work – no reason to stop work on his new grappling hook system. Until he found a way to fly reliably (and without half a ton of extra equipment), swinging around the city was the most efficient (well, most fun) mode of transportation.

It took him another two hours of work. It was not that he had to invent anything anymore, it just was a lot of very fine, very delicate work he could not outsource. The bane of every gadgeteer, they had phenomenal technology at their disposal, but most of them could neither explain their work to others, nor find a way for easy mass production – even building a manufacturing machine from scratch rarely worked out (you’d need a speciality just for that to make that alone work).

Maybe that could explain why no one had built a space elevator yet. Basil at least had already figured out how, he just could not work out an execution of the plan that would not require him to work on it for years by himself.

Of course, the fact that he saw his designs in pictographs made it difficult to translate it into something normal people could work with. And as far as he knew, it was worse for others – Hotrod was supposed to see his designs all as stylized gears and other machine parts and Polymnia had once commented that she heard her designs as melodies and symphonies.

It would be really interesting to learn how Sovereign or this Macian perceived their designs.

By the time he was done, he had to fight to stay awake, but the new system was complete – well, half of it – and he still had to go to school. So he jumped under the shower, dressed, grabbed his backpack and ran off to take the bus.

* * *

We need laws to protect children from school.

He was walking into the hospital as he thought that, on his way to visit Prisca. Thankfully, with his power, he didn’t have to put any effort into the science classes, and everything else was quite trivial for him. But still, he had not slept for more than fifty hours now, and he did not think he would sleep anytime soon, either – too many ideas, too much to do.

If the ‘Blazing Sun’ was actually the manifestation or personification of his power, than he could finally understand why it had that name. More and more, he felt like there was a light behind his eyes, pushing, burning, illuminating. The only way to alleviate it was to use it. To make something.

So, after he met with Prisca, he’d finish the second half of his new grappling hook system, then catch up on sleep. No patrol tonight for him. He needed to recover.

I wish I did not need to sleep anymore.

He reached Prisca’s room – and heard giggling from inside. Two girls, giggling. He couldn’t remember hearing Prisca giggle before.

Not quite thinking about it, he just pushed the door open without knocking. “Hi, Prisca, who is your… friend…”

Prisca was looking at him, surprised, in her usual position on her bed, and with the tablet he had constructed for her in her lap.

The second set of giggles cut off abruptly. It had come from the tablet.

“Eudocia…” he growled, closing the door behind him. This had not been a part of his plan.

<Uh, hi dad. How are you doing? You don’t look too good, maybe you should go home and sleep… forget about everything…>

Despite only having a rather monotone, electronically generated voice, she still managed to sound like a little child caught trying to snitch cookies from the cookie jar.

Prisca gave him her best attempt at a cute smile, but he had practice dealing with those looks. “Don’t be angry at her, I tricked her into revealing herself,” she said when she saw him scowl.

“Quiet, please.” He pulled out a few gadgets and checked the room for eavesdropping equipment. Then he set up a white noise generator, that should confuse most mundane recording equipment. “All right, now I know that Eudocia is smart enough to not be tricked easily, especially in regards to revealing her true nature. I am not angry, not really, just tired. So please, just explain.”

<Well, we were playing a game, and I was also watching two movies she’d given me…>

“And I asked her a few questions about them…”

<And I answered as thoroughly as I could…>

“Which I found strange, because she answered like a human, not a machine…”

<So she started asking questions about that, and well, I didn’t want to outright lie at her, so…>

“I kept needling her until she couldn’t evade my questions anymore, and she told me the truth.”

Basil sighed, sitting down on a stool.

“Well, so much for the experiment,” he complained, rubbing his temples. He was really too tired for this. “No matter. Just do not tell anyone about her, alright?”

Prisca nodded, probably understanding the situation.

<Sorry Father.>

“Do not call me father.”

<Alright, father.>

Prisca giggled while Basil groaned. Then she pouted, even though her thin, cracked lips did not lend themselves to it.

“So, why does my boyfriend come in here, when he forgot our last two dates, and just talks about a computer?”

<Hey!>

He flinched. “Sorry, sorry.” Standing up and bending forward, he pressed his lips onto hers, a short, but passionate kiss.

When he pulled back, he smirked at her. “But I am pretty sure I forgot only yesterday’s date.”

She frowned at him. “No, we were supposed to meet on Wednesday as well, for movie night.”

Now it was his turn to frown. “Really? I honestly can not remember.” He tried to remember, but he really couldn’t tell what he had been doing at the time. “Actually, I can not remember what I did at that time, at all.”

Now she looked concerned. “Why could that be? You never forget anything!”

He shook his head, confused. “No. I just have a better memory than most. And I have been…” Again, he shook his head. “No matter. I will deal with whatever is going on myself. Let us enjoy ourselves for now, alright?”

“Are you sure? This sounds pretty serious.”

He nodded. “I will handle it, promise.”

She nodded, too, conceding the point. Then, he pulled the stool over next to her and sat down.

* * *

1:12 AM

He looked down at the restaurant, then shook his head. What? Where am I?

Assessing the situation, he got bits and pieces of his memory. Full armor. He looked at the two boxes at his hips. Full new grappling hook system. Stun gun, batons.

He looked around. Tyche and Hecate where to his left and right, each with full equipment, and currently using binoculars to scout the place out.

Right. The Black Panthers. They’ve been moving a lot of merchandise and capital lately. Hit a minor hideout to get info on them.

What did he know of them again? Black Panthers. Started as a violent pro-civil rights group. Lost traction when King survived his assassination by manifesting metahuman powers. Devolved over the years to a simple, if powerful crime gang – not even exclusive to people of African-American descent anymore. Current leader supposed to be a major morpher, but no other details known.

And they were going to declare war on them tonight.

We really need a teamname.