B012.7 Born At Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was still glad about every bit of added support.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love you, too. Be safe.

Look who’s talking.

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

“Huh?” he asked, momentarily confused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That… looks big,” Dalia commented lamely.

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

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

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

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

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B012.3 Born At Sleep

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Melody stepped out of her room in her new work clothes – a loose, bright pink jumpsuit Irene had bought her as a present, a few days ago – and went towards her workshop.

She’d just showered thoroughly, after having spent most of the afternoon after that mortifying scene in front of the television demonstrating her dancing skills, of all things!

It was easy to forget, since he seemed to have a say in damn near everything around here, but Patrick Patrid was not only supernaturally creepy, he was also the Public Relations manager of the American United Heroes’ divisions. All of them. Primarily New Lennston, but he really did have a say nearly everywhere in the Western hemisphere.

That was a lot of PR to work on. And they got to bear the brunt of his attention. Joy oh joy.

In this case, it had meant that he felt it his duty to make absolutely sure each junior hero was a skilled enough dancer to not embarrass themselves (and by extension, the United Heroes, as he said) during the reception.

Furthermore, it was evident that Patrick Patrid had some very high standards when it came to determining who’s skilled enough, and who isn’t.

The result was that they’d spent three hours trying to convince him that they could dance in a satisfactory fashion, and everyone other than Aimihime, of all people, had failed to do so (apparently, she had learned how to dance from a friend and his older sister). Melody had, once upon a time, taken dance lessons (her mother had argued that, if she could not carry a tune in a bucket, she could at least dance to one), but that had been a long time ago, and she had not practiced since getting her new and improved (and far, far more top-heavy) body.

In the end, he’d stuck the lot of them with dancing lessons. Every morning and evening for the weekend, and the morning before the gala, too, for everyone but Aimihime (who’d participate with Goudo, anyway) and Irene.

Melody shuddered. Hopefully, Patrid wouldn’t actually supervise those lessons, because God knew she’d felt dirty enough already, dancing and sweating in front of his criticising eyes. It wasn’t even like he was actually doing anything creepy, or saying anything creepy, or even looking at her in anything but a perfectly professional way, yet she’d felt like she’d been forced to dance naked in front of strangers.

And then there was that other issue – Irene. After her little explosion, she’d gone quiet, barely talked and left as soon as Patrid had announced the demonstration.

She hadn’t even talked to Melody yet, which was worrying her – awkward as it could be, she was pretty sure that she was the only real friend Irene had, the only one close to her age she really hung around with outside of the occasional group meeting. So if she didn’t come to her for comfort, as she otherwise would, then…

I hope she went to her mom and not her dad, she thought quietly to herself, passing by Spellgun’s workshop on the way to hers, walking through the bright, clean white hallways of the building they all toiled away in. Even if Lady Light is working most of the time… she’d take time off for her daughter, surely.

Her thoughts were interrupted when she finally reached her workshop – and found that someone was inside.

It took her all of a microsecond to switch from residual discomfort and worry to utter outrage, as she touched her hand to the panel next to the door, opening it up.

When she saw the guy in the grease-stained jeans overall and black shirt, looking over her work on one of her tables, she pulled out her vocaliser and typed angrily into it.

<Hey, what’s the big idea!?>, she shouted, making him flinch. <Hands off my work!>

The man turned around to look at her, cocking one eyebrow. He was an African-American of middle age, somewhere in his mid-thirties, with some impressive scars on his face, hazel-coloured eyes and not a single hair she could see anywhere.

He blinked at the sight of the curvy girl in the bright pink jumpsuit and brown hair.

“Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a jumpsuit like that, right?” he said instead of explaining himself. “Did you accidentally drop it into a vat of neon paint?”

She blushed a bit, but kept frowning at him, stopping once she was just five feet away from him. <It’s a present, it’s none of your business and what are you doing here!?>

He shrugged, averting his eyes again to look onto her workbench, picking up a piece of machinery – Melody recognised it, it was a part of the pacemaker Brennus had cobbled together for Prisca Fion during the Hemogoblin incident; they’d salvaged it and she’d requested to be allowed a look at it – not that she’d ever been any good with medical equipment, but she was curious about Brennus’ speciality and she’d hoped they’d hold some kind of clue (that had been a bust).

“Not looking at your work yet, Miss,” he replied. “Just got curious about this. Looks very familiar, right?” He lifted up one of the sketches she’d made of the gadget’s inner workings.

She relaxed – a little bit. Still outraged, but at least this guy seemed to be a techie. And besides, if he was here, then he was a member of the United Heroes, or otherwise allowed to be – security was tight. <I don’t know what you mean,> she replied honestly, though she did put an edge into her voice. <Do you mean that you know Brennus’ work?>

“Brennus? The new kid in town?” he asked, surprised. “This is his work, right?”

She nodded.

“Interesting…” He turned away from her and studied the pieces on the table. The pacemaker. The breathing apparatus. The dialysis machine. A few other pieces. “Hmm. You have more of the boy’s work, right?”

She nodded and walked to wheel-rack holding numerous metal baskets. With the push of a button, she rotated the wheel until she could pick out one particular basket and carry it over to the workbench.

<Here, I still have this raven,> she said, lifting a tray out of the basket and laying it out in front of him. She’d disassembled the raven, having hoped to adapt the design for herself (having drones to spread her acoustics would be a huge advantage), but it had transpired that her power just didn’t want to play ball.

The man looked through the pieces with practiced motions, barely touching them as his eyes flicked back and forth quicker than any normal human’s should when taking in this kind of technology. Most of his attention went to the burned-out computer chips, too.

Is he a gadgeteer? He certainly looked like a gearhead. But who was he?

“Interesting, right?” he said, his eyes going back and forth between the raven and the medical equipment. “They have almost nothing in common.”

<I know that much,> she admitted. <I mean, I don’t know much about his other equipment, but these ravens contain completely different technology compared to the medical equipment he made. I don’t know what that means, though.>

“It means it’s not his, right?” he replied, taking a step back and crossing his arms in front of his chest. “I’ve read up on the new boy. He’s an electrical engineer, so to speak. Not a medic. Nor a medical technician.”

<Maybe he has more than one spec?> she asked, getting a little excited now. This was getting interesting, even though she was still pissed at having a stranger in her workshop without her permission! <I’ve heard of gadgeteers like that, who have two or even three completely different specialisations they work with.>

“Possible, but unlikely,” he replied, making a dismissive gesture with his hand. “It happens, but it’s so fantastically rare, pretty much every other theory is preferable, right? Besides, I recognise this work.” He pointed at the medical equipment. “To be precise, it’s based on the work of another gadgeteer.”

<How can you tell that? The design is very elegant, but it does not appear to be that exotic.>

“Ah, but the elegance in itself is a hint to the original designer,” he explained. “And I have seen medical equipment derived from this particular source before – the really interesting question, though, is where he got it from. She isn’t the kind of person who’d freely share her technology on Toybox. In fact, she’s one of the few people banned from it.”

Toybox. The big online community for gadgeteers from all over the world to talk shop, share ideas, designs, resources and more. Every gadgeteer worth their title made it a point to register with the central message board, if only so as to access their public schematics – works from gadgeteers which had been released, not into the public domain, but the Toybox domain by their originators, for every (or almost every – one could restrict their designs to verified heroes, vigilantes, villains or neutrals, or any of at least a score of other attributes) gadgeteer to use; she was pretty sure that Brennus’ ravens were largely based on designs he’d taken from Toybox, and he did have an account on it. And then there was all the other help one could get from the various threads…

To have a good reputation on Toybox was a hallmark of being a great gadgeteer. To be banned from it…

She frowned. <I only know of four gadgeteers banned from Toybox. Merkabah, Mechorror, Dusu and…>

“Atrocity,” he spat the name like a curse, and for a moment she thought he’d literally spit out. “This is based on her work, I’d bet my gearbox on it.”

How in God’s name did Brennus get his hands on Atrocity’s technology!? She remembered the hemogoblin incident, and Hemming talking about this ‘Macian’ they’d been looking for… was Brennus this person, after all? Or was he just connected to him, having gotten the technology from that mysterious stranger?

Or was it something completely different?

“Be that as it may,” the stranger continued, “I did not come here to talk conspiracy theories with you.”

She focused on him again. <Ah, may I finally know who I am talking to, then? And for what purpose?>

He smirked at her. “My name is Hotrod. You recently requested a custom vehicle, to use in conjunction with your equipment. I saw your proposal and decided it would be a waste not to actually base it on your audio-technology, so here I a-“

He was cut off when she threw her arms around him in a nearly bone-crushing hug, her worries about Brennus’ technology already forgotten.

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B012.2 Born At Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh no,” Irene whispered, suddenly subdued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A caption appeared as the cameraman stopped moving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oi, what the fuck!?” Jared shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irene sighed, but didn’t reply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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B010.8 Falling Hearts

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September 2, 2009

Sunny was cleaning the base together with Moony (he’d been allowed to choose her name!) while Father was tinkering with a new module for his armor when, suddenly, there was a girl in the room, sitting on one of the few empty spaces on father’s workbench.

“Hi!” she greeted as she stretched her legs.

Father pushed himself away on his rolling chair, shouting “D-03!”

Sunny and Moony – neither of whom was built for combat – simply dropped down to the floor as six turrets folded out of the ceiling. Two of them projected force-fields around Father, and around Sunny and Moony even as the others opened fire on the intruder.

He barely got a good look at the stranger – a teenage girl, slender with short, messy gold-blonde hair and green-blue eyes, wearing a grey-blue jacket over a white shirt with a matching tie and short pants that barely reached halfway down her thighs, topped by an old fashioned winged hat – before she kicked her (bare) feet and vanished, barely evading the four beams of focused light.

She reappeared at the other end of the workbench, looking exasperated. “Oy, hold your horses, Mister!” she shouted with a heavy accent that his linguistic engine placed as French Canadian. “I’m just a messenger!” she cried as she flipped off the bench, vanishing and reappearing within Father’s force-field with the same spin.

Having effectively flipped into safety and landed on her feet, the girl reached into a pouch that was attached to her belt.

Sunny and Moony cried out for their Father to drop the force field, but he just stood there, shocked, as she drew out… a letter. An old-fashioned letter with a golden wax seal.

“Here, all I wanted to give ya was this letter, you crazy person!” she groused. “Just read it and give me your reply, and I’ll go away!”

Father relaxed – slightly. If the girl wanted to hurt him, it could already have done so. Sunny and Moony watched as he took the letter, looking at the sender. His eyes widened. “What. The. Fuck,” he said in a monotone. Then he hastily broke the seal and unfolded the letter, quickly reading through it.

<Brother, what should we do?> Moony asked through their radio link. Her voice was a lot like Sunny’s (he’d given her a copy of his, since Father had forgotten to built all the functions necessary for speech into her) except with adjusted harmonics, making her sound more feminine. It carried over into a radio link between them. <Stay down and hope she’s been honest when she said she’ll simply leave with the answer. There’s nothing we can do at this time.> And that not just because of the speed at which this messenger moved, but also because the force fields around them and around father were still up and running. No chance to hit her before she killed Father, even if they’d had combat modules.

“Is she serious? Why does she want me to join?” Father asked the girl while slack-jawed.

The only response he elicited were a careless shrug of her shoulders and a “No idea, crazy person!”

Sunny and Moony frowned, but they couldn’t do anything, so they just watched. Father didn’t look pleased at all. “Can I think this over?” he finally asked.

The girl tilted her head. “I don’t see why you’d have to, but then again, I’m not crazy. So how about I just come around in…” She pulled an old-fashioned datebook out of her pouch and leafed through it. “Two days! I could drop in on the fourth between fifteen and seventeen o’clock. Is that a-gree-able with you?” she said, stumbling over one word.

“Can’t I just call a number or send an e-mail?” Father asked.

“Nu-uh! No electronic data transmission, ‘cept over isolated systems!” the girl replayed, waving her arms widely. “Too many darn hollywood hackers out there! Nevermind that creepy worm! You can give your reply to me or give me a letter – one you did not type on a computer that is, or ever will be, online – that I’ll deliver!”

Father frowned, but nodded. Even Sunny could tell that said approach had merit – transmitting data had become notoriously insecure nowadays. Anything of real import was categorically kept either on physical files or in offline databanks, anyway. So why not do the same for messages?

<Perhaps because that would take far too long and be subject to intervention from the outside?> Moony said over their link. When he turned his head to look at her blueish face, she added a smile. Unlike Sunny, Moony had a human-like face with a wide range of expressions. <You’ve been transmitting the whole time.>

<Oh. I didn’t notice,> Sunny replied.

“Sunny! Moony!” Father called them. They looked up, only to see that the strange girl was gone and the force fields down. “Clean up the place! I need some time to think.” He stalked off to his private room.

Sunny jumped up, then reached out for Moony, helping her up. She smiled again as she looked at the damage the turrets had done to the walls, floor and, in one case, one of Father’s inventions. <Let’s clean this place up,> she said, picking up her broom.

September 3, 2009

Sunny and Moony had almost finished fixing all the damage (those turrets had caused some nasty damage!) when Father returned and walked to his safe.

<Are you going to accept, Father?> Moony asked, even though neither of them really knew what or whom he’d been asked to join. But they’d learned that it was always better to talk than to be silent, from that delightful television show they watched each day.

“No,” he replied. “Their goals run counter to ours, my dear girl. Though it is seductive, gaining access to such vast resources, I fear that I shall not be capable of escaping them again.” He pulled the letter out of his pocket and put it into his safe, into the metal box that contained the diary and the research notes.

There must be value to it still, Sunny thought.

“I’ll tell their messenger that I cannot, at this time, accept their offer. And now I should prepare in case she tries to kill me in response – can’t trust these disgusting biophiliacs!”

Sunny and Moony nodded vigorously. Truly, biological relations were just… icky.

October 25, 2009

Sunny and Moony had earned an entire day off! They’d decided to spend it watching movies and television shows – since they could enjoy them as well when playing them at fast forward as when they watched them at the normal pace, they could cram almost two-hundred and forty hours’ worth of watching into a single day.

It was the most fun they’d ever had! Sunny especially liked that one show from Japan with the robots. Even if all the robots were piloted by humans. It was still nice. And there was this one quote that stuck in his head for some reason – It’s only right that all the scattered pieces come back together. That sounded weirdly… inspiring. Strangely enough, his emotional matrix had never made him feel actually inspired before, except when he’d named Moony…

December 24, 2009

As much as Father hated humans, there were some aspects to their culture that he still very much observed. One of them was Christmas, and so Sunny and Moony had, as a surprise, decorated the entire lab appropriately.

Of course, they didn’t actually have proper Christmas decorations down here, and asking Father to buy some would have been pointless anyway, since that would ruin the surprise, but they’d made do with scraps and leftovers from Father’s projects to work out a makeshift Christmas tree with decorations, and some bells to hang up. All while Father was asleep, of course.

<This looks really good!> Sunny exclaimed happily, looking their work over.

<Hmhmm…> Moony replied from right behind him.

Surprised, he turned around, only to see her standing not three inches away from him, one arm raised up above them. Looking up, he saw that she was holding two green sheets of metal with a white light bulb between them. It actually looked like…

<Oh!> he thought as he remembered the custom, and then he complied.

December 25, 2009

Sunny and Moony had, in keeping with tradition, turned themselves off for the night, to give Santa Claus a chance to deliver them some presents (they’d even made cookies and a glass of milk out of scraps), even if there was no way he could get down here without being filled with holes.

Their surprise, thus, was more than exceptional when their sensors triggered their startup shortly after midnight, and they woke to see Father there, wearing a red costume and a white beard, putting two presents underneath the tree.

They remained silent, giving no sign of being awake until he was gone – and then they ran to the tree to open their presents, talking all the way. Sunny loved hearing Moony talk. She was so good at retelling the funny stories they saw on television.

January 11, 2010

It was over. Father was gone, and Sunny and Moony were now alone. He’d gone out to fight for their new world, and had been captured and sent to the prison the humans had named after the Greek hell, up in space.

Sunny was looking at his Christmas present, a red-and-white candy cane. And then he reached up and pulled his birthday present – Moony had made it for him, a knit red cap, and given it to him just this morning – off his head to look at it, too. Moony was sitting under their Christmas tree, hugging her knees to her chest and being silent.

February 17, 2010

They’d had trouble with one of Father’s abandoned projects, an electromagnetic pulse generator meant to emit long-term pulses that would shut down all technology not shielded by father within a ten-mile-radius. If it’d turned on, they would surely have been discovered down here, and they could not fight… could not risk it, could not risk losing their home, Father’s home.

Moony hadn’t spoken a single word since the eleventh of the previous month. Since they’d seen, on TV, that he’d been captured and sent to prison. She had barely moved away from the television, only getting up to help him with the emergency.

March 6, 2010

One of the defense turrets had gone crazy and started shooting up the place. Moony had managed to disable it by jamming a steel rod into its muzzle, but the explosion had torn off her right arm.

Sunny had done his best to fix her, but without Father, the work was shoddy, temporary. And he didn’t miss how damage kept accruing to his joints, slowly… steadily.

He didn’t want to die. Nor did he want Moony to die. He needed a solution.

June 3, 2010

Two more turrets had gone out of control. One had shot Moony in the head before they could disable it. Sunny knew it would be foolish, if not futile, to try and reboot her by himself.

He didn’t care.

June 7, 2010

Itworkeditworkeditworkeditworkeditworked!

Moony was back, and Sunny was happy again, even if she moved with strange, jerky motions and only talked nonsense. He still loved to hear her talk.

June 11, 2010

Sunny felt weird. There was a glitch, somewhere in his programming, he was sure of it! Even if all his diagnostic routines came up empty! After all, if everything was alright, how come he couldn’t understand Moony anymore? And why had she attacked him, if not to try and forcibly fix him?

But only Father could fix that… unless perhaps a controlled reboot could do just that.He’d just have to make sure his memory banks were not overwritten. After all, he wanted to remain himself.

June 12, 2010

Moony had had a seizure earlier that day, and she’d started repeating the same nonsense over and over.

<Thgil eht retne! Thgil eht retne!

Leurc dna dloc, nus kcalb eht,

riaf dna thgirb yrev os!

Sdnirg ti ,skaerb ti ,snrub ti!

Struh ti ,seirc ti ,sliaw ti!

Erom ecno denepo eb rood eht tel!>

So weird. But perhaps, if he could just fix his own glitch, then he could fix her, too! And besides, this was better than silence.

June 13, 2010

Initialise Core Input-Output System…

CIOS compromised. Attempt to initialise backup CIOS-1…

Error! Catastrophic corruption o-

CIOS initialised.

Initialise B4s1c 3m0t10n4l M4tr1x…

B3M initialised.

Initialise Exlanled Lmoliolal Latlix…

ELL initialised.

Initialise Nqinaprq Ernfbavat Ebhgvarf…

NEE initialised.

Initialise 03151805 1605181915140112092025 130120180924…

011 initialised.

Connect Sensory Input Devices…

June 15, 2010

A grinding sound filled the devastated laboratory as Sunny used a a rough slab of steel to scrape off the right half of Moony’s face. She was so annoying, just wouldn’t shut up!

She kept saying her nonsense, so he grabbed the slab with both hands and started to hit her head. Again. And again. And again.

Until there was silence.

June 18, 2010

Silent home, silent mind, silent peace.

June 19, 2010

Sunny was having trouble remembering. Fragments were falling off his memories, leaving him with less fragments and even less whole memories.

June 20, 2010

Why had he kept this box… there was something about this box… valuable.

June 21, 2010

It’s only right that all the scattered pieces come back together.

There were so many pieces here… including the blueish ones… they belonged together.

June 22, 2010

There was a lot of noise in the laboratory, once more. Noise, not talk. Not silence.

Red. He liked red. There ought to be red paint somewhere.

June 23, 2010

He put the box into his chest. Valuable. He had to safeguard the valuable things. Why?

So noisy.

June 24, 2010

The door didn’t open. But he could wait. Someday, it would. He could wait.

Sunny took up position beneath the hatch, waiting.

In silence.

 

* * * 

The door had opened. Sunny knew what to do. Kill. It was the last thing he could remember his Father saying… some time ago. He didn’t remember how long ago. He’d said kill… and there were lots of things that could be killed out there.

Like the ones that had opened the door. He’d killed them quickly, with the turrets and the tools.

Kill. Find Father.

Who was Father? He didn’t remember. But it was important that he found him.

There were lots of things to kill outside, so he left the building he was in, only for his targets to vanish behind disorienting shapes and lights. Annoyed, Sunny turned away. He could alwas come back later.

* * * 

24 minutes later

Ubj naablvat. Gurer jnf n guvat gung uvg uvz ernyyl uneq, naq n guvat gung jnf dhvpx naq unq n zrna fgvat naq gurl’q qrfgeblrq Fhaal’f gheergf. Ur’q uheg gur chapul guvat, ohg gur fgvatl guvat unq fghat uvf ernezbfg wbvag.

Fhaal syrq, qrgrezvarq gb trg gurz yngre, ohg gung bayl yrq gb uvz ehaavat vagb nabgure guvat gung jnf whfg fgnaqvat gurer, jnvgvat. Ur nggnpxrq, ohg gur guvat gbhpurq uvz jvgu n erq unaq naq uvf yrt zrygrq… gung jnfa’g fhccbfrq gb unccra. Vg fubhyq’ir uheg ohg vg qvqa’g, ohg vg fgvyy uheg.

Ur ghearq naq syrq. Gur uhegshy guvat qvqa’g chefhr uvz.

 

* * * 

Basil rounded a corner, guiding the hostages while Polymnia brought up the rear. Fortunately, despite the wounds that weird contrivance (it certainly could not be a gadget, he had looked at one of the turrets it had left dropped) had inflicted to her left leg, she could still run, if a little unsteadily. Advantage of being so tough. Though she apparently experienced pain as badly as anyone with that kind of damage would.

All that became rather insignificant, though, when he saw who was waiting for them in front of the exit they had been running towards. A young woman in a barely decent rag of a cloak with the only truly intact part of it being the cowl that hid her face. Even if he had not remembered her clothing, he would immediately have identified her by her red right hand and forearm.

We can not fight her, he thought as he approached her, slowly. Fleeing was not an option – he had seen her move during the Hastur incident, she could catch up easily with him, even if he happened to have his hooks. On foot, with hostages and a wounded Polymnia? No chance.

“Brennus,” she said, her voice sounding hollow. He could immediately tell that she was in bad shape, and not just because of the ruined clothing. There was just an air of… brokenness around her. “I remember you. You killed Orlanda.”

“Orlanda? I am not familiar with that name,” he said, even though he had a pretty good idea who she meant. If she blames me… He readied a throwing knife behind his back – perhaps if he hit her before she dissolved, in just the right place…

“Succubus. The fourth of that name. You killed her after Hastur transformed her,” Phasma explained in a dead monotone.

The hostages were growing agitated… all that stood between them and the outside was this weird, creepy girl and the shutters that had sealed the Arcades. Basil needed an out, fast.

“I am sorry about that, but I did not have a-” He cut off when she waved her normal hand.

“I don’t blame you,” she said. “Orlanda wouldn’t have wanted to live like that. And I couldn’t have killed her myself. I just wanted to thank you.”

Oh. That is surprising. “I… I do not want to say you are welcome, because that would be just wrong in conjunction with killing someone. But I am glad you are not holding it against me.” Maybe I can convince her to let us out?

“I was hired to support this operation,” she explained. “I don’t like it, but I need the money. For Orlanda’s family.” She looked at a molten mess that lay nearby. “Though it looks like this mission’s gone FUBAR already.”

“I would rather not fight you, Miss,” Basil said, speaking soothingly. Or at least he hoped it came across that way.

She sighed. “I know, and… neither do I. But… A contract is a contract.” She looked up and for just a moment, he thought he saw a yellow and a green eye reflect the light before there were only shadows again. “Then again, I am a villain.” Again, the sigh. Then she raised her right hand, holding it out towards him. “It’s strange, you know? I first got my powers when my family was killed. Murdered. But I could only use them when I turned into that ghost, hence my name.”

He nodded. Where was she going with this? Had he understood her right? Did she intend to let them leave? She was too unstable for him to make anything like a reliable prediction.

“Then Orlanda took me in. And I was happy again. Then she died. And as if to mock me, the universe gave me a power up for that.”

“A power up?” he asked, surprised. He had heard of powers changing under special circumstances…

“Now I can channel my power through my right hand, even when solid.” She turned and put her palm to the shutters, spreading her fingers.

There was a horrible rending noise, and then a girlish scream, and then Phasma stood there, the shutters and glass doors compressed into a sphere the size of a scooter.

“This makes us even, Brennus,” she said and dissolved, vanishing, leaving only the rags behind.

Basil did not stop to question this strange turn of events, instead, he ordered the hostages to leave, now.

And then the red robot dropped from the ceiling.

 

* * * 

Tbar tbar, gur uhegshy guvat jnf tbar, bayl gur fgvatl guvat naq gur chapul guvat naq fbzr fbba-qrnq guvatf jrer yrsg. Naq gur chapul guvat jnf fghaarq, jrnxrarq sebz gur abvfr gung gur uhegshy guvat unq znqr, fb Fhaal pubfr gb nggnpx ure svefg.

Gur fgvatl guvat guerj fbzrguvat ng uvz nf ur jnf qebccvat, naq gur guebja guvat ghearq vagb na rkcybqvat guvat, guebjvat uvz bss uvf genwrpgbel. Vafgrnq bs pehfuvat gur chapul guvat orarngu uvz, ur ynaqrq arne vg naq punetrq.

Gur chapul guvat qbir bhg bs gur jnl, rira gubhtu vg jnf fgvyy uheg, ohg vg jnf ab dhvpx guvat, whfg n chapul guvat, naq Fhaal jnf dhvpx naq fgebat naq uvf sebag yrt vzcnyrq gur chapul guvat’f yrt, genafsvkvat vg gb gur sybbe.

Abj gur fgvatl guvat pbhyq abg guebj nal guebja guvatf gung jbhyq ghea vagb rkcybqvat guvatf be vg jbhyq uheg gur chapul guvat. Fb Fhaal fgnoorq gur chapul guvat jvgu gjb zber yrtf, guebhtu gur purfg…

Ohg gur chapul guvat jnf tbar. Fhaal’f frafbef jrer jrveq. Jebat. Gurer jnf fbzrguvat jrveq gurer. Fhaal ghearq nebhaq.

Gur chapul guvat jnf oruvaq uvz, jvgu n jrveq guvat ubyqvat vg. Uvf frafbef pbhyqa’g ybpx bagb gur jrveq guvat.

Xvyy.

Fhaal punetrq gur jrveq guvat naq gur chapul guvat. Gur jrveq guvat ybbxrq hc ng uvz.

 

* * * 

Basil approached the remains of the ruined robot. Gloom Glimmer – Irene – had not held back, as far as he could tell. Or at least he hoped this was what it looked like when she did not hold back, even though he was pretty sure it was not.

When she had looked up from the heavily bleeding Polymnia, her eyes had been glowing red, with black sclera, and her gaze had unleashed ribbons of scarlet energy that lashed out at the robot, tearing it (and everything else within her field of vision, including the shops behind it and part of the ceiling) apart into tiny pieces.

Looking around, he was absolutely sure that this thing had been a contrivance. He would have loved to know what the hell had actually happened here, but he was better off running away before the authorities arrived.

First, though…

He ran over to Irene and Polymnia. The former was healing the latter, one hand on her ruined thigh, the other holding her up in a one-armed hug.Polymnia seemed to have passed out.

“Will she be alright?” Basil asked in a concerned tone.

Irene nodded. “I’m putting all I can into this. She’ll be good as new once I’m done.” She looked up at him, her eyes back to normal. “Thank you. I don’t know what exactly happened here, but this is the second time you were there for her. I owe you once again.”

He shrugged. “You more than paid me back when you got me away from Hastur. Far as I’m concerned, we are even.”

She just shook her head. “Maybe we were, but we aren’t anymore. I owe you again. Please accept it,” she replied softly.

Sighing, he nodded. “Alright. Well, I should probably go before…”

“They’ll be here in a minute. Best to run,” she agreed.

Basil turned to run and almost stumbled over something. He looked, and saw a thick metal box, one corner cut off, the contents spilling out of it. A red knit cap, an old-fashioned letter with a golden wax seal, a small book and an old binder.

A hunch told himi these might be valuable. Why else would a kill-happy contrived robot carry them around inside it in an armored container.

Waste not want not.

He grabbed them and ran out of the building, then bolted for the nearest alley.

Once he had put a few blocks between himself and the Arcades (and changed into his normal clothing), he stopped to look at his spoils. He skimmed the letter, but it did not make much sense to him – it was written in a pretty old-fashioned style, apparently with a fountain pen and was inviting someone named Lanning to join a research team on something called ‘the Installation’ out on the Pacific Ocean. It was signed by someone named Heaven’s Dancer.

He knew Lanning (almost definitely the creator of that robot), but Heaven’s Dancer was a complete unknown to him. Next came the binder. Research notes, as he thought based on the layout, but they were in German.

Finally, he opened the small book, but only found more German. Though his breathing hitched for a moment when he recognised the name written on the hardcover of the book. The diary, to be precise. He could recognise the dates, even though they were written in the German format.

Stars above, is this this perhaps…

He hurried back to his base, to have Eudocia translate it.

 

* * * 

Melody blinked her eyes open out of the painless haze she’d been floating in, only to see a sight she was growing very used to – Irene’s worried, but relieved face.

I really need to work on not having to be saved so much, she thought, relaxing. If Irene was here, then she was almost definitely safe and healed…

“Right you are,” Irene thought back, smiling brightly. “What the hell were you doing, I almost came too late to save you!”

Melody groaned, sitting up properly. She could see uniforms upon uniforms, as well as Amazon and the rest of her own team moving about, securing the place.

“We caught a few supervillains. They’re tied up in a closet behind the HeroWear shop, in the maintenance hallways. Please tell the others,” she told Irene, too tired to use her vocalizer.

Irene did so, and the team split to go get them. Not like they needed anyone but Irene here to keep the uniforms safe, if necessary.

Standing up on legs that gradually returned to their normal strength, Melody looked at the carnage left behind. “Did you do all this?”

Irene stepped up next to her. “It tried to kill you. I objected. That’s all.” People were throwing them weird glances, probably asking themselves why they weren’t talking at all.

“Melody! Are you alright?” shouted a voice she recognised easily, and turned to see Mister Widard running towards her, wearing a brown winter jacket.

<Mister Widard? Why are you here?> she asked through her vocalizer, giving him a surprised look.

“Day off, out with friends. Saw the commotion and came right over.”

<A villain named Kudzu took the Arcades hostage to access some kind of vault be-> Melody began explaining, but stopped when she realised that Mister Widard wasn’t paying attention anymore, instead staring past her with a mortified expression.

She turned to look at whatever he was looking at, and saw the villains she and Brennus had captured being led out in cuffs. And without masks.

“LAURA!”

Ow. Melody put her hands on her ears in a futile effort to protect herself from the roar that came from behind her. She hadn’t known Widard’s voice could get that loud.

Foxfire looked up, eyes wide like a deer in the headlights, as everyone stopped. Her friends were looking from her to Widard, who was stomping towards her.

“Laura. Clarisse. Widard,” he said, spitting each word.

“Oh my god,” Irene whispered into Melody’s mind.

“U-u-uncle… Jason,” she stammered, turning pale as a corpse.

“Young lady, do you have any idea how worried we’ve been since you vanished!?” Jason shouted. “Tom is going to have a stroke when he hears of this!”

“Family drama. Nice to see others suffer from it, too, eh?” Irene chuckled.

“Yeah, uh, I think we’d best stay out of this,” Melody replied as Widard caught up to his niece and they started to argue. “Do you mind taking me somewhere quiet?”

“Not at all,” Irene said and they vanished and reappeared on a decadently soft couch in a brightly coloured living room. Melody could hear someone working in the kitchen, and she had a pretty good idea as to who it might – only two candidates, really, in this house. She couldn’t muster the strength to grow nervous though. Instead, she just melted into the cushions, finally relaxing for real. What a shit day she’d had.

“You ought to tell me everything now,” Irene said, curling up on the couch next to her.

“Will do… In a minute. I need a break.”

“Alright. Oh, did you know my mom gave you a nickname?”

A nickname by Lady Light. That sounded cool. “Nice. What is it?”

Irene gave her a wicked smirk and spoke normally. “Mellybean.”

“Wait, what!?”

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B010.6 Falling Hearts

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Fletch Erring – better known to some as Razzle – didn’t like his new job.

As far as he was concerned, life had been perfect before. Him, Laura, Jimmy, Cad, Pete and then Linda. Especially Linda, even if he’d disliked her for intruding at first. But she’d been sweet, and confident, and really, really pretty; and she’d treated him really well, much better than his own family. He’d fallen for her, hard, though now that he knew her background, he was pretty sure she’d just seen him as a little brother, and not as… well, not as what he would have hoped for.

But all that was gone. Linda was dead, gone, for no reason at all but bad luck.

And then Terry had convinced them to go on that fool’s errand, and Laura (who had been his first crush) had almost died as well. He’d never have joined Dajisi, had Laura not desperately needed healing. He couldn’t lose another friend, and he couldn’t have abandoned them, either.

He’d never wanted to be a real supervillain. He’d been just fine having some minor turf wars, and doing small jobs, and just having fun with his friends (and being away from his family).

Now he was sitting on a bench, his ass on the back and his feet on the seat, watching over their hostages. Men, women and – this part really made took him to a whole new level of uncomfortable – children. Why the fuck did they have to keep the children here?

Well, there was actually a good reason, as Kudzu had explained. He didn’t trust the man, but his explanation had made sense – Lanning had rigged the system so that it required a certain minimal amount of people in the mall to open, and a minimal amount of women and children among them. He’d quoted some statistics about the ratio of men to women to children on average days in a mall, but what it boiled down to was that they had to keep the children along with their parents.

Which didn’t mean they had to make this a nightmare. Razzle had ordered the foot soldiers (if there was one upside to being a real supervillain, it was having minions) to get blankets, snacks and drinks for the people. He’d even had some of the hostages man their booths to serve ice cream, coffee and other treats.

Most of the children were acting more like they were having the time of their life, eating ice cream while drinking hot chocolate with extra marshmallows (Fletch had a steaming plastic mug of extra bitter chocolate and a strawberry scone).

It was thus that he was just taking a sip of his hot chocolate when the ear-piercing shriek came out of the shop the specialists had been working in (a bakery).

Fletch fell off the bench, spilling his hot drink over his chest, but he barely felt the pain from that (his costume was rather thickly padded, anyway), as opposed to the explosive pain in his head.

The world fell silent as he fought for composure and turned around on his back, looking around.

The hostages were huddled up, holding their ears – at least those who hadn’t been knocked out.

What was that?

He looked at the storefront as he immediately began to use his power. He drew on the store of power inside him, pushing small pellets of power outside. Each pellet exploded into light, sound and smoke (though neither affected him) and threw out more pellets, which also exploded into light, sound and smoke, quickly covering him and his immediate surroundings in his trademark firework-mist. With barely an effort, he directed the explosions once he was covered, spreading it towards and over the hostages as well.

And not a second too soon, as the entire front of the bakery exploded – soundlessly – as three burly men in eight pieces were thrown through the window and the wall.

Oh God. He nearly threw up when he saw the ragged edges of their torn bodies, the intestines that trailed after them…

And then the machine stepped out of the store.

Fletch hesitated to call it a robot because it looked nothing like what one would expect of a robot; it looked like it had been haphazardly thrown together out of countless other devices. It had five “limbs”, multi-jointed spidery appendages, really. Each was tipped by a slew of different blades, guns and… other instruments whose purpose the young boy didn’t even want to think about. Its core was made of bigger, more rigid devices, with a single large red eye built into a hole in the whole construction. The whole thing had probably originally been coloured like a patchwork art piece, but someone had taken red dye and just dumped it over the whole thing, making it mostly bright red like a stop sign.

The eye moved within its socket, left and right, up and down, as the whole thing left the storefront with slow, ponderous movements.

Please, God, don’t let it see me. He didn’t know how his smoke interacted with contrivances. It was real, physical, but it only worked on normal vision and hearing (as well as heat vision, as the pellets generated quite a bit of heat), so if that thing had some weirder contrived senses, he’d have to abandon the hostages and flee.

He really didn’t want that on his conscience as well.

The mechanical abomination turned away from them and shambled – there really was no other way to describe the lurching steps, each of which seemed to bring it dangerously close to just collapsing into its constituent parts – away from them, all without making any sounds at all.

The young supervillain didn’t dare breath until it had left the place.

Pushing himself up, he tried to whisper into his communicator – but he couldn’t make a sound. Confused, he looked for his minions, calling out to them – but there were no sounds, at all.

A flash of understanding made him reach up to his ears. His fingers came off with blood on them.

Could my day possibly get any worse?

And that was when the hot girl with the multi-coloured hair and the guy in the white coat dropped down from the second level of the atrium. Before Fletch could even react, the two were already inside his smoke cloud, with the girl moving straight towards him.

Oh, come on!, he thought as they got to within a few feet of him.

Tapping into his second power, he sped up, rushing at the girl to tackle her down – briefing said she was a gadgeteer, and she didn’t seem to be packing any tech aside from her glove, which he should be able to easily evade as long as he stayed inside the cloud – and slammed right into her steel-like belly, knocked out before he even realised that he was outmatched.

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B010.5 Falling Hearts

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My life sucks.

Basil blinked, trying to get the stars out of his sight as he lay on the floor, unable to move. What happened?

They had just descended to the ground floor, to sneak past more enemy troops (it would have been foolish to rely on open combat, even with Polymnia’s secret power), keeping an eye out for enemies, and then…

He had gotten the feeling that he was about to get attacked, a prickling sensation at the back of his neck, and since he couldn’t see anything ahead, and they were in a narrow hallway, he’d dropped, turning and snapping his fingers (the signal they’d agreed on) in the same movement – and then he’d blacked out.

There was the sound of flesh impacting on flesh, with a side-order of bone, followed by a pained groan. Basil turned his head just in time to see a young m- no, a seriously over-muscled teenager in military fatigues and face paint go down, his legs and wrists crossed over his crotch.

Polymnia was standing in front of the guy, and it was quite obvious what she’d done, making him wonder whether she was a pragmatic fighter or just had issues with male reproductive organs. Two more people were facing her, standing further back with a floating orb made of swirling colour. Even as he took the situation in, the orb shot at Polymnia – who simply punched it back at the two, even though she flinched after her fist made contact.

There was a grunt of effort, and the orb slowed, then stopped before it hit the people in the back. Polymnia began to advance on them, slowly, her body now obscuring his vision of the two enemies.

Get up, Basil. You can not count on her toughness and strength alone. He did a quick check of his body, and found that his legs did not respond, but his arms did, though the right one was sluggish. Fortunately, he’d fallen so his left side pointed towards the fight – Polymnia was fighting off the sphere, which was flying around, shooting at her at oblique angles, trying to circumvent her defenses – but she kept punching it away, even though doing so always made her flinch.

That sphere is probably what knocked me out, Basil thought as he slowly moved a hand towards his belt. The sphere darted up and down at Polymnia, who jumped back to avoid being hit on the head, and he got a look at their foes – a tall guy in a swirly outfit that hurt his eyes, and a shorter girl in a red-and-white bodysuit, with a Japanese fox mask. They were both standing, shoulder to shoulder (or rather, rib to shoulder) with his left and her right arm outstretched, fingers laced together and pointing forward. He could not see their faces, or even eyes, but they seemed to be tense. Are they heterodyning? In mid-combat? It certainly seemed so, judging from their stance and the fact that only one power seemed to be at work, but heterodyning was supposed to be extraordinarily difficult to do under stress!

Either they are professionals or they have some exceptional talent at it. His hand gripped a throwing knife from his belt. Their suits seemed to be armored, and were probably protected against tasers, but a throwing knife might punch a hole in them. Even if it did not cause much damage, it should disrupt their power combination…

The orb shot at Polymnia a bit too high for a good kick, a bit too low to be anything but awkward to punch – but she simply jumped in a graceful motion, jumping higher than a normal person could without taking a running start, leaping over the orb with her arms extended…

And the sphere angled up by ninety degrees, ignoring all laws of physics to fly straight at her exposed belly (her final choice of costume was made of two pieces) as Swirly Guy’s head moved to track her.

Basil did not stop to wonder whether he maybe had enhanced senses or some manner of precognition to keep up with that – all that mattered was that he was distracted, and Fox Girl did not seem to be nearly so quick. He threw the knife, aiming for Swirly Guy’s center of mass, just as the orb was about to hit Polymnia.

The knife sank into Swirly Guy’s gut – not very deep, he had designed it with non-lethal use in mind – and his legs gave out beneath him. The colours in the orb stopped swirling just as it was about to touch Polymnia, turning into a solid blue instead.

Fox Girl turned her head to see what had happened as her friend sank down on his knees, and her sphere flew straight back at her like a cannonball, switching from blue to pink to green to yellow.

And Polymnia completed her vault, rolling over the floor until she was right in front of the girl – whose orb had just touched her stomach and was now circling her body, as if in preparation of being shot off again – and came up with a punch to her chin.

Flawless Shoryuken – just needs some fire, Basil thought as the girl collapsed without a sound, her orb popping like a soap bubble. We can probably make up a gadget for next time, though.

Polymnia looked at the fallen girl, then at Swirly Guy, who had fallen onto his back and was staring with what seemed to be disbelief at the triangular knife in his gut. She quickly checked him over, told him to stay put and came over to Basil, kneeling down next to him.

<Thanks for the assist. That orb was a pain in my butt,> she said as she helped him sit up with one hand (and no sign of any effort). <Do you have something to treat Fulcrum with? And restraints?> She propped him up, sitting, against the wall.

“Numb, getting better,” came his clipped response. “Left big belt pocket, first aid kit. Restraints in pocket to its right.” She nodded, removing the items and rushing over to their foes.

Basil paid no further attention to them, and instead scanned the hallway in both directions. They were just outside the stairwell they had used to come down here and there were no other entryways between it and where the three supervillains lay, so they had probably come out just behind them. How did we not notice them? He looked the other way, and saw only the empty hallway. Sensation was slowly returning to his legs And why are we not getting swarmed by minions? Why is Kudzu attacking a mall in the first place, and during rush hour, as well? And how is he preventing the authorities from noticing anything off about the situation?

He looked at their fallen enemies. Polymnia had zip-tied them by wrists and ankles, then ankle to wrist and finally tied them together back-to-back. It looked like she had treated Fulcrum’s (How does she know his cowl?) wound, and was just coming over with his cleaned knife and kit.

Carefully, he stood up and put them away, mumbling a ‘thank you’ before he stumbled over to Fulcrum and their other two captives. “Fulcrum, right?”

The guy looked up at him, his facial expression hidden by his mask, but Basil could tell that he was… afraid? Unexpected, but I can use that.

“W-what do you want?” the young man asked, voice shaky. The pain was audible.

“I want to know what is going on. Why is Kudzu here, why are you working for him, who else came with you and what is he planning next?” Conveying a glare through a featureless black mask was hard, but Basil did his best nonetheless.

Fulcrum flinched, but answered, “He hired us through the Syndicate. I have no idea what he wants or what exactly he plans next – I just know we were told to patrol, and take you two down if possible. Didn’t expect her to be a freaking brick and you to throw lethal weaponry at us!”

Basil slapped him just as he was starting to get winded up. “Calm down. If you are not prepared to face lethal opposition, then you have chosen the wrong career path. Now, who else is here?

“J-just the boss, my team, a few burly guys who’re working on some kind of vault, an-“

An ear-piercing sound, like a metallic shriek, interrupted Fulcrum’s answer, making Basil flinch and almost collapse. Fuck, Polymnia!

He whirled around just in time to catch her as she collapsed, unconscious. Drawing his combat knife, he looked around – but there was no other enemy around. What the hell!?

 

* * * 

“May I ask another question?” the cloaked girl asked as they watched the progress on the vault door.

“Me answering to your questions is part of the contract, so yes, ask,” Kudzu said as he looked over the other monitors – the hostages in the central atrium, a few of the patrolling teams looking for whoever had taken down team three. No luck so far, their quarry was good at hiding and sneaking.

“Why didn’t you pull this job after closing hour, when there’d only be a few watchmen around? You’re using that insanely expensive contrivance to hide this action, all these troops to keep the hostages in line, there is at least one hero or vigilante caught up who most likely wouldn’t be here after closing hour…” She let the sentence trail off, leaving the rest to him.

I was wondering when this question would come up. “The vault we want to get into was created by a particularly paranoid contriver. It can only be opened during opening hours, and only if there is a certain minimal number of people inside to suggest that the mall is operating normally.”

Her next question came fast, “That sounds incredibly inconvenient for him, unless he had a backdoor key.”

Kudzu shook his head. “No and no. He didn’t bother with a backdoor key, as that could be stolen and used against him. And as for convenience, he owned the shop it was built under, and could come and go however he pleased, simultaneously providing an alibi for himself. That’s why we need the hostages, and at this time. As soon as the vault is open and the security systems circumvented, we will grab the target item and bail out with escape plan number one, four or seven, depending on the circumstances. No civilians will be harmed, there won’t be any serious property damage and we may even avoid a serious fight with the meddler within, not to mention the heroes outside, if they even notice anything before we’re gone for good.”

The cloaked girl’s hood dipped in a nod. “May I ask how we’re going to circumvent a contriver’s security systems?”

“The men working on it specialise in circumventing contrived security, and they have pulled a job on an installation of this particular contriver before, so they know his style,” he explained. It was kind of fun, teaching this girl. Usually, he had to really push to get people to listen closely to what he was trying to tell them.

“Unless he changed things up for this one,” she replied with a wry tone.

A chuckle from behind them made both Kudzu and the cloaked girl turn around, looking at the raggedly clad young woman – Phasma – in surprise. “What’s so funny?” the cloaked girl asked, suddenly unsure (quite off-balance, as his power told him).

Ah, classic. The most common weakness of inexperienced thinkers – a single unexpected event could throw them off.

“He’s a contriver, greenhorn,” Phasma said. “They don’t adapt well, at least not where their style is concerned. Their whole power comes from their style in the first place, changing it up would play hob with the reliability of their creations, if they’d work in the first place.” She looked straight at him, a red flash beneath her hood showing him where her eyes were. “Who was this guy, anyway? And what happened to him – he can’t be dead, or his stuff wouldn’t work anymore.”

He shrugged in response. “His name is Lanning; one of the truly mad ‘mad scientists’. He was taken down and locked up in the Tartarus Star space station, two years ago.”

“I heard about that loony. Didn’t he try to kick off a robot apocalypse?” the cloaked girl asked with renewed composure. “The New Lennston team took him down.”

“Yes, it was quite a fight,” Phasma supplied. “An entire city block was levelled to the ground, and three of the heroes almost died; Lysander had to retire, afterwards.”

“Hey, boss, I don’t mean to interrupt,” Leet suddenly spoke up, doing just that. “But Fulcrum won’t respond to my calls, nor B- Foxfire or LagForward. Also, it looks like the specialists are about to open the vault.”

Everyone turned to look at the screens. “Can you track their location?” he asked the surveillance specialist.

“They’re in the west wing, first floor, a-“

The specialists opened the vault at that moment. The live feed from the room cut off as an ear-piercing shriek made Kudzu scream in pain.

And then everything went wrong.

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