B13.20 Call of the Sleeper

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Prisca was still alive.

Somehow, even though he’d deduced as much with great certainty, he hadn’t truly felt sure about it until he saw her. A weight dropped off his shoulders.

Not that seeing her was a pleasant experience. He wasn’t petty, wasn’t… concerned with her physical beauty the way he’d seen other boys be. Some part of him, a part he didn’t really understand, a part he’d started to associate with Macian, if only because he couldn’t figure out where he might have picked it up otherwise, balked at the mere thought of judging things by appearance. Of getting attached to the outside, be it good or bad.

It wasn’t a good thing, wasn’t a good part. He didn’t like such things because he didn’t, on a fundamental level, trust them. Them, or anyone, really. A small part of him that whispered, this could be fake, someone might be twisting things.

It was the same part that had advised him to keep so many secrets from his friends. To compartmentalise them, keep Tim and Aimi apart from Vasiliki and Dalia. To keep them all apart from Prisca, until he couldn’t justify it anymore. It was the part of his that had shouted betrayal when, in honest worry over his state, his friends had crossed the boundaries he’d set and gotten together to take care of him.

Even further, it had made him twitchy around Dalia and Vasiliki in a way he hadn’t understood for a long time. Their beauty had been a barrier between them, rather than something that drew him in, like it did damn near every other male they ran into.

It wasn’t something all-consuming. He could still appreciate beauty, once he could be sure it was honest. Whatever that meant. But upon first contact, it repulsed, made him stay at a distance.

With Prisca, it had, strangely, made things easier. When beauty was an initial barrier, meeting a girl who failed to live up to the common understanding of beauty so thoroughly had, actually, made things easier in the beginning. Let him reach out, connect, in a way he wouldn’t have been able to with any of the gorgeous girls in his life.

In a twisted way, Aimi was more attractive to him, at first glance, than someone like, say, Gloom Glimmer, even though the latter was literally supernaturally desirable, simply because Aimi was plain and plainness didn’t trigger that suspicious, dark part of his.

Finding out that she’d become a shapeshifter, it had shaken him on a level he hadn’t even recognised, back then. With the benefit of hindsight, he thought that that had been trhe true reason why he’d kept her at arm’s length, rather than tell her about his secret identity, like he’d done with Tim.

With all that, he’d been able to see past Prisca’s bodily and mental issues – and she had many of both, perhaps even more so than he did – to find and appreciate the person underneath. In time, he’d even come to appreciate the remnants of the beauty she should have had. The beauty Dusu had taken from her.

When the goblins kidnapped her and he’d been forced to operate on her to keep her alive, that same detachment had allowed him to stay calm and do what needed to be done, rather than balk at the thought of cutting open the girl he loved to attach machines to her failing heart.

When she’d mutilated herself to escape Hastur, when the stress and the strain of that wretched day had proven too much for her body and he, with Gloom Glimmer’s help, had worked on her again, it had helped keep him calm and focused.

It had not helped when she’d manifested her power. Her projection, gorgeous as it was, had made him twitchy again, though less so than others, as he’d already known her. But that part of his, it twitched and moaned, whispering suspicions about this new, false form.

But it wasn’t. Never was. It was hers, in a way that her actual body couldn’t be anymore. A form that came purely from within herself. Whereas her body had been twisted, broken, changed, by Dusu, making it not wholly hers any more. She’d been right about that. He’d seen that, come to appreciate what she herself called her true body, and gotten comfortable enough to, experiment. They hadn’t gone the whole way yet, what Dalia would call ‘home base’, but they’d run most of the other ones by now.

Thinking on it in retrospect, no one who knew her even a little had been even remotely surprised that she’d cut her own eyes out, rather than be twisted further by another monster.

None of that made it, however, easy or even remotely comfortable to see her now, as she lay on that bed that had become the sum and limit of her waking world. She was pale as a corpse and moved about as much as one, her lungs no longer functioning in any case – machines pumped the oxygen she needed to survive into her, instead.

Survive. Not live.

Her hair was gone, what few tufts she’d had left fallen off and cleaned up since the last time he saw her, a week or so ago (she hated it when he saw her like this, preferred it when he interacted solely with her projection, as much as possible), making her head seem inordinately large, especially in proportion to her emaciated, wasted-away body. Her ruined eyes, at least, were covered by bandages. Most of her body was covered by a blanket, save for her spindly thin arms with those long, tender, weak fingers, which lay atop the expensive silk sheets (her mother did everything to make her comfortable, no matter how small, even if it meant buying the hospital a whole set of silk sheets for the entire intensive long-term care ward), though the many tubes and wires that ran into her body were still outlined by them.

Not that he needed to see them with his eyes – he had them in his mind. He’d installed them, after all. A rushed job, at first, during her kidnapping. Then, later, he’d swung by the hospital, pretending it was merely his own perfectionism, a sense of professional pride, or at least generic heroic sensibility, which took him there, and had refined his work, making more permanent accommodations for her. Explaining to the doctors how to properly clean them, what the read-outs meant and how to do simple maintenance (but to call him if anything actually went wrong). Then, later, another rushed job after Hastur had visited her, followed by another round of refinement, all of it tapping a degree of medical knowledge and an understanding of surgery that’d humbled the professionals involved and whose origin he could not make out. He’d never studied medicine in any capacity beyond basic first aid, had never read the textbooks or anything like that. And it wasn’t like his gadgeteering, either, not really. The devices he’d made to keep her alive, including her current set, they were partially gadgets, yes. But his surgical skill, which had had the head surgeon of the hospital, one of the most decorated professionals of his craft, grumbling about how unfair powers were and how he wished he was so good, that was wholly his own, and yet he had no idea how or why.

Still, all that work… fixing her, putting her body back into (barely) working order, refining his work to make her more comfortable, more healthy, as much as that was possible… it had felt comfortable. Relaxing, familiar, like something he’d done so many times it had become routine.

It thoroughly creeped him out, as grateful as he may have been for the capability, because as far as he knew, the very first time he’d ever even performed first aid, much less surgery, had been after the fight against Snow Queen, when he’d saved Vasiliki’s life.

Still, of all the many things that haunted him about his condition – whatever it may actually be – that was one he could appreciate at least. It had helped him save her, in some small way.

Even now, looking at her, his eyes flickered left and right, reading the data on his devices’ readouts and the monitors of the equipment the hospital had provided (all of it cutting edge, courtesy of Mrs Fion again), and his heart sank. Massive organ failure. Slowly spreading brain damage, negligible now, but liable to mount and go out of control at any time, depending on how Dusu’s poison continued to work. The machines attached to her, his machines, were the only thing keeping her alive now, and even they would be insufficient soon enough.

”Basil…” Prisca whispered, barely audible with her lips barely moving.

He was by her bedside in an instant, not even noticing the distance he crossed as he pulled a chair closer and sat down as close to her as he could.

His hand reached for hers, the right one, on top of the blanket, after he took his gauntlet off. Her fingers were cold, and she didn’t have the strength to do more than lightly curl them, so he made up for it by gripping them as tightly as he dared.

”I am here,” he spoke, softly, his voice just slightly hoarse. Then he smiled, weakly, hoping she could somehow tell he did by the tone of his voice changing. “You knew I was coming.” His eyes flickered to the tablet he’d made for her, the one linked up to Eudocia, which Primrose now held in her expertly manicured hands, her long, red nails standing out starkly against the colourless metal. He looked back at Prisca.

“Of course… Eudocia told me… when you showed up… in front of the hospital,” she whispered, slightly turning her head towards him. “We were so very worried… when you left… Eudocia wouldn’t… tell me where you… went, but… she was worried, too.”

His eyes went up again, looking closer at Primrose. ‘We’, she says. But apart from Eudocia. So, her mother.

Primrose was always an interesting, painful sight to see, for him. So beautiful (twitch, twitch, balk), yet such a reminder of what Prisca might have been, should have been that it hurt to look at her. Classically gorgeous and just barely showing a little gray in her long red hair, he knew a lot of employees at the hospital always looked forward to her visits just to get a good look at her.

Now, though, she was clearly bereaved, her eyes showing a little red and her make-up barely hiding the palor of her skin. For her, for a woman as composed as Primrose Fion, this was the equivalent of another having shorn her hair short and scratched up her own face to show her grief.

And Prisca wasn’t even dead yet.

”I’ve known for a while, Basil,” she spoke softly, far more tenderly than she’d ever talked to him before (she hadn’t particularly liked him at first, though she’d never voiced her reasons or even actually put words to her antipathy to him, that he knew of. “Though I hadn’t told Prisca I’d figured it out until today.” She smirked, a little of her usual arrogance returning to her face. “I’m not stupid, you know? In fact, I am rather far on the right side of the bell curve, I dare say. My baby girl gets a boyfriend and then a hero who has no connection to this whatsoever happens to save her life not once, but twice? And keeps coming back to refine her life support? It wasn’t hard to connect the dots, especially after the second time.” Her smirk faded, and she lowered her eyes, looking at the tablet in her hands. “Now I know why you seemed to secretive and, at times, dishonest.”

Ah, that explains that, at least.

”For what it’s worth, I’m sorry I treated you so coldly,” she continued on, “and I’m grateful for all you’ve done for my baby.”

”Mo-om…” Prisca complained weakly.

Basil focused on her again.

“Basil… you did… something stupid, right?” she guessed, her voice grown hoarse, as if she was already straining it. “Eudocia… would not… have hidden it… from me… if it wasn’t… stupid.” She curled her fingers around his, again. “I’d… fall asleep… and smack you… for it, but… the docs’ say… I wouldn’t survive… falling asleep… again.”

He sighed, feeling the many weights on his shoulders. “I suppose it was. There is, no gentle way to say it. I found out where Dusu hides, so I gathered as many people as I could and went after her.”

All warmth fled the room, leaving only the sounds of the machines. Both the woman and the girl were listening, intently. Primrose was radiating a kind of hatred that made the Dark’s fury appear meager, her fingers curling so hard around the tablet’s edges, it groaned. Prisca… Prisca didn’t show any of the hate she usually did whenever Dusu came up, too weak to work herself up like that anymore.

”We got her,” he continued, just barely louder than a whisper. “She is with the United Heroes, now.”

Primrose drew in a sharp breath, a faint expression of hope on her face…

”You didn’t get a cure, though,” Prisca continued for him, her voice softer than a spring breeze. “Or at least it won’t be done in time. I can tell.”

He lowered his head, taking her hand with both of his and raising it to touch it to his forehead. “I am so sorry, Prisca. She never had a cure. Never could make one. The whole thing, it was her attempt at finding one. The poison, it was meant for her, to improve her body, to make her a pseudo-Adonis, but it failed and messed her up,” he spoke, the words tumbling out of him, unable to contain them any longer. “So she unleashed it on Hawaii hoping that someone else would find a cure that she could then co-opt for herself.” At some point along the speech, which felt like a confession to him, he started crying. He couldn’t bear to raise his eyes, to look at her mother’s face or, worse, at Prisca’s.

Her fingers curled around his as tightly as they could, weakly holding onto him as something escaped her throat.

It was a sound unlike any he could remember hearing, ever, and which he hoped he’d never, ever have to hear again. It was a sound of rage, of hatred; of grief and sadness. The sound of an old pain, never gone but scarred over, only to have it torn open again. The sound of a tearing heart, which reached out and into everyone who heard it, making their own hearts break out of sheer sympathy.

It was a sound Basil would remember for the rest of his life.

He held onto her hand as the sound continued, and was quickly joined by her mother who put the tablet onto the bed, near her legs, so she could take her daughter’s left hand into both of hers.

Basil didn’t know what to say, what to do. He had trouble carrying on normal conversations, often, nevermind this.

What could he say? There was no promise left to make that might ease her pain. No soothing words he could think of, no platitude to lessen the impact.

What could he do? He’d found Dusu, and it hadn’t helped. He’d done everything he could think of, short of trying to make a complete engram of her brainpatterns to later implant into a healthy body, but… even if that could solve this, there wasn’t the time to do it.

All he had left was to hope for a miracle, and even in an age of superpowers those were in extremely short supply at best.

”B-basil, I, I…” Prisca tried to speak, but had to break off, her voice too hoarse to continue. Her mother had to pick up a small cup with a straw, tilting it to let some water flow into Prisca’s mouth, before she could continue. “Basil, I, I love you,” she said, tears of salt and blood running down from the bandage around her eyes, and his heart broke a little more. “And, and, I don’t want you to b-blame your, yourself,” she continued. “Y-you did, you did all you, could. M-more than, than anyone could, ever expect of, of another, even, a boyfriend.” She turned her head towards him to smile weakly, her thin, pale lips – barely differentiated from the rest of her skin – stretching over her empty gums. “I l-l-love you and, and I hope, hope you’ll, you’ll find… the happiness, you deserve. D-don’t be, be too… sad, abo-“

He cut her off by pressing his lips to hers, softly, so very softly, his tears mixing with hers for a long, long moment.

”No,” he said softly. “I didn’t do more… than anyone could expect, because… I expected more of myself.”

She smiled again, while her mother just cried, lowering her head as she cradled her hand to her breast, her heart. “Silly… but that’s part of what… I love about you. One of the… many things.”

Basil had trouble seeing anything, had trouble breathing, but he forced the words out, anyway: “I love you, Prisca. I wish I could… put it into words, what you… mean to me, but words have never… been my strong suit. I love you, and I’m not going to give up for as long as I live. Not on you, not on anything.”

Her lips trembled and, for just a moment, her hand seemed to regain some strength, as she held onto his as tightly as possible, nearly cutting off the bloodflow to his digits.

The machines around them were starting to edge into red areas, warning signs starting up. Especially the brain monitor. It wasn’t going to be fast. It was going to be slow, and painful, and ugly, and they all knew it.

“P-please, g-g-go,” she croaked, voice thick with tears. “I, I, I don’t want you, to, to see-“

He didn’t want to. He didn’t want to leave. He didn’t want to watch, didn’t want to do nothing. Didn’t want to be there, didn’t want not to be there.

But he couldn’t choose, so he at least fulfilled her last wish.

He left.

***

He found himself back in his bedroom. Somehow, he’d managed to get from the hospital to his and Amy’s home while barely noticing it. Barely remembering to pull up his hood and hide his face.

Seeing how he’d been blind with tears the whole way, it was amazing he hadn’t run into anything or anyone, or been run over by something. Or maybe he had and he just didn’t remember.

He’d thrown his cloak onto his bed, and taken his lefthand gauntlet, the one with the variable force-field emitter off, holding it in his hands as he stared down at it. His ravenbot had flown off his shoulder and sat atop his computer screen, watching him with what might have been curiosity if it’d been an actual animal.

There was none of the numbness he’d hoped for. Even though people often talked about how they went numb when overwhelmed by tragedy, he felt none of that. There was no numbness, no deadening of his emotions, no relief.

He threw the gauntlet at the wall with all his strength, hard enough that it dug into it through the expensive wallpaper, becoming stuck.

What was even the point of that thing? What was the point of any of his inventions, his ideas, if none of them could even save the girl he loved?

He tore his armour off, bit by bit, even the boots, throwing them aside without a second thought. Tore off the top of his bodysuit, throwing it onto the bed to join his stupid, pretentious cloak.

Thought and memory my ass.

”I…” he began to talk to the empty room, but broke off. What could he even say? “I-“

There was a flash of red hair, a brief vision of a sweetly curved body in a private school uniform, and then her lips met his, her strong, soft arms wrapping around his neck.

He wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her close, pressing her body to his, feeling her softness and warmth as his other hand went to the back of her head, fingers intertwining with her hair, pulling her even closer, deepening the kiss.

When her lips parted and their tongues touched, all the worries and the sadness and the grief disappeared, leaving just her.

He clung to her like a drowning man, and she to him, mashing their lips together, their tongues dancing lovingly inside their mouths, from one to the other and back again, they-

She was gone, gone as fast as she’d appeared, and he was alone.

He staggered back a step, raising a hand up to touch his lips with two fingers.  Feeling the warmth. Still able to taste her.

Had she really been here? A last flash of her power, as she’d drifted off to her final sleep? A desperate hallucination of his? A random memory his broken mind had called up?

His computer’s screen lit up, pure white, showing only two words from Eudocia.

She’s gone.

His scream shook the house.

***

Somehow, at some point, he put on some clothes. A black shirt with some print on it, a gift from Dalia, black jeans and black socks. Dramatic, but somehow appropriate.

He’d thrown a jacket on over it and put on his shoes and just left. It was inadequate for the cold weather – it had started to snow, even – but he didn’t care. Somehow, he found his way to the park again, to the bench he’d talked with Magnus, what felt like a lifetime ago. The park was covered in snow, but was otherwise completely empty, save for himself and his raven.

He was still not numb. He wished he was, but he wasn’t.

He was hurt. Heartbroken. Grief-stricken. Pained. Tortured. Tormented. He could go on, think of more words. Everything, everything, except numb.

The only reason he hadn’t yet thrown up was because he hadn’t eaten a thing in over twenty-four hours.

And so he sat amidst the snow on the bench and watched the busy street in the distance, past the bare trunks and branches of the trees. Cars and pedestrians passing by, carelessly, carefree. Happily.

He saw children smile and point at Christmas ornaments in the store windows, or at toys they wanted (there was a toy shop right there in a straight line in front of him, on the other side of the street).

His raven’s programming had it fly over, landing on a branch near the street so it could watch over the people, looking for trouble.

Yet all he could think of was that Prisca wouldn’t get to enjoy a single Christmas with him. That she wouldn’t get to dress up in what she’d called a ‘slutty Santa dress’ and show off her perfect dream-body.

And one of the reasons why she wouldn’t was he. Because he hadn’t been good enough, in the end. He’d gone to bat, or at least he hoped he’d gone to bat, all out, and it had still not been enough.

God, I hope there really wasn’t anything more I could have done, a treacherous little voice spoke inside of him. If there was and I just didn’t do it…

He lowered his head, hot tears burning on his cold skin before they fell down to join the snow at his feet.

Time passed and Basil still did not feel numb.

Snow crunched underneath someone’s feet, and Basil turned his head, slowly, to the right. He saw their feet, first. Beautiful winter boots made of soft, brown leather, sporting hand-crafted stitching decorations and sensible, yet still distinctly noticable heels. Even if he hadn’t seen these boots before, he’d recognise the handiwork instantly.

Feeling his heart skip a beat, he slowly raised his head, up along the long legs in black stockings, the sensible, knee-length green skirt and the hand-made cream-coloured sweater under an expensive, thin winter jacket worn open. A pure red scarf (hand-made, of course) wrapped around her slender neck to protect it against the weather.

She also wore a handmade red wool bonnet with floppy ear covers from which two long tassels extended, and held Graymalkin in her arms, the heavy cat happily snuggling against her chest as she seemed completely unbothered by his prodigious weight.

Her eyes were red, as if from crying, making their green colour stand out even more.

”Vasiliki,” he said, his voice thick. It didn’t surprise him that she’d found him. They’d taken steps, long ago, to make sure each of them would be able to find the others, if need be. For him, it was done with his ravens, with transponders sewn into select articles of clothing. For Tyche, it was just following her gut, which usually worked out. Or so they’d thought. For Hecate, it was via samples of their blood, a little from each of them, contained and preserved within a jewel for each.

He expected her to glare at him, or accuse him or just shout at him, but instead she just took a step closer and looked at the bench.

Scooting over, he watched her sit down, her knees touching and tilted to the side. Graymalkin stretched after she put him down on her lap and got up, patting over onto Basil’s lap where he walked in a circle, then rubbed his face against Basil’s hand, once, before he curled up and went to sleep.

Basil looked down at his cat, petting him behind the ears, before he looked up at Vasiliki again.

Once more, he had no idea what to say.

Her eyes searched his face, for something. He couldn’t tell whether she found what she looked for.

”I’m so sorry, Basil,” she said, her voice thick. “Eudocia, she told me what happened. I came as soon as I could.”

He looked away, unable to meet that soulful gaze of hers. “It is over,” he said, lamely. He couldn’t say that it was alright, or anything like that. He didn’t want to.

”I wish we could’ve… that maybe,” she choked on the words, and he could hear renewed tears in her voice. “I tried to come up with some kind of healing spell, but nothing worked. Maybe, if w-“

”I thought you would be angry at me,” he cut her off, unable to bear listening to her say exactly what he himself was thinking. “I would have expected you to scream at me, not…”

”Angry at you,” she said in a neutral tone. “Of course I’m angry at you, you blockhead,” she continued, her voice both softer and harder at the same time. “More than you know.”

He kept his eyes averted. “I am sorry,” he said, feeling his stomach turn over and over. “I am sorry, but I could not betray her. Even if she may deserve it, I could not have turned against her, not even when I learned that she had killed your-“

”Is that really what you think I’m angry about?” she asked in a disbelieving, pained voice. “Do you really know me so little?” There was honest, true pain in her voice, like he’d just struck her.

He was so surprised he turned his head and looked at her, at the tears running down her cheeks and the wet eyes with the red veins running through them. Opening his mouth, he didn’t know what to say but tried…

“Did you really think I’d be angry at you for standing by your family?” she pressed on, not giving him the chance to say anything. “That I, of all people, would resent you for choosing your blood over the law?” Her hands clenched on her lap, digging into the soft, warm fabric of her skirt. “I really thought you knew me better, Basil.”

It was like a stab right into his heart, as the pieces fell into place, slowly but surely. Renewing his tears along the way.

”I’m angry because you didn’t tell me,” she snarled the words. “We’re… we’re teammates, we’re friends, we’re… We haven’t known each other for very long, I know that, just a few months, and yet it feels like I’ve known you for so long, and I thought you felt the same way.”

“I do,” he croaked, now unable to avert his eyes from hers.

”Somehow, in those few months, you’ve become… my best friend,” she said, softly. “More so than Dalia. Even more so than Stephie, and I’ve known her since I was five.” Her frame shook with a sob, as she briefly averted her eyes to take out a delicate handkerchief and wiped her eyes with it, before blowing her nose. Not that it helped much, as the tears were immediately replaced. “You’re my friend, you’re my brother, you’re m-“ She cut herself off, briefly, then started again. “I care for you,” she continued, though she seemed to have meant to say something else, at first. “And I trusted you. And I thought that you trusted me.”

”I should have,” he admitted, feeling another weight settle on his shoulders.

”But you didn’t,” she pressed on, rightfully accusing him. “You didn’t trust me. You didn’t trust me that I’d not do something stupid if you told me, or that I’d leave, or that I’d turn against you. You didn’t trust me and you left me to interact with my soi’s murderer! I laughed with her, I hugged her, I treated her to food in my family’s restaurant!” She all but screamed at him, her every word cutting into his heart like a red-hot knife. “That may seem silly to some, but it matters to me.”

She finally turned away, wiping tears away with her bare hand. “But you know what hurts the most? It’s realising that you never trusted me to begin with. And that, that’s what breaks my heart, above all and I’m sorry, I’m sorry, sorry, I shouldn’t be putting this on you now, not when you just lost Prisca,” she bent over, burying her face in her hands. “You’ve gone through so much, and you’re a good person, a good hero, but I just can’t, can’t get over the fact that the boy I fell in love with lied to me the whole time we were together!”

He hadn’t thought he could possibly feel any worse anymore, but he’d been wrong. He hadn’t even thought of it like that. That he’d been betraying her trust – and she had told him everything about herself, had never held anything back whenever it had come up, and he’d…

Then her last sentence reached his brain and everything crashed.

Graymalkin opened his eyes and looked up at him, and somehow he seemed to understand something of what was going on, as he looked just infinitely annoyed at him.

”L-love?” he stammered, looking at her with wide eyes.

She looked right back, face flushed bright red. “I know this is absolutely not the time, but… really? You never noticed at all?” she asked, sounding simultaneously amused and heartbroken. “Why am I not surprised?”

He cast his mind back, through his memories, looking for any signs of it, any hints, anything…

”I never noticed… anything…” he admitted.

”Basil, I’d say something like ‘what does a girl have to do, rip off her clothes and dance naked in front of you?’ except I did that and you still didn’t get it.”

He thought back to that particular occasion.

”But… that was for an experiment… and you need to be naked to perform some of your rituals…”

“Basileus Bartholomew Balthasar Brant-Blake,” she spoke his full name with perfect pronounciation and in the most dry voice he’d ever heard as she rolled her eyes, “When a girl, any girl, willingly strips naked in front of you and dances, no matter the reason she admits to, and it’s not a life-threatening situation, then you can safely assume that she’s trying to express some interest in you!” By the end of it, her face was glowing brighter than the Dark’s eyes.

Basil leaned back on the bench, his mouth opening and closing wordlessly, as he looked down at Graymalkin to avoid looking at her.

”Oh,” was all he managed to say.

”Yeah, ‘oh’,” Vasiliki replied, leaning back as well and putting her hands down to her left and right, the fingers of one hand briefly brushing over his fingers. “Basil, you’re the smartest person I’ve ever met and I love you, but sometimes, you’re a fucking idiot.”

”…”

He stared down at his cat, feeling like said fucking idiot.

I’ve really fucked it up completely, haven’t I? he couldn’t help but think. I lost Prisca. I failed to save her, even after trying for so long, going so far. And I broke my best friend’s heart all along the way, as well.

”I’m such an idiot,” he said, letting the tears run.

She only gave an unrefined grunt in response.

They sat there like that, being snowed upon and ignoring the cold, their hands nearly touching on the bench, but not quite, as she stared off into the distance and he looked down at his cat, rubbing his ears and making him pur.

Suddenly, the quiet contemplation was interrupted by a sudden spike of pain in his head, making his hand shoot up from Graymalkin’s head to his own, as he barely bit down on a scream.

”Basil? Basil, what’s wrong?” Vasiliki asked, frantically. “Did something happen?” She looked around, frantically, as if expecting to find a threat.

Then she fell quiet, and Basil realised that the street beyond the park had gone entirely quiet.

Graymalkin on his lap had turned his head towards said street, looking at something there with feline disapproval.

He followed his cat’s gaze, slowly, until he saw the street, where everyone had stopped moving.

Cars stood in the middle of the street, some with their engines still running, as their drivers either leaned out of their windows or stood next to them, looking up in blank horror.

On the sidewalk, people had stopped doing what they’d been doing and stared up with matching expressions. A mother knelt in the snow, hugging her child and sobbing bitterly, as the little boy stared up without comprehension. Two girls around Basil’s and Vasiliki’s age were hugging each other, tears running down their cheeks as they, too looked up.

Everywhere he looked, the same scene repeated itself, over and over, until he saw it.

A strand of light, glowing softly, so white it made the fresh snow look dirty, its tip two meters or so above the ground.

Vasiliki’s hand found his, her fingers intertwining themselves with his and squeezing them, seeking comfort.

He followed the strand of light up, and up and up, as more strands joined it, becoming a single, impossibly long mass of glowing white hair, leading up to a pair of delicate feet with nails which glowed in the exact same colour. The feet led up to long, lovely, flawless legs, bare, that joined into a gentle V-shape at the top. Above that, a flat stomach and a pair of large, but not disproportionate breasts, leading to a swan-like, flawless neck. At her sides, long, delicate arms with fingers that looked like they’d been crafted to play the piano, long, delicate and smooth, tipped with glowing nails a few centimetre longer than usual.

Atop it all, a face so impossibly, unnaturally beautiful, it could have made artists cry for being unable to ever truly do it justice, were it not marred by an utter lack of expression, her lips slightly parted open, her eyes blazing white, uncaringly, seeming to look at no one and nothing at all. Even her eyebrows were sculpted to perfection, and glowed as if they were made of light.

Snowflakes fell around and onto her, but none of them reached her skin, nor were they melted by any body heat; rather, they slid down her form, stirred by the cold wind to dance around her as they fell, creating a gorgeous dress, as ephemeral as a dream and just as beautiful.

The pain in Basil’s head intensified as above, light spread across the sky, slowly branching down towards the ground in the distance, the branches broadening to fill out and cover the heavens entirely.

Bree Whitaker’s, Desolation-in-Light’s, blazing eyes swept over Basil and Vasiliki and he knew for a fact that they saw neither of them.

Basil squeezed Vasiliki’s hand back.

Finally, he felt numb.

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B012.8 Born At Sleep

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“Is that… what in God’s name is that supposed to be?” Prisca asked in a hushed voice as they stared at the thing facing the city.

It looked, at first, like a giant blueish-silvery sack, barely held in a roughly humanoid shape thirty to thirty-five meters tall – it was hard to tell, as it still stood partly in the water. There was no visible neck – its body simply ended in a conical top. No shoulders, either – its arms simply hung from its upper torso. There were no joints visible anywhere. Its body was pear-shaped, its legs extending from its bottom without any visible hips. It had a half-opened, rather tiny mouth on its head lacking actual lips and showing rows upon rows of irregular, conical teeth set in jet black gums. Above said mouth and slightly to the side, it sported a single, huge black eye with a red iris. The eye was so big, only half of it fit into the socket, with the rest poking out, like a chamaeleon’s eye, only bare. It was swiveling around chaotically, as if it didn’t know what to look at. It would’ve looked utterly ridiculous, if it wasn’t so big.

It’s skin, which had an almost metallic blue-silver colour, was unbroken, smoothly covering everything except for its mouth and its eye. As they watched, it took a single, lumbering step on to dry ground, and the moment its foot – more of a pseudopod – touched the concrete of the street running along the beach, its colouration changed, starting with the parts that had touched ground, a dusty grey colour crawling up its form and covering it from head to toe. At the same time, its whole body contracted, literally compressing itself as it shrank to half its former height, less than twenty meters. It was still pear-shaped, only its upper body was now noticably more human, with pronounced shoulders and thick arms ending in actual, if only three-fingered hands instead of five pseudopods sticking out of another, bigger one. Its legs were more detailed as well, bending with proper knees instead of merely being two straight pillars.

It opened its mouth wide and made a long, low rumbling sound, almost like a man gargling but turned up to eleven.

“Oh, jolly,” Basil said. “It’s not only a giant monster, now it’s a giant, camouflaged, mobile monster.”

“Isn’t this better, though?” Dalia asked. “Smaller now.”

“Harder to hit,” Vasiliki countered. “Better able to hide among buildings, on top of being able to visually camouflage itself. And unless it somehow reduced its overall mass, it ought to be denser now, as well. Several times tougher than before. Exponentially so, perhaps, though I am not an expert in such matters.”

“Assuming that proportions remain the same, mass octuplicates every time height doubles,” Basil supplied. “It just cut its size in half, so assuming its mass is proportional to its size and there are no weird things – well, no weirder things – going on here, that means its now eight times tougher than before.”

“Oh,” was Dalia’s only response.

“Maybe it’s not so bad,” Prisca said hopefully. “It hasn’t attacked anything yet, maybe it’s-“

Whatever she wanted to say was cut short when the giant roared so loudly it shattered the windows of every building from the beach front all the way to their building – and beyond. Vasiliki and Dalia cried out in pain, though Basil and Prisca were fortunately unaffected.

Basil reached out with both hands, grabbing onto Vasiliki and Dalia in order to steady them. “Prisca, overwatch,” he said calmly, trusting the com system he’d handed out to his team members to transmit his words even over the deafening cacophony the enemy had unleashed.

He saw the gilded girl take off, flying up and towards the monster so as to keep an eye on it – and to test its defenses; after all, Prisca was quite safe, no matter how it retaliated against Gilgul. If that thing could even bring up the firepower necessary to destroy her.

The communicators they’d gotten earlier spoke up moments after the sonic assault ended. Father Manus’ deep, calm voice said, <Attention, everyone, the enemy appears to be capable of-> but the rest of it was cut off by another scream which shook the buildings.

Damn it, Basil thought, as he held onto Dalia and Vasiliki. At the same time, he used eye movements to pick out the frequency of his communicator and link it to his helmet systems. Now I will be able to hear it properly.

He stayed where he was, for a long minute, as the girls held their hands over their ears, but though he’d included some protection in Dalia’s mask, it was not nearly enough to protect her from the cacophony.

Finally, the scream abated and the monster – he didn’t even know what to call it – looked around, turning its shapeless head to let its single eye survey its surroundings. It focused for a moment on the approaching Gilgul, as well as several other flying figures, before it focused on the rooftop Basil and the girls stood upon.

Wait, why is it focusing on us? Basil thought, moments before it went down on all fours and propelled itself towards them.

The girls were still stunned by the sonic assault as the ungainly mass of the enemy – Basil didn’t even know what to call it – approached, leaping over a distance of more than a kilometre, so he grabbed them both, wrapping an arm around their waists and leapt off the rooftop.

The enemy slammed onto the building with a massive crack, breaking through the rooftop and all the way down to the ground floor – dispelling any doubts as to what it’d done with its mass when it shrank.

Basil fired his hooks, using them to swing out of the way of the rubble the heavy impact threw around in every direction. One had attached to the edge of the opposing building’s rooftop, and he’d fired the other onto another building at a ninety-degree angle to the first one. Then he reeled in the second hook, swinging towards the far building, disconnected and fired again to hit the first building around the corner, swinging himself and the girls into cover.

Moments after he’d put the building between himself and the monster, it simply broke through it, smashing through the sturdy construction with a roar.

Why is it hunting us? he asked himself, though he didn’t even have the time to say it out loud. The beast was almost upon him, as was the rubble, when he heard a clarion-like scream, and Gilgul slammed down onto the back of the enemy’s head, spear-first, with a shout of “Keep your hands off them!” She hit it with enough force to create a shockwave, snapping its head down and causing its entire mass to flipp – its rear end rose as its head was pushed down, but its momentum persisted, carrying it feet-first over her and the others.

Not one to waste such a chance, Basil shot his hooks out and drew himself and the girls onto a nearby rooftop.

He kept his hold on them as they slowly recovered, Tyche first, then Hecate, while he looked at the damage caused by the monster having charged through one building, then flipped into another across the street.

The first one, utterly gutted, was still in the process of collapsing into a huge cloud of dust, the sound of it fortunately dampened by the protection Basil had built into his helmet. The second building, the one the beast had been inadvertently flipped into by Gilgul’s attack, had lost most of its facade as it slammed into it, and was now teetering on the edge of collapse as well.

Gilgul landed next to Basil, resting her weapon on her shoulder. “That thing is tough,” she spoke, her voice barely audible over the cacophony of the collapsing building. “I barely cut a foot into it, and even that took off a huge chunk of my time.”

“It is even thougher than its size and mass would suggest, then,” Basil concluded as the second building started collapsing atop their foe, as well. “Unless we find a weakpoint, you’ll probably be more useful conserving your charge for defence and interference.”

His girlfriend nodded, appearing stoic thanks to her all-covering armour, but he knew her well enough to know that she was upset – even though she’d just recenty gotten her powers, and she’d only been in two really serious fights since, she’d started to take a lot of pride in them, specifically in being the heavy hitter of New Lennston. This was the first enemy she’d run into who was capable of resisting her attack to a meaningful degree.

Hecate and Tyche had finally recovered, and were looking down at the devastation left behind by the brief exchange. The street below was choked with ash, what few cars were still visible now ruined by the debris and both buildings had come down entirely – fortunately, though, Esperanza’s practice of constructing every building to be tough enough to survive heavy earthquakes (and, maybe, even a future DiL attack) prevented the surrounding buildings from being torn down along with them, though they did take visible damage.

A new voice, that of a calm woman, spoke through their communicators – in Basil’s case, right into his ear. “Be advised, the enemy has moved to sector twenty-nine. Follow the dust cloud. It has also been officially designated as Crocell.”

“Crocell? That sounds familiar…” Basil commented as he looked to his right, where Hecate and Gilgul stood.

“No idea,” the gilded redhead replied.

“The forty-ninth spirit from the Ars Goetia,” Hecate supplied calmly, though one could still hear the pain in her tone. “Duke of Hell, associated with water… kind of on-the-nose, as handles go.”

“Air humidity just doubled,” Basil interrupted, the moment his sensors picked up on the new data. He activated his microphone, sending a message to the control room. “Control, my sensors register a sudden rise in air humidity. Are there any powers on our side responsible for that?”

<Negative,> came the reply after a few moments.

“Hm.” He looked down at the collapsed building Crocell had been buried underneath. “Stand ready,” he told the others, “We don’t know what this thing is really capable of.” A humming sound caused him to look up in time to see several capes and cowls arrive, standing atop a transluscent disk, which connected to the hand of a flying woman in white by a tether. More heroes (and villains) were arriving every second, until there were nearly sixty on the rooftops around and the air above them, all looking out for the enemy. Amy was approaching, as well, the other flying capes splitting up and giving her a wide berth, except for four cowls which fell into formation behind her. There was no sign of Lamarr, Kraquok or the Feral Family, though. Nor were the Subjugator or Totemic in sight. Prospero stood on a rooftop a little further back, alone save for an airy apparition, roughly humanoid in shape.

Just then, Crocell walked out of the dust cloud and the rubble, moving on all four limbs – nothing seemed to be broken or impaired.

However, its appearance was different. There were patches on its body which seemed to be made of steel now, rather than concrete, while others looked like glass…

Basil snapped off three shots, one to its eye, one to a concrete section and one to a patch of glass on its left elbow.

“The hell, Brennus!” Hecate cried out, startled.

“Dude, ice cold,” Tyche added in an impressed tone. “Totally ineffective, but those were some nice shots.”

He snapped off three more shots, aiming at different spots of the same areas. Crocell barely reacted, not even to the shot to its eye, even though Basil could see that it did cause damage, however

“They were very effective,” Basil replied in an annoyed tone. “I just didn’t intend for them to cause damage – just wanted to test…”

The fighters all around on the rooftops and in the air opened fire on Crocell. Beams, spheres of power and more flew at it before it could fully exit the rubble it had created.

It’s form was buried under the effects, over twenty different attacks at the same time. The cacophony of the impacts was nearly enough trigger his mask’s audio cut-offs.

Which was caused just by the primary impacts. What followed were the results of disparate powers connecting and interacting. Spheres of super-dense water were flash-heated by laser beams, exploding into steam. Greenish streaks of acid reacted with some kind of yellow bile-like substance to detonate into colourful (and devastating) explosions. Weird purple energy reacted with some kind of jet black smoke to flash-freeze everything the latter had been in contact with.

Someone wants this to end quickly,” Tyche commented dryly. A glance showed Basil that she looked only amused, not worried by the massive destruction they were faced with (the assault had filled most of the street below).

“Naturally,” Hecate replied in a curt fashion – one could hear her eyes rolling. “What were the shots for, Brennus?” she asked, turning her head to look at him.

“I wanted to see whether it not only mimicked the appearance of materials, but also their durability,” he explained. “If it did, then its glass-like parts would be exceedinly vulnerable; we could, perhaps, goad it into turning mostly into glass, then shatter it rather easily.”

“Didn’t look like it, though,” Hecate concluded.

He shook his head. “This rifle can shoot a hole through seven centimeters of solid steel, but it only grazed it in all three areas – eye, concrete and glass. So the changes are either only cosmetic, or it has some other defence which makes up for it. Or perhaps it just takes a far bigger attack than mine.”

“I didn’t really cause any noticable damage, either,” Gilgul supplied. “I’m not entirely sure, but I think the cut I made had already regenerated by the time it stepped out of the rubble.”

“Great, it regenerates as well,” Hecate grumbled, just in time for the attacks to abate. Basil, meanwhile, had sent a text message through his communicator to the control centre, about their observations. “What’s next, a-“

A brilliant white-blue lance of light shot out of the cloud of chaotic effects that had covered Crocell. Six defenders in flight were vaporised in an instant, a seventh fell to the ground with the left half of her body just gone. It was not silent – the attack came with a massive concussive sound, a shockwave that dispersed the assault on it.

The beam continued as Crocell – covered in wounds that had cut deep enough to kill most living beings, it’s flesh rent from its shoulders, it’s back and its upper arms – swung its head around, energy pouring forth from is misshapen mouth, drawing the beam across the rooftops, forcing heroes and villains alike to scramble for safety.

It was moving towards the rooftop Basil and the others stood upon.

“Of course it has a beam attack!” Hecate shouted, exasperated, as she dissolved into green-black smoke, half flying and half leaping to the ground below.

“Sucks to be us!” Tyche supplied as she turned into red-black smoke in turn, leaping up instead, to get over the beam.

Basil didn’t comment, he only leapt off the rooftop, firing his hooks to swing around the next building – it’s rooftop already scoured away – and away from he girls.

Gilgul waited until she was sure they’d all gotten away, then shot up just moments before the beam would’ve hit her.

He watched through his ravens, placed around the scene, as Crocell adjusted its beam, swinging around again.

It was going after Tyche.

Its breath followed her, but she reacted the only reasonable way she could – putting another coin in the ‘is Dalia really a ditz or just pretending to’ jar – by turning solid again, dropping straight down and past the beam.

Again, Crocell followed and Basil was not at all sure that even her prodigious luck could save her from its continued attention.

It turned out, though, that that wasn’t necessary – or perhaps it was already at work – for Waverider was fast approaching Crocell from behind, riding a whale-sized mass of crackling, diffuse energy; he must’ve been charging his power since the beginning of the fight, to have this big a punch ready.

The wave slammed into the wounded Crocell – it had not recovered any of the damage it had sustained so far, unlike the small wounds Basil had inflicted with his rail gun. Waverider leaped off it with the fluid ease of a champion surfer and gymnast, flipping backwards as his attack slammed into Crocell’s unprotected back.

The explosion was so violent it shattered glass for several blocks around, where there was any left. The read outs on his mask told Basil that the two closest ravens had sustained damage as well, despite their sturdy design. Still functional, but damaged.

When the dust settled, Crocell was nowhere to be seen, only a messy crater covered in rubble.

A huge, porcelain-white hand appeared beneath Waverider, gently catching him. His father-in-law’s power.

<Attention: Crocell’s status is unconfirmed. All combatants with enhanced perception are asked to verify,> came the announcement from the communicator, patched directly into Basil’s helmet as he swung onto the rooftop.

Absentmindedly, he sent one of the already damaged ravens to the crater to investigate while he himself checked on the girls.

Hecate was with Tyche, helping her up where she’d landed on the street – she didn’t seem hurt, though, only stunned. Gilgul flew to Basil, drifting gracefully through the air.

“Is it over?” she asked warily as she rotated in the air without breaking her movement towards him, looking straight at the crater.

“I’m investigating,” he replied, focusing on his raven again, now that he knew they were alright.

It flew down into the crater – where it found a hole in the ground, barely visible due to the rubble concealing it, mist – not smoke, but actual mist – wallowing up out of it.

He immediately contacted mission control. “Crocell is hiding underground, generating mist!”

<Understood. Please b-> The reply was cut short when Crocell burst out of the ground beneath Waverider and the hand holding him up.

It leapt up, until its chest was at a height with them – all wounds gone from its body, which was now colored a bright white, not unlike Waverider’s attack had been – and its sole black-red eye could focuse on the defenceless man on the porcelain hand. With its arms lifted above its head, it roared and swung, bringing both fists down on him.

Again, Father Manus came to the rescue, though Basil could not tell where he himself was, dismissing the hand holding Waverider up and, simultaneously, manifesting another one next to him, slapping into him open-palmed to knock him out of the way of the lethal blow.

Crocell’s fists smashed the hand into porcelain shards which quickly faded out of existence, but it had succeeded in its task – Waverider tumbled to safety, until another hand appeared to catch him, quickly flying away to let him recuperate – he would be out of the fight for a bit, after an attack that big.

Basil snapped off two more shots, aiming for Crocell’s eye. Both hit home – it was a still a pretty big target – but it didn’t even react, in spite of the damage done to what ought to be a sensitive spot. The wounds vanished within moments, too superficial to even ooze any liquids.

Crocell landed heavily, next to the hole it had created, which was filled with thick mist.

More moisture began to condense around Croquell, shrouding it as Basil’s sensors detected an even greater rise in the surrounding air’s moisture. Whisps of mist were taking form all over the place, low to the ground yet but still growing.

The communicator spread the word as they picked up on it and Basil watched as the more experienced defenders took charge, ordering the others around, organising them.

More mist formed directly on Crocell’s body, pouring off of it in waves, almost entirely obscuring its form.

Basil didn’t take his eyes off of it, but he used his ravens to look around himself – the girls had all joined up with him again. “I assume the heroes are about to disperse its cover,” he told them. “Once they do, we ought to hit it with everything we have got. Gilgul, go in close, but do not let it hit you needlessly – your time is too precious to waste. Hecate, Tyche, unload on it from a distance. Stick close, so Tyche’s luck will protect you.”

His two original teammates nodded and leapt away, switching to their smoke forms. Gilgul, though, stopped to look at him. “What are you going to do?” she asked, her voice worried. “You’re the most vulnerable one here.”

He frowned beneath his mask, annoyed by how right she was. Gilgul was nearly untouchable on top of being a disposable projection. Tyche’s luck had not failed her yet. Hecate had, apparently, seriously worked on her defensive capabilities. They both had those smoke-dolls of hers, as well. Which did not work for Basil at all – he could not even turn one on, nevermind stay in smoke form. With his armour gutted as much as it was, he would not survive one hit from this thing.

I really, really need more funds. With real power armour, I could carry around a real railgun, not this tiny little thing and put out some serious damage.

Shaking his head, he focused on Gilgul again. Barely a second had passed. “I will keep an eye on it with my ravens and look for a weak spot. My rifle can not actually cause any meaningful damage, after all. I will also keep an eye out for anyone requiring first aid.”

She nodded and flew off, straight for the enemy just as a strong wind picked up.

A cowl – Basil recognised her from a documentary, though he could not recall her actual name – stood on a lower rooftop nearby, a woman in a brown bodysuit and birdlike mask, both looking feathery but strangely plain, unlike the usual costumes favoured by capes and cowls, and the air was gathering around her, then flowing in a steady stream towards Crocell, blowing the mist away.

For whatever reason, Crocell had remained in place, without even varying its position from when it had landed after  its failed attack on Waverider. Its eye swivelled around, looking at the brown bird woman.

Gilgul took her chance and slammed into its chest with a booming sound, blowing what mist remained around it away as the massive beast was thrown back, falling hard onto the mangled street.

We really need to get it out of the city, Basil thought. Catastrophy-proof or not, there was a limit to how tough one could make a whole city, and Esparanza City really should not be destroyed again.

He kept watch, distributing his ravens around the area to watch Crocell from multiple angles, keeping the damaged ones closest. Three ravens patrolled, instead, scanning for people in need of his medical expertise or a quick evac. It irked him that he was limited to being little more than a spectator, and it angered him that he got annoyed about that.

Below, Crocell was fighting Gilgul, who was doing a good job of keeping him pinned. The brown bird… Nightingale! Her cowl was Nightingale – she was dispersing the mist Crocell kept generating, to keep visibility up.

Meanwhile, everyone was unloading attacks on Crocell, aiming for its head and its lower body, so as not to hit Gilgul. He could see Hecate and Tyche add their own fire to the mix. Tyche’s gun was technically weaker than his, but her luck meant that she almost always hit her target’s weakpoints. As for Hecate… he wasn’t one of those people who looked down on contrivers for having their own weird explanations for how their creations behaved, and he’d actually listened when she explained that her staff was not actually shooting fire (which was why it didn’t produce heat, either). It was powered by the Torch and the Dead, two of her ‘aspects’ – the flame aged her targets, decaying them. Living organic matter was not affected, unless she wanted it to and no matter how tough a target was, it always did at least some damage. It also packed quite the punch, as well.

He couldn’t actually tell how effective their attacks were, as the deluge of powers kept Crocell quite out of sight – until a bright white cube rose up into the air above the fight.

Not a cube – a tesseract, he thought, recognising the power moments before the tesseract – about half the size of a grown adult – lit up, shining brighter than the sun.

The white light filled his entire vision, yet it did not blind him. Instead, everything stood out in stark detail, especially Crocell, whom he could now clearly make out beneath the attacks converging on it.

Hollywood’s power. Illuminates an area, distinguishes between friends and foes. Foes are blinded, while most powers which provide concealment are cancelled on them. They are also made plainly visible, easier to be hit by any friends, who also have an easier time navigating the area.

Her power was one of two reasons why her team, in spite of its rather modest size, had been able to police most of Esperanza City on its own for the last decade.

The  second reason was walking down the street from the opposite of Crocell, approaching the pinned beast. Charybdis, with her brother Silver Falcon right behind her and ready to take her to safety if necessary, moving like she was walking down the walkway at a fashion show, stopped twenty metres away from Crocell and visibly released her breath.

Basil twitched with his eyes, activating his microphone. “Gilgul, break contact now!”

She shot up, leaving Crocell behind, just as Charybdis opened her mouth wide.

Basil felt her power’s tug, despite the great distance, as she sucked the air and the mist in front of her in.

Everything in a cone in front of her began to drift towards her, slowly at first, but quickly speeding up – and not just the rubble, mist and air, nor the cars left by the roadside, no – everything. Basil watched as the powers raining onto Crocell began to bend, the assault being drawn in. Laser beams, fireballs, streams of ice, everything was sucked in as her power ramped up.

For a moment, Crocell seemed to be almost given a break as it began to rise up, free of the assault of attacks – but then the suction became strong enough to affect it, as well, and it began to slide towards Charybdis open mouth.

Basil fired his hooks onto the roof he was standing on, to steady himself and watched as everyone kept firing into the tornado of wind and power that was forming, contributing more attacks to be sucked in.

He didn’t know whether sucking Crocell in would kill it or not, considering its regenerative capabilities, but it certainly wouldn’t get through undamaged.

Yet Crocell seemed to not like that idea. It ducked low, digging its fingers into he concrete to hold on.

The defenders adapted, those whose projectiles caused a stronger kinetic impact repositioning themselves to fire into its back, at its hands, at the concrete it was holding onto, all in an attempt to dislodge it.

The attacks on the concrete in particular seemed quite promising and Crocell seemed to be at least intelligent enough to recognise that, because it turned its head by nearly one-hundred and eighty degrees, opening its maw as a blue-white light emerged from it, aimed at the metahumans trying to dislodge it.

No one made a move to evade, and for good reason – as the beam spilled forth, it was sucked in by Charybdis like it was water, drawn into her mouth.

Not so intelligent, perhaps, Basil thought, looking on as Crocell slowly turned its head towards Charybdis, breathing energy as if it was achieving something useful.

It kept going like that, for nearly half a minute, pouring more light out as it tried to kill her, to no effect, until the concrete it was holding onto was finally too damaged to hold it, and Crocell lost its hold.

Charybdis suction had increased so far, meanwhile, that it was no longer being slowly dragged across the street – instead, it was nearly lifted off its feet, sliding towards her.

The beam cut off; instead, it seemed as if it was making some kind of sound, but that, too, was lost.

This might be it, Basil thought hopefully. If she sucks Crocell in…

Crocell dropped to the ground, impacting it so heavily cracks spread like spider-web across the street and nearby buildings, standing rock-still even as the suction continued.

For a moment, most of the attacks being poured into the tornado or aimed at Crocell cut off, as everyone stared at the monster in shock, watching its wounds – oozing something almost like blood, though much thinner – bubble like they were boiling, only to reveal unharmed skin once the bubbles burst. It seemed to be no longer affected by Charybdis suction.

The attacks began anew, those which had paused, at least, now all aimed at its back as the heroes and villains repositioned themselves, trying to push it into Charybdis’ mouth.

Only to cut off when it began deliberately approaching her.

If it is confident enough to approach her, it may well be immune to being sucked into her mouth, was Basil’s fear at the moment. Charybdis had only the one power, and impressive though it was, it left her no more than a normal woman against threats which could circumvent it.

I wish I had been able to complete that disintegration ray, Basil thought bitterly. It had been an idea that had come to him several times, all the way to his first haphazard works at home (though he was starting to question whether he’d actually built that reactor and the computer in just two days – he couldn’t be sure about anything anymore) and several times again since, but it had always been just pieces, and pieces which did not fit with each other, either, so he hadn’t been able to improvise he final product from the separate bouts of inspiration which had petered out to nothing.

His hand tightened on the grip and barrel of his rifle, watching as Charybdis allowed Crocell to approach until she was nearly in its reach, steadily absorbing attacks which were now being once more poured into her, instead of aiming at Crocell.

Then she closed her mouth, cutting the suction off. Crocell stumbled for a moment, and it was all she needed – or Basil.

Stage one, complete. “Hecate, Tyche, get some cover! Stage two is going to pack a punch!”

Crocell righted itself and reached out with one arm for Charybdis.

But the heroine just stared it down, until she opened her mouth – and everything she’d sucked in, the rubble, the air, the fire, the lasers, the ice, Crocell’s beam and all the other powers, it all came out again compressed into a sphere the size of a minivan made out of… damn near everything, slamming into Crocell with a booming sound that shook even Basil.

Whatever it had done to protect itself from her suction, it clearly wasn’t sufficient for this. The blast took it in its belly and threw it back far enough to fly past the roof Basil stood upon.

Crocell flew out from between the buildings it had been in and landed heavily in one of Esperanza City’s open squares, decorated with fountains, small patches of flowers and greenery and lots of seating. Not that most of it looked any good, after the dust cloud Crocell threw up with its impact covered them in gray dust, or the cracks from the impact spread all over the place.

Hell, Basil felt its fall all the up to the roof he was on. He recalled his ravens and disconnected his hooks from the roof just as Gilgul landed next to him, moments before Hecate and Tyche landed, as well.

“That. Was. Awesome!” Tyche exulted with a wide grin plastered on her face, waving her rifle around in an utterly irresponsible manner (Basil activated its safety remotely, just in case).

“I… have to agree,” Hecate admitted, leaning a little on her staff. “I knew the basics about Charybdis’ power, but I’d never seen it in action before.

Before replying, Basil momentarily looked up as Hollywood’s tesseract flew over them to take up position above the square.

“She is their heavy hitter for a reason,” he supplied, taking a look at the once more visible monster.

It looked to be more damaged  than from all the attacks it took before. It’s gut had been vaporized down to where its spine should be, though Basil saw no indications of any kind of bone structure or internal organs – just red ‘flesh’ bleeding that strangely thin red liquid, gone in a chunk from its groin up to its sternum (if those terms even applied to its physiology – Basil doubted it, honestly) and almost all the way through, nearly bisecting it.

It was still alive though, its eye moving around, unable to focus on anything – Hollywood’s power alone may not have been enough to block its sight, but the light combined with the dust seemed to do the trick.

The insides of the wound began to bubble even as the defenders of the city gathered on the buildings encircling the square, staying further apart in case it began spitting that lethal beam of its blindly. Though they’d already taken losses, Basil was pretty sure he was counting more people than had been there before – reinforcements, certainly.

Before anyone had decided what to do – simply attacking it didn’t seem to have much of an effect – its wound had closed and Crocell rose up over the dust cloud.

Again, a strong wind blew, but instead of dispersing the cloud, it gathered it up, creating a pillar of dust around Crocell to blind it.

“Get ready,” Basil told the girls. “I am pretty sure it is going to go on the offensive now, after having taken that kind of hit.”

The girls nodded, bracing themselves, with Gilgul taking a step forward to stand in front of Basil and the others.

Just in time for Crocell to burst out of the pillar of dust, going from standing completely still to an explosive charge in half a second, flat.

“Here it co-!” Basil’s sentence was interrupted when the ground beneath Crocell turned silvery-grey and it… stumbled and fell hard on its face.

“The hell was that?” Tyche asked with barely suppressed laughter.

Basil turned his head, following the sight of his ravens which had already made out the most probable source of the effect. The girls followed.

What caught their attention first, though, was Kraquok. He was already grown, almost as tall at the hip as Crocell’s shoulders, and he was walking on four limbs, his legs and his middle pair of arms, to be precise. His claws were longer still than they had been before, proportionally, while his human face just looked amused, his crocodile-like maw dripping saliva.

He was walking just behind a group of sixteen in a loose but clearly practiced formation. One of them, a girl barely older than Basil, had an arm extended, her hand turned a silver the exact same shade as the ground underneath Crocell, which was now holding it entirely immobile, unable to break contact with the silver. Another, a boy who looked like he was her younger brother, had his arm extended as well, his hand glowing golden, though Basil didn’t know what he was doing.

Everyone around on the rooftops took a deep breath, watching two titans of the metahumans world – one of the original cowls and the legacy of one of the original capes – marching onto the square, towards their quarry.

And then Basil and his friends just watched as they went on the offensive.

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B012.7 Born At Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was still glad about every bit of added support.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love you, too. Be safe.

Look who’s talking.

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

“Huh?” he asked, momentarily confused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That… looks big,” Dalia commented lamely.

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

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

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

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

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B012.6 Born At Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the end, though, he…

“Hey, earth to Basil!!!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pretty much, yes,” he affirmed.

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

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

“Aww…” Tim seemed disappointed.

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” Basil asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Electromagnetism…

Electricity…

Lightning… I am…

He blinked, but all he saw was darkness.

***

The sky is dark, but not as dark as…

“Go on,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked up again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another drop.

And another.

Drop after drop fell on him, quickening…

Rain!!!

***

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

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

“What’s happened?” Prisca asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

A lightning bolt!

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

The rain intensified.

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

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

Rain fell… lightning flashed… thunder roared…

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

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

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

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

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

Clouds make rain.

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

Rain makes… lightning.

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

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

At that moment, he completely forgot about them.

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

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

I can see the stars!

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ok,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alright, let’s go!”

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B012.5 Born At Sleep

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Everyone was eating, even though Basil had joined late – it seemed that Vasiliki had brought enough food to feed the entire group thrice over.

Or at least it would have been enough to do that, if it was not for Aimihime. She was putting the food away like crazy, faster and in greater quantities than any two of them put together.

“What?” she asked in between bites, once she noticed that everyone was staring at her. For good reason, too, as she had been not-subtly shifting her jaw to fit more food into it and, judging by some of the movements that showed through her skin, had been using shapeshifting to chew even when her mouth had been too full to actually chew the normal way. “Geez, sorry, I just need the food, you know? For my power.”

“You mean, it’s fueled by food?” Stephi asked curiously – the only one in the room who was holding back on stuffing herself (none of the other girls had to watch their weight, thanks to their powers; Tim did not care about it and Basil was working out so much, he could afford to eat extra, even if he had not skipped meals for a while now).

Aimi made a ‘so-so’ gesture with her hand. “Kind of. It’s not like I lose my power if I don’t eat enough,” she replied in between eating half a plate of french fries in one go. “But… I can’t really change my mass, you know?”

Dalia made a series of sounds garbled by the food in her mouth, but Aimi seemed to get her meaning.

“Well, if I want to take on bigger, stronger forms, I need to, uh…” She actually blushed. “I need to put on weight, you know? Lots of it.”

Basil looked her up and down from his seat on the love seat opposite of Tim, looking past Prisca’s head to do so (she had just plopped down on his lap and started feeding him). “I suppose you compress the extra mass?”

She nodded. “Yup, I mean, I can just turn the fat into bone or muscle, you know? I’m like, five foot nothing, but I weigh like, two hundred pounds now – and I wanna hit two-fifty before Christmas… why are you looking at me like that?” she said, looking uncomfortable at Stephi, who was giving her the death glare.

“I… you know how much I have to watch what I eat and work out to keep this figure!?” she asked in outrage. “Bad enough Vas can just eat whatever she wants at keep her perfect weight – now you can and want to put on as much weight as you want, and it doesn’t even show!?” She was shrieking at the end.

Tim chuckled and wrapped his arms around her waist, hugging her to his broad chest and belly. “Relax, babe,” he said as he kissed her cheek. “No reason to get worked up.”

“And how did this happen, anyway?” Basil asked, pointing at the two of them. When everyone was looking at him, he continued. “I mean, Tim and Stephi? When? How? I never noticed this!”

Everyone shook their heads, but it was Tim who spoke up first. “Dude, I told you like, two weeks ago,” he explained. “You were working on… something. But you nodded when I talked to you and all, and you congratulated me.”

“Oh.” Now he felt like blushing. “I… must have been running on autopilot.”

Now everyone just rolled their eyes at him, which he felt was just unfair… at least a little.

After that, they finished their meal in silence. Everyone threw their paper plates and plastic cutlery into the plastic bags the meal had come in (so much more handy than using actual cutlery you had to clean up afterwards), which were promptly disposed off by Basil and Tim, who took them up the elevator and out of the building to throw them into the trash containers.

“You’re better now,” Tim said simply. Not a question, but an affirmation.

“I feel loads better now,” he replied while he took a moment to stand in the sun, taking slow, deep breaths. Despite the light snowfall (which he had completely missed) and the sub-zero temperatures, the sun shone brightly; the air burned pleasantly in his lungs, creating white mist as he exhaled again. “The wonders of sleep and good food, I guess.” Though I do not think that could be all.

Tim patted his back. “I’m glad you’re human again, pal.” His calm, low and very worried-sounding voice was the only sound in the cold winter air, aside from their breathing. “I got really scared after a while, you know?”

“I am really sorry about that. If only I knew how to really fix it.” Basil turned to look at him.

Despite his words, and his tone of voice, Tim looked pretty… calm and stoic, really. “That’s what today is all about, pal,” he replied. “That’s why we’re all here. Why I brought Aimi in, too.” He paused for a moment. “Sorry about springing that on you, by the way.”

Basil shrugged. “No, you were right. She is my friend, and she deserved better than what I gave her. I am glad she knows.”

“Glad to hear it. Now, let’s go back in and get this done.”

They both made their way back down.

***

Five minutes later, everyone was sitting again, if in a slightly different configuration, except for Vasiliki, who stood facing Basil on the opposite side of the table from the couch, while he was sitting there with Prisca and Aimihime by his side. Dalia sat on the couch, as well, on Prisca’s other side, while Tim and Stephi were sharing the love seat on the other side of Aimihime.

“So,” Basil said, though he didn’t know what to talk about. He just wanted to break up the uncomfortable silence of the last few minutes.

“So, here we are,” Vasiliki continued. “To talk about you.”

Basil felt his mouth’s corner tick up in what felt like a bitter smile. There’s less to know than one would expect…

Dalia leaned forward, turning her head to look straight at him. “Let’s say it out loud, alright? Something’s wrong with you, and we wanna know what it is, and how to fix it!”

“What she said,” Aimihime said, looking at Dalia with an expression Basil couldn’t quite put a name to.

“How about we start with you blowing us all off lately” Tim suggested. “And not just us, but the whole world, it seems!”

Basil opened his mouth, though he didn’t know what to reply with, but Aimi spoke up first, “Actually, that’s one thing that doesn’t surprise me, now that I know he’s a gadgeteer.” She shrugged, smiling as she looked around at everyone. “Polymnia is just like that once she gets one of her big ideas. She just spaces out for hours at a time, sometimes even a day or two, even forgets to eat…”

“Basil has been doing it for weeks, though,” Prisca refuted. “He hadn’t eaten or slept for days at least.”

<Five days, nineteen hours and two minutes without sleep,> Eudocia supplied. <Two days and fifty-nine minutes without proper food.>

“And that,” Aimihime said, pointing at Eudocia’s symbol on the screen. “Is she… really an AI? Because I’ve only ever heard of one person making an AI. Su Ling herself.”

Everyone looked at Eudocia, mostly with pensive looks, except for Basil, who was looking at his hands on his knees. “She is an AI… though she does not appear to be a classical Artificial General Intelligence, like Su Ling’s Galatea.”

“She ‘does not appear’ to be one?” Vasiliki asked, her gaze now focused on Basil rather than the screen. “Shouldn’t you of all people know exactly what she’s capable of?”

<Touchy subject…> Eudocia said.

“I did not actually make her, not really,” Basil admitted. “I merely put the finishing touches – mostly just booted her up and performed some calibration.”

“You just… found an AI,” Prisca said, looking stunned.

“Kind of…” he admitted, looking down in embarrassment.

“Maybe… maybe we should start at the beginning,” Vasiliki threw in. “There’s a lot off here, and Eudocia isn’t even the biggest issue here – no offence.”

<None taken!> Eudocia replied cheerfully. <I’m just glad we’re finally going to clear the air!>

Vasiliki nodded towards the screen, before focusing on Basil again. “Alright, do you want to start? You’re probably the only one who can, actually, unless you want us to just list all the odd stuff we’ve noticed about you lately.”

Basil tapped put his hands together in front of his face, tapping his index fingers. It wasn’t that he was stalling… he just wasn’t sure how much to tell them. There was… a lot.

I can’t tell them about Amy, he thought. That’s not my secret to share. As to everything else…

He looked around at the faces of his friends. Vasiliki looked intense, as so often, though tempered with concern. Dalia seemed as carefree as ever, though she was paying attention and not doing anything else at the same time. Prisca looked concerned and curious. Aimihime seemed to be just concerned. Stephi didn’t seem to know what to think and Tim was had a concerned frown on his face.

Well… what do I have to lose, really?

So he just told them nearly everything he knew.

***

“So, to sum it up,” he finished. “Both Amy and I are having issues with our memories. Blank spaces, false memories, the works. Our parents do not exist, as far as I can tell, and have never existed to begin with. I do not know where my money came from, or who built this base – though I suspect it is connected to this ‘Macian’. I have voices in my head and they are quite annoying. My power is not working the way it should, or at least not the way it used to. I cannot seem to… where did that whiteboard come from?” He interrupted his summary when he realised that Vasiliki had produced a whiteboard on wheels from somewhere, and she’d been taking notes, organising… all his issues on it, with little notes attached by way of magnets and black sharpie.

“Bag of Holding,” she said simply as she drew a line connecting two points (‘Funds from unknown Source’ and ‘Who made the base?’).

“You have a… whiteboard in your… bag of holding…” Aimihime said slowly, as if she could not believe it.

“Well, of course. I have lots of different things, just in case I end up needing them,” Vasiliki replied as she put the cap onto her pen and stepped aside, giving everyone a clear view of the board.

Basil looked at it quietly, while the others commented on Vasiliki’s use of her bag, or inquired about what else she had stashed in there.

Seeing it all on that board, in Vasiliki’s neat, precise handwriting… made it seem somehow smaller than it had felt. Or at least not quite as insanely confusing.

After a minute or so of staring at it, he realised that everyone else had fallen quiet again, and they were looking at him.

Prisca was the first one to speak up – “Can I just say, I never expected to have to deal with this kind of plot? Even in our world, I thought this kind of thing only happened in comic books.” She gave him a teasing smile. “That or cheap romance novels.”

Basil rolled his eyes. “I think even the dime novels would be more imaginative than… that.” He gestured at the writing on the board.

“How about we focus on resolving this then, so we can get on with more ‘imaginative’ matters?” Vasiliki steered them right back on track. “As far as I can tell, everything comes back to your memory issues, Basil. Yours and your sister’s. So, let’s start with the basics – what could be the cause of that?” She uncapped her pen again.

Dalia waved her arm as if she was in class. “Oh, oh, I know! Someone’s brainwashing them! Some kinda uber-telepath!”

Vasiliki wrote ‘affected by powerful telepath’ on the board, right under ‘potential causes’. “We can safely assume that anyone capable of this kind of mindbuggery is very powerful.”

“Mindbuggery,” Dalia whispered loud enough for everyone to hear. “I can’t believe you said mindbuggery.”

Vasiliki ignored her and pushed on. “This is probably an exercise in futility, but whom do we know of that would be capable of this kind of mental manipulation… you said you haven’t even been able to discuss it with your sister?”

He nodded, taking a deep breath to try to relax. “Yeah. Now that I actually think about it… we always got sidetracked… or just plain blacked out, I think. I am not sure. I do not think I could be sure. I am kind of surprised I have been able to talk to you about it at all.”

“Have you tried to talk to us before about it?” Prisca asked.

“Not that I can remember,” he admitted before he had to stifle a laugh. “Which is kind of the problem, is it not?”

<At the very least, you have never talked about it to me,> Eudocia said. <And I am pretty sure that I am not susceptible to telepathy like you meatbags.>

Dalia gave the finger to the screen.

Vasiliki, on the other hand, now seemed intent on her. “That’s a good point, actually,” she said. “If anyone here should be capable of seeing through all this, it’d be you, Eudocia. Did you notice anything?”

<Well, I noticed Father’s insomnia and obsessive behaviour,> she said, causing Aimihime to look at Basil and mouth the word ‘father’ with a questioning look on her face. Basil just shrugged and mouthed ‘because I booted her up’ back. <But I never researched his family or the base, so I can’t say anything about that.>

“Why didn’t you?” Tim asked. “I’d be curious in your place.”

<Father didn’t tell me to,> she replied simply.

“She does not have much in the way of motivation,” Basil explained. “Unless it is about games. She will seek out, research and play them all on her own. But if she is to do anything that is not related to playing games, then she has to be told to do it, or it just will not occur to her.”

<Well, that, and taking care of you,> she threw in. <I certainly can think of that on my own.>

He nodded to show that he agreed. “Once she has actually decided to do something, she can figure it out on her own, but it is that initial decision-making ability that she lacks, and why I hesitate to call her an AGI.”

<I’m quite happy with the way I am, thank you very much,> she said brightly. <Just so long as I can keep playing my games!>

“Is that why you gave me a direct link to her?” Prisca asked with a wry smile. “So I’d be her playmate?”

He shrugged. “So you would be playmates to each other.”

<Good answer.>

Vasiliki cleared her throat. “Guys, we’re so far off target, we’re missing the darned range!” She gave everyone a stern look. “Now, focus! So, Eudocia can’t tell us what’s going on – we know that now.” She added a note under Eudocia about that. “Let’s look at the telepathy issue again,” she continued, tapping that section of the board. “Whom do we know of who might be capable of pulling off this kind of mindbuggery?”

Stephi raised a hand, speaking up for the first time in this meeting. “Isn’t that kind of stupid to ask? I mean, the really good ones wouldn’t be publicly known, unless they’d already been caught.” Tim nodded in support of the argument.

“That’s most likely true, but we still ought to brainstorm, just in case,” Vasiliki said. “If anything, it might spark an idea somewhere down the line. So, suggestions, please!”

Ten bucks say Amy will be first on that list, Basil thought, though he was not sure whom he was making that bet with.

“Mindstar,” Aimihime said after raising her hand. “She’s the most active true telepath we know of, and according to the files I have access to, she’s believed to be based here in New Lennston.”

Vasiliki wrote ‘Possible Perpetrators’ and drew a line from it to ‘Memory Issues’, adding ‘Mindstar’ underneath it. “She’s kind of the big name that jumps to mind, right? But as far as I know, messing with memories would be big, even for her,” she said calmly, though with a hint of anger to her words.

Basil shifted on his seat uncomfortably. Amy had told him about the… interesting revelation Vasiliki had shared with her and Dalia over dinner. Another thing to worry about.

“I don’t think she’s a likely suspect,” Aimihime said. “According to our briefings – you can bet Amazon has made sure to brief us all on her – she has to have someone within a relatively short range to control them, and she has to constantly concentrate to keep up her power; when she had… well, when she had Amazon under her thumb, she had to knock her out and lock her in a safe vault overnight, because she couldn’t keep up her power while asleep.”

Everyone in the room but Basil (who already knew, much as he’d have preferred not to) and Aimi shivered at the thought of Amazon’s ordeal and what that particular revelation meant.

“Another one would be the Hannibal Storm,” Prisca broke the silence. “There are numerous verified reports of permanent changes to the memories of people it passed over.”

“Except the Hannibal Storm is locked up in Tartarus Star, its effects are never subtle nor this refined and we would jolly well notice if it had passed anywhere near here anyway,” Vasiliki replied, though she did add the name to the list.

“I never said it was likely, just an option. There aren’t that many people who can manipulate memories out there,” Prisca defended her suggestion with an annoyed sniff.

Basil kept quiet as he watched them go through all known cases. Vasiliki kept it methodical and organised (though it was still just speculative), while they discussed pretty much every big name in the interesting (horrifying) world of telepathy. Mindfuck (unlikely, seeing how he was basically dead), the Dowager, the Mentalist, Occulus…

“Listen, everyone,” he finally spoke up when it seemed like they were about to get into even more obscure names. “I’m really, really grateful that you all care so much… but really, all you’re doing is speculating wildly. There is nothing to go on, I know, I looked.”

“Well, we’re not exactly going to find out how to help you without figuring out who’s responsible, you know?” Prisca replied as her face turned concerned. “We need to figure this out!”

He sighed and turned to her, taking her hand in his to intertwine their fingers. “Yes, but there is no point in going about it with random speculation,” he said softly. Not like I know what to do, anyway.

Vasiliki cleared her throat. “He brings up a good point,” she said. “We really don’t have the information or means to uncover this.” She sighed. “Much as I hate to admit it… until I figure out a spell to block telepathic influence, we’ll have to hope that whoever is responsible makes a mistake and outs themselves in some way.”

“That doesn’t sound all that promising,” Prisca complained. “So we’re basically down to just hoping it all fixes itself on its own?”

“Maybe not…” Vasiliki replied. When she had everyone’s attention, she continued, “Maybe we can’t figure out who or what is responsible for Basil’s memory issues… and I don’t know how we could figure out who really built this place or provided his funds, at least in a reasonable time frame… but there is one other issue you have, right?” She was looking him straight in the eyes when she finished.

Basil looked back, thinking it over. She was right, there was one problem, which… had haunted him for a while… and rarely slipped his mind, actually, unlike his many other issues…

“My speciality,” he half-whispered, making Vasiliki nod. Everyone else seemed confused, though.

“Mind explaining that to me, B-Six?” Dalia asked. “I never really got this talk about gadgeteer specialities at school – you certainly don’t seem to do just one thing, after all!”

“It is not so simple,” he tried to explain, ignoring Vasiliki’s annoyed sigh. It wasn’t like many people actually got how gadgeteering really worked. “Every gadgeteer has a… a theme, a field they specialise in, some quirk. Like Polymnia, who works with audio technology, or Hotrod and his vehicles. Then there are those who don’t specialise in a specific field, but rather in an item or a kind of item that they can do much more with – like that Greek hero Dory, who can only really work on his lance, but can do some incredible stuff with it.”

“Or Su Ling, who… well, we don’t really know what she specialised in, she died long before anyone figured out the specifics of her power,” Vasiliki added.

“Alright, if that’s how it always works, how come you don’t know what your power’s like, Basil?” Dalia leaned closer, looking at him with a questioning look, her long hair brushing over Prisca’s legs as she leaned over them.

He shrugged. “I just… use my power, but I have not been able to really… pin down a theme.” He waved his free hand in a helpless gesture. “And lately, I think that has been sabotaging me… or perhaps something else is, I do not know. I used to have a nearly one-hundred percent success rate,” he explained, thinking of that ray gun he’d never gotten to work. “Yet over the last four weeks, I have burned through nearly all my resources and I have nothing to show for it. The only working gadgets I have left are the last of my ravens, my ceramic production, my sword, my rifle, the armour and the three-dimensional manoeuvering system!”

<There’s also all the explosive ordinance you have stockpiled,> Eudocia commented.

“I am talking about my gadgets, Eudocia,” he replied. “The explosives are from that deal at the harbour we busted two weeks ago.”

Prisca snorted in a rather unrefined fashion. “Wow, you remember that?” she asked, annoyed. “You barely noticed me then, but you noticed the explosives? You’re such a boy.”

He decided not to take the bait on that one and just kept on going. “Lately, it is like… my power is unfocused, jumping from idea to idea, losing track of one while already working on two new ones that it abandons halfway through for fourth one. I have even started having catastrophic failures – gadgets that blew up at me or had a meltdown! That never used to happen before!” He ran his fingers through his hair, momentarily letting go of Prisca’s hand. “I have had to wear my armour for lab work. How pathetic is that?”

“That… actually sounds like a good idea,” Aimihime said carefully. “I ought to tell Polymnia. She gave herself one hell of a bloody nose, a few days ago. Gloomy had to heal her.”

“Not the point right now, girlfriend,” Dalia said with a chuckle. “Though that does sound like a funny story.”

Vasiliki cleared her throat. “Off-topic, people. Let’s focus. Basil, you say this has only been happening lately. Can you pin down a point in time where it started? Some kind of event that took place, which may have influenced it?”

Basil sighed, leaning back on the couch to look up at the ceiling. He tried to remember just when, exactly, he’d started noticing problems with his power… with everything, about his life, really.

His eyes tracked the grey, bare concrete of the ceiling (he hadn’t bothered… no, whoever had built this place hadn’t bothered to pretty up the place, they’d just installed electric lighting… though that one may well have been his work, really. He was pretty sure he’d done at least some things, like…

Stay on track, he chided himself for losing focus again. Answer the question. He thought back, trying to pin down a point in time where he first noticed issues with his power.

“I suppose…” he began slowly. “If I had to point at one event, it would be the Hastur Incident.” He reached for his left arm, rubbing it absent-mindedly as the ghost of a memory of pain ran through it. Leaning forward again to look at Vasiliki, he rolled the thought over in his head. “That is it, I think. After that beating I took, I started noticing the first issues.”

They all fell quiet as everyone spent a few moments reminiscing about what each of them had gone through back then. No one here had pleasant memories, though Basil was pretty sure he and Prisca had them all beat.

Vasiliki and Dalia had fought several monsters, and the former had been hurt pretty badly, too. Dalia had had nightmares, he knew. Tim and Stephi had both ridden it out in shelters, with Stephi stuck in a public one with her family – not a pleasant experience, either. Aimihime… he knew something had happened to her, but he didn’t know what – yet. He decided then and there that he’d find out as soon as possible.

<You did start to sleep irregularly shortly after the Incident,> Eudocia provided.

“Not to mention ignoring us,” Prisca said with an insulted look. “There I am, finally having a proper body and all, and you start ignoring me.” She smirked at him. “A lesser person might accuse you of only having loved me for my sickness.”

He snorted and flicked her nose. “Not bloody likely, love,” he replied. Then he turned to see Vasiliki add a timeline at the bottom of the whiteboard, followed by her filling it out.

Soon, everyone was pitching in, offering observations and grievances… and honestly doing a lot to make Basil feel quite embarrassed. He knew he’d been ignoring and blowing off his friends, as well as just plainly forgetting commitments he’d made, but… this was rather hard to accept. In the month and a half that had passed since the Incident, he’d pretty much spun entirely out of control. And he was only now noticing just how bad it had been.

“Did I really forget your birthday?” he asked Prisca in a wistful voice.

“Don’t worry about it,” she replied, leaning closer to bump her shoulder to his. “I’m not mad. And you’ve more than made up for it, with all you’ve done for me.”

“Still.” He really would’ve liked to get her a proper present. Maybe it’d still be good if he got her one now.

“Say, guys, gals,” Dalia spoke up suddenly. “I think we’re going about this all wrong.”

They all looked at her in surprise. “What do you mean?” Vasiliki asked.

The usually scatterbrained redhead stood up and stretched, then looked at Basil with a sly smile. “Look, there’s lots of stuff here I can’t imagine how to figure out, even with my luck to help us along,” she explained. “But there’s one rather obvious thing we can do.” She reached down and took Basil’s free hand, pulling him up. “Come on, B-6! Let’s do this!”

“Do what, exactly?” he asked, his mind still mostly on the timeline they’d drawn up.

Her next words did manage to catch his full attention.

“Figure out your speciality, of course!”

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B012.4 Born At Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re gorgeous,” he obliged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the hell is going on here!?

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They looked at each other and smiled.

“We even?” she asked.

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

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

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

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked.

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

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

“I am not. Why did you not tell me?

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

“Why?”

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

Now it was Basil’s turn to look stunned.

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

She nodded, still blushing.

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

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

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

“So, what now?”

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

She has changed… and I did not even notice.

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

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

She hugged him back, briefly. “Same.”

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

“It will be a pleasure.”

And they went and joined the others at the table.

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B012.1 Born At Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

November 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe that ought to tell him something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<Actual sleep, or microsleep and naps?>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it hollow?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will probably never know, he thought surly.

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

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

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

Busy with what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ow. He looked away, unable to respond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes mother…” he mumbled.

“What was that?”

“Nothing.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder why.

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

Why wouldn’t I want their help?

I cannot say.

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

No response.

Moonboy?

No response.

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

I am so fucked.

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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