B13.18 Call of the Sleeper

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He’d failed.

He’d failed, and it had all been pointless to begin with.

Basil staggered back, away from Dusu. Not hearing, or even really seeing how the others reacted. He just turned away, looking around the room without seeing anything.

There were voices, in the distance, but he paid them no mind, ignored the hand that reached for his arm, didn’t even register who it was.

She has no cure. She has no cure. I can’t come up with one, I’ve never been that good with actual biology. Maybe, if she had the actual formula… but she said she put it all online already, and I’ve read everything there is on the plague online. Prisca only has a few days left, at most.

Life support could only keep her going for so long, especially after the additional damage Hastur’s attack had caused. She certainly wouldn’t survive a flight to England. Even if Gloom Glimmer teleporter her along with all the life support… no, she’d never survive the journey to Ember himself. And even then…

They’d opened the Protectorate again, on a limited basis, after he’d revived that baby, but… it was a toss-up whether he’d actually react to anyone who managed to get close enough. More than once, one of the countless hopeful had weathered the pressure of his empathic assault, managed to get the remains of a loved one all the way to him… only to be promptly ignored until they passed out or went mad.

Basil didn’t know whether he could make it through that, not with the way his mind had gotten screwed up, but he would do it.

However, there was no way Prisca could survive it. If he took her in while she was still alive, in her current condition, it’d likely kill her, if it didn’t destroy her mind.

Ember could fix that, obviously. Assuming he got to him.

What if I put her into stasis? the thought came suddenly. Put her into a state where she’s not truly conscious. It would protect her from his aura…

Don’t be stupid. Just wait for her to d-d-die and take her corpse to him.

The whole point of this is to make sure she doesn’t die in the first place!

Then forget Ember and the Protectorate! You need to focus on working out a cure!

How!? If even Dusu couldn’t… she’s been working on this for half a decade! I have days, at most! Nevermind that I’m not a bio-gadgeteer to begin with and this is, is, it’d take ten bio-gadgeteers to work this out!

Then find a non-biological solution!

How!?! I’ve tried so much… I can’t just replace her infected body parts, because every part is infected in three different ways? Removing her brain to later implant it into a new body, even if I could perform surgery like that, would be meaningless because her brain is also infected!

That’s it. Her brain, that’s the solution!

Of course… I can’t physically remove her brain, but I could scan it, save a complete engram of her brainwaves… it would require more storage than even my computers have, but I’m certain I could convince Mrs Fion to buy any materials I might need…

I save the complete engram. That’ll buy me time, it’ll allow me to figure out how to create a new, healthy body for her, then copy it over… since it’ll be made while she’s still alive…

It can only be made while she’s still alive.

That way, she’ll never have to experience death… whether or not we can get her to Ember…

I can call this Plan A, and getting her to Ember would be Plan B.

There is another issue. Would she want that? To be copied over to a new body? Technically, she wouldn’t be the same Prisca as before. Her mother might not want that, either.

I’m not a philosopher nor a priest. Leave the existential debate to someone else.

But shouldn’t any proposed solution be considered in light of Prisca’s wishes? She is the one whose life is at stake. Copying her mind into a new body – and it’s far-fetched to believe I could do that – only to create a copy of her which does not consider herself to be the Prisca would only serve my own peace of mind.

Stasis.

Like on Tartarus Star. That might be a solution. I could perhaps work out a stasis chamber, or maybe trade Stasis himself for the designs or a complete chamber… or perhaps Mrs Fion could buy one off of him… we could keep Prisca alive indefinitely while I work on finding a cure.

Stasis is no hero though. He works for the government and he is committed full-time to maintaining Tartarus Star. His technology is considered a national secret; it is very unlikely that he’d be allowed to reveal his designs, nevermind actually buying a stasis chamber off of him – they’re supposed to be incredibly expensive, to boot.

Between Mrs Fion’s wealth and the technology I can of-

***

A hand closed around his biceps, tugging him around. He looked up at Amy, black eyes to purple ones.

Hey, baby bro, she whispered gently into his mind. You need to calm yourself down, before you give yourself a stroke.

He looked away, then looked up at her, feeling his expression harden. I can not afford to, right now. I need to find a solution! Could you scan her mind? Perhaps she’s keeping something secret?

Amy shook her head, causing him to feel even colder inside. Even more so when he realised she was trembling, sligthly. Just what had she seen?

She didn’t lie, nor did she ommit anything. She really has no clue how to fix it, Amy told him. And… there’s more. The blood she took, earlier. And what they’ve been doing here. Where these monsters came from. I saw it in her mind.

What’d you see? Basil asked numbly. He wasn’t sure there was much of anything he could get worked up over right now, as worn out as he felt.

Too much, she replied. But first… what about her? She nodded towards Dusu, who’d calmed down considerably, simply sitting cross-leged on the floor and chuckling occasionally, completely unperturbed by the looks of disgust and hatred the others were throwing her. Maybe you’ll feel better if you give her one of those concoctions you said you’d prepared just for her?

Basil looked over his shoulder at Dusu. Those were always meant to force her to give up the cure, in the end, he replied. No point to that, now. Besides, how could I possibly top that? He gestured towards the twisted, half-decayed woman.

Let’s just get this over with and go home.

***

Melody wouldn’t have thought she could hate a complete stranger as much as she hated Dusu right then. Just looking at the woman sitting there on the floor, looking so darn amused.

Amused that she’d destroyed so many lives.

Amused that she’d drawn them into such a dangerous, unnecessary battle.

Amused that she’d crushed their hopes, Brennus hopes in particular, and of all those innocents she’d poisoned, and all those whom cared about them.

She’d used to have trouble accepting Irene’s insistent statement that her father, while evil, was far better than most. Even after meating him in person, she hadn’t really changed her mind.

But now? Looking down at this, this coprophage, this… bitch, she saw true evil. Senseless evil, evil that didn’t have a purpose other than its own betterment.

At least the Dark clearly cared about his daughter. Melody wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that Dusu didn’t have anyone she cared about, that she would have sacrificed her own child if she’d had one, just to try and undo her own fuck-up – for herself.

It took a lot for her not to unleash one of her more cruel tunes on her, just to make her suffer a bit. A bit more, she amended the thought, watching how the woman laboured to draw breath, the way she repeatedly twitched as if in pain, in spite of her carefree attitude.

A little tune to make her bowels empty themselves as violently as physically possible, or cramp up painfully and remain so for a while. Another to throw her sense of balance completely off for hours. Or perhaps one she’d never yet used, because it’d seemed too cruel, a tune that’d give the victim a painful tinitus that’d last for days, if not longer.

So many options. So many incentives to explore them, one by one.

Fortunately for Dusu, Melody was distracted from the recreatively violent train of thought when Brennus came back towards them, shadowed closely by Mindstar.

And wasn’t that a shock? When Mindstar had first appeared, she’d been scared, then relieved – she did work for the Dark, so she wouldn’t turn on Irene and her friends, right? Then it’d seemed like she was going to attack anyway, and Tartsche had tried to reach Brennus to protect him from her (she still remembered the briefing when they’d been told that she might target him – Tartsche had clearly remembered it, as well), only for her to slap them all down with literally just a thought.

She’d known that telepathy was Irene’s one true weakness, but she hadn’t expected it to be that effective.

And then it turned out that Brennus – no, Basil, that boy she’d sat next to in school a few times! – was her brother and he proceeded to beat her, one on one.

If it wasn’t for Irene confirming, while under the aegis of Tartsche’s power, that it was all genuine, she’d have thought the whole fight, no, their every interaction, had been staged.

Now, of course, she was instead faced with the fact that a boy she’d been thinking of as a friend, if a distant one, was the younger brother of a major supervillain…

Which, really, didn’t mean much to her, seeing how her best friend was the daughter of said supervillain’s boss. It would have been the height of hypocrisy for Melody to condemn Brennus for his relationship with his own sister, when she so readily accepted Irene’s relationship with her father.

The only thing she could, maybe, accuse him of was not being open about his relation to her, the way Irene was about her being the Dark’s daughter…

But then again, their situations were very different. Brennus, for one, didn’t have the aegis of Lady Light and the United Heroes to protect him.

I wonder whether she’s the reason he didn’t join us to begin with, she thought to herself as she watched them join the rest of the group.

All those thoughts and more continued on in her head, though they were quickly overshadowed by dismay at how utterly worn-out Brennus looked. In all the time she’d known him, she’d never known him to express a sense of defeat, a lack of purpose. Now though…

“Let us wrap this up,” he spoke in a listless tone. “We should get away from here.” He looked down at Dusu, his gaze briefly hardening – but then it softened into listlessness again. “What did she do with our blood?” he asked no one in particular, apparently.

It did seem directed at Mindstar, however, as she sighed and stepped forth, while Brennus’ helmet floated off the floor and into his hands. “I’ll show you,” she said, gesturing at the computer console.

Using her telekinesis, she logged into the system, making Dusu frown in annoyance. “Y’know, you don’t have to use telepathy… I’d just tell you, at this point.”

“Shut it,” several people said all at once.

“This is the place where they made those monsters that appeared yesterday,” Mindstar spoke seriously, with neither levity nor anger in her voice. “They’re all spawned from the same source…”

The screen switched to a three-dimensional model, showing the floating city they were on, before zooming out and moving down, showing an incredibly long tether that lead down into the depths – the same one they could see before them, dozens of cables thicker than grown men – and following it down…

And down…

And down…

Until it reached the bottom of the ocean, and the view moved, looking down from above, at an angle, at…

A gigantic something at the bottom of the ocean, connected to the station via the cables in front of them.

As the image focused on whatever was below, it was rendered in successively more detailed layers, with Mindstar talking over it, sharing what she saw within Dusu’s mind.

“They found something down there. Something huge. And I mean, really fucking humungous. It’s over a thousand miles in length, and over three in diametre,” the villainess explained as the bottom dropped out of Melody’s stomach, her eyes widening at the rapidly expanding sight of… that.

“What. The. Holy. Fuck,” Tyche succinctly summed up how they all felt.

“That’s what they used to make those monsters,” Mindstar spoke, her voice growing hushed. “They injected it with… human blood. It doesn’t always work out, not even one in ten times, but when it does…”

Brennus looked down at Dusu again. “So that is what you took our blood for,” he stated as he put his helmet on. “Mine and… whose else?”

Before Dusu could respond, Mindstar did so. “All of us. It wasn’t just the four you saw. They got samples from all of us…” She frowned, stroking her chin. “I mean, they came here and found them… put them here in other timelines… ah, fuck time travel! They got samples from each of us, except for the princess, using Elysium’s power.” She looked at the console. “And they injected it all into this thing. That’s what Dusu and that nobody over there were responsible for – figuring out a way to inject something through its armour, after the Gefährten realised that extracted samples bonded with human DNA.”

Melody’s fingers went to work, tapping the air to formulate a sentence. “And that’s how they made Crocell and the other three monsters?” she asked, keeping her vocoder’s voice much calmer than she actually felt.

“Yeah. Only successes they’ve had so far. They injected forty-three samples and only four of them spawned something,” the villainess replied in a cold voice, glaring at the unperturbed mad scientist on the floor. “Though they never injected so many at once, like she just did.”

“Hey, you can’t blame me for being in a bit of a hurry!” Dusu protested Mindstar’s accusatory tone. “Besides, aren’t you curious what might come out of it?”

“No!” shouted half a dozen people at once.

“Alright, so, may-be this is totally obvious and Ah’m just missing it,” Spellgun spoke up for the first time in a while, his accent even stronger than usual, “but what the fuck is that!?!” he gestured wildly towards the three-dimensional model on the screen.

“It’s God!” Syrinx shouted fervently, floating upside down where Mindstar was holding him in the air. “It’s a fragment of the divine tri-“

Hecate reached into a pouch on her belt and threw a handful of glittering green dust at his face, which flew farther and in a tighter stream than it ought to, and he went limp, falling asleep instantly.

“Oh, thank God,” Dusu rolled her eyes. “Guy’s a cutie, but h-“

Hecate whirled around so fast Melody actually jumped, and struck Dusu across the face with the butt end of her staff, knocking the woman over and causing her to cry out in pain.

“Don’t you dare address me in any way,” the slightly spooky superheroine snarled, her English distorted slightly by a faint accent Melody had never noticed before, her tone of voice so vicious it made nearly everyone take a step away from her, even Mindstar.

Not Brennus, nor Tyche, though.

Dusu rubbed her rapidly swelling jaw, having finally stopped grinning, or smiling or otherwise looking happy, as she glared up at Hecate – but she kept her mouth shut.

Mindstar actually looked impressed, giving Hecate odd looks, though the spooky heroine couldn’t see them.

“They’re not sure what it is,” Mindstar continued where she’d left off earlier. “Or at least, if the Gefährten know, they haven’t told Dusu. But she, and her co-workers have a few running theories – all unproven, admittedly. One is that it’s a metahuman whose manifestation just plainly went spectacularly wrong. Another is that it’s some kind of by-product of superpowers as a whole, maybe an animal that soaked up whatever energies power metahumans. And another is that it’s either the source of superpowers, or connected to it in some way.” She shrugged. “Honestly, they don’t even know how long it’s been down there. Seems like time goes wonky around it, so they can’t even analyse the age of the cracks in the rock around and beneath it that it’s caused, because they don’t age uniformly.”

No one spoke up for a minute as they digested that. Finally, Melody turned her head to look at Irene, who’d remained still so far, hovering an inch or so above the floor, her cape closed in front of her and her hood drawn deep, like a white shroud.

The hood twitched as Irene looked up, her face hidden in the shadows, mostly, save for her blue eyes. “I don’t know what it is. I have some suspicions, but… nothing I’m sure of enough to say,” she answered the unspoken question.

Melody felt both disappointment and relief, as part of her just plainly didn’t want to know what that thing really was – she was afraid that it was even worse than she could expect.

“The blood is already injected?” Brennus interjected, directing the question at Mindstar, at his sister.

His helmet-mask always distorted his voice, but even so, Melody’s ears had no trouble picking up the fact that he still sounded… defeated, really. His voice was flat, lacking its usual intensity.

“Yeah, it is. Nothing we can do to stop it anymore,” Mindstar replied, her voice softening almost imperceptibly (to anyone but Melody) as she addressed her brother again. “All we can hope for is that none of it causes this… Sleeper to spawn another monster.”

“How long did it take before they knew whether an injection had been successful in the previous cases?” Brennus continued his line of inquiry in that same tone of voice, his head tilted forward as he looked at something he was holding in his left hand. Melody couldn’t see what it was, though it had to be palm-sized.

“Anywhere between five minutes and three hours,” the answer came almost as soon as he finished. “If it doesn’t work, it’ll eject the rejected blood in crystalline form – they have computers looking out for it.”

As if on cue, a new window opened, showing a black-and-white image of a bismuth-like crystal growing in fast motion, right out of one of its scales, before it detached and floated away.

“Aaaaaand that’s one,” Mindstar sighed in undisguised relief. “Eight more to go.”

“Is there anything we can do to abort the process?” Tartsche asked quietly, sounding as calm as ever as he held onto Spellgun’s hand. “Force it to purge them all or something like that? Some way to make sure no more monsters are generated?”

Both Mindstar and Dusu shook their heads, one seemingly impassive, one very clearly quite pleased with herself.

“And there’s nothing here about a cure?” Tartsche pressed on. “She doesn’t know anything, or have anything we can make use of?”

Mindstar shook her head, and Tyche and Hecate slumped a little, while Brennus showed no outward reaction, though Melody thought she might’ve heard something from within his helmet. She wasn’t sure though, as quiet as he was being.

“We should go, then,” Brennus concluded what was obviously Tartsche’s thought process, putting away whatever he’d been looking at. There was barely any inflection at all left in his voice. “Every second we remain here just increases the probability of another enemy showing up.”

“Now that’s as good a straight line as I could hope for!” a new voice spoke up.

Melody squeaked in shock as she turned, just in time to see Mindstar stagger forward, nearly falling, her hand going to her neck and pulling a tiny dart tipped by a needle out of it.

“Huh?” She stared at the dart, her eyes growing unfocused.

Brennus grabbed her, pulling her away and behind him, revealing the person who’d stuck her with the dart, who…

Oh God he’s so yummy, was the first thought that came to Melody’s mind as she saw the gorgeous, brown-haired young man in what appeared to be black-and-gold workout clothes, only of much higher quality than usual, and reinforced, fingerless gloves.

If she hadn’t met so many insanely pretty men since manifesting her powers, she’d probably have squeed and melted on the spot.

He stood there, looking as calm as if he was just taking a stroll, with an easy smile on those perfect lips.

“Immanuel!” shouted Tyche, taking a step away from him.

Wait, Immanuel? That guy? Melody blinked, remembering what Tyche had told them earlier. Fuck, we have to-

She raised her arms to fire at him, only to stop when Irene cried out.

“Wait, no, stop!” Irene shouted as she was enveloped in ribbons of twisted space… and then she disappeared.

Immanuel looked at the empty space where Irene had just floated, looking only mildly surprised. “Heh. Nice one,” he said, grinning.

***

Space unfurled around her and dropped Irene onto a grassy hill, which looked out over a tranquil beach and the ocean.

“No!” she shouted, desperate, reaching for the power which had brought her there. “No, no! Take me back! I’ve got to get back, Melody is still there! My friends are all still there! Take me back, please!”

She begged her own power, even as she felt the teleporting effect – one she hadn’t had before, to her recollection – sink beneath the darkness, tears beginning to run from her eyes.

She’d been so focused on that giant thing below, that, that thing that might have been, just possible, one of them, perhaps. A steward, in this world. Her parents were going to flip out.

Somehow, even though she’d had her danger sense up and running, that man, that… Immanuel, he’d managed to sneak up on them, and then her power had reacted to the suddenly present, overwhelming threat by taking her away from her friends.

“Please, please, just take me back!” she shouted, trying to reach for that power again, only to get… flight and the power to tell where magnetic north lay. “No, I need to be fa-“

“Irene? What are you doing here?” a tired voice asked.

She whirled around, staring at the figure behind her with bloodshot eyes.

***

“I think you’ve all had more than enough fun,” Immanuel spoke in a conversational tone, clasping his hands behind his back as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

Basil didn’t give him a chance to say more – torn between checking to make sure Amy was going to be alright and taking down the new threat, he chose to trust in her constitution and went on the offensive – and launched one of his grappling hooks at him, aiming straight for his belt buckle.

Immanuel simply stepped aside, dodging it by a hair’s breadth with such ease, it seemed rehearsed. “For those of you who don’t know yet, I’m Immanuel, and I’m in charge of this charming base,” he continued on, as if nothing had happened, even as he bent over forward, letting a blast of green fire fly over him and splash over Tartsche’s protective field, blinding Spellgun and causing him to miss his shot, which instead hit Osore in the forehead just as he was gathering up a fear blast in his right hand; his mask cracked, though not broken, he was thrown backwards as electricity raced through his body, stunning him and causing him to fall gracelessly and heavily onto the floor. “And while I greatly sympathise with your noble intentions, I’m afraid I’ll have to stop you right here,” he concluded, standing up straight again, smiling at everyone around.

How did he just do that? Basil thought furiously, stepping back to keep some distance between himself and the new enemy. That was way too smooth… he must be an Esper. Some major combat cognition. He stared at the empty spot where Irene had just been, then at Amy behind him, through the eyes of his bedraggled ravenbot. And we’ve already lost our two strongest combatants.

“What did you do to Gloom Glimmer!?!” Polymnia shouted at Immanuel, both of her clenched fists – and the speakers on the wrist modules above them – aimed straight at him.

“Don’t worry, I just gave her a bit of a scare,” Immanuel replied soothingly. “I suppose her power decided she was safer away from me than next to me.” He tilted his head to the side, both as a gesture and to dodge a shot from Tartsche’s rifle. “Can’t blame it, really. In fact, I’m quite grateful – makes my job easier.”

His expression turned thoughtful and he tapped his chin. “Hmm… just forty minutes before she comes back… with Lamarr. Maybe the Dowager, though I doubt it.” He blinked, as if another thought came to him. “Hm, no. She won’t come – just Lamarr and some of his people. Goldschmidt wouldn’t let her back here.” Without even looking, he bent forward and also lifted his left leg up, as if to kick out, though he merely tapped the charging form of Bakeneko – in the middle of transitioning from a bipedal to a quadrupedal form –  on the shin, lightly, causing her to trip and bowl into Polymnia, who just barely managed to brace herself and not get bowled over as well, though she still missed her shot, the twin beams of focused sound going wide and tearing up some computer equipment on the far wall of the room. “Nothing I can’t deal with.”

Basil barely paid attention to his words, instead opting to study his opponent more closely. The way he moved, the way every dodge of his led to them hitting each other in some way… it reminded him of the way it usually went when Tyche fought, except far more controlled.

Deliberate.

Speaking of Tyche, she was just standing there, her hands trembling as she tried to aim at Immanuel – but he didn’t seem worried at all, and she didn’t seem capable of actually pulling the trigger.

“I, I thought you said, you wanted us to, to succeed,” she stammered, taking a step back from him when he turned his head to focus on her.

He blocked Basil’s punch, which he loosened the moment his attention was on Tyche, with an absentminded swipe, “I did and I do,” then he deflected a knee-strike to the groin by raising his own knee and gently pushing it aside, “Though I never said I thought it was actually going to happen,” he turned into the follow-up elbow strike that Basil turned his over-extended strike into, “I did know that Dusu has never been able to figure out a cure for her own work,” his arm came up, applying minimal force to Basil’s elbow and causing him to strike the air above his head, unbalanced by the flawless counter, “Nor did I say I’d actually let you all leave after you reached Dusu,” he placed one hand onto Basil’s chest and the other one’s forearm against his waist, pushing with both and flipping him over until he hit the ground with his head, only his helmet saving him from being knocked out, though it still rang his bells quite well, “Sorry,” the angel-faced villain concluded, smiling apologetically at Tyche.

She gulped staring at him with wide eyes. He just smiled back, throwing Basil’s combat knife, which he’d filched from his belt when he’d flipped him, at Polymnia, without even looking at her.

The blade pierced the membrane of her right wrist’s speaker just as she loosened another attack, causing a feedback that overloaded it and made it blow up around her arm, throwing her aim with the other arm off so badly she shot Bakeneko instead just as she was about to get up again, making her cry out in pain and tumble away from the armoured songstress.

Polymnia herself cried out in pain, her arm covered in bruises and cuts from the explosion, though her innate toughness and the layer of ballistic weave she’d between her skin and the actual mechanical parts prevented heavier damage.

“Now, I’m not a complete jerk,” Immanuel followed up, stepping forward towards Tyche with his arms spread wide, following it up by an absent-minded kick to Dusu’s throat, causing her to choke up and bend over in pain, just as she’d been about to speak up. “I really don’t feel like listening to you, Heng,” he quipped, and continued to walk towards Tyche with a disarming smile.

Basil groaned, slowly getting back up on his feet – the strain of the last few days was really starting to catch up to him – as he blinked the stars out of his view. By the time he managed that, the only ones left standing were himself, Tyche, Tartsche and Spellgun.

Amy was on the ground, moaning softly with unfocused eyes. Bakeneko and Osore were both still conscious but stunned, lying on the ground. Polymnia was on her knees, holding her mangled right arm to her chest, sniffling as tears leaked from her eyes. Hecate was on the ground next to Immanuel, who was still holding one of her arms by the wrist. Basil hadn’t even noticed her go down.

Both Tartsche and Spellgun were aiming their guns at him, but since he stood between them and Tyche, they didn’t want to risk taking the shot.

Tyche was staring slack-jawed at him, her grip on her rifle quite loose.

Graymalkin had curled up on Amy’s breasts, using them as pillows as he yawned.

“So, now that all that unpleasantness is over,” Immanuel said with a small sigh, seemingly not even winded. “How about we have a nice talk, hm?” He looked around at the teens. “I have no interest in keeping the lot of you here, really. In fact, I’m perfectly willing to let you get back home.”

“What is the catch?” Basil asked suspiciously, not believing him for a moment, even though everything about him just plain screamed sincerity.

“Well, you do have quite a lot of damages to make up for,” Immanuel replied, turning his back to Tyche and letting go of Hecate’s arm, so he could face Basil. “So I think it’d only be fair if you and Melody over there were to work for us for, let’s say… a quarter of a year, each.” He clapped his hands together, smiling brightly. “You two promise me three months of servitude each – no wetwork, nothing illegal, even – and I’ll not only let your friends go right now, I’ll even pay you both quite handsomly. And you can get back to your own affairs. How’s that sound?”

“Never,” Polymnia replied, her voice coming out distorted. “Like we’d ever agree to work for someone like you!”

“Now, don’t be judgemental,” Immanuel wagged a finger at her. “You don’t really know me just yet.”

“We’ve… seen enough…” Hecate groaned as she got up on her feet, leaning heavily onto her staff. “You fucking people belong in a maximum security prison… or better yet, six foot under,” she snarled, her eyes flashing with raw hatred within the shadows of her hood.

Language, young lady,” he frowned at her, mockingly. “What would your grandmother say if she heard you talk like that?”

Hecate flinched, snarling audibly at him.

He knows too much, Basil thought, his brain racing wildly, trying to come up with an idea on how to take him on. If he’s some kind of combat precog, then the only way to beat him would be to trap him in a no-win situation.

Great idea, mate! Except for the little fact that he’s holding all the cards in his hands!

You’re not helping. Either come up with an idea or else shut up.

“Now, as I was saying – this doesn’t have to end in more tears,” Immanuel continued. “If you two accept my offer, I’ll even let you use all our resources to try and figure out a cure for Dusu’s plague.”

Basil clenched his fists, hard.

Immanuel smirked at him. “You know there’s no way you’ll be able to save her on your own. She wouldn’t survive a trip to the Protectorate, and it’s unlikely someone with your manifold issues would be able to reach him, anyway. And you don’t have the knowledge base nor the resources to work out a cure – but we might.” He put his hands together, palm-to-palm, as if praying – or begging. “Please, Basil. Think about it. You’ve always believed that the ends justify the means, no? I’m offering you near-endless resources, and the support of our best bio-gadgeteers – including Dusu.” He gestured at the unconscious woman. “Consider how much it would improve your chances if you had the actual source of the plague to work with, even if she doesn’t consciously know how it works or how to fix it! Accept my offer and not only will your friends be able to go back home safe and sound, but you’ll also be able to save Prisca.”

He bit his lip hard enough that it hurt, feeling angry with himself just for considering the offer. Yet he did, and Immanuel knew he was saying just the right things.

“Basil, you know the choice is barely one,” Immanuel pressed on. “Not for you. You know what needs to be done, and what needs to be done is a cure being found for Dusus many victims – are you really going to decline an offer to do what you know needs to be done?”

He lowered his raised fists, letting his arms hang loosely. Fuck. He was right, wasn’t he? Even disregarding the fact that there was no other option he could see to get his friends to safety – Immanuel seemed quite confident he’d be able to deal with Gloom Glimmer and any reinforcements she’d be able to drum up, even if those were members of the Dark Five – he was completely out of options as far as actually saving Prisca was concerned – the reason he’d organised this entire, ill-advised operation in the first place!

Even if he’s lying about letting me leave freely, afterwards, I’ll stand a better chance of getting out of this, nevermind of fixing Prisca, by playing along for now.

It needs to be done.

He sighed, releasing a breath he hadn’t even realised he’d been holding, as his shoulders slumped, opening his mouth to-

“To pursue what is necessary is the province of beasts – a true man must pursue naught but what he desires.”

He clenched his fists again, feeling an angry heat rise up from his gut. A snarl escaped his mouth, making Immanuel frown, looking honestly serious for the first time yet.

“Fuck. You,” he snarled at the villain.

Immanuel tilted his head, looking actually surprised for once. “Hm. I suppose that’s a no, then.” He put his hands on his waist, huffing. “The day’s full of surprises.” He looked over at Polymnia, who was still on her knees and craddling her bleeding arm.

Even though she was crying heavily, she glared back at him with defiance in her eyes.

“That’s a no then, as well,” he concluded with a sigh, lowering his head and shaking it. “What a waste.” He looked around at them all, watching as they all slowly got back up on their feet, at least those who weren’t still standing. Even Amy was getting up, on wobbly feet, barely able to balance on her stiletto heels, but determined to try, clearly.

Everyone looked scared, worn out and just plainly tired, but Basil could tell that they all intended to keep fighting.

He raised his fists again, clenching them, facing the brown-haired villain.

Even now, Immanuel looked, at worst, like he was annoyed, not worried.

“Well, let’s do… this…” Immanuel began to speak in a chipper tone of voice, but trailed off, frowning as he looked around the huge hall.

The lights flickered, once. Twice. Three times.

When they came back on for the fourth time, a huge, vaguely humanoid shadow stood between Immanuel and Polymnia, to Basil’s right, his back to the Esper who’d just kicked them all around so easily, looking down at the crying Polymnia.

“Me- Polymnia!” cried a familiar voice, and an equally familiar, white-cloaked figure stepped forth from next to the huge shadow, rushing over to her friend and throwing her arms around the kneeling girl, hugging her tight as light spread from every point of contact between them, gathering around Polymnia’s wounds and starting to mend them.

“So, this is it, huh?” the Dark said, curiosity in his distorted, choral voice, looking around lazily. “Now where’s that giant…”

He suddenly cut himself off as he turned around and looked down at Immanuel, who’d moved back by several metre, almost running into Tyche – as if he’d been trying to sneak away quickly. In his current form, the Dark was more than two heads taller than him, and Immanuel was by no means a short man.

The two supervillains stared at each other, one’s expression hidden utterly beneath the darkness of his power, yet radiating a sense of utter, disbelieving shock, while the other’s expression was calm, friendly, even amicable, yet he radiated nervousness.

“You,” the Dark breathed, sounding stunned. Off-balance. His voice barely more than a whisper. “You’re alive.”

“Long time no see, Goldschmidt,” Immanuel spoke carefully, putting his hands in his pants’ pockets. “Surprise, I guess.”

Whatever Basil had been expecting to happen next – whatever anyone had expected, from Tyche to Gloom Glimmer, all of whom were staring at the scene with bated breath – none of them, he was sure, expected what came next.

The Dark sobbed, staggering forward by a step, reaching out with a hand towards Immanuel, hesitating, as if afraid that he’d disappear if he made too sudden a move.

“Oh, oh… thank God… thank God…” he sobbed, his voice soft, the tears actually audible, though invisible. “I was so afraid… so, so afraid… that you were gone…”

The shadows he was wrapped in began to boil, spreading out slowly around him, like tar slowly creeping over the floor.

“That you had died…”

The shadows rolled off of him, writhing, expending, contracting, increasing.

“That I would never get my chance…”

He took another step closer, his voice breaking, another sob escaping him, like the sound a wounded animal would make when it finally found balm for its pain.

Gloom Glimmer flew towards Tartsche and Spellgun, pulling Polymnia along behind her with one hand, as more, ghostly hands reached out for all the others.

“To kill you myself…”

Basil found himself being pulled towards Gloom Glimmer, along with all the others, as she shot straight up, throwing a solid black sphere that blew through the ceiling, paving the way.

“To finally, finally… hurt you!”

Beneath them, as they rapidly flew above the floating city, the Darkness exploded, a tide of boiling shadows wallowing across the floating city like a tidal wave.

And above all, there was a scream, a cry of such utter, unadultered, unrestrained hatred, it chilled the blood in their veins.

Over fifty figures who’d been floating, flying and standing around the building Dusu’s lab was in charged forward to join their master in battle.

And then the Dark went to War.

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B011.a A Dark Day

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November 11, a day after the Brights Debacle

“Denied. Denied. Oh, this looks interesting… no, denied. Denied… denied… ah, this one is good! Approved!”

In a brightly lit room, which was actually the whole penthouse atop the 112-story Empire State building (which he secretly owned), the man known as the Dark to most, Peter Goldschmidt to less, Father to two and Petey to one, sat behind a huge antique hardwood desk, in his human form, dressed only in a skin-tight black bodysuit, his back to the gorgeous view showing the city of New York at night and read a series of documents detailing various proposals for schemes of all kinds on a screen, one hand on the keyboard to scroll through them, denying most, approving some.

Despite what one might think, the true power of the Syndicate lay not in its access to nearly unparalleled organised criminal power, nor in its various elites – it lay in its powerful bureaucracy, which managed criminals both superpowered and mundane, all across the globe – even in places where the Syndicate was thought to have been fought off by other criminal organisations, like in the Sovjet Union. The system, though not free of many of the pitfalls of bureaucracy, was effective, efficient and tightly monitored, though not too tightly controlled – he’d learned that giving his people a sliver of freedom made them more likely to remain under control than ruling with an iron fist. Thus, the Dark was working through the high level requests for material, minions, super-powered operatives and much more, to keep an active hand in the day-to-day business of his Syndicate (even if he was only the official leader of about a third of it).

He was, in a word, bored.

Said boredom was making him more and more irritable. His secretary, who was as skillful as she was beautiful (a man of his position had to keep up appearances, after all, even if he had zero interest in her as a sexual or romantic partner), had already picked up on his mood and only forwarded him the most interesting requests. He also suspected that she’d subtly cancelled several appointments for the evening, but he wasn’t going to pry. Slivers, slivers, slivers. Besides, she really was exceptional at her job.

“Denied… denied… hmm… This one is actually good. Approved. Oh, another one. Approved.” He kept going for a few more minutes, then he stopped. “Seriously? An island base for… research into the next step of human evolution… again?” He looked at the name of the woman who’d sent the request. The Evolutrix. “Her again. When will this woman crack a biology book and learn how evolution actually works?” He sighed, resting his head on his hands, and his elbows on his desk for a moment. He’d already taken off his mask and hung up his robe, as no one was likely to see his true face here, at least no one he would mind seeing it. The windows were actually polarised so that one could only look outside and he’d have time to dress up before anyone came in, since the only ones who could just waltz into his office without paying with their lives were people he didn’t mind seeing him, anyway.

He groaned, refocusing his thoughts on the matter at hand again. The Evolutrix. In many ways, he supposed, she was not unlike the late Ascendant, except her insanity and methods were actually manageable. Most of her research was performed on animals anyway, and as to the rest… well, dead’s dead, whether one dies by a bullet through the head or by being experimented upon. There were always people the Syndicate had to dispose of, anyway.

Unfortunately, like most contrivers in the upper level of power, she was also stark raving bonkers, as Irene liked to put it. And it was getting worse, year after year. She used to be so reasonable, back in the day.

The problem with having a memory as astute as his was that he still remembered the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed teenager that he’d been introduced to by a former member of his Five, and who’d almost made the cut into the Five herself – only she wasn’t suited to being the face of his power, at all; her talents lay outside of combat.

And then she’d started becoming less stable. Less and less and less. Just this year, she’d blown through three research centers, with barely any results to her name apart from rapidly breaking down, insane mutants with random superpowers. She’d used to create custom-made powered combatants (though always with a countdown to their death attached) with various superpowers, but the quality of her work had dropped along with her sanity.

Now she was requesting another base to work in. An island base, because she wanted to experiment on whales, and she’d need both access to the ocean and a lot of space for that. Her goal being to retrace the steps of human evolution (which had nothing at all to do with whales, to his knowledge) and unlock a way to reliably grant powers to normies.

Even though he’d repeatedly tried to explain to her that powers had nothing to do with genetics. But she didn’t want to – or more likely, couldn’t – give up on her delusion.

Which, in the end, meant he had to make a tough choice. Just denying her request would not solve the problem. Cutting her off would be irresponsible – no one wanted a contriver like that alone and mad at the world. Killing her was out of the question; she’d been a loyal subordinate and hadn’t broken any of his rules in all her time as a member of the Syndicate. Which only left imprisonment or exile.

Both are cruel prizes to hand to such a loyal subordinate, he thought to himself. Yet I can’t ignore the issue anymore.

Exile would be too cruel. So, imprisonment. But a soft one. Retire her, set her up with the means to live comfortably, with access to a small, limited lab so she could keep her power in use. Assign someone to watch over her and manage her insanity. Arrange therapy – who knew, maybe she could conquer her madness and return to the fold?

Yes, that’s the way to go.

He made all the necessary arrangements, but before he sent the order, he specified that he’d escort her to her new sanctuary himself, once all was set up; he owed her that much, at least.

Then he went back to working through the remaining requests.

***

“I can’t take this anymore!” he shouted when his patience finally snapped, throwing his arms up into the air. Then he pressed a button on his intercom. “Denise, I need something to do that does not involve request forms. Now.”

Her cold, measured voice came through the speakers; he’d only known her to deviate from cold professionalism once, when he’d… pushed her, to see what she was made of. Aside from that occasion, she’d stared down even Walker and Amanda. “There is the matter of Kudzu’s disastrous showing yesterday, if you wish to interact with someone directly,” she said, as if she’d just been waiting to present it to him.

Come to think of it, she probably had. She knew his moods all too well, after working for him for the last three years.

“That sounds better than request forms. Get him and his team out of bed and gather them in conference room twenty-four,” he ordered her without bothering to hide the relief in his voice.

“Already done,” she replied. “They’ve been waiting for half an hour now.”

“Perfect.” And he meant it. Better to let him stew. “You continue to amaze me, Denise.”

“Naturally,” she replied before she went back to her work.

Ah, the confidence of youth. He got up, pulled on his mask and his robe, and took the elevator down to conference room story, calling up his wraith as he walked by Denise.

Time to have some fun.

***

Kudzu and his people had been roused from sleep for this, which was all well and good in the case of Kudzu himself, but he would’ve preferred not to torment the two kids who’d escaped along with him like that.

The man himself looked quite cowed, even before he saw him enter through the tall door (it would not do to have the king of supervillains have to stoop over to get through doors in his own fortress, not even when said king’s usual form was ten feet tall). He was still wearing his ‘costume’, save for his mask, and looked like he hadn’t slept at all. No surprise there. When he saw him enter, he went pale as a ghost, which Peter enjoyed far more than he should, really.

The other one, the boy – Leet – was sitting on a chair wearing a sweater and sweatpants hastily thrown over his pajamas, his short hair a mess. Coupled with his rather pear-shaped physique, it made him look quite pitiful. It didn’t help that he looked like he hadn’t slept at all since the caper, which was no surprise considering all his closest friends had been apprehended (and they hadn’t been broken out, yet). It was also no surprise to have him throw venomous looks at Kudzu, who’d been responsible for the whole thing, in-between giving the third person in the room love-struck puppy-dog eyes. He was looking at him with a mix of awe and fear, which also suited him just fine.

The third one – Calculass, and wasn’t that a pun of a name? – was the only female in the room right now, and she looked like the only one who’d gotten any sleep since the caper went off, as well as the only one who was relaxed, her chair tilted backwards with her feet resting on the table. She also looked like she’d actually had the time to shower and just generally get in shape, because her black hair was clean, shiny and finely braided. She was wearing a skin-tight dark green bodysuit with a few white details and apparently nothing else. Her face showed mixed heritage – Caucasian and Japanese Asian, if his guess was right – with a pleasant heart-shape and a small upturned nose, along with sharp black eyes. Unlike the others, she didn’t seem disconcerted by his appearance, the only change in her behaviour being a gleam in her eyes and the lowering of her feet off the table as she put the electronic toy she’d been playing with aside (he’d long since given up trying to keep up with the names and models). It was probably easier for younger people (she was fifteen, by his recollection).

If what he’d read about her power was correct (though her file was still woefully incomplete) then she’d probably expected being called in to begin with, and prepared accordingly. Likewise, she’d probably predicted that it wouldn’t be just their supervisor who’d show up for this.

Speaking of which, their supervisor was also present, a short, round man of Italian cast, with an ill-fitting, oily mustache and no other hair at all, in an expensive business suit. He was sitting on the side opposite to the one the three supervillains had taken their seats on, with several folders spread out in front of him. He nodded reverently at the Dark. Peter barely remembered his name, even though he made a point to know every member of his organisation. Luciano… something. He couldn’t tell, which annoyed him.

“Good evening, he began as he walked around the long table on the side of Luciano, then took a seat at its head, facing the door. “Let’s get down to business.” He looked at Luciano with all six of his red eyes. “Luciano, if you would please refresh everyone’s memory as to why we’re here?”

“Of course, Sir,” the short man said, his chest swelling with pride at being addressed with his first name by the Dark.

If only he knew it’s merely because I can’t remember anything else about him, Peter thought to himself with some amusement.

Luciano rifled through his files and pulled what had to be the official report out, several pages of small writing.

“The cliffnotes, please,” he intercepted before the man could get started. If I have to listen to one more full report tonight, I’ll have to kill someone.

“Oh, of course. Well,” the man floundered for a moment, before he caught himself and put the notes down, beginning to recount the events. “Yesterday at two pm and eight minutes, Kudzu and his associates, which include the currently present Leet, his apprehended teammates Foxfire, Fulcrum, Razzle and Lag, as well as the currently absent mercenary Phasma – who refused shelter after the event – and Calculass, junior member of the Pre-Apprentice program, who was sent along as an observer, attacked and took over control of the New Lennston Brights Arcades, so as to access the last remaining vault of the supervillain Lanning, currently incarcerated with no parole; to that end, Kudzu also hired a team of specialists in breaking into such buildings. Furthermore, he was also granted thirty trained baseline combatants equivalent to SWAT combatants.”

Kudzu shifted on his seat, growing more and more uncomfortable. The Dark ignored him for now, ostensibly watching Luciano, though he was, in truth, mostly paying attention to Calculass and Leet. Their behaviour was so different, yet both clearly showed impatience and an intense interest in him… probably waiting to hear him speak, to find out what he had to say.

Luciano continued to sum up how the operation had progressed, all the way up to the disastrous end. “Finally, though the vault was successfully opened, one of Lanning’s now-rampant creations immediately attacked the specialists and killed them, then went on a spree through the Arcades – with greater casualties prevented only thanks to Razzle safeguarding the hostages – which was stalled by the intervention of junior hero Polymnia and the vigilante Brennus, then ended by junior hero Gloom Glimmer when she broke through the shielding that had been thrown up to disguise the entire event. Kudzu, Calculass and Leet were able to escape, though everyone else was either killed or detained.”

The Dark nodded. “All in all, a complete disaster,” he concluded before he turned his head to face Kudzu, who shrank into his seat. “Do you have anything to add?”

He watched as the man pulled together what little remained of his self-esteem and set his jaw. “Yes, Sir. I do not dispute any of the statements Mister Calientri made, but I wish to add that I could not have predicted the presence of two superheroes – one of whom had apparently kept a major aspect of her power secret until then – nor Lanning’s rampant robot monster,” he explained. “Nor was I expecting Phasma – who could’ve easily put the robot down, as well as subdued the two heroes long before reinforcements could’ve arrived – to prove so… passive.”

“Phasma’s lack of cooperation, though understandable considering her connection to Brennus, has been noted and she willingly returned the advance on her payment to us; she won’t be hired again until she has proven to have worked through her issues,” Luciano replied after a glance from the Dark.

Basil, Basil, Basil, he thought. So adept at meddling in everything you are connected to even remotely. And I can’t touch you, of course, since you’re Amanda’s brother. Nor could he touch Melody, not that he would’ve retaliated against a junior hero, anyway, not for this kind of interference. But even if he would’ve, her relationship with Irene prohibited any and all actions against her, if only to preserve the peace at home.

“Phasma’s performance does not concern us, though,” he said. “She is an auxiliary operative at the best of times, a mere mercenary most of the time. This meeting concerns the catastrophic way in which the opposition encountered was handled by you, Kudzu.” He fixed the man with a hard look, making him shrink back into his chair again. “Frankly, I am quite a bit more concerned about the way you managed to get no less than four of our new talents arrested than the loss of the other personnel, or the failure to procure the diaries.”

Kudzu gulped, and Leet gave him a grateful look for prioritising his friends (and calling them all ‘talents’, he suspected); he was unlikely to blame the Dark for this disaster, anyway, but it was always good to solidify peoples’ loyalty.

Calculass only smirked, as if she’d seen through the act.

Interesting. I wonder whether she is simply astute, or her power helps. If she’d managed to get placement in the apprentice program without a team, then she ought to be a special talent.

And yet her file had not been flagged for him to read, even though he’d explicitly ordered that he be kept up to date on any special talents within the organisation. Maybe it was just an honest mistake. Maybe someone was trying to keep her off my radar.

Or maybe he was just so bored that he was reading way too much into a single smirk.

Fortunately, Kudzu drew his thoughts back to the matter at hand when he tried to evade responsibility. I wonder how he’ll try to achieve that.

“Sir, please, this is being blown way out of proportion,” he began. “Yes, there were multiple factors I hadn’t predicted, and yes, I failed to achieve my objective, but the talents you assigned to me are all still alive, and since the ones that were captured are all minors, and lack unmanageable powers, breaking them out of whichever juvenile detention facility they will be put into should not be an issue – and I will gladly do it myself, on my own dime-“

“Enough!” he shouted, slamming a fist on the table. Time to end this charade.

Everyone went quiet, even more so once he began leaching the light out of the room, casting an oppressive gloom about everyone. He rose, slowly, reaching out for Kudzu. The fool leaped off his chair and ran for the door – he’d probably set up some crazy escape plan, just out of habit – but Calculass reached out with one foot, tripping him.

He fell on his face with a yelp, and then the Dark was upon him. Lifting the man by the neck, he held him up so his head was almost touching the ceiling.

“On your own dime, eh?” he growled, making his wraith pulse for extra effect. “How very gracious of you. How noble. How utterly asinine! Of course you’ll break them out free of pay, and you know why? Because otherwise, I will break you! Does your intellect suffice to understand that?” He shook the man until he nodded. “And as to why I’m doing this myself, instead of letting Luciano rip into you – I know you accessed our files on the capes of New Lennston, so you ought to have known that Polymnia and Brennus both are hands off! Had you actually killed either of them, your punishment would’ve been far, far harsher than you can imagine, boy.

The man paled, though Peter was sure he didn’t realise just how close to a gruesome death he’d gotten. Amanda had been screaming bloody murder within an hour after the whole thing had become known, and he’d just barely talked her down before she went after Kudzu – fortunately, Basil hadn’t actually been hurt, and so she’d finally calmed down, after he’d promised to personally take care of the issue.

Calming down Irene had been considerably easier – the girl was taking much more after her mother than him, and she’d been willing to let it go, so long as she never had to see or hear of Kudzu again.

“As if all that were not enough, you lost the diaries! They were either destroyed or picked up by someone we don’t know about, which at best means the Syndicate will have to pay top dollar to get them back, if we ever get them at all!” he shouted at the man, his eyes flaring up like blood-red stars. He could smell the man soil himself as he threw him towards the door, before he calmed himself down, letting light fill the room again. “You have forty-eight hours to draw up a plan to break the survivors of your failure out of prison, and another seventy-two hours to pull it off; don’t you dare show your face to me again unless you succeed.”

The man nodded fearfully, all but crawling out of the room and breaking into a run.

The Dark returned to his seat and took a look at the three who remained. Luciano looked calm and professional, though he could see the signs of nervousness and fear in him… ah, he’d been the one to sign off on this operation, and he was fearing that he’d be punished as well.

“No blame lies with you, Luciano,” he soothed his worries. He’d have preferred to use his last name, now that he knew it, but he’d already used his first name before – switching to his last name could be seen as a kind of punishment, and that was not the message he wanted to bring across. “You followed procedure perfectly, and Kudzu’s failure will not reflect back on you.”

“Th-thank you, Sir,” the man breathed in relief.

“The same applies to you, Leet,” he continued, turning to look at the boy. “Your performance was exemplary. I fear you were simply outmatched against Brennus, which is no fault of yours.”

“Yeah, uh, I didn’t know anyone could work like that. He was shutting me out of any system he got access to without even trying, even though he had barely any resources and I doubt he studied the Arcades’ security systems beforehand,” the boy said with a blush that offset his annoyed look. “I read up on the guy, and I can’t even begin to guess at what he’s capable of – what is even his speciality?!” he asked, sounding as exasperated as he looked.

You’re not the only one who’d like to know that, he thought to himself. “Sooner or later, a pattern will emerge and then we’ll figure out just what his limitations are.” He turned away from the boy and looked at the girl. “Do you have anything to add, Calculass?” he asked curiously.

“I think Kudzu could’ve dealt with the heroes, or with the rampant contrivance – it was just that both together were too much, especially since Polymnia turned out to have an ace in the hole like that,” she stated firmly, her voice carrying a French accent… French Canadian. “He completely failed to adapt his pre-conceived plans, though; I think that’s a limitation of his power, not of himself – he needs to work in advance, not on the fly. He really should never have been allowed to actually lead a mission himself.”

“His power may be thus limited, but being aware of that and knowing ones own limitations – or rather, not doing so in this case –  is on him; he’s been active for years and has still failed to figure it out, it seems.”

She just shrugged. “Well, that’s all I had to add, I guess.”

Liar. He didn’t know why, but his gut was telling him that there was more that she wanted to say. But why was she holding it back?

He looked closer at the girl. She was relaxed in a calmly detached sort of way – her profile suggested sociopathic tendencies and a certain amount of general detachment from the real world – but she was definitely holding something back…

Ah. That’s how it is.

“Luciano, Leet, you two are dismissed, please, return to your rooms – you’ve both earned some sleep,” he said. He looked straight at the girl. “I would like to have a private word with Calculass, anyway.”

They nodded and got up to leave, though Leet threw the girl a worried look which she ignored. “Um, good night, Calculass. And good night, uh, boss,” he threw in at the last minute.

The Dark acknowledged him with a nod, though Calculass gave no sign of even having noticed him. He left after Luciano.

“That was rather mean, to ignore him like that,” he said lightly. “Why the cold shoulder?” The more he knew about her, the better.

She looked up at him, sitting up straight. “It’s more likely that he’ll stay infatuated with me, without demanding actual reciprocation, if I give him the cold shoulder in between a few sparse responses; responding too much might lead to him growing impatient and demanding a definitive answer as to my interest in him,” she said coldly.

“So you’re just stringing him along in order to exploit his talents?”

“No. He does that all on his own – even if I rejected him, I doubt it would end his interest in me, and it might merely lead to him growing actually obsessed with me; better to make use of it while it lasts.”

“How very calculating of you,” he joked.

She rolled her eyes. “Wow, I’ve never heard that one before.”

“What did you expect with a cowl like that?” Not that it’s nearly the worst cowl I’ve ever heard, he thought, reminded once again of ‘the Evolutrix’.

She actually blushed a bit. “It’s from my favourite book series, alright!?” Then, as if as an afterthought, she added, “Sir.”

“I see. So, what’d you want to say earlier?” he finally got to the point.

“I noticed some weird interference, during the mission,” she said at once. “Sir.”

He tilted his head. “Define interference.”

“Interference with my power,” she complied. “Do you know how my power works?”

“I’m afraid I only know that it’s based on numbers and that you have been classified as a potential A-Class Esper – which is very curious, as I am supposed to be briefed on every such individual as soon as they’re classified, yet I’d never even heard of you before this debacle.”

She looked down at her hands on the table. “I, ah, wouldn’t know about that…”

He chuckled good-naturedly, making her look up at him in surprise. “Who’s your master?”

“Dominaria,” she said before she swallowed dryly.

Ah, light dawns. “You know why she tried to keep you hidden from me.” A statement, not a question, backed up by as stern a glare as he could manage (he could manage a very stern one, especially with six eyes).

She looked down again, her shoulders slumping a bit. “She… she’s planning a coup. Not that I think that she’s got any chance, but… she’s planning.” She hunched her shoulders, then looked at him with wide eyes. “Please don’t hurt her. I know she’s… but…” Words failed her, obviously.

“Oh, I’m not going to hurt her, child,” he said. “I’ve known about her little schemes for a long time now; I just didn’t know about you.”

“You know…” She cut herself off, and her eyes… flickered for a moment, her pupils refocusing visibly. “Oh. Better the devil you know.”

Interesting. Quite so. Dominaria is quite useful despite her overblown ambition; better to let her think I haven’t seen through her little games and make use of her, instead of inviting someone more competent to take her place. But enough of that, please tell me about that interference.”

She cleared her throat, then she sat up straight, instead of lounging or being hunched over. “As you know, Sir, precognitive powers, as well as some other Esper-type abilities, interfere with each other when being focused on the same or closely related subjects – for example, when multiple espers are part of the same operation, especially when they are on opposing sides.”

“I am all too aware of that, believe me,” he said, reaching up with his hands to massage his temples. “And I have very vivid memories of the migraines that come with it.” That was a straight lie – he’d never had to deal with the downsides of esper-abilities himself – he had his wraiths for absorbing the unsavory side-effects of powers like that.

She smiled in sympathy. “Yeah, me too, Sir,” she said, shuddering a bit as she no doubt remembered suffering through the backlash of her power. “So, anyway – my power is partly precognitive, and even its present-focused components appear to suffer from the same interference; it wasn’t so bad when I was working together with Kudzu, as his power mostly works in advance, and not while we were together out on the field; and even then, we were on the same side, and I was just an observer, not an actor.”

He nodded, to show that he was still following her.

“But then it got weird. It was like someone with a major esper-ability – some kind of serious precog, probably, since they always cause the worst interference – had suddenly, and out of nowhere, inserted themselves into the situation. I only dodged a migraine because I was, as I said, just an observer, and holding my power back in general; and Kudzu probably didn’t even notice, he doesn’t seem to be too aware of his power’s workings – but I have no doubt that it contributed to his catastrophic failure to adapt to the changing circumstances.”

Well well well, I guess I might’ve been a little too hard on the man. Just a little bit. “Do you have any idea who might’ve been responsible?”

She shook her head. “Only wild mass guessing, Sir. Nothing based on any evidence.”

“Tell me your top theory, please,” he asked nicely. The girl was quite astute – few people her age were that aware of the inner workings of the more subtle powers, even other espers; even veterans like Kudzu often lacked the proper awareness of the subject matter.

“I suspect one of the heroes, Sir,” she said. “Polymnia already concealed an impressive level of brute power – it would not be too much of a stretch to assume that she’s kept another ability secret. However, multiple powers are rare, and three powers of such diversity are even less likely. So I’d probably bet on Brennus. We barely know anything about his abilities anyway, it is reasonable to assume that he has a precognitive ability on top of his Gadgeteering which he doesn’t advertise.”

Not as far as I – or he – he can tell. “Reasonable. Of course, there might’ve just been a precog hiding among the civilian hostages. Then again, they wouldn’t have been able to interfere too much in the situation without giving themselves away, which they didn’t…” He made a break in his speech, inviting her to conclude the thought. Just to see if she’d realise what he was talking about.

“And a passive precog is not really going to interfere with active ones – they need to actually use the information they get in order to force our powers to try to account for them… which would cause their power to have to account for ours, provided we’d be interested in and able to respond… which would initiate the cycle of interference, which it did, which implies that the precog actually did act, and did not merely observe as I did; they would’ve caused far less damage if they’d acted like I did.” She shook her head. “This is so frustrating, Sir.”

“That’s the life of an Esper, dear. Believe me, it’s even more frustrating for those who aren’t blessed with that kind of ability. Why didn’t you want to say this in front of the others? Your observation would not have put you at a disadvantage in any way.”

“I’m naturally secretive, Sir,” she said. “I prefer to keep the circle of knowledge small. Controllable. There was no need to share it with the others.”

“My, you’re already talking like a veteran. I approve.”

She blushed and smiled a bit, shifting around on her seat in a pleased way; then she fixed met his eyes directly for the first time. “So… what now, Sir?”

“Now you will explain your power to me. And then I’ll decide whether you’re more useful as Dominaria’s subordinate, or whether to use you somewhere else.”

She swallowed dryly, but didn’t speak up, looking… really rather scared, her earlier cheer gone. Sociopathic tendencies? Either she’s a world-class actor, or she’s more normal than her psychological profile suggests.

“Begin.”

She nodded, and took a deep breath. “Well, my power relies on numbers, as you already know. I… see numbers, everywhere. She looked around the room. “The length of things, the height, angles, weight, whatever – it starts simple, but builds up. For example, I look at you, and my power immediately compares your height to my own, and so I know that you’re exactly three metre tall.”

He raised a hand, interrupting her. “It uses the metric system?”

She frowned. “Actually… now that you mention it, no. Not really. But… when I have to express the numbers, they come out in the metric system… it’s hard to put into words, I only see and work with numbers in a system that has no words, no descriptions. Just numbers and graphs, but as soon as I try to put it into words – whether in my head or vocally – it just naturally parses into the metric system; but I can also parse it into the imperial system. I just… prefer the metric system. It’s way more elegant.”

“Not to mention sane,” he added.

She smirked, relaxing a bit. “Yeah, that. So, to get back to my power… I start with simple numbers. Like your height. Then, I calculated your weight, which is only seventy-three kilogram, which suggests that you’re either insanely underweight, or this appearance of yours is not really your physical form.”

“That is correct,” he admitted. I’m liking this. “How did you calculate my weight? Did the number just come to you, provided by your power?”

She shook her head. “No. I mean, I can do that, too, but it… no, let’s not do this out of order. I’ll get to that later, alright?”

“It’s your power – you ought to know how to explain it,” he agreed.

“I had trouble with your weight, for a moment, because it’s so disproportionate to your height – normally I compare a person’s height to the noise they make when they walk, the way their body moves, how much they sink into their seats, and so on. With you, those numbers were out of proportion, or plain hidden – I can’t tell how you move beneath those shadows, for example – and it took me a little longer than usual to get your weight. I had the same problem with lung capacity and fitness; normally, looking at a person’s body, listening to their voice and their breathing is enough to determine those numbers; but with you, it’s all skewed.”

“We keep coming back to that problem. Please use someone other than me as an example,” he told her.

She nodded. “Alright. Let’s take Kudzu. He’s one meter and seventy-three centimetres and nine millimetres tall – which I could tell by comparing his height to mine – and he weighs sixty kilogram and two-hundred and fifty gram. He has slightly below-average lung capacity at five-point-five litres and his muscles show slightly blow-average density, too. His bones are average for men of his age, in terms of density. All these numbers were inferred from observing his height, movements, breathing and speech. I also have numbers on his reflexes – again slightly below average for men of his age – and other statistics,” she recounted with some pride in her voice.

“Impressive. But that is hardly the reason why you’ve been given a Esper classification.”

“No, that’s just how it starts,” she corrected emphatically. “I can add any number about a subject to their… their profile. And the more information I already have, the more I can compute. But I have to be careful how far I stretch it – if I work off of too little hard information, I not only tend to reach wrong numbers, but I risk my models collapsing and causing me a huge migraine. Also, it’s easier for other espers to block me if I rely on too little hard information.”

“I think you’ll need to explain that more elaborately,” he admitted suspiciously.

“Well, for example – let’s say I want to calculate a weak point in a person’s body, to cause the maximal damage with a simple strike,” she said, her eyes staring off into the distance. “Even if, say, I only have a person’s height and weight – and nothing else yet – my power can jump ahead, giving me numbers I haven’t worked up to yet – like the shatterpoint of a person’s right arm’s bones. But if I use that… that soft number to calculate how to hit for maximum damage, and that other person is also an esper of some kind, then my calculations are far more likely to be off than they would be if I were to work up to the shatterpoint by analysing bone density, muscle density, previous damage and so on and getting the same, but hard number to use.”

“But if you already have those numbers, you are resistant to the effect?” Please say no, please say yes…

“Yes, that’s it. I become more resistant to interference the more hard numbers I have. And the effect is even more pronounced if I have hard numbers on an esper’s power – if I really analyse it, and I let my power work out their power by processing observations, reports and so on, then I can start to work against them without their power interfering with mine.”

Oh, this is going to be a problem… “How very… interesting. But I assume there is a limit to this?”

She nodded. “Yes, very much so,” she admitted sullenly, as if the thought of her power being less than perfect offended her. “Figuring out powers is really hard, especially the more subtle ones. And even more so if they don’t have external effects. I mean, calculating the strength and toughness of a brute is trivial. As is range, accuracy and heat of a laser beam,” she said off-handedly with a shrug. “But working out a person’s precognition, or their enhanced intelligence or to which extent they can mimic powers? Not so much, not usually. And when I work with complex, subtle stuff like that, I have to be even more careful not to slip and leave too many gaps in my calculations – it can happen unconsciously, without me noticing it – which leads to migraines again.”

“You mentioned earlier that you have precognitive abilities. Explain that, too.”

“If I have enough numbers on something, I can calculate probable future actions and events, as well as how likely they are to happen,” she replied with a proud grin. “The more I know, the further into the future I can look, and the more accurate it becomes. It gets even better if I have information on previous behaviour – or, even better, if I have first-hand experience. Which is why I could tell that there was a seventy-nine percent chance of Kudzu trying to escape when you increased the pressure on him, and I’d already calculated how to stop him – a simple trip was enough – as well as how to trip him the best way – maximised effect, minimised risks for me; after all, I didn’t want to twist my ankle, or have him step on my foot,” she finished with a disdainful sniff.

She’s adorable. “And you can predict anyone so long as you have numbers on them?”

“No. I can’t predict DiL, not really. I can create a… a model of her, something to fill in the gap, but it’s still a gap, and so my predictions are largely useless, at least in the long term – I can’t predict where she’ll strike next, nor even where it’s most likely to happen – and I can’t figure out any weaknesses, either – I just get a migraine out of trying. I might be able to predict her behaviour in the short term, if I was present during an attack, but I wouldn’t bet on it. There are some people who’re just… living gaps for my power, no matter how much or how few numbers I have on them.”

I almost wish Gwen was here to hear this… though she’d probably snatch the girl right up. “Let me guess – Ember and Pristine are also living gaps to you?”

She nodded. “Yes. And… uh… I tried to… to analyse Gloom Glimmer – just as a thought exercise, of course!” she admitted, making a rather ridiculous-looking calming gesture, as if she was afraid he’d lash out at her for even thinking about it.

“And what was the result?”

“My power works normally on her… sometimes. And sometimes, she’s as much of a gap as… the others. I can still predict her using a… let’s call it a theoretical model, I mean, I remember the numbers I use when my power is working normally on her, and I can use them to create a gap-filler, but even though those same numbers worked just fine before, my power treats them as if they were soft numbers, and not the hard numbers I was using before. It doesn’t help that I don’t really have any firsthand experience with her, only reports and videos on the internet.”

“Numbers from firsthand experience are more useful?”

“Yes, extremely so. Far less risk of unconscious gaps if I’m actually there, experiencing things firsthand.”

“What about non-sentient targets?”

“Easy stuff,” she said, her grin returning to her face. “A rock falls the same way, every time. I just need to know its weight and shape. Animals vary. The more complex they are, the more information I need to predict them; insects and the like are trivial, mammals are more complex; no animals are half as difficult as humans, though.”

“I must say, your power is impressive. No wonder Dominaria would like to keep you to herself.”

She blushed. “Uh, yeah. She’s said that, too.”

He noted the blush. Considering Dominaria’s usual modus operandi, he wouldn’t put it past her to have used her power to make the girl fall in love with her… whether or not she was interested in females.

Then again, she didn’t seem to have that strong a hold on her… espers tended to be more resistant to mental powers.

I see quite a bit of research coming my way… though I could also outsource it, I guess.

“I think I’ve heard enough for now,” he concluded. “Thank you for your cooperation. You may go to your room – sleep, for you will need to be on the top of your game tomorrow.”

She paled. “W-why, Sir?”

“Can’t you tell?” he asked curiously.

“I don’t have nearly enough numbers to predict you, Sir,” she said.

“It comforts me to know that my mysterious mysteriousness remains mysterious to you,” he chuckled as he rose up and walked around the table – on her side. She didn’t flinch or shrink away when he reached out to run his palm over her head, but she did shiver. Not fear. Not arousal… but something else. Ah, she’s attracted to power, he deduced. She wasn’t the only esper in the room, after all. “You’ll need to be well-rested for the first day of the rest of your life. I wish you a good night… and sweet dreams.” And with that, he left the girl and took the elevator back up.

***

He dismissed the wraith while on the elevator, and walked by Denise’s desk – taking the time to give her blonde-haired, pale face a look that implied appreciation of her beauty, to appease her vanity – with a light step. “Denise, I want you to re-assign Calculass,” he told her.

“Where to, Sir?” she asked without preamble, and without even asking who he was talking about.

“To me. I’m taking her on as my personal apprentice.”

That got a reaction out of her. Her cool, collected mask slipped for just a moment, betraying surprise, before she got herself under control again. “I will do so, Sir.”

“Call her up tomorrow at eight o’clock. She is to assist you the whole day,” he ordered.

She nodded, already tapping her keyboard. “Shall I put her through the wringer, Sir?”

“Absolutely. I want to know what she’s made of, whether she can swallow her pride and do work that, to her, would be beneath her and her power,” he elaborated. “Don’t be too obvious about it, though – with her power, she’ll probably figure out that she’s being tested sooner rather than later, but the longer it takes her, the better. Best not to mention that she’s to be my apprentice, either – only tell her she’s supposed to assist you. Don’t mention me, and don’t let her contact me; as far as it concerns her, she’s been assigned to be your bitch, and nothing more.”

The corner of her left mouth ticked up. “Oh, I think I’m going to enjoy this a lot, Sir,” she admitted as she made the necessary arrangements.

“I’m sure you will,” he said with a gentle touch to her shoulder. “Also, make sure she doesn’t contact Dominaria in any way.”

“Of course, Sir.”

He nodded and walked to the door. “I’ll be in my office then.”

“Yes Sir. I sent a new batch of request forms to your computer – the urgent ones have been added to the front of your queue, the rest to the back.”

He groaned with as much feeling as he could put into it. “You know, if I see just one more request form, I’m going to take over the world and wipe out the very concept of request forms!” he swore.

“You make that oath three times a week, and the request forms are still here. I suppose they are mightier than you,” she said in a perfectly level voice.

“No one respects me anymore,” he complained as he entered his office.

“The request forms certainly don’t, Sir,” she said to the sound of her fingers flying over the keyboard.

***

Sitting at his desk, he reached for his phone before he’d get back to those infernal request forms. He pressed the first speed dial button.

The phone barely had a chance to ring before it was picked up.

“Hello Petey!” said Gwen’s bright voice, and immediately, he felt at ease. Much more pleasant than request forms.

“Hello Gwen,” he replied warmly, as he put his robe and mask aside. “How’re you doing?”

“Oh, I’m quite well, my dear. Just hunting down a few annoying villains. Same old, same old,” she answered. He didn’t hear anything other than her voice, since she usually used a directed microphone that picked up only her voice when in the field.

“Anyone I know or should be worried about?”

“No. Just a bunch of teenage hotheads who think it’s funny to advertise online that they’re planning to sexually assault heroines – I’m going to teach them a lesson,” she said, with a little annoyance and a subtle thread of outrage sneaking into her otherwise happy voice. “What about you?”

“Oh, I just found a possible proof of your theory on the mechanics of precognition,” he said off-handedly, as if it wasn’t anything special.

“What? Really!” she spoke, her voice rising a little higher. She sounded very pleased. “Who, or what, is this proof?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” he asked and hung up on her. Then he blocked her number on his phone, for the time being, laughing to himself all the while. Oh, this would annoy her for hours. She’d get all worked up and annoyed with him… and then, maybe, he’d let her ‘convince’ him to tell her, later on… perhaps in bed. Yes, that would serve nicely. They hadn’t had much time together lately. So busy, the both of them.

His mirth lasted all through the first ten request forms, four of which he approved. Then he was back to being deathly bored.

***

He had slipped into a mercifully numb fugue state, as he worked through his queued up work, when his intercom buzzed him back to life.

“Yes?” he asked, just in time for the door to open and Wyrm to simply walk in. She was one of the few people who were allowed to do that. “Nevermind,” he said into the intercom. Then he turned to her. “Hello, Wyrm,” he greeted her as he looked her up and down. “How are you doing?”

She was wearing a new power armor again – she never left her den without wearing power armor, though a quick check with his wraith confirmed that it was her at least, and she wasn’t trying to pass a remote-controlled drone off as herself again.

This armor was remarkably sleek, even considering her usual designs, which had actively avoided the clunky look of her early power armor (she was still getting embarrassed about that) for decades now, and it even hinted at some female curves underneath. Her helmet looked sleek, with a smooth faceplate and a stylised draconian design on the sides and top, extending out to the back. A backpack of sorts extended from her back, with what looked like two folded dragon wings attached to it which lacked the skin between their bones. The whole armor was coloured mostly black with glowing neon blue bits all over. It would most likely look pretty eerie in the dark.

“I’m just/ fine,” she said in her usual way of combining various soundbites from various sources, as she walked up to his desk and let the wooden panel which hid his projector flip open.. “It’s really/ inefficient to/ have me come personally/ for every report./ A video conference/ would be much more efficient,” she brought up her usual argument while she began to remove the old projector and install a new one she’d brought with her.

He smiled at her, already looking forward to whatever new gadget she’d come up with. “Perhaps, but if I didn’t make you come here for reports, you’d never leave your den at all, except on a mission,” he reiterated his usual response.

“What is the purpose of/ a den/ with every possible/ comfort and/ tool/ if I have to leave it?” she asked without bothering to look away from her work.

“None whatsoever!” he said cheerily, which earned him a deadly glare (though anyone who didn’t know her well enough to read her tells would think she’d only looked up from her work). “What do you want to talk about, my dear?” It can’t possibly not be more interesting than request forms.

“You asked me to/ investigate the source of/ Brennus’/ income,” she said, and he immediately became more serious, straightening himself out.

He’d been waiting to find out about that. “What did you find out?”

“I found out/ where it came from,” she replied. “Robin Hood.”

“Robin Hood?” He hadn’t heard anyone use that handle in… a long time, really. “Who is that?”

“Not who/ what?” she corrected him as she finished working on the projector and closed the panel. “I wasn’t sure/ at first/ but I’m now sure/ that it’s an/ AGI.” She walked a few feet away, letting the screen roll down, which she promptly dismantled.

Now the last bit of his cheer went away. “What kind?”

“I am absolutely certain/ that it’s a Gadget,” she replied, and then fell quiet to let that sink in while she carried the old projector and the screen out of the room for housekeeping to take care of.

He leaned back in his seat and raised a hand to put his palm on his forehead. Just great, he thought. A contrived AI was one thing – they were only rarely able to interface with non-contrived systems, and even if they did – they inevitably caused damage to whichever normal system they managed to interact with, which both limited their utility and their ability to use subterfuge, as their impossible nature caused glitches and worse in the programming of actually functional computer systems. An AI created by a gadgeteer… was not so limited.

They’d learned that the hard way, just a few years ago.

“What do you know about it? Is it anything like Morgana?” he asked, referring to the AI which had very nearly destroyed the British finance system in her effort to wipe the Syndicate off the British Isles.

She thought it over for a moment, sitting down on his desk right next to his left hand, then she spoke up, turning her head so her helmet was looking straight at him – though he knew she was using micro-cameras all over her helmet and armor to have a constant field of view of three-hundred sixty degrees anyway.

“My report/ took this long to complete/ because I wanted to be sure/ of what I found,” she began. “My conclusion/ after extensive research/ is thus:/ Robin Hood/ was created by/ the same person as/ Morgana.”

He groaned softly, rubbing his forehead. “Any clues as to who that person might be?”

“None,” she replied. “Occam’s Razor/ suggest that it’s/ one of four people./ Unless we assume/ it is someone who is/ entirely unknown/ in which case we/ would have nothing to go on.”

He motioned for her to continue. She turned to look towards the door, and the projector she’d just installed popped up. It promptly projected a file into thin air.

The image was crisp and looked almost solid, showing the image of a young Chinese woman, perhaps in her early twenties, with long, straight black hair and an arrogant look on her pretty face that belied the usual stereotypes about Asian women.

Peter, of course, knew that face. “Su Ling,” he said, even though her name was being projected next to her image, along with several bits of information on her – birthdate, height, weight, etc.

“Though there is/ little reason to/ believe that she is/ alive/ Su Ling has proven/ herself capable of/ creating true AI./ They may have been/ created before/ the Viridescent Dawn/ or perhaps/ she survived and/ has been creating them/ ever since.”

A chilling thought – if Su Ling survived, I wouldn’t be surprised if she were mad at the world, and out for blood. There was no telling what kind of damage she could cause. “We did find and positively identify her corpse, though,” he said.

“True, but/ considering her abilities/ it would be foolish to/ entirely discount her/ after all/ she could’ve made them in advance, as I said.”

“Alright. Go on.”

The file changed, showing the face of a preteen girl. She was cute, as all children were, with rosy cheeks and curly blonde hair, though perhaps a little heavier than was the average for a child. Her bright brown eyes were glittering with mischief. Her codename was also displayed in the lingo of internet denizens and English both: I<3U/I Love You.

“Though she is/ rather young/ I Love You/ has proven herself capable of/ creating Artificial Specialised Intelligences./ She may well/ have made the jump to/ Artificial General Intelligence.”

“If it’s her, then we can at least deal with it easily,” he replied. “We know where she lives, we can talk to her, convince her to take any AGIs she has down – or turn them to our purposes.”

“I have been/ talking to her/ through an Instant Messenger./ She is/ too enamored with her freedom/ to toe the line./ That is all/ I can say about her,” she admitted.

“Still, it leaves us options, if she really is the one – though I doubt it,” he concluded. “I hope not. I’d rather not have to move against a child that age… not again.”

“Fortunately, there are/ two more options,” she continued, and the image changed to show the mask of an angelic, porcelain-skinned woman with vermillion-coloured eyes. “Though/ Atrocity/ is not a/ gifted programmer in the sense that/ she is extremely limited in what she can produce/ her speciality is, after all/ man-machine integration./ She may well have managed to/ encode a human brain/ or fuse a/ human brain/ to a computer system/ thus allowing it to/ operate not unlike/ an AGI.”

“That’s a stretch, dear, even considering the Savage Six’ predilection for defying expectations.” He tapped drummed his fingers on the desk in a short staccato. “Nevermind that I sincerely doubt she wouldn’t just go for the maximum possible amount of damage all at once.”

“Perhaps, which is why/ she is only the/ third-most/ likely known choice,” she replied. “Robin Hood’s/ nature suggests/ a more benevolent creator,” she continued. “Speaking of which.”

The image changed to show an image from a battlefield – a city, torn asunder in metahuman combat, under a jet black sky. In the center of the image was a young boy, older than eight but younger than ten, in the middle of leaping from a crashed truck towards several of the Six’ heavily armored minions, who were shooting at him with assault rifles.

The boy was laughing as he pointed a gadget gun at the men, wearing jeans, sandals and a black shirt himself, and bullets bounced off of a force-field around him, projected by the harness he’d strapped over his shirt.

“Macian,” Wyrm said simply. “No other name/ known. Only this one/ image/ exists, and the image quality/ does not allow/ reliable face-matching./ Known connection to/ the Savage Six./ Suspected connection to/ Brennus.”

“And then there is Eudocia…” Peter whispered. “Basil believes that Macian made her. I am inclined to agree, which would indicate Macian as the source of all our trouble.”

“You should/ just let me/ take/ Eudocia/ for research,” she said, sounding almost petulant.

“There’d be no way to hide her loss from Basil. And you know the rules – he’s safe so long as he doesn’t become an active threat to the Syndicate. Even then, Amanda would have to be consulted.”

“I’m not proposing that we/ attack/ him/ I just want the/ box!” From petulant to annoyed.

“No. Not yet. Besides, Eudocia is merely a very sophisticated ASI, as far as Basil himself has been able to determine,” he replied calmly. “It may not be connected to Morgana and Robin Hood at all. Do you have any other information to tie them together?”

She shook her head.

“Alright,” he replied. “Let’s shelve this for now. We should focus on what we do know – namely, this Robin Hood AI. What is it capable of? What does it do and where is it located?”

The projector shut off. “I have not/ been able to/ determine its/ physical/ location./ It deals in/ money./ Exclusively so,” she said. “Stealing money from/ criminals and corrupt governments/ as well as/ some/ other politicians./ Redistributing it to/ people in need/ charities/ and hero organisations lacking support.”

“So the money it gave Basil may not have anything to do with a connection between them and merely have been him helping out an up-and-coming superhero?” he threw in.

“Possibly not./ Though/ it/ usually only donates to/ proven heroes/ with very few exceptions,” she answered. “It is/ very good at/ what it does./ Where it not for/ me/ tracing/ Basil Blake’s money/ I would probably not have/ found it.”

That good?”

“Yes./ It is an AGI/ after all/ yet one which/ focuses on/ a single field of/ activity,” she admitted. “Its ability to/ evade notice and/ escape pursuit/ is nearly on par with mine/ but stealth is much easier than/ tracking on the internet/ especially for something like/ that.”

He opened his mouth to respond, but stopped and leaned back to think it over. An AI that was limiting itself to redistributing money like that… was a reason to worry, but probably not a threat. Maybe. Possibly.

“Has he stolen from us?”

“Yes/ though only/ small amounts.” She threw up a file of a middle-aged hispanic man. “This accountant/ of ours/ has been stealing/ from us,” she explained. “Robin Hood/ found out and/ has been taking money/ from the accounts he manages./ As doing so would also/ reveal his own duplicity/ he has not reported this.”

Oh, the irony. “So Robin Hood inadvertently helped us find out about a leak in our own finances,” he said humorously. “How much did our accountant steal? And how much did the AI take?”

“Eight hundred and/ forty-four/ thousand dollar and/ twenty-two thousand dollar/ respectively.”

“Robin Hood took relatively little money,” he observed.

She nodded. “From what I could find out/ it prefers to deal in/ small amounts./ Five hundred here/ two thousand there./ The money it/ gave to/ Basil Blake/ was among the largest/ amounts it ever/ moved.”

“Interesting… did you interact directly with it?”

“I attempted to/ but it is rather/ skittish./ It seems to/ prefer to/ abandon any project/ it is/ working on/ rather than risk/ being found/ and/or/ analysed,” she replied. “It took me/ three days/ just to confirm/ it exists/ and two weeks/ to determine its/ nature.”

He put his fingers together in front of his face, tapping his chin with the indices. “So we have an AGI of unknown origin, which steals mostly small amounts of money to redistribute among heroes, charities and generally needy people; which is doing its best to stay hidden and not draw attention; and which has been active for… how long?”

“I was able to/ confirm activity/ over the last/ two years and/ seven months,” she answered immediately. “Should I/ attack it?/ Given some additional resources/ and two weeks/ I ought to be able to/ track down its/ physical location.”

He thought it over for a few minutes, quietly. She wouldn’t mind waiting – a few minutes were little to her, provided they were well-used.

“No,” he finally decided. “We ought not antagonise it, so long as it is… tame. That might push it into rampancy, or worse. No, we ought to reward it.”

“What?” she asked, surprise showing through in her (limited) body language. Mostly in the abruptness with which she moved her head to lock onto him again.

He nodded, quirking his mouth into a smile. “It did help us find a traitor in our midst. Transfer the usual reward – subtracting the money it already stole from us – to the account it was moving the money from ours to. No additional messages.”

“It used/ several accounts/ just for that one/ source.”

“Then to any one of them,” he replied, dismissing that issue. “Just make sure it gets the money. That way, we’ll both express that we are aware of it – and of its theft – and that we are… reasonable. Who knows but that it will cooperate with us some day.”

“Very well./ What of/ the accountant?”

“Have an example made of him, and anyone else involved in his treachery,” he replied with a hard voice, the mirth gone. “With extreme prejudice.”

She nodded simply, and had probably already sent off the orders before he even finished his sentence.

“Is there anything else?” he asked. He knew she disliked wasting time, so best to press on.

“Yes/ there is,” she replied. “You have/ chosen an/ apprentice again.”

“Yes, I have. Calculass caught my interest, and work has been… quite boring lately,” he explained, not surprised that she’d already known about it. “Do you object?”

“Not directly,” she answered. “I am more concerned/ with your habits regarding/ your apprentices.”

He raised an eyebrow, looking up at her ‘face’. “Whatever do you mean?”

“You/ only took apprentices/ twice before,” she explained. “You took/ Sweetspot/ after/ Aaron/ ran away/ and you took Cataclysm/ shortly after DiL’s/ birth.”

He frowned – he’d never really paid attention to that happenstance before.

“Now Irene/ is striking out on her own/ and no longer needs you/ as much as before,” she continued unabashed, “She/ has chosen being a/ superhero/ pursuing her mother’s path/ instead of yours./ And now you take/ an apprentice/ and a teenage girl/ near her age/ as well.”

He sighed, putting his right elbow on the armrest, and resting his cheek on his hand. “I never… thought about it that way. Do you think I should… abort?” he asked honestly.

“I don’t think/ that that is necessary/ so long as you/ are aware of/ just what you want,” she replied simply. “An apprentice will/ certainly alleviate/ the moods you’ve/ found yourself in/ since Aaron returned/ and Irene left/ and it never hurts to/ encourage great potential.”

He nodded. “Thank you for pointing all that out. I shall take her as an apprentice – she is talented enough to warrant it, even if you disregard my… empty nest syndrome, I guess.”

“Good./ There is/ one more/ subject which/ we need to talk about,” she said, getting off the desk and walking around it again.

“Do tell,” he said curiously.

The projected image changed, showing… Amanda, in full costume. “I have to question/ your decision to/ hand over full/ operational control/ of North America/ to Amanda Blake,” she explained. “Though she is powerful/ she is too unstable/ to shoulder the responsibility./ As I have said before/ she is unfit to be a/ full/ member of the Dark Five.”

“Objection,” he… objected, sitting up straighter. “She has vastly improved lately, ever since her and Basil’s relationship has become strained – and their falling out has pushed her to excel, where before she mostly slacked in her criminal duties.”

“Which is/ admittedly/ impressive/ and worrying at the same time,” she replied, calling up a picture of Basil next to Amanda’s.

The boy was looking rather unhealthy on this rather recent picture, making Peter frown. He’d known, thanks to his wraith, that Basil was cutting back on both sleep and proper eating lately, but he hadn’t known it had gotten this bad. I might have to intervene before something irreversible happens.

“The fact that/ her brother has/ such a massive impact/ on her efficiency as a/ villain/ would suggest that/ removing him from the picture-“

“Stop,” he cut her off sharply. “Don’t even finish that sentence. You know the rules.”

“I know them/ but they are still/ largely incomprehensible to me/ or rather I should say/ your rigid adherence to them/ even when responsibility could be diverted/ seems inefficient to me. We could/ be rid of the boy/ and pin it on/ someone undesirable/ so as to/ motivate/ Amanda Blake/ to even better performance.”

“Or break her, instead,” he replied. “Nevermind that rules really aren’t worth the ink they are written with, if one does not adhere to them even when safe from repercussions – it’s not a Contractualist tenent that one obey the law even in the absence of repercussions for nothing.”

“Contractualism/ is not for/ supervillains,” she shot back. “Nevermind that your decision/ as to this subject matter/ is largely driven by/ sentiment/ rather than/ philosophical deliberation.”

“Sentiment is important.”

“I find it largely confusing.”

He smiled sadly at her. “I know. But you could understand it; if you did, I would feel fully comfortable handing the Syndicate over to you, and retiring. But you do not, yet, and thus I am still the better choice to lead.”

“I doubt that/ I shall ever/ understand this,” she said with an indifferent shrug.

His smile turned knowing. “Is that why you still wear the nightdress Hurton gave you?”

She froze for a full minute. Then she turned away. “I wasn’t objecting to/ Amanda Blake’s/ promotion/ solely due to/ her brother’s influence/ on her,” she said, obviously hoping he wouldn’t pursue that point. “She is an/ unstable serial rapist/ and her status as a/ member of the Five/ reflects badly upon us/ despite our best efforts to/ foster as positive a/ public image/ as possible. Nevermind how/ unreliable she is/ or need I mention/ her loss of control/ during the Hemogoblin incident?” She turned around to look at him again.

Oh, I’ve been waiting for this.

“Why are you/ grinning like that?/ It’s creepy,” she said. “And annoying.”

“Well…” he reached into a drawer of his desk and pulled out a thin folder. “Take a look at this – it’s Walker’s report on the incident.”

“I’ve already read it,” she replied.

“Not this one,” he said, his grin almost splitting his face. “This is the actual report, which he didn’t transfer into the system at my behest.”

She walked over and picked the folder up, reading through it in moments.

“What… what is this?” she asked, and the soundbite fit just perfectly. “Why would you/ keep this a/ secret from me?/ What does it/ even mean?”

“I wasn’t keeping it a secret from you, specifically,” he told her, standing up. He held his wrist with his hand behind his back, and walked around the desk. “But considering Amanda’s abilities, keeping it unknown to anyone but me and Walker was the best option for making sure she did not learn of this… also, I wanted to surprise you, once my research into the matter was complete – which it now is.”

“Explain,” she demanded.

He smirked. “As you can tell from the report, something isn’t quite right with Amanda’s… perception of things,” he began. “She reported torturing Switchbitch,” he spoke the name with distaste – really, the taste of some people!, “to death, and according to Walker’s official report, she also abused the woman sexually… or so it seemed. After Amanda had left, Walker decided to eat the woman’s remains, and found them to be… changed. His curiosity piqued, he investigated and found that she had been killed before her weapon was forced up her anus, nor was there any sign of sexual contact of any kind.”

He paused and reached out for the floating projection. To his delight, it still recognised his hand signs and it called up several news reports.

‘New Supervillain seduces Hero to the Dark Side’

‘Fallen Superhero revealed to have been brainwashed and abused!’

‘Mindstar declared S-Class threat. No Kill Warrant yet – why?’

The articles continued like that, showing the progression of Amanda’s career as Mindstar, including all her sexual escapades.

“I decided to make a new background check, to see whether there’d been any history of mental illness in her family,” he explained. “Imagine my surprise when I found out that her entire past – including her parents – is entirely fictitious!”

“No,” she contradicted him. “I ran the/ background check/ myself/ before we contacted/ her./ They are real.”

“They were, at the time – or at least the documentation was,” he replied firmly, but gently. “But they are not. Amanda’s and Basil’s life in New Lennston is real. They have lived there for more than five years, and though numerous people remember interacting with their parents, I am absolutely sure they never existed to begin with.

She stayed quiet, probably doing research of her own even while she listened. He decided to continue.

“Considering all this, I decided to dig further; their past before coming to New Lennston is entirely made up,” he elaborated. “Basil’s memories of his family and life before that are very real – but they have no basis in reality. The same for his memories of financing and building his own base. As an aside, the fact that their parents – and their deaths – were never real to begin with certainly explains why even Basil does not appear to mourn them, or to have been actually affected by the loss – even if he has false memories of the event, he lacks the actual experience.”

“I can count the/ number of people/ who have proven to be/ capable of affecting/ long-term memories/ in anything but the/ crudest/ way possible/ on one hand/ and still have/ fingers left,” she stated simply.

“Quite so,” he agreed with a nod. “But it becomes more interesting still,” he threw in. “You see, though Mindstar’s career is quite real… her escapades are not.”

“What?” she asked flatly.

“You heard me. I went after and investigated all her supposed victims in the time since the Hemogoblin incident,” he explained. “From the sorority to Amazon, I investigated them all. Hell, I even did some deep mental probing, just to be sure!”

She nodded, waiting for his verdict.

“I couldn’t believe what I found! It made no sense at all!” he said with exasperation in his voice, throwing his arms up as he dramatically walked up and down the projected screen. “So I snuck into the Blakes’ residence and-“

“Probed Amanda Blake?” she asked. “That is/ incredibly risky/ considering her own/ powers.”

He waved her off. “No, I didn’t probe her… not mentally. I did do a full physical on her while she slept, though.”

“You/ snuck into a young woman’s home/ and did a full physical examination on her/ in her sleep?/ That is rather/ creepy/ even by/ your standards,” she commented, though he doubted that she disapproved.

“Compared to killing people, that’s really rather tame,” he defended his decision. “But never mind – what is important is not what I did, but what I found.”

“And what/ did you find?”

He walked over to his chair and sat down again. “As far as I can tell, both from the physical on Amanda, and the deep probing of her ‘victims’ and other partners, I can say with confidence that Amanda Blake…” He paused for dramatic effect. “Is a virgin.”

She tilted her head to the side. “Impossible,” she replied. “She has/ numerous lovers/ chief of all/ being Markus Birkovich./ He would not/ be satisfied with a/ merely platonic relationship.”

“And he isn’t. He’s very satisfied by their deeply physical relationship,” he replied. “Though he is as wrong about that as Basil is about financing his projects on his own, or as wrong as Amanda is about abusing her numerous victims.”

Her head tilted to the other side with a mechanical whirring sound. “What is/ going on here?”

He shrugged. “I am not quite sure. Amanda believes herself to be a rapist, she has even admitted that to her brother – not that it’s a secret. Amazon is absolutely certain she was sexually abused. The sorority girls Amanda visited still have wet dreams of the night they spent with her. Markus vividly remembers their frequent trysts. Notice a pattern here?”

“Yes/ and I am very worried,” he she replied. “Why are you/ promoting her/ instead of/ cutting all ties/ before whatever this is/ causes any damage/ to us?”

He spread his arms. “What, and ruin the suspense? This is the most interesting thing to happen in years!” he answered with a wide grin.

She slapped a hand to her armored forehead. “Oh please/ not this again.”

“C’mon dear, you can’t tell me you don’t want to know how this’ll play out! And besides, we know something is wrong – we can plan accordingly, keep her away from any truly sensitive information and keep an eye out for whomever is responsible for this – I don’t know about you, but I want a metahuman that powerful either on our side, or dead. And we won’t find them if we cut Amanda off.”

“So we…”

“We watch. We stay vigilant,” he said firmly. “And when the time comes, we’ll strike without mercy.”

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B011.15 Monkey Family

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I bolted off at my top speed, leaving everyone else behind. For once, the monkey was being cooperative, and fully so, pouring on the speed; one step carried me across the old sewage plant, to a tunnel that led towards Old Downtown. Another step and I crashed through a wall at the end of the tunnel without slowing down by a noticeable amount.

When I made my fourth step, sounds vanished as I shattered through the sound barrier.

I hadn’t reached speeds like these with such ease since I’d fought my demented half-sister during the war; even before that, I’d only managed them less than a dozen times, tops. I was soaring, I was roaring as a primal joy filled me, howling right along with the monkey as our thoughts lined up and we tapped reserves of power I’d forgotten I’d had.

We broke through more walls than I could be bothered to count, all but disintegrated a rusty old school bus when we went through it, gave a rather diverse-looking gang gathered around a portable television a nasty case of burst eardrums (and a shattered television); I focused ahead, I sped up and we. Went. On.

I felt the monkey’s skin attach directly to mine, mingling, melding, the separation vanishing for the first time in nearly two decades; my senses were escalating even faster than my speed did, the world around me slowing to an almost still image I was soaring through, every step taking me several hundred feet ahead. I could see every speck of dust in the air, I could feel the ground crack and liquefy with every step I took, I could feel the air slam into me over and over and over, trying to skin me alive, to shatter my bones, yet unable to do more than stir my fur and draw my lips back further widen the manic grin I felt stretch across my face, two rows of teeth revealed in all their sharp deadliness. I felt more than fast, more than powerful. This, this was what my power, what I was made for, just utter abandon and speed; In that moment, I felt more than human, more than metahuman – I felt like a god, utterly free and untouchable!

This, I could do forever. But alas, the downside of being as fast as me was that, even with my rapidly accelerated perception, the journey was not all that long. Eight steps, in total, until I burst through a wall thicker than many a skyscraper – or perhaps it hadn’t been a wall at all, it might just have been undeveloped earth and rock between the last tunnel I’d been in (less than a tenth of a step long) and the water distribution centre.

I don’t know what the Ascendant and his people had expected to see coming, if they’d expected anything at all, but I was entirely sure they hadn’t expected a furry blue monkey to burst through the wall and scream bloody murder.

To be perfectly honest, I liked what I saw. There were thirty-three people in the room (super-fast perception plus infravision equals lots of battlefield awareness) and all but three had an abnormally high body temperature, practically glowing to my vision.

Two of the three people without the spiking body temperature were in the back of the installation, out of sight of my normal vision – even their heat signatures were hard to pick out through all the intervening material.

The third person was much colder than a person should be, and a look through normal sight revealed a literally white-skinned woman with blue lips, wearing winter clothing; she was standing atop a railway that overlooked several water-purifying tanks, the metal around her iced over; looked like a pretty classic ice cowl, really.

The thirty burning people – all of them also enlarged to ridiculous degrees – were spread all around the place. Those I could see looked like the thugs I’d seen in Chayot’s memory, wearing dark clothing and masks – only the Ascendant must’ve shot them up with something, because they’d all grown to over ten feet of height, ripping through most of their clothing – the only things that still fit them were their masks, which still sat on their now ridiculously small heads, in between shoulders that big enough for someone like Volca or Tamara to fit into without trouble.

I could have – and probably should have stopped, looked around and made a plan on how to proceed, but I hadn’t reached this kind of level in a long time, and if I was honest with myself, I just wanted to cut loose.

Never mind that I was still angry as all hell and wanted to take vengeance on these people. I hadn’t forgotten the burning rage that had driven me earlier, and now was my chance to teach these clowns that you don’t mess with my family.

All these thoughts and observations went through my head in the time between bursting through the wall and landing on the ground, almost exactly beneath the cold woman.

And then it was monkey fun time.

***

My first move was as simple as it proved to be effective – I kicked off the ground, going straight up towards the cold woman. I didn’t know how exactly her power worked, but given the choice between taking out two of thirty juiced up normies (there were two that I could hit at once, just a few feet ahead of me) and one unknown metahuman… Well, I picked the popsicle.

I’d slowed down a lot, and no longer moved at super-sonic speeds; thus I could hear her try to shout something – or perhaps scream in horror – before I hit the railway from below. I reached out with my hands, grabbing the metal and tearing it in half right beneath her feet. Then I used both my momentum and my hands on the two halves of the railway to soar higher, tackling her.

Bones broke audibly, specifically those of her legs and she got all of a second of screaming in before my tail whipped up and wrapped around her throat, cutting it off. What most people don’t realise is that, if you do it right, choking someone out is a matter of a few seconds, tops.

I landed on the left side of the railway, letting her dangle off my tail, legs shattered, until she passed out – in plain sight of the mooks.

They didn’t take it well, at all. No less than eight of them leaped at me from below, but I’d been counting on that. I tossed the woman aside, to the far end of the railway, and went to work.

Reaching around me with both arms, one leg and my tail, I ripped huge chunks of the railway off and threw them at the four closest mooks. Before the projectiles were even halfway to their targets, I leapt off the railway, over the vats. I’d seen three enemies close together, and I flew straight at them. I couldn’t see their faces, but I could see their eyes through their masks – they widened in surprise at my high-velocity assault on them before they’d even gotten close.

Tough luck. You shouldn’t have taken this job, I thought as I gut-kicked the one in the middle with both feet. As he folded over, the air knocked out of him, the other two tried to grab me as they flew past – but I was faster; I grabbed each of them by their normal-sized heads, wrapping my hands around them, and pulled them down after me.

The one I’d kicked hit the ground with an impact that created an actual crater around him. Coming to a dead stop, I swung the other two head-first into the ground to his left and right.

All three went limp, but I didn’t waste any time – before their bodies had even fully touched the ground, I’d already kicked off towards five charging brutes.

I slammed into their leader just as the chunks of rock and concrete from the hole I’d blown coming in hit the ground and I did not rip off his head, as quick a solution as that might’ve been.

I did, however, see my father come through a wall (without blowing it up. Negative points for the weak entrance) dragging Warren, Malphas and Volca through (he was stretching his role there, I was sure; still, such an ability could easily be explained as a capability kept secret for emergencies, so…) and I decided to let them in on the fun, so I slammed my forehead into the centre of the guy’s face, grabbed the mooks to his left and right and threw them right at the group.

Then I went to town on the two still standing and trying to tackle me.

Tackle me.

The result was as hilariously one-sided as one could expect.

I don’t think that I broke their spines, but at the very least, they’d be in a lot of pain, for a long time, unless whatever they’d taken came with a lot of regeneration.

Warren, Malphas and Volca were getting ready to intercept the two I’d thrown at them and my father was running towards one of the metal vats. Seven enemies were down, two more about to get the shit kicked out of them. Leaving twenty-four targets.

I shouldn’t give the Ascendant too much time to do whatever it is that he’s doing, I reminded myself between seconds.

Twenty-two thugs left. They were gathering in one spot and seemed to be hefting weapons – I had to move fast.

Fortunately, moving fast is part of my power description.

There were twelve huge vats for water purification before it was fed into the city’s pipes. They were organised in four rows of three vats each, with the control room and the central access pipe on one side of the huge installation and my entry point pretty much on the opposite side. I was right in the middle of the vats, and the thugs were gathering behind the next row.

I don’t have much time – but I only need to scatter them, I realised and ran towards the gap between two vats. The sound of the rocks I’d blown into the facility impacting the floor reached me just as I reached twenty of the remaining thugs, who were busy picking up what seemed to be heavily customised rocket launchers.

Those were most likely no threat to me, or to Dad, but they could very well kill any of the others. Not that I would’ve let them pull off whatever they were aiming for anyway.

The juiced-up thugs didn’t even know I was there until I slammed into their midst at two hundred miles an hour, clotheslining no less than five of them as an opening move, two on the left and three on the right; I’d always rather enjoyed mixing wrestling moves into my fighting style – they were surprisingly effective and watching professional wrestling matches on television used to be something me and dad used to bond over, before things went bad.

The five unlucky assholes I hit first were down and out instantly, save for the third one on my right side (I hadn’t managed a full hit), and now I was in the middle of the group, which meant they’d have to be utterly insane to use their weapons on me.

Fortunately for everyone involved, these weren’t the kind of weapons you just had to aim and pull the trigger to use – never mind that they were still in the process of assembling half of the human-sized things, anyway. Unfortunately for them, I was also too fast to give them the chance to put up an effective defence, anyway.

I roared at the top of my lungs, not long but short, explosively – I’d shattered glass and burst eardrums with my roar before – to stun them, and then I went apeshit on them (heh).

My fists flew, breaking bones left and right – though I limited myself to striking at extremities, to reduce the chance of lethal blows; Hennessy’s and Camille’s request sat oddly with me, as did Journeyman’s words. I’d never really lost sleep over killing. Not during my stint as a villain, certainly not during the war, nor during the years after. But now…

I’d been told, from two sources that had a great deal of weight with me, that I shouldn’t kill. Journeyman, who’d so often given me good advice (and was the closest thing to a true friend I’d ever had, aside from Warren), and my own daughter and her girlfriend. I wondered whether Journeyman had known that they’d ask me that… no, stupid question; of course he’d known. There was no way this was a coincidence, not when he was involved.

But why had he preempted the girls’ request? Because, now that I thought about it, it had been more than just a plea to spare the Ascendant. They’d pretty much told me that they didn’t want me to kill, period. Not just in this one case.

Because, one way or another, it’d be on them for not stopping me. At least, in their heads, it would be, as unreasonable as that was.

And I couldn’t do that to them, not to Hennessy and, yes, not to Camille, either. She might have rubbed me the wrong way, but she was good to Hennessy, and that was more than I could say about myself.

All I could do, in the end, was to sigh. Which brought me back to the here and now – among the broken – but still alive – bodies of twenty enhanced thugs. Two of them hadn’t even hit the ground yet, still falling down in slow motion as I refocused on the present.

Two thugs left. As well as the Ascendant and whoever the other one with him is. I looked around, with both my normal and infravision, only to find that my team had taken care of the rest. Malphas, Volca and Warren had downed the two whom I’d thrown at them, my father had taken out (non-lethally, which was pretty surprising to me) the other two and was waiting near the place where the last two active heat signatures were.

No time to waste. I went and joined my father, after telling Warren to stand watch with the others.

I didn’t want them involved in the finale. However it turned out, they’d sleep better if they remained ignorant.

***

We didn’t bother with big entrances, not at this point. Father and I just walked, without a word, down a short hallway made of concrete and lined, left and right, in pipes of various sizes and colours. It ended in a reinforced steel door with the words ‘Central Pipe Access’ written on it.

Father and I raised a foot each and kicked the door out of its frame, sending it flying across the room beyond.

There was a yelp, and the sound of a gun being drawn and cocked.

Father let me take the lead, and I simply walked in in full monkey form, stooped over to fit through the door, with my hands entwined behind my back.

Within, I found two men standing over a contraption they were about to lower into a hatch in a big red pipe. The machine looked like some kind of tubular nightmare made of brass, gold and plastic, and did not inspire confidence at all. Of the two men, one was reasonably tall, thin, and wearing a pure white priest’s robe, with a mask depicting an angelic face; the other one looked like the thugs outside, only he was still normal-sized and fully clothed; he was holding a pretty heavy-looking handgun and put five bullets into my chest, and three more into my head, before I’d even fully entered.

I barely felt them, but still. I had to set the tone of this meeting, not them. To that end, I took a single step towards them, ignoring the burning desire for bloody murder at the sight of the Ascendant, and backhanded the last of his thugs, throwing him across the room. The man slammed into the wall and slid down with a sigh, the breath knocked out of him. Father walked over there to stand watch over him, while I approached the other one.

“The Ascendant, I presume?” I asked, without bothering to mask the pure hatred I felt for the man, the desire to kill him; nor did I hold back the monkey’s growl. “I’ve been hoping to talk to you for a while now,” I continued, while I reached out with one hand and pulled the contraption off the hatch.

“N-no, put that back!” he shouted in a shrill voice, all but leaping for the contraption – though there was no way this scrawny guy could lift it, not unless he shot himself up with his own drugs – it was almost as big as he was, and probably quite a bit heavier. “I need the dispenser, I need it!” he shouted as he tried to reach it, with me holding it out of his reach like a school bully denying a smaller boy his action figure or something.

Good God, this is the monster that hurt my girl so much? THIS? I thought furiously as I brushed him back. He fell on his ass like a freaking pushover, and started sobbing. Sobbing. For crying out loud, he was… he was acting like…

“I need that! If I don’t do this, they’ll take my name away!” he cried. “I need it, I n-“

“Oh, shut the hell up,” I said as I lashed out with my tail, hitting him in the gut. He slid back against the wall, the air – and fight – knocked out of him. Then I looked at the contraption. “This. It’s supposed to poison the water supply, right?” I asked the Ascendant, though it was my father who answered.

“Yes. He’s used a similar contraption before,” he said from where his hulking grey form stood over the downed minion.

I nodded to myself – and then I squeezed, crushing it. The Ascendant made a desperate, weak scream as I snapped it in two, watching various fluids spill over my hand and onto the ground, as the pieces tumbled down and hit with a metallic crunching sound.

“He’s not going to use this one, though,” I said with a satisfied growl in my voice.

The… little man in front of me was just sobbing now.

“I can’t believe it. This man, he created all this misery? I expected more from the Gefährten,” I almost-whispered.

“I guess we know now why they wanted to purge him. Can’t have been hard to find someone more appropriate to the job,” he replied casually. “Though my reports suggest he used to be much more… together. Perhaps his power has degraded his mind. Or perhaps just the threat of disappointing the Gefährten was enough to make him crack.”

“Yeah,” I breathed, though I wasn’t sure what I was agreeing to. This was… not what I’d expected. “We’re done here, let’s go,” I said, turning around – though I didn’t leave him behind. I picked him up with my tail instead.

“Why not just kill him here?” Father asked. “We have time. We can enjoy it.”

“No,” I said firmly. “He’s going to the authorities, and he’s going to stand trial and be judged fairly.”

Father tilted his head, clearly confused – or at least surprised. “Seriously? Why the sudden about-face?” His voice almost slipped into his natural tone, for just a moment. I enjoyed that way more than I should.

“H- Chayot and Dearheart contacted me, asked me to spare him. To have him stand trial, as he should,” I said. Then I had a thought, and I reached around myself with my tail, so I could look straight at him. Snot was running down from beneath his mask, and his eyes were bloodshot and wet.

So pathetic. “Did you hear that, you piece of trash? The only reason you’re living through this is because the girls you hurt, the children you tortured, they want you to be treated fairly. No, not fairly – better than you could ever deserve. Do you get that!?” I screamed the last sentence into his face, revealing rows of teeth and covering him in spittle.

He nodded frantically in between sobs, but then he shook his head. “It don’t matterrrrrr,” he whined. “Th-they’re… they’re going to kill me, anyway. Just for failing. And so I don’t t-t-talk.”

“He’s right,” my father agreed. “He’s dead already. And we do need some intel, to be perfectly honest.”

I turned to look at him. He approached me in turn, leaving the thug behind. “I’m not going to kill him. Not going to leave any evidence. But it would be irresponsible not to extract as much information as we can from him, before he vanishes either into prison or is killed by his own people,” he stated firmly.

Why does he have to constantly make sense? I asked myself, but there wasn’t really any argument to be made. Really, I had no reason to even think it over – the Gefährten were major trouble, way worse than the Syndicate, and any edge against them was worth this.

“Alright. But be quick about it,” I said, dropping the Ascendant.

While my father went to work on him – I doubted there’d be much of a challenge, not with a man this broken – I went to take a look at the thug I’d downed earlier.

There, I met my next big temptation. His mask had fallen off, revealing features I’d seen before.

It was the same man I’d seen in the visions Hennessy had shown me. The one who’d taken her.

The one who’d kicked Tamara’s head when she’d already been on the floor, paralysed by poison and half-mad from fear for her child.

Boots, all around us. Boots, kicking. Boots, falling.

I blinked, looking down at his bloody face – I’d broken his nose. He wasn’t unconscious, though. But he wasn’t all there, either.

A black boot, dropping down. I remember the sound, the crack. The spray of warm blood, its taste when some droplets flew into my screaming mouth.

I shook my head, realising that I was bent over the man, ready to tear into him, to rip his fucking head off with my bare teeth!

I remembered the light dying in those big, warm brown eyes, I r-

I pushed myself away from him, growling under my breath.

This isn’t the way, I thought to myself. Not anymore. Really, it never was. They were never worth it to begin with. And there… I felt a kind of peace. I still hated them, but… no, it was done.

Once more, I looked down at the thug. He wasn’t anything else, after all. Just a thug. He’d hurt those I loved… but that was over. He was over, as surely as if I’d bitten his head off.

There was no need to literally do it, not anymore.

I waited for my father to finish extracting as much as he could out of the former Ascendant, then we left together, taking two criminals with us.

I did make sure to have him tell me what he found out, though. Just in case.

***

The next three hours passed in a blur. I mostly let my father do the talking. Warren snuck off with Volca and Malphas, after they made me promise to meet them all later on.

We called down the authorities, and the actual adult superheroes of Chicago showed up to pick up the trash. I hadn’t seen or heard from any of them, aside from Vek (who was just staring at me, as I stood in my pristine suit and tie in front of the piled up thugs – who were slowly reverting to normal size – and the tied up (and unconscious) Ascendant.

I smirked at her, while my father introduced himself as my hireling and handled the nuts and bolts.

Honestly, I couldn’t care enough to participate. I smiled at the cameras as journalists had gathered near the entrance to the water works, reporting as the police carted the goons out, and two men dragged the Ascendant to the paddy wagon. People cheered when they did that.

I just felt… pleasantly numb. It was only thanks to my father’s ingrained lessons that I bothered to smile and do some pleasant chit chat with a few reporters, giving them some nice soundbites.

***

Before I knew it, we were standing in front of Tamara’s house, just as the sun was setting. Father was back in his Dark form, though I doubted anyone but me could see him.

“Will you be alright from here on out?” he asked.

“Yeah. Yeah, I want to do this on my own,” I said. “Afterwards, though… I’d like to talk to you. At my place.”

“Yeah?” he asked, and I heard something almost like… hopefulness in his voice(s). I couldn’t be sure, but… it was a nice thought.

“Yeah. Drinks are on me.”

“I’ll be there,” he said, before he sank into his own shadow and vanished.

I smiled to myself – though I couldn’t tell why, things were just… just a blur right now. I looked at the house – nice and sturdy, picturesque really – and I tried to put my current state into words.

The closest I could come up with was a feeling like… like something had been knocked loose. Something old and scabbed over, broken and yet so persistent. I wasn’t miraculously healed of all my issues or anything, but…

But for the first time since mother died, I felt like I could finally start to heal.

I walked up to the door and rang the doorbell.

***

Little feet pounded the stairs and then the little princess opened the door. She was now wearing a bright yellow dress and a matching tiara, with diaphanous golden butterfly wings and a golden wand in her hand.

She grinned up at me. “Hello, Mister Henny’s-other-Dad!” she chirped, and I couldn’t help but grin right back.

“And a hello to you, too, dear Fairy Princess,” I said, just as Tamara rounded the corner into the hallway.

She was dressed in casual stay-at-home clothes, and looked like she’d been crying – she didn’t look sad though. When she saw me, she smiled brilliantly, and even more so when the little princess turned to her and asked, “Mommy, how’d he know I’m a Fairy Princess!? I’m supposed to be in disguise!”

Tamara laughed and picked the little girl up, then she looked at me, looking radiant herself.

God, I could just look at her all day. As inappropriate as that would be now. And as if to underline that fact, Phil joined us, putting a long, thin arm around her shoulders.

“Hello, Kevin. Or Aaron, I guess,” he said, and he looked like he couldn’t decide whether to smile or frown at me. “They’re in the living room. Take your time.”

Tamara mouthed a ‘Thank you’ before she leaned closer to give me a kiss on the cheek (causing the little princess to giggle, and give me a mirroring one on the other one). Then she went up the stairs.

I looked at Phil, again. He looked back. I grunted. He grunted. I entered, taking off my shoes, and went to the living room.

When I entered, I saw Hennessy (in sweatpants and a pink baby tee) and Camille (in a matching outfit, only with a green top instead of a pink one) sitting on the couch, their eyes wet as they watched the television, holding hands.

Well, Camille was watching television. Hennessy was looking at me, and I got the feeling that she’d been tracking my movements as soon as I’d entered the range of her ability.

Camille turned, as well, and I got another memory for the records; I had made a lot, in my life, but this one, this one was unquestionably beautiful: Both girls broke into relieved, radiant grins, and then Hennessy literally leaped across the room and into my arms, wrapping her legs around my waist for some extra hold.

And when I wrapped my arms around her, I felt like I’d finally done something good.

***

It was nearly midnight before I got back home, but father was still there, despite my tardiness – and he wasn’t alone.

He was sitting at my bar, the living room lit brightly by numerous indirect lamps, without any wraith to obscure him, in his black robe and skin-tight suit; and on the other side of the bar, currently mixing some manner of cocktail, was Journeyman in his dark blue robe.

Just like the last time (many years ago) I’d seen them both together, I was struck by how similar their costumes were, save for the colour of their robes and Journeyman’s mirror mask.

Neither of them had ever told me what was up with that. Or rather, Journeyman hadn’t. Father claimed he didn’t know why Journeyman dressed the way he did.

But that wasn’t important right now. Instead of pursuing the thought, I took off my jacket and tie, opened a few buttons on my shirt and sat down next to my father.

“Gimme something good, barkeep,” I said in the worst Chicago accent I could think of. “I got a lot to  celebrate.”

“Most certainly,” he said, as he filled a big glass with whatever he’d been mixing – obviously, Journeyman had known just when I’d show up, and what to prepare for me.

“I gather that the girls were pleased,” father said as he raised his own drink, the tip of the glass vanishing in the shadows of his hood. He sounded… quite pleased himself.

“Very much. I’m now invited to their bi-monthly Saturday barbecue; they want to introduce me to the rest of their team,” I said happily.

He nodded.

Journeyman filled a third glass with a sparkling blue concoction for himself.

We drank in silence.

Really good stuff.

After a while, father broke the quiet. “I have a confession to make,” he said, his voice even.

I looked at him with suspicion. How foreboding, coming from you of all people, I thought but didn’t say. Instead, I let silence speak for me.

“While you were busy with the girls, I snuck into the house,” he said. When I opened my mouth, he raised his hands to forestall an angry comment. “I had good reason to do so. Let me explain.”

I closed my mouth again and nodded. It couldn’t hurt to hear him out, and he usually did have a good reason for anything he did… unless that reason was ‘to annoy someone’.

“These last few years, I have been paying a lot of attention to the rising number of second-generation metahumans,” he started.

I blinked. I had not expected that. “Second-gens? What’s so special about them? I’m second-gen,” I said. “We’ve been around for ages, there are even third- and fourth and fifth-gen, probably even more, out there.”

He and Journeyman both shook their heads. “No, you’re not a second-gen metahuman, Aaron,” father replied, taking another sip from his drink. “Your power is… connected to mine. Your… power certainly took some inspiration from mine, thus explaining the visual similarities,” he explained. “But you’re still a first-generation metahuman. It takes more than simply being connected to another metahuman to become a second-gen. And the differences between first- and second-generation powers are… profound.”

“How so? And what does this have to do with you sneaking into Tamara’s house?” I asked with a frown. I was getting pretty worried there – he wasn’t usually this talkative when it came to powers.

“I’ll get to that. Anyway, second-generation metahumans are a result of multiple very precise circumstances,” he continued, his drink now put aside to let him gesture with his hands. He’d turned to face me, and was getting quite animated, as he usually did when it came to subjects he was really interested in. “Keep in mind, though, that a lot of this is just conjecture – there haven’t been enough cases I could study to draw definite conclusions yet – and whatever Gwen may have found out, she does not share with me.” He sounded quite annoyed by that, but continued in the same tone of voice as before. “It takes two metahumans to produce a second-generation metahuman. They have to both be close enough to heterodyne, and be doing so frequently. They have to both be emotionally and physically close to the recipient – like, for example, living in the same house, or working at the same place – and they have to repeatedly heterodyne their powers over a period of at least a year, it seems. In this case, it just so happens that…”

“That Hennessy and Camille did just that… and with no less than two normies around who spend a lot of time with them;” I concluded, thinking of Phil and the little princess.

He nodded. “Yes. The girl, Charity – she’s a second-generation metahuman, though she hasn’t manifested yet.”

I… didn’t know how to take that. That could be a bad thing… or a good thing. Or neither. But there was one thing… “Wait, what do you mean, she’s a metahuman, but she hasn’t manifested yet?”

“I told you. Profound differences,” he replied casually. “A second-generation metahuman is already connected to their…” He searched for a word. “How to call them…”

“Tenants,” Journeyman suggested. “I call them the Tenants.”

Father shrugged. “As good as any. Yes, such a person – like Charity – is already connected to her tenant. With her, it’s not a question of if she’ll manifest – just when.”

Tenants, huh? This was so much new information. Focus on Charity first.

“And anything could set her off,” Journeyman continued. “The… threshold is far lower. Something as simple as being shoved during a game or losing a toy might be enough to make her manifest.”

“Oh no… I have to warn them!” I said, my head filling with horrific visions of Charity randomly getting powers and hurting the others, ready to jump up and-

“Relax!” they both said in unison.

I didn’t relax, but I stayed in my seat.

“First of all,” father said, “I’ve already taken precautions. The girl is being watched, and I have a wraith ready to intervene, if worst comes to worst. Second, second-generation metahumans – those I know about, at least – are amazingly stable. Not a single one of them that I know about – save for two extreme examples – gained powers beyond their control; and the likelihood of derangements is so low it’s almost non-existent, compared to first-generation metahumans.”

Taking a deep breath, I drank from my glass again. “Alright. Alright. But…” I frowned. “Didn’t you say Mindstar’s a second-generation meta? From what little I’ve heard of her, she’s anything but stable.”

“Mindstar was broken long before she gained her powers,” he replied casually.

I frowned some more. There was another question… the answer to which might clear up a lot. “The two extreme cases you mentioned… Desolation-in-Light and Gloom Glimmer, right?”

He sighed, slumping a little over the bar. “Yes. Let’s not go into that.”

I let it drop, though I was a good deal wiser on the subject now. If the threshold that has to be reached for manifestation is lowered, then that could explain how DiL manifested so early.

Though that didn’t explain how that same thing could happen to their next baby, and even give it such similar abilities.

Questions on top of questions.

We all fell silent for a while.

Journeyman refilled all our glasses with different concoctions. We drank. They were good.

“I’ll still tell them… tomorrow. Since there’s no need to rush it.”

“Of course. They ought to know anyway.”

More minutes passed.

“What will you do now?” Journeyman asked, looking at me. Father also turned to look at me again, clearly curious.

“I… have the beginnings of a plan forming in my head,” I said, surprised to find that, yes, I was working out a plan. “A plan that’ll involve Warren, Volca and Malphas, especially. And the entire rest of the city, too.”

“Care to share it?” father asked with some amusement.

“And ruin the surprise? Hell no!” I grinned at him. I couldn’t see his face, but I was pretty sure he was rolling his eyes. “But it won’t be anything you’d expect, I promise.”

He sighed. “Alright. I’ll look forward to it, I guess.” He emptied his glass, then rose up. “I have got to go. There’s lots of work to do… and no small bit of paperwork, either.”

I chuckled to myself. “You sound like a paper pusher from a bank or something.”

“Yeah, sometimes, it feels that way,” he said as he walked towards the door.

He stopped in front of it, his hand on the door knob.

I suddenly realised that Journeyman was gone. Just vanished. I looked at my father. His head was slightly lowered, enough so to be visible even from behind, despite his robe.

Time passed.

“Aaron?” he said, softly.

“Yes?

“I was afraid,” he admitted, though I had no idea of what. Not that it mattered. I’d never heard my father say anything like that. “I was so afraid, after your mother died,” he continued. Then he shook his head. “No, even before that. But then, I always had her to reign me in. After she died… I was so afraid, that this world would swallow you up as well. That you wouldn’t be ready to face it.” He took a deep breath, before the words continued to explode out of him. “I’m not trying to excuse how I treated you. I don’t expect you to forgive me. I just… I ask you to understand – I was scared, and I just wanted you to be safe. To be strong and cunning and ready, so you would be safe, and able to keep those you love safe, too.”

I stared at him, my mouth wide open, and I was infinitely grateful that he stood with his back to me, so he couldn’t see the tears running down my face.

“I just… I’m sorry. That’s all,” he finished.

***

An infinite amount of time passed, before I found my voice again. Time during which I relieved all the memories I had of our time together – both the good and the bad – and my limited interactions with my own children.

I thought about it. I reviewed it. And I concluded… “I can’t forgive you, dad,” I said, my own voice choked up for more than one reason. “But… I’ve got children of my own now… and I… I understand.”

He nodded quietly. Then he pulled the door open.

“One more thing,” I threw in. “You… you had another child. Gloom Glimmer.”

“Irene,” he said gently.

“Yes. Um… I just hope you…” I didn’t know how to say this without being hurtful.

Fortunately, he said it for me. “You hope I won’t screw up the way I did before.”

I nodded, even though he couldn’t see.

He continued nonetheless. “I’m still hopeless, I’m afraid,” he said, his voice dripping with… some emotion I couldn’t parse right now. “Fortunately, I have Gwen to reign me in. Irene has grown up to be a fine young hero, despite my worst efforts, and she’s got a stronger moral  compass than either me or her mother.”

“That’s… good, I guess.”

“Yeah. Though…” He chuckled. “She asked me for dating advice. Me.” He sounded self-recrimating when he said that, weirdly enough.

I tilted my head. “Why’s that so funny? You know a lot about dating. And seduction. And all things interpersonal.”

He laughed quietly, this time. The first genuine laugh I’d heard from him in a long time. “Oh, I know all the ways the game is played, but… I’ve only ever been in love four times, I’ve dated three women, and I only got serious with two, in the end. And one of them, I was born and grew up with.”

“Oh. Yeah. Funny that she should ask you.”

“Yeah. Well. Have a good night, Aaron.”

“You too. Sleep tight… dad.”

He left.

***

I turned around, and there he was again. Journeyman.

He put a glass filled with something fizzy and pink in front of me, and I took it. He was holding one that was as yellow as a canary.

“What a day,” I said.

“There are days like these,” he agreed, putting his elbows on the bar and leaning on them. He had a question. Unspoken, but there. I could tell, just by glancing at the images in his mirror, by reading the atmosphere.

I looked down at my drink. It wasn’t pink, really. Darker, more purple. Like Hennessy’s eyes. I thought about all that had happened. All I’d seen, and heard, and felt, and done, and not done, and thought about, and not thought about. Along the way, I also decided there was one more stop I had to make, before I could turn in for the night. But that was for later.

Now, I had to answer the question. The same question he’d asked me after I’d run away from my father. The same one he’d asked me before I left for the war. The one he was asking now.

I thought of Hennessy’s smile, and Elouise’s smile, and how it felt to hold them in my arms. I thought of father’s apology and Tamara and so much more.

There were still dark spots. I still didn’t know who’d paid those assassins to come after me – I’d have to follow up on that, perhaps arrange a meeting with Sara. I still had to find my place here in this city. See if my plan was viable, what could be done. My future was still unsure. Heh, I thought to myself. Why should I be any different?

Then I smiled, looking at him again. “Yeah. I think I’m going to be alright.”

He raised his glass. “Cheers, mate.”

***

I’d breezed past the guards and security measures, making sure not to alert anyone. I’d snuck through the building, until I found the door.

It was perhaps not entirely appropriate, especially at this time, but… I didn’t want to miss one more second.

I knocked on the door with one hand, the other holding a big bottle of chocolate milk and a movie disc.

The door opened after a minute, and Elouise looked at me in surprise. Her white hair was a mess, she was wearing a crooked green nightrobe and her face looked a little pale without her make up – but when she saw my smile and the bottle and the disc, and she smiled back, it lit up the world.

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B011.14 Monkey Family

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We all stared down at the dying villain, as he squirmed weakly on the ground, a sound coming from his mouth that was too ragged and burned to be called a moan.

“Fuck me, he’s still alive,” Warren whispered, clearly audible thanks to his helmet’s effect on his voice.

“Not for long,” Volca snarled and bent down, lifting her transformed arm.

I caught her by the wrist, ignoring the damage the heat did to my monkey skin. When she looked up at me with murderous eyes, I just sighed. “He’s already dead,” I told her. “His body just hasn’t caught up to it yet.”

She snarled at me but her arm reverted back to flesh and bone. “He’ll suffer more like this, anyway,” she concluded. “So, what’s next?” came the follow-up question.

I looked up from the squirming form on the ground to see Warren and Volca both looking intently at me (I couldn’t see Warren’s face, obviously, but I could feel his attention). Waiting for leadership. Fuck, why am I the designated leader?

Well. No use in complaining. I straightened up. “First, we need to take care of Volca’s wounds, and check up on Malphas.”

“He… he’s still alive?” Volca asked, her voice half hopeful and half incredulous. When I nodded, it was like a hundred tons had been lifted off her shoulders. Meanwhile, Warren had picked up his severed arm and attached it to his armor’s back, possibly with magnets of some kind.

“Warren, pick up the trash. I’d rather not leave him lying around unsupervised, not while he’s still alive.” He obeyed, using four smaller arms (including the one that had previously held a gun) to pick up the dying supervillain. I picked up Volca against her protests, and far more gently than Warren did with his charge, and we walked to where I’d left Malphas earlier.

Instead of the crippled preteen boy, though, we found my father – in his Rhino form – and a giant made of metal.

It stood a good twelve feet in height, its torso bulky, reinforced in the most simple way – by making it of a lot of steel. A lot of it. Its head was ridiculously tiny compared to the rest of it, a half-spherical helmet with a small eye slit and a crown of horns. Its arms and legs were oversized, too long, and made of tightly wound cords of metal, like exposed muscle in copper and steel, its hands and reverse-jointed, digitrade feet ending in razor-sharp claws.

Judging by the huge chunk of metal missing from the tenements, several tons of material had gone into its construction, metal compressed as far as it was possible – perhaps even a bit further. No way to tell, with how some powers could just plain ignore minor details like time, space and common sense.

Father was watching it as Malphas tested the movement of his new armor, before he turned to face the three of us.

I didn’t know about Warren, but Volca and I were staring at him, slackjawed, a particularly vivid expression in my case, since I still had my monkey skin up, and its jaw included two rows of razor-sharp teeth the size of an adult’s fingers.

“I’m good to go,” came Malphas’ voice from the headpiece, seemingly recovered from the ordeal.

I looked at him, then at my father, narrowing my eyes. Had he done something to give the boy a boost?

“You need to rest, Malphas,” I told him instead of pursuing that point right now. “You lost too much blood, you have to recover first.”

He shook his head – or rather, slid the slit he was looking through left and right – and lifted his new right arm, palm up. Then he clenched it into a fist, the metal flowing in smooth, life-like movements. “I’m good. And I need to go after the guy behind this, even if his patsy is down.” He threw a hate-filled look at the burned form Warren was carrying around. Blauschwinge had gone mostly still, the only indication of his not being dead being the odd squirming motion, and that ragged moan.

“Same here,” Volca said as I put her back on her feet – groaning when her weight settled on her cut and bruised legs – and got ready to say something more, when her gaze fell on Lag’s remains.

I didn’t want to watch. I’d seen this scene play out far too often in my life, yet I couldn’t avert my eyes from the sight of something behind her eyes breaking, couldn’t close my ears so as not to hear the soft, broken sound she made as she stumbled over to her, pulling her mask off to throw it aside.

She slid down onto her knees, a hand reaching out to touch Lag’s cheek. Warren turned away, Malphas looked down in self-blame, father looked at her in what I recognised as a pensive mood.

I approached him, leaning in to whisper. “No.”

He looked at me, his eyes amused. “No?”

“No.”

He nodded. “Alright.” He stepped away.

I approached the sobbing girl – and I couldn’t think of her as a woman right now, all I could think of was the lost girl I’d seen in her eyes, heard in her voice – and knelt down next to her, dismissing my monkey skin entirely. She didn’t react when I put an arm around her shoulder. I didn’t talk. As bad as the situation was, we could afford to give her a few minutes.

“I should be the one who died,” she finally said.

“Why?” I said, not bothering to contradict her. She wouldn’t be receptive to that.

“He hit me. I was reckless, and he hit me. I thought I was dead, I knew I was dead but she… she…” Her voice broke, she hunched over more and sobbed desperately, making small, sad sounds.

“She took the harm, took it on herself. But it was too much, all at once. Even her power couldn’t compensate,” I finished for her. My gaze went to the dead girl’s head, and I reached out to remove that featureless mask. Beneath, she looked so very… cold. Not peaceful. Just dead, but… there was something graceful about her delicate face. Death had lifted all pain and stress from her. You must’ve loved her so very much.

“Sh-sh-she always did that,” Volca sobbed, and then it all came out like a flood. “When my mom died, her family took me in. She took me in, like I was really her sister, not her dad’s by-blow with a hooker. When her parents died, she took care of me. When we ended up on the streets, she took care of me, always… always being there. I was such a little bitch, I screwed it all up. Got powers, became a criminal even though she wanted me to be better. Got hurt, she got powers and took the hurt away, all for me. And now… I dragged her into this, I… she’s dead…”

I pulled her close, holding her with one arm while she cried and shivered. I didn’t speak – I’d gone through this often enough to know that platitudes like “it’ll be alright” or “you shouldn’t blame yourself” wouldn’t mean shit.

Instead, I waited for a minute or two, then I looked at my father. Wordlessly, he produced a compact first aid kit and handed it to me. I let go of Volca and started taking care of her wounds.

“What did you find out?” I asked him, while I worked on her.

“I found the Ascendant. He’s holed up in the lowest level of the Undercity, beneath the old Downtown area,” he explained calmly.

I nodded. Figures he’d go deep. “Defences?”

“About two scores of juiced up thugs, but no other metahumans, as far as I can tell,” he replied. “This… is troubling. It’s so very unlike the usual Gefährten operations. I can’t begin to guess what they’re up to, as it is.”

I frowned, and turned to Malphas, who was watching me and Volca. “Did Blauschwinge say anything? Why’d he attack here?”

“He came after these two for not killing that lawyer,” Malphas explained. “He wanted me to hand them over, but I wouldn’t do that, so we fought.”

Volca spoke up, though her eyes remained glued to her sister’s face. “He kept ranting something about some kind of test he had to pass or something.” Her voice was calm now, steady, but the hurt showed through still.

“Test? Are you sure he spoke of a test?” father asked, his voice animated. It was more of a reaction than I’d seen in him show at my running away from home, though that might’ve been simply due to the role he was playing, and not genuine agitation. It was always hard to tell where the mask ended and the man began.

“Yes,” she replied simply, without paying him further attention.

“I heard him rant about it, too,” Warren confirmed her story. “He also said something about ‘that bitch Skyfall’ – in German, though – and a ‘fearless leader’.”

“Aap Oordra,” my father snapped. “I need to talk to you. Privately. Now.”

I looked up at him with a frown, having just finished applying first aid to Volca’s worst injuries. “I’m not done h-“

“I can do that,” Warren threw in. “I’ve got first aid training and all.” His armor opened up, letting him climb out in full costume.

I nodded and let him take over – not that Volca seemed to notice – so I could walk a big away from the group and behind some old, rusted machine that still stood there.

“What is it?” I asked my father.

He turned around from where he’d been watching the group, leaning against the edge of the machine. “That’s an interesting group you’ve gathered,” he said, apparently unconcerned about anything.

“Yes, they are. Now, why’d you freak out? Don’t deny you did,” I cut off his denial. “Who is Skyfall, and what’s this thing about a fearless leader?”

“Not a fearless leader. Just Fearless Leader. It’s a codename… though an informal one, I think,” he explained. “It’s how the members of the Gefährten refer to the organisation’s leader, instead of using whatever his actual codename may be.”

I goggled at him. “Wait, are you implying that even you don’t know who’s behind all this?” The Dark not knowing about his greatest rival for the title of ‘Number One Supervillain’? That was about as realistic as there being a sin the Devil has never indulged in.

“I’ve never been able to find out. Gwen doesn’t know, or at least she won’t share. Any member I’ve ever interrogated either didn’t know or didn’t give it up. For all I know, Fearless Leader may as well not exist, and the three top executives are just pretending like he does while being the actual leaders.”

“I assume Skyfall is connected to these top executives?”

He nodded. “They are the Gefährten’s elite. The most powerful, devious and successful of its members. The names have been passed down since the inception of the group, from person to person, usually upon the former bearer’s death – sometimes at the hands of their successor.”

“Bad news, eh?”

“Very. Heaven’s Dancer – the only one with but a single bearer, she’s an original member of the group – is by far the worst of them. Then there’s Cloudlander – he’s held his name for almost twenty years now, longer than anyone else save for Heaven’s Dancer. And they have a recently ascended member, Skyfall. I only knew that it’s a teenager behind that name. Now I can infer that it’s also a girl or woman.” He sighed. “Gathering intel on them is a pain.”

“I guess so. So, why’d you freak out so much? You didn’t pull me aside just to expose on this.” He tapped his foot, annoyed, at the accusation of a freakout. Ah, pride is so easy to tease.

“Because I think I know what’s going on here – and it’s worse than them just being after your daughter and her friends,” he said calmly without responding to my jab any further. “They’re testing the Ascendant and Blauschwinge.”

“Testing?”

“The Gefährten have long traditions associated with the codenames they use. Both ‘the Ascendant’ and ‘Blauschwinge’ are legacies passed down for the better part of a century. You don’t just get one of these names for free. You’ve got to earn it. And then you have to keep it.”

I frowned, crossing my arms in a move that, though I’d never admit it out loud, mirrored his own stance almost perfectly. “So this is all… a performance review?”

He chuckled. “Never thought of using that term, but yes, that applies. Blauschwinge is… was famously unstable, and too arrogant. He got his name by killing his predecessor, and he hasn’t exactly performed well. Too many failures, too many retreats without accomplishing anything other than mindless destruction. It’s their practice to put people who are not living up to their name to the test. Send them out, tell them to do something that’ll impress the leadership – or die trying.”

“So what, he and the Ascendant are causing chaos just so they’ll get to keep their names!? What kind of priority is that!? And why’s the Ascendant on review?”

“Their names are their lifes, Aap Oordra. They live and die with them, unless they step down to pass them on – and neither of them is likely to want to give up the power and prestige that comes with those names, especially the Ascendant; he’d lose all or at least most of his funding without the backing of his name. And as to why he’s on review…” He shrugged, rolling his huge shoulders in an equally huge motion. “I can only speculate, but the Ascendant’s purpose has always been to find means by which to ascend humans – to let them manifest powers. Yet the current Ascendant has been… less than successful. As far as I know, he only had one truly impressive success – the incident during which Dearheart and her friends gained their powers, and even there, his success rate was just barely above the normal power distribution. This is just speculation, but his superiors are most likely fed up with him and have given him this one last chance to retain his name.”

I looked down at my feet, not sure how to react to this new information. All this, for what amounted to a performance review? I shook my head. No use brooding about morals right now. “Do you think he’s going to go after Chayot and the others?”

He shook his head. “No, or at least not primarily. Capturing them won’t help him retain his name – he needs to validate that he can live up to it, which means…”

“Somehow causing multiple manifestations in a short amount of time,” I concluded. “We need to take him down fast, before he causes a tragedy… another tragedy.” I looked at the others – they were talking among each other, with Malphas having opened his armor, reshaped the chest into a comfortable-looking seat for him to sit on. Volca seemed to be focused on Malphas’ injury, her own now properly taken care of. “Let’s involve them. They might come up with a good idea.”

He shrugged and followed me back to the group. I quickly explained the state of things to them. “Now we need to figure out what he’s up to, and stop him from doing it.”

“The guy wants to make lots of people manifest, right?” Malphas spoke up, his eyes dark and focused. “From what I know of history, most who want that try to just hurt as many people as they can.”

I snarled under my breath, though I immediately regretted it – the sound, twisted and amplified by my monkey skin, made everyone but my father flinch. “Judging by his history, I doubt he’ll be any more inventive.” I looked at my father. “So the question is, how is he going to do it?”

“He’s a contriver,” my father explained. “He has a huge breadth of options to choose from; however, to my knowledge, he prefers to use drugs and potions – he usually has several thugs with him which have been empowered by his creations – as well as long-term torture, both physical and psychological.”

My monkey nails dug into its palms as I was reminded of what he’d done to my daughter. “So, how could he use that to affect a large enough number of people… can he make poison gas? A hallucinogenic, perhaps? It would be easy to affect a lot of people with that.”

Volca bit her lip, shoulders hunched, and shuddered. I couldn’t tell Warren’s reaction, but it couldn’t be good. Malphas shivered. Father seemed fine.

“I can’t be certain, but I believe he’s only ever worked with liquids,” he stated.

I nodded. Warren shook his ‘head’. “This is crazy,” he breathed, exasperated. “What kind of madman… how’d he even spread a drink like that around? And why’s he beneath Old Downtown?”

“Because…” I began, but cut off. I had no idea. There wasn’t really anything interesting there, not since large parts of Chicago had burned down back in nineteen-seventy-two. “I don’t know. There isn’t much there, it’s mostly just some public facilities, like the power station, the purifi-“

“The water works!” Malphas shouted in horror.

We all looked at each other for a moment, and I was sure even my father shared our mortification.

Then we all ran towards the Old Downtown area.

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B011.11 Monkey Family

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As usual, he managed to deliver such heartwarming words with casual, deadpan routine. And the saddest thing was, I believed him.

I decided to focus on something else. “Cartastrophy,” I said, looking at my old friend in his chromed costume. “Did your niece get through it?” I’d been so worried about Elouise, I hadn’t even considered that his niece had been in that fight – and that she might’ve been among the casualties.

Fortunately, he just shrugged – couldn’t be that bad. “Girl got knocked around a bit, but she’s nothing if not tough.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” I crossed my arms, looking at the passing scenery – there weren’t that many entrances to the Undercity this close to the lake.

Nevertheless, we reached one soon. It looked like an abandoned storefront – one of those old retail stores that you expected to see a kindly old lady in, asking what she could get you. It looked like it had been cleared out a long, long time ago, the window glass long gone and replaced by boards, but there was a subtle Undercity tag over the door.

There were a few people out and about at this time, even here – mostly teenagers – but no one noticed Warren’s car, or the Dark in the backseat.

Warren turned to look half at me and half at him. “So, what’s our next step?” he asked, and I knew him well enough to be able to tell that he was pissed.

I looked at Dad – he’d want to lead this one, and I’d asked him to help, anyway.

“Don’t mind me,” he said to my surprise, as unreadable as ever when weearing his wraith.. “I’ll follow your lead on this.”

Huh. Fancy that. I hesitated for a moment, before I crossed my arms and thought it through. “What resources can we tap?” I asked him. “Is it just you and me-“

“And me,” Warren threw in. “I’m coming along, as well!”

We both looked at him, and I, at least, was surprised.

“Are you sure? Can’t really bring a car along down there, and he’s way out of your weight class, anyway,” I cautioned him, feeling my face twist into a concerned frown.

“I don’t give a shit,” he replied angrily, leaning in closer to me. “They hurt my niece. I pretty much raised that girl. What would you do?”

I just nodded, but I had to add, “How do you intend to help? You’ve never been much of a frontline fighter, and…”

He leapt out of the driver’s seat. “I’m a gadgeteer, Aap,” he said as he walked around the car, to its trunk. Me and dad got out and followed, with him staying quiet on this. “I may be bottom-rung, but I’ve had my powers for twenty years. I’ve had money, I’ve had a workplace, I’ve had time.”

The trunk opened as he approached, and a huge assembly folded out of it, as he himself turned his back to it, spreading his arms.

Two mechanical clamps connected to his shoulders, then one each to each wrist and another to the back of his waist. I watched as a mass of… stuff… folded out of the trunk and wrapped around him, lifting him off the ground. Gears shifted, connectors snapped into each other, pistons worked and a few moments later, there was an eleven-foot-tall metal giant standing where the barely five-foot-tall gadgeteer had been.

The armor was big and very bulky around the shoulders, getting more narrow towards the ‘crotch’. Its main chassis was big enough to contain all of Warren’s five feet and there was another foot added by its head. The legs looked comparatively short, ending in claw-like feet with big wheels on the sides that weren’t touching the ground. Its arms were disproportionally long and got bulkier from the elbows onward, the left one ending in what was unmistakably a huge gun – a cannon, really – and the right one tipped by a metal claw that was reinforced by honest-to-god industrial pistons. A sharp claw that looked better suited to cutting or crushing than holding things. Judging by the size of the ‘forearm’, there were probably more gadgets hidden in there. The head itself was basically a chrome dome with a single red eye… it was basically a simplified Zaku head, from that anime he never, ever would stop gushing about. The whole thing was mostly painted a dull black, with chrome details and a flame design on the cannon.

“Dude, when the hell did you start making power armor?” I asked, flabbergasted. Dad was already looking the thing over, his inner tech geek drawn to the huge claw and the assembly beyond it.

The eye turned to look at me. Warren’s voice came, barely distorted, out of the headpiece. “I’ve been trying to upgrade from cars to power armor for years now. Since you left, actually. Never got really far at it, I mean, I just couldn’t get a good chassis and joint system going, but I’ve been fiddling with the weaponry and overall design for almost fifteen years. Then I got lucky – my nephew specialises in heavy-duty power armor. The joints, chassis and the leg assembly are mostly his work.”

“You’ve been stealing your nephew’s designs?” I asked, surprised.

“What? No!” he said, sounding insulted. “He knows. I mean, the statute of limitations ran out on my crimes a long, long time ago. Even my work on the Matriarch’s cars is not illegal, and he doesn’t know about that, anyway.” He made the huge machine shrug, which looked… very expressive, thanks to its articulate, piston-supported shoulders. “He’s new to the game. Having free access to my work has given him one hell of a boost. And in exchange, he helped me with this baby, though I had to promise not to commit any crimes with it.”

“Vigilante justice is a crime,” my father threw in as he inspected th cannon. “Napalm cannon? Nasty. I like it.”

“This asshole hurt his sister. I’m sure he’d understand,” Warren replied. “And the cannon fires a semi-solid napalm-like compound. Ignites upon contact with the air, and it burns even underwater. I have a spray to put it out, though.”

“Oh, I like that! But this,” he pointed at a few bits that looked… pretty much like the rest of the cannon to me. “It’s modular – what else can it do?”

“I have a rocket launcher, containment foam, acid spray and a diamond-tipped chainsaw in this one, for when I’m out of ammo,” Warren replied, happy to present and explain his work. I opened my mouth to interrupt the geekfest, but he just went on. “And I have another chainsaw here, in my right arm, and the claw, and a drill. And some more stuff in the shoulders and chest, and some light weaponry and heat decoys in the legs. Also…”

“Oi! Enough!” I shouted, interrupting him before he could get really going. Both of them turned to me. “We’re on a schedule here, guys! Leave the nerdgasms for later!”

Father sighed, and turned to Warren. “He’s right. Still, we ought to talk later on. I’d be willing to pay top dollar for this work, or arrange a trade.”

“I can’t share anything my nephew made, not with the Syndicate or other criminals, SIr,” Warren said. “I promised him.”

“Understandable. But I’m honestly more interested in these modular weapon mounts, and your napalm cannon. I know a lady who’d pay good money for the designs, and I’m sure she’d be willing to share some of hers, too.”

“Sounds good to me, Sir. But lets focus on the job, now, before Aap’s head explodes.”

“Thanks for your consideration,” I said between clenched teeth. “So, back to my original question. What kind of resources are you willing to commit?” I asked my father.

“Any necessary. I’d obviously prefer to keep things small and contained, of course – if only to obscure the connection between me, you and your children – but I am willing to call in anyone whom you feel necessary, up to and including Wyrm and the Five.”

I blinked. Wow.

“Who’s Wyrm?” Warren asked, his ‘eye’ moving back and forth between the two of us.

After a moment, I turned to look up at him (any other time, I’d be laughing about the Irony of me having to look up at Warren). “Someone I wouldn’t like to set loose on anyone less despicable than the Ascendant.” I looked at my father again. “If we want to keep your involvement down, then you shouldn’t appear as yourself. Nor should the Five meddle. As for Wyrm… a cyber attack would be useful, I can’t imagine someone like the Ascendant not using a network of some kind, but I’d rather she didn’t show up in person.”

He nodded. “I think I have something in mind,” he said, and the wraith around him began to move. Warping, it changed him. Gray armor plates emerged as his form became shorter, closer to a normal person’s height, but bulkier, like someone who worked out.

Warren and I watched as he changed into a well-muscled man in a jetblack bodysuit, with gray armor plates on his chest, shoulders and arms, as well as gray greaves and boots. He was wearing a bulky gray helmet with a thick, curved horn emerging from the forehead, and intelligent brown eyes looked out from the only openings in his costume – though even they were covered by a clear plastic of some kind.

“Holy shit, the Rhino?” Warren asked. “The Rhino is actually the Dark?!”

Typical, I thought. “Have you been moonlighting as random supervillains again?” I asked, frowning again.

“Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a good workout when most people shit their pants at the mere mention of your name,” he said. His voice was different, nothing liked the polished perfection he used when he was ‘normal’, and not the Dark’s usual chorus. A gruff, strong voice, but not as brutish as you’d expect from a person of his appearance.

He seemed to follow my train of thought, because he immediately added, “Playing a role too perfectly is just another way of betraying that it’s a role. Controlled flaws in the performance help sell it.”

I could still remember the lesson, back then, and I had to blink for a moment. It was, perhaps, not the best thing he could have done to put me at ease – he had to know that his lessons were still a sore point for me – but it helped to know that he wasn’t acting too hard.

Unless it was his lesson at work here, him inserting deliberate flaws in his performance to sell it… but then again, I’d long since given up any hope of being able to trust him unconditionally. Best not to dwell on it.

“Why would this Rhino help me in fighting the Ascendant?” I asked, instead of responding to his comment.

“The Rhino is a pure mercenary. He fights for anyone who can pay him, hero, villain, government, it doesn’t matter,” he replied smoothly – a tad too smoothly, he wasn’t quite into the performance yet. “He only takes jobs that promise combat, preferably combat against capes or cowls, and he only kills against a big raise in pay. He never breaks a contract once he’s been paid, and he’s notorious enough to demand being paid in advance.”

“So I hired the Rhino and he’s supporting me for purely mercenary reasons,” I asked, while I watched a group of teenagers pass us by, their eyes turning glassy. “How much did I pay him?”

“A lot, but you don’t have to quote a rate. The Rhino does not discuss his contracts with people not directly involved with them.”

I nodded. Nice and simple roleplay, then. “What can the Rhino do?” I should now what I had to work with, so I didn’t depend on him doing anything out of character.

“He seems to be a straight brute at first glance,” he replied. “Not as tough as you, but tough. Almost as strong as you, and he regenerates. A quirk of his power allows him to regenerate his clothing, as well. He also has a limited ability to teleport through non-living solid objects – for example, when he’s charging a foe and he runs into a wall, he does not break it, but rather runs into it and out of another surface of sufficient size and made of the same material, with a range of about three hundred feet. The faster he is upon entry, the farther he can teleport.”

Interesting. “I can see how that would catch people off-guard,” I admitted. And it’ll be a killer in the Undercity. “Alright, do I need to know anything else?”

“Not really. I’ll just beat up whoever you tell me to,” my father replied before laughing quietly. “It’ll be a novel experience, if nothing else.”

“True that.”

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B011.10 Monkey Family

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Light yellow/green-dark red-… Hennessy blinked, trying to focus. Her mother was talking to dark dark blue-darkest purple/dark blue-light orange… to her father. She couldn’t hear them, but it was easier to keep track of their conversation by way of their emotions than their words, anyway – a physical screen meant nothing to her. She was…

Her attention was drawn away by the constant pressure of darkest yellow-darkest light blue…

She shook her head, trying to push away the intense emotions that her en- her ri- her sister was radiating. She moved her eyes away from dark blue… the D- her father’s… her grandfather, and looked at her, her…

All she saw was a tangle of colours, an impossibly complicated effigy woven out of pure light in more colours than could be counted. There was a blinding yellow tinged with light green and a blazing blue. There was a very light red tinged with a brighter blue. None of the shades of purple, though, that she was used to seeing from her whenever they fought, or the dark red and occasional darkest red, or…

She blinked, and she saw a white-haired girl with eyes like hers, wearing a pretty dress and trying to jiggle closer to her without sitting up, making small hops with her chair. Again and again, Camille reached out to push her away, connecting to her with light dark green-dark red-dark light blue strands.

Hennessy could feel Camille’s emotions like a warm blanket and cool armor, wrapping around her. She knew how hard a situation like this was to her, and she was trying to drown out the storm of emotions from her sister and her parents… but she was only partially succeeding. Too much, it was too much, her sister was like a furnace of emotions that were pushing against Hennessy’s consciousness, strands of brilliant colour wrapping around her as if for an embrace – or to choke. She was having a hard time telling them apart from what she herself was feeling, which was why she wasn’t reacting to anything… she didn’t know whether the joy and the surprise and the fear and the remorse she was feeling were her own, or whether everyone around her was influencing them, and she had to disentangle her own emotions from theirs.

Sadly enough, the one revelation that should’ve shook her the most – being the granddaughter of the Dark – was the easiest to deal with right now. When they’d arrived, she’d felt her father inside, and the strangely muted employees of the restaurant – she could tell that someone was dampening their minds – and she’d been able to tell that someone was there with him, because of the way his emotions were focused on a present person… but she hadn’t been able to tell who it was, because everyone else was so muted.

Then they’d come in, and she’d seen him. Really seen him, without the tangle of emotions blinding her to his appearance. Usually, she had to take a few seconds to focus her sight on the real world, as opposed to the sight her tenant had gifted her with, but he was so muted, his effigy barely visible, a tightly controlled dark light blue of surprise, a little light dark blue of pensiveness, a light orange of interest, the telltale mixture of dark light blue and light dark green, that being awe… but so little of it, the strands so fine she could see through them to the matter beneath.

Right now, as things were, he was the least troublesome person in the room to her, and so she focused her gaze on him, focusing on his emotions. Normally, she used Camille or her mother as an anchoring point, because she knew perfectly well how they felt about her, and how she herself felt about them. Extrapolating from there to untangle her own emotions from those of her surroundings had become almost an instinct to her, one of the few ways she had to preserve her sanity. But her mother was a tangle of colours and emotions right now, and Camille was too angry and surprised and terrified to help. So instead she focused on the Dark, on his muted emotions, and on what she felt about him. She focused on the tangles of light yellow and light dark blue and darkest light blue and dark dark green that connected from her to him, compared them to the strands which emerged from him towards her, and worked from there to untangle all the colours that were choking her.

Of course, that was all grossly simplified. She saw so many more colours than the human language had words for, not just shades of colours that humans knew, but whole new colours that she’d never seen before or since, except when viewing people’s emotions… and sometimes those of their tenants. It was there that she usually found these eldritch colours that made no sense to anyone else.

Still, during therapy, her counselor had suggested that she simplify the process, using clear colours to break down what she saw and classify it. Amazingly, it had helped get a measure of control over her tenant and lately, she’d actually been able to walk through a mall with Camille and see the world, not just the tangles of colours from everyone around them.

Her parents were still talking to each other, their emotions straightening themselves out. That made it a little easier to distinguish what she felt and what they imposed on her through simple proximity; it helped that her father’s (it still felt unfamiliar, applying that term to a real person she wasn’t fantasising about) emotions were always threaded through by those strange other colours that she’d come to associate with a particularly strong influence of a person’s tenant on their emotions – she knew it from her own, but from few others, though no metahuman was completely free of it. Soon, she’d cut them out as well, much like her grandfather before. Next, she untangled Camille’s emotions – which were ever so familiar and dear to her, but nonetheless, she needed some space in her head right now – from her own (there’d be time to drown in each other later, when they were alone and safe). Finally, she slowly separated herself from the wellspring of emotions that was still trying to come closer to her, though it took her two whole minutes to do so and actually look at her newfound sister… half sister. She looked so… stunningly normal. So unlike any other time they’d met (which had almost always been in battle). She was a tangle of emotions, of course, but somehow… simpler than most metahumans.

Usually, she had to disentangle a metahuman’s from those weird ones that came from their tenants, but the Mat- Elouise’s effigy (a word suggested by her counselor) was two-fold, half around her, half within her shadow – and the eldritch parts were mostly limited to the shadow, which she could ignore completely. She was almost as easy to read as Camille was, to her, despite the lack of familiarity.

She looked at her new family member and thought about how weird it felt that, after spending her whole life dreaming of having a father, and a sibling her own age, she’d get both in the span of just two days, and a grandfather as well… only two of them were villains and her father was… almost as twisted inside as she was

Her eyes moved from her sister to her grandfather and then to the screen that her parents were talking behind, and back to her grandfather.

She probably shouldn’t be surprised that they were all messed up, seeing how his blood ran through their veins.

Hennessy released a breath she hadn’t even realised she’d been holding, just as her parents came back. Her head was starting to hurt, as it always did when she tried to focus on words and faces. She blinked, having long since figured out that her tenant didn’t like it when she relied on normal human communication. It punished her, usually starting with migraines, whenever she spent too much time blocking out peoples’ emotions.

But she needed to hear this. To see their faces, to be human just for a little while.

Just give me a few minutes, she thought, not sure whether her tenant could even understand her. I just need a little time.

***

Tamara sat down to join Hennessy, taking a chair between her and Elouise – which put a hold to Elouise’s attempts to get closer to Hennessy (though by the look on her face, she was already plotting how to close the distance regardless of the new obstacle).

I, on the other hand, sat down on the empty side of the table opposite of Elouise, with my father to my right. “Alright,” I said, drawing the attention of everyone other than Camille, who was watching my father like a hawk… a very obviously scared hawk.

Please, God, don’t let her try and use her power on him. If she did… I didn’t believe for a moment that he didn’t have something lined up in case she tried, or else he wouldn’t be here anymore. But if she lashed out, it might provoke a reaction from Elouise, which would provoke a reaction from Hennessy…

No, best to keep everyone focused on me and busy. “I apologise for springing this on everyone so suddenly,” I said once I was sure that everyone was focused on me.

“No shit,” Camille helpfully threw in. “What’s next, is Di-fucking-L gonna walk in and join us?”

“Language, young lady,” Tamara reprimanded her.

I ignored the little exchange. “So, obviously, you’ll all have some questions. How about we get them out of the way? Ask, and I’ll answer to the best of my ability. No lies, I promise.” I looked around the table, to see who’d speak up first.

To my surprise, Hennessy was the first one to move – literally, she raised her hand onto the table and tapped a finger on the polished wood covered by white cloth. There was no projection of emotions, though, for whatever reason.

Instead, she looked at me, then pointed at Elouise. Then she spread both of her hands in a questioning gesture.

It was the single most normal way she’d expressed herself to me, so far (while awake, at least), but I shelved my curiosity for now. “You want to know how I happened to have a daughter with the Matriarch,” I translated her question. She nodded, and so I regaled to them the (really uncomfortable) tale of how Elouise came to be.

Afterwards, everyone just stared at me; or at least Hennessy, Tamara and Camille did. Elouise seemed embarrassed by the tale, but mostly she was still focusing on Hennessy, while my father was… being very quiet. He was just looking at Elouise and Hennessy (or so I guessed – hard to tell, since he might not even be facing in the direction his wraith was looking) and not doing anything.

“So… the Matriarch basically tricked you into putting a baby into her in order to… control you?” Camille asked slowly, as if she couldn’t quite believe it. “Isn’t that a tad extreme? Even if you’re a real speedster, having a baby with you just to get her claws into you seems… way over the top.”

“Not at all,” Elouise countered. “To my mother, that was just a ‘strategic initiative’. Truth is, she’d done it before, over the decades.” She looked at my father, then at me. “To be honest though, seeing who my grandfather is, makes me believe that she probably knew about your connection to him – she was always a little too insistent in using him as an example for my training; she was probably hoping that he’d feel flattered by me and thus support her endeavours more openly.”

So, you don’t have any illusions about her feelings for you, either? I thought to myself, trying to swallow the bile that I felt creeping up my throat.

Hennessy was giving Elouise a look that told me she probably felt the same.

“Wait wait wait wait,” Camille spoke up again. “Your mom had you just to impress that guy!?” She pointed at my father (I was starting to doubt that the girl could feel real fear). “And you knew it?” She was looking horrified.

Elouise shrugged. “I love my mother, but I’ve known since I was eight that the feeling was never mutual.” She turned to me. “Who’s your mother? She must’ve been quite the character to… um… draw your attention, Sir,” she finished in a more respectful tone directed towards my father.

I felt one side of my mouth quirk up. “She sure was. Her name was Wanda Alexandrou. She was an immigrant from Greece, by way of Britain. You may have heard the story of a psychologist trying to ‘cure’ him,” I replied, nodding towards my father. “And falling in love with him in the process. That was… well her.”

Camille gave me a weird look and opened her mouth. “Wait, weren’t that woman and her child l-“

Hennessy either picked up on my emotions or simply remembered how I’d reacted back when we’d looked at the photographs, because she put her hand on Camille’s shoulder, silencing her.

My father was still not reacting. At all. I was starting to get worried.

“Any other questions?”

“Is this connected to the Ascendant’s return, and do you know why he’s attacking me, as well?” Elouise asked.

“Wait, he attacked you? Why would he?” Camille exclaimed, and Hennessy’s body language revealed similar shock to what I heard in her girlfriend’s voice.

“I just asked him that, so I obviously don’t know,” Elouise replied with a rather annoyed look on her face.

I decided to interject before Camille could reply, because I was pretty sure the two of them couldn’t stand each other. “I don’t know why he’s doing what he’s doing – what I’ve been able to find out about him only makes his behaviour more baffling,” I said urgently, now focusing on Elouise. “I gathered you all here because… well, because I saw where this was all heading. The secrets, the unknown factors. I decided to cut the Gordian Knot, so to speak, and just put all the cards on the table. And I was hoping to enlist your help in taking the Ascendant down for good,” I finished with a look towards my father.

He still didn’t react.

“Is something… wrong with him?” Camille asked carefully, as if she was afraid of insulting him (she did have some common sense, then). “He’s being so… quiet.”

What’s wrong with him? Where to begin? Still, it was a valid question, and so I turned to him. “Father. Father! Dad!” I shouted, and he flinched.

He flinched. In front of others. Not a good sign. Then he looked at me. “Yes, Aaron?Using my real name when there is someone other than me present.

Tamara mouthed the words ‘Your name is Aaron?’, but I ignored them and focused on him again.

“Is something wrong? You are being… uncharacteristically quiet in the face of this scene,” I asked as diplomatically as I could.

He looked at me, then at the girls. Then at Tamara, and back at me. “You’ve… had children,” he said, his choral voice at odds with the flat intonation of his words.

“Yes, that is rather the point,” I replied. What is going on here?

You had children,” he said again. “You. Not just one, but two. I am man enough to admit that I never truly considered the possibility.

Ah. That explains it, I thought, even as I felt a (hopefully) faint blush creep up on my cheeks. “Well, it happened. I don’t see why it’s such a big deal.” For all his brilliance, he’d never been that good at accepting things he’d not seen coming at all. Not that I knew what was so unexpected about this.

He tilted his head to the side. “I remember a certain someone swearing, with the help of various invectives which I shall not repeat in this company, that he would never, ever, under any circumstances, even if he was the last man on Earth, have children.

I sighed. “I was thirteen. It’s been more than two decades since then.”

It’s been twenty-two years, three months, a week and a day since the last time we spoke,” he said. “You will excuse me if it takes me a little while to update my mental image of you.

He rose up from his seat – and everyone except for me tensed up. I saw Elouise’s shadow partially rise from where it’d been clinging to her chair, and I thought I saw a glimmer flash in Hennessy’s eyes, for just a moment. My father, however, ignored that, and then…

And then his wraith faded away. I didn’t expect that. I don’t think anyone expected that.

I hadn’t seen this form since I’d been twelve years old. A tall, slender figure wearing a jet black, featureless bodysuit that extended seamlessly into a pair of equally black, featureless boots and gloves. Over that, an equally black coat not unlike Journeyman’s – it was, in fact, identical down to the wide sleeves. The face beneath the hood was hidden in shadows, though I knew that the bodysuit he wore extended to a completely featureless, skintight mask. All in all, his costume and Journeyman’s were identical, save for the colour of their light robes.

He ignored the stares he was getting (or perhaps he enjoyed them) to walk around the table and put a hand onto Elouise’s shoulder. She shivered as he continued to walk, his gloved fingers sliding over her bare shoulders, and rose from her seat when his hand wrapped gently around her biceps, pulling her along. He took her past Tamara – who looked more tense than I’d ever seen her, turning on her chair to watch them intently – and reached with his other hand for Hennessy.

Camille didn’t give him the chance. “Keep your hands off of her!” she shouted as she rose to interpose herself between my daughter and my father, and something struck him, knocking him off his feet and at least ten feet away!

Oh, she did not just do that! I thought to myself, half-poised to leap across the table and interject myself, but to my eternal relief, father just got up with a chuckle, dusting himself off while Elouise just stared at him, mouth open, and Tamara and Hennessy stared at Camille.

“Excuse me,” he said, his voice normal for once. Still finely honed steel wrapped in silk, as I so often pictured it, but now recognisably human. He approached again. “I mean none of you any harm,” he said calmly, as if she hadn’t just knocked the King of Supervillains around. “Camille, would you please allow me to properly greet my granddaughter?” he asked her in a soothing, polite tone of voice.

She looked at him, then looked over her shoulder at Hennessy, then back at him. She chewed on her lip for a moment. “Alright. But do anything weird and I won’t hold back next time!”

He nodded, as if there was any possible way for her to actually harm him. But it seemed to be enough for her – barely – and she stepped aside.

Hennessy rose up and approached him, together with Elouise. He looked them both up and down, and Elouise at least seemed pretty embarrassed – like she was afraid he’d disapprove of her appearance in some fashion.

Is that just how a normal child would react when first meeting her grandfather, or is that her mother’s education, her desire to please the Dark? I couldn’t be sure, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be sure.

“I’ve never had grandchildren before,” he said quietly. “If I’d known, I would’ve brought presents.” He looked at me, as if telling me that we had to go shopping for several year’s worth of presents.

I was seriously getting creeped out by his casual attitude right now.

“Nevertheless, let me just say this – I’m perhaps not the ideal grandfather you could wish for, but I do intend to be there for you from now on… provided that you want me to.”

And then the jerk hugged them both, if briefly. I haven’t even gotten to do that yet.

Hennessy gave no indication at all as to what she was feeling, but Elouise looked ready to burst with joy.

Before she could blow up and make a mess, though, he let go, and Hennessy was pulled back by an invisible force, straight into Camille’s arms. The young blonde hugged my daughter close, throwing murderous looks at father and me.

Elouise looked at her, as if she couldn’t believe how she was acting.

“Now, I believe there are some urgent matters to discuss,” father continued, and he turned to look at me. “I presume that you are worried about the Ascendant?”

Thanks for steering the conversation back on track, I thought. Not that I was sure we’d ever been on track before, but still. “Yes. I’ve found out some troubling news – namely, that he’s a member of the Gefährten.”

“Ah,” he replied simply. “That makes sense. You need my help to deal with them.” It wasn’t a question.

I didn’t even bother to nod.

“Who’re the Gefährten?” Tamara asked. “Their name is German – that can’t be a good sign.” She was focusing on me, not my father, and I was pretty sure she was feeling way out of her depth.

I’m sorry for putting you through this. “They’re an old villain organisation. Older than the Syndicate. They’re the kind of people that made monsters like Weisswald possible.” There was no use in sugarcoating things – they had to know, so they’d be careful.

Elouise and Tamara both paled, while Camille and Hennessy hugged each other tight. Way to scare the most important people in your life, Aaron.

“You needn’t be afraid,” father interjected in his smoothest voice. “I shall take care of this. Aaron,” He turned to me, then hesitated, then looked at the girls, then back at me. “I shall wait outside. Join me when you’re ready.” His wraith rose up again, wrapping around him, and he left the restaurant.

I exhaled, relaxing a bit. That went better than I expected.

“I think… that’s more than I can take for a day,” Tamara said, leaning back on her seat. “Kev- Aaron, what were you thinking?”

“I was thinking that I need the biggest guns I can get in order to keep my family safe,” I said as I went around the table and to Elouise, who was standing there alone. I put my arm around her shoulders and walked towards Hennessy and Camille.

My daughter disentangled herself from her girlfriend and met us halfway, and I pulled her in for that long overdue group hug.

“No matter what else happens, or what you may think of me, or each other,” I whispered to them, “I’ll keep you two safe, by any means necessary.”

They both shivered and hugged me back.

***

I left the restaurant a few minutes later, after organising a family get-together of sorts (I was exploiting their stunned state of mind for all it was worth, trying to set things up as favourably as I could while I still had the momentum on my side), to find my father waiting there in plain sight, in his wraith form, leaning against a lamppost.

That was expertly played,” he said when I approached him, while I sent a message with my phone.

“I wasn’t playing, Dad,” I replied, annoyed. Of course he’d think that. “I wasn’t intending to manipulate you, or them. I simply want to keep them safe, and to stop with the lies.”

He looked at me for a moment. “I believe you,” he said simply and turned to look down the street just as Cartastrophy’s heavily modified vehicle raced around the corner. “What’s your plan?

“Take down the Ascendant and his people with extreme prejudice,” I replied. “If possible, take slow, long, delicious vengeance on him for what he put my child and her loved ones through.”

That is acceptable. Let’s turn it into a father-son outing,” he said as Cartastrophy pulled up next to us, retracting the roof of his patchwork car to goggle at the two of us. “I know you dislike my ways, but they are more appropriate for this than yours.

“I wouldn’t be asking you for help if I wasn’t ready to work with you,” I replied, opening the back door of the car for him. He got in while Cartastrophy was staring at me (I didn’t need x-ray vision to picture his facial expression behind that face-concealing helmet). Then I got in on the passenger’s side. “Cartastrophy, take us to the nearest entry into the Undercity, please.”

“Seriously?” he asked, even as he took off. “You called him in? It’s gotten that bad?”

I give him an ‘isn’t that obvious’ look.

He knows?” Father asked with some surprise in his voice.

“Of course he knows,” I answered him without bothering to look at him. “He’s my friend. You do know what that is, right?” I couldn’t stop myself from saying.

He gave me one of his patented maddening chuckles. “I am aware of the concept, though I’ve never bothered with any myself.

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