B013.3 Call of the Sleeper

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Travelling with Irene was always an interesting experience to Melody, no matter how often they did it (and they did it quite a lot – Irene loved taking her all across the world at the drop of a hat); it always went a little differently. Even when they just teleported somewhere, the transition tended to happen in all kinds of ways; from the seamless ‘we’re-here-now-we’re-there’ that she’d employed to get them to Esperanza City, to that one time when they’d spent a few minutes walking across these strange, dark grey rock-paths floating in a vast sea of darkness, with stars all around – she still regretted that she hadn’t thought to bring a camera along to preserve that image.

Flying could also be pretty fun, if for no other reason that her power seemed to almost never use the same method twice; right now, for example, they weren’t so much being lifted as it was like space itself had wrapped around them, somehow, and was just… moving them along through the air. There was no pressure on them, no air in their faces; they simply moved.

Melody had quickly caught on to it and just relaxed, loosening her limbs to enjoy the ride, while Irene’s power held her pretty much in place. The others had followed suit soon, once they realised that they didn’t need to hold themselves up anymore. Apart from Tyche, that was, who’d taken to trying out different ‘flying poses’, sometimes asking Hecate whether one was cool or not.

For her part, Hecate seemed to be lost in thought, barely taking notice of her teammate, let alone the others that were travelling with them.

She closed her eyes and focused on her latest invention, a pair of earpieces that connected to her visor (pink, of course), which protected her ears from sudden spikes of noise (such as the one that’d taken her out for most of the fight against Crocell) while also improving her hearing by several levels.

Hecate’s heartbeat was a little uneven, faster than would signify calm. She was worried, and trying not to show it. Melody felt a pang of sympathy for the girl, she was clearly unhappy about this whole operation, even if she’d agreed to come along.

Tyche, on the other hand, was ecstatic. She didn’t even really need her gadget to tell, wouldn’t even have needed her already enhanced hearing – the girl was grinning like a madwoman, while she enjoyed the perks of this strange weightlessness. In other words, she was the same as every other time Melody had interacted with her. She was kind of envious of how that girl could seemingly enjoy any situation, no matter how horrible. And she still didn’t know what power she, because she sure as hell didn’t have just some minor physical enhancements!

Spellgun – Thomas – was quite scared, if in a different way than Hecate. He was more obvious about it, fiddling with his insane rifle or checking the bandoliers of ammunition strapped across his chest. He’d get more and more worked up, until Tartsche reached out to squeeze his hand, or his shoulder, or just pat his back, all but instantly calming down again, until he started to get anxious once more.

Tartsche’s heartbeat was the same as everything else about him, warm, steady, steadfast. She’d never known a person whose power fit them better, never known someone who was so at peace with himself. She’d never known Harry to lose his cool or lash out, or even appear to be nervous. Instead, he was spreading his calmness to his boyfriend, while also looking at the others to see if anyone else needed some encouragement.

One such person was Aimihime, Bakeneko, currently in her favourite form, that of a darkly furred catgirl (though thankfully with sane proportions, as opposed to what she used to look like in the past – not that Melody had any right to really complain about others sporting ridiculous bust sizes), trying to look calm while her eyes moved alternatively from Brennus to her boyfriend and back.

That brought a frown to Melody’s face, though she tried to hide it. Aimihime had been way too eager to come along and help them… she’d all but been lurking outside in the hallway, jumping at the chance to join Irene and her when they left, almost as if she’d known something was going to happen beforehand… but how would she?

It’s none of my business, Melody chided herself. She might just have felt stir-crazy, after having been unable to really contribute at all since the Hastur fight. If Melody hadn’t had the chance to help with the Arc Caster, she’d probably have felt quite badly about herself, too.

Underneath them, the scenery changed from land to ocean, as the day got brighter still.

Melody looked out over the wide, wide Pacific Ocean – surprisingly, she’d never actually seen it before, in spite of Irene’s frequent jaunts around the world. She took a few seconds to just look and pay the beauty of it its due.

Afterwards, she focused on Osore, curious about how the strange, quiet boy who’d joined them together with Aimi was feeling… only to barely hear a thing, his heartbeat being so calm she thought, for a moment, he might have fallen asleep; but no, he was quite awake, his dark eyes just barely visible through the eyeholes of his oni-style mask, calmly surveying the room.

She’d never known him to be anything but detached and calm. Or talk, really. She didn’t even remember his name from his introduction, it’d been so short and they literally had not exchanged a single word since. She wasn’t even really sure why he’d agreed to come along on this mission, other than perhaps for Aimi’s sake.

I’m just distracting myself, aren’t I? she thought quietly to herself, focusing her gaze forward, where Brennus was floating-standing next to Irene. Not that it’s surprising. This isn’t exactly the smartest thing I’ve ever done. Not even Top Ten.

That made her think again. Why was she going along with what was, essentially, a huge shot in the dark hoping to find something which could heal Dusu’s victims.

Or rather, one victim in particular, even if Melody was sure that Brennus was going to help each of Dusu’s victims equally, given the chance.

She focused her eyes (and ears) on Brennus, curious how he was dealing with the pressure…

Only to find him almost as calm as Osore. Cold. He wasn’t unnaturally calm – she could still make out his heartbeat as well as she’d expect, through his cloak and body armour – but he was definitely calmer than she would have thought, his heart beating steadily, quietly, his breathing as even as can be. There was something intense about him, his posture, his aura, as if his entire being was focused ahead at their mission.

Isn’t he nervous at all? If I’d been the one to organise an undertaking like this, I’d be a nervous wreck. How can he just ignore the pressure and remain so calm?

It wasn’t like this was new, either. When she thought about it, Brennus had always been way too calm during a crisis – when he wasn’t being maniacal, that is. She’d wondered, more than once, just what must have happened for him to turn out the way he did, thriving in situations in which she’d rather curl up and scream.

The fight against Crocell had been just another in a long list of occasions that had demonstrated to her that he was just on another level than her, no matter how much she tried to improve herself – while she’d been taken out in the first moments of the fight, he’d fought the entire time, pursuing and analysing the beast, until he actually came up with a way to defeat it – and then he’d led her and two other gadgeteers to implement it on the spot, even getting Sovereign (or rather, whomever or whatever controlled that Subjugator) to cooperate.

Melody was rather starting to feel inadequate, really, even though Hotrod had assured her that Brennus was very atypical for a young gadgeteer and that, compared to most, she was already plenty advanced.

It didn’t help that every time they’d run into each other, he’d sported a new or completely reworked gadget, like that gauntlet of his, which seemed to have replaced the sword he’d previously wielded, as well as the strange ovoid attached to it, both made out of metal rather than the strange ceramic which Brennus normally used for his inventions, their surfaces covered in circuit-like grooves and she really wanted to know what it did. However, with the way the mood was right now, she really didn’t want to speak up just to ask about what his newest gadget did.

She was quite certain it was going to make her feel envious and at least slightly inadequate, anyhow. Especially since most of the equipment she had on her was a downgrade, built from spare parts and some handouts from Hotrod (in exchange for her help with his own project) to be a more portable, if less powerful, version of her usual rig. Not that she’d had a choice, really, after the flood Crocell’s death had caused had ruined most of her equipment beyond repair.

Then she’d found out that the EMP countermeasures he’d gifted her as an afterthought, a little gesture of goodwill after taking some samples from her tech, way back during the fight against the Rabid Eight – God, it’s only been a few months! – without asking her, was being implemented all across the United Heroes’ infrastructure, nevermind their field equipment.

Even her own armour used it, all over, to protect against the dreaded bane of gadgeteers everywhere – a reliable EMP protection that was applicable to personal equipment was a rarity even among their kind, at least one that could easily and relatively cheaply be replicated.

She seriously doubted he’d gotten even a quarter as much out of sampling her tech as she had out of his handout, nevermind the boon it was likely turning out to b-

You’re obsessing again, Irene’s warm voice whispered into her thoughts.

Huh? Melody perked up, looking forward at her friend, who was looking at her over her shoulder with a gentle gaze, her hood thrown back to reveal her head. She blushed, thinking about how obvious it must have been for Irene to pick up on it in this situation. S-sorry. I didn’t mean to, it’s just…

I know, he can be pretty intimidating, Irene replied, turning forward again even while keeping their mental conversation up. He’s kind of like mom, you know? Seemingly effortlessly out doing everyone around him.

Having him compared to Lady Light of all people does not make me feel less inadequate, Melody grumped mentally. He’s my age, for crying out loud! He’s had his powers for less time than me. And yet both his technology and his skill in combat make me look like an amateur… I’ve had my powers for years!

Some people just get lucky, her friend tried to soothe her. Exhibit A, I myself. Exhibit B, my big sister. Exhibit C, Brennus.

Wait, which sister are you…

The one who’s not going around wiping out entire cities at a time.

Oh. Yeah, uh… sorry, but that doesn’t make me feel better, either.

You’re putting him on too high a pedestal, Irene continued calmly, while the day grew darker around them.

You’re the one who just compared him to Lady Light, yourself and Elysium in basically one breath!

I was merely illustrating that some people get luckier than others. And I bet he’s not as good as he appears to be. You of all people should know that – you see the end product, you don’t see all the hours he spent training, or working on an invention just to have it turn out to be a dud, the sleepless nights…

Alright alright! Melody had to restrain herself a lot not to throw her arms up – that would just have looked strange, considering the circumstances. I’ll stop feeling sorry for myself!

Irene looked over her shoulder again, briefly sticking out her tongue at her and winking, before she faced forward again.

Ohhhhh…

***

Almost an hour of relatively quiet travel later – a brief argument between Spellgun and Tyche regarding her opinion that he really should call himself Spellrifle, as he didn’t actually wield a gun, notwithstanding – there was finally a change in the scenery (Melody never would have thought the ocean would get so boring when you were just flying across it).

In the distance, there was, at first, a glint, followed by, as they approached, a a multitude of lights – they’d travelled far enough west quickly enough that it was still dark, even if sunrise wasn’t far away – in an irregular line, clustering around the middle and the edges, like a W.

“Is that it?” Aimi asked, her form shifting slowly, teeth and nails lengthening slightly as her whole appearance grew less cute and more feral. An unconscious effect, Melody knew.

“That’s where Brennus’ coordinates are leading,” Irene confirmed. “Wait, I think I can zoom in…”

The view in front of them distorted itself, then rapidly came closer much faster than they were actually moving across the water.

“Oh wow…” Melody couldn’t help but say, even if it felt kind of silly at times to type that kind of sentence fragment into her vocaliser.

“Yeah, ‘wow’ is a pretty good description,” Hecate whispered as they stared at the floating city.

An actual, floating city. At least, it was big enough to be a city, with skyscraper-sized towers in the centre and the edges. They were looking at it from above, at an angle, and so could see that it was a huge disk roughly divided into six projections out from a central cluster of towers, with more towers at the tips of the two biggest extensions, the ones pointing directly to the left and the right, from their perspective – the Northern and Southern ones, that is – the whole thing forming a pointed star-shape that was further divided into two, with the Southern part looking somehow… stranger than the Northern one.

Melody didn’t even know where to start describing it. The Northern part looked like it had jumped straight out of one of those Japanese Cyberpunk shows, all grey, black and silver, with glowing neon lights all over and more cables, wires and pipes than she could easily count, or even guess at the number of. Everything, every single building – if they really were buildings, and not just extentions of the structure underneath – was interconnected not just on by the platform they stood upon, but also by a multitude of pipes and free-hanging wires, some of them glowing in various neon colours, others coloured a dull, boring gray. The whole thing looked like a riot of colours alternating with dull steel, in winding, twisting shapes that made her brain twist itself in knots trying to follow, except for the circular tip of the North-Eastern extension, which instead looked like a bonsai tree four or five storeys high, surrounded by floating platforms holding even more bonsais, as well as other, more exotic plants, some of them in colours that no natural plant should have, as pretty as they looked.

It was nothing compared to the Southern half. Melody’s eyes watered just from looking at it.

It was… it was…

It was impossible to put into words, unless she took the time to write an entire book. There were… floating parts and crystal spheres… obelisks covered in glowing runes… patches of greenery and twisted trees with glowing leaves… and so much, much, much more, the most impressive bit being a huge sphere of what appeared to be liquid mercury floating above a circular pit at the Southern-most tip.

The only remotely normal part was in the centre, a cluster of skyscraper-sized towers that gleamed even in the darkness, serving no purpose she could easily guess at.

“Two halves, one for Contrivers, one for Gadgeteers,” Irene said calmly. “They’re keeping the two apart to avoid unfavourable interactions between their work, yet keeping them close enough that they can both study whatever it is they’re studying at the same time.”

“How do you know that?” Spellgun whispered, sounding awed.

Irene tapped her temple without averting her eyes from the… whatever it was, Melody couldn’t think of a good name for it. “I want to know it, and this time, my power is cooperating. I’m getting all kinds of data on this place, it… it’s amazing. It’s even bigger than it looks, below the surface. This is just the tip of the actual structure.”

“Alright… we’re all sufficiently intimidated, so how about we turn around and go home now?” Hecate asked in a nervous voice, her hands clutched tightly around her staff.

“May I remind you that I did not want any of you other than Gloom Glimmer to join me in this endeavour in the first place?” Brennus asked flatly. “If you want to go, please, go and be safe. It is bad enough that I have to drag her into this, nevermind all of you.”

“N-no,” Hecate stammered, sounding embarrassed. “I said I’d help, and I will. I just wish you would stop, but if you won’t, then I’ll back you up.”

Brennus turned around to look at her, for the first time during the flight.

Though Melody couldn’t see his face – obviously, with that featureless full-face mask – she could hear his heartbeat, and she could tell that it briefly sped up.

“Thank you kindly,” he said softly.

“Yeah, I think it’s a wee bit late to turn around now, unless we abort entirely,” Aimi added, with Tyche nodding her assent.

“I just hope you actually have a plan for this,” Spellgun mumbled, his eyes glued ot the huge construction before them. Tartsche reached out, putting a hand on his shoulder.

“Mmm,” Brennus turned to the front again, as everyone focused on him. “It’s relatively simple… though now that there’s so many of us, I’m not entirely sure it’s still the best way to go. I was planning to infiltrate this place quietly, under the guise of Gloom Glimmer’s powers, track down Dusu and her lab and either steal the cure for her plague, force her to give it up or kidnap her back to New Lennston to get it out of her there.”

“That still sounds good,” Tyche said, slamming her fist into her open palm. “Especially if we add beating this bitch up a bit,” she added with what Melody was sure was a savage grin beneath her mask.

Tartsche gave her an uncomfort glance. “Let’s focus on getting the cure. Vengeance is not our goal here, so let’s stay focused.”

Brennus and Irene both nodded to that, as did the rest, except for Tyche and Osore (who’d remained completely quiet so far).

The black-and-white-clad gadgeteer pivoted around, weightless, to look over them as he folded his hands behind his back, his intense gaze coming to a stop on the quiet boy from Japan. “What about you, Osore? Are you in on this? No one’s going to hold it against you if you decide to sit this out.”

Finally, the young hero showed a reaction, lifting his head to look straight at Brennus. “In all the way,” he said, his voice quiet, gentle even.

Brennus nodded, briefly looking down. “Alright. Let’s get to it then.” He turned around to look at the city, of sorts, that lay ahead of them. “There is no way this thing is staying hidden from satellites, ships and over flying planes without some serious security measures, nevermind what they probably have to detect intruders,” he explained, as the vision ahead of them moved back again, then came closer naturally, the actual distance between them decreased enough that it no longer required a zoom to see. “We will need to find a way to pass into their perimeter without setting off their alarms.”

“I can probably teleport us inside,” Irene supplied, drawing closer to the structure. “I can see some kind of… force-field, around it.” She waved a hand, and the air in front of them rippled, refocusing until it showed a kind of net spread in a dome over the entire structure, flickering with electricity. “I’m not sure what it does – it’s a Contrivance, those are always hard to figure out – but it shouldn’t be a problem if we just teleport past it… no wait, yes, that’ll work.” She clapped her hands, lightening up. “It’s both an early warning system and an interceptor – if anything without the proper authorisation tries to fly through it, the entire field will focus its power on that spot and fry the interloper – but it won’t affect teleportation.” Melody could hear Irene’s grin, with no need to actually see her face.

“Can’t you just port us straight to Dusu and out again?” Tyche asked.

Irene’s shoulders slumped a bit. “No, I wish I could, but I can’t home in on her. Dunno if that’s because they have something that hides her, or because I don’t know her well enough or…”

Or because you don’t want to get to her enough, Melody finished the sentence in her thoughts, feeling sorry for her friend. As powerful as she seemed to be, she doubted most people ever considered how frustrating it must be to have so much power and not be able to use it as well as you’d like to.

“She will most likely be in the Northern half of the structure,” Brennus pointed out, moving the conversation along. “If you can teleport us onto the Northern half of the central disc, there might be some map or some other way to determine Dusu’s location, or that of her laboratory… or someone we can simply extract the information from.”

Irene nodded. “Ok… ok, I can do this. Hmm…” She crossed her arms, concentrating. “Teleportation… yup… a stealth power… remote targeting… danger sense…” She took a deep breath, then let it out. “I love it when my power plays along. Everyone ready to go in?”

There was a chorus of agreements, some more firm than others, and Irene raised her arms as if about to conduct a ceremony.

“And here we g-“

Space began to warp around them, drawing together in a mind-twisting way – and the sphere to the South of the construction rippled all at once, tendrils of liquid mercury shooting out at incredibly speed, even as time seemed to slow around them.

Irene’s eyes flew wide – “Wha-“

***

Melody’s head hurt abominably, as she picked herself up off the floor she suddenly found herself on, her display flickering with some kind of interference.

What the hell…?

She could hear someone next to her… Brennus, she recognised him by the particular sound of his heart… and there were more people, just outside the room she was in, as she slowly pushed herself up, looking around in confusion.

They were in a bare room, the walls, ceiling and floor all made of steel, with three large radio dishes above them, all pointed to the central area of the room she and Brennus lay in.

Brennus picked himself up just moments after her, standing up and looking around. “My head is killing me…” he groaned, raising his right hand to touch his mask’s forehead. He twitched, his head dipping to the right. “Some kind of… teleport interdiction? Did they know we were coming, or was it an automatic response to someone trying to teleport into their territory?” He looked at her, but she knew no more than he did, and so just shrugged.

Then he looked around them, and up at the radio dishes. “Shit. Those are EMP dishes,” he said, causing her to suck in a startled breath. So that was why her interface was flickering – the EMP shielding still held, but it wasn’t perfect and they were being bombarded with electromagnetic waves at point-blank range.

Yet her armour was working, and guessing by his ability to instantly analyse what those dishes did, so did at least the sensors in Brennus’ suit. And if the most sensitive parts of it worked, then so would the rest.

Right then, she didn’t feel jealous of him anymore – she just wanted to kiss him.

“No reason to smile, I am afraid,” he spoke, looking at her, causing her to realise that she’d been doing just that. Then she blushed, of course, stupid cheeks. “Even if our equipment is safe… I assume yours is safe, at least…” She nodded. “We were still split up, apparently sent into a room meant to specifically lock Gadgeteers down.” He took a deep breath. “Which means our friends were likely also split up and teleported into similar rooms, tailored to their abilities.”

She took in a sharp breath, blanching. Irene was probably safe, almost definitely, having so many powers at her disposal, but the others

“We need to find them,” she spoke, the words coming out slightly distorted.

He nodded, and turned towards the only visible exit out of the room, a very solid-looking, circular door that was very, very tightly shut.

They walked out of the circle in the centre of the room, out of the dishes’ area of effect, and her interface stabilised again; though she had no doubt in her mind that, without Brennus’ EMP shielding, it’d all be destroyed entirely by now, its circuits fried beyond hope of repair, much less use.

“There’s… twelve people outside. Calm, confident heartbeats,” she said, causing him to turn his head to look at her in surprise. She smiled at him again, this time more confidently, tapping her ears. “New earpieces. Protect and enhance my hearing.”

“Interesting. I could use something like that, if you do not mind a trade, later on,” he said, almost making her giggle at the thought that he wanted something she made.

“We’ll see. Let’s survive this, first,” she said instead, as she focused on the door, trying to figure out how to get through it… trying to ignore the gnawing, paralysing fear in her chest, trying to reach out and strangle her…

He nodded, turning towards the door. Then he reached for his new gauntlet and… pulled the ovoid off of it, as it detached at his touch, then touched its long side to the side of his thigh, attaching it there with a clicking sound.

“Step back, please,” he said, lifting his left arm, fingers spread, to aim his palm at the door. “I have not had the time to test this thoroughly.”

She breathed in, sharply, and stepped back, though watching eagerly to see his new invention at work.

His arm was pointed straight at the centre of the door, his right hand resting on his left forearm, steadying it. A light humming sound began to emit from the gauntlet, clear to her ears, likely barely audible to normal people’s, as light began to fill the circuit patterns on the metal, a blue-white light that moved from the back to the front, like water flowing through channels dug in the earth.

“Here goes nothing…” Brennus whispered, and then the gauntlet flared, momentarily.

There was a huge booming sound, a flash of light, the screeching, ear-rending sound of torn metal, followed by the screams of startled and injured people.

When Melody could see again, she saw a huge hole where the door had been, the edges torn and ragged, the door itself gone, shoved into the adjacent room by the force of the blast.

Brennus lowered his arm as the light faded from its grooves, as he looked at it, turning his hand up and down as if studying it in awe.

She certainly felt awed.

“Well, that went well,” he quipped, chuckling.

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B013.1 Call of the Sleeper

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

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

Goddess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vasiliki had been scared for her friend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timothy coughed suddenly, looking away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was scaring her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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B012.9 Born At Sleep

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Crocell’s eye swiveled around, passing over the approaching capes and cowl – to focus, apparently, on Tyche again.

“The fu-” she started to say before Basil tackled her out of the way of the beam of whatever-it-was that Crocell sent her way.

The two of them fell off the roof as half of it – the half Tyche had been on – was disintegrated. Hecate, having stood on the other side of Basil from Tyche, was safe, though she smoked away just to be safe.

Basil fired a hook, swinging away from the doomed building – but clearly, Crocell wasn’t done, as it turned its head to pursue them with its lethal beam. He saw it approach them and knew that there was no way he could evade it – but Tyche could, maybe, if she turned to smoke, so he threw her away from himself.

“What are y-” she began to shout, only to be interrupted again.

“Smoke away!” he shouted, and she did as the beam approached.

If I swing around the building, I might get away, he thought, only then it was rendered moot as Kraquok tackled Crocell, one arm punching it’s barely existent jaw to snap its mouth shut.

The multi-limbed cowl roared as he pushed against the even bigger monster, whose limbs were still stuck to the ground by the silvery field the girl from the Feral family – Mercury, if he remembered their roster correctly – and bent it over backwards.

Crocell tried to open its maw, perhaps to roar but more likely to blast Kraquok off of itself, but the veteran fighter was using two of its limbs to hold it closed, while bending the feral monstrosity backwards – if it’d had anything like a classic skeleton, it’d have a broken spine by now; Kraquok was very nearly straddling it at this point, Crocell’s head and back just a metre or two away from touching the ground and getting stuck to Mercury’s field.

“Come on…” he couldn’t help but whisper as he swung onto another building. It would’ve been smarter to get out of sight, to only watch through his ravens, but he really, really wanted to see the pro’s go to town in person.

Evidently, others felt the same way, as capes and cowls gathered around the park. Whether they were holding back out of morbid curiosity, or because they didn’t want to get in the way (and possibly get hit by Kraquok’s infamous breath weapon), hold back they did, as Tyche and Hecate joined Basil again. Gilgul was up above, closer to the battle, looking for a chance to strike.

“Hey B, thanks for saving my ass – again,” Tyche said lightly, though Basil could hear an undercurrent of actual gratitude hidden beneath her light-hearted demeanor.

“I wonder why it’s been targeting you,” Hecate said, seemingly more worried than Tyche herself. “You’re hardly the most dangerous person around, and yet it’s been going after you every time it hasn’t been distracted by others.”

The redhead girl shrugged, just as Kraquok finally succeeded in bending Crocell over to the point where its head and shoulders were now stuck, leaving the monster now bent backwards in a rather grotesque way, its limbs flailing around uselessly.

He immediately got out of the way, at the same time that Doc Feral made a simple hand motion, and the whole Feral family sprang into action.

Wunderkind downed a glowing potion. Several others either drank or injected or, in one case, inhaled various concoctions. Doc Feral herself stabbed an injector into her left forearm. Only Mercury (a name she couldn’t possibly have claimed had it not been in the Feral Family for decades) kept her current power, maintaining the hold on Crocell.

And then they ripped into the beast.

They acted in pairs, at least, if not in trios. Basil couldn’t even tell what the individual powers they’d picked were, as they never used them independently of each other; instead, they heterodyned with an ease that made his and Polymnia’s gadgeteering session seem anemic. Brilliant beams of spiraling energy, twisting, semi-solid masses of corrosive light, vicious exploding mist lashing out like a lovecraftian horror with countless tentacles and more assaulted their prone quarry. Some of them stuck together, some only combined for a single attack before they cycled through partners, powers or both.

The result was a glorious, perfectly coordinated storm of destruction that flayed the flesh off Crocell’s side and hips. Clear fluid shot out as if it was filled with high-pressure hoses, as masses of pearlescent, pale white flesh and what looked like cartilaginous bones (in a configuration which seemed to be meant for a fish rather than a humanoid) were exposed, and the assault didn’t stop there – they only dug deeper.

The cacophony of the Feral Family’s attack was bad enough, but Crocell trumped them all a moment later, screaming at such a high volume, Basil had to steady the girls again as they reeled from the attack. Hecate even dropped her staff in favour of holding her hands over her ears, while Tyche’s rifle only remained with her due to the strap she was carrying it by.

And the monster kept screaming, only rising in pitch. Glass shattered for several blocks around the park, as people collapsed with their ears bleeding. The Feral family was hit the hardest, as they were also closest. Even Kraquok reeled, stumbling in disorientation.

Basil’s ravens were being destroyed as well, and he’d actually made an effort to make them resistant to sonic attacks; since it clearly hadn’t been sufficient, he sent them away instead. Even so, he was down to just two ravens now, out of what had once been a whole unkindness.

He took a step back, holding onto the girls, as he furiously thought about some way to get them to safety – as well as himself, as he didn’t know how long his own protection would hold out against this level of noise.

All that was rendered moot, though, as all the sound suddenly vanished; they were all plunged into total silence, silence so complete, it made Basil’s ears ring.

He looked up to see Gloom Glimmer in the air above, cape billowing with the now soundless pressure of Crocell’s cry, her left arm extended, palm up, with a blueish sphere the size of a softball hovering above it.

She was looking furious, her eyes turned red and black again.

An impact shook the building Basil was standing on, drawing his attention away from her. In the seconds he’d been distracted, the Feral Family had managed to recover and gone back to their assault on the giant monster. Three of them – Basil didn’t recognise them, but they looked like father, mother and son in matching costumes – were standing together, holding hands in a triangle formation. They raised their intertwined hands in synchronous motion, then brought them down – and with them came a pillar of what appeared to be solid gold, slamming into Crocell’s midsection, where he’d been regenerating the damage done to him – it served to both slow down his visible regeneration and also kept him down, as Mercury had passed out from the sonic assault, freeing him from the silvery field she’d covered the ground beneath him with. The rest of the family was no slouch either – Doc Feral was leading a group of five, the others teaming up in pairs of two or three, renewing their assault on the beast.

Basil and the girls all watched in awe as they blasted the beast across the park, slowly but surely driving it down the main street to try and get it out of the city. It was, frankly, not something they’d expected from the Ferals.

The Shining Guardians were the favourite subject of more message boards, talk shows and video channels than one could count, and one of the favourite pastimes of them was to compare the members of the group, both past and present, and rank them – in these rankings, the Feral Family usually took last place.

Fleur was Lady Light’s former sidekick, the first she’d taken on since Elysium’s death; a hugely successful heroine whom many described as a good Weisswald, power-wise.

Quetzalcoatl was, frankly, a monster, a catastrophe made flesh which, in any sane world, would be hunted down by any means necessary. Since he lived in Brazil, though, he was a national hero.

Severance was the last truly original member, mysterious and shrewd enough to keep the nature of his power a secret over a seventy-year career.  He was als somehow managing to keep a lid on crime in New Johannesburg, which spoke volumes about his capabilities. The criminals of that city supposedly feared him more than Sovereign.

Huong Long was young, had a questionable history, big problems with the Japanese Sentai and the kind of power that had catapulted her to the world stage within a month and a half of manifesting.

Doc Feral, meanwhile, only ever showed up with her family – Basil wasn’t even sure whether there was any footage of her fighting on her own – and they usually stayed in the back of the big fights, overshadowed by the flashier. members of the Shining Guardians and even some other heroes.

Or, perhaps, they simply prefer a support role when there are others around to stand up front, Basil though. The way they work, they’re probably better-suited to it, anyway.

Clearly, though, they could bring the hurt when necessary. Crocell was being driven out of the city, screaming and trashing without a sound, as the gathered heroes and villains followed the stoically advancing Feral Family.

Gloom Glimmer floated down to move along Basil and the girls, along with Gilgul.

“I feel so darn useless,” Gilgul admitted, sounding both awed and annoyed. “What are we even here for? The Ferals seem like they can take him down on their own.”

“They can’t keep this up forever,” Gloom Glimmer explained, her voice reverberating oddly with itself. “Some of them can only make small amounts of formula a day, others can only take a limited amount of it per day without serious side effects and every one they lose reduces their overall power exponentially.”

“So they have a lot of power, but not a lot of staying power,” Hecate summarised. Gloom Glimmer nodded in affirmation.

“How is Polymnia?” Basil asked curiously. “Those screams can not have been good for her.”

The floating girl bit her lower lip, a look of frustration spreading over her face. “It knocked her out. I was able to fix her ears and wake her up, but… I couldn’t fix the pain it caused. She’s at the command post.”

“Your power is not cooperating?” He watched the Feral family change powers, creating no less than eleven different kinds of bindings, from purple chains to arms growing out of the ground, while Doc Feral, Wunderkind and one other member were charging up what looked like a small sun.

“I’m used to it,” she said, as they watched them blast the immobilized Crocell square in the chest, causing an explosion of steam which obscured all vision. “Though I really would’ve thought I’d want to ease her pain to get a power for that…”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Tyche told her as she patted the floating girl’s shoulder. “I got nothing like control over my power and if it’s taught me one thing it’s that you can’t take it personally. Powers are weird.”

Gloom Glimmer giggled, reluctantly, just as a strong, cool wind picked up.

Basil turned his head and saw the woman in the brown costume again, standing next to Prospero. She had her arms raised, waving them about as if conducting a play, as the wind blew the steam away.

Prospero, meanwhile, was holding his staff up over his head with both hands, holding it horizontally, as he seemed to… cuss at the sky?

One of Basil’s ravens was close and he sent it closer still, until its microphone (battered though it was) picked up a steady stream of insults, curses and general derogatory comments, which Prospero was shouting at the air at the top of his lungs, while a humanoid figure formed out of the wind that the woman in brown was moving.

It looked androgynous, sexless, with long, ethereal hair several times its height of about a metre and a half. Once it was fully formed – though still translucent – it flew out towards Crocell, while Prospero went to work cussing up another spir-

“Brennus, why are you giggling?” Hecate asked in a worried tone of voice.

“I, ah, I just… nothing,” he replied, once had himself back under control. Well, mostly. It was still too funny, even for him. He looked over at Prospero drawing more of his wind spirit out of the air, aided by the woman’s power, as he continued shouting at his own creations. Basil stifled another giggle. He’s cussing up a storm.

The steam was gone, by that point, and they could see the results of it all. Crocell was picking itself up off the ground, having been pushed very nearly to the city’s limits, most of its front flayed off to the muscle. Even now, it was regenerating, the attack apparently having had no greater effect, than previous efforts.

The Feral Family had retreated by about fifty metres, while several of the present heroes were forming up a line between them and the monster. Hollywood’s sphere of light was hovering up above the battle, providing its boons to all defenders of the city.

Weirdly enough, Basil couldn’t make out Kraquok anywhere, even though the monstrous villain had grown far too big to simply slip out of sight. A few others were missing, as well – Waverider and Father Manus. He could see Amy, hovering over a nearby rooftop, circled by several compressed spheres of metal – former cars she’d turned into impromptu projectiles. Lamarr was nowhere to be seen. Nor had Totemic or Sovereign’s Subjugator made an appearance yet.

Let’s hope they’re planning something big, Basil thought to himself, though he didn’t share his thoughts with the others.

“I’m going to join the heavy hitters,” Gilgul announced, looking at the girls, then at Basil, nodding quickly. “Stay safe, all of you.”

“Yes ma’am,” Basil replied, his mask hiding his smile as she flew away towards the line of frontline fighters.

Gloom Glimmer nodded to them and flew ahead as well.

“What do we do, B-Six?” Tyche asked him. “We’re kind of superfluous here.”

Hecate made a surprisingly refined snort. “I don’t think so. I’m going to get closer and angle for a shot. See you two later.” And she burst into smoke, flying away before either of them could say anything.

Basil took a look at Tyche. She was still unharmed. Barely a speck of dust on her; she’d even managed to keep ahold of her rifle, which he was quite glad about – it was nearly a match to his own, in sheer stopping power, though it lacked some of the more exotic (and delicate) additions his rail gun had, and it would have been hideously expensive to remake.

“We are going to run Search and Rescue, I guess,” he replied. “I only have two ravens left, but between them and your luck, we should be able to h-“

He saw it move through the one raven he’d sent up above, keeping a bird’s eye view of the battlefield, and reacted at the last moment, throwing himself at Tyche and knocking her out of the way at the last moment, just as Crocell shot another beam aimed straight at her. It missed them by barely an inch, very nearly blasting off Basil’s legs.

The sonic boom it caused hit them in spite of Gloom Glimmer’s power negating the actual sound of it, shaking Basil to the core and disorienting him greatly.

He very nearly threw up in his mask as his sight turned black for moments, and he lost all sense of direction while he and Tyche were thrown off the roof, approaching the ground in a graceless tumble.

Acting on reflex, he fired his grappling hooks left and right, hoping for some, any kind of purchase – but the blast had damaged the left one, causing it to get stuck, while the other one didn’t hit anything but air.

And then his and Tyche’s fall was suddenly arrested, as the air itself seemed to catch them, bringing them to a brain-shaking halt.

“Ugh…” Tyche made a sick sound, before she audibly threw up – fortunately, she didn’t throw up on him. That would’ve seriously crimped his white cape’s style.

Slowly, Basil’s vision returned as he and Tyche were deposited on the street, just in time to see the woman in brown float gracefully down to meet them. Unfortunately, as his vision sharpened, he saw that the impact had caused a lot of damage to his equipment – especially to his mask’s HUD and cameras, forcing him to trigger the failsafe and open up two slits for his eyes. Well, it’s this kind of situation I built them in for.

“Are you two alright?” the woman asked with a voice that didn’t match her boring, rather forgettable costume – it was strong, weathered, a practiced voice that could easily be heard across the roar of a storm – and which drew his attention away from inspecting the damage readouts he still had access to.

Tyche groaned, heaving, but Basil righted himself and nodded. “We are quite fine. Thank you for the save.”

She nodded. “Let’s get out of here before that thing-“

There was a roar, and then a groundshaking impact, and then the two buildings behind them – including the one Crocell had shorn the top off of – began to topple towards them.

Basil didn’t bother wasting breath to curse or anything – instead, he grabbed Tyche by her upper arm and charged forward, hooking his other arm into the woman’s own, and pulled them with him as he ran to the right, trying to get out of the collapsing buildings’ arc.

But it was too late and the two constructions, built to fit the modern customs and regulations (you really couldn’t afford having buildings be too easy to bring down, nowadays) crashed down atop them with a deafening noise.

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B012.8 Born At Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” was Dalia’s only response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No idea,” the gilded redhead replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was going after Tyche.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only to cut off when it began deliberately approaching her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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B012.7 Born At Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was still glad about every bit of added support.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love you, too. Be safe.

Look who’s talking.

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

“Huh?” he asked, momentarily confused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That… looks big,” Dalia commented lamely.

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

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

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

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

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B012.6 Born At Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the end, though, he…

“Hey, earth to Basil!!!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pretty much, yes,” he affirmed.

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

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

“Aww…” Tim seemed disappointed.

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” Basil asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Electromagnetism…

Electricity…

Lightning… I am…

He blinked, but all he saw was darkness.

***

The sky is dark, but not as dark as…

“Go on,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked up again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another drop.

And another.

Drop after drop fell on him, quickening…

Rain!!!

***

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

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

“What’s happened?” Prisca asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

A lightning bolt!

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

The rain intensified.

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

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

Rain fell… lightning flashed… thunder roared…

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

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

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

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

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

Clouds make rain.

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

Rain makes… lightning.

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

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

At that moment, he completely forgot about them.

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

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

I can see the stars!

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ok,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alright, let’s go!”

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B012.5 Born At Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They both made their way back down.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<Touchy subject…> Eudocia said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well… what do I have to lose, really?

So he just told them nearly everything he knew.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dalia gave the finger to the screen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<Good answer.>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her next words did manage to catch his full attention.

“Figure out your speciality, of course!”

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