Tieshaunn

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Tieshaunn

Hello everyone,

before anyone asks, yes, I’m writing, yes, it’s coming along, but this is a huge chapter and I want to do it all in one go, even though it’s already as big as two updates, so I’m still writing.

Meanwhile, I’ve got something I’d like to advertise:

One of my favourite academics, Frank Erik Pointner, is working on a passion project of his, writing Christmas music and recording it with a friend of his for the vocals, and his own guitar play. They’ve already produced two songs and are working on more.

You can find both songs on youtube, following these links:

First Christmas

Christmas All Alone

Or you can search for “Roseate” in youtube and you’ll find them that way.

Take a look if you’re interested and share it if you like it!

Sincerely,

Tieshaunn Tanner


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PenintheStone

Drew Hayes (RT The Pen in the Stone):
Yowza, this is a busy Con! We're already out of SP: Year 1 and Forging Hephaestus. Enjoying the heck out of this town.

PenintheStone
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PenintheStone

Drew Hayes (RT The Pen in the Stone):
I'm at booth #947. See you folks in a few hours! https://t.co/OkH1zhvVfV

PenintheStone
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In My Daydreams

Venus Spy Catcher: Part 5

In My Daydreams

I wished we had Daniel there because given what I’d heard it sounded like someone was organizing people against us. Daniel could have sorted that out in seconds. Between Cassie and I, all we had going for us were our combined insight into people.

I might have been underestimating Cassie, but I wasn’t optimistic.

As Cassie waved at them (“Hey!”), I used the implant to ask her, “Did you overhear what he said before he turned around?”

When she thought back, “No,” I sent her the memory because the implant suggested it was possible. Technically, it might not have been a memory as much as some sort of temporary data cache of everything I’d recently seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched, but in the moment it didn’t matter.

She thought back, “This just got more interesting,” without visually giving any sign of it. She smiled as Geman and (as we’d guessed) Dalat stepped out of the doorway. Dalat looked us up and down. “I didn’t know humans worked with the Xiniti. I heard it, but I’ve never seen anyone who was. Do they make you wear their armor or do you wear it because its better?”

We were close enough by then that I had time to notice that Dalat was almost a foot shorter than I was. “It’s not their armor. It’s my design. I made it look like Xiniti armor because I didn’t want to have to explain that we were working with them.”

Dalat cocked his head to the side, looked me up and down, cocked his head to the other side and looked at Cassie. “I wouldn’t have known the difference. Is it as powerful as theirs?”

I shrugged. “Don’t know. They only Xiniti I’ve ever fought either wasn’t wearing it or it was partially disabled or something. He was dangerous, but that’s because he was dangerous—not because of his armor.”

Dalat blinked. “Is that how you’re with them then? You killed him? I heard that when you kill a Xiniti that they make you a Xiniti citizen.”

“Kind of,” I said. “It’s not any time you kill a Xiniti. It’s when you kill a Xiniti and they feel like they owe you for it—like if the guy was a criminal. The guy we fought was.”

Dalat looked over Geman who had stepped out of the doorway, towering over his coworker. “Pretty impressive,” Dalat said. “They killed a Xiniti. Not a lot of humans can say that, but a lot of them can say they’ve been killed by Xiniti—whole systems.”

Under his breath, Geman said, “Dalat… Not now.”

Dalat didn’t seem to hear him. He shook his head. “After all the humans they killed, I can’t believe they’re protecting us. Strange how the wheels turn, you know? More than one hundred years ago, my father’s side of the family barely got off their planet before the Xiniti scrubbed it. They burned it all down to the dirt. There wasn’t anything left alive except maybe bugs and fungus. What do you think of them? I heard you had one.”

Cassie and I looked at each other. She responded as I wondered where Katuk was exactly. We’d last seen him back on the ship, but I didn’t remember Jaclyn asking him to com along. He had to be with them though.

As I thought, Cassie answered Dalat. “Eh… He’s quiet. Keeps to himself. We barely know he’s around most of the time.”

“Doesn’t hate humans then?” Dalat frowned. “Well, I guess they can’t act like they do in online vids back where we’re from. In the stories they’re just waiting for their chance to scrub a world, you know.”

Cassie shook her head. “If he’s waiting for the chance to destroy a solar system, he hasn’t told us about it.”

It seemed like the kind of thing that might come out during a game of Monopoly, I thought. Anybody might choose to destroy the world after finding they have to pay the rent at Park Place while short of funds.

I made the joke to myself in my head, but even as I did it, the implant gave me access to the standard Xiniti procedures for destroying every form of life on a planet. I’ll skip the details, but there were a lot of ways to go about it and cases that I’d approve of (at least in theory)—stopping the spread of a fast-killing, species-jumping disease, for example.

I couldn’t say I approved of all the reasons I saw though.

Ignoring the wash of images and access codes, I did my best to follow the conversation. Cassie didn’t seem to have triggered the same thing in her head. In the time that I’d hit a burst of world destruction stories and Xiniti WMD access codes, she’d moved forward in asking questions that were actually relevant to the mission.

“You probably know that we’ve been looking into the idea that someone’s spying on the colony. Is there any way someone could get admin access to the local ansible without being one of the admins?”

As she asked, I knew the answer on my own. The Xiniti had access to the network on a deep level—including self-destruct access codes to parts of the ansible network. At the same time, they were freakishly security conscious. The implant gave me a crash course in ansible tech. Getting access to it required more than simply a password, it required codes deep within an implant or if no implant, identifying DNA (or a different species’ equivalent) and appropriate records inside the system that that individual is allowed to access it and what permissions they had.

I’d have to investigate on my own, but it looked like any Xiniti who came through had access, but beyond that it was pretty much impossible. Sure, they had control of the local relay, but a quick request through my implant gave me the list of the local admins gave me Geman, Dalat, and Iolan, all of whom had DNA and various identifiers unique to implant tech on file.

No one was getting past that easily.

If someone was, they had to be an ansible tech, a Xiniti, or (and this seemed most likely to me) they had to have control over one of the admins.

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Semicoop

Do something!

Semicoop

During a game of Magic Maze, players are not allowed to talk to each other during the most important parts of the game and that can be quite tricky in a real-time cooperative game. There is however… a DO SOMETHING pawn! Players can put it in front of another player to catch their attention and notify them that they are probably missing something important and should … do something! What makes this such a tricky game? Well, there are four hero pawns on the board and every player has a certain action they can make all the hero pawns do. For example: one player can move any of the character pawns to the north, another player can move them to the east, etc etc. Just thinking about that already made my head hurt. I imagine it is a little more relaxed than Escape: The Curse of the Temple though, in which players can constantly scream at each other, need to roll dice (the noise!), while neurotic music is playing on the background.

We haven’t played the game yet and we’re not sure if it is a game we would enjoy. Nonetheless, this gameplay mechanic of a DO SOMETHING pawn made for an excellent comic idea. 😉

Our item in the Jack Vasel Memorial Fund Action is a blast! The highest bid is $200 so far and THAT IS AMAZING! We’re so thankful for the generosity of people and we’re grateful we get to help people who need it in this way. If you’re interested, this is the link to the auction item: https://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/230490/item/5749356#item5749356 The auction ends tomorrow.

PS. I’ve been swamped with work since Essen, so I haven’t had a chance to work on our animated Semi Co-op project. Hopefully, I can block time in my schedule to get some serious Semi Co-op work done in December. 🙂

What’s your opinion of hastily real-time cooperative games like Magic Maze and Escape?

The post Do something! appeared first on Semi Co-op.

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In My Daydreams

Venus Spy Catcher: Part 4

In My Daydreams

Cassie and I both looked at him, but I spoke first. “Your entire stock? I’m hoping it’s gone in the multitudes of happy customers sense and not in the swarms of unhappy villagers with pitchforks chasing us sense.”

It drew its branches upright and spoke with the air of someone whose pride had been touched. “I’m a respectable businessman. I only deliver the best service and this sort of place is the exact sort of client I specialize in.”

“Captive?” Cassie grinned, winking at me.

“I prefer to think of them as underserved,” it said.

“I hope that you’re not taking advantage of them,” I said, “because we will have a problem with that.”

“Far from it,” its leaves adjusted to catch the sun. “I’ve been discovering areas in which they desperately need my services—particularly financially. They have accounts that they have no access to because they didn’t have time to move them. I know beings that can—for a suitable, but not inappropriate fee. And that’s far from the only issue that I can handle. They have property and possessions that haven’t been confiscated by the government, but that they can’t in any way maintain or sell. That’s only few of the things that they need fixed, but I can fix them. Fixing is what I do. I’m afraid, though, that I need to be there in person to get things started and that’s where you come in. When can we leave?”

Hadn’t it been listening? I was almost sure we’d talked about it while it was around. Caught in my memories, I delayed long enough that Cassie replied before I did.

Stepping closer to it and the ship, Cassie looked down. “We’re stuck here until the Xiniti arrive. We can’t leave at all. If we do and the Human Ascendancy shows up, we’re useless as protectors, right?”

The plant’s leaves rustled.  “I have friends that I might be able to get protection through, but I don’t know our coordinates. If you wanted to leave the planet, it’s possible I could arrange something.”

Cassie laughed. “What kind of friends? Are you talking about pirates? Organized crime? Because that wouldn’t be better. Look, you’re stuck here until we can leave. After that, we can drop you off anywhere on our way, but if you find out where we are, I’m pretty sure we have to leave you here for the Xiniti. Okay?”

Some of its leaves twisted toward her. Making a noise that our implants translated as a grunt, it said, “You’re making this difficult, but I accept. I’ll wait for you to leave. Please let me into your spaceship.”

“Sorry, no,” I told it. “We’re not letting anyone in there right now. If you want shelter, you can stay with the rest of us in the council building.”

It floated upward. “I find your lack of faith in me disturbing. I’ve done nothing but help. Still, to win your trust, I’ll go back to your rooms. I may be dormant when you return, but should something change, speaking to me will eventually get my attention.”

We watched as it floated away.

Cassie shook her head. “That thing’s a piece of work. I’m halfway between thinking that it was trying to trick us into giving it the location of this place and thinking it is what it seems—a borderline criminal with connections to the space mafia or something.”

I glanced over to follow its progress toward the village and then back toward Cassie. “I don’t know. I never seriously considered that it might be a spy. It’s never given off a hint that it’s trying to dig for information—though I suppose a good spy never does. I’m running with small-time criminal as my model to explain what it does. That said, that’s bad enough. If we told it where we were and it called in its ‘friends…’ I mean, what would we get? A bunch of thugs? We’d get in trouble, and bearing in mind what Kals said about the colonists—that they were basically the rebels to the Human Ascendancy’s empire? I wouldn’t be surprised if the thugs tried to take something and the colonists simply killed them.”

Cassie raised an eyebrow. “You think they’re that dangerous?”

“I don’t know, but the way Kals described them, it made them sound like they experienced bad things and did bad things before coming here.”

Her expression didn’t change. “Well, if you say so. Either way, we’re here to talk to Geman.”

I nodded. “I guess we’d better do that. Maybe if we’re lucky the other guy will be here too.”

“Dalat?” Cassie glanced over at the three egg shaped buildings in the middle of the field. “Let’s see who’s there.”

We started walking. As we did, Cassie tapped her costume in its pseudo Xiniti armor mode. “I’m sick of wearing this crap. I think the last time we wore anything like normal clothes was the party and sure, that was only last night, but we’ve worn them since we left home. I mean, no offense, you designed them and they’re comfortable, but it gets old.”

“I know. I’d prefer to be in t-shirt and jeans.” Looking ahead, I noticed that the door to the three egg building cluster had an open door and a figure standing in it with his back to us. Bearing in mind that Geman was tall, dark-skinned and muscular whereas the figure in the doorway was light skinned with blond hair, short, and skinny, I guessed he might be Dalat.

For all that wearing a mask on my face got uncomfortable, the newest version of my suit gave me much better hearing.

The man in the doorway was saying, “—said we shouldn’t say anything—“ but then he turned around, seeing us. “Hey there!”

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Tieshaunn

B13.18 Call of the Sleeper

Tieshaunn

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He’d failed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then find a non-biological solution!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stasis.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Amused that she’d destroyed so many lives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And down…

And down…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Brennus, nor Tyche, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deliberate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hecate flinched, snarling audibly at him.

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

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

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

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

Basil clenched his fists, hard.

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

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

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

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

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

It needs to be done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lights flickered, once. Twice. Three times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That you had died…”

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

“That I would never get my chance…”

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

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

“To kill you myself…”

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

“To finally, finally… hurt you!”

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

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

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

And then the Dark went to War.

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Filed under: Brennus Chapters Tagged: Amy, Bakeneko, Basil, Dusu, Gloom Glimmer, Graymalkin, Hecate, Immanuel, Osore, Polymnia, Spellgun, Syrinx, Tartsche, The Dark, Tyche
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In My Daydreams

Venus Spy Catcher: Part 3

In My Daydreams

Back in our rooms at the council building half an hour later, we sat across from each other at the table, all of us thinking over what we’d been doing.

I looked over everyone. “I don’t know about you, but I feel like I have less direction than I had before we talked to Iolan. I mean, it sounds like Iolan’s already got the ansible under investigation and he didn’t offer to let me in. Plus, we’ve got a population that’s ready to freak out either because we can breed with anyone or because the Dominators might come for them. Also, I don’t feel like we got much of a direction from that party the other night.”

Cassie shrugged. “I don’t know. We know more than we did when we got here. I see it as long term thing. We get to know people now, keep on talking to them, and in a little while we see the big picture.”

Nodding, I said, “You’re right, but I’m not sure we’ve got a long term. We’ve got a short term and then the Xiniti show up and we go home.”

“Yeah,” she drawled. “If they show up. You’ve been following the news, right? Whoever the Issakass are, they started some kind of major war and the Xiniti are containing the edges of it. I’d say who’s in the middle of it, but that might be a bad idea.”

Marcus bobbed his head in agreement. “It is crazy to follow that whole thing. That whole race went crazy and now they’re fighting a war on five fronts when they aren’t fighting each other. And Cassie’s right about who’s in the middle of it. A major Issakass fleet started attacking itself. You know what that sounds like? The sort of dirty tricks he’s always been pulling.”

Jaclyn leaned across the table. “Nick, where do you think you’ve got the best chance of figuring it out?”

I thought about it. “Geman and the other guy, Dalat? They share admin responsibilities with Iolan. It seems like there’s got to be more there. None of them are ansible administrators or anything like that. I’m not either, but two of them are pilots and the other one’s a doctor. It seems like they could miss something, or that if one of them was hiding something, the others wouldn’t have the skill to figure it out.”

“You’ve got it.” She gave a wave toward the door. “Figure out how you’d get into the relay. We’ll get out and meet people. There’s got to be some way. Marcus? How about you come with me? And let’s go see Tikki. They’ve got to be teaching her a job. We can help and we’ll talk to people along the way.”

Marcus gave her a sideways glance. “I’ve got a feeling this isn’t going to be all that fun.”

Jaclyn gave him  a small smile. “I’m sure the two of you can sneak away eventually.”

Cassie looked me in the eye. “Which puts you with me. I’m guessing that sends us to the spaceport.”

“I hadn’t thought that far ahead, but I was thinking that I might talk to Hal. He can chew through encryption back home. I’m a little worried that he might not be as good here where he’s not as far ahead technologically. On the other hand, he’s built to assist in making war—which includes breaking encryption, so I’m basically asking him to do one of the jobs he’s designed for.”

Cassie grinned. “Better to use Hal than my gun. It was on ice for so long that it’s not current on anything but killing.”

Not long after that, Cassie and I were walking to the spaceport. I’d spent some time getting our costumes to imitate the clothes we’d seen on other colonists, so we fit in—at least visually. For all I knew, the costumes we wore had religious or cultural significance and simply wearing them delivered an insult that went back generations.

It wasn’t a bad day outside—though it was different taking the same path we’d taken at night back to the “spaceport,” a name that overstated its significance by far. It was a spaceport in the same way that a field next to a shack was an airport.

As we neared the ship, I noticed a few things—first that Bug’s Revenge was gone, presumably on the way back to civilization. Hopefully it wouldn’t get caught. The two fighter ships were out and shiny.

Finally though, Crawls-Through-Desert “sat” next to our ship in his pot. An empty gravity sled lay next to the plant on the ground. The last time I’d seen it, it had been piled high with devices.

“Not to rush you,” it said, “but when are you leaving? I sold my entire stock and I don’t have anything left to do but wait. So how long am I going to wait?”

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In My Daydreams

Ten Years Ago Today…

In My Daydreams

I started posting Legion of Nothing on November 8, 2007.

Crazy, eh?

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Semicoop

Cat in a box

Semicoop

This probably works… if you have only one cat.

Azul is one of the games we picked up at Spiel this week and we love it. The first turn we didn’t really know how it was going to be ‘a game’, but when we reached the second turn… it hit us and we saw the many choices you can make! Will I take this tile just to prevent other players from getting it? If I take this, then that… etc etc! We can’t wait to play this with more than two players.

This week we realized that the Jack Vasel Memorial Fund Auction is running! So we decided to offer something to the good cause: a custom avatar or selfie shot with us… plus we’ll send you a signed fridge magnet of the image! There is already an outstanding bid of $130 – maybe we can drive up the price even higher. 🙂  We would like to say that we are already astounded by the generosity of people, it’s an amazing to see the bgg community at work. Click here to see our auction item and if you’d like to participate in the bidding for a good cause! The auction ends on November 14th.

A post shared by Semi Co-op (@semicoop) on Nov 2, 2017 at 2:37pm PDT


And we’ve started Pandemic Legacy 2! We’ve been so excited to get started with this game ever since finishing Pandemic Legacy last year. Alas, we lost our first prologue game (SO CLOSE!) and thus we decided that we won’t start with the first ‘real game’ and will keep playing the practice session until we win and are familiar with all the new rules and actions. We’ll keep you posted on what we think of the game, spoiler free of course. 😉

Any good anecdotes about the behavior of your pet(s) while playing a board game?

The post Cat in a box appeared first on Semi Co-op.

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In My Daydreams

Venus Spy Catcher: Part 2

In My Daydreams

I stood next to one of the counters in Iolan Mekus’ lab, considering sitting on it but then reconsidering when I noticed the same kind of square chips that had absorbed our biological samples.

Standing then, I asked, “So okay… If you think they’re using admin accounts to communicate and then deleting the specific logs of their ansible use, then who are the admins?”

Iolan grinned, but barely. “I see where you’re going, but it’s not that easy. That was my first thought. The other two admins are Geman, who is no fan of the Ascendancy government and Dalat, the other pilot, who is in his own world. I know anybody could be a traitor, but the two of them are poor candidates. I’ve been forced to look elsewhere.”

Marcus looked up from one of tables. “How about mind control? I know I’ve mentioned this before when we were talking among ourselves, but you guys have people who can tell you what to do and then you listen even if you disagree. It’s crazy.”

Iolan blinked. “Well, of course mind control is a possibility, but we do have some experience in resisting it here. Now, as for myself, I grew up in a leader gene line and even though we were stronger and more powerful than most humans, our best weapon against other humans had to be our voice. So, as for myself, I never discount that possibility, but there are so many potential motivators… If you think about it, I could theoretically be causing it despite not being interested in destroying myself or ever having any real interest in being a motivator at all.

“I was far more interested in learning to be a genetic counselor and doctor—so I left my motivator abilities quite underdeveloped. I’m far from the only one of us who is like that. You don’t become part of a group like this without hating that part of ourselves. The only people with good motivator training are Jadzen Akri and her daughter, young Kals. The rest of us have the potential, but we’re only good at the direct, obvious commands—the kind of thing everyone will pick up on.

“Only people with real training could both make someone use their ansible access against their will and make them unable to talk about it. Jadzen and Kals wouldn’t have needed to do it. Jadzen has been going back on and off to recruit for years. Kals’ training was interrupted and I don’t see any motivation for her to destroy her family. The only way for mind control to work like that, in this case, is if the Dominators got them and—“

Cassie looked up from whatever she’d been fiddling with and the desk she’d been standing next to. “Dominators? Whoa. Wait. You’ve got Dominators here too?”

Iolan cocked his head to look at here. “Of course. They’re all over human space. They were the Abominators’ group that handled problem humans and prevented human rebellion.”

Cassie turned toward the rest of us—Jaclyn, Marcus and I, mouth twisted and probably thinking what the rest of us were—that the Dominators were a supervillain team back home that specialized in mind control. It would make a kind of sense if they turned to be Abominator founded group—except we couldn’t explain that without explaining we were from Earth, something we didn’t want to do in case Lee’s people got wind of the fact that he came to space with us.

Cassie turned back to Iolan saying, “I always thought the Dominators were only on our world.”

Iolan nodded. “It would be better to think so. They’ve been known to plant commands that don’t activate for years. All the same, I’d have expected them to trigger long before now. If we are dealing with Dominators, guessing motives is useless and it could be anyone no matter how little sense it makes.”

Jaclyn frowned. “There aren’t any tells that someone’s been modified by them?”

Brows furrowed, Iolan put a bracelet on his wrist and tapped it. “There might be. I’ll do some research. Perhaps the Xiniti might do the same. There might be some default commands that we might activate to check for Dominator manipulation. It may be that I was wrong to discount them. It wouldn’t be impossible for them to include a mini-personality with the skill to use motivator abilities. We’ve had resistance groups broken up by exactly that. It’s just that they’re effective enough that I wouldn’t expect them to take this long to destroy us. They’d have found out our location and called in the Ascendancy long ago.”

“Okay,” Jaclyn looked over everyone. “I’m thinking we have to investigate the Dominator angle, but I don’t think we should assume that’s got to be it. We should be looking just in case it is someone else—even if we can’t guess who right now. Anyone else ready to call this meeting done?”

Iolan nodded. “One thing I’d ask of you all… Please don’t tell anyone that we’re suspecting Dominator involvement. We don’t want a panic. Some of us here only barely survived Dominator controlled personalities. Aside from that, who knows how the Dominators might have told them to respond?”

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Crying Grumpies

Pinball Arcade, Millones de nostálgia

Crying Grumpies

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Siendo el más joven de los grumpies soy o un xeleniall tardío o un mileniall primerizo, eso quiere decir que más que un chico de los ochenta soy hijo del noventerismo. Por desgracia cuando comencé a adquirir algo de autonomía los arcades ya no estaban de moda y al poco de conocer al resto de los compañeros de blog cerraron el recreativo en el que quedábamos para jugar al Time Crisis o al KOF’99. Al llegar a los dieciséis, me apunté a la escuela de cocina, empecé a trabajar yencontré un lugar mágico entre la escuela y mi trabajo que me transporto de vuelta al esplendor de los recreativos. Para ser más concretos al esplendor de los salones recreativos rellenos de pinballs. Cada tarde aprovechando que al trabajar se me permitía llegar algo más tarde a clase me paraba un rato y me jugaba las propinas en el Medieval Madness. Uno de mis sueños siempre ha sido hacerme con una de estas máquinas. Ahora y gracias a Farsight Studio y su The Pinball Arcade tengo algo muy parecido a ese mágico local en la pantalla de mi IPad.

Juegos que trasladasen máquinas de millón a trastos electrónicos siempre los ha habido, pero la gracia de la Pinball Arcade es que todas y cada una de sus máquinas son máquinas que existieron. La aplicación es un salón recreativo portátil, mediante DLC podemos ir ampliando nuestra colección de mesas. Aunque si sois de los que no pasan por caja con los DLC podéis jugar a cualquiera de las mesas disponibles de forma gratuita hasta alcanzar la primera High Score o jugar sin limite a cuatro mesas que van rotando cada mes a cambio de ver publicidad.

Las físicas del juego están realmente conseguidas y las bolas se comportan de la misma forma que lo hacen en las máquinas originales. Falla un poco el tema de mover la máquina pero en mi nivel de aficionado no es nada grave. Es muy posible que en las versiones para PC o consolas esto no ocurra al estar las acciones mapeadas en teclas y no en un lugar random de la pantalla de mi tablet. Otro fallo y esta vez un poco más grave es la imposibilidad de variar la fuerza con la que se activa el flipper, esto lleva a que algunas de las técnicas de control no se puedan realizar con la misma facilidad que una máquina de verdad.

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Por el lado positivo, más allá del realismo con el que están plasmadas máquinas, tenemos la gran variedad de mesas y lo asequibles que son pues cada mesa vale poco más de 5€. Aunque la principal mesa a la que juego es el pinball de destruir castillos gracias a la aplicación he descubierto alguna joyas como Black Hole o la primera mesa con una superficie de juego debajo de la superficie principal o Safecraker, una rareza en la que en vez de tener X bolas por partida lo que tenemos es una cuenta atrás, mientras quede tiempo suelta bola tras bola y si el tiempo se acaba termina la partida.

No me puedo ir sin mencionar el sistema online, en el que no participo, pero que nos ofrece torneos, objetivos y demás mandangas habituales. En fin que si alguna vez os han interesado los pinballs nos encontramos frente a una muy buena aplicación que nunca sustituirá el tener una mesa delante, tocarla y perder un poco de cordura con los sonidos estridentes pero que al igual que las versiones de juegos de mesa en cacharros electrónicos sirven de buena metadona.


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In My Daydreams

Venus Spy Catcher: Part 1

In My Daydreams

Department for the Analysis of Alien Artifacts, K’Kassa, Issakass Homeworld

The being that sometimes called itself Lee reformed in front of the building. A body formed around him with barely a thought, so little that he took a moment to check what form he wore. It wasn’t anything special. For the moment, he was bipedal with four limbs, blue-green scaled hide, and while he couldn’t see all of his face, it was obvious that he had a long snout.

He wore a short robe with a tool belt.

He was, he recognized, a typical, lower caste Issakass male, the sort of being that would never be noticed walking into a government building—not that it mattered.

There were no Issakass as far as the eye could see. He saw plenty of evidence that the Issakass still existed. The smell of smoke hung in the air and he saw evidence of at least four burning buildings with a quick look around. He knew he could pick out more if he cared.

He didn’t. None of the buildings were close, so it wasn’t as if the neighborhood were burning. This block of low government buildings must look the same as it had before the war. Blocky and made of old plastics and ceramics, all of the buildings had a grayish tinge, whatever color they’d been before. The kassetia vine grew more thickly on them than the Issakass preferred, hinting that this block had been abandoned before the current fighting.

It didn’t surprise him. He felt sure he knew why, but it was good to check.

Well, he told himself, there was no reason to wait and every reason to get it over with. Depending on what he found, it might make the endgame easier.

He walked toward the door, walking under a mural of intricate carvings. The Issakass traditionally decorated their more important buildings with carvings. He remembered visiting when the custom was new. The Issakass had been a young species then. Though they’d always been too focused on money for his taste, they’d had the energy young spacefaring races had—exploring here, going there, encountering other intelligent life for the first time…

He remembered doing that with the others—Kee (had she been calling herself Kee then?) had always tried to understand the way things worked, Nataw had always seemed to enjoy the traveling more than anything they found, Halas had wanted to keep them safe. Lee shook his head. The universe didn’t allow you to stay safe. He thought about those three and the many others they’d traveled the galaxies with.

They’d been so very young.

He wondered where Halas was now. The last Lee had seen him, he’d been with the Destroy faction, designing devices like the one Lee had come to inspect. A part of Lee hoped he might have died in the fighting. Better to discover Halas had died in the years since he’d left than to have to kill him himself, but Halas wouldn’t have joined the Live faction. It wasn’t in his nature. Besides, Nataw had, and Halas had always been on the edge of not getting along with Nataw.

Lee supposed that he was Live now, assuming he could ever persuade them not to kill him in retaliation.

He spent enough time remembering that he reached the artifact before he expected to. One minute he’d been traveling down a hallway and the next he felt the device. Knowing where to go, he stepped through an archway and into a nearly empty room.

The artifact lay on the floor, a tangled mess of wires sticking out of a ceramic casing. It was older than some galaxies. Lee crossed the wide, white tiles, reaching the artifact halfway across the room.

Lee didn’t even have to pick it up to find out what he’d wanted to know. It released an invisible cloud of nano-devices. He could feel them dig into his skin—if he’d been a mortal, he wouldn’t have, and they would have made small but important changes in his brain and body. He’d have developed the ability to influence other beings with his voice, a stronger, more resilient body, and a deep need for conquest.

While going mad in the way Halas intended might be entertaining for a time, Lee had things to do. He thought them out of existence and let the body he’d created repair itself.

Then he summoned a sword and stabbed the artifact. Because it was more than a sword, Lee could feel it as the artifact died, along with the nano-factories inside it.

Good, he decided, he might not have to kill the entire species. If the species were being lead into war by people changed by this device and others like it, he’d only have to kill the leadership. He’d have to inform the Xiniti. They’d be able to handle it. The Abominators had stolen elements of the technology and repurposed them.

He turned to leave, noticing a figure forming in the shadows in the corner of the room. More than nine feet tall, it had horns on its head and claws on its hands and feet. Great slabs of muscle covered its body, all of them tensing as it looked at Lee, ready to attack. Except its mouth opened and it said, “I didn’t believe it. I’d been told that you were back and that you were no longer with us, but I had to see it. Why did you do that?”

Lee shrugged. “It’s complicated, Halas.”

“Complicated?” Halas’ voice rose and the building groaned in response. “That’s all you’ll tell me? The younger races are going to kill us if we don’t destroy them first. You used to understand that—“

The ground shook as Halas stepped toward Lee. Feeling the power gather, Lee knew he’d have to match him, but he’d been planning to. He opened the doors to his power as he hadn’t for the first time in millennia…

From the Interstellar News Network:

The Issakass home world K’Kassia has experienced a series of devastating explosions. It’s not currently known if they are the product of fusion, fission or antimatter bombs.

Developing.

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Tieshaunn

Delay

Tieshaunn

Hello everyone,

I’m currently working on a new Dreaming chapter – or at least, I should’ve been. Unfortunately, Halloween got in the way, and I’m not finished yet, so there won’t be a new chapter today.

However, I am not skipping it – this just means there’ll be a late October chapter first, within the next few days, before I start on the November chapters.

I’m sorry I’m keeping you waiting.

Sincerely,

Tieshaunn Tanner


Filed under: Update, Writing
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In My Daydreams

Birthright: Part 10

In My Daydreams

Thinking back to how I’d pulled on Lee’s power in some way to summon a sword, I knew I wasn’t completely without powers, but I knew Amy’s magic had bridged some gap to allow me to do it.

Eyeing Iolan, I said, “So, if I have ancient, mysterious DNA, but can’t do anything with it, why is that?”

Iolan frowned. “Well, it’s simpler than you might expect. You might have abilities, but you lack the necessary power to make them work. Many people who have Abominator derived or created genomes have the same issue and ironically, the Abominators fixed it by adding in DNA that they’d reverse engineered to copy the ancient DNA that had caused them problems. I imagine that if someone lacked enough power to fully use abilities they might have, they’d use them at a much lower level, possibly undetectably.”

“Right,” I said. “I get it. That’s about as simple as you get.”

Remembering back to when I’d been tested by Keith with the Cabal’s powers test, I knew I’d gotten a hint of “energy” and “mind”—both of which were somehow oriented toward self-use as opposed to something I could aim at people. Even though the test might not cover Lee’s people as well as Abominator genetic manipulation, it wasn’t a big jump to imagine that “mind” might suggest an unusual ability with technology. A connection to the Cosmic Ghosts might explain the “energy” indicator. The fact that they were both barely blue might explain the subtle effect of whatever I had.

It wouldn’t surprise me if I got more out of it than that, but I’d have to watch for it. Also, I’d have to ask Lee a few questions the next time I saw him. It seemed like the kind of thing he’d be aware of.

More than that, it might explain his interest in my family going back a few generations. Grandpa had told me that Lee had mentioned knowing an ancestor of his once. He’d told me that he watched families with potential once. A connection to his own species might have been one of the reasons. Even if Lee hadn’t been the person who’d been caught, he might have known or even cared about them. Alternately, the person might have had abilities Lee found useful and wanted to cultivate in humans.

It was something I couldn’t put past him. Being immortal had to encourage thinking long term.

“Well…” Jaclyn glanced over all of us. “I think we’ve asked all we can about that. We should start talking about the reason we’re officially here. Jadzen Akri wanted us to help you find out if there’s a spy here. So, why do you think there is?”

Iolan nodded and then spoke slowly. “I told you at the meeting. I don’t have evidence of it. I wish I did, but I do know that there’s increased ansible activity before and after Jadzen goes on one of her rescue trips. And even though Alanna disagrees, it’s not just because they’re planning the trips. There are too many resources involved.”

Iolan had started talking more quickly as he went on, stepping forward and moving his hands to illustrate.

“Whoa,” I held up my hands. “How do you know there are too many resources involved?”

Iolan gave a short laugh. “I’m a little bit of a hobbyist when it comes to comms and the deep space relay system. If you’ll allow an old man his eccentricities, I’ll explain. It’s normal for children to get interested in the ansible system at some point. There’s so much to be fascinated by. There’s the history—it was created by the Abominators and is now used by everyone in charted space. There are the vids about the installation and repair teams that go practically anywhere, exploring worlds and getting caught up in adventures. You know how that goes I’m sure the real teams are bored in the middle of nowhere.”

He picked up a bottle from his desk and took a drink.

“Anyhow,” he said, “I never could pursue it as a profession since I’d been training to be a doctor, genetic counselor, and a motivator since childhood. No one, my parents included was going to let me train to run one of the signal generator stations, much less learn how to repair a station. I did manage to get involved at a volunteer level when I was younger, and when I got here, they made me one of the admins of our deep space relay. It’s so clever of them to spoof the system the way they do.”

At this point Iolan had gotten back into talking loudly and gesturing as he talked. He’d even pulled up a floating picture of the surrounding sectors ansible network from a machine on his desk.

Stopping, he said, “I’m almost certain that there’s an encrypted stream of data that’s activated whenever other data is going out. You would think that would be easy to prove, but I think they’re using admin channels so that that the data doesn’t appear in the official logs and statistics.”

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In My Daydreams

Birthright: Part 9

In My Daydreams

That was a lot to absorb. Marcus had Abominator DNA? If it was from his dad’s side of the family (and it almost certainly was) then Haley and Travis did as well. And what he’d said about me needed a lot more detail. I could guess at it, but—

Marcus talked over my thoughts, holding up his right hand and waving it a little. “Whoa, whoa, whoa… Wait a second. Abominator DNA? What’s going on there?”

Iolan shrugged. “It shouldn’t be a surprise. You’re a shapeshifter. They were shapeshifters. They knew where to get that characteristic. They put it into several different lines. The gene lines they optimized for repairing machinery had it. So did several soldier lines that they didn’t want to look like soldiers.”

Nodding toward Cassie, he added, “It’s interesting that you’ve got the Abominator Citizen’s Mark, but none of the mental characteristics that are supposed to go with it. Motivator abilities are generally in there too.”

Cassie shrugged. “I’ve never been much into telling people what to do.”

As he finished his sentence, I asked, “What exactly did you mean that not all of my DNA is human?”

Iolan’s face tightened and he glanced out the windows before catching himself and turning back to look at me. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m both a doctor and genetic counselor by training and there are certain things we weren’t allowed to discuss. I’m going to tell you this one, but be aware, it’s a secret and I’m only telling you because you, more than most, need to know. The Abominators came to know that they weren’t the first intelligent life after they made it to the stars. It wasn’t because they found other races, but because they found ruins, whole star systems where some civilization expanded and then ultimately destroyed itself.

“At first, they didn’t know what had happened, but after a time they studied these civilizations, finding that they’d often discovered some artifact, reverse-engineered it, and that the changes it brought about destroyed their civilization. Worse, they came to realize that all the artifacts had been designed to encourage exactly that outcome. Eventually, it struck them that the ancient artifacts had been designed by the same civilization even though they looked different.”

He paused, looking at each of us, probably looking for a reaction. Whatever he wanted, he started talking again.

“They became paranoid that whatever affected those other civilizations would affect them as well, and they were right. It did. Over time their society changed. They became power hungry, more cruel, and used other sentient life as toys but somehow they kept it in check. They discovered the worst of the traps in the artifacts and removed them. Their civilization lasted one hundred thousand years.  As horrible as the Abominators were, they were great scientists, and over time they managed to find and then capture one of the ancients that created the artifacts and get a sample of its DNA. Soon after that, the creature escaped, destroying the team that had done it and their world.”

Cassie sent a message over to me with her implant. “That sounds like Lee.”

I sent back, “Except I don’t think he’d get caught long enough for a DNA sample.”

She didn’t respond beyond shaking her head, and Iolan went on.

“But not all the knowledge had been destroyed. They were able to use it in their designs. Their strongest creations included sections of that DNA. The problem is that after that, they began to recognize that the ones with the ancients’ DNA were unreliable and were more likely to turn on them—with disastrous results. The Abominators found themselves warring with their own creations as well as the Cosmic Ghosts, the Xiniti, and many of the alien races that they’d conquered. You know the end. They were destroyed.”

I glanced over at Katuk. He had no reaction at all, watching without moving.

“Your DNA contains more traces of the ancients than any I’ve seen that wasn’t deliberately planned. You also contain traces of the Cosmic Ghosts’ DNA. I’ve always suspected that the Ghosts were related to the ancients, so that’s no surprise, it’s no great thing for you considering that in humans the Ghosts powers only manifest in women. Still, there are those who dream of interstellar flight without needing a starship, and the secret of how to do it is in your DNA.

“You should know that the Human Ascendancy will want it just like they’ll want the ancients’ DNA within you. Nevermind that you can’t do much with it. The ancients appear to have practically been gods. The Ascendancy won’t be able to leave that alone. Watch out if you travel to any of their worlds. If they get a sample of your DNA, they’ll want more.”

The doctor shook his head. “That’s why, as much as I want to, I can’t use your DNA to fix the colony’s problems. I might be able to use your friends’, but yours is too dangerous.”

Marcus glanced over at me. “Seriously? Nick doesn’t have any powers.”

Iolan frowned. “He may not be able to do anything, but his DNA is a library for those who want to. Now, as for you, I would like you to leave a sperm sample, preferably several. I don’t have the equipment necessary to do genetic engineering, but if I could arrange a few births with your sperm, I think I could save us.”

Marcus stared at him for a second. “Okay, I guess.”

Iolan smiled. “That’s absolutely wonderful.” He looked over at Cassie and Jaclyn. “I’d take your DNA as well, but eggs are harder to extract.”

I looked at him. “How would I get ancient DNA?”

Cocking his head, Iolan didn’t say anything for a moment. “Humans made with ancient DNA might have escaped to your world. That’s one possibility. Here’s another. The ancients appear to have had the ability to effortlessly become any race that intrigued them—not just appear to be them, but actually be them. If your world is like most others, you have myths about humans mating with gods. In this case, that may well have been true.”

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In My Daydreams

Birthright: Part 8

In My Daydreams

The next day found the group of us in Iolan Mekus’ office and lab. It was another of the egg-shaped buildings. This one was set at a distance from the main settlement—which I’d just learned had one of the least interesting names possible.

Marcus stared at Iolan. “You call it ‘Landing’? I get it. It’s right next to where you’ve got the starships, but I’d have gone with something more, you know, inspiring. It’s significant—the beginning of a human colony on this world. That’s crazy and amazing.”

Iolan frowned, leaning against his desk which was covered with clutter. There weren’t any papers but there were multiple black tablets and various small, plastic-looking devices of a variety of different shapes, ranging from flat squares to cylinders.

His desk matched the lab. While perfectly clean (to the degree it could be in the middle of a wilderness), all the devices stood next to each other with barely any space between them. My university’s chem labs were much better organized—well, except maybe for a few of the profs’ private areas. Those could get messy.

Iolan scowled. “We used to call it First Landing, but after a while everyone dropped the ‘First’. Now, I know you’re here to help me find out if there’s a spy—”

“Or spies,” I added.

“—Among us, but I got the impression that you wanted to talk to me about something else?”

Jaclyn spoke before I could respond, looking Iolan in the eye. “We found out that your colony’s going to get dangerously inbred soon because no one can have children except with people from their own group. We’re from one of the planets where the Abominators kept unmodified humans. We’ve got other stuff mixed in now, but we don’t activate anybody’s allergies so far.”

His brow wrinkled. “You know this how?”

“I touched Kals’ arm with my finger,” I said, “and she didn’t have any problems.”

Marcus gave half a smile. “Tikki and I… We touched a few other places—a lot of times. We didn’t use second skin or anything like that.”

Iolan’s eyes narrowed. “I hope not. I’ve been keeping all of that under lock and key. If people got into my stores…” He shook his head, muttering, “We need it for burns, but go on.”

Marcus’ jaw dropped a little. “There isn’t any more. You don’t want to hear exactly what we did, do you?”

Leaning against one of the tables, Cassie grinned. “He wants to hear it all—especially the embarrassing parts.”

Then Iolan blinked, realizing, I’m guessing, exactly what we’d said. “No. Not at all. That… That’s incredible. I”m not sure I can even believe you, but we can prove it even without bringing in people and risking nasty rashes. If you give me a little bit of skin or spit, I’ll be able to find out what we need to know.”

He turned to his desk, finding a stack of thin, glossy white squares, giving one to each of us except for Katuk. “Spit on it and pass it back to me.”

I took mine, spit on the square, watched as the spit disappeared inside, and passed it back to Iolan.

Taking the squares, he placed them next to each other on one of tablets. “We’ll have to wait a minute while it catalogues your DNA and compares to ours.”

After a little more than a minute, the edges of each square changed color, turning from white to red and then back to white. Iolan stared ahead as if reading something invisible above them. “They’re done and have made a preliminary report. You’re all of unmodified human stock or at least of unintentionally modified stock. Note though that I say unintentionally modified. You’re all basic human stock that have somehow inherited genes from more than one Abominator created gene line as well as a few completely new mutations.”

Turning to Cassie, he said, “You’re the most normal of the group, containing genes that one group of Abominators used as rulers—except that you lack the gifts related to ruling, have kept the improved physical abilities and immortality, but have an ability to heal that’s far in excess of what I’ve ever seen.”

He went on, pointing at Jaclyn. “You’ve got a collection of genes from different lines… I’ve never seen them combine like this and from what I heard from those who saw you in action, I’d need a great deal of time to explain your abilities.”

He glanced over at Marcus. “You’re as unusual. You’ve got many of the same genes combined with one of the Abominators’ soldier gene lines—one that included some Abominator DNA.”

Marcus looked as if he was about to say something, but Iolan turned to me. “You’ve got a bit of DNA from the gene lines I’m familiar with, but some that isn’t human or modified by the Abominators. You’ve all got a little of that, but you’ve got it most strongly.”

I wanted to ask him if he knew more than that, but he talked over me. “You were right, though. None of you should have any trouble breeding with any gene line.”

He shook his head. “This is going to cause all kinds of trouble.”

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In My Daydreams

Birthright: Part 7

In My Daydreams

Then he shook his head. “I still can’t see her working for the Human Ascendancy though. They killed her parents. They took her brothers and sisters away when they were two or three. I can see how she might hate them, but I can’t see how she’d work for them.”

Cassie shrugged. “People lie—”

“Yeah,” Marcus said, “but people here know her and her parents.”

“Right,” Cassie started talking the moment he stopped, “but they could still have something she wants—maybe her parents aren’t dead or they’re willing to let a brother or sister go? Look, if someone had your family would you let them die? You’d do something, maybe even betraying a bunch of people you only kind of know.”

Marcus exhaled. “I don’t buy it. It’s got to be someone else.”

Jaclyn looked over at Cassie, lips in a straight line, and Cassie didn’t interrupt as Jaclyn said, “Look, I know the two of you like each other. That was obvious on the way in, but be careful. She might be everything you say, but she might not be. I don’t want to find you in the woods with a knife in your back or maybe partially eaten by those dog things.”

He held up his hands. “Ok. Ok. I’ll be careful. Just don’t make Tikki feel like an axe murderer, right? Because she probably isn’t.”

Katuk looked from Jaclyn to Marcus. “Is murdering people with an axe common on your world?”

Everybody turned to look at him.

Marcus cocked his head, thinking about it. After a moment he said, “Not too common, but it’s memorable when it happens. You know, I bet people use the phrase because axes are scarier looking than other weapons. Almost no one uses them for fighting. People mostly use guns or knives.”

Katuk nodded. “That seems sensible. Axes are often unwieldy.”

No one seemed to have a response to that, so I asked, “Did you hear about any other possible suspects?”

Cassie shook her head. “Yeah and no. There are thousands of people on the planet, so one night isn’t enough. I heard about a lot of people, but I didn’t hear anything bad enough yet. I mean, remember that woman Alanna who didn’t believe that there could possibly be a spy here? She’s one of the colony’s techies. I figured that she was an excellent suspect. It doesn’t get much better than a techie who doesn’t want you to look for spies, right? Except here’s the problem. She had an affair with Iolan years ago, so they’re both on council now, but she opposes everything he’s for.

“Sure, maybe that’s enough motivation to betray the colony, but most likely she’s pissed off enough at him to argue, but nothing else, you know?”

Jaclyn glanced at Cassie. “I can’t say I came up with anyone we weren’t talking about earlier, but I know more about who’s who around here than I used to. It’s beginning at least. Maybe Iolan will have something better when we meet him tomorrow?”

I nodded. “The way they talked at the council meeting, it sounded like he’d been harping on this for years. Maybe he’ll have a list.”

Jaclyn pursed her lips. “I hope so. Well, we’re done unless anyone learned anything you think we should all know.”

Marcus raised his hand. “Get this. Did you know these people can choose to be fertile? The guys can shoot blanks at will. The women choose to release eggs and I might be wrong, but it sounds like they can choose the gender. You wonder why. I do, anyway.”

Jaclyn raised an eyebrow.

“Look,” Marcus said, “We were talking. It came up.”

We all went to our separate rooms and went to bed. In the silence as we waited for the chance to fall asleep, Katuk told us, “We, Xiniti, can choose our gender.”

Marcus asked, “What gender are you now?”

“Asexual,” Katuk said. “We adjust to the situation. There are no eligible Xiniti here, so procreation is not an option and recreational sex unlikely. In any case, creating a child in a place that might be invaded would be irresponsible as well as a distraction from our task.”

“Huh,” Marcus’ voice carried across the room. “That’s different. I had no idea. Say, you guys destroyed pretty much all the Abominators. Do you have any idea why they chose to give their enslaved humans the ability to choose whether they get pregnant or not? It seems like they weren’t interested in that kind of freedom.”

The Xiniti considered it. “I assume it would have some use in choosing when their subjects would get pregnant since humans are perpetually receptive to sex.”

I opened my eyes and looked toward Marcus’ dark lump of blankets on the other side of the room. “I figured it was because of the motivators. Without the ability to choose, you get a random baby at random times. With the ability to choose and motivators, you get babies whenever you want them. Plus you get whatever gender you think would be convenient.”

“I should have guessed,” Marcus said. “I suppose we’re all lucky that they’re dead.”

In his inhumanly precise voice, Katuk added, “The Human Ascendancy uses their methods. In that sense, they live on, and we may see them before the end of all this.”

That thought didn’t help me sleep any faster, but eventually, I did drift off.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

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Tieshaunn

B13.17 Call of the Sleeper

Tieshaunn

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Wh- what… what’s going on? Amy’s thoughts intruded into their minds once more, sounding weaker, more quiet than before, while her body stirred, groaning in pain. I feel like I got punched by God. After he took steroids for like, four thousand years.

Basil didn’t know how to reply, too focused on the standoff in front of him and so stayed quiet. The others didn’t seem to be in any better shape, staring at the new arrival.

Who the fuck is that? Amy asked in a groggy voice.

I have no idea, but he just saved Heck’s life, so I like him, Tyche replied, sounding greatly relieved.

That’s – ow – Journeyman! Polymnia told them excitedly, in between taking shots in the back. Gloomy – ow – told me – ow – about him!

Amy looked at her, and reached out with her right arm, causing the next shot to rebound off a force-field appearing above Polymnia’s back. And the next. And the next.

Thanks! Polymnia said earnestly, moaning in relief.

Thank me by telling us who this guy is supposed to be. Can he actually save our posteriors from that bitch? Amy shot back sharply.

I really dunno. Gloomy’s said he’s like, crazy-powerful, and a friend of her parents. Well, mostly of her mom. Anyway, I don’t actually know what his power really is, other than that he can ‘go anywhere’ and that no one’s ever actually put the hurt on him, Polymnia elaborated at the speed of thought, sharing it all before either the Ascendant, Elysium or ‘Journeyman’ acted at all.

“Who are you?” the Ascendant hissed at the stranger, clearly put off by his sudden appearance and ability to so casually block Elysium’s attack.

“I am a special news bulletin that interrupts your favourite show,” he replied.

“Huh?” said at least half a dozen people.

He sighed. “No one appreciates the classics anymore.” With a light tap of his foot, he caused Elysium to stumble back a step. Putting his foot down next to Hecate’s shoulder, he lightly tapped her with his heel, causing her to slide away until she reached Tyche and Spellgun. “Now, what do I do with you?” he directed his question at the empty-eyed blonde.

That question seemed to shake the Ascendant out of her state of surprised shock. Clenching her fists, she barked a new order: “Four-four-four, designate the person in front of you as Priority Target Lambda. Eliminate him!”

Elysium twitched, briefly, as Journeyman seemed to be content to simply watch with an air of polite curiosity about him; then she performed a high kick, seemingly at his head and he, predictably, did nothing to defend himself.

Basil recognised the move as soon as it began, and wanted to cry out a warning, but it was too late – the loop snapped shut, trapping Journeyman in the same motion of stroking Graymalkin’s ears. Trapping his freaking cat along with him.

The Ascendant breathed a relieved sigh, taking a step back as she relaxed. “Pfff. Not a problem after all. Just a delay.”

Journeyman flickered, reversing to his previous motion. Then there was another flicker, and then – a shift. His form twitched, as it was reversed, a second Journeyman overlapping the other, like an after-image only this one moved at the same time in a different way, not the same way at a later time, moving briefly as if it was straining against something.

The effect around him broke, popping like a soap bubble.

“A time loop? Really?” he asked, incredulous. “Maybe I do need to be a little more public, so people stop trying the same, tired old tricks against me,” he complained to the cat on his arm. “What do you think, pal?”

The cat looked up at him with a bored expression and opened its mouth in a huge yawn.

Elysium kicked him, her foot preceded by a slight distortion in the air, only to hit his left biceps to absolutely no effect – she didn’t even budge him, much less cut him apart.

“You’re absolutely right,” he said to Graymalkin. “Totally not worth the trouble. Anyway, best to focus on the situation at hand.” He looked up, at the same time as he turned aside. The one looking up crossed eyes with Elysium, stepping forward and making her take a step back as she tried to process what was happening, while the other one, still holding Graymalkin, walked over to Basil. “Go join your friends,” he told him, tapping him with a foot.

Basil found himself sliding over to where Hecate, Tyche and Spellgun – all three of them still quite thoroughly hurt, but not in any immediate danger.

At the same time, the other Journeyman and Elysium moved.

He struck at her from the right with his hand open, the fingers curled, which she blocked by raising her left arm, followed by a kick from the opposite side, aiming for his side. Journeyman used his left arm, pushing his elbow under her leg, then pushing up, deflecting her kick in a motion that would have unbalanced a lesser fighter.

Either due to her power, or else simply due to sheer skill – the original Elysium had been a master martial artist – the young woman managed to not only avoid that, but use it to her advantage, flipping backwards in a smooth motion that brought her heel up to strike at his chin; yet Journeyman was already moving to dodge it, leaning back just enough to make it miss him by a hair’s breadth.

Elysium landed on her back, and flipped back up onto her feet, just in time to see Journeyman’s fist fly at her chest and reacted by crossing her arms, blocking the blow – but it was still powerful enough to launch her backwards, a grunt escaping her lips as the air was forced out of her lungs.

Journeyman stepped forth to press the attack while she rolled back onto her feet, but was intercepted by a glowing twin spiral of green fire, emerging from thin air between him and Elysium.

The attack splashed uselessly against his chest, where before it had very nearly broken Amy’s defenses entirely, failing to so much as make him flinch, much less slow him down at all.

“Pilfering’s always a pain in the behind,” the Journeyman holding Graymalkin said as he appeared next to Basil, grabbing him by the elbow to help him stand. He didn’t seem bothered by his weight at all.

The ground underneath the other Journeyman’s feet turned soft and malleable, causing him to sink in down to his knees, then hardened again.

“How’d she do that?” Tyche asked, her voice strained, before she started coughing hard.

“Pilfering rejected timelines,” Journeyman explained as they watched his other self get hammered aside by the very same telekinetic blast Amy had used earlier, only magnified many times, hitting him so hard he actually broke out of the floor and tumbled for several metre. “She can rewind time up to the point she started using her power, over and over. That’s why she knew all your moves in advance – she’d played the same fight out dozens of times, before she moved on to the final iteration. I assume she only looped Gloomy during the final one, as well – allowing her to perform a multitude of various attacks that she can now access, repeating them as necessary,”

As if to illustrate his point, several hundred softball-sized spheres, in all colours of the rainbow, appeared out of nowhere, filling up the twisted, shifting tower’s floor all around, followed by a black sphere that shot at the prone Journeyman, impacting him with the force of a cannonball – except that was nothing compared to what followed, as every single of the rainbow-coloured spheres suddenly moved, impacting him with such tremendous force, the shockwave bowled Basil over again, pushing him and the other heroes away by several metre.

The Journeyman hit by the attack disappeared in a cloud of dust, while the one who’d just stood by Basil remained still, unperturbed by what may have been his other self’s demise – the shockwave barely stirred his robe, at that.

“I wasn’t there myself,” he continued on in a conversational tone of voice as he turned around and casually walked towards Basil again. “But I guess that’s how she fought Bree. She kept pilfering attacks from everyone even tangentially involved in the defense of Old Lennston, including, I assume, Bree’s own attacks.” He reached down with his free hand, helping Basil up once more. “She couldn’t affect her directly, see, but she could replay the powers she was using.”

Elysium took a step back, away from the dust cloud, half-turning to look at the heroes, who were quite bunched up by now.

And then a grey-blue streak shot out of the cover of dust, resolving into the shape of Journeyman as he came to a halt behind her, arm raised.

His blow smashed her into the ground, face-first, and splattered blood, brain-matter and bits of bone all the way over to Basil’s feet.

Her remains flickered and she whirled around in a graceful pirouette which ended with her foot buried Journeyman’s stomach, another hammer-blow as before – to no effect.

Unharmed by both the earlier assault with the rainbow spheres and the powerful kick, Journeyman reached for her face with his left hand, his hand nearly closing over it, but she blinked away, reappearing a few steps away from him, while another burst of telekinetic force went off where she’d just stood, magnified many times over its original strength.

While the same attack had previously blown him away, and was still powerful enough to shatter the ground for almost ten metre around him, it had absolutely no effect whatsoever on Journeyman himself, other than making his robe flutter about.

He took a step towards her, crossing far more space than he ought to, and backhanded her head, decapitating her.

Her headless body fell over, blood spurting out of her neck.

She flickered, whole again, and lifted her feet even as she fell, putting them to his chest and kicking off to put some distance between them, sliding across the ground…

His foot came down on her head, crushing it to a pulp. Basil didn’t even see him move.

Elysium’s headless corpse flickered and disappeared, before she reappared near the Ascendant, looking both unharmed and unperturbed – not that Basil thought she really could feel worried, as she was now.

“Here, hold this will you?” Journeyman spoke to him, holding out Graymalkin, who was looking at him with bored eyes.

“Oh, certainly,” he replied and took his cat. “Long time no see, Graymalkin,” he greeted his cat, who responded by purring softly and deigning to pat his chest with one of his furry paws in a show of affection.

“Graymalkin? You know him?” Journeyman asked, surprised, as he looked closer at Basil and the cat, the images on his mask shifting to show… Basil, and Graymalkin, back in his home. “Talk about coincidence. Or perhaps it’s fate?” Journeyman sounded amused. “I found him in Esperanza City, during the Crocell attack,” he answered Basil’s question before he could even ask him. “Well, we can talk more about that later, I’ve g-“

Everything distorted, briefly, a strange sensation, like vertigo but not quite the same, coming over Basil as black spots appeared in his vision.

Then it was gone.

Polymnia growned and threw up, nearby, and Basil very nearly followed suit – only the fact that he hadn’t eaten in a while saved him from that fate. The others looked nauseous but not nearly as bad as he felt, when he looked around at them.

“Ah-ah-ah!” the other Journeyman admonished Elysium, wagging a finger at her. “I can’t keep you from rewinding yourself, but there’ll be no general rewind while I’m around, young lady!”

“What the fuck are you?” the Ascendant whispered, staring at him in fear as she hid behind her creation.

“I already told you,” he replied off-handedly. “I am the fingernail that scrapes the blackboard of your soul.”

The candles kept turning around them for a few heartbeats.

“That’s not an answer!” she shouted in outrage. “And it’s a different one from the one you gave before!”

He lowered his head, making a truly long-suffering sigh. “No appreciation for real art, at all,” he complained to no one in particular, both of his selfs speaking in synch with each other. The one who’d been holding Graymalkin walked up to the fighting one and simply stepped into him, fusing into one.

“Well, this was fun and all, but it’s time to put an end to this,” he said to Elysium. “I don’t know whether you’re the real Elysium or just a doll with her powers, but either way, I’d rather not allow the Gefährten to have access to powers like yours.” He cracked his knuckles, before he took a step forward with his left foot, entering a loose fighting stance.

“Four-four-four, go all out and kill him!” the Ascendant shouted at her slave, hurrying to step back and give her some space.

Elysium spread her arms wide, beginning a new dance, moving her shoulders and hips in hypnotic motions, causing dozens, then scores of distortions, none larger than a medicine ball, to appear in the air around her.

Each of them unleashed a different attack, from explosions to beams to streams of liquid, but they didn’t fire at Journeyman. Instead, all the attacks – even the explosions, which ranged from Amy’s force explosion to sudden, explosive growths of pink crystals – were twisted and gathered into a single spot in front of her, condensed into a jet-black sphere the size of a peach.

Journeyman tilted his head to the side, as if confused, before the sphere burst, unleashing a torrent of scores of interwoven effects, a beam broader than Basil was tall.

A beam that was flying towards Journeyman, and the heroes that stood a good deal behind him, yet still within easy reach of the massive attack.

***

“Now!” Immanuel shouted and leapt into the distorted space that made up the ‘walls’ of this tower, leaving Heaven’s Dancer – who, even in an expendable body, was not going to leap into that unless absolutely necessary – behind outside of it.

He closed his eyes as he traversed the space, knowing that it’d just give him an even greater sense of vertigo than he was already experiencing as his simple leap – barely enough to clear two metre of distance – moved him through the entire structure, taking advantage of the distortions like one would of river currents, depositing him just a metre or so behind the Ascendant, just as Elysium’s distortions appeared in the air, obscuring him from everyone’s sight.

Immanuel didn’t know how the stranger was going to react to the attack that was coming, if he even could, but he had a hunch that he could counter it. In fact, he hoped that he did, otherwise they’d lose everyone but Gloom Glimmer to this, and wouldn’t that be a waste?

He reached the Ascendant, grabbing her by the elbow, and kept running, pulling the startled woman along as he reached for the doll, his hand coming down on her shoulder.

***

Journeyman countered the massive blast in the most simple manner Basil could have imagined there, other than just standing still and taking it.

He punched it.

Except, ‘punched’ didn’t really cover it. Not by several orders of magnitude. He moved no faster than a normal person, struck with no more weight to his punch than one would expect of a man of his size, timing it so the beam and his fist met each other at the apex of his strike.

The blow caused such a massive shockwave it shattered the ground around him, spiderwebs of cracks spreading all the way to the twisted walls and up. The shockwave utterly blew Elysium’s interwoven super-beam apart, revealing – nothing behind it.

Elysium and the Ascendant were gone.

The shockwave moved on and utterly destroyed the far ‘wall’ of the structure, causing an ear-splitting cacophony as blew a building-sized hole through several dozen layers of materials.

Sunlight flooded the spatially twisted structure, moments before a lesser shockwave hit Basil and the other heroes; though not so strong it’d blow him over easily, he still had to brace himself against it, turning his shoulder into it so as to shield Graymalkin.

When the squalls died down and he looked up, he briefly felt a sense of vertigo again, if for a different reason than before.

Whether it was an effect of Journeyman’s strike, or due to Elysium fleeing, the tower she’d built had… flowed back, for lack of a better term.

Since the tower had been made of multiple parts of the structure layered together and condensed, this meant that the damage he’d done to seemingly just one wall was now spread out all throughout the Northern half of the structure – perhaps the Southern half, as well, but Basil couldn’t tell from where he stood.

He and the others were staring out through a colossal hole, as the entire Southern side of the lab complex was gone, along with part of its roof. A trail of utter destruction snaked its way through the visible buildings and connecting walkways, all the way to the central tower, which had been nearly split in half, a huge, irregular crack running from its base up to its tip.

“What,” Spellgun and Tyche said in unison. The others didn’t even say that much.

Graymalkin yawned and slapped Basil’s chest with his tail, so he used his free hand to scratch him behind the ears, making him purr happily.

Journeyman looked at what he’d wrought for a few moments – or perhaps he was just looking at where his foes had just stood – then he turned away and walked to the bubble of looped time containing Gloom Glimmer.

“Soft hearts,” he grumbled, barely audible over the distance. “Must run in the family.”

“Can you help her?” a desperate-sounding Polymnia asked him, stumbling closer, her wrecked power armour screeching its protests against the motion. She hadn’t even bothered to wipe her mouth clean, and there were some remnants of her rainbow yawn on her collar and chestpiece, as well, at stark odds to her cheerily multi-coloured, colour-shifting hair.

“Oh, sure, sure,” he mollified her. “I’m something of an expert when it comes to weird temporal effects.” With no further ado, he reached into the bubble of looped time and grabbed Gloom Glimmer by the collar, simply pulling her out and causing the bubble to pop, disappearing.

Gloom Glimmer flailed around in confusion, until he lifted her up by her collar, holding her like a naughty puppy so her head was on a height with his, facing his mirrored mask.

“J-journeyman!” she squealed in surprise. “What, how, who… Diantha! Diantha was here! Where is she!?” She looked around wildly, then suddenly went limp. “Oh. She got away.”

“Worry about yourself for once, will you?” he told her, sounding fondly annoyed. “If you’d been paying attention, then you could’ve at least dodged that attack.”

“Journeyman, that was Diantha!” she whimpered, her hands clenching into fists. “Mom still… we have to catch up to her! Take her to mom! Please, you’ve got to help me!” she begged, sounding far younger than usual as she looked at him with big, shiny, wet eyes, her lips trembling.

“Spare me the puppy dog eyes,” he replied, though he did rather pointedly look away before dropping her. “You’re not going after anyone right now, other than whom you came here for.”

Gloom Glimmer looked up at him, looking shocked and betrayed, but didn’t get a chance to voice either before Polymnia fell to her knees behind her and wrapped her arms around her friend’s arms and chest, pulling her tight against her hard armour.

“You frwskung idior, you scaeed the carp out of me!” she wailed, her control over her vocoder slipping, distoring her voice.

“Mel- Poly, what, what happened!?” Gloom Glimmer cried out softly, clearly able to sense the damage her friend had suffered in some way.

“After she looped you,” Basil explained, having approached with Graymalkin in his arm. “Elysium kicked our collective posteriors.”

The others approached right after him, including an incredibly ashamed looking Bakeneko, who’d shrunk down to two thirds her usual height, with lusterless fur, hugging herself with her shoulders hunched. Osore stood next to her, the shirt he customarily wore underneath his jacket – his only real costume was his Oni-styled mask, even now – stained with blood and sporting a big hole, though he seemed to have recovered entirely from the gut shot he’d taken earlier.

“Oh God, let me-” Gloom Glimmer rose up, her hands glowing, and touched Polymnia and Osore first, the glow spreading from where she touched and over their forms, visibly repairing any damage to their bodies and their equipment, then did the same for everyone else.

Basil felt her power course through his body, fixing the bruises he’d accumulated over the last two hours, as well as the damage to his knee and his armour there. Even his fatigue disappeared – or at least, the physical part of it.

Soon enough, Gloom Glimmer had fixed them all; while they were all still quite tired, they weren’t hurt anymore. She even fixed Polymnia’s ruined equipment.

“Hey, what about that badass drone of yours?” Tyche asked Basil, when it didn’t look like he was going to let her put it back together.

“The pieces were in the path of Journeyman’s and Elysium’s attacks,” Basil replied regretfully. “I doubt there is enough left to fill a thimble.”

”Sorry about that,” Journeyman apologised. “I didn’t even think about retrieving it first.”

Basil waved it off. “Hardly a reason to apologise. You saved us. Losing just a drone to Elysium is an amazingly lenient outcome, all things considered.”

Tyche gave him a sympathetic look, and Polymnia even more so, though he honestly didn’t feel all that bothered by it… compared to everything else that had already happened and was still going to happen, losing a drone, no matter how sophisticated, was nothing at all.

“You should go after Dusu,” Journeyman told them, interrupting Basil’s increasingly morose train of thought by pointing towards the door they’d originally come in through. It was a mangled, broken mess now, revealing another heavy blast door on the opposite side of the hallway. “She’s in there, along with Syrinx.”

”And our blood,” Basil added, drawing startled looks from half the occupants of the room. “They drew some of my blood, earlier. And they had three other syringes, all filled with blood, when they left.”

“That can’t possibly be good,” Spellgun muttered, before he spoke up louder. “Dusu’s a bio-gadgeteer. There’s no telling what she could do with blood from us… especially since they seem to like cloning, or whatever these things are supposed to do.” He gestured at the numerous sarcophagus-like tanks strewn about the laboratory. Most of them had been destroyed by Journeyman’s attack, but there were still some left s tanding. Not to mention several bodies (or body parts) strewn about.

“Hrm, right, those,” Journeyman grumbled, raising a hand. He snapped his fingers, and all the remaining tanks in the room instantly heated up red-hot, melting into slag. The bodies that’d been strewn about by the earlier devastation were also incinerated, reduced to ashes.

Basil and the others stared at the casual display, feeling the heat wash over them. Graymalkin mewled in Basil’s arms, the only one present to enjoy the extra warmth.

”Uh, yeah, I think with you along, this won’t be a problem anymore, Mister Journeyman, Sir,” Tyche said in a small, respectful voice.

He shook his head in response. “I won’t be coming with you, I’m afraid,” he replied, sounding guilty. “I’m afraid my assistance ends here. I’m sorry.”

Both Tartsche, Hecate and Tyche opened their mouths to respond to that, but Gloom Glimmer spoke up first.

”It’s about that backlash you sometimes talk about, right?” she asked in a small voice. “You overused your power, or something.”

He looked down at her – even floating five centimetre off the ground, she was easily a head shorter than he was, and he stood firmly on the ground, with flat boots and a relaxed posture. His mask was a riot of reflections, moving too fast to be made out in any detail, until they settled on a simple, shifting pattern of glowing white circles moving across the mirror, reflecting only what he saw in front of himself.

”Kind of,” he replied, his voice just a little sad. “Suffice it to say, as much as I’d like to help you all more, I can’t do so, right now.” He sighed, sounding incredibly frustrated. “Power like mine comes with its caveats.”

“But… Diantha…” Gloom Glimmer whispered, her hands clenching around her cape, drawing it closer around her body.

“Can you sense her, Irene?” he inquired softly. When she shook her head, he continued, “Neither can I, right now. I’m not all-powerful, and neither are you. We could try, you and I – but it’d mean allowing Dusu to get away, all for the chance that we might locate that clone, or whatever it may be,” he explained calmly.

Though he was being nothing but gentle, she still shrank with every word, hunching her shoulders and looking so miserable, Polymnia stepped up and wrapped her arms around her, drawing her in tight.

“Even if we found her, it’s unlikely we could easily subdue her,” he pressed on in that same, gentle, even tone of voice. “You’re nowhere near the point where you could face someone as powerful as your sister and I… am limited in other ways.” He shook his head. “No, you must finish what you began. Dusu is near. Go.” H gestured towards the door.

“Come,” Polymnia spoke to her friend, turning her away from Journeyman.

The others looked at the two girls, then at the tall, strange man who’d just saved them. He was just standing there, his hands clasped behind his back, facing in their direction, though with his mask, it was impossible to tell whether he was actually looking at them.

Amy stepped forward, making all the junior heroes tense up as she walked to stand in front of Journeyman, her hands on her hips. Even in those ridiculous heels, she was still shorter than he was – and she wasn’t a short woman even without them.

“Thank you, for the save,” she said, sounding oddly subdued.

”You’re quite welcome, Amy,” he replied softly, making her flinch. “Yes, I know you. No, you don’t know me. No, telepathy doesn’t really work on me at all.”

She blushed, even as she took half a step back. “Who are you? How come I’ve never heard of someone like… like…” She gestured at the devastation he’d caused to the floating city.

He shrugged. “I guess I’m just shy,” he quipped casually.

“Yeah, right,” she snorted softly. “Well, either way, I owe you big time. So if there’s anything I can do for you, just say the word,” she finished with a smile.

Is she… flirting with him? Basil shuddered at the thought, even as he noted Hecate’s hand clenching tightly on her staff, staring at the two of them; her jaw, the only visible part of her face, was set into a tight frown.

“There is, indeed, something you can do for me,” Journeyman replied, leaning in closer.

“Oh yeah? Say the word, big guy,” she grinned, looking curious.

”You could…” he began, almost whispering as he leaned even closer, until his face was next to her ear. “Stop being a villain.”

Hecate sputtered when she heard that, nearly dropping her staff.

Her grin faded, replaced first by confusion, then annoyance, as she stepped back.

”I can’t do that,” she hissed at him, looking like he’d insulted her. “Don’t make impossible requests.”

”Impossible?” He seemed quite amused. “All I’m asking is that you be yourself.”

”I am myself!” She turned around, stalking away from him. “Weirdo.”

Journeyman remained in the same position, as if she still stood where she had. “No, you’re not,” he spoke quietly, barely audible. Yet it still made her stop. “You’re many things, Amanda, but you’re not yourself.”

He shrugged and turned around, while Amy just stared at him, slackjawed.

”It doesn’t matter,” he concluded, making a dismissive gesture. “All masks fall, eventually.”

He stepped over to Basil and reached for Graymalkin, scratching the huge cat behind the ears. “Goodbye, big guy. It was a pleasure travelling with you.” He raised his head, looking at Basil, who was quite certain that this strange man could see right through his mask. “Go. Bring an end to this.”

Basil nodded, numbly, finding himself rather unable to say anything meaningful. So instead, he turned around and walked towards the door, overtaking Polymnia and Gloom Glimmer.

Amy scrambled to catch up to him, before she remembered that she could fly and lifted off the ground, and the others finally turned away from Journeyman, to follow along, all save for Hecate.

”Yes, dear?” he asked her in a friendly tone of voice, speaking with only a handful of them at once now.

She took a short breath, and bowed deeply. “Thank you, Sir.”

“It was my pleasure,” he replied with a magnanimous nod.

The others who hadn’t yet scrambled to thank him, as well, following her example, save for Basil, who found himself in a strangely pensive mood, and Polymnia, who was focused on Gloom Glimmer.

While he waited on them to finish, Basil recalled his last raven, which had been drawn into the shifting space of Elysium’s tower, and had only now found its way back to him. With its fake feathers ruffled and quite a lot of scratches all over, it looked kind of… outraged, as it landed on his shoulder, as if even the tiny machine was getting fed up with things.

Graymalkin looked up at it, sniffing the air with a hungry look in his eyes, but was apparently able to tell it wasn’t edible – he sneezed, looking even more annoyed than usual as he dismissed the mechanical bird and looked away again.

Finally, they gathered together again (though Amy kept a certain distance from Basil, throwing rather fearful looks at the cat in his arms) and made their way towards Dusu’s lab, leaving the strange, powerful, irreverent man with the mirrored mask behind amongst the wreckage of the lab.

“Hey kids!” he shouted, suddenly, making them stop. “Remember – the only thing you need to blame yourself for are your own choices!”

The gathered heroes and villain turned around to look at him, confused more than anything, but he was gone, leaving no trace behind.

***

The final door between them and their target did not hold for more than a second or two, after Gloom Glimmer, Mindstar and Hecate all blasted it, utterly shredding it apart.

Beyond it, a huge lab was revealed that looked like a cross between a chem lab, an animal testing lab (though the appliances they could see were disturbingly fitted for humans, not smaller animals) and a cyberpunk enthusiast’s wet dream.

The latter was due to the huge structure dominating the laboratoy: Hanging above a wide hole in the ground that seemed to lead all the way down to the seawater, it looked like a gigantic mass of tree-trunk-sized metal cables, several spheres made of some kind of see-through material that didn’t seem to be glass, filled with various liquids and one with some kind of gas, and a multitude of other mechanical parts that were nigh-impossible to identify, even for Basil. From that, dozens of thick cables – really more like flexible pillars – wrapped in a black, fabric-like material reached down into the hole in the ground, disappearing into the water below.

At a console in front of the hole stood their target and her colleague, Syrinx, working on several dials and a keyboard. The syringes they’d stored the blood in had been inserted into fitting slots on the console and, just as they entered, a light next to them turned green and they were emptied of their contents.

Whatever it was meant to do, Basil decided not to give them time to complete it. Before he got to act, though, Mindstar and Gloom Glimmer did.

A single gesture of Amy’s pulled them both away from the console and lifted them into the air, followed by Gloom Glimmer gesturing with both hands, causing numerous gadgets to simply off their bodies, flying out of their sleeves and pockets.

Syringes, wrist launchers, throwing darts and more were gathered together in the air before a spherical force-field snapped shut around them, followed by it heating up red-hot, destroying everything contained within.

Hecate raised her staff, aiming at the console, but Basil reached out with his right arm, pushing it down. “No. We might need it for the cure. Besides, there is no way to tell what might happen if you just blow it up.”

She growled, jerking her staff away from him, but subsided.

Well, here we are, baby bro, Amy spoke into his mind as he turned to look at Dusu and Syrinx, who were looking at them with varying degrees of surprise and shock.

“How are you here!?” Syrinx asked, staring at them like they’d come out of a nightmare. “You should be-“

“Shut him up, please,” Basil said softly, and someone – either Amy or Gloom Glimmer – complied, causing his jaw to snap shut. Putting Graymalkin down, he advanced towards the two villaneous gadgeteers.

He came to a halt, just a few steps away from them, looking up at the immobilised and declawed Dusu, who looked down at him with a mixture of contempt and curiosity. What the others behind him were doing, he couldn’t tell.

“Please put her down,” he said, and Amy did so, lowering Dusu onto the floor in front of him. Basil reached up and threw his hood back, before he unlocked his helmet and took it off.

Lowering his arms, the helmet dangling off the fingers of his right hand, he dropped it, causing it to hit the floor with a loud clang.

Looking down, he beheld the woman he’d wanted to hurt for so, so long.

She was… average. A short Chinese woman with small, almond-shaped brown eyes, a perky nose and thin lips. The only thing that even remotely stood out about her was her long, silky black hair, formerly in a tight bun but now loose, as Gloom Glimmer had removed the chopsticks she’d used to keep it in shape.

Something’s wrong, the thought came up through the simmering rage rising up from where he’d kept it down for so long. Something about the way she looked, it was… off. In a way he couldn’t quite put into words.

However, there were other things he had to take care of.

“Dusu,” he said her name, his voice as calm as he could keep it, his black eyes boring into her brown ones. “I’ve been looking for you for a long, long time.”

“Aw shucks, you’re waaaaaaay too young for my tastes, sweetie,” she replied in unaccented English, speaking it the way someone who’d learned it as a second or third language would, as she grinned up at him, seemingly unperturbed by the situation. “Still, I’m flattered.”

The sound of heels on the floor alerted Basil to the fact that Amy had walked up to stand just behind his left side. “Want me to just get the info out of her?”

Tearing her mind apart would be a good start, Basil thought to himself.

But it’d be too quick, now wouldn’t it? the Man in the Moon countered.

“Not yet,” Basil replied to Amy, still focused entirely on Dusu. “Maybe she’s going to be reasonable. Then we get what we want and we take her back home, to stand trial.”

“I don’t really relish the idea of a trial,” Dusu interjected, as she shifted her position to sit more comfortably. “But I’d rather have that than getting mindfucked, thank you very much.”

The others moved up, taking position around Basil in a rough half-circle, all looking down at Dusu with varying degrees of contempt. Syrinx was ignored entirely, spinning slowly in the air, still gagged by having his jaw held shut.

“Why’s this bitch so calm?” Tyche asked, her voice almost a snarl. “She ought to be shitting herself right about now.”

“I feel fear,” Osore noted, breaking his silence for the first time in quite a while. “Not much, but there’s some.”

“You may have noticed that this place is crawling with terrifyingly powerful people,” Dusu quipped light-heartedly. “You guys are really rather adorable in comparison. Though I would like to know how you managed to beat the Ascendant’s doll back.”

Gloom Glimmer flinched, black veins creeping over her sclera, but Basil, who saw it through the eyes of his raven, raised a hand, cutting her off.

“We are not here for that,” he told Dusu. “You have something we need.”

“Ohhh?” she focused on him again, her cold, uncaring eyes studying his face. “What is it, sweetheart? What can I do for you? It’s not like I have much of a choice, huh?” she asked with a smirk.

It took all of Basil’s considerable restraint not to strike her across the face, just to wipe that smirk off.

Instead, he clenched his fists, his arms trembling due to the tension. “No, you do not,” he spoke quietly. “I am here because of the Hawaii plague. I want you to give me the antidote, or cure, or whatever y-“

He didn’t manage to finish his sentence. As soon as he mentioned Hawaii, her eyes widened – and then she started to laugh.

What? He stared at her, surprised, as she laughed and laughed, loud and shrill as she shook back and forth, wrapping her arms around her stomach.

“That’s… what you… came for?!” she gasped in between bouts of laughter. “You attacked this place… risked your lifes… wrecked our operations… a decade of research… all for that!?” she doubled over with laughter, her head nearly hitting the floor.

“What the fuck is wrong with this putana?” Hecate breathed, looking like she was afraid to catch something from the woman on the ground.

“I don’t know, but I’m going to find out,” Amy said resolutely, leaning in as she focused her power on her…

Only to recoil, staggering back. “What the fuck!?” she shouted, staring at the madly laughing woman with wide, shocked eyes. “How dare you… you… how could you? What kind of monster would do that!?” she screamed at her, lunging at the laughing woman with a snarl on her face.

Everyone stared in shock, completely taken by surprise by the sudden, violent reaction, and Basil barely managed to step in between them, blocking Amy’s lunge. “Amy, wait!”

He caught her in his arms, and would have gotten thrown aside or bowled over, had he not locked himself to the floor with his boots.

She struggled briefly against him, snarling. “Let me at her! That bitch, she’s… she has to die!”

“Amy, what is going on? What did you see?” he asked her, confused and more than a little worried. She’d never lost it like that before – she was very nearly frothing at the mouth.

The others stepped back from her, clearly intimidated – the only one who appeared to be unaffected was Dusu herself, who was still laughing like a loon.

“Heh. Heh heh hehahaha!” she shook all over, tears in her eyes. “I’ll show you! Look, look, I’ll show you what’s so fucking funny!” she half screamed, half gasped the words, having trouble speaking past the torrents of demented laughter.

Basil let go of Amy, who stepped back again, staring at Dusu with outraged eyes, and looked down at her.

The demented woman reached to the collar of the turtleneck sweater she was wearing underneath her labcoat, and grabbed an intricate, silvery charm hanging off a chain around her slender neck.

A single tuck broke the thin chain, tearing the charm off.

Her form distorted slightly, the wrongness he’d noticed earlier becoming more profound as he realised that he’d, however unknowingly, picked up on the fact that her appearance wasn’t real.

Beneath the disappearing distortion, a horrific sight became visible, making everyone, except for Basil, step back in horror and disgust. Even Syrinx, seeing it from a distance, gasped, sounding like he was about to throw up.

On the ground before them sat a woman who was barely more than a corpse. Lush black hair had turned pure white, mostly fallen out, leaving her haggart, flesh-less head – just skin drawn taut over bones – looking oversized, like a misshapen egg, the skin pale, greyish and thin as rice paper. Her eyes looked bigger here, due to the eyelids having become so thin and shrivelled, the eyeballs seemed to bulge out of her skull, their brown colour threaded through with grey, the sclera showing pink veins.

But that wasn’t nearly all. Her nose was gone, leaving a gaping wound in the centre of her face through which she drew air with a wheezing, sharp sound. Her lips had shrivelled and thinned, lacking any colour to distinguish them from the rest of her skin, revealing entirely toothless gums as she shook, laughed and gasped. Her cheeks had rips and holes in them, as if partially rotten, stretching obscenely as her jaw moved, distorting her laughter further into an inhuman, wheezing sound.

Her hands were similarly shrivelled, with chipped nails where they weren’t outright missing, the knuckles and wrists swollen as if infected by something. Her veins stood out starkly on her papery, greyish skin, where it was visible.

The rest of her body, though hidden by her coat, sweater and pants, was visibly emaciated, her clothes, formerly fitting tightly to her slender frame, now hanging off her bony shoulders, her pants legs so loose it seemed like she only had sticks within them.

Basil stared down at her in horror, recognising the symptoms. She looks just like… like… like Prisca…

“W-why?” he breathed the question, his voice nearly breaking as he felt his stomach turn cold.

“It wasn’t, wasn’t a plague!” she hollered, tears running from her bulging eyes as she looked up at him, the expression on her face, distorted as it was, dripping with sadistic glee. “I was… I wanted to be an Adonis! So jealous, of all these pretty boys and girls prancing around looking like they’d jumped out of a wet dream!”

She fell back, barely catching herself on her arms and leaning her negligible weight onto her hands, as if she was just relaxing among friends.

“So, you see, I got stupid. Too eager!” she continued, appearing to enjoy herself greatly. “I figured, well, I can do poisons real well – what if I do one that’s meant to make the victim better, rather than worse? I mean, that’s what medicine is, in the end, right? Just a poison turned on its head!” She tilted her head to the side, calming herself a bit. “Got in a real goooooood craze. Three days of work, non-stop. Didn’t eat, didn’t drink, didn’t sleep, hell, I didn’t even shit the whole time.” She made a coy smile, though it only made her look even more disturbing. “Didn’t turn out so well. I was so fucking off the rocker when I came out of the craze, I really, really wanted to be strong and beautiful and all so much… I just injected myself with it. Didn’t test it on anyone.”

She shrugged. “You can see the results. I’ve been trying to find a way to fix myself, but… no luck, so far.” She sighed, shaking her head as if disappointed at how the world was treating her.

“Hawaii,” Basil cut in, his voice barely a whisper. “Why Hawaii?” Why’d you destroy Prisca’s life?

“Well, I couldn’t find a cure myself!” she proclaimed, waving an arm in an exasperated gesture. “So I figured, hey girl, why not outsource that?” She grinned, an unmistakable note of pride on her distorted face. “All these rich vacationers, all in one place. I figured, even if the heroes didn’t come up with a cure out of the good of their hearts, all those richies would pay enough to get someone to fix them. And then I could swoop in and get myself fixed, too!”

The bottom dropped out of Basil’s stomach, his blood running cold as he followed the evidence to its inevitable conclusion.

“Of course, I hadn’t quite thought it through,” she admitted, pouting – not that she had much of a pout, with her lips as withered as they were. “I blame it on all the painkillers I was on at the time. But, you see, I’d custom-made the stuff to affect me. To work with my genome, not that of other people. So… it was rather more lethal than I had expected it to be.” She shuddered. “You won’t believe how worried I got, before the first news of survivors came through! Y’see, I’d only made one batch of the stuff, and I spent it all on that bomb, so if no one’d survived Hawaii, I’d have been royally screwed!”

She sighed, again. “Of course, my luck remained as rotten as ever. No one found a cure. No one. Been waiting for years. I even released what little I’ve been able to reconstruct about the serum on the internet, using pseudonyms and all.”

He’d found some of those. Downloaded the information, hoping it might help him, wondering who had managed to figure even that much out, as little information as it was.

“Well, that didn’t pan out. Turns out I’m way too awesome. Not even the Gefährten, with all their mojo, have been able to fix me,” she complained, sounding like a little child, averting her eyes. “Body’s gonna last a few more years, tops. Only chance I’ve got left is getting to that retard in Britain, only even if I could get close enough, I doubt that faggot would be willing to heal me, you know?”

She looked up again, grinning at Basil. “So, you wanna know what’s so funny? This is! If you want to find a cure for my serum… sweetie, you can have everything I got! You can use my lab! Hell, I’ll fucking assist you myself! If you succeed, I’ll fucking blow you!” She leered at him, waving one of her arms at the equipment all around her. “Use the computer! I got all my files on it there! Use my equipment, if you can! By all means, find a cure for all those poor, poor victims!” She started to laugh again, her torso shaking, head dipping up and down with each gasp. “You never had to attack this place! You never had to fight! You could’ve just called me up, sweetie, and I would’ve sent a fucking plane!”

Basil staggered back, his vision tilting oddly. His whole body was cold, barely felt at this point, even something as simple as stepping back becoming an unstable, uncoordinated stumble.

The scarecrow on the floor kept laughing, shaking all over. “So, can you do it, sweetheart? Can you… do… what all the others… have failed to? You can’t… can you?” She looked up at him, her eyes wide, nearly glowing with the insanity now unconcealed behind them. “I looked you… up… when you built… that equipment… for the little… Fion bitch… you’re no bio-gadgeteer… you only do mechanical stuff.”

She lowered her head, shaking with barely restrained laughter. “Well, too bad!” She suddenly looked up at him again, eyes as wide as they could go. “Because the only way you’re getting a cure is if you come up with it yourself! I sure as hell have no idea how to do it, I tell you!”

And she threw her head back, laughing, mocking, as Basil’s world spun around him.

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Filed under: Brennus Chapters Tagged: Amy, Bakeneko, Basil, Dusu, Elysium, Gloom Glimmer, Graymalkin, Hecate, Journeyman, Osore, Polymnia, Spellgun, Syrinx, Tartsche, The Ascendant IV, Tyche
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Wildbow discusses writing

An End to the Twig Experiment

Wildbow discusses writing

I set out to write Twig with a few ideas in mind.  A major criticism as I wrote Pact was that the pacing was too intense and that the character relationships were lacking.  I set out to write Twig in a deliberate attempt to force myself to slow down and pace things out, and in an attempt to dwell on characters.  There were a few other things which I’ll touch on here.

As I decided to approach things from that angle of testing myself & forcing myself out of the comfort zone I’d perhaps settled into with late Worm & Pact (to good and bad results both), I took on a slightly more unique genre as well.  It was very much, I’ll admit, me taking stock and deciding I was in a position to take a few risks.  To not make the gamble would risk me settling into a rut.  To take the risk meant alienating readers.  With that in mind, I’m exceedingly grateful to those who stuck with me through Twig.

What succeeded, in this gamble?  First and foremost, I learned a crapton, to a degree I wouldn’t have if I’d gone on to write Worm 2 or something in the vein of Pact.  Some of those lessons were painful, some weren’t.

  • I learned a lot about pacing, I think.  There’s a lot to be gained by pacing out a story and giving it breathing room.  I saw where there was room to explore characters and inter-character relationships.  I also think that the pacing of Twig wasn’t quite the balance that’s best suited for me as a writer.  I struggled more to keep things afloat and maintain the narrative threads.  It was very easy for arcs to simply sprawl out into twice the length I would’ve normally maintained, once I’d relaxed the patterns and things that would’ve normally kept it tighter and more intense.  More on that in a short bit.
  • I forced myself out of my comfort zone in the writing of humor.  I’ve long held the idea that humor is hard to do well because it lands differently for different readers.  I liked a lot of the humor I wrote in Twig.  I pushed myself when it came to the banter in particular and I like 95% of it.  It was fun and fulfilling to write, even when it was about stupid stuff, and I want to write more in the future.
  • I forced myself way out of my comfort zone in the writing of romance and intimate stuff.  Similar deal to the writing of humor, but with the added awkwardness that family members read my stuff (Hi Uncle, if you made it this far!) and the fact it’s so damn personal, y’know?  Some of my favorite chapters are ones to do with romance and intimacy in its various forms and it’s something I pushed out there when I made Sy as connection-driven and intimacy-driven as he was, as a stark contrast to my past protagonists. It’s something I explored and I’m really happy with what I came away with, even if interpretations and comfort levels of the readers may vary wildly.  I’d like to think that what I taught myself in the course of writing Twig will make it so future protagonists and characters aren’t quite so sexless in the same senses Taylor and Blake were (in that both give the impression they could do without relationships in large part).

I’ve talked about this before, but when focusing on writing, you can dwell on the product (the writing itself, the nitty gritty), the process (how you go about it) and the context/environment (the lifestyle of the writer & the people/things surrounding it all).  With Worm, the issues felt isolated.  The arcs I’m least happy with coincide with holidays/family events.  Arc 10?  Written when I traveled to Winnipeg around the birth of my nephew.  The awkward Dragonflight part of arc 16?  Written around the Christmas holidays of 2012.  Arc 25 and 26?  Made a little more shaky by the fact I was trying to juggle family vacation time around the writing.

With Pact it was one big event (family wedding) and a bunch of stuff feeding into that or playing off of it – my mom being in the hospital on the regular, me trying to help where I could as a sibling, then also help my  mom do her part, and so the writing was distracted and it impacted the story on a foundational level, which fed into everything else, and blah blah blah.  The wedding itself was beautiful, my handling of pact in the space around it was not and it’s a regret.

Twig, by contrast, was maybe my first experience with burning out.  A different beast entirely, because it played out over a larger, more general span in a harder to define way.  It wasn’t anything to do with the writing, precisely, but starting in late summer of 2016, I started getting a lot of outside attention, with 20+ individuals reaching out about their scriptwriting, they were movie production companies and they wanted to work with [one of the three stories], they were a big name in the industry and they wanted to work with me, or they were TV people and they wanted to work with me, and so on.  A lot of interest, and most of that warranted really attentive and careful responses, with mind paid to traps and decorum and everything else.

My days off became days where I would wake up and write/answer emails from 11am to 8pm, squeeze in errands before & after, and try to get some editing for Worm in there somewhere.  Add in community management, a bat infestation (which flipped me to nocturnal, after several middle-of-the-night wake-ups), and something had to give.  The Wednesday chapters and my health/sleep schedule were that something.

I’ll say I feel like I could have made Twig better than it was.  There were a lot of weeks and even months where I didn’t feel I was putting out my best, in part because I burned out.  That said, I am reasonably happy that I was able to hold pattern without utterly collapsing or having any arcs that I look back on and feel were truly terrible or story-breaking.

That in itself was one place where I felt I tested myself and developed as a writer.  I learned a lot about myself in terms of dealing with burnout, the shape it took, and working through it.

And I know people will comment and insist on the subject, so I’ll address it here: No, I’m not taking a vacation.  The issue isn’t the writing itself.  I could write three days a week no problem if there weren’t other things in play.  Carrying on with writing restores that wherewithal and energy and helps with the burnout.

Where the struggle happens is that I was in a place where I was just trying to juggle too many balls and I started to drop some.  Writing one story, editing another for future publication, planning one further down the road, on top of all the general stuff that needs doing (managing IRC, keeping an eye on the subreddit, finances, answering the many non-professional emails I get, answering the semi-regular professional emails I get – which were super intense for a 5-month period-, plus everyday errands and chores) is what takes it out of me.

Taking a break would only make things worse.  Really truly.  The +SAN (sanity) I’d get from a break would be outweighed by the -SAN as I interrupted my stride and tried to find it again, and it wouldn’t address or even put a dent in the other stuff that’s what’s really taxing me.  So please don’t push it.

Getting back on track.  Twig.

I value Twig as a learning experience above all else, as a test to myself that I’m really glad I took.

What would I have done differently?

  • I think, based on the feedback I’m getting right at the end (from some), I really did a bad job of selling the genre, even in conceptualizing it for my own take on the story, when figuring out my approach.  Twig was always going to be about watching these characters grow up.  Coming of age, in a way, exaggerated and complicated by the fantastical aspect of it.  A lot of readers seemed to expect and want my more usual sprawling fantasy epic and would’ve wanted the growing-up part to be more tertiary.
  • I would have liked to keep it tighter.  I think, more than any of my other works, there’s a lot that I could trim without taking too much away from the story.  It’s very easy, in breaking from my most comfortable tempo (and I’m not talking about the super-high-intensity Pact tempo, mind), to try and leave room for two or three more chapters and instead end up with five to eight more instead.  Add one more scene and it takes longer than expected, which changes the structure of what precedes it and follows it, and so on.
  • I shouldn’t have made it so ‘monster of the week’ at the start.  It didn’t really play well off of any of the things I was trying to do (except perhaps pacing) and was just one more experiment when I was already employing several.  I think this played into the initial break in tempo and the fact that many readers weren’t pulled in as much as they were with more continuity.
  • In addition, with the beginning, when writing a setting that’s not plastered over the skeleton of the established real world with its conventions, and when that setting lacks any convenient labels to slap onto it (like ‘superhero’ or ‘modern supernatural’), it’s not doable to slow-roll the exposition or setting details.
  • I feel I wobbled a bit toward the middle-end, which played into signaling problems.  I had an idea of what I wanted to happen and where I wanted to take things, and I explicitly wanted to avoid the build-up to the same kind of big bad that I’d had in prior works.  But as reader responses shifted in one direction, really wanting that epic fantasy story, I pushed things that way in response.  It led to a final confrontation that was painted as one thing, only for the big bad to not feel as big or bad as they could’ve because it was never really the plan to have them there in that context.  Done again, I would’ve likely stayed the course and tried to tell a different kind of climax/end rather than one that was half and half.

All in all, Twig was a super-valuable process for me.  I really think I’ll carry positive things forward from it.  I feel like I’ve learned a lot (super important for an experiment project), I have a deep and abiding fondness of the characters and many of the setting details.

Thank you all for joining me for the ride.

What comes next

Worm 2 (Technically it’s Parahumans 2) is rolling out soon.  In the meantime, I’ll be dropping some very super minor tidbits on the Worm website.  These interim pieces will serve as kind of unofficial/prelude/tone-setting bits and will go up on my usual schedule, just as things for people to see if they’re keeping to their usual routine of checking in.  They will not be full-length chapters and may not even be 500 words long.

This will go on for a couple weeks (5-10 segments on the usual Tues/Possible Thurs/Sat schedule) and the final installment in the set will link to the site for the Worm sequel.  Links will also appear on all of my sites.  This will give me time to hopefully get some final preliminary work done, wrangle the mailing list, and (ideal world) fix my currently scattered sleep schedule.


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In My Daydreams

Birthright: Part 6

In My Daydreams

Jaclyn gave him a sidelong glance, but didn’t say anything. “The main point of having people over tonight was to get to know people and pick up leads for who might be passing along information to the Human Ascendancy. We’ve been talking about what we learned. Marcus, did you find out anything?”

He gave a brief grin. “Tikki and I kind of got distracted and we left, but I learned about her childhood and what it’s like to grow up a breeder in the Human Ascendancy. That was interesting. Technically, her gene line is ‘active’ but because the Ascendancy doesn’t have much use for it by itself, they’re used as breeders—which meant that both of her parents had to pass their genes along. She’s got half a dozen half brothers and sisters and she’s never met any of them. Crazy, right?”

I nodded. “It is, but it fits with what I found out.” Whereupon I explained what Kals had told me.

Cassie leaned forward, putting her arms on the table. “I think she’s exaggerating. I mean, sure, it’ll mess things up for the Human Ascendancy and all the other Abominator humans, but not very quickly unless they breed like rabbits. By they time the colony’s a problem for the Ascendancy, the whole situation could be different. The Alliance might let Earth’s ships use the gate.”

Marcus shook his head. “Wow. Tikki kind of told me that, but we skipped the part where sex could bring about the end of civilization.”

Shaking her head, Jaclyn said, “That might be the reason they aren’t letting us leave Earth. If we’d mess up the human civilizations around us that much, well, I get it. It might be that we’d be better off developing to the point that we’re too powerful to keep penned into one system before we leave. If you think about it, Earth’s in the middle of the worst neighbors you could get.”

At that, Katuk nodded slowly. “That is the Xiniti hope for the people of Earth, that when they leave their system that they’re strong enough to survive.”

Jaclyn looked over at him. “I hope they’re not part of the reason that our ships never qualify to be allowed to leave our solar system.”

His dark eyes gave nothing away. “I can’t speak to that as I was not personally involved.”

Jaclyn raised an eyebrow and turned back to the rest of us. “Did anybody get any leads that might tell us who is behind messing with the force field generators?”

“Not any good leads, but,” Cassie raised her hand to emphasize her point, “I can tell you that they’re spooked. They’ve never had that happen before. Iolan has said he’s seen evidence of sabotage before, but this is the first time that it’s this obvious. They’re not sure that it really happened here before the most recent ship of refugees, but it definitely has happened after.”

“Which means that it might be that the person came on the ship this time,” I said, “or it means that someone was already here, but maybe someone came in with the most recent ship that made them decide they had the necessary support to make their campaign more noticeable. So basically, two spies.”

“‘Always there are two,” Marcus said, “‘the master and the apprentice’.”

Katuk eyed him. “My classes in counter-espionage did not make that claim. Could you elaborate?”

I shook my head. “He’s making a joke. He’s quoting from a movie and probably the worst movie in that series.”

Marcus shrugged. “Phantom Menace was the first Star Wars movie I saw. I liked it.”

Before I could reply, Jaclyn started talking. “Before this derails into nerdery, does anyone have any suspects?”

“The plant?” Cassie glanced over at me. “He might have arranged that attack on Tikki to look good and get on board. I’ve been talking to people and he’s sold a lot of stuff. If that does more than he says, he has something everywhere.”

I thought about the possibilities. Information gathering is the obvious one, but if they could remotely do stuff (like detonate?), we could have a huge problem on our hands.

Jaclyn nodded. “Anyone else?”

“Well,” I said. “There’s Kals. She doesn’t want to be here at all. I can’t quite believe she’d betray her mom and her friends to be somewhere more interesting.”

“Plus,” Marcus said, “she wasn’t on the ship. She was here. Tikki told me that Jadzen Akri leaves this place to pick up new people every so often, but she doesn’t bring Kals. So that wouldn’t explain the fleet that nearly caught us on the way here. We don’t know that that was because of espionage, but it would be easier if it were.”

Cassie held up a hand, getting our attention. “Hey, one more possibility: Tikki. She was on the ship. She doesn’t have family, no friends among the rest of the people, and she managed to set things up so that she became familiar with us and how we do things—“

Marcus shook his head. “No. That was accidental. She couldn’t have known we’d come looking for her. Plus, how could she sabotage the force field generators? She was with us that night and only saw them after they malfunctioned.”

Voice low, Katuk spoke as Marcus took a breath. “That is where Nick’s theory of a second spy would explain access to the force field generators.”

Frowning, Marcus muttered, “Crap.”

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Tieshaunn

B13.16 Call of the Sleeper

Tieshaunn

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They really like bringing back the dead, don’t they? the Man in the Moon asked in a mocking tone, though it was clear he was feeling just as freaked out as Basil did. What’s next, is fucking Weisswald himself gonna walk out of one of those tanks?

Don’t jinx it, Basil thought furiously as he felt the world slow down around himself – his every heartbeat seemingly as loud as a canon shot. How the fuck are we supposed to get out of this?

The worst part was, for all he knew, they’d already lost – there was no way to tell for him, or anyone except maybe Gloom Glimmer, whether Elysium’s power was already in effect, until she wanted them to.

He’d studied her, of course. Nearly everyone who went to Diantha High did, usually without even meaning to – Lady Light had turned the school into a shrine for her fallen daughter. So he knew all of her achievements and he’d, in the course of studying high-end powers – particularly ones like Ember’s, which seemed to control a certain ‘territory’ – looked up every scrap of information he could find on her power.

The only fight she ever came close to losing was the one that killed her, he thought, observing their foes… foe, really. The gadgeteers behind her didn’t even matter. And none of us is as powerful as DiL, not even Gloom Glimmer.

Fuck DiL! Amy snarled into his mind. If that’s really the Elysium, then she’s also the one who stomped the fucking Dark into the ground!

Get out of my head! Hecate shouted, mentally, making Basil realise that Amy must’ve linked them all up together, especially once similar exclamations came from everyone but Gloom Glimmer, Tartsche, Tyche and Spellgun.

Shut it! Amy shouted right back, louder than everyone else combined, to the point where Basil physically flinched in response. We don’t have time for this! We need to work together or else we’re done for!

No one, not even Hecate, had a rebuttal for that.

“Diantha, can you hear me!?” an anguished voice pulled Basil’s attention back to what was right in front of him – Gloom Glimmer had taken another step closer towards her unresponsive half-sister. “Is that really you? Please, say something!”

Behind the… clone? Zombie? Was it a cyborg of some sort?… behind the maybe-Elysium, the woman they only knew as the Ascendant leaned back against the open tank’s side, crossing her arms as she watched the scene with obvious glee and pride in her eyes.

“Four-four-four, designate the last speaker as Priority Target Alpha,” she spoke in level tones. “Designate the others from left to right as Priority Targets Beta through Kappa. Disable and capture Alpha as priority task. Disable Beta through Kappa.”

The empy-eyed beauty raised her head, her eyes moving over the gathered heroes – and one villain – without showing any emotions. Then she took a step forward.

Gloom Glimmer matched her, stepping closer. “Diantha! Diantha, you don’t have to listen to her!” she begged the older girl. “You don’t know me, but I’m your sister! Come with me, I’ll take you to mom – she’ll be so happy to see you!”

“Gloomy, stay away from her!” Polymnia shouted as she raised her arms, unleashing twin blasts of focused sound straight at Elysium.

The famous dancer reacted with an elegent step to the side, twisting her body in a single, fluid motion. The barely-visible blasts curved around her, drawn into the motion, and flew straight back at Polymnia, who just barely managed to counter them with another pair of matching blasts, creating a brief, shrill scream that staggered those not under the protection of Tartsche’s power – that being, Tartsche himself, as well as Tyche and Spellgun.

Elysium kept moving, her bare feet making barely any sound on the cold metal floor as she closed the distance to her little sister, the graceful motions of her legs in stark contrast to her limp arms as he turned and made a high kick towards the stunned girl.

Though she was clearly struggling to think straight, Gloom Glimmer reacted immediately, but not to defend herself but rather, reaching out towards her sister.

Elysium didn’t hit her, though – instead, her kick flew above the younger heroine’s head and continued on in a downward arc; her torso nearly horizontal, she turned on her one leg, to continue the kick all the way down to the ground, as a distorting haze enclosed Gloom Glimmer mid-reach.

As her foot touched the ground again, the trap snapped shout, a hazy bubble around Gloom Glimmer entrapping her in the middle of reaching out with her right hand, her mouth open to call out something.

Then the image flickered and she was back to the beginning of the motion, reaching out, her mouth opening to call out… reaching out, her mouth opening to call out… reaching out, her mouth opening to call out…

The loop continued for all to see, a sphere of looped time around their friend and her half-sister standing in front of it, looking at it with an empty-eyed gaze.

Polymnia cried a wordless scream of rage, unleashing a steady, ululating sound towards Elysium, but it never reached her. She took a single step towards it, placing the toes of her foot a measured distance forward, like a ballerina and the distortion in the air that was Polymnia’s attack split in two around her.

Moving forward, twirling on her toes, the attacks crossed through each other without any effect, then curved back towards Polymnia, forcing her to counter them again.

Is she holding back? Amy asked into their mental link, as Basil detached his drone from his leg, causing it to project a stream of octagonal force-fields from one end, riding them the way Sovereign’s Subjugator had. She’s only reacting.

If we are lucky, whatever process they used to bring her back has left her without her previous experience and skill, or any memories at that, Basil replied. Hecate, I am going to attack from the left. Try flanking her. As pissed as Hecate must be at this point, he was quite certain she’d be able to look past it in such a situation.

She didn’t reply, but she did switch into her smoke-form, moving into flanking position in the same instant that he leapt forward.

At the same time, Amy shot up before gesturing with her right hand at Elysium, unleashing an unseen blast of raw force which didn’t travel like a projectile, but appeared right on top of the dancing woman – only to vanish without a trace. Furthermore, a twin spiral of green fire, so bright it hurt to look at, appeared behind her out of nowhere, slamming into Amy’s back and making her cry out at the unexpected attack – though her shields held true, the attack nearly overloaded them with its force and he could see that her back had gotten burned when she turned around to look for the source of the attack – but there was none.

Dumbfounded, yet not hesitating, Basil used the distraction – Elysium was on one knee, currently rising up again into what was perhaps going to be another pirouette – to launch his drone at her back, hoping that her power would fail to protect her against an attack she didn’t see coming; or perhaps it might create an opening, at least, for Hecate or one of the others to hit her. She was just human, after all, once one got past her power, as had been discovered painfully during the fight against DiL, all those years ago.

The drone shot forward, projecting an oscillating, arrow-head-like force-field so dense it was completely opaque over its tip. Hecate cried a single phrase – he missed the words, but they were clearly Greek – and unleashed a twin spiral of green fire so bright, even Basil had trouble looking straight at it. An attack he instantly recognised.

It was completely useless, of course. Diantha rose, then bend over, the leg she wasn’t standing on kicking out towards the drone, toes pointed. Where they came close, the force-field, then the drone, simply parted in half; for just a moment, he thought his force-field was hold, but it was a vain hope – it parted like water before the prophet, and the drone itself offered no more resistance as the space between its molecules was expanded, causing it be cut in half with such a perfect, straight edge, it was almost beautiful, revealing its glowing innards before the pieces tumbled to the ground and went dark. An attack that knew no defense, other than a spatial effect of equal or greater power.

Reaching forward, her body still horizontal, she caught Hecate’s attack in both hands, then kicked off the ground, rotating in the air and causing it to disappear in between her hands.

Something hit Basil’s right knee from the side, very nearly shattering the armor and causing a sharp pain to shoot up his leg, before he lost all sensation but that of cold. Looking down, stunned, he saw his right leg largely encased in ice, and bending the wrong way at that.

He looked at Spellgun, who was staring at him in shock and confusion, holding his rifle up – he hadn’t even fired yet.

There was a scream, causing him to look up only to see Hecate be blown away by Amy’s earlier attack, the massive blast blowing her aside and causing one of the jewels sewn onto her chest to flash in a bright, red light, then shatter as it overloaded her defenses, conveying enough force through them to both hurt her and send her hurling across the room, slamming into a wall.

A flicker, and she was lying where she’d started, crumbled into a heap.

Fuck, it wasn’t that strong! Amy shouted in confusion, before she startled, finding herself right in front of the twirling blonde.

Before she could react, Elysium jumped from one foot onto the other and brought her knee up, connecting with Amy’s stomach; the blow was so powerful it created a sonic boom, causing Amy to spit blood as she was launched away, slamming through half a dozen steel tanks, crushing them and their contents, before she impacted the wall, leaving a sizable impression on it, then fell to the ground, unconscious.

“Amy!” Basil shouted, trying to take a step towards her – but all he achieved was that he fell over, his half-frozen, likely broken leg giving out under him as soon as he put any weight onto it.

Elysium continued the motion with which she’d kicked Amy, and the tanks returned to their previous state, while Amy appeared in front of them, still unconscious.

Basil fired his grappling hooks towards Amy’s body, intending to draw himself towards her, but they barely crossed a metre – seemingly – before they fell to the ground; somehow, they’d spooled out entirely to their very limit, leaving two heaps of super-strong black cable on the ground.

The whole room began to shift, as if drawn into a whirlpool with Elysium at its centre, space bending in a disorienting, vertigo-inducing fashion, slowly forming a huge spiral, the centre of which began to lower itself deeper – or perhasp the edge rose up, it was hard to tell through the vertigo-inducing distortions all around.

He saw Bakeneko try to escape, in a quadrupedal form, running for the edge of the effect towards the door, but whatever Elysium was doing to the space, it made it look like she was running in place, unable to move a single step closer to the exit no matter how much effort she put into it, trapped in what could only be described as a sinkwell of space, unable to go anywhere no matter how she moved.

Osore was on the ground, groaning in pain, several limbs broken and numerous gashes and holes across his body, which were mending slowly – When did he go down? – and Tyche and Spellgun were staring helplessly at their surroundings, while Tartsche was glaring towards the villains on the far side of the room, standing in a pocket of undistorted space.

Basil watched helplessly as Elysium kept dancing, her movements not nearly as joyous and graceful as he’d seen in recordings of her many performances, yet still beyond the ken of even professional dancers; she was dancing in a circle, leaping from foot to foot, never touching the ground with both at once, sometimes dipping down while standing on her toes to draw a wide circle around herself.

All around, the room continued to twist, folding up even as the ceiling itself folded apart, opening up to show not the sky but rather, a continuation of the room itself, rows upon rows of steel tanks studding what were now the walls, leading up into infinity; each row of tanks rotating in a different direction, alternating left and right as the space continued to twist and expand.

Beyond that, he could see more of the structures around the building they were in, being drawn into the whole, folded up and into it; buildings he’d seen from the air earlier, now joining the rotation of the tanks, fitting into the gaps between them even though they should have been several times their size; the prison his friends had been sent to, the giant candle, appeared floating on thin air, compressed to the size of a man-sized candle, floating a few metre above the ground he stood on; then it tipped to the side, yet left another of itself in its place. And another, and another, starting to spin like a clockhand, only each motion left another candle behind, even when it passed over the previous ones, continuing to make more and more of itself, the ones behind seeming to extend into an endless space beyond.

Then, they multiplied, all around the circumference of the room, a dozen endlessly spinning, duplicating candles illuminating the room as even more of the city-sized structure was being drawn in, as did parts of the ocean around them, flowing into the gaps.

***

“Himmel herrgott nochmal!” Immanuel shouted as the floor dropped away underneath him, drawn into the ever-rising spire of twisted space just ahead of them. He just barely managed to grab onto Heaven’s Dancer’s arm, drawing her onto a ‘flow’ of space that was more stable, standing atop what was once a train station bench that had been elongated to a ridiculous length. “What is that woman thinking, allowing her to use her power without any restrictions?”

Heaven’s Dancer looked around at their base, even as it was being drawn in – the effect had not yet spread beyond the immediate area around Dusu’s and the Ascendant’s personal lab complex, but it was going to reach the centre at some time, and then the Contriver section… that could end up truly catastrophic.

There was only one possible conclusion.

“You were right,” she told Immanuel, who looked at her in surprise. “We really need to rethink the idea of putting this many mad scientists into one place…”

He smiled wrily, then turned towards their destination and kept moving, always stepping onto safe footholds, navigating the ribbons of twisted space in ways she couldn’t hope to achieve.

Heaven’s Dancer followed, trying not to think about just how she was going to explain this to the others…

“Dem Mädchen gehört der Arsch versohlt,” Immanuel muttered under his breath, putting a voice to her thoughts.

***

Elysium jumped into a backflip, curling up in mid-air to avoid a shot by Tyche and instead of flying on to hit the three gadgeteers standing behind her, it impacted Polymnia’s knee from behind, making her cry out and flip over, landing heavily on the floor; her sonic attack, just begun, went wide, never coming even close to Elysium even without a further use of her power.

The mighty dancer landing on one foot and rose onto her toes, the other leg angled to have her foot rest against the other leg’s knee, only to move immediately into a spin, making a roundhouse kick into thin air.

Tartsche grunted as he was hit in the solar plexus, thrown back and away from Spellgun and Tyche, landing heavily on his back a few metre behind them.

Those still conscious stared in shock at how she’d seemingly ignored his defense entirely, but she gave them no time to react, much less adjust, raising the foot she’d been balancing off from the floor moments before the one she’d kicked with touched it, spinning into wide scything kick towards Tyche and Spellgun, launching them backwards for a metre or two before they suddenly curved downwards at a perfect ninety-degree angle, slamming into the ground hard enough that Basil thought he heard bones snap.

What can I do? he asked himself, desperately. There was nothing he could think of, nothing he had left. His railgun was long wrecked, and now he’d lost his drone, as well. His gauntlet and knife could likely kill her, if he managed to land a clean hit – but the chance of him achieving that was near null and even if he did, with his right leg nigh useless and space and time arrayed against him, unless he killed her in a single blow, she could simply rewind time and try again.

I wonder how often we beat or almost beat her already, and she just rewound and tried again? he couldn’t help but wonder. There was a good reason why she’d never lost a fight until she’d come up against her half-sister. More than one, really, but this one alone would likely have been sufficient all in itself.

It ain’t like you to pity yourself, mate, the Man in the Moon commented unhelpfully. Maybe you sh- ow!

A sharp sting distracted Basil from his thoughts, right in his left arm pit, where he lacked armour other than the ballistic weave of his impact suit.

Having essentially risen onto all fours from where he’d fallen, he looked down at it, and saw… a syringe the size of a small bottle, its needle buried in his flesh, the back attached to a rope leading to…

Syrinx, standing just a few metre away, grinning smugly.

Yet he also stood with the others in the unaffected pocket of space beyond Elysium.

“What the…?” Basil asked, though he didn’t waste time waiting for an answer; rather, he flung his knife at the villain, piercing his right shoulder…

He was gone, as was the syringe, though he was still stung and bleeding lightly. His knife clattered to the ground, with no blood or other sign of having hit on it.

The Syrinx standing with the others looked down and found the syringe there, in his right hand, half-filled with Basil’s blood. He held another in his left hand, and Dusu was holding two as well, one in each hand.

What?

He was starting to have trouble concentrating; his leg hurt abominably, his armpit now joined the fun along with his left shoulder, nevermind the vertigo induced by the spatial distortions all around him.

His friends were down, though only Amy was knocked out, and Gloom Glimmer stuck in a loop, endlessly repeating the same motion over and over again.

Hecate was trying to stand up, pushing against the floor, but her motions were weak, though he could hear her determined, angry growling beneath her hood. Polymnia was likewise rising, if slowly, her suit damaged far more than Tyche’s one shot should have been able to do… only then Basil saw that same shot hit her again, knocking her over once more. And again, coming from above, smashing her into the ground. The same attack, repeating itself whenever she tried to get up, slowly chipping away at her armour and keeping her trapped.

It’s a miracle we’re even still alive…

***

“Why are they even still alive?” Dusu asked in a bored voice, as she played with the syringes full of blood in her hands. “She could’ve killed at least some of them already…”

“I only ordered her to disable them,” the Ascendant replied, sounding pensive. “Also, I suspect there’s more of the real Elysium in her than I’d like – and she never killed. With her power, she never needed to.”

“Well, wouldn’t it be more fun to have her kill one or two of them?” Dusu suggested absent-mindedly. “Make it clear this is your Elysium, and yours kills. Own her.”

The striking woman of Aztek descent stroked her chin, narrowing her eyes. “Well, why not? We only need Gloom Glimmer and the Gadgeteers alive, the others are quite inconsequential.”

“Aren’t we supposed to strive to create more metahumans, rather than kill ones who’re no threat to us anymore?” Syrinx – Roy – asked them, feeling rather contrite about the idea of killing several of God’s chosen ones.

“Eh, we’ll eventually make way more than we could hope to kill,” Dusu waved it off. “Anyway, we should get these samples into my lab, I have a marvelous plan for them…”

“Do that. I’ll take care of these… not Mindstar, though,” the Ascendant noted. “Way too valuable, both for her powers and the information she could give us on the Syndicate.” She looked at her precious little doll, her magnum opus. “Four-four-four, create a passage for Priority Subjects Beta and Gamma to the adjacent lab, then execute target Eta,” she commanded in a calm voice.”

***

Oh, fuck no! Basil thought furiously as he heard the Ascendant’s command, forcing himself to rise onto his good leg, putting as little weight as he could on the bad one. You’re not taking her!

Elysium obeyed her command without hesitation, and both Dusu and Syrinx disappeared, presumably to their portion of the structure.

A little jump and turn, and Hecate lay on the ground before her, on all fours, looking up with an expression filled with fear and anger. “You…” she groaned, looking at the Ascendant with hate-filled eyes. “Vevilyierosilyisse ena miasmiko katharma!” she screamed at her.

Basil reversed the wall-sticking effect on his left boot, launching himself at Elysium from behind and to the side, pulling his left arm back, the gauntlet charging.

Basil swayed on his feet as he saw Hecate, having just cursed the Ascendant, get smashed into the ground again, hit in the back by some kind of massive impact strong enough to shatter another of her protective gems.

Her cry of pain made him see red, raising his gauntlet – his gauntlet was ruined, a perfectly smooth cut running from the tip to the elbow, the intricate, yet sturdy circuitry inside ruined.

No!

He stumbled forward, falling over again, unable to do anything other than watch as Elysium raised her right foot, aiming at Hecate’s head.

“Let this be a lesson to you brats,” the Ascendant spoke, her accented voice as condescending as can be. “Don’t mess with the pros,” she taunted them, looking around at the young heroes all around the room, beaten down yet still conscious, unable to do anything but watch.

“Heck!” Tyche cried out as the foot came down on their friend’s head, to cut or crush.

To no effect, as another foot, this one in a smooth black boot appeared above Hecate’s head, catching Elysium’s stomp on the dorsom of the foot. Instead of crushing or simply parting the boot and flesh beneath, it was stopped cold.

***

“Wer zum Teufel!?!” Immanuel cried out, coming to a dead stop in the middle of running through a pulsating, twisting corridor of pipes.

Heaven’s Dancer stopped, stumbling briefly before she turned around to look at him, shocked to see him… shocked. “What is it? Immanuel, what’s going on?”

“Someone… someone’s there with them,” Immanuel hissed, his eyes staring into the distance. “Someone… or something. I’ve never seen him before. I can’t see him, not really.”

Her current body’s blood ran cold as she parsed that information, though she refused to freak out. Instead, she asked, as calmly as she could, “What do we do now, then?”

He hissed again, his hands clenching into fists. “We wait. If he doesn’t leave on his own, we wait until Konrad arrives. I’m not going in blind.”

***

Everyone but the trapped Gloom Glimmer and the unconscious Amy stared at the new arrival, a tall man – was it a man? It was hard to tell – in a dark blue robe with wide sleeves and a deep hood, parted down the front to show a jet-black, skintight bodysuit. He was even taller than Basil by almost a full head, almost as tall as the Godking had been, and slenderly built underneath his wide robe. His suit extended into a pair of smooth boots and gloves, covering every inch of his body, and he balanced on one foot easily, while using the other to protect Hecate from a grisly, swift death.

His face was not visible underneath his hood – rather, he seemed to wear a mirrored mask or helmet, which was currently split into octagonal pieces, like a single huge compound eye, reflecting the face of everyone in the room. His stance was calm, relaxed.

He was holding a huge cat with long, dark fur in his left arm, stroking it behind the ears with his right hand.

It was a very familiar cat.

“Graymalkin?” Basil whispered, stunned.

What the hell was his cat doing here?

The stranger tilted his head to the side, the images on his mask shifting as if they were fixed in place, and he was now reflecting a different part, showing their faces from different angles. He looked at the Ascendant, then at Elysium, looking her up and down.

“Oh man,” he spoke in a weird, soft voice – like several voices layered on top of another, yet not so much they’d be like a full chorus. “You idiots really, really, really want to piss off the big gal, don’t you?”

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Filed under: Brennus Chapters Tagged: Amy, Bakeneko, Basil, Dusu, Elysium, Gloom Glimmer, Graymalkin, Heaven's Dancer, Hecate, Immanuel, Journeyman, Osore, Polymnia, Spellgun, Syrinx, Tartsche, The Ascendant IV, Tyche
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In My Daydreams

Birthright: Part 5

In My Daydreams

“Maybe Tikki’s accepting calls?” I asked as Kals touched the bracelet on her left wrist.

“We tried that,” Jaclyn said. “No.”

“Messages?”

Her sigh was audible even over the implant. “Yes, but not about not touching. You should call them.”

Would Tikki even need to be told? She shouldn’t—except that she’d had a week to discover that there were no issues with touching us at all. I hadn’t remembered it coming up, but she might not have told us if it had.

“Okay,” I told her, and left messages with Marcus’ implant and Tikki’s bracelet. One of them would have to notice, right?

I stopped concentrating on my implant to find Kals with her arms folded across her chest, watching me.

It struck me that taking a call on my implant might be at least as rude as taking a cellphone call. “Sorry. Jaclyn called me about Marcus and Tikki and also um… us. I told her we’re not uh… doing anything.”

She closed her eyes for a moment. “Of course that’s where their minds went.”

I glanced toward the window. We were off to the side of it, so I couldn’t see much, but a couple people were looking out. With all the light in the room, they probably couldn’t see anything out here.

I turned back to Kals. “I don’t see why your friends would assume we’re doing anything. For all they know, it’s impossible.”

She didn’t say anything for a second, but added, “Let’s just say anything’s possible if you use your imagination… You were saying something before she called. What was it?”

It was my turn to pause, trying to remember something that it felt I’d said half a week a go now. “I was trying to say that while I don’t want to cheat on my girlfriend to do it, I’d like the colony to survive. It seems like if someone could use my genes to fix the allergy, your people could hide the effects from the Human Ascendancy. I mean, you’ve probably got the technology. The Abominators had those birthing tanks. Plus, you seem to be ahead of us in every other area and we’re nearly to the point where we can edit people’s genes.”

She frowned, but then she shrugged. “I’m sure it’s not that simple or we’d have done it already. But you have to talk to Iolan about the mole anyway. He’s our genetic counselor. He’d know whether or not it’s possible if anyone would.”

She checked the window. “We’d better go in before they decide we’re…”

She stopped. “I take that back. They’ll still think that no matter what we do.”

“That reminds me,” I said. “What is second skin? Jaclyn said that your friends were joking about it.”

I’d been wearing the glasses that as acted as a hidden HUD for when I was wearing my stealth suit as clothes. Through my glasses I could see Kals’ skin darken or take a redder tinge at the very least.

“I’m going to kill them,” she muttered, but in a louder voice she said, “Second skin is a product used to help heal burns. It can be sprayed over the skin of any gene line. More expensive varieties allow the user to feel through them like normal skin.”

I’d been wondering why she’d begun to lecture me in a controlled, almost strained, voice about a first aid product at first, but a few words in, I knew exactly why and she confirmed it.

“My first serious boyfriend was from another gene line. We used it once, but not for the official purpose. Both of us ended up with horrible rashes in the worst places.” She shook her head. “No one will let me forget it and it’s not as if I’m the only one it ever happened to. I’m sure more people use for sex than burns.”

Then she threw back her head and laughed, “Assholes. See if I don’t spill their most embarrassing moments the first chance I get.”

We went back inside soon after that. In some ways, there’s not much to tell about the party except that I didn’t spend the rest of it standing next to the wall. Kals pulled me into the group, introducing me to her friends (“This is Mati, his most recent, ansible only, girlfriend turned out to be an intelligent computer virus with a weird thing for feet—“), whose embarrassing moments were often stranger than I’d thought possible.

The beer tasted better than the beer I’d tried at the last party I’d been at. It had been Miller Lite and tasted most strongly of the metal keg that contained it. It was a low bar to cross, but the beer here didn’t taste like metal. I still wasn’t sure that it tasted good, but at least it wasn’t bad.

Marcus didn’t reappear until after everyone had left. Cassie, Jaclyn, Katuk, and I sat around the table in the common area talking through what we’d learned. Tikki wasn’t with him.

“I walked her home,” he said. “She’s amazing.”

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Tieshaunn

B13.15 Call of the Sleeper

Tieshaunn

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The floor panel groaned briefly as it was crushed, crumpled up and cast aside by Amy’s power, revealing the power cables underneath.

Basil knelt down and got to work, ripping them out and jury rigging them to connect to his armour’s recharger, a device he’d specifically created to be able to recharge his batteries while in the field, by tapping into any available power grid – it was built into the bottom of his armour’s ‘backpack’ module.

Soon enough, the half-empty charge icon on his HUD began to blink and slowly fill up again.

He took the chance to run several system checks, making sure that everything – particularly his still-unnamed drone – was running smoothly, even after the heavy use the other one had made of them.

Fortunately, everything except for his utterly wrecked rifle was in working ord-

You are aware that you’re just avoiding the issue, right, mate? the Man in the Moon mocked him from the back of his head.

Basil couldn’t deny it, looking up. He’d squatted down to attach the cables, finding himself apart from the others.

Amy was hovering nearby – both literally and figuratively – with her arms crossed over her chest, looking both embarrassed and furious, but staying quiet even as she avoided looking at Basil.

The Junior Heroes stood as far away from Amy as they could while still being on the same platform, talking quietly amongst each other; Everyone but Gloom Glimmer looked thoroughly shaken and Spellgun, at least, was regularly glaring at both Amy and Basil. Gloom Glimmer herself had so far remained quiet, floating a few centimetre above the floor, her cloak hiding most of her body. He couldn’t tell where she was looking, but her hood’s opening at least wasn’t pointed his way.

Near the juniors, Tyche leaned against a pillar, her arms crossed and her bare face expressing both confusion and sadness as her eyes moved from one of her friends to another and back, over and over again.

Hecate stood as far away from Basil as she could, her back to him, her posture impossible to determine beneath her own cloak, facing the tunnel they’d come in through.

That hurt the most, by far.

You knew it was coming, the voice continued on. You knew ever since you found out about her cousin. Of course, you didn’t think it’d come to a head like this, but still…

Unless you have anything constructive to say, be quiet, Basil directed a particularly forceful thought at the Man in the Moon.

Have it your way.

The charging process finished and he disconnected the cables, standing up. Looking briefly at his sister, he turned towards Hecate…

I should give her a little more time.

He approached Tyche instead, stopping just a little over an arm’s reach away from her and reached up into his hood to unlock his helmet and take it off, so she could see his face.

“This is really, really fucked up, B6,” Tyche spoke softly.

“It is,” he agreed with her. “I am sorry to spring this on you like that. I…” He stopped, not sure how to continue that sentence.

“You would’ve preferred not to tell us at all,” she completed it, without any accusation in her tone.

He opened his mouth to deny it, but couldn’t, lowering his head instead.

“I’m not angry at you, B,” she continued reassuringly, making him look up at her in surprise. “Or angry with you. Or whatever.”

“You are not?” he stared at her, dumbfounded as he truly couldn’t find any anger in her eyes.

“You’re my friend, B,” she replied, looking down as he felt a knife being driven into his heart. “Friends forgive each other. Friends understand one another. And I understand why you kept it a secret. Can’t really say I wouldn’t have done the same.” She raised her head again, smiling wrily. “So I can’t really blame you for it, even if it hurts that you didn’t trust us with it.”

The knife twisted, slowly.

“I wanted to tell you, both, so many times,” he said, honestly, his voice thick. “But there always seemed to be a reason not to. Especially after…”

“After you found out about Heck’s hateboner for your sis?” She chuckled, the sound oddly muted compared to her usual expressions. “Yeah, that was quite the bomb even for me. Must’ve been even worse for you.”

He nodded mutely.

“Well…” she temporised, “I… honestly, I should probably be angrier at you, but… I kinda topped out on emotions for today. And… it’s not like… you know…” She looked down, suddenly looking ashamed, which only served to confuse Basil even further. “After this… I’m out, anyway.”

Basil looked at her, his blood gone cold. “You are leaving the team?” he asked, trying not to show how much the thought hurt him, even if he’d expected something like that.

She shook her head. “No. Not the team. Or, not just the team. After we go back home, I’m… leaving Tyche behind,” she explained in a quiet voice. “I’m putting the cape down, so to speak. Or hanging it up, I guess.”

Basil raised a hand, running his fingers through his hair, his hood falling back as he processed that. “Why? Is it because…”

“It’s got nothing to do with you,” she assured him, raising a hand to forestall his guess. “I was pretty much set on it even before we found out about that.” She took a deep breath, closing her eyes. “I was gonna tell you and Heck after this mission was over, but… I better tell each of you, separately.” She took another deep breath, her eyes flitting about, left and right, held low, before she finally looked up to meet his own gaze.

There were tears in her eyes.

“Remember when you used to tell me that probability manipulators like me, we build up bad luck for every bit of good luck we get?” she asked, her voice thick. Before he could even nod, she continued. “You didn’t want to believe that my power was free of that. You told me to be careful, not to rely too much on it. You refused to rely on it, wouldn’t have me like, flip coins or roll dice to figure stuff out and all.” The tears finally fell from her eyes, running down her cheeks. “You were right, B. You were so god damn right. I did create bad luck, every time I had good luck for myself. Only I’m way more selfish than the other guys with my power. I didn’t get bad luck myself, I put it… on others.”

Basil stared at her, not sure how to reply.

She pressed on. “And you know who? Not the villains, or anything. No. Civilians. Normal people. People, I, I didn’t like…” She sniffed, tears running down her cheeks. “I, I told you about those, those girls, who bullied me? Who I got these powers from?”

He nodded, mutely.

“Whom,” a soft, slightly hoarse voice spoke so quietly it was barely more than a whisper. “The right term is ‘whom’.”

Both of them turned to the side, and found themselves faced with Hecate, who’d walked up to them without a sound.

Her face was hidden in the shadows of her hood, but she was quite clearly looking only at Tyche, and decidedly not at Basil.

“Right, ‘whom’. Your favourite word,” Tyche giggled through her tears. “You heard everything I said?”

Hecate nodded.

The redhead sniffed, then pulled a tissue out of her leather jacket’s pocket to blow her nose. “W-well… it hit, hit them,” she admitted in a quiet, miserable voice. “The bad luck… it went to them. It… one of them’s dead. Hit by a bus. Another tried to kill herself after… after some horrible stuff happened to her. And the last one, she’s apparently become a supervillain, after Hastur’s monsters nearly k-killed her, too.”

Both Hecate and Basil could only stare at her in response to that. He wasn’t sure about Hecate, but Basil, at least, felt his jaw drop.

“Oh, Tyche,” he said, only to flinch as he realised that he’d spoken at the same time as Hecate, and said the same words, in the same tone of voice, as well. He briefly looked at her, but she kept ignoring him.

Their friend nodded, weak little sobs escaping her throat as she looked down at her feet.

“Tyche,” Basil spoke carefully. “How do you… how do you know that?”

“Th-that guy… Immanuel… he told me,” she explained, rubbing her eyes with the palms of her hands, trying to stem the flow of tears. “He knew, so much about me. Knew everything. More than I did.”

If I ever catch this, I’m going to turn his face onto his fucking back. “How do you know he is… that he is right? Even if he had the power to somehow know all that, how can you be sure he is being sincere, and not, well… lying through his teeth?” he prodded gently, not sure how far he could risk pushing her right now.

He felt horrible just for not stepping forward and embracing her, she looked so miserable; but he had to make sure she wasn’t just being manipulated by some jerk – of which there was an extreme abundance on this floating city.

Fortunately, Hecate took over that part, reaching out to pull Tyche into a tight embrace. The redheaded girl sobbed quietly, wrapping her arms around her friend and holding on tight.

Basil averted his eyes, feeling uncomfortable at the distance he felt towards them… just a few minutes ago, he’d have embraced them as well, or been drawn in by Hecate. Not now, obviously.

He didn’t press his point, waiting quietly for Tyche to regain her composure. He knew this was wasting time, again, but he couldn’t bring himself to care right then and there.

“He knew, knew everything else. Knew even…” She was interrupted by a sudden hiccup. “It’s not just them. Not just those girls. My mom… it’s been going after my mom…” She dissolved into incoherent sobbing again – if it wasn’t for Hecate holding onto her, she’d have collapsed right then and there.

“Brennus,” another voice spoke up from behind Basil, and he turned around. Tartsche looked at him, with the rest of his team arrayed behind him. “We need to talk. Right now.” He looked at the sobbing Tyche, looking uncomfortable, then focused on Basil again.

“Let’s step aside,” Basil said, not waiting for him to agree as he walked away from his friends. Hecate was whispering to Tyche, and he was pretty sure she’d ask all the important questions and do what she could to help her, even – or perhaps especially – without him.

He walked to where the junior heroes had been standing together earlier, feeling Amy’s attention on him – not her physical eyes, but her other sight, he was sure. Ignoring her, he turned around to face them.

All of them, save for Gloom Glimmer and Osore, were looking at him rather uncomfortably, studying his face. Polymnia looked rather shocked as she looked at him, but he didn’t care, and stayed quiet, waiting for Tartsche to say his piece.

Finally, the young leader of the group crossed his arms, his expression going from uncomfortable to determined. “Gloom Glimmer assures me it’s true, and it ain’t some kind of weird plot by Mindstar, and you’re not her mindslave or anything.”

Basil couldn’t help but smile slightly. “It’s true,” he replied, though he couldn’t keep himself from adding, “Of course, she might just be making me say so.”

Amy snorted loudly from where she was still floating in place. Everyone did their best to ignore her, except for Basil, who leaned to the side, so he could look at her past the heroes.

“It is not polite to eavesdrop!” he called out.

“Like I care!” she called back, before she very pointedly rotated in place to give him the cold shoulder.

He stood up straight again and looked at Tartsche with a tired smile. “Continue.”

Tartsche took a deep breath. “I can’t even begin to describe how fucked up I think this all is. And honestly, in any other situation, I’d take my team and bail, right now,” he stated, his voice hard.

Basil titled his head to the side, confused. “But you will not?” He was expecting him to, at least.

The young hero shook his head. “You being her brother and her being here doesn’t change the fact that there’s people who’re going to die horribly if we don’t find a cure, and whatever the UH or the government or whoever else has planned just plain won’t come in time. So I, at least, am sticking with this. And I’ve talked with the others, and they all agreed to do the same. But after this… you know we can’t keep this a secret, right?” he concluded, giving him an uncomfortable, even apologetic look.

Basil kept smiling. “I would not expect you to keep it secret,” he replied calmly. “Nor am I going to hold it against you when you reveal it to the UH.” He sighed, rolling his shoulders to loosen up a bit. “I knew what I was getting myslef into, when I revealed our relation, earlier. But it was either that, lying to you all, or having her edit your recollection. The latter was unacceptable and the second I have been doing too much of for too long, so…”

“You decided to put it out in the open,” Tartsche concluded, nodding. “I can respect that. Even if the timing’s horrible.”

“Well, I did not exactly plan for her to show up here,” Basil defended himself and shrugged. Then he looked over the assembled heroes. “You are all staying? In spite of this?”

They all exchanged looks, then focused on him again and nodded.

“I can’t speak for the others,” Gloom Glimmer said mirthfully, “but I’m hardly one to cast stones over someone having a supervillain as a family member they don’t disavow.”

“It’s not like you chose who your sister was going to be, or that she become a supervillain,” Polymnia assured him in a soft voice.

“That doesn’t mean this won’t have consequences for how we interact, after our current mission is over,” Tartsche took over again. “The UH has been extending a lot of trust and good will in how it treated you and your team, in part because of how depleted our numbers are. But there’s no way that’ll continue once it comes out that you’re Mindstar’s brother – nevermind the fact that you’ve been keeping it a secret, regardless of her being family.”

Basil just nodded. “I know. And speaking of which…” He looked sideways at Hecate and Tyche. The latter was standing on her own again, though keeping her head lowered as her friend held onto her shoulders with both hands, speaking quietly – too quietly to hear. “We really should get going. Finish this, before they muster another line of defense.”

***

“Well, that didn’t go as expected, did it?” Heaven’s Dancer mocked, trying to mask her concern – not that she could, not from Immanuel – as she in a demure position on the edge of the platform he’d been meditating upon, her hands folded primly on her lap, her knees together.

Immanuel was in the process of tying his bootlaces, having changed into a more formal outfit taken from a box that’d slid out of the same platform. He was now wearing a pair of loose, smooth golden pants and a sleeveless black shirt made of a shimmering material as tight as a second skin, exposing his arms, which were in turn partially covered by black fingerless gloves that reached up to his biceps, with some gold embroidery on the back of his hands and around his wrists. His boots were black, as well, with golden laces. Other than that, he made no concession to the usual costuming craze – even this much had mostly been forced on him by his over-eager staffers deciding to ‘spruce up’ his usual outfit. Children these days…

“I admit, things are going horribly wrong faster than I expected,” he spoke with neither rancor nor chargrin in his voice or expression. “Mind you, I never would have expected Brennus to be able to locate this base based on a momentary glimpse of the nightsky given to him by Crocell’s dying throes,” he admitted. “In fact, I’d really like to know how that managed to evade my sight. There’s something fishy going on with that boy, and I’m not talking about his messed-up memories.”

“Something even more fishy than that? Oh, joy of joys,” she couldn’t help but reply in her most deadpan voice. “You really should’ve taken them down as soon as they appeared, not dilly-dallied this long, you know? He won’t like that.”

He waved her concern off. “The base was lost the moment young Brennus discovered its location – he was smart enough to share it with every authority he could reach as soon as he knew, and even with the Syndicate, via his sister,” he justified his decision to take a more relaxed stance on the issue. “Nothing we do here is going to prevent its loss – it’s not like we can move the Sleeper somewhere else. All we can do is prevent a total loss – thus why I began a silent evacuation as soon as I realised what was coming – and gather as much data on how we got compromised to begin with, and on what’s clearly several major talents, some of whom we didn’t even know about.”

“You always know how to make it sound like you know what you’re doing, don’t you?” she asked in annoyance, not that she could actually refute any of his points. “But even so, we ought to take some precautions, make sure they don’t actually mess up anything too valuable before they get away… mind you, is letting them get away even that wise? We ought to keep at least some of them, like this Brennus.”

“Perhaps,” he temporised. “But keeping Brennus would require that we capture or kill Mindstar. He’s also close to Gloom Glimmer, whom we’d also have to take care of, and I really don’t want to explain again why killing or capturing that one would be a stupid, stupid idea.” He stopped in the middle of tying the last knot. “Also, there’s Tyche, of course. Her power, combined with Gloom Glimmer’s, means we really don’t have any truly safe way to deal with them, other than to let them reach Dusu, then leave on their own. At least not until Konrad arrives.”

“You called Konrad!?” Heaven’s Dancer paled. “Immanuel, dropping him into this situation…”

“Konrad is one of only two people – the other being me – whom we know can take that group down without killing anyone,” he assuaged her worries. “I can most likely do it by myself, but just in case I fail, I want him on his way here.” He finished tying his laces and leap onto his feet in a nimble move, segueing straight into some stretches to limber up. “Enough talk. I have my boots on – time to start kicking ass!”

***

“You know, you don’t have to make us feel that amateurish,” Spellgun complained as they all looked around at the unconscious and, in some cases, heavily wounded bodies strewn about the room.

They’d run – at Basil’s and Tartsche’s insistence – deeper into the installation, following the directions Immanuel had given Tyche on the assumption that it was better than running blindly – nevermind that, according to Gloom Glimmer, they were moving closer to Dusu.

Unfortunately, even running while bolstered by Gloom Glimmer, who was preventing them from growing tired, they hadn’t been able to move fast enough to get to their goal before the next line of defense was set up – if it hadn’t been already set up before they even fought the late Skulls’ group earlier.

Ten metahumans in combat gear had been waiting in ambush, literally melting out of the walls and floor around them as they ran down another featureless white hallway.

Before even one of them could bring their powers to bear, Amy had torn into them with a savage cry, swiping them all up with her telekinesis and smashing them all over the place, into walls, the ceiling, the floor, hurting them before she simply turned them all off with her telepathy.

At least, Basil hoped it was her telepathy, and that she hadn’t just killed them all. A quick check with his enhanced vision modes showed that, yes, they were all still alive, if definitely out of any fight for a while now.

Amy, meanwhile, ignored Spellgun’s comment. “Keep moving,” she snarled instead as she flew onwards, the only one not on her feet, now that Gloom Glimmer was running with them. “I’m in their heads – Dusu’s lab is nearby. She’s got a whole building basically to herself; only one else there is the new Ascendant.”

They turned a corner, moving down another featureless hallway, passing by several heavy steel doors.

“Ok, so, what can we expect?” Tartsche asked, directing the question towards Basil.

“We’re going up against two gadgeteers in their own labs,” Basil replied. “Assuming both are there, they’ll be both at an advantage and at a disadvantage – an advantage because they’ll have all their creations there, at hand, plus their likely heavily fortified labs – I know I built a lot of traps and defense systems into mine – and at a disadvantage, since they’ll likely want to prevent us from smashing all their hard work into pieces.”

“Not that we should,” Polymnia added. “Dusu is a plague-gadgeteer. We do not want to unleash anything she’s got stored in there.”

“No going in with a hammer then,” Hecate concurred. “Seeing how we want her alive and able to talk, and she’s not supposed to have any other powers, we shouldn’t go in smashi-”

She was cut off at the sound of a crash from further up ahead the hallway, behind a heavy steel door. Screams soon followed.

“The hell is that!?” Bakeneko asked, staring at the heavy door.

“Just cleaning up some trash,” Amy replied calmly, while Gloom Glimmer stepped forth and put a hand to the door, causing it to simply melt away into the floor.

Beyond it, another group of cowls – each in their own costume, save for a pair of twins in matching viking outfits – was busy fighting each other, completely ignoring their group as they ran past.

“What’d you do to them? Ma’am,” Tartsche asked Amy, appending a honorific at the end, apparently on reflex.

“Call me ‘ma’am’ again and I’ll feed you your boyfriend’s gun,” she replied, flying ahead of the group. “And I just adjusted some details in their perception. They were already primed for a fight, so it wasn’t hard to set them off.”

“You’re one scary bitch,” Spellgun grumbled under his breath, barely audible; yet Amy heard him and looked over her shoulder at him, giving him a grin that made him shudder.

“Careful, gunbunny,” she told him. “You might make a girl feel bashful and undeserving of such praise, make her try to earn it.”

Hecate snarled audibly as Spellgun waved his free hand in a negating gesture, assuring Amy that he hadn’t really meant it and all.

Basil ignored the byplay, mostly, and kept running. He already knew what Amy was capable of – she’d never hesitated to share – and was glad that at least he hadn’t destroyed his team, his friendship with Hecate and his rapport with the UH for less than a massive boost to their efficiency.

After five more minutes of running – they’d decided not to use any more trains – he started to grow seriously suspicious of how quiet the whole place was.

“How come we are not running into more people?” he asked aloud. “This place is larger than the average American town – there should be far more people around.”

“They’ve been evacuating it,” Amy replied. “Saw it in one of their minds. They’ve guessed that we’ve shared the location of the place with the kind of people they can’t fight off, so they’re packing up what they can to get away.”

“What?!” Basil shouted, nearly tripping over his own feet. “Why did you not say so sooner!? We need to hurry up, or she will get away, if she has not already!”

“Relaaaax,” she replied and though he couldn’t see it, he knew she was rolling her eyes. “Dusu’s still there. That’s why there’s so many guards left along the way to her; she and the Ascendant are working on high-priority projects, and they’re taking some time to get out – we should get there before Dusu has left. The Ascendant’s projects are apparently slow to move, too, so she’ll likely also be there.”

“Alright, let’s haul it then!” Tartsche exlaimed and picked up speed, bolstered by Gloom Glimmer’s power.

They ran through two more doors – and past another security team that went down quickly between Amy and Gloom Glimmer tearing through them – before Basil noticed that the hallways were growing wider, and the doors on the sides more sparse.

Finally, they tore through one more door and found themselves in a long hallway with glass walls and a glass ceiling, leading straight towards a larger, cubic building that stood apart from the rest of the nearby structures.

“Dusu’s in there,” Gloom Glimmer announced. “I can feel it.”

“Yeah, that’s what the memories I saw said, as well,” Amy confirmed her statement, flying ahead of the group down the hallway. “She should be somewhere in the eastern half of the building, that’s where her and Syrinx’ – some lesser gadgeteer who works as her assistant – labs are. The western half belongs to the As-” She stopped talking, suddenly, raising her head before continuing on. “There’s something in there… a bubble of space in the western half that I can’t look into. Every other part of the building is empty, I think… save for some…”

“Some what?” Tartsche asked when she wouldn’t continue.

“Test subjects,” she spoke with a note of disgust in her voice. “The lower levels of the building are filled with people they’ve been experimenting on.”

“But where is Dusu?” Basil pressed the important point – as much as it sickened him, whether or not they had a chance to help those poor souls, they had to capture their tormentors first. “In that bubble you can not look into? Gloom Glimmer, can you see into it?” He looked at the black-haired heroine.

She shook her head, hair flying left and right. “No. That power… I’ve felt something like it before. One of Dad’s subordinates, he could kind of… push powers away around himself. Completely messed up more delicate stuff, like remote senses, and weakened cruder powers, too. This should be similar.”

“I remember that guy,” Amy replied to her. “Fuzz, was his name? Didn’t he die in a crash during a car chase or something?”

“Yup, that’s him,” Gloom Glimmer affirmed. “Anyway, I don’t think I can pierce the effect – but I know Dusu is close, and that’s the only place I can’t look into, nor can Mindstar, so…”

“To the Ascendant’s lab we go,” Basil concluded, and they continued their charge down the glass hallway.

***

“I must avow that we need to rethink the whole ‘put an army of mad scientists into an enclosed location and give them near-unlimited resources’ concept,” Immanuel admitted to Heaven’s Dancer as they were using a train to move towards Dusu’s lab. He’d overridden its normal programming, of course, so it wouldn’t stop at any station along the way.

“Why do you say that, now?” Heaven’s Dancer asked him rather warily.

“Because what Dusu, the Ascendant and Syrinx are planning right now is either going to be incredibly awesome or an utter catastrophy for us all…”

***

Basil put his force gauntlet to the final door and with a simple eye twitch, activated the blaster, blowing the heavy steel door open in a massive cacophony of tormented steel, followed by him, Gloom Glimmer and Amy charging in ahead of the others into a huge room full of metal coffins standing upright on circular podests, lit by fluorescent lighting from above.

Coming to a halt, he looked around for his target, his heart pumping, ready to leap at Dusu and beat the cure out of her…

And there she was, looking just like in the one photograph he’d been able to find of her, taken many years ago shortly before the Hawaii incident, before she became an internationally wanted bio-terrorist, having aged not a day since.

An utterly unassuming looking woman of Chinese descent, attractive but not so much that she’d stand out in a crowd with a heart-shaped face and long, straight hair held back by a white hairband, wearing a white labcoat over scrubs, a mockery of a medical professional.

There was a man with her in a matching outfit, tall, well-built but otherwise unremarkable save for his wild blonde hair, and a taller woman with features matching images he’d seen of South American indigenous people, also in scrubs and a labcoat.

The man – probably Syrinx – looked at them in shock, the Ascendant was busy operating the control panel of one of the upright coffins and Dusu looked straight at them, her gaze dismissive, a smirk on her lips…

Basil saw red, and gestured towards her to launch his drone straight at the bitch…

But Gloom Glimmer intercepted his movement, catching his hand. “No. Remember, we need her whole,” she whispered, apparently having seen it coming.

“Well, look what we have the-” Dusu began to say, but was cut off when she, Syrinx and the Ascendant were suddenly dragged away from the coffin-like tank they’d been working on. Crying out in surprise and shock, they leaned away from the pull, even as Amy visibly focused on moving them, reaching through whatever power was protecting them now that she could see them with her own eyes.

“There we go…” Amy said. “They’re planning something… but I can’t read their minds… yet,” she explained as she grinned, savagely. “Don’t worry, dear idiot brother – you’ll have your cure, soon enough.” She advanced on them, along with the rest of the group.

A hand sign from Tartsche made them fan out, watching as the three villains were being dragged inexorably towards them, straining against the effect to no avail.

“Oh, come on…” Syrinx groaned. “I thought two-oh-one’s power would protect us!”

“It’s not perfect,” the Ascendant replied calmly, looking rather unperturbed by the whole situation. “But it should buy us enough time.”

“Enough time for what?” Basil asked, letting his drone float off his thigh, drifting into an orbit above his head.

Then the coffin they’d worked on hissed, and unlocked, the part facing them opening upwards to expel a large amount of vapour.

At the same time, the Ascendant reached into her pocket and pulled out a remote, pressing a button before anyone could stop her – and all three of them were pulled forward, towards Amy, her grip suddenly several orders of magnitude stronger.

“She turned off the anti-power field!” Gloom Glimmer exclaimed, raising her hands towards the villains, causing glowing chains to appear and wrap around them, restraining them.

“Too late,” the Ascendant smirked, her smoky voice dripping with smugness. “I just needed to make sure two-oh-one wouldn’t interfere with four-four-four.”

Amy’s eyes widened as she read their minds, and she raised her hands, gesturing at the coffin as a single figure – a woman drenched in a sticky fluid, wearing nothing but a bathsuit-shaped grey material that covered her torso and crotch, leaving her long, slender legs and arms free, revealing smooth, healthy skin and long gold-blonde hair, currently darkened due to being completely drenched.

The telekinetic blast caught the woman in the head before she could raise it from the crouching position she’d been caught in, smashing her body into a bloody pulp and destroying the container she’d been in.

The woman rose from her crouching position, whole again and dry, her long hair now much more voluminous, her suit, while still nearly obscenely tight and little besides her torso, was also dry again.

“Who the fuck is that?” Bakeneko asked aloud as they saw the woman’s – a girl, really, only a few years older than them and about Amy’s age – lovely, heart-shaped face.

None of the others (except perhaps Osore, who remained quiet about it in any case) had any trouble recognising her – they passed her statue pretty much every day, whenever they entered or left their school, just for starters.

Bright, sapphire-like eyes opened, looking at them without feeling or recognition, empty of any warmth or even the most basic of emotions, her movements oddly graceful in spite of her loose, hunched-over posture, her arms dangling limply.

“Subject four-four-four!” the Ascendant shouted in a loud, clear voice. Basil whirled to the right, sending his drone out to smash into her mouth and shut her up rather roughly, but he was too late – the drone smashed into the empty floor, bouncing off. The villains stood behind the blonde beauty, unharmed and standing, free of Gloom Glimmer’s bindings, which dissolved as they hit the floor where their prisoners had just lain.

Not that Gloom Glimmer seemed to care, as she took a wavering step forward, staring at the young woman in shock.

“Diantha?” she asked in a small voice. “Sis?”

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Filed under: Brennus Chapters Tagged: Bakeneko, Basil, Dusu, Elysium, Gloom Glimmer, Hecate, Mindstar, Osore, Polymnia, Spellgun, Syrinx, Tartsche, The Ascendant IV, Tyche
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In My Daydreams

Birthright: Part 4

In My Daydreams

I felt my eyes widen. “What?”

Kals shook her head. “If we’re going to talk about this, we should find someplace where we won’t be heard.” Then she pointed to the door outside.

“Sure,” I said, and we stepped out into the dark. The council building rose above us, the cluster egg-shaped sections shining in the streetlights.

Kals looked up and down the street. “I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but you could destroy all of human civilization.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Um… That does sound overly dramatic.”

She sighed. “Check with your implant later, but listen to me. The Abominators took us from wherever humans come from and molded us to their whims. They set up different gene lines, decided who could mate with whom and set up systems to keep us under their control. The Human Ascendancy and the other human empires took over when they were destroyed. The system that makes infertility and the rash between different human gene lines work? It’s complicated and fragile. It’ll fall apart if normal genes get added to the mix.”

Nodding, I said, “And if everyone can mate with everyone, the differences between gene lines collapse and if humans here are more suggestible, maybe that ends too…”

Frowning, she said, “We are. If you people pass on your genes, our colony will live. We’ll be a place of mixed gene lines, a stew of everything, but if we expand outward or our children travel back home… It would take time, but the whole structure of interstellar civilization would collapse.”

I could imagine it—fallen governments, wars, refugees and ransacked planets all because we had unprotected sex.

Then she shook her head. “That’s how the Human Ascendancy will see it. They might ignore us if we were just a colony of exiles, but if they knew we’d shattered the way they control society, they’d throw everything at us.”

Unsure if I wanted to hear the answer, I asked, “How would people here see it?”

She laughed, but it seemed more nervous than happy to me. Then she looked into my eyes. “It would be a mess. Most of the people here are what the Ascendancy would classify as breeders—people who hold the genes for powers, but they’re not active. If their number came up, they’d be required to mate with someone with active powers and produce a child—who would then be taken away and raised to be loyal to the government. So imagine a third person entering a relationship you’re in, making a kid with your spouse and taking the child away—lots of bad memories.”

“Huh,” I leaned against the curved wall behind me.

“It gets worse,” she said. “We’re refugees from the rebellion. We’re terrorists and anarchists. Most of the people here hate the Human Ascendancy so much that they were willing to kill to fight it. Sure, we’re all colonists now, but everyone here is wanted by the government. If the opportunity came to make it end in fire, they’d take it. I don’t know what people will actually do, but nothing would surprise me. For all I know, they might offer you the chance to stay or stay long enough to get a few people pregnant or for Jaclyn or Cassie to give birth.”

I snorted. “That’s not going to happen.”

She gave another look up and down the street. “Good because I’m sure half or more of our people came here of never letting that happen again—either to themselves or their kids. What’s worse, I’m sure some of them would volunteer themselves and maybe even their kids, but they’ll be hating you the whole time.”

“Not me,” I said. “My girlfriend definitely wouldn’t be okay with that. Is there any chance we could donate sperm and your doctor could inseminate people or, I don’t know, find some way to splice in my genes in for an embryo’s ‘make a rash’ genes? It seems faster than having Marcus and I knock up the colony and we wouldn’t have to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

“Maybe.”  She’d laughed as I suggested we’d have to “knock up” the colony and appeared to be ready to say something else when my implant informed me that Jaclyn wanted to talk to me.

I took the call. Jaclyn’s voice filled my head. “I hope you’re not doing what Marcus is doing.”

“No! I mean, I’m assuming Marcus and Tikki are making out. Kals and I are talking just outside the front door.”

Jaclyn sighed. “Good. Cassie and I had no idea where you went and Kals’ friends didn’t know where she went. They started making jokes about ‘second skin’. I have no idea what they’re talking about.”

“We probably ought to get back then. I’ve learned a lot. I’ll figure out how to explain, but don’t touch anybody. It’ll be a huge mess.”

Jaclyn snorted. “Awesome. Marcus’ implant isn’t taking any calls, so I’m assuming it’s too late for that warning.”

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In My Daydreams

Birthright: Part 3

In My Daydreams

Trying not to be distracted by my thoughts, I told Kals, “That’s right. I’m Nick.”

She gave a hint of smile and then asked, “What do you do for the group?”

I shrugged. “I pilot our spaceship and keep our stuff working.”

Nodding, she said. “You keep everything working? From the ship’s drives to the computers to your suits and weapons? And you pilot?”

The implant buried me a burst of knowledge about ship staffing. On a ship of any size, those were completely different positions, staffed by different engineers and mechanics. “Pretty much. I’m more knowledgeable about some things than others. Also, it’s a small ship.”

The corner of her mouth twitched. If I didn’t do something the whole conversation could become centered around how unusual we all were, or worse, it might center on me personally. We needed to know who in the colony might be a spy or simply be unhappy enough to bring down the wrath of the Human Ascendancy down on the colony.

Given what she’d said earlier, Kals herself was a candidate. She didn’t seem angry enough, but I didn’t really know her either. “How about you?” I straightened up and stopped leaning on the wall. “What do you do here?”

She took a breath. “Well, I was training to be a motivator. You know about my mom. I was going to do what she did—pretend to serve the Ascendancy while helping the resistance. It didn’t work out. They found out who my mom was and we’ve been running ever since. Now I’m training in biology and agriculture. It’s not all bad, but it’s not as glamorous.”

She smiled at that.

Judging from her reaction, I was supposed to know something about motivators. I searched the implant, learning that the Human Ascendancy’s motivators were everywhere in their society, commanding people directly and more subtly to follow the plan. They couldn’t change what people felt about something, but the Xiniti’s reports suggested that the constant small pushes might make it hard for the Human Ascendancy’s subjects to recognize what their true feelings were.

“How does glamorous fit with that?” I’m sure I sounded as confused as I felt.

In a flatter voice, she said, “You’ve got an implant. Ask it what kind of lives the motivators live.”

I didn’t have to. As I thought in that direction, I saw pictures of motivators in bejeweled clothing, their mansions and vast estates. The backbone of the Human Ascendancy’s empire, they had the best of everything and knew the most powerful and celebrated people on their worlds.

I had a motive for her to be the mole now. It would be hard to go from that to this. Still, wanting that life enough to betray her mother and people she seemed to like? That seemed unlikely.

Coming back to reality, I said, “I see what you mean. That would be a huge change.”

She shook her head. “Don’t judge me from what your implant just showed you. We weren’t hobnobbing with the planetary governor, but we did have more than most.”

I was about to ask if she had an implant when Tikki bumped me. “Sorry,” she said, joining hands with Marcus as they squeezed through the common room and into the main area of the council building.

Except for Kals, no one seemed to notice them go, but Kals more than made up for it. She stared at them until they disappeared, turning to me to say. “They’re holding hands. He’s not from her gene line.”

She turned away to stare at the shut door on the far side of the room.”Does he have Change?”

“Change?” I asked even as my implant defined it as a drug the Human Ascendancy used to create powered individuals. “No,” I said, and maybe I should have said yes because Marcus had done something weird and she’d practically handed me an explanation she could accept.

Brows furrowing, she asked, “Where are you from?”

“M8749.” I managed to say it naturally only because the implant stored it.

“One of the fallow worlds? But he can shapeshift?” Now she was staring at me.

With Lee’s help, we’d planned this answer out. “It was fallow when the Abominators left. Now it’s just unplanned. People come from other planets and leave their genes. So we have powered people, but we don’t have gene lines that we’re required to keep pure.”

She blinked. “You don’t know how it works, do you? The Abominators didn’t require us to keep our genetics pure. They made it impossible for people from different gene lines to breed.”

Geman had said something like that. “How?”

“Most gene lines are infertile, but in case any aren’t they made it so we all get nasty rashes any time we touch the bare skin of any line but our own. Change disables both of them. We’ve been trying to buy it, but it’s closely guarded.”

That explained why everyone’s jumpsuits covered their legs and arms, why no one touched during dancing, and why no one at this party except for Marcus and Tikki had disappeared to make out.

She frowned, looking up at me. “I’d like you to try something. Touch my skin with your finger–just use the tip. If this doesn’t work, you’ll want it to be a small spot, believe me. And don’t touch my face.”

She rolled up her sleeve. I touched her forearm. Nothing happened. She stared at it and then me. “You’re either going to save this colony or destroy it.”

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In My Daydreams

Birthright: Part 2

In My Daydreams

I caught Marcus’ eye, keeping my voice low. “I’m not worried that it’s illegal. I’m more worried about the Council deciding that we’re ‘corrupting the youth’ or something. Plus they might have a problem with a party here.” Glancing over at Jaclyn, I added, “They might not have noticed yet.”

Jaclyn watched something outside the window and shook her head. “They’d have to be blind not to notice.”

Through the window, I saw a floating platform come to a stop in front of the doorway. Two guys pulled a keg off the back and walked in, carrying it between them.

“Huh.” I watched them add it to the bottles on the table and join the group.

“Exactly.” Jaclyn stepped forward to join one of the circles of people.

As she did that, I turned to see if Marcus had anything to add and found that he was talking to Tikki. I missed exactly what he said, but she laughed and he grinned at her response.

That’s the moment where I realized that I was the only person standing next to the wall alone. Cassie and Jaclyn were already talking with the group. Marcus and Tikki stood on the edge of it, talking to each other. I knew I should push my way in and be with everyone else.

That was the plan, anyway. If we got to know people, we’d stand a better chance of finding the mole, but it still felt like too many people were in the room.

A woman’s voice said, “Sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear you talking. You don’t have to worry about anyone accusing you of anything. We’re self-sufficient colonists in the middle of nowhere. With no one here to do it for us, we’ve had to corrupt ourselves.”

I turned my head to find that one of the women had stepped out of the group.

Like most of the colonists I’d seen so far, she wore a jumpsuit, but hers was different. Emerald green with accents of silver and white, it looked like someone had been designing with an eye toward style as much as function. Much like her clothes, her straight, shoulder length, black hair had been cut and styled such that none of them were out of place.

In short, she cared more about how she looked than I did. To be fair, that was true of most people.

She had to be good at it too. My first impression of her face was dark brown eyes, light brown skin, and full lips. My second impression was that she looked like a twenty year younger version of Jadzen Akri.

Her upper lip twisted. “I know that expression. Yes. My mom is Jadzen Akri and no. No one will get in trouble. We get together every week under one excuse or another.”

I nodded, letting out a breath. “Good. It’ll be easier protecting all of you if we don’t get kicked off the planet.”

She laughed. “Do you think that might work for me? Getting kicked off the planet would be the best thing that happened since I got here.”

One of the guys, a big blond guy like the ones we’d saved, said, “Keep on dreaming, Kals. You’re stuck on this rock with the rest of us and you’re never leaving.”

“Thanks for the words of hope.” She moved her arm downward, two fingers extended, a hand gesture that my implant assured me was basically the same as flipping people off. They both laughed.

Then she turned away from them and joined me next to the wall. She seemed shorter up close than she had further away. That wasn’t because of superpowers as much as that she had certain intensity, giving the feeling that she was giving you her complete attention. In any case, she was a few inches shorter than I was and about half a foot taller than Haley.

“You’re… Kals?” I reminded myself that a short bow was considered appropriate and that a handshake wasn’t, giving a bow that was barely more than a nod. I must have done it correctly enough because she returned it.”

“Kals is short for Kalsekafora which is old and embarrassing. I refuse to use it.” Judging from the tightness of her jaw and strong resemblance to her mother in that moment, I had no intention of using it either.

I told her the first thing that came into my head. “I’m pretty sure I can’t even say it.”

“I wish that were true of more people, but don’t worry about it. Call me Kals. Everyone does. Now, I’ve been told all of your group’s names. Your name is Nick.”

In the background, someone turned on music, placing a small pyramid in the windowsill. It filled the room with sounds that reminded me a little of jazz and a little of the music I’d heard in Indian restaurants.

As a few people began to dance, I noticed that people never touched except on their clothes. That wasn’t only true when dancing, though. It was true all the time. There had to be a reason.

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Tieshaunn

B13.14 Call of the Sleeper

Tieshaunn

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Basil and Amy stared at each other for a handful of heartbeats.

Then she raised her hand towards him, and he snapped his left hand’s pinky finger against its thumb, igniting a chaff grenade attached to the back of his armour’s belt, and another in the front.

The grey smoke and dark grey metal chips spread explosively, with enough force to seriously hurt anyone who wasn’t armoured, obscuring him entirely from her vision, though the cloud didn’t reach her.

Amy snarled, annoyed that she’d slowed herself down by gesturing and detached her second ‘viewpoint’ from her natural one, raising it higher; she was preparing for an attack from multiple angles, ready to grab him as soon as he was within sight again – once she had him in her telekinetic grip, it’d be over, no matter what tricks he still had up his sleeve.

Two black cables shot out from the cloud, aiming for the ceiling above Amy, followed by a bulge in the smoke as Basil shot out from above, the canisters on his belt continuing to spew this annoying smoke, but it was too little – she saw him, and so was able to grab a hold of him, her telekinetic might wrapping around his torso…

She watched in horror, then confusion, as his arms, head and thighs – the only visible parts of him – detached from the torso portion, pushed onwards by momentum; so distracted, she at first missed it as Basil, stripped down to his impact suit, gauntlets and boots, slid out from the smoke below, propelled forward by a deafening blast of force unleashed from his gauntlet.

Before she could reorient and grab him, he slid past her right side, his hand reaching out and taking a hold of her right boot’s heel, twisting it off at the same time as he reversed his adhesive soles’ function, causing them to repel the ground, launching him upwards, feet-first.

Amy cried out when she felt him grab her right arm and pull it upwards, forcing her to bend over – but before he could dislocate it, before she managed to react, he touched one of his boots to the pillar she’d been standing next to, and repelled it, launching himself down at her, flipping the knife she’d hidden in her heel open.

He slammed into her back, tackling her to the ground and twisting her right arm behind her back, trapping it between their bodies as he knelt atop her, bent over.

With her head turned to the left, her cheek on the cold metal, she stared up at him with wide eyes, feeling the tip of her own knife held against her ear, ready to plunge straight into her brain, Basil’s own lips just centimetre away from either.

“I win.”

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Tieshaunn

B13.13 Call of the Sleeper

Tieshaunn

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Vasiliki cried out when she saw her friend be struck in the back, but the poison from tranquiliser darts that had pierced her sternum and her left breast, though not yet sufficient to knock her enhanced physique out, left her too weak to even struggle against her captors, forcing her to just watch.

Fortunately, the villains didn’t open fire, too dumbfounded by the unexpected attack to react – as were her teammates, who stared at Osore in shock.

“The fu-” Chronicle began to say, but stopped when she saw Brennus shudder.

Vasiliki watched as her friend stumbled forward, then back, swaying on his feet. His hands reached up into his hood and he bent over, groaning.

Is he going to go berserk again? she asked herself, reminded of that occasion when Osore had tagged him by accident while fighting the Spiteborn. Did Osore intend for that to happen? It seemed to be the only explanation for his behaviour, unless he’d suddenly decided to turn traitor, or been dominated by Thoughtseize… but what he’d said didn’t fit.

Her useless musings were cut off when Brennus groaned, and pulled on his helmet, taking it off and casting it aside. He staggered forward, bent over, his face hidden by his hood and his hands, before he stood up and bent back, as if to look upwards. His hood slid off his head, revealing his messy black hair, but his face remained hidden by his gloved hands. Another groan escaped his mouth, and his whole body shook, a shudder that went from head to toe.

“What’s wrong with him?” Skulls asked, sounding annoyed. “Ah, nevermind. Thanks for taking your fucking helmet off, idiot.” One of the Skullmen raised his rifle and fired a dart at Basil from above.

He raised his shield in a lightning-quick movement, deflecting the shot without even looking at it.

“Ahhh…” He lowered his arm again. “Can’t a bloke even get a moment to get his bearings?” he asked, speaking with a completely different accent than usual – something British, Hecate thought, but she wasn’t sure.

Her friend looked around, keeping his hand on his face in lieu of a mask, looking through the gaps between his fingers to scan his surroundings, his dark eyes passing over the barely conscious Polymnia on the ground, along the line of their enemies, then over Hecate-

Their eyes met, for just a moment, and Hecate’s breath caught. They were still his eyes, but it wasn’t Basil behind them. They were cold, yet hot, inhumanly intense; just the brief glance gave her a disorienting sense of vertigo.

His eyes moved on, and she breathed again. His eyes… they were like Emyr’s…

“What a bleedin’ mess this is,” he complained, sounding annoyed as he completed his view around the train station. His eyes settled on Skulls, and the woman stumbled back, nearly dropping her weapon. Clearly, Hecate wasn’t the only one his gaze affected so. “Guess I’ll kill’ya first, slattern.”

Skulls looked aside at her teammates. “What the fuck does slat-“

“Boss, look out!” Boltstar cried out, firing one of his spheres, but he was too late.

The stranger behind Basil’s eyes fired both of his grappling ‘hooks’, one of them attaching to the collar of Skulls’ body armour, the other to the edge of the train platform just in front of her, and reeled them both in, launching himself out of the way of the spheres and its follow-up energy bolts, while pulling Skulls off her feet.

The vile woman cried out, but couldn’t react in time as the stranger struck at her with his right elbow, pulling her into the strike in such a savage move, he shattered her forehead and broke her neck in a single strike.

Disconnecting his hooks from her and the platform, he kicked himself off the edge of the platform, somersaulting over a flying stab from Karasuha, who’d launched herself like a missile at him.

Shooting his hooks at the platform again, one past each side of the still moving Karasuha, he pulled himself towards her, slamming with both feet into her heavily armoured back, followed by slamming her into the metallic platform with such force, the metal screamed and deformed.

The villainess did not even have the breath to scream or groan, nor did he give her a chance to catch it, reaching down to snap her neck with both hands.

The woman’s legs kicked out once, then another time as he leapt off her body, evading another sphere fired by Boltstar. Rolling over Skulls’ corpse and past the brick-patterned villain, he picked up Karasuha’s katana and Skulls’ combat knife, throwing the former at Boltstar.

The well-muscled, heroic-looking man gurgled wetly as the katana pierced his throat, sliding in until its crossguard stopped it.

The stranger came up onto his feet, flipping the pilfered knife over to his right hand, slashing at Chronicle’s throat – though it was blocked by the same force-field that’d protected her earlier.

It didn’t seem to deter him, though – rather, he kept moving as if he’d seen it coming, whirling around as Chronicle and Thoughtseize both staggered back in shock, and threw the knife into the back of the brick-patterned villain’s head, killing him instantly.

Mere moments had passed since he’d said he’d kill Skulls.

The force-field protecting Thoughtseize and Chronicle shimmered and collapsed the moment the brick-patterned villain died, and the stranger turned towards them – but he was forced to leap backwards towards the rails as the Skullmen opened fire at him.

“Chronicle, now!” Thoughtseize shouted, making the younger woman squeak, her left hand clenching her over-sized book tightly to her chest, her right one gesturing towards her fallen comrades in a sweeping gesture.

Skulls, his/her Skullmen, Boltstar, Karasuha and the brick-patterned villain flickered and were whole again, though still on the ground and, in the case of the two females, with their weapons returned to their sheaths. Behind her, Vasiliki heard the four Skullmen she’d taken down before being taken down herself get up again.

They began to stand up, and Boltstar even released another set of turrets without hesitating, but to Vasiliki’s amazement, the stranger didn’t lose a step.

Ignoring the hail of tranquiliser darts coming at him as the Skullmen adjusted their aim, he fired his hooks again and launched himself at Karasuha, activating his force-shield on his left gauntlet to deflect the shots from those few Skullmen who managed to adjust their aim in time.

Karasuha rolled out of the way to avoid being smashed into the ground again, but she rolled to the left and that cost her her life once more – the stranger landed on his feet and slammed the edge of his shield down at her neck, severing her head from her torso.

“Bulwark, fucking catch him already!” Boltstar shouted, having risen onto his knees, and fired one of his crackling spheres at the stranger, only for him to bend out of its way, dodging the attack entirely.

With the same motion, he pulled Karasuha’s katana out of its sheath and jumped towards Boltstar, just as a force-field shimmered into existence around where he’d just stood, swinging the blade to cut deep into the man’s throat, nearly deep enough to sever his head entirely.

“Shoot him!” Skulls shouted in a rage. “Ignore friendly fire and just shoot! Chronicle, bring them back, now!”

The stranger dove forward and into the mass of Skullmen on that side of the train tracks and, for a moment, Vasiliki could see his face.

He was grinning as he cut into the Skullmen with the katana, the blade, though no longer empowered by Karasuha, still cut through them; his attacks always aiming at throats, eyeholes, armpits and other weak points of their armour.

She watched in awe and horror as whoever had control over her friend’s body massacred his opposition. There was no grace to his movements, none of the fluidity she associated with trained martial artists – and she had some of those in her family, including a kendo-nut; the way he fought was nothing like that. It was fast, raw, savage. No formal technique, only brutal efficiency, his every strike claiming one of the Skullmen’s lifes, if one could even consider them alive.

Then Chronicle used her power again and the katana disappeared from his hands, all his victims restored to life, but it didn’t seem to deter him.

“You’re wasting your time, little boy!” Skulls snarled at him, trying to pain him in her rifle’s sights, but he kept darting around inbetween the Skullmen, striking at their knees, elbows and necks, crippling or killing them. “Bulwark, get behind your own fucking shield!”

The huge villain complied, taking a few running steps towards the field that was protecting Thoughtseize and Chronicle, stepping through a briefly manifesting gap.

The stranger pressed the attack, only he stopped going after the Skullmen and made for Boltstar, who was just about to get up again.

Karasuha burst into a cloud of crows, swarming out all around the stranger in an attempt to disorient him, though he only seemed to be slightly inconvenienced by it as he kept up his charge, only diverting it when Boltstar threw a sphere behind himself, at the metallic floor.

Almost thirty crackling energy bolts hit the spot the sphere had impacted, creating a burst of light and force that threw both Boltstar and the stranger away – in opposite directions – and blew Karasuha’s crows apart from each other.

The stranger rolled with the blast, using the momentum to behead three Skullmen with a single slash of his shield’s edge; the way coming into contact with matter caused circuit-shaped lines of light to bloom in the air for a few seconds would have been beautiful to Vasiliki’s eye, were it not for the blood it drew from his enemies, even if they were little more than moving corpses; the fact that they were restored seconds after being cut down did not make it any prettier to watch.

Karasuha reformed and joined the dance, while Boltstar unleashed even more turrets. A full thirty-two of them hovered in the air above by now, unleashing enough destructive energy to melt the platform wherever they hit it, creating patches of near-liquid, red-hot metal that both the stranger and the villains had to avoid stepping on.

“That all you wankers have got!?” And yet, the stranger still grinned, as if he was having the time of his life, those mad, blazing eyes seeming to tremble in their sockets, making him look even more unhinged than before. “Come on, you could at least try to give me a challenge!” He slashed another Skullman’s head off, using the same motion to deflect multiple shots from the Skullmen across the tracks that’d have hit his face or neck, rather than his body armour, “What’d you do if I stopped holding back?”

“Big words,” Skulls said with a grin. “Let’s see you prove him! Everyone, move fourteen!”

With that, Bulwark reached out with his right hand and jabbed it skywards, almost as if making an uppercut, and another mostly invisible force-field emerged from the ground below, just behind the stranger as he was dodging backwards to avoid another targeting sphere from Boltstar.

He hit it with his back, grunting, and the sphere hit the ground in front of him, causing another explosion that further smashed him into the force-field.

Oh no, Basil! Vasiliki cried out mentally, too dizzy to form words, still held up by two Skullmen. She stared as the smoke cleared, revealing the stranger in Basil’s body staggering forward, dazed.

“Gotta admire the classi-” he began to say, but was cut off when another flat force-field appeared beside him, this time cutting him off from Boltstar and Skulls, while giving the Skullmen on both sides of the track a free line of fire to him.

They opened fire in synchronised precision, concentrating almost a score of glowing blue streams of darts at him.

Yet again, he moved almost too fast to be seen, raising the shield on his left gauntlet and bracing himself against the assault, a sudden, sharp, loud clang! coming from his feet where he locked his boots into place, using the same technology that allowed him to stick to walls to become far less movable and weather the assault.

Only for Karasuha to reform herself behind him, already bringing her sword down to stab him through the back from above.

He turned his torso, a cruel grin utterly out of place on his familiar face, still keeping his shield in the way of the Skullmen’s assault, and raised his arm, the fingers of his hand spread open, palm pointing at the incoming tip of the blade, as if it could stop it.

At the same time, the ovoid attached to his thigh came loose, the circuit-like groves on its surface lighting up with brilliant light as it shot up to interpose itself between his palm and the blade.

Vasiliki’s eyes widened as another force-field came into existence between the suddenly brightly glowing ovoid and the blade, blocking Karasuha’s strike.

The new field was different from Bulwark’s nigh-invisible one, and also different from the rounded, shield-like one from Basil’s gauntlet, though it was clearly produced by similar technology (the same circuit-patterns that covered the outside of the gauntlet also covered the entire surface of the elongated ovoid… thing, and they lit up in the same fashion, only far brighter). It seemed unstable, flickering, its edges never quite stable, crackling with surplus energy that was discharged in the form of tiny arcs of lightning that danced across the field and up along the blade of Karasuha’s sword.

That did not seem to impede its function at all, however, and it neatly deflected the strike, causing her blade to bounce off and her to fall to the ground, rolling backwards through the dissipating force-field of her compatriot – but the stranger didn’t give her a chance to escape him, as he clenched his hand into a fist, causing the force-field to condense into a smaller, far denser and more stable disc shape at the tip of the ovoid, then flicked his wrist at her and extended his index and middle finger to point at her.

The ovoid – a drone – shot forward with a high, unnerving whine, flying through the gap in the force-field before it could close and slammed the disc-shaped force-field into her head hard enough to break her neck once more.

Another twist of his hand made it continue its flight across the tracks, extending its force-field into a man-sized dome-shape over its tip, charging through the mass of Skullmen.

Bowling them over, it flew towards Vasiliki and blew the two that had been holding her away, breaking several of their bones along the way, judging by the sickening sounds they made.

He continued to direct it, turning his torso towards his left side and steering it across the tracks and into the group of Skullmen still left standing, who were continuing to fire at him, heedless of the danger. They, too, where knocked around easily enough, scattering them and ending the assault upon him.

“Ahhh…” he relaxed, shutting his shield off and loosening his stance, lowering his head. The drone flew to him, circling him a foot or two above his head. “Well, that was bracing.” He raised his head, looking at Karasuha, who was getting up after being reset once more. His own breath had grown a little laboured, though not nearly as much as Vasiliki would have expected. “Though you really need to work on your surprises, luv. Ain’t really anything that surprising about bein’ jumped from behind.”

“You got a screw loose in your head, kid,” Skulls replied, though she was looking far more wary than before. “You’re starting to grow tired, I can tell, and there’s no way your toys’ batteries are gonna hold out for much longer, while we are all ship-shape again!”

“Not all,” he countered simply and pointed at Chronicle.

Both Vasiliki, the stunned heroes on the tracks below and the villains looked at the youngest villain present.

Chronicle had bent over, her right hand supporting against her own knee, the left one barely able to hold onto the heavy book. Her breath was laboured, and there was sweat dripping down from within her hood and down onto the metallic floor.

“Every power has its limits,” the stranger said, his accent making Vasiliki shiver every time he spoke – hearing something as familiar as Basil’s voice speak in such a strange way was intensily unsettling. “It takes a bite out of her every time she resets one of you, so I was testin’ some theories. Looks like resetting you,” he pointed at Skulls, “resets all your puppets along, but takes no more out of her than resetting one person. So I killed those two over and over,” he gestured at Karasuha and Boltstar, “to wear her out some. I’m guessin’ she ain’t got more than five or six resets in her, at this point.” He stood up straight again. “Now, I was going to see how long she could hold out, whether she’d use it until she passed out… but frankly, this is growing kinda stale, don’t you all think?” He rolled his shoulders, like a man loosening up before a workout. “Time to finish this.”

Everyone tensed up again, the Skullmen’s fingers curling around the triggers of their weapons, but the stranger was once more faster, using his grappling hooks to launch himself out of the line of fire, swinging over the tracks and around the force-field between him and Karasuha and Skulls, his ovoid drone following after him.

Using his shield to behead two of the Skullmen across the tracks as he swung by them, drawing one hook in, he continued to swing and fired that hook off again to attach to a pillar further down the platform, while signing with his right hand.

The ovoid created its force-field again, condensing it into a flat circle of about five feet in diametre, only it was now projected along its long side, not over the tip.

Another handsign caused it to fly out, using the sharp edge to cut through the Skullmen.

He finished his swing, he landed on the platform near Boltstar and Karasuha, the latter of whom drew her sword and advanced on him, her posture radiating anger and frustration; Boltstar, meanwhile, retreated to, apparently, get behind the force-field Bulwark was using to cut himself, Chronicle and Thoughtseize off from the fight.

The stranger ducked underneath Karasuha’s strike, using Basil’s shield to slice upwards and sever her arms at the elbows, making her cry out in pain. Another slice took her head off, and he kept going past her collapsing body, striking at Boltstar. Though he failed to take off his head, he did cut his throat open, blood gushing out of it as the square-jawed villain collapsed, his hands reaching for the razor-sharp cut.

He advanced further onto the force-field, calling the drone over with a flick of his wrist.

The ovoid expanded its force-field into a far wider plane, pressing it flat against the shimmering force-field which only now became visible again.

Energy was discharged between them, both fields flickering, vibrating as they affected each other – and then a hole appeared in Bulwark’s field, large enough for a grown man to pass through, the drone hovering at its centre.

“Peek-a-boo!” the stranger mocked the three villains behind it as he stepped through. “Now let’s see if you can reset yourself, shall we?” he asked with a merry voice, the hole in the force-field sealing shut behind him, leaving him – and his drone – on the same side as the three villains who’d been keeping their distance.

“Oh, screw this!” Thoughtseize snarled and turned towards him, their eyes meeting even through her closed mask…

***

Wanda found herself in a still place, standing on water beneath a starry sky, though it was too bright to be night.

She looked around in confusion – this place was wrong. It didn’t look anything like how peoples’ minds had seemed to her every other time she’d used her power to enter them.

I am inside his mind, she confirmed for herself, going by the non-visual input she was getting. She could look around and still understand this place, even though it looked nothing like the usual, but it just felt so strange.

Beneath her feet, the water was filled with writhing, inky blackness, a representation of the Oni-boy’s power’s grip on his mind – a paralysing grip, and she had no idea how his mind was still functioning in spite of it.

Still, she could work with this. Figure out which parts of him were still functional and shut them down, as was her speciality. She didn’t have much time, though – she couldn’t risk the Whitaker girl waking up – so she wasn’t going to be as gentle as she usually was. It might even leave some damage behind, but… well, he was clearly willing to kill, so no skin off her teeth.

She gathered her will, her power, focusing it, and…

“Mine,” a sharp, guttural, discordant voice said from behind her, and she whirled about to face…

What.

She stared at the newcomer, thinking to herself that whatever mind had thought this up had to be way more fucked up than any member of the Gefährten she’d met so far – and some of her brothers and sisters were really messed up – an abomination of steel and flesh.

The creature was big in a way that was hard to put into words, a huge mass of skinless flesh, elongated into the shape of a worm, or perhaps a snake, shapeless beyond that, uneven with odd bumps and hollows along its length, its front half raised above the water, while the rest lay atop it.

There were no readily discernible limbs, but instead masses of machinery fused into the flesh. Gears turned upon bones, winding up tendons which put pistons into motion. Pistons bit into muscle and flesh, causing pus and blood to ooze out, generating pain signals that made other muscles seize up and set chains of gears in motion, which in turn moved rubber bands attached to bones connected to more gears, connected to more tendons, to pisonts, to muscles, a hideous, ineffectual, macabre network of flesh and machine that made the mass lurch and move forward, closer to Wanda.

Dozens of bright, circular lamps studded the ‘front’ of the creature, shining brightly like wide, unblinking eyes, briefly distracting her from its actual eyes, eleven huge, tumurous-looking, purple-orange orbs that were unevenly distributed, looking around at everything and nothing, rarely focusing on Wanda herself.

“Mine,” the voice spoke again, coming from the creature, as Wanda stared at it in frozen horror. “Mine.”

It lurched and slid forward, closer to her, its upright part unfolding as pistons and gears went to work, tearing its own flesh apart down the middle, spreading it open like a huge, gaping… mouth… with jagged, shattered gears, shafts and pistons covering it all over like uneven teeth in multiple rows, reaching out, oozing huge amounts of blood and worse onto the water, which did not sink into it but rather spread out across it.

Wanda finally unfroze and lashed out at the beast with a spike of psychic energy – but the attack simply shattered against the beast, whatever defenses it might have dispersing it harmlessly.

Then it was too late, and the beast’s mouth-wound closed around her mental form, its jagged, metal and bone teeth biting into her, tearing at her mind, consuming it in pieces.

Wanda screamed, and screamed and tried to free herself, but it was futile, her mind was being torn, her memories ground away, her skills, her knowledge her p-

“Mine.”

***

As soon as she finished speaking, Thoughtseize shuddered, going slack before she collapsed, sliding down onto her knees.

The stranger looked curiously at her, but seemed to dismiss it, as he turned to Chronicle and Bulwark.

A flick of his wrist, and his drone charged the huge, brick-patterned villain, blowing him away from Chronicle in one savage move.

The girl squeaked, stumbling backwards trying to put some distance between herself and the suddenly somber-faced gadgeteer.

“Relax,” he said, his voice calm, but still strange, uncanny due to the strong accent. He moved forward, too fast for her to react, and stepped behind her, wrapping an arm around her neck, squeezing just as she expelled her breath in surprise.

He held her as she struggled, while Skulls pounded against Bulwark’s field in a rage, screaming for her underling to let it fall, but he was too slow to do so, distracted by the relentless drone flying around him, flying in again and again to strike at his head and limbs whenever he tried to focus on taking one of his fields down.

Before he could clear the path for the other villains, Chronicle slumped in the stranger’s arms, passing out from exhaustion and lack of oxygen.

“There we go, luv,” he said as he let go, letting her collapse onto the ground. “No more time shenanigans.” He looked up just as Bulwark’s field collapsed, the villain passed out from repeated blows to the head by the ovoid drone.

Skulls, her Skullmen, Boltstar and Karasuha were still standing and looking fresh, though all of them looked shaken, all of them turned towards the stranger, their various weapons (or, in Boltstar’s case, fist) aimed at him.

“Last chance to surrender,” he said with an easy, boyish grin. “I hope you gents are smarter than you look and take it. Ya ain’t gettin’ any more extra lifes now.”

“We’re far from done, idiot!” Skulls snarled at him, her weapon’s muzzle aimed at his head. “Let’s see you dodge this now!”

“Nah,” he waved it off – and simply sat down, crossing his ankles and putting his hands onto his knees, his drone flying over to attach itself to his thigh again. “I ain’t gonna fight you anymore, you fucking moron.” He looked up at them with a grin. “She is.” He pointed at something behind them.

Vasiliki followed his finger from where she was lying on the ground, and smiled weakly. Ah, finally.

The villains, realising that something was behind them, turned around… to face a spitting-mad, red-and-black eyed Gloom Glimmer, moments before she cried out in rage and flew straight at them.

***

It didn’t take long after that to put the villains down. Without Thoughtseize to handle Gloom Glimmer, and Chronicle to keep them in top condition and boost their powers, they didn’t stand much of a chance and the heroine knocked them out in short order.

Afterwards, she’d flown down to take care of Polymnia, while Tyche, Tartsche and Spellgun had come up onto the platform to check up on Hecate.

At the same time, Basil was sitting at the edge of the platform, looking out over the train tracks as he sat cross-legged, trying to piece together what’d happened.

He remembered Osore shooting him in the back, and then… a lullaby? Yes, a lullaby, and a well-known one at that, sung by a strangely familiar – yet not soothing at all – woman’s voice. And then… nothing.

Judging by the looks the others were throwing him, he’d gone berserk again, probably even worse than during the fight against the Spiteborn – or perhaps not so, but this time, his enemies had not been mindless tree monsters, but flesh-and-blood humans.

He didn’t know how to feel about that. He was confused, he was hurt, angry, scared. Mostly confused, though, if only because there was just too much to feel right then.

Beneath him, Osore simply stood where he had before, while Bakeneko had returned to her usual catgirl form, standing a few metre away with her back to him, her arms crossed, her posture radiating outrage and fear. She clearly didn’t agree with her boyfriend’s “stratagem”.

Basil wasn’t exactly happy about it, but he couldn’t argue with its effectiveness.

“B?” he heard Tyche speak from behind him, and turned to look over his shoulder, even though he was wearing his helmet again – not that he hadn’t, apparently, shown his face to everyone present anyway – and could’ve seen them through his ravenbot’s cameras, to look at his two teammates, the redhead holding the brunette up with one of her arms slung over her shoulder, and an arm around her friend’s waist. “How’re you doing?” she asked in a subdued voice.

Instead of answering immediately, he looked them up and down. Tyche looked unharmed, if shaken, but Hecate was a mess. What he could see of her face was pale and she looked weak, which was underlined by the fact that she needed help just to stand. There was a trio of holes in her costume’s chest, two over her left breast and one over her sternum, where the darts had pierced it. She was still wounded, bleeding lightly – Gloom Glimmer was still busy fixing Polymnia up, who’d gotten hurt quite badly – but she wasn’t crying about it or anything.

“I should ask you the same thing,” he replied softly. “But to answer your question, I am…” He sighed, looking down at his lap. “I can not honestly say I am alright, unless you are referring purely to my physical state, but I am not hurt in any way.”

Tyche lowered Hecate down, helping her sit down next to Basil on his right side, before the redhead sat down on his other side.

Hecate growned slightly, her right hand reaching up to the holes in her suit, gingerly rubbing around them, while she reached for his hand with her left, squeezing it gently.

“That was a real dick move,” she said, slightly shocking her friends when she used such a rude word. “Osore owes you a big apology.”

Tyche chuckled and took his other hand, her own trembling slightly. “It did look kind of awesome, though,” she qualified. “Scary, but awesome.” She gave him a sidelong look. “You’re full of surprises, B-6.”

He squeezed both their hands back, smiling underneath his mask, though he still heald his head lowered. “Would be nice if they were not also surprising to me.” He sighed, slumping a bit. “This is really not the time, nor the place, for this kind of surprise.”

“It’s never the time or the place for this stuff,” Hecate insisted. “And I really hope there won’t be any more surprises today. But I get the feeling this won’t be the last one today.” She leaned against his side, resting her head on his shoulder. After a moment, Tyche followed suit on the other side. Another moment later, Basil rested his head against Hecate’s.

They didn’t say it, but he heard it nonetheless. We’re still with you.

He sighed, relaxing, letting his sore muscles recover from the strain of the stunts he’d pulled during the two minutes he’d been out of it. Fortunately, his ravenbot had recorded it all, and he’d already reviewed the fight.

Who- or whatever had been in control of him during those two minutes had been vastly more skilled, more experienced, more dangerous than he could be on his best day. Watching the recording, it’d been glaringly obvious to Basil that he’d been toying with the villains, holding back a lot. He had only used the most basic functions of his gauntlet and his drone – save for the nullifier – and he had not moved as fast as Basil thought he could move, if he went all out.

And yet, it hadn’t been a contest at all.

A Man in the Moon. A Blazing Sun. A Raging Heart. And who- or whatever was in the driver’s seat just then, he thought as he and his friends recovered some of their strength, sharing warmth. Are you actually going to explain to me what just happened?

Oh, how I wish I could, the Man in the Moon replied. But you know how it goes…

He sighed in annoyance, but decided not to press the point. It never helped.

After another minute or so, Gloom Glimmer floated over to them, her toes just a centimetre above the floor. “Do you want me to fix you up, Hecate?” she asked in a subdued voice.

Lots of that going around, Basil thought to himself as he raised his head, allowing Hecate to do the same – Tyche remained as she was, on the verge of dozing off.

“That’d be lovely, yes,” Hecate said, yawning softly with her hand raised to cover her mouth as she did so.

Gloom Glimmer reached down and put her hand onto Hecate’s shoulder, squeezing it softly. The wounded witch shuddered as her wounds closed near-instantly, followed by her costume fixing itself and even the blood vanishing.

“There you go,” the floating girl said, letting go of Hecate’s shoulder. “Good as new. What about you?” she asked, looking at Basil.

“I am quite fine, thank y-“

“You should check him out,” Hecate cut him off while throwing him a stern look. “You took a big blow at one point. There might be damage, even if you’re not aware of it.”

He looked back at her and nodded. “You are probably right,” he acquiesced, then looked up at Gloom Glimmer. “I would appreciate your help.”

Gloom Glimmer smiled and touched him as well. “Hmm. Some nasty bruising on your back, but nothing serious,” she diagnosed him, before he felt her power run up and down his back in a goosebump-inducing way – but it did make the slight tightness he’d been feeling disappear. “There you go, everything’s ship-shape now.” She squeezed his shoulder. “You know, I know a bit about… losing control, and having others be… in control. So if you want to talk, I’m here for you.”

Basil lowered his head. “Thank you,” he whispered, responding twice at once.

They all fell silent as Gloom Glimmer stood up straight, and was joined by the other heroes, save for Osore. Everyone looked alright, outwardly, but they were giving Basil some wary looks, while also throwing more… antagonistc ones towards the unconscious villains strewn about the train station.

“So, uh,” Spellgun spoke up, sounding rather troubled. “That happened. Um, care to explain?”

The others stayed quiet, but couldn’t hide their curiosity.

“I wish I could,” Basil replied, his voice straining with frustration. “But I honestly have no idea what is going on.”

He saw them all look at Gloom Glimmer through his ravenbot, but couldn’t bring himself to feel hurt over being distrusted.

Gloom Glimmer nodded to them. “He’s telling the truth. He has no idea… and frankly, neither do I.” She looked up and towards the way out of the station. “We… really should get going, though. We don’t have time to waste.”

“She is right,” Basil agreed, gently nudging Tyche awake (she’d started drooling onto his shoulder) and standing up. “We still have a long way to go, and it is unlikely that this will be the last or worst opposition we are going to face.”

He walked a few steps down the platform, and knelt down, reaching down to Osore, who looked back up at him. After barely a moment, he reached up and they grabbed each other’s forearms, allowing Basil to pull him up onto the platform, before he turned to the others.

“Unless there is anything else to say, we really should get going,” he concluded, looking around at everyone.

Hecate and Tyche got up, and everyone on the platform exchanged looks with each other. Though Tartsche and Spellgun – and to a lesser degree, Polymnia – looked far from comfortable, they didn’t speak up and nodded.

“Yeah, it may be weird,” Tartsche finally said, his voice as calm as ever, though his tight grip on his boyfriend’s hand betrayed how nervous he felt, “but we’re not gonna bail out now. Let’s go finish this. We can talk about it afterwards.”

There were various exclamations of assent, before he focused on Basil again. “But I will have an explanation, Brennus. You owe us that, at least,” he continued.

Basil looked down, briefly, clasping his hands behind his back. “You are right, and you will have it – I will tell you what little I know, after this is done.”

“Oh, ain’t that just peachy?” a rough female voice spoke up from behind the group of young heroes. “Are you all gonna hug each other next?”

They turned around, save for Basil and Osore who were already facing the right way, and looked at the source of the voice – Skulls.

The bald, corpse-like woman was pushing herself up, leaning heavily against the pillar adjacent to herself. She was quite horribly beaten up, as Gloom Glimmer had only held back just enough to spare the villains’ lifes, and whatever her power did to her body didn’t help her look any more healthy – she was almost zombie-like in appearance, pale and rotten, yet still quite alive.

She grinned a rictus-like smile, looking them over. “Did you really think I’d go down… this easily? I survived the Dark, did you think his bargain-basement spawn would be enough to finish me? Or a crazy schizo-headed gadgeteer?”

“You don’t look like you’re up for much more,” Gloom Glimmer replied coldly. “And you didn’t get away from my dad, he just didn’t pay you much attention.”

“Oh, I’m gonna enjoy teaching you a lesson, you little bitch,” Skulls snarled. “I still have plenty of bodies to spare. Sooner or later, I’ll we-“

***

“Oh my.”

“What is it this time?” Heaven’s Dancer asked with a long-suffering sigh, looking at Immanuel.

“Someone just broke through our outer defenses and-“

They both flinched as a massive impact rocked one of the buildings far below them – specifically, the one containing the central train station of the Northern complex.

“My, this is going to be fun,” Immanuel said with a smile, leaning closer.

***

A black-and-purple blur crashed through the ceiling and slammed straight into Skulls from above and behind, smashing the barely alive-looking woman into the ground with an ear-rending scream of metal.

Skulls gasped, though not in pain, just surprise, looking over her shoulder at her attacker.

The furious woman in the black-and-purple, skintight costume reached for Skulls’ head with both hands, grabbing it, and leaned in.

And then she screamed, both with her mouth and with her mind, and Skulls arched her back in agony, screaming in tune.

Every single Skullman in the train station who was still alive, every one of them screamed in unison, arching their backs, trashing around.

The scream extended far beyond Skulls’ multi-faceted mind, reverberating in the minds of the teenage heroes, making them flinch and stagger back away from the two of them.

It kept building up over and over and over again, a scream made of nothing but rage, of the desire to hurt, impossibly powerful in its purity.

A scant few seconds later, Skulls and her Skullmen went slack, and the scream cut off.

The young heroes watched in varying mixtures of awe and horror as the tall, flawlessly curved woman rose up over the now empty body of the villain, floating up off the ground, her long, luscious black hair floating behind her, her eyes glowing with power, making her equally purple lips stand out even more against her chalk-white skin, as she clenched her gloved hands into tight fists.

You,” Mindstar snarled, her eyes fixated upon Basil, her gaze intense enough to make him gulp. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

“Mindstar!” Hecate snarled right back, leaping forward as she called her staff into her hand. At the same time, Tartsche leaped for Basil, pulling on Spellgun’s hand as he went, and Gloom Glimmer hastily threw her hands up to-

His sister didn’t even spare them a worded command – she simply unleashed her power, slamming into their minds, and everyone still left standing in the station collapsed, save for herself and Basil.

He looked around, shuddering in spite of himself at the display of raw power. He’d never seen her go quite this far before.

She took a step forward as she landed on the ground again,  her arms trembling from how tightly she clenched her fists.

“Basileus Bartholomew Balthasar Brant-Blake,” she snarled into his mind, her mental voice sounding discordant, barely human – yet still recognisably her voice, at least to him. “You are coming home with me right now!”

He didn’t know where it came from, didn’t really realise what was happening until it happened, but something inside of him just snapped.

“Let them go,” he replied out loud, his voice quiet, controlled.

“What did you say to me?” his sister asked in a low voice, taking another step closer, her heels making sharp sounds on the floor.

“I said let. Them. Go“, he shot back, taking a step towards her in turn. “Get the hell out of my friends’ brains, right now!” As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t help but raise his voice, even to her.

Her mouth twisted into an even more feral snarl, though she did halt her advance. “Little brother, you better w-“

“I said, let them GO!” he roared in a voice that seemed two sizes too big for his lean frame, making her rear back. “Right the fuck now! I won’t fucking say a word other than to repeat this, until you let them go!

“Suit yourself!” she shouted back, exasperated.

The other teenagers all woke up, as suddenly as they’d collapsed, jerking awake and jumping up onto their feet, some faster than others.

Hecate immediately went on the offensive again, but Mindstar just flicked a finger at her, smashing her into a nearby pillar – not hard enough to harm her, but enough so to hurt.

“Don’t even think about it,” she hissed at the teenagers, and Hecate in particular. “I’m not in the mood for games, and none of you, nor all of you stand the slightest chance of even challenging me, as I just demonstrated. Not even you, Princess,” she concluded with an annoyed look at Gloom Glimmer.

Basil walked over to Hecate, kneeling down to check up on her. To his immense relief, she seemed fine, if stunned, yet it only slightly diminished the rage that was squeezing his heart right then and there.

“Hurt my friends again,” he said in a low voice while helping the stunned witch stand, “and I’m going to forget myself.”

“Are you threatening me?” Amy asked in stunned outrage. “Me? Do you have any idea what kind of trouble you’re in?”

“More than you know,” he replied, letting go of Hecate and turning to face his sister once more, seemingly calm.

The others were looking from him, to her, to him, and back at her in confusion, except for Gloom Glimmer, who just looked resigned, but Basil ignored them as well as he could as he reached up and took his helmet off. Since his hood was down, that revealed his face once more, not that it mattered anymore.

“I don’t have the time for this,” he continued calmly. “Dusu is not far from here and I’m running against the clock, so either join me and help, or get out of my way.”

That made everyone’s jaw drop, particularly Amy’s, who stared at him, aghast.

“You want me to help you?” she shrieked, shaking her fists at him. “Are you fucking crazy? I’m here to drag you the fuck back to New fucking Lennston! You have no business here!”

“The fuck is going on?” Tyche asked, confused, looking around at the others. “Uh, Heck?” She looked at her friend, worried.

Basil looked over his shoulder, briefly, to see Hecate staring at him and Amy, her jaw slack, her hands clenched into trembling fists much like Amy’s own. She was completely quiet, save for the groaning of the staff she held in one of said fists.

No wonder… she’s finally facing her cousin’s murderer, and unable to do anything, he thought sadly, wishing he knew a solution to that particular conundrum. Especially now.

He didn’t realise that he completely misunderstood the cause of her current state of shock.

Turning his head again to look at Amy, he held his helmet under his left arm, and took another step forward.

“I am not crazy. I do have business here. And you are not going to take me anywhere but to my destination, if at all,” he spoke calmly. “Please, I could really use your help… but I will do it on my own, if I have to.”

Amy let her arms drop, staring at him, seemingly calming down. “Do you have any idea what you’re asking? What you’re risking? You have no idea what these people are capable of!”

“I see all that they are capable of every time I visit her,” he replied calmly, sadly. “I know exactly what I am risking, and it is nothing I do not want to risk for this.”

“You’re a child! You shouldn’t have to risk anything!” she shouted at him, shaking in barely restrained anger. “You’re going way too far for this, and for what? A freaking highschool romance? Why is she worth all this?”

“It is not just about her!” he snapped at her. “It is not about any one person! I am doing this because it is what needs to be done, it is what I would want someone to do for us if I, or you, were in that position!” He waved his free hand at her. “I am doing this because it is the right thing to do!”

“You’re going too far!” she shrieked back, her meager self-control crumbling, her eyes beginning to glow again, turning a brighter and brighter shade of purple, surrounded by glowing white. “And I’m going to stop you before you go so far you can’t go ba-“

“I’m not going too far!” he screamed, throwing his arms open, one hand holding onto the helmet. “There’s no going back! There’s no slowing down, no going anywhere but forward! I’m all in, sister!

He ignored the shocked gasps around and behind him – and didn’t notice that one particular gasp he should have expected didn’t sound – as he took another step closer to his sister.

“This is how it is going to be, Amy!” he continued to shout, his voice trembling with the strain of it. “Go with me, or get out of my way!”

Amy stared at him, looking more shocked than anyone else. As they watched, her skin took on a more normal, pinkish colour, and her posture changed slightly, the lines of her jaw and cheeks softening as well. Then she pulled her mask back, letting it fall back down her neck and hang there, her face looking both distraught and outraged at the same time, her features mostly Amy’s, with a little of Mindstar’s sharpness in them.

“No, Basil,” she replied, her calm voice simmering with rage. “I won’t let you. You’re coming back home with me, and that’s final.” She locked eyes with him, hers still purple, but softer, bigger than usual while she was Mindstar, shaped like Amy’s.

Basil sighed, looking down at his feet, then took his helmet in both hands, flipping it so he could look a the mostly blank faceplate.

Well, it’s not like I didn’t know it’d someday come to this, he thought regretfully.

“No, Amy,” he said softly, looking up to lock eyes again. “I am not coming with you… not without a fight.” She blanched, looking even more shocked than before, but he pressed on, as much as it tore at his heart to do so. “I am going to offer you a deal – just one. Fight me, here and now. If you win, we call this all off, and I will go home with you, willingly. But if I win, you will have to help me get the cure from Dusu, and bring it to those who need it.”

“Have you lost it?” she asked bluntly. “You can’t hope to-“

He looked at her again, his gaze firm, harder than steel. “It is a one-time offer, Amy. Accept it, or get the fuck out of my way.”

She looked right back into his eyes, never wavering one bit. They locked eyes like that for almost a minute, before she broke it, and snorted. “If that’s what you want, I accept. Beat me, and I’ll do as you wish.”

He nodded, feeling cold on the inside. “So be it.”

Amy looked him up and down, then smiled sadly. “I don’t know why you’re insisting on this, Basil. You can’t hope to stand a chance against me.”

With a sigh, he put his helmet off, then he took of his cloak and let it fall to the ground, while his friends – if they still wanted to be his friends at this point – moved away, giving the two of them a wide berth. None of them found it in themselves to protest this, if they even could – he wasn’t sure how much control Amy had, even now.

“No, Amy,” he spoke quietly, but firmly, blocking everything else out. “I’ve surpassed you.”

“I’m stronger than you are.”

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Filed under: Brennus Chapters Tagged: Bakeneko, Basil, Boltstar, Bulwark, Chronicle, Gloom Glimmer, Hecate, Karasuha, Mindstar, Osore, Polymnia, Raging Heart, Skulls XIII, Spellgun, Tartsche, Thoughtseize, Tyche
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In My Daydreams

Birthright: Part 1

In My Daydreams

Castle Rock Compound, Colorado, Earth
A figure stood alone in the dark on the edge of a small cliff. Leaning on the railing, she looked out on the houses, streets, and lawns. Except for the stone walls and mountains that surrounded the town on all sides, it could have been any suburb in the United States.

Haley brushed a lock of brown hair out of her eyes, wondering if she should go with a short haircut next time. It would be easier in a fight. Except then Night Cat would have to wear a wig since it wouldn’t be smart for both of her identities to get the same haircut at the same time.

Her eyes drifted upward, above the walls to the night sky and stars beyond.

Nick, Jaclyn, Cassie, and Marcus were out there somewhere. Lee had said they’d be gone for two weeks—unless something went wrong. Haley knew better than to assume that was impossible. If things were going right, there was no need for any of them to be there.

She hoped that wherever Nick and the others were that they weren’t alone because no one would be able to help them from here.

Haley didn’t have to turn around to know who was walking toward her through the park. If she couldn’t identify Daniel and Izzy from their bodies’ scents alone, she would have recognized Daniel’s cologne, and Izzy’s deodorant (she only rarely wore perfume). If that hadn’t been enough, she knew the sound of their walks.

“I don’t know if it matters,” Daniel addressed her as he came into earshot, “but Nick told me that we probably can’t see where they are. He didn’t know exactly where he’d be, but right now the night sky has it’s best view of the galactic core. He said they’d be further up or down our spiral arm.”

Haley nodded, “I know. He told me too. It doesn’t matter. Stars are still stars.”

Izzy reached out to touch her shoulder. Haley looked up, reminded that Izzy was a foot taller.

“We’re going to watch a movie in Vaughn’s room. You’re invited.” Izzy smiled at her and let go.

It was, Haley told herself, kind of sweet and kind of irritating. It was good that they cared, but Daniel had as much of a reason to be worried as she did.

Maybe worrying about her was one way to avoid worrying about Nick? She thought about it.

You might be right, Daniel thought back at her.

Aloud, he said, “Vaughn said he’d start the movie in about fifteen minutes.”

Looking up at the both of them (their children, she decided, would be giants), she tried not to let any of the irritation show—for all the good it would do. “I’ll be there, but I might not be on time.”

Daniel nodded at her. “You’ll be welcome whenever you arrive.”

“But don’t sit around here all night, okay?” Izzy smiled at her.

They left, holding hands, and Haley watched the stars. It was the first time she’d had alone all week and it felt nice. She was rooming with Camille and even though she liked Camille, it felt like Camille talked nonstop. Tonight Camille was doing something with Keon. She hoped they had fun.

She looked up at the glow of the crescent moon, remembering that she was a werewolf in Amy’s world and her pack had separated her from Nick there. She felt no urge to howl and had nearly decided to go to Vaughn’s room for the movie when Nick’s sister faded in next to her.

Rachel wore black jeans and a black t-shirt. Her silver necklace glinted, reflecting the moon above or the streetlights below.

She leaned on the railing next to Haley. “How are you holding up?”

Haley frowned. “I’d be doing better if people didn’t keep on asking me. How are you holding up?”

Rachel shrugged. “I’m not worried. I talked to Lee about it after my last guitar lesson. He said the Xiniti don’t give first time initiates a hard mission. They’ve handled worse. Even if I were worried because Cassie’s impulsive and Marcus hasn’t been in the field very much, Jaclyn and Nick are both level-headed.”

Following the Milky Way’s spattering of stars toward the horizon, she wondered how far out of sight they were.

Pushing away from the railing and standing straight, Rachel smiled. “My grandmother said she thought she heard voices in the stars sometimes.”

Haley raised an eyebrow. “Seriously?”

“No joke,” Rachel said and checked the time on her phone. “The movie’s about to start. Are you going?”

“Yes,” Haley said, and they left.

* * *

The Council Building, Hideaway
“I can’t believe they brought beer,” I told Jaclyn. “You’re right. The council is going to kick us off the planet.”

“I dunno,” Marcus said. “I’d bet that they don’t have a drinking age here, so it’s all totally legal.”

We were in our suite in the colony’s council building. Kids our age filled the shared common area. There couldn’t have been more than ten, but it felt like more. They’d placed four clear jugs on the table, all of them filled with brown, fizzy liquid.

Jaclyn glanced toward the door. “If they were going kick us out, they’d have done it by now. There’s no way they don’t know people are here.”

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Tieshaunn

B13.12 Call of the Sleeper

Tieshaunn

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The transition from one reality to another was not as impressive as Basil would have expected – then again, neither had it been the first time. Still, it felt strange to know that he’d moved from a pocket reality to the real world the same way he’d step from one room to the next, simply walking through the door and being there.

He found himself on the empty tracks their train had been using, along with the others, who looked at him funny.

“What is it?” he asked them, looking around. Everyone was there, to his not inconsiderable relief, looking well, if shaken up.

“What held you up?” Tartsche asked. “You were right behind me, but then it took you longer to exit.

“So sound did not carry through the portal? That is interesting,” he said softly, looking over his shoulder only to find empty air. Emyr must have closed the door again. “Blackhill had something to say, not that it made any sense. Either way, we’ve already lost too much time – we should get going.” He looked back at the group again.

Before anyone could reply to that, Hecate stepped forth and took him by the hand, pulling him away from the rest of the group. “A moment, please,” she said in their direction as she took him a discrete distance away. Basil followed, feeling oddly disconnected from it all.

“Basil,” Hecate spoke softly, crossing her arms over her breasts, “Are you…” She shook her head. “No, of course you’re not alright, but… how are you holding up? You were… raw, in there.” She searched for his eyes, her green orbs finding his black ones even through the shadows of her own and his hood, even through his helmet.

He looked down, turning his hands up to look at them. “The girl I profess to love is dying, and I can not save her,” he replied, his voice quiet, even. Though his hands trembled slightly, none of it was noticable from just listening to him. “I can build force-field generators, work with the technology of the world’s greatest gadgeteer like it was a toy,” once he started speaking, he couldn’t hold it in, and it all came spilling out. “I somehow created an AI and I do not even remember doing it. I can build drones, power armour, hack secure systems without breaking a sweat, build a railgun that does not even need its rail to function properly. I can perform surgery with a skill most surgeons would envy, including on myself,” he pressed on, his hands trembling again. Hecate reached out and grabbed them, wrapping her hands around his. “But I can not come up with anything to save her,” he concluded, his voice quiet, monotonous, leaning closer to her. She leaned close in turn, restsing her forehead against his, their hoods joined together. “What kind of hero am I, that I can make all these things, but not the one that actually matters?”

“Oh Basil…” she whispered, her voice thick with emotion. She pulled his hands closer, pressing them against her sternum, close to her heart.

“Then I drag you all into this mess, trying to infiltrate the base of an organisation that seems to operate on a level at least on par with the Syndicate, if not beyond it,” he continued on, “Look at them. A mere watchdog of theirs summoned the fu-freaking Godking of Mars to fight us. And I am pretty sure they are not taking this seriously, otherwise this place would have been swarming with more guards.”

“You didn’t drag us anywhere, chazuli,” she replied in a calm, soothing tone of voice. “We’re the ones who insisted on coming along. And I don’t know about the others, but I assure you, Dalia and I would not have taken a ‘no’ for an answer. So snap out of it – you’re an amazing hero, everyone here knows it. Where you lead, I follow.”

Basil blinked, glad that his mask hid the tears. “I…” I’m Mindstar’s brother. I’ve been lying to you from the start. He couldn’t actually say it, much as he’d wanted to. “Thank you,” he said instead, his voice hoarse with guilt. “Sorry,” he added, feebly.

“You don’t need to be sorry, phile mou,” she replied with a wet chuckle, and he only felt more guilty for continuing to deceive her. “Just be you again and go kick some malakes around for Prisca.”

“You know I don’t speak Greek, right?”

He couldn’t see it, close as they were, but he knew she was smiling. “Nobody’s perfect. Now chin up.” She let go of his hands and tilted her head, briefly pressing her lips onto his mask, right over his mouth. “Let’s go be heroes.”

***

They got going after that, the others not commenting on their little aside, though Tyche poked Hecate with her elbow, for some reason – Basil missed what she said to her.

Mindful of Legend’s (unwilling) warning that the group they’d fought earlier would have recovered by now and likely be waiting in ambush, they moved carefully, with Gloom Glimmer taking point and Basil and Polymnia (after her the best sensors on the team) flanking her. The others followed after, spread out enough that they would hopefully not all be caught by a single attack, but also close enough to support each other – and most importantly, all within short range of Tartsche, to move under his protection as necessary.

Gloom Glimmer had briefed them all on their powers and what she’d been able to figure out about their interactions, and was also providing safe communication via telepathy – with the understanding that it might vanish at any time, particularly if battle was joined and her power decided to give her something else to fight with – which they’d used so far to formulate battle plans, planning how to respond to their enemies.

So far, most of their battle strategies boiled down to taking down the one they’d first dubbed Rewind, before Gloom Glimmer revealed her codename to be Chronicle, who was the lynchpin of the enemy’s strategy, then mop up the others one-by-one. The only one they weren’t sure they could deal with was Karasuha, whom Basil had fought before, and whose abilities were still in question – Gloom Glimmer came up dry and the last time they’d fought, Basil had defeated her before she could really show much other than her ability to burst into a cloud of ravens and an extending, unnaturally sharp katana. Nevermind that, as a contriver, she may well be able to change at least some of her abilities on the fly, depending on how her contriving actually worked.

‘Let’s please not forget the fact that we’re apparently being used as a way to dispose of an unwanted member of this group,’ Hecate complained. ‘I mean, doesn’t anyone find this whole situation to be completely insane?’

‘They’re supervillains, Heck,’ Tyche thought back at her, sounding much less flippant than she’d normally be while addressing her. ‘They do shit like this.’

‘No they don’t,’ Hecate countered. ‘Not villains with huge city-sized bases with their own transit system. You don’t keep an operation as big as this one running smoothly by letting people like us go around acting like this, no matter how much you might want to be rid of a member. Guys, back me up on this.’ She looked at the junior heroes.

‘I have to agree with Hecate,’ Tartsche said in his usual measured voice, even telepathically. ‘There’s got to be more to this than just getting rid of an unwanted employee.’ He looked at Tyche, who was staying quite close to him. ‘I know you think this Immanuel didn’t lie to you, bu-‘

‘That’s not what I said,’ she replied quietly, looking down at her feet. ‘I said that he seemed totally honest. I’m not so stupid to actually believe he was totally honest.’

‘Honestly, I’ve heard of weirder secret societies,’ Gloom Glimmer finally interceded. Everyone turned their heads to look at her, though all they could see was the back of her head and cape. ‘The Brotherhood of the Bell, The Double-Oh-Conspiracy, the Saurian League… these guys are pretty sane, compared to that.’

‘Wait, there was a secret society called the Saurian Le-‘ Tyche began to say, but was interrupted by Bakeneko.

‘I’ve never heard of any of those!’ she exclaimed in surprise.

Gloom Glimmer just shrugged. ‘Had you ever heard of the Gefährten before? Of course not. Thus, secret society. Besides, mom’s taken most of them down. They were much more commonplace in the sixties and seventies, and during the world war, but once it was over, she could devote the time to hunting them down. And you’ve heard of some of them, at least indirectly. The Saurian League was responsible for the Tsunamis that devastated the West-European coast in ’78, and the Brotherhood of the Bell was behind the assassination of Margaret Thatcher in ’84. The public was merely never made aware of them after mom took them apart.’

Everyone but Basil (who was barely listening to the others) and Polymnia (who’d heard it before) took a few moments to digest that.

‘Why did no one publicise stories like that?’ Hecate asked, putting words to what the others were thinking.

Gloom Glimmer shrugged once more without turning around. ‘Mom deferred to the governments on that, and they didn’t want to make it known just how easy it is for metahumans to form secret societies and pull off such gigantic terrorist attacks,’ she explained, her mental ‘voice’ slipping into the same tone she’d used, so long ago – only it wasn’t all that long ago – when she’d held that seminar at school. ‘Before Point Zero, there were a lot of limits on how far such groups could come, particularly if they wanted to cause large amounts of damage. They had to obtain members, information, materials… all that went out the window with the advent of metahumans. With the right powers, they can strike any time, anywhere, and it’s nearly impossible to see coming – note how all those I named got to actually pull something off before my mother managed to track them down. And there’s God-only-knows how many out there we still don’t know about.’

She turned around, continuing to float backwards as she spoke to them. ‘It’s really not as crazy as it seems to you, Hecate. To a normal organisation, allowing enemy agents to run roughshot around their base to take out one of their own may be a bad idea, but we have no idea what kind of powers are in play – for all we know, losing Dusu will actually make the Gefährten even stronger.’

They looked at each other – again, without Basil – in worry. ‘How could… I don’t get it,’ Spellgun admitted. ‘How could that work?’

‘I think that’s the point,’ Polymnia (whose mental voice was even more melodic than the one created by her vocoder) replied. ‘We don’t know what’s at work here. We can’t know, without knowing all the elements in play, and even Gloomy hasn’t been able to divine them.’

‘So, what’s that mean now?’ Tyche spoke up. ‘We’re fucked if we do, we’re fucked if we don’t? Is the only winning move here not to play?’

‘No,’ Basil interceded, speaking for the first time since Hecate pulled him aside. He was walking ahead, his back to the others. ‘This changes nothing. Whether or not our actions benefit the Gefährten does not change the fact that we need Dusu to cure the victims of the Hawaii plague. Does the possibility that the Gefährten might profit from us achieving that, or from curing the victims, change the fact that curing them is good?’

‘No way!’ ‘Of course not!’ Fuck no, B6!’ ‘Naturally not.’

‘There you go. Now focus on your surroundings and get ready for a fight,’ Basil concluded. In the distance, they could see the light grow brighter as they approached another station.

‘Hey wondergirl, can’t you check ahead?’ Tyche turned her thoughts – it really was a rather strange experience, thinking at someone; if it wasn’t for everything else, Basil would have so many questions – towards Gloom Glimmer.

‘I don’t have that kind of power right now,’ she replied in a petulant voice. ‘All I know is that there’s enemies up ahead.’

Just as she said that, she suddenly fell out of the air, landing on her feet and stumbling forward.

Everyone immediately dropped into fighting positions, with Tyche and Spellgun stepping close to Tartsche to touch him, and Bakeneko jumping onto Osore’s back, but Gloom Glimmer waved them off.

“I-it’s alright,” she stammered, pulling her hood tight in embarrassment, speaking with her actual voice again. “Powers just, changed.” She rolled her shoulders, moving on. “Don’t worry, I’m used to it.” Ripples began to spread out from her feet, wherever she stepped onto the ground, continuing on for a few moments after she moved on, distortions that travelled across the floor and up the walls in circular waves; at the same time, a light haze appeared in the air ahead of them.

They relaxed again, moving on.

***

Melody walked up to her friend, putting a hand on her shoulder – and her wrist speaker next to her ear. <So, what’d you get this time?>

<Matter manipulation,> she said through their com-system (hopefully it hadn’t been hacked yet, but it was still safer than talking out loud). <I can control any matter that’s being touched by those ripples. Also, a spatial distortion that diverts attacks away from me and potentially back at the attacker. Oh, and a veil – I can hide us from sight, and even divert light-based attacks, at least from one direction.> She smiled slightly. <Been a while since I had such a powerful combination.>

Polymnia squeezed her friend’s shoulder, before taking a step and back, keeping her arm extended and sending ultra-sonic pulses out from one of the speakers, mapping the area ahead of them.

<There’s people in the station up ahead,> she spoke up once she’d properly interpreted the data she got. <Fifteen… eighteen… twenty-four, spread throughout the station.>

<Can you give us a visual map?> Tartsche asked, well-aware of the fact that she usually relied on her hearing alone to interpete the suit’s data.

<Um… I don’t have a light-projector that’d work for that… Brennus, do you have something to convert my data into a visual map?> She looked at the unnervingly quiet vigilante.

<I do,> he said evenly, reaching for his belt and pulling a plug-tipped extension cord from it, holding it out in her direction, stopping still.

Melody joined him, as the others spread out a bit, moving as quietly as they could, and she plugged it into a port on her suit’s forearm. A twitch of Brennus’ fingers gave her access to a projector, after which it only took a minute or so to adapt her own software and send the map out through it.

His left gauntlet – the one that’d projected force-fields earlier on – projected a two-dimensional map onto the floor, causing the others to cluster closer around them and take a look. Melody kept her left arm extended, continuing to map out the station in case their foes moved around.

The only one who didn’t look at the map was Brennus himself, who kept looking ahead even while pointing his gauntlet – though he could probably just call it up on his visor, if he didn’t have better technology anyway.

<Hm, they’re not exactly spread out, but neither are they bunched up… they definitely seem to be watching the way we’re coming, though,> Tartsche observed.

Melody knew what he meant. Their enemies, all twenty-four of them, were forming an uneven half-circle that opened towards the tunnel they were coming from, sixteen of them on the left side of the tracks, seven on the right and one standing in the centre.

<Twenty-one of them are Skulls,> Brennus stated simply. <The others are the ones we fought earlier, as well – Boltstar, Karasuha and Chronicle.>

<How can you tell – they’re around the bend, aren’t they?> Tartsche asked him, looking up from the map to look at the young gadgeteer.

<I sent my last raven ahead earlier,> he replied simply. <It is giving me a live feed.> A twitch of his fingers caused the projection to change, showing the train station from a high angle, the image upside down but sharp. Another twitch rotated it, showing them what was in the station.

Of course he’s got a better solution, Melody thought to herself, sighing softly. I really need to work out some drones for myself.

They looked through the raven’s eyes and saw the Skulls, mostly crouching behind several overturned benches, using them for cover as they aimed their rifles at the tunnel. Boltstar and Chroncile stood with the larger group, behind the Skulls, the latter crouching to give as small a target as possible, though Melody wondered why she was that close at all – probably a serious range limitation on her power. Even though she was wearing a heavy robe and a deep cowl, Melody could tell from her posture that she was quite nervous, a lot more so than the others.

The last one there was Karasuha, looking different from the last time they saw her. She was wearing a set of skintight, jet black platemail now, with a bird-shaped helmet and a purple skirt that split down the front. She even had a different, heavier-looking katana, which currently rested in its sheath, which she, in turn, was holding in her left hand, rather than strapped to her belt.

<Now that looks like someone upgraded in a real hurry,> Spellgun commented, and the others couldn’t help but agree.

<It doesn’t seem like they have any reinforcements,> Hecate added quietly. <I would have expected them to show up with reinforcements.>

<Who knows? Maybe they got someone hidden in there,> Tyche suggested as she charged her rifle. <Or maybe they’re ready to port someone in.>

<If they do, I’m pretty sure I can redirect them,> Gloom Glimmer replied. <Yeah, yeah I’m pretty sure I can.>

Tartsche gave her a nod. <Alright. Let’s work out how we’re going to do this…>

***

They moved down the rails under the cover of Gloom Glimmer’s veil and entered the train station, sticking closer together than before so they’d all fit in under her power’s aegis.

Basil kept his raven up above, hanging onto the ceiling with its feet like a bat, to observe what was going on – fortunately, the villains hadn’t noticed it.

Looking around with his own eyes, he didn’t feel too worried – only Karasuha was an unknown in this, except…

<That’s not Chronicle,> he told the others, drawing and aiming his rifle. <She’s too tall and too broad-shoul->

“Aw damn, they found out!” a female voice they hadn’t heard before rang out from seemingly nowhere.

The wall and tunnel behind the assembled villains flickered, then melted away into nothing, revealing another two metre to the station – and there stood Chronicle, next to a woman in a skintight black costume with a silver tabbard and a clenched black fist over her chest. The suit extended to cover her head entirely, making her look like a jet-black mannequin, the only distinguishing feature on her head being a silver circlet upon her brow. It did not even have noticable openings or lenses for her eyes.

As if that wasn’t enough, ‘Chronicle’s’ form flickered and melted away in the same way, revealing an even bigger, broadly-shouldered man in heavy grey, brick-patterned body armour.

“Well, the jig’s up,” Skulls said with her customary sneer. “Take th-“

Basil snapped off three shots from his railgun, one at the real Chronicle’s shoulder, one at the silver-and-black-garbed woman’s knee and another at Skulls’ head, before she could finish.

The upper half of Skulls’ head turned into red mist, as did the jaw and throat of the Skullman behind her, but the shots to the other two were unharmed, protected by an invisible force-field that only briefly shimmered as it absorbed the full impact of his shots.

“Screw you, you trigger-happy asshole!” Chronicle shouted at him as she gestured at the fallen Skulls, causing her and all of her Skullmen to flicker, restoring the damage he’d done. “You ain’t catching me by surprise again!” Her bubbly, high-pitched voice made her sound far too young for the group she was a part of – she couldn’t possibly be any older than Basil himself.

<Gloomy, make us some cover!> Tartsche shouted through the coms as he reached out and put his hands onto Spellgun’s and Tyche’s shoulders, covering them with his power. Hecate dissolved into smoke, Basil raised his force-shield, as did Polymnia with her sonic cage, Bakeneko – who’d already turned into that tentacle-cloak thing attached to Osore’s shoulders – wrapped herself around him, her tentacles growing stiff, hard armour…

<Gloomy?> Polymnia asked in worry, as Gloom Glimmer didn’t react at all, looking at her friend.

“Damn,” the silver-and-black garbed woman said. “That was easier than I expected.”

“Thoughtseize, report properly!” Skulls snarled, making the woman shrug, while her Skullmen spread out further, aiming at the heroes below on the tracks, and Karasuha put her right hand onto the grip of her sword, sliding into a ready stance.

“Target’s locked down, boss,” she told him with no small amount of satisfaction. “Looks like the higher-ups were right – telepathy’s really her Achilles’ Heel.” She tilted her head to the side. “Don’t think I can make her fight for us, though. Her brain’s strange.”

“I don’t care as long as you keep the little bitch out of the fight. Focus on her,” she ordered. “As for you annoying little shitstains,” she continued, looking down at them again. “Put down your weapons, now! In the case of you three,” she pointed at Basil, Polymnia and Hecate, “Strip everything off. No more tricks now. Do as I say and we’ll let you live.”

Fuck, Basil thought as he, Hecate and Polymnia moved to stand back-to-back. We were counting on Gloom Glimmer to carry this.

<What do we do now?> Polymnia asked through their comms. <We’ve got to help Gloomy!>

<We need to take this Thoughtsize down,> Tartsche replied, his voice as calm as ever.

“It’s Thoughtseize, you know?” the villain’s voice appeared in their minds. “Seize, not size. Oh, and I can listen in on you easy – did you really think you ever stood a chance?”

“Hey boss, they’re not gonna give up!” she told Skulls at the same time as she distracted them with that message sent straight into their brains.

“Open fire!” Skulls shouted.

Basil dove forward towards Karasuha, glowing bullets pinging off his shield as he aimed his rifle at her, hoping that whoever was protecting the others – probably the one in the brick-patterned body armour – wasn’t extending or couldn’t extend his power to her.

He pulled the trigger, sending an electromagnetically accelerated projectile straight at her mid-section with the assumption that her armour would reduce it to a non-lethal hit.

Karasuha moved with blurring speed, dogging the attack as she flashed forward, drawing her sword in a single, lightning-fast motion – too fast even for Basil to react in time, allowing her sword to cleave through his railgun; except this time, it cut through it from front to back, rather than simply slicing off the barrel.

Behind Basil, the others were being pelted with glowing bullets. Polymnia was stuck keeping up her sonic cage, which seemed sufficient to protect her and the unresponsive Gloom Glimmer from the Skullmen’s assault, but the upkeep of which didn’t allow her to do anything else. Tartsche and the two under his protection were, of course, not even inconvenienced, but whenever Spellgun or Tyche shot back at the Skullmen, Chronicle simply rewound them, which also meant they never had to reload, allowing them to keep on firing an endless stream of bullets.

Bakeneko was doing her best to protect Osore as his form began to bulge and grow, but him powering up also made him an easier target, as she could only stretch herself so far and still remain tough enough to resist the tranquilising bullets. More and more of them were penetrating her and Osore’s skin, causing their movements to grow more and more sluggish.

He fared no better, barely managing to roll under a follow-up kick from the similarly-themed villainess. Coming up behind her, he whirled around, shield-first, to strike her, but she’d already turned around and ducked, kicking his legs out from underneath him.

He snarled, throwing his useless weapon at her, but she simply blurred again, moving far more nimbly than her platemail should allow her to, and grabbed him by the ankle.

She swung him around with inhuman strength, once, twice, thrice, and throw him with such force at Osore and Bakeneko, they were thrown back all three of them to slam into the immovable trio with a sickening crunching sound.

Basil groaned in pain, his back feeling numb, though it didn’t precisely feel broken (it certainly didn’t feel as bad as during his little ordeal at Hastur’s hands), and looked up just in time to see Boltstar unleash a rain of energy bolts from over a dozen of his spheres, raining them down onto Polymnia, straight through her sonic cage.

The young girl cried out in pain as the barrage slammed her into the ground, tearing her armour apart.

Somewhere out of sight, Hecate screamed, once, then was cut off.

And then it all stopped, both the bolts from above and the glowing shots from the Skullmen.

Polymnia was on the ground, bleeding and groaning in pain. Osore was barely standing, and Bakeneko, who was riddled in glowing darts, had gone limp, her armoured tentacles dangling off Osore’s back. Only the immovable trio still stood, watching in horror.

Two Skullmen walked up to the edge of the platform, dragging a groaning Hecate with them by the elbows, several glowing darts sticking out from her chest.

“That enough for you idiots?” Skulls snarled as she stood up from behind her cover and walked up, followed by the brick-patterned villain, who was looking down at them with his arms crossed, looming behind his comparatively shorter leader. “Are you finally going to surrender before I lose my patience and decide to maim you, or do you have any more tricks left?”

Basil looked over his shoulder at the others, his left hand flinching briefly, tempted to reach for the ovoid gadget on his hip. I could use that, but there’s no telling whether it’ll be enough…

Tartsche looked back at him, his eyes wide with fear, yet determined. “Fuck,” he said. “Alright,” he finally said, looking up at Skulls. “Promise that you won’t harm us any more and we’ll surre-“

“There is no surrender,” Osore suddenly said, his voice an octave deeper than normal. “Only the next stratagem.”

And as everyone turned to look at the two-metre tall Japanese boy, he gathered darkness around his right hand and threw it straight into Basil’s chest.

“Twinkle twinkle, little star, how I wonder what…

you…

are…”

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Filed under: Brennus Chapters Tagged: Bakeneko, Basil, Boltstar, Bulwark, Chronicle, Gloom Glimmer, Hecate, Karasuha, Osore, Polymnia, Skulls XIII, Spellgun, Tartsche, Thoughtseize, Tyche
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In My Daydreams

Hideaway: Part 9

In My Daydreams

Tikki pursed her lips without saying anything. “It is possible. All the motivators can tell people to do things, but it doesn’t change their minds and it wears off. They’d be able to tell people.” She stopped, frowned, and continued with, “And besides, the only motivator we have here is Jazden. She’s one of the people who started the resistance and the colony. And she knows where the colony is, so if she were the spy, they’d be here already.”

Marcus nodded. “Okay, so not Jazden, but there might be another motivator or someone with more invasive mind control powers.”

Tikki blinked and bit her lip. “The Human Ascendency has telepaths. Some of them can turn a person’s loyalties inside out or set a command that can be triggered later.”

Cassie shook her head. “We can’t trust anybody then. Too bad Daniel’s not here, right? That would make it lots easier.”

I sighed. “That would help, but supposedly we’d have to deal with a lot of problems if we had a telepath.”

Tikki nodded with so much enthusiasm her head blurred. “Yes. Oh, yes, you have no idea. The Human Ascendancy and all the ex-Abominator soldiers station telepaths everywhere to catch telepaths that aren’t aligned with them. They’re afraid of what would happen if the motivators change sides or if the motivators’ voice no longer works.”

“Oh,” Marcus grinned at her. “We get it. Believe me. There are telepaths on our world who have caused a lot of problems.”

“Except for us,” Tikki looked up at him, “they’re one of our last hopes. Them and the Celestial Ghosts.”

Marcus raised an eyebrow. “Celestial Ghosts? That sounds like someone was desperate to not call them Space Ghosts—which would have been kind of embarrassing. What are they?”

Even as he said it, I felt an data dump coming at me from the implant. Some faction of the Abominators decided they needed a force that could cross space without a spaceship, land on a planet unseen and spy or attack as needed. So, they caught something. I didn’t recognize it even with the pictures. Like the Abominators, it changed shape, but unlike them it shifted universes and through states of hyperspace just as easily. The only guess that made any sense to me was that it might be a child of Lee’s race, but nothing I’d heard from Lee or “Kee” gave me any hint that they still had young. It wasn’t unreasonable to think that there might be other beings that crossed space with a thought.

Whatever it was, the Abominators dissected it, analyzed its genetic structure, and spliced a variation of their genes into human DNA. I saw the Abominator birthing chambers creating the new gene line, all of the forms female. When they were decanted from the tanks, the lead scientist inspected them. In that moment, they all disappeared. The Abominators tried a few more times, always with the same result. Even when they created machines that prevented the Celestial Ghosts from disappearing, it only prolonged the inevitable.

The flood of data included dates, places, the names of the scientists, but I didn’t care about any of that. I just knew I wanted to talk to my sister and I had no way to do it. She couldn’t enter hyperspace on her own, but she’d told me that she could have shifted between realities in Infinity City, and I knew Grandma had.

Even as Tikki finished her description of them with, “No one knows where they go and some people don’t even think they’re real, but I’ve heard they worked with the Xiniti against the Abominators.”

“True,” Katuk said, nodding toward her.

He must have already known, but I struggled with a new sea of implant assisted enlightenment. Celestial Ghosts floated through the walls of Abominator ships attacking the crew while Xiniti attacked another section of the fleet.

When it was over, I realized that Cassie had caught my eye. “Pretty crazy, right?”

I struggled to find words and managed a “Yeah.”

Tikki glanced over at me. I said, “Sorry. My implant deluged me with data after you mentioned the Celestial Ghosts.”

She smiled and shook her head. “I’ve seen the look before. You all got it.”

Marcus grinned. “I ignored it, put it off until I had time. I’m going to manage the thing instead of letting it manage me—“

His eyes unfocused and then he blinked, saying, “Whoa. Nick, did you see what I saw?”

Jaclyn rolled her eyes. “We all did.”

Cassie shook her head. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but reel it in everybody. We’re not getting anywhere on the real topic. We need to find out who’s the spy, right? Here’s the beginning—we invite people our age over and get to know them. It can’t be very many, right? There’s only a few thousand people on the whole planet.”

Jaclyn laughed. “Your big idea is that we throw a party? They’re going to kick us off the planet.”

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In My Daydreams

Hideaway: Part 8

In My Daydreams

One of the women, blond, fortyish, and wearing a blue utility jumpsuit, said, “You’ve been saying that since you got here two years ago.”

Iolan frowned. “I know you don’t believe me, but there have been signs. We’ve all heard about how the Ascendency managed to follow the ship this last time, how they were sure they’d lost them, but they showed up again, one blink from K’Tepolu. But that’s not all. I’ve checked with Geman and he agrees with me. There’s been more ansible activity before and after we send out a ship to collect more refugees—”

The woman said, “—Which could easily be explained by the work we have to do to re-contact our people and everything we have to do afterward to set up for them once they’re here. And it’s not as if you or Geman have been able to find any traffic that can’t be explained—”

Iolan’s mouth had turned into a straight line as she interrupted him and trembled as he listened. As she talked about the ansible traffic, he opened his mouth again. “Alanna, we’ve had our differences, but this is too important to let the past affect our decisions.”

Alanna’s lip curled. “What matters is that you don’t have a shred of evidence to back up what you’re saying. It could be that there’s a spy. It could be chance. It could—“

As they argued, Maru watched, Jadzen frowned and the rest of the council’s faces hardened. I could only guess they’d seen this before.

“Quiet, please.” Jazden’s words cut through the argument and both of them fell silent. As she spoke, all of our uniforms hummed for a moment. She’d used just enough of her power to stop the argument. I couldn’t blame her. That discussion hadn’t been going anywhere.

“Alanna,” Jadzen nodded toward her. “You’re right that Iolan hasn’t proven what he says, but if he’s right, we can’t ignore it. He’s been a loyal member and an excellent doctor and genetic counselor, just as you’ve been excellent at keeping our spaceships and equipment in repair. I think he should have a chance to prove he’s right.”

She looked directly at Iolan Mekus. “Iolan, investigate if we have a spy. It is too important to ignore.”

He nodded. “Thank you. That’s all I asked for—the chance to prove that I’m not seeing spies behind every bush.”

He frowned. “I do have one concern. I’m the colony’s only doctor. I don’t know if I’ll be able to devote the time to this project that it deserves.”

Alanna laughed but stopped when Jazden glanced in her direction.

Turning away from Alanna to look at us, Jazden said, “You’re right, and we can’t risk losing all of your time to this project.”

Addressing us, she gave a wide smile. “Citizens of the Xiniti nation. Since you’re staying here to guard us, I appeal to you for help. I know the Xiniti are known more for their prowess as soldiers than as detectives, but you have humans in the group and we are adaptable. So I ask you, will you assist us? It’s certainly a matter of the colony’s safety.”

“Of course,” I said. “That’s why we’re here.”

Jadzen nodded slowly in my direction. “Thank you. And thank you for risking your lives to save our people last night. I wasn’t there, but I saw the video today. No one asked you to do what you did, and yet you did it without thought of reward. That is what we’ve always admired about the Xiniti. Now we’re going to repair ourselves to a quiet spot in this building and discuss colony business.”

They left.

Jaclyn looked at me and raised an eyebrow. “Do you think we just got played there? I don’t know how, but I feel like Jazden got exactly what she wanted.”

I crossed my arms. “I don’t know how. I mean, it did seem like she had total control of the meeting, but I thought she was just being decisive.”

Jaclyn nodded. “Well, she was decisive, and now we’re stuck rooting out traitors to the cause. Look, I’m not saying that’s bad. If the Human Ascendency finds this place, I don’t know how we’d fight off a fleet like the one we saw after K’Tepolu. That was big.”

She shook her head remembering.

I couldn’t disagree. It had been big enough that we didn’t stand a chance—not unless they all landed and Jaclyn smashed the ships—which, come to think of it, was an idea to remember if they did ever land.

We’d been standing in a line facing them, but as Jaclyn and began to talk, the group of us began to circle. Katuk looked at Jaclyn with his wide, black eyes. “Do you have a reason not to trust the colony’s leader?”

Jaclyn shook her head. “I don’t. Honestly, it’s probably just leftover bad feeling from when she tried to send us home.”

Cassie nodded. “Then let’s get to it. Nick ought to go talk to Geman and see what tech stuff he can find out, but the rest of us should start getting to know the people. Look, if someone’s working for the Human Ascendency, they’ve got a reason. Maybe they hate Jazden and want to see her captured. Maybe they’re an Ascendency fanatic. We don’t know because we don’t know anybody. So, let’s change that.”

Tikki frowned. “We’re all part of the resistance. I can’t imagine that any of us would work for the Ascendency.”

Marcus shrugged. “Then maybe mind control? It’s not impossible.”

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Tieshaunn

B13.11 Call of the Sleeper

Tieshaunn

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Basil looked warily at the goblet in front of him. It’s probably not a good idea to refuse his hospitality; if he wanted to hurt us, he wouldn’t need to play games like this, anyway, he thought to himself, and picked the goblet up with his right hand, keeping the left one free in case he needed to throw up a force-field quickly.

“Water,” he said to the goblet without hesitation, and it filled up instantly. A twitch of his eyes caused the lower half of his helmet to fold back onto his cheeks, freeing his mouth, and he took a sip.

Just water.

That broke the spell for the others, and everyone else picked their goblets up as well, some ordering instantly – various kinds of sodas for most of them, grape juice for Osore; and Tyche…

“Triple chocolate milkshake with ground almonds and cream.”

When the cream-and-almonds topped shake appeared in her goblet, a real smile appeared on her face for the first time since she’d run into this Immanuel.

A sigh drew his attention away from her. Emyr was looking… chargrined.

“You just ruined my joke,” he said, his voice flat, but a slight smile on his face. When everyone looked at him in confusion, he explained, “Usually when I do this, everyone just gets something boring and then I’ll ask for something like…” He looked pensively at his goblet and said, “Strawberry and cream shake with chocolate and caramel syrup,” causing said drink to appear in it, “And everyone would just stare like they’d seen the Devil.” He drank from his goblet.

Tyche had already finished hers while he’d been talking. “I know, right? You give people a cup that can give’em any drink and they pick soda, or water,” she said, glaring at Basil. He gave her as deadpan a look as he could in return, with most of his face covered up.

“Banana and cherry smoothy mix.” Her goblet filled up again.

Meanwhile, the freaking Godking of Mars was laughing quietly, like this was all just a friendly gathering. “Ah well, no matter.” He drank from his goblet. “Let’s focus on more important things.” He looked at Basil. “First of all, we ought to introduce ourselves properly.”

He put his right hand over his heard, tilting his head forward. “Emyr Blackhill, God-King of Mars and Once and Future King of Earth,” he introduced himself smoothly, without a hint of irony or boast. Then he looked at Tartsche to his right.

“T-tartsche,” the armor-clad youth replied, his voice betraying a great deal of nervousness. “Leader – though likely not too much longer, after this stunt – of the New Lennston United Heroes Junior Division.”

“Spellgun, member of the same,” his boyfriend continued as Emyr’s gaze passed onto him.

“B-Bakeneko. The same,” came a squeak from the next one in line. She seemed to literally wilt under his gaze, her power reacting to her mood.

“Osore.”

“Gloom Glimmer, also a member of the junior division,” Gloom Glimmer introduced herself, her voice clear as a bell and betraying no hint of being nervous or even slightly intimidated. Her eyes were nearly glowing underneath her hood, though blue rather than red now.

“Polymnia, also a junior hero,” the songstress continued, her electronic voice reflecting none of the nervousness that her face and body showed.

“Tyche! Hero and member of Team B- ouch” Tyche began, but was cut off when Hecate reached out to knock her over the back of the head with her staff, reaching behind Basil to do so.

“Brennus, of the same team,” he said curtly, seeing no point in trying to hold his name back.

“Hecate, also said team which most certainly does not use that atrocious acronym,” Hecate grumbled.

Emyr watched the whole exchange with open amusement. “A pleasure to meet you all, young heroes,” he said, raising his goblet in a casual gesture. “It’s always a joy to see young people willing to fight for a good cause.” He drank from his goblet, before he continued, “Now, on to the second point.” He looked straight at Basil. “You are wrong. I am Emyr Blackhill, not merely a fascimile.”

“You believe so? Even though you are incapable of leaving this… pocket reality?” He watched the long-haired man closely, feeling rather curious in spite of the seriousness of the situation, and the time pressure he himself was under. This was the man who’d once conquered the world, after all.

Instead of replying directly, Emyr turned to look at Legend, who was holding her head lowered in a demure posture that was very obviously not willingly chosen. “It’s pretty easy to determine with a single question. Sophia, can you summon anyone who’s not a metahuman?”

She replied instantly, without hesitation, yet without looking up, either. “No, I can not, your majesty. Only metahumans have sufficient impact upon the Historia to be summoned by my rituals.”

He turned around, smiling as he spread his arms in a ‘there-you-go’ gesture. “Can you tell why I claim to be the real one?” He looked around at everyone at the table, aiming the question at each and every one.

What does he mean? Basil asked himself. Why is he even trying to make an argument based on a Contriver’s delusions… of course, he may simply be delusional himself, believing that he truly is the true Emyr even though he is not.

Still, real or not, he was far more powerful than all of them put together, yet willing to talk instead of outright killing them, even after their attempt to do just the same to him. So best to play along for now.

“You’re implying that there’s something about metahumans in particular that would make them viable targets for resurrection, when baselines are not,” Spellgun spoke up, suddenly, leaning onto his elbows, which rested on the table, while Tartsche looked at him in alarm… though, they’d already clasped hands, putting him within the aegis of Tartsche’s power…

Emyr circumvented Tartsche’s power, Basil realised all of a sudden, his eyes snapping from Emyr to the two young lovers. Both Spellgun and Tyche were still underneath its protection when he stopped time, yet they were moved. He focused on Tartsche – his face was hidden by his knightly helmet, after all – and found himself thoroughly unsurprised to see that he was clenching Spellgun’s hand tightly, like a lifeline; the only sign, but a telling one, of just how freaked out he had to be right now.

Another thing to worry about, Basil thought, clenching his hands into fists. So much to worry about, so many things to keep in mind…

“Suffice it to say that, based upon my understanding of the nature of metahumanity, it is strong evidence towards the fact that I am the true Emyr Blackhill,” came the reply after Emyr drank from his, milkshake. “Once I am truly and completely revived, I am confident I shall remember all that happened during this little sojourn. Of course, I may just be delu-“

“Enough,” Basil cut him off with a sharp voice, in spite of his earlier decision to play along.

Everyone turned their heads to stare at him like he was a man possessed, but he ignored them to focus on Emyr.

“I do not have time for this,” he said, leaning towards their ‘host’ as he just barely kept his voice calm. “There are people out there who are dying, people whose one and only chance to survive rely on completing this mission and I need to get going because the clock. Is. Ticking. So tell us what you want and then let us go, or just let us go, but do not dither; I do not have the time to waste having a tea party here with you.”

Hecate made a strangled sound when he started speaking and was trying to wave him off, but he ignored her.

Mate, you just lipped off to the Godking of Mars, Macian whispered inside his head. I ain’t sure whether to congratulate you on the density of your balls or hand you the Darwin aw-

Shut it.

Emyr put his goblet down, touching his fingers together in front of his face, his expression pensive. “It has been some time since anyone has dared speak to me like that,” he said, finally, while Basil shook with barely restrained rage. “Not counting the little princess across the table from myself,” he nodded to Gloom Glimmer, who stiffened up. “Yes, child, I know who your parents are. No, I didn’t use my power to find out – but you do look entirely too much like your mother and your power feels entirely too much like your father’s for you to be anyone else; I’d recognise either any time, for they are both people who I have studied extensively.”

“Whom, Sir,” Hecate cut in, almost in a squeal. “The term is ‘whom’, not ‘who’.”

He looked at her, smiling as she clapped her hands over her mouth in shock at herself, but just nodded. “You are right – I apologise for the mistake, it shall not happen a-“

There was a sharp sound of metal crumpling, screaming, make everyone look at Basil again.

He’d just crushed his goblet in one gloved fist, without even noticing it. “This is enough,” he stood up, nearly throwing the chair he’d been sitting on over. “I, we, do not have time for this, so get to the point,” he told him, once more, his teeth grinding together at the end.

Emyr still looked pensive, not offended, which really only made Basil even angrier. He clearly didn’t care about any of this!

“I really do need to take over the world again,” he replied with a soft voice, finally, loosely clasping his hands together. “Seems like things are even worse than the last time.”

How would you know, Sir?” Polymnia said, sounding perfectly calm and composed; “Your power ends at the door, doesn’t it?

Emyr shrugged. “This one,” he spoke calmly, gesturing towards the fuming Basil, “is quite sincere in what he says. Which means that there are people out there dying and the only chance they have to survive is… a group of children? Fighting people like Sophia, here, who’d not hesitate to slay you?” He made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “Any world in which children must go to war is a horrible one indeed.”

He looked around at each of them in turn, and they all looked away, unable to meet his gaze, save for Basil, who simply glared at him and Gloom Glimmer, who showed no reaction at all.

“I see none of you can dispute the state of the world,” he followed softly.

“Is that really the reason why you want to take over the world?” Gloom Glimmer spoke up, suddenly, her eyes barely visibly underneath her hood.

“Is it not enough?” he answered with a question.

“Not for you,” she shot back. “Not according to my power. Is it because it’d make for a great story? Is that it, does the author want to impose an epic tale on the real world?” she pressed the point, while also throwing a look at Basil.

Please, calm down – we’re not going to get away from him if we piss him off, she spoke into his mind, without missing a beat physically.

Basil clenched his fists so hard his gauntlets creaked and strained, but he sat down again. Not that he was going to just go along with this farce, but she was right, just complaining at Emyr was not going to achieve anything of use.

“That would be interesting, wouldn’t it?” Emyr asked right back again, looking as amused as before. “However, while I won’t deny the fact that I enjoy turning my quest into a story for the ages, even at the cost of efficiency in some aspects, it’s merely a… bonus. As for taking over the world, that is merely a means to an end; and I am not so delusional as to believe I could cure all the world’s ills and bring eternal peace and prosperity to humanity – if nothing else, humans will always find another reason to fight amongst themselves, no matter the circumstances.” He shrugged. “Though I do believe I could reduce the number of casualties on the way to my goal.”

“What is that goal?” Hecate threw in, the words bursting forth as if she couldn’t stand the tension anymore.

Even Tyche, currently drinking her sixth drink, seemed to be on the edge of her seat. The only one who seemed to be entirely unaffected by it all was, as usual, Osore.

“My true goal is…,” was all Emyr began to say, leaning slightly forward, his face grave and shadowed by his wild mass of hair. “Secret.”

“Oh come on!” Tyche complained loudly, nearly spilling her eighth drink.

“Hey, I kept it a secret for so long, why should I tell now?” He laughed, clearly amused by the annoyed expressions he could see, at least from those whose faces weren’t hidden by masks or cowls – though their body language certainly helped express their own opinion towards his attitude. “Really now, children, I may enjoy crossing off the classic tropes, but I’m not going to reveal my great master plan in a big villaneous monologue. I’m laidback, not stupid.” He picked up his goblet and drank again. “Now, as to what I want with you lot, specifically… to be honest, I simply want to amuse myself.” He looked straight at Basil again. “I know that may seem callous to you, especially now that you’ve told me something of what’s at stake – and you’re right. Which is why I’ll instead ask you what exactly you’re after, young Brennus. What is your quest?”

Basil frowned at the question. Much as he really didn’t want to antagonise him – he wasn’t an idiot, previous behaviour be damned – he also didn’t exactly cherish the idea of telling this story just to amuse a capricious wannabe-deity.

Still, it seemed like the fastest way to get out of this would be to play along… to a point.

“If I tell you, will you let us go?” he decided to ask.

“That very much depends on the story you tell me,” Emyr replied smoothly, as if he’d expected the question. “Tell your tale, and tell it true, and I shall choose the next scene to come.”

Basil’s hands clenched into fists again, at the arrogance, the-

His right hand clenched around something hard.

He looked down and saw his goblet, whole, in his hand. He looked up at Emyr again, who just smiled.

Neither word nor gesture, he thought. Is there no limit at all to his power? Can he bend reality by will alone? Did he create the goblet so it’d repair itself? Did he give himself an ability that allows him to fix it at will? Did he… He cut that train of thought off right there – there were too many possibilities, and he had no means by which to determine which one was the most likely. No, there is. There are. He’s said so himself, and it shows. He was killed, as well – that wouldn’t have worked out if he didn’t have limits that could be exploited.

You’re in no position to exploit anything, mate, the Man in the Moon whispered.

But I can gather information for when I – or another – will be.

Taking a deep breath, he said, “First, I have a question to ask, about our fight earlier.” He looked him straight in the eyes again, even though his mask prevented direct eye contact. It was still strange, looking into those pools of black. A sense of vertigo he’d never felt before. Like looking through two windows into the Abyss.

“More of a little spat, really,” Emyr qualified. “Ask, and ye shall be answered.” He made a permissive hand gesture to accompany the statement, without a hint of humor in any of it.

“You threw me off of you like I weighed nothing, and you were able to tear Gloom Glimmer’s gag off just as easily. Yet no command – or dictate, I suppose – could have allowed you to do that, so how did you do it?”

Emyr’s smile broadened. “Body language.” He winked at him, then broak out into laughter when he saw the shocked expressions on the exposed faces. “Ah, yes, people tend to react like that to finding out about that little aspect of my power. Anyway, I believe that answers your question – your turn, now.”

Basil took a deep breath. “It is a long story.”

“I love long stories.”

He rolled his eyes. “Alright. A member of the organisation she belongs to,” he gestured towards Legend, “unleashed a bio-weapon on Hawaii, years ago. It killed most of the victims and left the others crippled, dying slowly. Their time is running out, I discovered the location of this base but the authorities are still deliberating how to proceed – and whether to trust my information, so I decided to come after the woman responsible – Dusu – myself, because I need her to give me the cure for her poison. Legend here intercepted us as we were taking the train towards their base’s section in which we believe Dusu to be.”

“A lengthy tale indeed,” Emyr mused. “So every one of you came here to find this cure?” He turned his vertigo-inducing gaze at the others, up and down the table. They all nodded, some more self-assured than the others.

Seemingly pleased, he turned his eye upon Brennus again, stroking his chin with one of his spidery hands, contemplating… something. “Why do you need this cure, young Brennus?” he asked, finally.

Basil tilted his head, confused. “Why… I need it in order to cure her victims.”

“That is what you need it for, but why do you, Brennus, want it?” the Godking asked with a curious smile, resting his cheek on his left hand. “What drives you to attack the base of such a dangerous organisation, taking these brave friends of yours into such danger – and don’t deny that you did, I recognise a leader when I see one – and challenge even me?”

“I need to cure those who have been harmed by Dusu,” he replied simply, trying to find the sense in this line of questioning. “If you must know, one of them…” He looked at the junior heroes, briefly, then decided he’d trusted them this far anyway. “One of them’s my girlfriend. This is the only way I have left to save her, short of carrying her into the Protectorate – and even if I could, she’d never survive such a trip.”

He could feel the eyes of Tartsche, Spellgun and Polymnia on him, but ignored them as he focused on Emyr. “Is this enough already? Every second counts.”

Emyr tapped his chin with one of his long, thin fingers. “I suppose it is, and thank you for satisfying my curiosity.” He sat up straight. “I think I understand you a little better now. I am curious though, what would you do if I were to say I intend to keep you here for a longer time?”

Basil shrugged. “I would kill you or, failing that, disable you in some way and break out of this place,” he replied flatly. I don’t know how, yet, but I will figure it out.

Everyone at the table, as well as Legend, just stared at him. Then they looked at Emyr, who’d gone still, looking at him in surprise.

“That’s hardly very heroic of you,” he said.

“I am not much of a hero,” Basil spat him, annoyed. “Or that good a person. But I am enough of both that I am going to do the right thing to save these people, and if that means going through you, then so be it.”

“I’m giving you points for gumption, at least,” Emyr replied flatly, untouched by the venom in the boy’s voice. “Not for brains, though. You’re talking about killing a-“

“A god, I know,” he snarled. “Or at least, that is what you claim – but you, you are no god.”

Emyr tilted his head the other way, looking dumbfounded. “Have you seen Mars lately? I assure you, I am very much a god-“

“You really aren’t, Sir,” Hecate spoke up, her voice low, but firm, looking straight at Emyr’s eyes when he turned his gaze to her, shivering when she felt their effect upon herself. “You were killed. Everyone knows the story. The Seven Regicides took you down, and they were certainly no gods themselves.”

“Seven Regicides, huh?” Emyr smiled in amusement. “So that’s how the world remembers them, is that it? Do they tell their tale still?”

“They do,” Hecate answered him, clearly straining to keep up the eye contact. “Everyone knows their names. Jack Flag. Gungnir. The Prospector. Jekyll and Hyde. The Unseen.  Chatterbox. The Illionaut.There’s books, movies, comics… we don’t know how they did it, but we know they did.”

“There were eight, actually,” he remarked. “The count starts at Zero, not one. But that’s beside the point,” he continued, as if that was nothing, ignoring the gasps of everyone around the table.

Everyone save three. Gloom Glimmer remained still, and both Polymnia and Basil watched her, having noticed her flinch earlier.

What was that about?

On the other side of the table, Emyr continued to speak.

“I’ve got to say, though, it’s rather annoying how people keep misunderstanding my title,” he said, actually showing some annoyance for once. “I never claimed to be a god of humans. I created my children, the Martians – I reforged the world they live on. To them, I am, undoubtedly, and by any definition, God. I am also their absolute, unchallenged monarch – thus, King. Thereby, I am the God-King of Mars.” He huffed, brushing a few strands of hair out of his face. “It’s not a boast, it’s a simple fact.”

Basil sighed. “Are you deliberately wasting my time now?” he asked, growing weary even as his voice rose to near-screaming. “None of this, none of this, is necessary. I need to get going, I need to find Dusu, so get to the fucking point!

“Alright, alright,” Emyr made a calming gesture with both arms. “Calm yourself, young one. I do sympathise with your plight – if anything, I applaud it. A knight in shining,” he looked at Basil’s jet-black armour, “well, not-so-shining armour, out to cure countless innocents including his lady; I love that kind of story!” he finished with an excited smile.

Basil leaned forward in his chair, “This isn’t for your amusement!”

“It may not be meant to, but it amuses me anyway,” the Godking said softly. “And I say that without any derision. I am not making light of your quest, Brennus, I am merely trying to point out that, perhaps, you should sit down, relax, recover some of your strength and realise that I am your ally, here.”

That made Basil sit back and stare. “What?”, he said, only to realise that about half the other teens at the table had said the same, at the same time.

Emyr chuckled. “Please, children. I may have tried – and succeeded, let’s not forget that – to take over the world, but I’m no monster, and I’ve always considered myself to have certain standards. Even if this Dusu hadn’t apparently used a bio-weapon on civilians, I would still support you, if only because the idea of a tale like this appeals to me too much not to,” he explained, before drinking from his ice-cream-filled goblet. “Are you going to accept my help?” he asked, finally, looking straight at Basil once more.

“I… of course. If you want to help, I… could not say no; we need any help we can get,” he replied, feeling thoroughly unbalanced.

Then, a new hope bloomed inside of him. It was far-fetched, a mere chance, but… “Could you, just, wish them whole?” he asked, leaning forward, unable to keep his voice calm. “Can you do, something with your power, that’d just fix them?”

Emyr smiled sadly at him. “Ah, how I wish I could,” he said, crushing that particular hope. “Once upon a time, it would’ve been less than child’s play to me – but now, with my power limited to this little pocket? I’m afraid not – I could not even create a Panacea and let you take it along to use on them yourself.” He sighed. “I’m sorry, I truly am, but in this, I am less able than you are to make a difference.”

Then he smiled. “However, I can offer two other things. One, I can rejuvenate the lot of you – which, as you may have noticed, I already did before time continued,” he gestured at them, and Basil took a second look – he was right, all the damage to his armor and costume, as well as those the others had accumulated, was gone; and he felt as fresh as he would after a good, long night’s full of sleep (something which he’d missed these last few days). “And second, we can extract some information from Legend here – that alone should be worth the delay, right?” He gestured at the enslaved contriver. “Ask her whatever you wish to know and she will answer to the best of her knowledge, in all honesty and with no attempts at deception or manipulation.”

Legend shuddered under the weight of the dictate – and it was one, even though there was no real indicator as to which parts of his speech were backed by his power and which weren’t – but nodded obediently, without a moment’s hesitation.

Basil looked around the table at the others – everyone looked to be shocked, scared or hopeful, to varying degrees, sometimes all three at once.

This is too weird for words, the Man in the Moon spoke up. Then again, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, mate.

For once, I agree with you. He turned towards Emyr, again, to ask the first question that came to mind, but he was pre-empted by Polymnia using her vocoder.

“What kind of resistance are we likely to run into, from now on until finding Dusu?” she asked the woman in the maid outfit.

She flinched. “The team you’ve fought before is likely to have recovered by now and be setting up an ambush outside the portal to this realm. There’s also two more combat-able teams on the Installation. Furthermore, Dusu has her own security, and her lab is in the same complex as that of the new Ascendant – I have no idea whether the latter could have some nasty surprises in store for you, if you show at her doorstep.”

Gloom Glimmer leaned in, putting both arms onto the table. “Wait, the Ascendant? So they did name a new one – what’s this one’s deal?” she asked, her voice hard. “Is he going after children again!?”

Legend shook her head. “No. I’m not aware of their exact project – while she only slightly outranks me, I have little to do with the Gadgeteering complex – but I know that it’s seriously impressed the top executives and that they declared it Top Secret even for the division heads like myself. I am, however, aware that it does not, apparently, require the purchase of test subjects, as the previous Ascendant’s work did.”

Several of the heroes around the table, particularly the girls, looked rather green at the callous admission of slave-trading being done here, but Basil decided not to press that particular point here.

“So we can not know what to expect once we get past the team we already defeated before,” Basil concluded. “What can you tell us about Dusu’s own security?”

“Her laboratory is heavily fortified and hermetically sealed, due to containing so many bio-threats. Attacking her carelessly would be supremely dangerous. I am not aware of any specific security other than the guards who protect her complex as a whole.”

“Is there some shortcut that can take us straight to Dusu?” Tyche asked inbetween emptying her thirteenth goblet and refilling it. “Would be nice to skip straight past all the fightin’,” she concluded rather uncharacteristically.

“None that I’m aware of.”

Tyche sighed in disappointment.

“Where do these monsters come from that attacked Esperanza City, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Australia?” Tartsche asked, suddenly, his voice still trembling a little, though noticably more controlled than earlier – he’d even relaxed his grip on Spellgun’s hand a bit. “And why did you have them attack in the first place?”

Legend looked away, seemingly ashamed – but Basil couldn’t tell whether she was honestly ashamed for what had been done, was ashamed of something else related to it or was simply being forced to be so due to Emyr’s unkown edicts – and replied, “They attacked because we couldn’t control them after their creation, so the top executives decided to cut them lose and see whether they couldn’t cause some more origins,” she explained as if talking about the weather. “As for their nature, I am not entirely sure but I know they are connected to the Sleeper.”

“What is the Sleeper?” Tartsche immediately pressed on.

The sorcerous woman looked up at him, a strange, off-putting light in her eyes. “The Sleeper is the future, our key to expanding our power and bringing as many into the light as we can – a colossal being sleeping in the depths of the Mariana Trench which we believe to be connected directly to the source of metahuman powers, currently in some form of hibernation,” she explained with almost religious fervour. “The beasts that attacked those places were somehow induced to spawn from it, but I don’t exactly know how – I do know that Dusu was and is the head of that particular program, so you should ask her for anything more regarding the subject matter.”

Emyr watched the exchange, tapping his fingers together, his face gone completely serious. “What a disgusting collection of wretches,” he spoke softly, his voice shimmering with an anger that made everyone else within the pocket reality shudder and lean away from him. “What is this group called?” he asked his slave.

“We are sometimes called the Companions of the Future, but our original and preferred name is ‘die Gefährten’, which means…”

Emyr cut her off with a wave of his hand. “I am well aware of what it means. Well, now I know whom to purge once I take over again. Continue.”

Basil leaned forward, putting his goblet aside to clasp his hands in front of his face, his mask snapping shut once more.

***

They continued to extract as much information as they could from Legend. The woman was completely cooperative, though clearly not willingly so, repeatedly making faces and shuddering, yet unable to truly strain against the commands imposed upon her by Emyr.

Finally, after nearly ten minutes, Basil decided to end it. “I think that is enough,” he announced loudly, leaning back. “We should get going now.” He looked at Emyr, silently asking for permission – though it galled him a great deal having to defer to him so.

To his (mild by now) surprise and gratitude, Emyr nodded, making a sweeping gesture. “It is time, yes. Go, find the cure.” He smiled softly, a little sadly. “I do wish I could offer greater support, but I’m afraid all I have left is to give you all my blessing.”

The others looked at each other, then at him, but no one knew what to say to that, really.

“Thank you,” was all Tartsche could bring himself to say – he still appeared to be rather put off by having his power circumvented somehow, and he’d very tellingly not asked how Emyr had achieved said feat.

“You’re welcome. Now off, off with you all!” Emyr raised a hand and snapped his fingers, and the door behind him opened smoothly, without a sound, revealing the shimmering portal they’d seen earlier behind Legend’s force-field.

They all got up, rather quickly, and moved towards the door, but Tyche stopped briefly next to Emyr’s chair.

“Y’know, for a crazy evil overlord, you’re really ok,” she said, offering him her hand. “And thanks for the drinks. Wish I could keep the magic cup, really,” she continued with a grin.

Emyr smiled at her, only having to bend his neck slightly to look up at her face, even while sitting. “It was my pleasure, Tyche. My pleasure, and my horror – I’ve never seen a normal-sized girl drink twenty-two drinks in such a short time. And each one an original, at that.” He took her hand, shaking it. “I do hope we can meet again under more pleasant circumstances, young hero.”

She blushed a little at his smile, and nodded. “Sure. See ya, your royal godliness.”

They all passed by Legend, who remained quiet, her head lowered and her hands clasped together, but Hecate and Polymnia both stopped next to her.

They exchanged a look, the two of them, then turned around, with Hecate speaking up.

“What’s going to happen to Legend?” she asked worriedly.

Emyr leaned around on his throne-like chair, looking at her with an inscrutable, but gentle expression. “Worried for your enemy, are you? Well, you needn’t be – I don’t intend to kill her, merely teach her a lesson before I eject her unto the real world once more.”

They looked at each other, again, as the others pooled around the gate, waiting for the two girls to join them and exit this reality. While neither seemed to be too happy with his reply, they clearly decided – sensibly, in Basil’s opinion – that it was likely to be the best they’d get.

“Alright. One more thing, Sir,” Hecate pressed on. “May we, um, take those?” She gestured at the items on the table, the ones Legend had used to summon her shades. “They should be returned to their proper places.”

Emyr nodded and gestured at the items, then at Hecate. They all rose up and flew over to her, making her briefly squeal in surprise before she caught them all and, with a respectful bow to him, stuffed them carefully into her bag of holding.

“Is there anything else?” he asked kindly.

She shook her head. “No, that will be all. Thank you, Sir,” she bowed again, then turned to leave.

Basil watched all that, feeling oddly disconnected from it all, but didn’t comment.

It didn’t help that he still didn’t trust Emyr, and so he let the others exit this reality first, just in case.

He was just about to step out of it himself when Emyr spoke up again.

“Brennus,” he said and when Basil turned to look at him, he’d rotated his throne around to face him and the door. “One last thing before you leave.”

“What is it now?” Basil asked wearily.

“Remember these words,” Emyr said, before he cleared his throat and sat up more straight, then spoke in a much firmer, deeper voice than before: “To pursue what is necessary is the province of beasts – a true man must pursue naught but what he desires.'”

Basil tilted his head to the side. “I… do not understand.”

Emyr smiled at him like a kindly old grandfather might. “I know you don’t, just as I know that you will, some day. Be well, Sir Knight, and may you save those you wish to save.”

Clearly dismissed, Basil nodded at the strange man and turned around, leaving.

***

Legend watched quietly as Emyr leaned back in his seat while it rotated – with no visible or audible cause – back to face the table, the door closing behind him. She couldn’t do anything but be quiet and await new orders… and dread whatever ‘lesson’ he had planned for her.

“How likely do you think they are to succeed, Sophia?” he asked pensively.

She didn’t have to think about it to know the answer. “There’s no way this story is going to have a happy end,” she replied sadly – and she did feel sad. She wasn’t heartless, and she did feel sympathy for Dusu’s victims and those trying to save them; nevermind that she honestly wished that monstrous woman would get what she deserved (Sophia was a villain, and she was even willing to kill teenaged combatants, but… Dusu was just evil). “Whether or not they reach Dusu, she-“

She was interrupted, suddenly, when someone walked past her from behind, making her jump and squeal in surprise as she saw someone wearing a dark blue, hooded robe move down the table.

Where, where did he… no one but him and me should be here! she thought, staring in shock.

Emyr remained quiet, looking almost as surprised as she felt as he watched the stranger sit down at the opposite end of the table, where the unnerving girl with the changing power had been sitting just a minute earlier.

Sophia was immediately assaulted by an unnerving sense of vertigo as she looked at the stranger’s face underneath his hood – or rather, the lack of a face, as he was wearing a mostly flat, featureless mirror-helmet within which she could see the distorted reflections of both herself, Emyr and the table. Yet, even though she could not see the figure’s eyes, she still felt like she was seeing into Emyr’s own black orbs, seeing into the abyss beyond them.

The stranger sat down without a care in the world, putting his elbows on the table and clasping his hands underneath his chin, resting it atop his interlaced fingers.

“Well well,” Emyr said, tapping the armrest of his chair. “Who do we have here? I don’t believe we’ve met before. What is your name, stranger?”

“Some call me Journeyman,” the man spoke, making Sophia shudder at the sound of countless voices – most but not all male – speaking in unison. In spite of that, though, the man did not project any kind of hostility or threat.

“Mm, interesting choice of names,” the Godking of Mars replied. “I assume you know who I am, Aion?”

“Emyr Blackhill, the Godking of Mars,” Journeyman said. “I came here to kill this incarnation of yours.” Sophia choked on her own spit.

“Well, that is rather refreshingly forward,” Emyr chuckled with clear amusement in his voice. “While I’d be really curious to see how you’d achieve that, I’m afraid it’s quite superfluous – I am going to terminate myself soon, since I can’t break out of here in any case. You’re wasting your time and strength, if you can even do it against my will.”

“Not so,” Journeyman countered. “I know you too well – you’d find a way to break out of here, and I can’t have that.” He leaned a little more forward, as his mask stopped reflecting the scene in front of him and showed nothing but Emyr’s own face, reflecting back at him.

The Godking frowned at him, his mouth twisting. “You seem quite certain… precognition?”

“Of a sort,” Journeyman replied.

“It is not impossible that I could device a means by which to escape this confinement, that is true, though I haven’t as of now,” Emyr said pensively. “Yet that would be truly a major feat, even for one such as I. You still believe you could slay me, now?”

Please, oh please, say yes!, Sophia silently begged the stranger.

To her dismay, he shook his head, only for his words to then make her hopes flare again. “I don’t think. I know.” He lowered his hands onto the table, leaning onto his elbows. “In this place, at this time, I am more than you are.”

Emyr chuckled. “I’d like to put that to the test, if you don’t mind.”

Journeyman grabbed the table by the edge and threw it aside like it weighed nothing, causing it – and the bowl atop it, and the goblets – to shatter against the walls, as he strode forward towards the Godking on his throne, his long, powerful strides moving him faster than Sophia could run.

Emyr stood up, ponderously, and pulled back an arm, forming a fist.

Journeyman wound up for his own strike.

Sophia stared in horrified fascination, unable to do anything but observe.

Their fists met.

Their world broke.

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Filed under: Brennus Chapters Tagged: Bakeneko, Basil, Emyr Blackhill, Gloom Glimmer, Hecate, Journeyman, Legend, Osore, Polymnia, Spellgun, Tartsche, Tyche
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Tieshaunn

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Tieshaunn

The new chapter is almost ready – 90% written – but I’m having serious trouble getting the ending to be anything but horrible, so I’m still at it at 0:40 in the freaking morning. Bear with me.

Sincerely,

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