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Page would much rather have a written guarantee from the start, but Sea Devil was creeping her right the hell out, yet somehow seemed trustworthy, in her weird, froggy way.  She took a deep breath and began to speak. 


"...No, I didn't take the doctor.  I tried, Owen and me.  That's how we got caught.  But we couldn't find him, and the Girl Scout showed up--" she meant this as an insult without knowing how right she was, "--along with her big, ugly friend.  We never even saw Delacroix.  But Owen and I, we're not the only ones.  There were two more.  The four of us, plus a whoooooole lot of dead bodies, were trapped at this lab in New Hampshire.  It...it's not a good place.  Or wasn't, since we wrecked it all to hell when we busted out.  I think you're looking for the one who helped me escape.  She...she said her name was Julia."


* * *


So, evidently something else went wrong.


At about the same time that her fellow experiment was betraying her, Julia emerged on shaky legs from the row house disguising her bunker.  Burning the whole way, she ran down the street, past frozen pedestrians and cars, into a fast food restaurant around the corner, and took shelter in its walk-in freezer.  She could've just let Caleb's cold protect her, but she didn't have the heart.  Even though he couldn't see her like this, the idea was just too painful. 


She waited in there until her explosive rage simmered down, then went to the restroom to wash off the dried blood that caked both of her hands up to the elbows.


"That one wasn't my fault," she told herself.  "He didn't give me any choice.  I had to kill him.  But maybe now...maybe the rest will finally realize that I'm serious."


It took much too long to wait for water to come creeping out of the faucets, but by now Julia had a system.  She could just rip apart plastic pipes, but for metal ones like she found in most company buildings, she just stomped her heel down on the U-bend over and over again until the iron or steel caved inward, then broke apart, at which point she could reach into the open segments and scoop out what she needed.  Liquid was like Jell-o to her; she had to smear it over her skin by the handful.  It broke down into smaller and smaller chunks as it evaporated, and then she could stand comfortably in the resulting cloud, getting the last bit of use out of it before moving on.


She went through the kitchen like a one-woman locust swarm, then headed back out into the city.  Now she had to wait again, killing more time exploring.  Staring into the snapshots of people she envied so badly that sometimes she had to tear herself away from individuals who seemed particularly happy, or else fury would overcome her again and she'd find herself sitting in another pile of slick, red goo. 


"I'll give them more time," she said.  "Then I'll go back home, and the scientists will have answers. This time, everything will be fine."


She's wrong.


* * *


"I mean, she couldn't say it," the prisoner continued to Aquaria.  "Because she can't say anything; I've never even seen this lady, so she could be lying to me.  We could only communicate with notes.  But if she was truthful, then she's moving unbelievably fast, and she's stuck that way.  It fit with what I did see.  When we were escaping, guards from the lab would try to intercept us, and they'd just...well, I won't go into the details, but the problem would magically turn into a big mess, usually with a side of fire.  Julia wrote that she couldn't stop overheating, right up to the point of being engulfed in flames, unless she stood very still.  The doctors apparently tried to fix that and made some progress, but not enough.


"Her husband, Caleb, is about the opposite.  I have met him; he's just about useless.  Moves even slower than most old people, damn near brain-dead, and gives off this aura of intense cold.  That was good for Julia, but it made my life difficult, I can tell you.  The experiments weren't good for him.  Still, Julia loves him, so we brought the guy along.  I'm pretty sure she would've killed me and Owen otherwise. 


"So, my guess is, Julia took that doctor.  We wanted him to make us human again.  It's a thin lead, very thin, but it's all we had.  Julia grabbed a bunch of notes from the lab on our way out, and most of them just burned up, but I looked through the scraps.  Delacroix's name was on one of the pages.  There wasn't enough left to tell what it was about, but we read up on the guy, and even if he's not somehow involved, he seemed like the type of scientist we could use.  I would've preferred somebody a little less high profile, but we also figured that Freedom City was a good place to hide anyway, with all the other metahumans around here.  Keeps us from standing out quite so much, just in case anybody from that lab came looking for us.  I'm not sure what kind of operation they have, but at least a few of them probably made it out alive, so I wasn't about to take the chance.


"The last thing I have for you is probably the most useful.  I found a hideout for the four of us, and I don't think Julia would've moved to a new one.  Not thanks to Caleb; she'd have a hell of a time getting him somewhere else without mine and Owen's help.  As of the time of my capture, they were in this old underground bunker beneath a house in the West End.  3302 Copperhorn Road."

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Singularity carefully entered the address into her phone; it wouldn't navigate in the depths of the prison, but at least she wouldn't forget the address that way. She jotted a few other notes as well, then gave Paige a level look. "If your information helps us find what we're looking for, we'll make sure you're rewarded for it. But we need to know what you're looking to do, first," she insisted, her voice quiet, matter of fact. 


"If you stay in prison, we can help you get access to things to make the time easier. An education program, nicer food, better entertainment. That's not very hard. If you actually want to get out, that's a lot more difficult." She tucked away the phone and folded her hands neatly on the table. "You have to want to change, be willing to change everything. And we have people who can tell if you are really willing, or just saying you are. I did worse things than you've ever done, and I had to give up most of what I had been, but now I'm out and I'm doing all right. What is it you want?" 

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The Night Before


For a long moment, everything seemed distant and muted to Tristan; his surroundings became secondary to the ache, then stabbing sensations, that spread from his nose and forehead throughout the rest of his skull and down his back.  He lifted one hand, brought it to his face, and pulled it away again with red on his fingertips.


When was the last time he saw his own blood outside of a vial?  When was the last time he felt real, persisting pain?


The others, scientists and teenage gangsters, were moving in his peripheral vision.  Screams, loud and shocked, slowly started to be clearer.  He saw Luca waving his gun around wildly; the other boys were converging on Marco, who had dropped his lighter and covered his face with both hands.


"Let me see!" Luca shouted.  "Move your hands and let me see!"


Dr. Daza, a scientist twice Tristan's age of Salvadorian heritage, knelt by his side and was staring at him in mixed confusion and sympathy.  "Tristan, your...wha...do you...?"  When the younger doctor tried to sit up, he pushed him back gently by one shoulder.  "Don't move!  God, your face..."


"Move your hands!" Luca demanded again.


Marco finally did so, and even though Tristan couldn't see what they were looking at, everyone else in the room gasped.  Anthony, the big guy, narrated well enough for him to get the general idea.


"Bro, that's a print.  That's a f---in' print in your f---in' face, bro!"


"What happened?" Dr. Reeves asked.


"I told you to work!" Luca snapped.  He spun and pointed his handgun first at Reeves, then down at Tristan.  "I told you and you didn'tThat's what happened!


"They both need medical attention," Daza said, and got immediately pistol-whipped for his troubles.  It seemed more reflexive than anything; Luca appeared to rethink his actions in the moments after.  His eyes were big and manic, to the point that no one, least of all Tristan, saw the fear behind them.


"...Then do it!" the leader shouted.  "Do...whatever!  Help them!"


Daza pressed one palm to his own injury, a small gash that began to bleed, and made no comment.  He merely stood up unsteadily and moved to retrieve the nearest first aid kit. 


"You two!" Luca pointed his gun at Reeves and Collier.  "Help him.  And you!"  The gun came back to Dr. West, the little transparent slides for half-finished blood films still in his hands.  "You work!"


So...maybe I miscalculated a little, Tristan thought foggily in the minutes afterward, while his teammates gently but hastily extracted the splinters from his skin, applied disinfectant, and covered them with gauze pads.  By the end, the white squares obscured more skin than not from his hairline to jaw.  His nose had broken too, and bruises and swelling were both setting in.  Bad as it looked, the others were amazed that his wounds weren't more severe. 


"You are very lucky," Dr. Daza claimed.  "You don't appear to have a concussion.  I don't know how, but this could have been far worse."


Tristan thought about all the tiny changes he had made to his regular body to subtly enhance and protect himself.  They were nowhere near what Leviathan enjoyed, but he was immensely thankful for them now.  Once, he thought of them just as stepping stones to his real goal, but at this moment he almost wished that he didn't need to transform in order to regenerate.  Of course, if he had, then everyone would know.


I should go ahead and change.  But...what then?  If someone else really is here--and that seems pretty likely now--then how do I find and fight them?  I'll be safer as Leviathan, but how do I even defend the others?  Now I have to wait.  Just until I know more...


Dr. West shook him from his frightened thoughts.  "Tr--Dr. Delacroix.  Can you come here?  Please?  I need you to see this."  His voice said that something was wrong; Luca immediately noticed and made it to their new workstation, a folding card table that one of his underlings brought down from upstairs, before Tristan could.


"What is it?" he demanded as Tristan, with Daza's help, came to look through the microscope. 


"...That's...not right.  This blood is old.  Very old, and poorly stored.  Everything's dead.  This sample looks like it was taken months ago; I'm amazed it isn't fully coagulated."


He didn't say it aloud, partly because he needed more study--preferably from a better sample--to be sure, but he also thought he saw an unusually high number of erythrocytes, probably in the 60-65% range instead of the usual 45%, taking up space that would normally belong to water-heavy plasma.  The result was a little thicker, and, to Tristan's discomfort, reminded him of another sample he studied not long ago.  It wasn't the same as Bonfire's, but considering the details he had witnessed tonight, he wondered if there might be some kind of connection.


"I need a new vial," he told Luca.


"...Then go get it."  The teenager gestured to the whiteboard on the wall.  His voice sounded cruelly smug on the surface, but a more perceptive hero would detect the nervousness it masked.  "Go ask."


Tristan hesitated but saw no other option.  On his way, he heard the other boys talking.  "It's a ghost," Anthony was whispering.  "I knew it.  Arson ghost, or something."


His hand shook a little as he wrote on the board: This blood is OLD.  It has to be FRESH.


They all waited breathlessly, and within seconds, a tiny clink of glass marked the arrival of a new test tube beside the microscope.  This time, Tristan hurried to the table and prepared his films himself...and discovered the exact same results.


Could they be right?  Is this from some dead thing?  A spirit trapped here, bringing samples from its body?  I can't fix that


He swallowed hard, steeled his nerves, and wrote again: STILL OLD.  What are you?  Tell me and--


His message vanished and became something that stopped the breath of everyone in the room.  You don't seem motivated.  Which doctor do you need the LEAST?  I'm starting to think it's ALL of you.


Tristan clenched the marker in his hand and almost reached inside himself to set off the changes in his genome.  He didn't have a plan, other than to survive, but it met strong resistance.  Faced with two fears, exposure was still very slightly stronger.


But then the board changed again.  Now it was just an arrow pointing back toward the table; they all followed it with their eyes and saw a paper plate, upon which was a cluster of gray hairs.


Last chance, the board added.


Tristan ran to the microscope, picked up a hair with his fingers--lacking tweezers--and immediately regretted it.  The hair burned, and only after he dropped it did he realize that it wasn't from heat, but rather intense cold.  A thin line was branded into the tips of his thumb and forefinger; he shook his hand back and forth, biting back a scream, and with tears welling in his eyes, took a microscope slide and tried to shuffle one of the hairs onto it without touching the thing.  When he finally got it under the microscope, the lens immediately fogged up and then cracked. 


What the hell is going on?!


"Ok, ok, ok...we need...let's try the more advanced equipment.  Let's see what analyses we can get, and I'll keep trying here."


Their captors were quiet as the scientists carefully set to placing their bizarre samples in what few machines were actually relevant in this lab, however vaguely.  Whoever had a spare moment jotted down notes on the whiteboard, sometimes nonsensical, and Tristan used a scalpel to chop off a tiny slice of one hair--it proved surprisingly durable--and did what he could under a microscope.  The basic structure looked to be human, but to know more than that, he really needed better gear. 


For the next several hours, as night became early morning, they scraped together what little information time and technology allowed.  Toxicology reports took a lot longer than most people thought, compiled from many tests, then compared and re-tested for accuracy, but Tristan and his team lacked the luxury.  They gradually confirmed that they were clearly dealing with metahumans, that much was evident, and their blood samples seemed to be from one person while the hair was from another, but as dawn arrived, they were no closer to knowing the specifics of their patients, much less possible cures.  The final straw was when the hair's inexplicable cold damaged one of their machines beyond repair, throwing sparks and smoke before they shut it down.


At last, weary and scared, Tristan approached Luca, who didn't look much better.  "What?" the young gangster demanded.


"It can't be done," he said, expecting to be immediately hit, and correct in that assumption; he blocked the worst of it but still got a bruise on the back of his hand from the butt of the pistol. 


"It can't be done!" he shouted again.  "Not here!  This lab is garbage, and even when this stuff was up to date and still worked, it wasn't built for this!  We need a better location!"


"Not an option."  Luca stepped back and raised his gun threateningly. 


"Then neither is success!"


"Our boss doesn't take 'no' for an answer," Luca hissed.  "You know that!  Have you seen yourself in a mirror?  Did you see Marco?  Do this, or you die!"


"It doesn't matter how much you hurt us; it just can't be done!  If I have the right equipment and more time, then--"


"But you don't!  Do you get that?!  We don't!  This...this thing, it wants what it wants, and if you don't do it, then we're dead!  All of us!  Dead!"  His hand shook, the gun bouncing slightly as it hovered toward Tristan's chest.  "And I saw that first note!  It said to fix what you did--so what did you do?  Huh?!  What aren't you telling us?"


"I'm pretty sure I'd remember making some goddamn fire ghost," Tristan shouted, throwing up his arms.  "And whatever the hell those hairs came from!  If I could actually meet these people, then maybe it'd be different, but not like this!  Not here!  I can build you the biggest, best lab the world has ever seen, and I can use it to move mountains and turn your bosses back to normal, or make them better, or transform them into freaking gorilla-parrot hybrids if that's what they want, but I can't!  Do it!  Here!"


Luca moved several steps forward now, lifted his weapon, and leveled it right at Tristan's head.  He didn't shout this time, and his whisper, voice shaking, was somehow worse.  A better hero would know what was on the verge of happening, but Tristan, having stared down the barrel of a gun too many times tonight, took a little longer to realize the seriousness of this moment.


"You will," he demanded softly.  "You'll figure something out."


"If I tell you to eat your own head and say I'll kill you if you don't, then no matter how bad you want to, you're just going to die!"


"Then you will," Luca hissed.  Tristan watched the muscles in his hand shift beneath his brown skin.  He saw Luca's finger tense against the trigger, and felt the coolness of the metal as it pushed against his face, a rare patch of skin uncovered by the gauze.  Then he knew, and his previous slim comforts--that he'd somehow figure a way out of this, that he might get hurt but was ultimately too valuable to murder, that even if that wasn't true, then Luca just didn't have it in him--melted away and were replaced by creeping ice in his chest.  Everything seemed to slow down.  Both his muscles and his thoughts froze; his last breath caught in his lungs and stayed there.  Of all the times he faced danger as Leviathan, those powerful enemies never brought him to a moment like this, caused now by some scared kid with a 9mm. 


"I'm not dying for you," Luca said with tears in his eyes.


And then he did.

Edited by Blarghy

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The prisoner's attitude subtly changed when Singularity spoke for the first time.  Sea Devil and Miss Grue disturbed Page, that was true, but this woman was something else entirely, and she could sense it.  Most people had to intimidate with blustering and threats, but those rare few who transcended beyond and took raw fear into their souls, making it a part of them after a life of seeing or doing unspeakable things?  This prisoner had encountered that only once or twice before and could never forget it.  It was in their eyes, their soft voices.  Now she could feel it in the air.


Page just stared for a long moment and struggled to swallow.


"I..."  Singularity certainly hadn't sugarcoated it; she had already earned some reasonable favors with her true testimony, once it was proven, but to go beyond that would require sacrificing everything she was.  To leave behind her past, she had to truly leave it behind and start anew.  It was a hard thing to face, and few people could make such a choice.  Could Page, in this moment?




"Just...the first part," she said with a dry mouth.  "I want better treatment.  That's enough."  After a pause, she added respectfully, "Please."

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Terrifica gave the interior a longing look and then started walking out. “Miracle Girl, please make notes about all the disturbed files. Mark the scorched or burned ones separately. Call it journalism practice. The security tapes can be forwarded to AEGIS for prosecution purposes.” When both she and the agent got outside, out of range of any interior surveillance, she spoke again. Quietly, and facing away from the building. “I don’t trust them. I’m sure there’s perfectly legitimate research going on there. However, our primary witness at this time is a security guard. One who doesn’t have much knowledge of or access to the secret floors, which speaks volumes about his position in the company, what they want AEGIS –or anyone-to know, and what they don’t.” She paused for a second. “Do me a small favor, and look into them? Discreetly? My intuition is…significantly less reliable than my intellect, however right now it is telling me that this company is not entirely what it seems.” She smiled slightly. “I’ve thwarted crime rings with a lesser start.”


She stepped to the Terrifi-cycle and threw a leg over it. She sat casually, not starting the engine just yet. “In the meantime, I’d like to reconnect with the others. See what they’ve learned. It would be useful to know what the speedster wanted here, but there simply isn’t time.”

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Agent Thornton, although she remained professionally composed, looked a little intrigued--and concerned.  It was serious business to go against this kind of huge, wealthy, well-entrenched corporation and its old-money family, especially without substantial solid proof.  Still, she couldn't disagree with Terrifica.  Maybe it was worth investigating.  Quietly.  Very quietly. 


At first, the hero got little more than a nod, but as she finished explaining her plan, Thornton said, "Hurry over to the Federal Building, will you?  I'll call ahead and arrange for a helicopter to pick you up from there and fly you to Blackstone.  Your bike is nice, but this has to be faster, and you won't need to bother with the ferry.  I'll see what your friend can come up with, and then we'll all rendezvous to plan our next move."


* * *


Meanwhile, Miracle Girl was shown to the records room.  The police had roped it off with yellow tape, just in front of the metal door that had been forced open.  Already, her special vision told her something potentially interesting: she could see the subtle imprints of a foot in the outer steel layer, right by the handle and keypad.  Not a shoe, but a bare foot, somewhat on the small side.  Their speedster might be a teenage male, or a woman. 


Then, while Mr. Keys froze in time, Miracle Girl sped through the room beyond just as her flaming counterpart had the night before. 


The metal cabinets were almost all open, their half-burnt contents spread across tables and the floor, so it was a little difficult to know what the previous speedster had seen.  Even so, Miracle Girl noticed that the D files were damaged more severely than most others, especially their upper labels depicting the employee named within, as though their culprit had gone over these folders again and again.  She also found--or rather, didn't--what that villain couldn't locate: there was no file for Tristan Delacroix. 


What she could find, after careful searching, were four scientists listed as being part of the doctor's personal research team.  Dr. Beth Collier, an elderly woman whose picture was slightly burnt, yet still showed her black perm and wide, kind smile.  Dr. Luis Daza, middle-aged Hispanic (well, technically Mestizo) man who had worked with the FCI for his entire career, according to the information listed.  Dr. Sam Reeves, surgeon turned Harvard professor turned researcher, recruited directly by Tristan himself during his time at medical school.  Dr. Harold West, formerly an FCI department head before he moved up (arguably) to this elite crew under the youngest Delacroix. 


Agent Thornton hadn't given Miracle Girl their names--partly because none of the heroes ever asked--but she did mention, some time ago at the North Bay estate, that four other FCI scientists had gone missing along with Tristan. 


The damage to these files suggested that they were held for longer than most others; it was only thanks to the tight quarters and limited oxygen in the cabinet drawers that the fire hadn't spread further.  If the other speedster had left them lying out instead of replacing each folder after viewing it, then this whole room probably would've gone up in flames.  Whether due to innate neatness or a desire to cover their tracks, this still didn't stop the metahuman's fire from burning away most of the evidence, like fingerprints, and such marks were meticulously absent from the cabinets themselves.  Except for one.


Using her x-ray vision, Miracle Girl spotted something potentially useful on the D drawer where her target seemed to have spent a lot of time searching in vain for Dr. Delacroix's personal file.  Despite the speedster's care, no one was perfect, and there, scorched into the plastic railing that let the drawers slide back and forth, was a fingerprint. 

Edited by Blarghy

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As the prisoner told her tale, Miss Grue, gently read her thoughts as they came tumbling to mind, humans had such a jumble of thoughts and feeling that it difficult to tell sometimes what was the truth and what was lies. The nasty gritty mental background psyche of the prisons did help either, but with a little effort, she managed to filter it all out to feel the truth of the matter.


She telling the truth as much as she knows Miss Grue calmly told her friends mentally


She has no real reasons to lie to us, or reform I'm afraid to say.  she sounded a little sad as she added that final bit of information.

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"Okay." Singularity nodded, not seeming disappointed or approving at Page's choice. Her voice didn't change even a little bit. "We'll talk to the warden and see what we can do for you. It's not really so bad down here. It's very safe." She unfolded and refolded her hands once. "We also need to talk to Owen, the one you came in with. They've told us he's hard to understand, even when he'll talk to people. Can you tell us anything about him that might make things go more smoothly?" 

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"I can do that," she murmured softly as she nodded. Then she turned to the security guard and smiled as she tied her long hair into a more practical French braid. "This shouldn't take very long; a few seconds, tops."


And then there was just the rushing of the wind.


A few seconds later, as promised, she abruptly stopped in front of Agent Thornton with a breathless smile. "Okay! The perp was small, either a young male or a female, and barefoot; there's a good footprint on the door. But even better, we've got a real clean print on one of the cabinets; either index or thumb, not sure which." She indicated the storeroom with a casual toss of her head. "I marked them with Post-Its, a few inches away so as not to disturb the prints; not sure what the best way to lift the prints is, though."


Everything else, she'd jotted down in her reporter's notebook, ready to share with her mentor when she was alone.

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"You want my advice for talking to Owen?" Page asked.  "Don't."  Now that she had a guarantee of assistance for her cooperation, the convict seemed a little less tense, enough that her personal frustration could show through.  "I'm not sure what he was like before the experiments, but they messed him up pretty bad.  He's...like, adrift in time.  His body's stuck in the present--that's how he teleports, by jumping to somewhere he's been or will be--but his mind is spread all over his life.  That's the best way I can understand it.  Now, you'd think this would make him a fantastic source of information, but you'd be wrong.  He's too out of touch to be much help, and just in terms of his personality, he's not very professional.  If he was, I might not be sitting here today.  He knew that Miracle Girl was going to show up and stop us, but he didn't warn me--at least, not like a normal person would. 


"I'm not even sure how you can motivate him to help you, either.  God only knows what that man wants.  I doubt he knows anything about Julia that I haven't already told you, and since he's stuck in prison, I also doubt that he can see anything relevant to the future of your case.  Try dealing with him if you want, but I wouldn't get your hopes up."


* * *


Once again, Thornton's sunglasses hid most of her surprise, but Miracle Girl could see through them to watch her eyes widen, impressed.  "I'll check it out," the agent said.  "...Between the two of you, you're a damn good team.  I don't know how you haven't already started a detective service.  But, I guess in a way, you kind of have."


She turned away from Terrifica and her motorcycle and walked briskly back toward the lab.  Before reaching the door, Thornton turned and added, "Since you're both done, and the kid's so fast, why don't you fly to Blackstone together?  Just, you know..."  She formed a half-oval with her arms out in front of her ribs, pantomiming holding a baby.  As though realizing that this wasn't the most dignified way to travel, Thornton shrugged, smiled, and left the heroes to their work. 

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Having declined a second interrogation, the Blackstone crew made a quick stop to talk to Warden Drummer to discuss compensation for his prisoner, then emerged back into the sunlight of mid-morning to find an AEGIS helicopter waiting for them.  Time was of the essence, so they wouldn't be bothering with the ferry or city traffic. 


Their liaison introduced himself as Agent Poole, Thornton's subordinate.  While the heroes climbed in, he took a moment to call his boss...and, once they briefed him on what they had learned, sent a text message to his other employer. 


* * *


Word filtered up the spy-chain, then orders came back down, and about ten minutes after Miss Grue, Singularity, and Sea Devil had taken to the air, Mr. Teal hung up his phone with new instructions.  Time was of the essence for him, too.


"Help me find dear Oliver, won't you?" he asked his bodyguards. 


They located the doctor with yet another cup of coffee in one hand and his notes in the other, pouring over them with bloodshot eyes.  He still stood in one of the operating rooms; behind him, three stoic employees were mopping up what looked like several gallons of cherry slushy.  The smell of copper--and worse things--filled the air. 


"How goes the war?" Mr. Teal asked cheerfully. 


Dr. Graves looked up hastily.  His gaze darted around the room, revealing his nervousness.  "We...are making progress," he hedged. 


"I do hope so!  Progress is precisely what we need.  That, and enhanced soldiers to recapture your experiments."


The doctor opened his mouth, then closed it again and swallowed.  He seemed to pay more attention to the looming bodyguards behind Teal.  After a moderate silence, that older man clapped his hands together and said, "Come with me, please.  I have something that may help."


They went across the facility to a loading bay, busy with fresh activity.  Something new had just arrived; Graves frowned in thought, feeling less and less in control of what was supposed to be his operation.  Any resentment he might have was still just a layer of dust over a sea of bubbling fear; he suspected, with great certainty, that if their plan didn't work, then he would pay for it with his life. 


Mr. Teal showed him to a line of eight big, wooden crates, the last of which was being carefully brought off the truck by a forklift.  At his gesture, a worker jabbed her crowbar into the side of the container, leaned into it, and made the nails shriek as they pulled free.  The wall fell to reveal a lot of straw at first, but this was scraped away by more laborers.  Behind it stood a gleaming, unpainted steel suit.  Not as lean or elegant as how most people would picture a hero's battle armor, it nonetheless seemed to offer plenty of protection.  Mr. Teal explained that the real benefits were beyond traditional defense.


"Note the reinforced air tubes," he pointed to those hoses, coming from the helmet around to the back of the suit.  "Your notes mentioned a problem with oxygen consumption, and obviously we don't have time for you to build new lungs for all our fighters like you did for poor Julia.  This, I think, will help.  You have to open it up to see, but our delightful toy here also contains medication delivery systems.  Built-in syringes, if you're boring."  He grinned.  "Doses and their regularity can be set however you think best, to give whatever drugs you also think best.  And of course, armor plating should solve the problem of air friction when the pilots are moving at full speed."


Dr. Graves stared with his jaw hanging low.  "How did you get these?  And on such short notice!"


"A gentleman never tells," Teal chuckled.  He patted the doctor's shoulder in a friendly fashion.  "I am so glad you like it.  Will this equipment help?  With it, can you give us what we need?  I don't want to rush you, Oliver, but well, the clock ticks.  I may know where to send our field operatives, and other parties seem to be interested in our prize as well.  If we continue to delay..."


"...Yes, yes, with these, I..."  He looked down the row of crates, recounting them again.  "Eight.  If you give me...twenty subjects, then I can prepare the injections immediately.  Whoever survives the first sixty seconds should last another hour or so, thanks to the suits."


"Marvelous!  Quickly, then, quickly.  We have a race to win, and by whatever god you prefer, we shall!"


* * *


After flying across most of Freedom City, the three heroes and their mundane allies touched down on the police station helipad in Ashton, about a mile north of the West End.  By now, Miracle Girl and Terrifica had also been directed here.  Several AEGIS vehicles were waiting, along with many agents; both heroic teams had given solid evidence that they were dealing with a metahuman, so regular law enforcement was stepping back to a support role (although AEGIS itself would hopefully only be backing up the stronger five champions). 


Agent Thornton was peering intently at her tablet in a way that suggested she might have some news soon, but first, the heroes could do well to regroup and plan.  They were close to their destination, but far enough that the villain was unlikely to spot them prematurely.  When dealing with a powerful speedster, they would probably only get one chance at surprise. 

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Sea Devil sang her song to the others of what they'd learned, though she did have to turn to Singularity to learn exactly how to spell ..Copperhorn Road.' Her verbal fluency was excellent, hampered only by her throat's inability to produce certain English sounds, but she sometimes had trouble arranging the letters. "We should strike quickly," she croaked as soon as she'd finished. "Hard and fast, before they have a chance to know we are coming for them." She drove one armored fist into another with firm enthusiasm. "If Singularity and I strike at their front door, Miss Grue and Miracle Girl can watch from the sky, while Terrifica awaits for them at their rears." She wasn't entirely sure yet what Terrifica's powers were, but she seemed very clever, and in her experience clever Surfacers were usually very sneaky. 


She looked from one to the other, moving her whole torso as her head didn't quite have the motion of broken-neck mammals. "I worry about their speed and their power - but we are quick, we are strong, we are united. They will not divide us." 

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Content Notice: Possible Brutality (Descriptive Combat)


"I'm not dying for you," Luca had promised, right before he disappeared.  Tristan twitched a little; he was still frozen in place, body and mind both, with the certainty of his own death filling him and pushing every other thought out of his head.  He initially wasn't sure how to react to his captor's vanishing, because he took several seconds to even process it.


Then somebody screamed, and he jolted harder like he'd been slapped, but nothing more, not even when he saw Dr. West walk past him like he was moving through syrup, with a face like a ghost, staring at something beyond Tristan's field of vision.  He couldn't move his eyes, let alone his head, but he heard his fellow scientist take a shuddering breath.  The room went so quiet that they could all listen to the rustle of West's clothes when he bent down.  


"God in heaven," he whispered.  


Tristan became aware of the pain in his chest and at last remembered to breathe again.  He slowly looked down and saw a dark red stream winding its way lazily across the floor until it reached his dress shoe and began to pool around it.  His eyes followed the liquid back along its trail, growing thicker and thicker, until he saw, about eight feet away, what was left of Luca.  


He tried to take another breath, but failed.  


One of the teenagers started to cry.  Dr. West stepped back, his hand covering his mouth; Dr. Daza hurried to the other side of the lab, picked up the industrial tarp that first covered them when they were each kidnapped and then cushioned Tristan's head when he slammed through the desk hours earlier, and now Daza unfolded it over the awful, stomach-turning remains.  It wasn't much of a gesture, but in a room with five superb physicians, none of them held any illusions that they could heal that.  


"What do we do?" Dr. Collier asked--or at least, that's what her actual words said.  What she really meant was, We're all doomed, because there's nothing we can do.


There was a sudden rush of movement when one of their captors saw Luca's gun sitting on the floor well away from his corpse and ran for it.  No one else tried to intercept him, but the boy grabbed it all the same and hugged it to his chest like a protective amulet.  He stared at the others with wild, horrified eyes and managed to say, "You-you-you...you work!  Right now!  ...Please!"


"Do something," one of his friends begged.


"I want to go home!" another said, his voice choked and cracking.  


But still, Tristan couldn't move.  Dr. Daza returned to him and put both hands on his shoulders, causing him to flinch for a third time.  "Tristan," he said urgently.  "Tristan, I need your help."  When he received no response, he leaned in and spoke softer but just as insistently: "We have to do something!  We must at least try, and I need your help!"


At last, he broke free of his numbing terror.  Every emotion seemed to flood in at once, leaving Tristan on the verge of hyperventilating.  Above it all, one thought dropped into his mind like the closing of a coffin lid:


I just let that happen.


His ego desperately tried to replace it with others: What could I have done?  It wasn't my fault.  He wanted to kill me, anyway.  It wasn't my fault.  They may be young, but they're still criminals.  It wasn't my fault.  Even as Leviathan, I can't fight what I can't see.  It wasn't my fault.  I have made very reasonable efforts already, doing the best I can with what I have.  It wasn't my fault.


...I just let that happen.


He met Dr. Daza's eyes, and whatever was written in his own made the older doctor soften with sympathy.  "I know," he promised emphatically.  "But I need your help!"


Trembling, Tristan desperately grasped for some kind of plan.  He started giving out instructions: "Look again at those hair samples, especially the core; the medullary index is consistent with human ratios, but obviously it's much stronger than it should be, so maybe we can find something there.  And put that blood back under the microscope; we know it has a higher red count than normal humans, but the cells themselves could tell us more.  Re-run all the toxicology tests we can here, too; maybe we missed something."


It was complete nonsense that wouldn't accomplish anything new, but his team and guards alike were grateful for any possible lead.  Mostly, Tristan wanted to stall for time and keep everyone busy while he found a way to set a better idea into motion.  He realized that the problem wasn't one of science--he told Luca the truth when he said they just couldn't produce results with such limited equipment and time--but rather, the problem was whatever bizarre, murderous creature haunted them.  Tristan needed to get out of sight, transform, and...do something.  He wasn't sure what, yet, but maybe at least he could stall his enemy and survive its attacks long enough to let everyone else escape.  


The change takes too long; someone might panic and then the shooting starts, or this monster will just kill me before I'm ready, then finish off everyone else.


Another voice taunted and shamed him: You just don't want them to know.  You're a coward, and it's killing people.


He shook his head and gripped his shaking hands together.  "Is there anything else here?" he asked the teenage thugs.  "Anything?  Another part of the lab, more tools, more machines, anything?"


"There's more rooms downstairs," one said hesitantly.  "Upstairs is just...  I mean, downstairs there's, like, this little library with lots of books.  You can't go down past that," he added quickly, "but we never saw any notes about not going that far."


Tristan took several clues away from that, but first and foremost, he jumped on the chance to leave the lab.  "I want to see," he said.  "Maybe I can find something we can use.  I won't go further down," he promised.






"...But someone should probably go with you."




The biggest of their captors by far, Anthony, raised one large hand.  "I can do it," he offered.


Very no!


With a weak smile on the verge of a grimace, Tristan forced himself to nod.  "Yyyyeahh, alright."


Together they walked out past the huge vault door and its cobwebbed gun turrets to the landing where Tristan first found himself at the beginning of this terrible ordeal.  He didn't have time to pay much attention before, but the ladder built into the concrete wall didn't just go up, but down too, through a shaft in the floor.  He looked upward as he stepped onto it; in whatever room was above them, the ceiling was plaster like one might see in a private residence, not the square office tiles that were in the lab.  


Maybe that's the top level.  Maybe that's the best way out...


He and Anthony climbed down to the next floor and stepped off; Tristan turned his eyes down first and saw that whatever was below was the lowest point, but couldn't tell more than that.  Here, the short hallway went in the opposite direction than above, so that if the lab was to the north (hypothetically, as he had no idea), then this other room was to the south.  It had another vault door and turrets, open and inactive like before.  Through here, they came to a room of about the same size as the last, but full of shelves, a desk like the one he destroyed with his face--and vice versa--and absolutely no exits.  


What am I supposed to do now?  How do I fix this?!


Tristan tried to stay relatively calm and pretended to browse the books without actually seeing them.  His mind raced; after a minute, he turned his head back toward his escort, who was standing by the desk and chewing on his lower lip with an expression of fear and sorrow.  


"I'm...sorry about your friend," Tristan said, and he meant it.


Anthony jumped like he forgot he wasn't alone.  Several times, he started to speak but stopped, until he finally managed to explain, "I knew him since second grade."  


That hung in the air while Tristan slowly walked toward him.  "I'm sorry," he said again.  


Anthony took a ragged breath, sat on the edge of the desk, and put his head in his hand.  "We didn't want any of this.  We didn't know what was going to happen.  We just thought...  I dunno.  But it wasn't this.  I'm not...maybe we're not the most...I mean, we're...he didn't deserve to die like that, man!"


Tristan could only nod.  He felt awful, but not so awful that it stopped him from picking up the dusty lamp on the desk and smashing it against Anthony's ear like a club.  


To his horror, the teen fell off the desk but didn't stay down, rising back up to tower over Tristan.  The tragedy in his face mutated to rage at this unexpected betrayal, and his counter-punch squashed Tristan's barely-set nose against his face like a pancake and made him see spots.  Pain flashed through his whole head, swirling behind his eyes like a tropical storm.  


Still, he punched back, striking perfectly against his opponent's diaphragm just under his ribs to knock the air out of his lungs and stop him from calling for help.  Tristan was taken entirely by surprise at how much that hurt his hand, peeling some skin off his knuckles even against a relatively soft target, but now his lab-born instincts were taking over.  This time he ducked away from the return hit, caught Anthony on his jaw--it hurt his fist much worse!--dodged a second time, kicked hard against his knee to bring him down, and jumped onto his back.  Tristan desperately tried to establish a choke-hold; he had never actually attempted this before and only included it in his muscle memory in case Leviathan ever went up against some enormous monster that dwarfed even him.  Such an idea had excited him at the time.  


Combat usually did.  It was just so easy as Leviathan.  Little pain, less risk, neither lasting.  He mostly knocked around regular thugs like the one he now struggled with, and that hardly even counted in his other, monstrous body.  It was like a cat playing with mice.  Even when he faced real villains--and oh, how proud he always was of himself!--it wasn't like this.  They hit him or shot him or used some trick to just slow him down while they got the hell away, and his clever science overcame the problem in seconds, so he laughed and hit back.  Their turn, his turn, their turn, his turn, game, set, match!  Sometimes Leviathan got scared for a bit, or sometimes he couldn't actually catch his quarry, but it was never truly serious.  


But this right here?  This was his first fight.


Anthony dove forward, hit his shoulder against the desk, and swung his elbow behind him to slam against Tristan's ribs.  It hurt.  Not just for a few seconds while his body lazily recognized the strike and then washed it away with comforting endorphins, but a real, stabbing pain that made his eyes moisten and almost convinced him to release his already-feeble grip.  Purely thanks to fear for his own life, Tristan kept trying to lock his hand against his opposite elbow to seal the hold.  His face was pressed against the back of Anthony's head and neck; he could taste the sweat, feel the other boy's hair against his chin, along with his own blood and mucus dripping from his broken nose onto his lips.  It was hard to breathe, and even harder when Anthony rolled over onto him, pinning him to the floor and compressing his lungs.  


Still, he held on.  When his arm slipped across Anthony's sweat-slick skin and gave the larger boy a brief moment of relief, his breath wheezed urgently like air hissing through a broken hose.  Another elbow hit Tristan's ribs, and again, and the only reason he didn't scream was his own lack of oxygen.  Anthony reached one hand over his shoulder, slapped and felt against Tristan's face, pulled at his bandages, pinched his broken nose, and finally, jammed a thumb into his eye.  Tristan hysterically lashed his head back and forth and then bit down on two different fingers; he clenched his teeth together until he tasted blood, which frightened him so badly that he opened his mouth in pity.  


Still, he held on.


Anthony leaned forward and then slammed his head back, sending blinding lances of pain through Tristan's sinuses and jaw; he thought he even felt his teeth loosen.  His captor kicked and elbowed and squirmed.


Still, Tristan held on.


It took a horrifyingly long time.  Partly because of perception, the adrenaline slowing everything down like some terrible magic.  Partly because Tristan's technique was questionable despite his muscle memory--it was so much easier in a lab!--and he took much too long to lock his left hand against his right elbow and position his right hand behind Anthony's head so he could push it forward.  But mostly because human beings fight like rabid dogs when they're backed into a corner, and Anthony really, really didn't want to go quietly.  


But at long last, when Tristan's face was covered in blood, sweat, snot, and tears, when his bruising was worse than ever and few of the gauze patches remained securely attached, he realized that he was trapped underneath a motionless weight, and let go.  He struggled to free himself and rolled away, tried to stand up, fell back down, and nearly fainted.  He could hardly see through the swirling black spots in his vision.  His stomach was thankfully empty since he hadn't eaten since the night before, but he still dry heaved and had to crawl to the desk to pick himself up, gasping the whole way.  


He looked down at Anthony and was hit with a new fear: What if I killed him?  That icy thought brought him back to the ground, where he tried to feel for a pulse but couldn't because his hands wouldn't stop shaking and all he could hear and feel was his own blood slamming through his veins.  His heart was like an industrial machine trying to tunnel right out of his sternum.  Tristan thought that Leviathan taught him what adrenaline meant, but he was wrong.  


Thankfully, he could put his ear to Anthony's face and feel his breath.  At this point, his medical training started to come back; he remembered that strangulation, while not healthy, was an impractical way to murder someone unless the aggressor really committed to it.  On the other hand, unconsciousness also rarely lasted as long as movies portrayed.


Tristan staggered as quickly as he could back to the vault door and looked out; no one was coming down the ladder to investigate, and he could only barely hear sounds above from this position, thanks to the thick walls and floors.  The reverse had to be true, so at least that was in his favor.  


He fought through the throbbing pain that split his skull and raced up and down his ribs and made his hands pulse and, let's be honest, just seemed to wash over his whole body.  What now?  Did he transform here, in the library?  Squeeze up that ladder-shaft somehow?  Tristan's plan, such as it was, was to burrow through the concrete a bit so that investigators would find a tunnel-mouth.  That would give Leviathan a plausible means of entry and hopefully maintain his secrecy.


There's one last floor down there.  I could...go down, change, then tunnel out about ten feet, and then straight up to the lab.  Come out through the middle of the floor, take out whoever's got the gun now, and...probably get torn up by that thing.  But Leviathan can take it.  It's got to be better than what I just did!  Is it always like that?  Is that what they all feel when Leviathan catches them?


He felt sick again, but whatever he chose, he knew he had to do it fast.  Tristan hurried down the short hallway to the ladder, expecting to see a note appear, or to hurt, or just die without warning at any moment.  He breathed heavily through his mouth and drew one hand across it to wipe a mess of fluids from his lips.  Down he went, clinging to the rungs that seemed to vibrate because everything about him, including his vision, couldn't stop shaking.  He made it about halfway to the last floor before his foot slipped on something and he fell, landing so hard on his back that it knocked his breath out again.  He lay there, wheezing, and was distantly surprised to see what looked like frost on the last half of the ladder, and the wall, and the ceiling too.  At first his pain blocked it, but gradually, his skin confirmed what his eyes told him.


Why...why is it so cold?

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