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All Bad Bad Nevertheless (IC)

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May 2021 



This had once been a fine place, where Surfacers competed to live in the finest homes and own the finest things. Now hardly anyone lived here, beneath the terrible shadow of the doomforge that loomed squatly over the mostly-abandoned remains of the neighborhood. It made Aquaria sad to be here, sad to smell the death that lingered on the air and hear the mournful, echoing cry of the murdered soul of this place. There was not even anything good to eat that Surfacers had not brought here themselves, all but a few scavenging beasts avoiding the surrounding landscape with the sensible judgement of things that crawled and flew. 


Surfacers rarely did this. 


"With these brave heroes at our side, volunteers from Project Freedom," Councilman McGrath was declaring, his round face flushed red from the summer's heat, "I believe we can reclaim Kingston for the forces of life. Maybe we can't stop that - that thing - " he added, making a gesture from his podium at the doomforge as the cameras below flashed, "but we can bury our dead and let the land heal. The wounds of the past can be healed if we are strong enough to look them in the eye!" 

It was only technically true that Singularity and Sea Devil were volunteers. Ms. Wainwright of Project Freedom, sitting here on the platform with Singularity and Sea Devil, was an ally of George McGrath and had asked two of her most successful graduates to come along to show that McGraths' plan to clear away as much of Kingston as possible to let nature take its course had the support of the heroic community, at least as far as making sure his workers wouldn't be operating on their own. 


At least the waters hereabouts were clean, Aquaria thought, a little regretfully. 

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Jessie did not like being in front of the cameras. Even in her costume, even with her hair different and her posture not at all the same, she was always waiting for someone to misrecognize her, to wonder what an important hero like Wander could be doing here, and then to have the horrible task of trying to explain. She did not like being around Miss Wainwright, who was a nice person but who multiplied the ambient sensation of being judged by approximately 5000%. She very, very much did not like being so close to the Doomforge, which was supposedly quiescent but looked like the embodiment of entropy. Jessie was not the Erin who fought the Terminus and won. When Jessie had fought evil, she had not won at all. She tried to hold very, very still while the Councilman was talking, drawing no attention and pretending she was far away. It was just cleanup, it would not be so bad once the cameras were gone. 

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In retrospect, it might have been better if the cameras, or at least their human operators, had stayed - but Aquaria and Jessie had no way of knowing that this morning. When the speech was finished. Sea Devil gave a deep bow to the crowd, trying her best to seem harmless and friendly, and as Miz Wainwright had asked let the Surfacers do the talking about Surface business. Miz Wainwright had been the first Surfacer who had taken an interest in the Deep One screaming in grief and regret in a Surface jail, the first human who had asked her her name by writing it out, the one who had helped her learn to speak the tongue of the Surface-Men. It wasn't necessarily true that Aquaria would do anything the aged Surface-Woman asked, but it was certainly true she would do almost anything for the woman who had saved her life and put her together with her best friend. 


And then she and Singularity were off, leaving behind the applauding crowd and heading deeper into the ruins of Kingston, with only the orbiting whine of drones overhead connecting them to the rest of Freedom City. Their work was going to be recorded and then rebroadcast to show the good works of the people of Project Freedom, which was a fine enough thing if you didn't mind the creeping ambiance of the looming Doomforge, which reminded Aquaria too much of a parody of Lemurian architecture, its squat shape all strange rectangles and too-straight lines. 


In the middle of an abandoned, half-overgrown street, Aquaria was careful to keep her helmet fully on as she paused to take in the area. "Over there?" she suggested, pointing to a nearby building some two or three stories tall that seemed to have been cut in half through the middle then allowed to settle on itself. "If you knock down the sides, I can destroy the pieces," she offered. She shifted her feet uneasily and added, "There is space under the ground here. We should be careful.

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"Yeah, okay," Jessie murmured, still subdued after all the attention earlier. There were a couple of flashier names among the other Project Freedom teams working on this project, so she could at least hope that most of the attention would be centered there. She slipped on the dust mask and work gloves she'd brought, then walked up to the building. From the way it had pancaked, it was clear that there would be no homeless people or squatters hiding in the ruins, so it seemed safe enough. A couple of well-placed punches had the first wall going to rubble in just moments. It was unpleasant work, bits of rubble and tons of dust, and by the time she'd finished another wall she was covered in concrete dust. At least it was easy to ignore the remnants of personal effects that were scattered in all directions, old photos, toys, bits and pieces of the lives interrupted or ended here. She had much more practice in doing that than in heavy demolitions work. "All right," she told Aquaria as the third wall went and the roof began crumbling. "Your turn." 

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Aquaria hopped up onto the roof, carefully balancing as the adhesive pads on the soles of her armor clung to a still-standing pillar. It was best to do this in the air, she'd found, so that the damage done didn't dig too deeply into the Earth. Once she was in position, she raised her trident and bellowed an eldritch cry to the stars above. She had had quite a bit of conversation with the Surface mystics and shamans once she'd found her trident during the invasion by the forces of Destruction some years earlier, but no one could actually prove that she was 'damaging the fabric of space' or 'committing unholy blasphemies' (or lots of other long, tedious Surfacer phrases that usually meant they had no idea what they were talking about and were just flapping their flabby lips at each other), so she'd been able to keep it. A handy thing for occasions like this! 


As she hopped away from the building, something seemed to happen inside it that could best be described as "being crushed by an invisible kraken" - from Singularity's perspective, muscular, suckered arms erupted from the building's crumbling windows and doors, wrapping themselves around the crumbling structure, and pulled inward. There was a crunch and a crumble, a distinct sound of a noisy wet shlurp as if a large mouth somewhere was swallowing the building down, and then abruptly the fallen building was gone, minus a few shreds of masonry on the outside and a few scraps that had missed the internal cleansing. 

Aquaria struck the ground with her trident approvingly, landing next to Jessie with a little hop. They were far ahead of the other Project Freedom alums at work, and all seemed - Aquaria suddenly fell silent, crouching low over the ground at their feet. "Did you hear that?" Even on the Surface, Aquaria could hear very well indeed. 


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Jessie immediately went on guard, her eyes scanning the area even as she cocked her head to listen. "It sounds like the subway," she began dubiously, then realized what was wrong with that. The subway hadn't run into Kingston for two years now, so anything under the street.. She picked up her radio. "Something big is underground," she said tersely. "Be careful." Stripping off gloves and mask, she unstoked the shield from her back and began heading towards where the noise seemed to be coming from. Part of her wondered if whatever thing had eaten the building might have stuck around for a second helping, no matter how many times Aquaria promised that her magic didn't work that way. Magic was inherently unreliable. 

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The thing that came boiling out of the ground with a rumble of shifting earth and masonry did briefly resemble a Deep One warbarge; then it looked like a demonic mole, then a variety of other things. It was big, perhaps the size of a medium-sized car, and seemed to shift from shape to shape. It wasn't fluid like Daphne or other shapeshifters Singularity had seen, rather it seemed to genuinely be many things at once. It was talking aloud, seemingly to itself: 

"no more past, no more past, the forge cuts all ties -" 


Sea Devil stepped back, shaking her head and back and forth. "It does not sound right..." she croaked uncertainly. Being the one in power armor, it was easy enough for her to send the signal to the rest of Project Freedom that something very bad was happening, and it was happening right here, and for a moment as the chaotic song around the thing swept over her senses, it was all she could do. 



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Jessie couldn't feel whatever was going on magically that was clearly bothering Aquaria so much, but just looking at the thing was unsettling enough. She hefted her shield and stepped in front of her friend, keeping her eyes focused as best she could on the main portion of the creature. "It's a shapeshifter," she murmured into her radio, "big, about eight by eight but it keeps changing. It's talking about the doomforge, but I can't make it out. I don't think it's seen us yet." 


"A shapeshifter?" Harriet Wainwright's voice was sharp on the radio. "Does it look like anything familiar to you?" 


Jessie shook her head before remembering that Ms. Wainwright couldn't see her. "It mostly looks like people, but nobody I know," she reported. "Some aliens, I think, and some animals, maybe? Robots? It's changing really fast. Um... 'no more past, the forge cuts all ties,' I think it's saying." 


There was a quick intake of breath, almost swallowed by radio static. "Jessie, you and Aquaria need to-" The radio was cut off with a squeal of feedback as the shapeshifter turned in their direction at last. It was nothing in particular now, an inky sort of nebulous thing, maybe half again as tall as Jessie and four times as broad. 


Even though it didn't have a face, Jessie could somehow sense its regard. "A lost little nothing," it crooned, in a voice that had no real gender or accent, but that made Jessie's skin crawl. "An empty hole, trying to be what it is not." It looked to Aquaria behind her. "And the happy heretic, singing your songs in a foreign land. How unfortunate that no deep voices will ever join you. They'd kill you for apostasy if your metal shell and hollow friend did not protect you." 

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Sea Devil's hand twitched around her trident as anger washed over her, chasing away the dissonant song of too many voices around the great beast. She didn't know how it knew who and what she was, and all she had lived through, but for a moment she wasn't thinking of Jessie, or Project Freedom, or the mission. She wanted to shut that lying mouth! Without a sound save an inarticulate snarl, she leaped at the beast and landed on its head, driving her trident deep into one eye before leaping away against a grab from some shadowy tentacle. She leaped away, her suit catching against the nearest wall, and bellowed "Shut up!" in a voice loud enough to be heard across the otherwise-silent streets of this part of Kingston. 


The creature was indeed badly wounded, black ichor pouring around the sides of an eye that was not actually pierced but bleeding an unholy, shadowy stuff that pooled along the ground, and it roared in frustration before suddenly breaking into a long, low, feminine laugh. "Such fury, beast, such rage! Perhaps you remember your nature after all!" It had reshaped itself now into an image that struck a chord of fear in Aquaria's heart: the form of a statuesque young woman with flowing blonde hair that seemed to float behind her, (albeit one still bleeding from its left eye socket) her body melting itself into the shape of the watery combat forms of the Atlantean royal family. "But you know what happens to Deep Ones on the surface! They are beaten, caged, and mocked for Atlantean amusement!" Then the creature slapped at Aquaria - and even inside her armor, somehow she was on her knees before Nereid, screaming and biting with impotent fury as the Atlantean princess beat her into unconsciousness as Surfacers cheered in celebration, and then, armor and all, she smashed downward through the roof on which she'd taken shelter, disappearing somewhere into an abandoned building, into blackness. 


Still bleeding, the creature turned to face Singularity. 

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Jessie lost precious moments to distraction at the creature's taunts, wondering how it knew, how it could possibly know. The mockery didn't mean much, it was nothing she hadn't thought herself, but nobody else ought to see it. Then Aquaria went after it, and then it turned somehow, impossibly, into Nereid, and suddenly, too late, she understood. Erin had warned her about this weeks ago, after she herself had been warned by her superhero friends. A strange monster fueled by thoughts, preying on bad memories and using people's worst moments against them. 


"If you ever see it," Erin told Jessie, her voice grave and her face stern, "you run. Don't engage with it, don't try and draw its fire, just grab anybody with you and go." 


"That doesn't exactly sound heroic," Jessie had pointed out, though the idea of not having to fight a scary monster for once did have its charm. It was also weird seeing Erin looking so much like Mom giving a lecture, and something about it made her want to assert herself. She was not the child or even the little sister here. "Aren't we supposed to be stopping stuff like this?" 


"Not like this," and Erin didn't even rise to the prodding, barely seemed to notice it. "Jess, you and I have lived through stuff that most civilians haven't. Hell, most heroes haven't lived through what we have. Both of us have had injuries so bad that only luck and fast medical care got us out of it. If that thing took a swipe at me, I wouldn't survive it without a very quick ride back to the Silver Tree. And you... we don't even know what's in your head, but I don't want to roll the dice that Pathos and Hex never got you hurt so badly you flatlined. It has more weapons to use against us than it does against regular people. You can't fight it and hope to win." 


Her mind was wrenched back to the present as Aquaria went hurtling through the roof of the building, body limp as a rag doll and her fall uncontrolled. It was just like Erin had said. This thing... it was bleeding, yes, but it wasn't stopping. It didn't look worried. It barely looked slowed down. And it was coming this way. Jessie had to run, but she couldn't go without Aquaria. Without another pause, she jumped to the roof, then dropped down into the hole, hoping that her friend's memories were maybe not quite as bad as they could have been. 

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Taking shelter inside the building, which seemed to be an abandoned office park, seemed to be the right course of action, but even that wasn't perfect. Singularity could hear the creature outside, then felt the building shake as something large and heavy struck it. It knew she was in there, but seemed to be having trouble finding her. Aquaria herself was hard to find too, having evidently landed on a rather large pile of debris and gone sliding off bonelessly into the darkness.


"You can't hide forever," it taunted her as she raced through corridors of what might have once been a call center but now held only broken, crumbling equipment overgrown with plants from wind-blown dirt and rapidly fleeing small animals. "Shadow of a thing that has been; broken reflection of a great hero." Something lashed across the corridor through an exterior wall, forcing Jessie to retreat and turn another way, a shadowy thing that didn't seem to have any particular shape. "Do you think the real Erin would run and hide like this?" 


Luckily the cheerfully-glowing lights of Aquaria's power armor were a sure guide, and within a few seconds Jessie had found her sprawled-out, still-armored, still breathing, but decidedly not-communicating friend.

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It was chasing her, Jessie realized as she quickly checked Aquaria's pulse and breathing. It was closing in quickly, too quickly for something that was just searching blindly. By the time she maneuvered the Deep One's bulky armor out of the building or removed the armor entirely, it would be on them again. Whatever the nightmare creature had done to Aquaria she'd survived it, but who knew if she'd be so lucky a second time? "I'll come back if I can," Jessie whispered to her friend, then took a deep breath and let it fill her with cold. 


Singularity deliberately made noise as she exited the building, punching yet another hole in the side of the building furthest away from where she'd left Aquaria. If she'd miscalculated, the thing might kill Aquaria before she could get back inside, but she was not worried about that. She had not miscalculated. In mere moments, the thing was visible at the hole she'd made, moving with the eerie smoothness of a thing not quite real, dark as a tear in the world. Her radio was making noise again but she wasn't listening, too focused now as she led the thing away from the building, further into the empty ruins of Kingston. It was getting closer, closer...


"Your mind is so full of pain," the monster all but sang, its elongated fingers making grasping motions in the air. Any further, and they'd be going back into populated city. Singularity stopped running and turned to face it. "So empty and so full, so much to choose from... ah." It shimmered, and suddenly Erin's friend Mark was standing there, wearing a strange costume and grinning in a way that said he had bad things in mind. He reached out towards her-


And nothing happened. Mark's face contorted in a snarl. Something sparked in Singularity's brain, something from behind the white walls. The bad luck man. She shoved it back where it belonged. The creature changed again, becoming people she recognized but did not recognize. A man in a white costume splattered with blood, his face a white blank as he pointed a weapon at her and fired. Nothing happened. "Your memories are filled with death," he snapped, "how can you not remember them?" He spoke with Erin's husband's voice, but sounded nothing like him. Another switch and it was Erin's friend Mike, his huge hands clenched into fists as he pounded the earth in a way that should have sent Singularity flying. "If you don't remember pain, you don't learn anything by it!" he growled. Another shift, and now the thing was tiny, a young woman with red hair, Erin's friend-


Singularity didn't remember anything, because she didn't take so much as a moment to think. The muscles in her legs bunched, she crouched, and in an instant she'd launched herself across the few meters separating them, intent on driving her fist through the petulant, scowling face. Her fist connected but only just barely, passing through the thing as it teleported away. She stumbled, straightened, spun to face it again. It was behind her now, and from the way it was indistinct again and rubbing its head with its hands, she'd at least given it something to think about. It wasn't enough. "KIll you," she grated, finally remembering to heft her shield. "No more." 

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"It wouldn't be the first time, would it?" said a face Jessie didn't know at all, except it was a face she did know, one of the people that lived in the sewers that they'd sent her to destroy - 


But the shield was still in her hand and coming down - and the monster vanished without another word just before she'd have taken off its head. 


And then Singularity was alone in the street, her friend unconscious in the building behind her, in a dead neighborhood, just as the rest of Project Freedom was arriving amid blaring sirens and the distant whirring of hovering drones. 

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