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Avenger Assembled

10th Anniversary Vignette: 10 Years

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October-November: 

October of 2017 marks the 10th Anniversary of Freedom City Play By Post. This is an important event - and one that'll be commemorated throughout the site when the time comes. 

 

One piece of that celebration is the 10th Anniversary vignette - a special vignette for a special occasion. 

 

Here's your assignment. Write a story that sees your character ten years ago, today, and ten years from now. This could be a time travel story. This could be a case that takes two decades to solve. This could be a young hero reflecting on their childhood and current career with a flash-forward to the future. This could be an older hero remembering younger years, the present, with a flash-forward to their retirement - or any other way you want to do it.

 

(In the grand tradition of comics, you are not bound to a canonical future for your character here.)

 

What's special about this vignette is the following: this vignette is worth 10 POINTS if you complete it before November 30, 2017. That's right, ten points for a tenth anniversary vignette! That being said, this must be longer than a typical vignette. You should expect it to take up about 3-4 pages, or about 750-1000 words - at least. 

 

Remember - post it here by November 30, 2017. 

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Morphogenesis

Doctor Deoxy

 

2007 September 12th

Nathanial had never been quite like his peers, his unique irises and colour-blindness aside he’d often found himself utterly uninterested in the pursuits that his peers and father had wished him to partake in, Hunting, Sports, Business studies and other refined gentlemanly and boyish tastes for adventure and perceived masculinity.

 

They Simply Didn’t Capture his attention in the slightest, he’d learned to box only enough to keep himself from getting hit, he’d taken up sports to the point it could fill his time and maintain his health and whilst adventures were promising territory for him they were always constrained or contained to the control of his parents, every attempt as finding a bit of actual adventure amidst ambling around the grounds of his family had been thwarted at every turn by the staff and grounds keepers under his parents employ, this was stifling at best and hypocritical at worst.

 

It had not been until he’d become a man in the laws eyes and taken advantage of his families prestigious connections to attend the best schools available to him that he’d ever felt anything other than ennui, his passions blazing to life when he was presented with the noblest of pursuits, science, for what more great and grand quest could there be than to strive for understanding and mastery of the universe as it could be experienced.

 

In particular genetics had always fascinated him and with his teachers being amongst the foremost scholars of the subject combined with his unique mutation of the iris he found he had no trouble securing their personal attentions and furthering his understanding of the subject beyond what the school’s curriculum was willing to bank roll.

 

The Study of biology came to him with the ease of swimming did a fish, he’d always been able to see the connections and pathways in life, be it weeping as his peers threw stones at birds and frogs on the lands or watching in fascination as spiders weaved their delicate artistry but now he could understand them, it was merely the means that were now outside of his grasp.

 

Crashing into such an implacable barrier in his quest had disheartened him beyond any doubt but there were always other pursuits he could pursue as he waited patiently for technology to progress and time to advance to a point when he would no longer be limited by the social and technological boundaries of society and so for the next decade the pursuit of physics, chemistry and engineering took the reigns as he patiently watched and waited for the world to adapt, grow and evolve to a point where that which had previously thwarted his attempts to further the science crumbled and the way forwards revealed itself to him, for whilst these pursuits engaged and interested him they were but mere shadows cast by the fires of his true passion and indeed fuel for his future, he didn't want to have to work or otherwise divide his attention between his lofty goals, he would need to be successful in the conventional sense so he could pour time effort and resources into his passion; it was only rational that he would require more than his families estate to maintain himself and is beloved parents as well as pour his utmost into his passion.

 

All said and done, it was easier than he had expected, his understanding of nature, mechanics, mathematics and all the highest pursuits of the human mind had granted him an insight into the movements of society, markets and all, buying companies that were failing due to mismanagement and restructuring them with the cold efficacy that would strike off the limbs that endangered the body until they peaked in profit and ready to sell on like fattened livestock at profit whilst also selling his services as a teacher and lecturer on those self-same principles and sciences he’d come to a firm understanding of. His passions now sustained themselves and granted him the agency and freedom to take them to as of yet undreamed of heights as the limits before him began to crack with ideological shifts and technological breakthrough.

 

He was all but certain that he would be an old man before they finally came down baring some miracle cure for aging that’s didn’t list snake oil as a main ingredient, not that it mattered to him, it gave his bank accounts time to swell and his other pursuits to catch up and for him to indulge in whimsy, he’d rather fancied buying a stretch of land in continental Europe far away from people and the chaos of Meta-Humans whom as fascinating as they were to him confounded him with their almost universal need for secrecy, aside from developing an effective drug for regulating unstable mutations he’d had little to do with them and them little to do with him an arrangement that had suited them both just fine.

 

It didn't take him long to find a nice little stretch of land with a stream and pine forest that fenced it off from the lands beyond in Romania, it had been sold at a troubled property price due to rumours of some curse that had made people sick spread by the Romani travellers in the region and whilst he was not one to rule out anything he was more than certain that if some evil power calling itself magic was at work it wouldn't have been long before a hero that claimed to have magic would've turned up to deal with it so more than likely it would've been something else and given the reports of its effects such as blood pooling in gums, hair loss and ulcers he had a pretty good idea of what was actually causing the issues in this case at least and as a private citizen with the means to capitalize on the occurrence of untapped nuclear materials he could not only profit from it but also help heal the land once it’d been stripped of its deadly wealth.

 

2017 September 8th

It had been just under a decade now since that fateful day he'd discovered it, an ancient spacecraft half destroyed and fully buried in the side of the mountain that punctuated the plot of land he'd bought in Romania and within the Time Dilation drive that had provided it with a means of faster than light travel.

 

Though the methods were beyond his understanding the theory was simple enough and after a great deal of care and regular self-medication for radiation poisoning he'd managed to successfully remove the device and move it to his lab, turning it into so much more

 

It'd been hard work but it had all paid off and before anyone could've guessed Doctor Nathanial Anderson had created his Time Dilation Artifical Evolutionary Ligament or Time DAEL and with that, begun the process of artifically creating, from a single cell a sub-sentient biomechanical symbiote that would allow him, through the filter of its own being, to experience a level of human evolution he would never have otherwise been able to handle.

 

He'd of course chosen to use this great power afforded him by his happy accident and genius biological engineering to help his fellow man and further his study on meta-humans, whom from being able to interact with them directly in his alter ego "Doctor Deoxy" had piqued his interest .

 

Now he was acknowledged as a hero the world over, albeit a strange and somewhat...unsettling hero for his propensity to let his curiosity get the better of him in times where caution and prudence would've been "Better" according to his detractors.

 

He didn't care much for them however, they were always complaining about something or Other, that they were sometimes right mattered little in the long run.

 

He was doing good, that nobody could deny but he knew that he was truly no different from any other life form on this planet, namely that there was still nigh infinlte room for him to learn, improve and evolve into.

 

2027 September 17th

It was always good to look back and reflect on one’s past, in his twenty years of working as a hero on earth he’d learned that more often than not one knew what they needed too long in advance of needing it no matter how minor or unimportant something might seem it only took the beating of a butterfly’s wings to create the beginnings of a hurricane.

He’d come a long way in his short career, his greatest work, the chrysalis suit, the fruit of his understandings of sciences and arts as he’d once grasped them was now inseparably a part of his being, no mere symbiosis or parasite he’d become something more than either part could've been on its own and with his new state of existence came perspective that in retrospect had been so obvious but along with it came foresight into his next grand endeavour.

 

He had no need for sleep, not any more, he didn't get tired nor did he require food or air to respire, his skin had grown receptors and could feed from the ambient energies of the physical universe as they washed around him like radiant cascades of infra and ultra violet light and all in between them, he had however found it to be a rather charming part of his initial conception as a being and indulged in it regularly for whilst  it provided no mechanical or biological benefits it blessed him with the greatest of boons granted to sapient and sentient life of all.

When he slept he could dream, beautiful dreams that if he so desired he could pursue into reality; that is how this endeavour of his had begun, he’d dreamed it up whilst on his quest through the stars to study and observe life in its myriad forms, be inspired by ideas that his old self would’ve struggled to accept as reality let alone as scientific fact!

 

The old him would've been frustrated by the invalidation of the established models of life and evolution established within the control group of his native biosphere, he could feel the smile creeping onto his lips, he’d been such a petty man before, seeking validation and approval over new discoveries and adventures, the true spirit of science and indeed all human pursuit was to admit ignorance and seek betterment it was a little embarrassing that such simple truth had eluded him in the past but he was grateful for whoever powers might be, whatever maker he’d yet to discover and meet for setting him on this path in part or in entirety for a brighter future he couldn't yet envision as he watched stars and celestial bodies stream past him on the transparent deck of his spacecraft.

 

His attention was brought back to his lap by the gentle stirrings of the tiny being within, its iridescent black carapace glistening in the artificial lights of the ship gently brushing his hand against it, warmed with projections of infra-red heat from his pours as he ran it across the pleasantly sleek and beautiful carapace of his creation.

Though he’d long disabused himself of any notion of god-hood both from himself and his creations he’d understood their need for a benevolent parental power, he’d felt it himself when he’d faced the worst of the universes threats, someone to guide, teach and lead them as he and billions before him had sought in various forms and sources ever since time had begun.

 

The creatures eyes blinked open, roused from its dormancy and fixed him with its bright glossy eyes, eyes that couldn't comprehend what he was, not truly at least but knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that it was loved and loved back just as fiercely and unconditionally as with a soft rocking of its body it righted itself, stretched its long limbs and hopped off his lap to the floor with a light clink where keratinous exoskeleton met space age metal and scurried off.

 

He couldn't help but be proud, proud of himself. Proud of his child, the first of its kind and unique in all of documented and charted creation, Powerful, Beautiful in his eyes, Wilful and yet still very affectionate  it was for his child’s benefit that he undertook his great quest now, even though he’d have once done it simply to prove he could, now he’d begun construction in this desolate star system, harvesting the barren planets in their entirety to begin construction of a massive artificial planet that would occupy the entirety of the goldilocks zone around the young and fierce star that had blasted them to sterile and lifeless rocks.

 

It would've taken several hundreds of thousands of years normally but with his bio-mechanical technologies and the every useful and recently upgraded Time DAEL technology at his disposal it would be a matter of weeks with

 

the unmanned drones evolving at the millennia passed to better suit their tasks.it would not be long before the first of his garden worlds would be completed.

 

Soon the hoop world tentatively named “Zero” would be ready to serve its grand purpose as a home for his creations amongst the tranquillity of the outer reaches of the universe far from the wars of the Lor, Grue and Star Federations though thanks to his contacts within the praetorians not unguarded against extra galactic threats when he was personally unable to attend to this creations personally.

 

But that was for another day, he still had many more dreams to make real from the extensive memory banks of his ship and the protein synthesizers that would weave the beginnings of entire new species to populate his garden world, species that would one day take their first tentative steps into the wider universe to greet their neighbours and join galactic society as productive and largely utopian citizens.

 

Though that day was far away from now he felt a deep sadness to think that soon his creation would be independent of him, though in truth that was his ultimate goal it would be a bitter-sweet triumph, for now however he would enjoy the adorable youth of his daughter, taking to his feet and summoning a camera drone to him to make happy memories whilst he could of her curiously chewing on the ships (entirely childproof) interior.

Edited by Exaccus

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Flintlock

 

2007: High Rock

‘Twas not yet built, but impressive it was, standing on the top of a mountain spire amongst tepid warm clouds. Below, softly churning blue-black seas spanned to every horizon, with gentle fog and mist laying over waves like a blanket.

 

Strange and toxic islands dotted the seas, but it was the mountain spire that dominated. At its base was a small port, but few knew how to sail to High Rock, and fewer still would visit. It was an eldritch place on an eldritch sea, connected to every ocean in every realm, but few could sail to the Great Ocean of All Things.

 

Though perilous to body and sanity, the Black Flag sailed the Great Ocean of All Things, captained by the famous swashbuckling sorcerer, Annabelle Flint. By her side, the Skeleton Crew, undead pirates of bone and rotting flesh, the ugliest of whom, Handsome Jack, was the first mate.

 

High Rock was still being built, and few knew how. ‘Twas a mystery even to Captain Flintlock, and she had peered into the six wells of Tanhueser valley, and watched Eldritch rays glitter on the plateau of Leng. Not much was a mystery to her mad eyes.

 

Up top, far from the port, up long winding pathways that demanded much from legs, Captain Flintlock was amongst the forming stones. High Rock had yet to reach its full majesty, but still, some rooms were formed. It already had some very special guests.

 

 “I would have words with William Blake” said Anabelle Flint, hand on hip, other hand fluttering about like a mad butterfly in an attempt to perform a crazed and flamboyant bow, or courtesy, or something else.

 

The target of her request and bizarre antics was a Mr. Erasmus Drake, the warden of High Rock. Or at least, he would be once it was finished.

 

Erasmus Drake was an old man of thin build, with grey hair in a refined cut, and an equally grey and refined beard. His cheekbones were acute and his eyes were black. He was no taller than Flintlock, and perhaps an inch shorter. A frail man of steely intellect and steely purpose. He wore a fine tweed jacket that seemed both official and individual at the same time.

 

“Mmm…” he hummed, almost inscrutable as to purpose or thought. “He is locked away quite safe, madam. Our first resident. In fact, it was Mr. Blake who inspired the building of High Rock” he said.

 

High Rock was an insane asylum for the magically gifted.

 

“Mr. William Blake flitted between worlds like a falling leaf, as you know. A man of considerable talent. His art is quite magnificent. But dangerous, yes. Very dangerous. Both the man and his art” he said, as way of preamble.

 

“The Tower of London was no longer suitable for his incarceration. In truth, it did not so much keep Mr. Blake from the world, but rather kept the world from Mr. Blake”

 

This was true, and Flintlock knew it. The government of Earth Victoriana had kept Blake from the world (and visa versa) for several centuries, but it was with Mr. Blake’s agreement. If had set his mind to it, they could not have held him. Of course, he was rarely able to set his mind to anything that was not of art or dreams. The government had vaguely hoped they could utilise him one day. One might as well hope to nail down mercury.

 

“I am not sure talking to him would be either safe or productive” concluded Drake, stroking his immaculate grey beard. “You could…would…unsettle his mind which is quite fragile, you know. Quite fragile…”

 

A measure of vexation poured into Flintlock, but she would sail with it rather than drown in it. “I appreciate your medical concern, doctor” she rambled (although every word was well measured in truth). “But I fancy Mr Blake is my best chance” she explained, with dramatic pause.

 

“The Unspeakable one stirs in his slumber. Something is awakening it. I be hoping Mr. Blake can, despite his restless soul, direct his eyes to the cause…”

 

There was a deliberate pause that ended with Erasmus Drake. “That is bothersome” he said, brazenly understating the problem.

 

“We should pay William a visit. But be mindful, do not press him. That would be unwise”.

 

As it happened, Mr. William Blake was in rum spirits. He was sketching. One could not quite make out the details, but it looked rather splendid. Wings, tail, curing wisps of smoke, that kind of thing.

 

“Hmm de doo. The Unspeakable one!” he said to himself, fingers drumming his temples in a mad beat. “I have seen him, yes! Haha! And they call me mad! Haha!” he said, with a toothy grin that looked like it had been painted onto his face rather than born from any joy.

 

“I can believe it” said Flintlock who would not have said such a thing of any living (or, for that matter, dead) soul she had met.

 

“And you say he is stirring in his slumber? Ah! Beneath oceans of insanity, above the clouds of madness, he stirs! That would be magnificent and terrible! Terrible and magnificent!” he said, his voice rising in pitch and hysteria.

 

“You are safe and secure here, Mr. Blake, quite safe, quite secure” said Erasmus, in a firm and pleasant voice.

 

“For now! Ask me in twenty years time!” said Blake. “Why, this does give me inspiration! The mere thought of the Unspeakable one! Yes! I shall proceed!” he said, starting to make bold strokes on his sketch.

 

Flintlock did not really have time for William Blake to paint his declared masterpiece. Especially if, as he implied, it would take decades to finish.

 

“That is mighty impressive, yes indeed” she said, buttering him up with charm. “A man could get quite lost in it. Perhaps though, a man might give a woman a few words. Perhaps point her in the right direction? Perhaps let her know what disturbed the great and unspeakable unspeakable one?”

 

“Yes yes!” muttered Blakely, caressing his canvas in rapture. He was almost irritated, but he mood and focus was so transcendent he would not be blighted by such base emotions as irritation.

 

“Rapa Nui! Yes! Something rumbles there! Something horrible!”

 

 

10 Years later…2017

 

Rapa Nui

 

‘Twas a remote island, with few people. Rolling green and stony heads. If a cult was present, it should have been easy to find.

 

And yet ten years had passed and Flintlock had found nothing. She had sailed strange seas and stranger oceans. Worlds where the sea was silver dust, or burning blood. And no world was Rapa Nui home to any cult at all, let alone the cult of the Unspeakable one.

 

She had wondered if Blakely was simply an insane man in an insane asylum. Much of his work was simply impenetrable. Perhaps much of it was simply wrong, having no meaning but to the hand that painted or wrote.

 

But now, there was a new head to consider.

 

A new, massive stone head, unearthed far from the others, with strange markings and strange countenance. Eyes too far apart, ears too small. Scholars and occultists from around the world had come to study this new archaeology.

 

Something was rumbling, just as Blake had said.

 

Flintlock had plied Professor Block, a stout German academic with her finest rum and her most silver of tongues, and waltzed into the dig site with him. They spoke in fluent German.

 

“Wunderbar!” he said, a bit too loudly, with his mind and voice slightly out of synch thanks to an impressive alcohol level. “You can see the etching here…and here…not like anything else on Rapa Nui. Some kind of cult…most peculiar. You can see similar symbols in De Vermiss Mysteriis, or Dax Buch von den inasuspechlichen Kulten…all mad, of course….”

 

The Professor stumbled on his words and shuddered.

 

Flintlock peered closer, and shuddered too. The etchings on the massive head. She had seen them before. As the preliminary sketches of Mr. William Blake, ten years ago, on High Rock.

 

 

2027

 

High Rock

 

‘Twas a grim stony room, and there was no rum.

 

Flintlock paced up and down, with boots that were as worn as the stones. Ah, frightful impotence this was. Below, she could hear the lapping waves of the Great Ocean of all things. If she strained her ears, she could even here the creaking of the Black Flag, chained a fathom below the surface of the sea.

 

But then, she fancied she was mad.

 

Erasmus was looking older but he had aged well. His eyes darker, his brow more furrowed, his hair thinner. He was a well of infinite, and his words where like a void.

“How are you?”

 

Flintlock span to face him, eyes chaotic. “Vexed! Vexed! And thrice vexed! I have been trying to speak to Blake for years, but you would not let me into High Rock! And now….this!” she said, throwing her arms in frustration at the stones surrounding her.

 

“It is lamentable” agreed Erasmus. Where her words were frantic and frenzied, his were empty and eternal. “Eyes that see too much, ears that hear too much, it takes a toll on ones sanity. There are things that are beyond existence, beyond possibility, and you have partaken of those too much, for too long….your mind cannot take the strain, and your mind, you have lost…”

 

Flintlock tore at her already wild hair, now like straw and thinning, with grey hairs peppered.

 

“And you would know, would you Doctor Drake? Yes, you would know…hahahaha!” she screamed.

 

Erasmus did not respond, his eyes like lenses, studious but empty.

 

“Yes, I would. I am the resident doctor of High Rock. It is sanctuary and haven to those sorcerers who have succumbed to madness” he said, coldly.

 

“And is that all it is, no no! I think not!” demanded Flintlock, standing tall and baring her teeth. The gums were receding, and fleck of blood littered her mouth.

 

“No, it is not. There are some here, too, like Mr. Blake, who are simply too dangerous to be left to roam the infinite worlds” he conceded, stroking his elegant trimmed beard. A slightest of smiles invaded his lips.

 

“Some are too dangerous not to be!” retorted Flintlock, her hands clasping and unclasping. No sorcery would work her. Oh for a blackpowder pistol! Even a knife! She would make handy work of throat and entrails if she had one.

 

Erasmus remained calm, patient, cold.

 

“You refer to Mr. Blake, again. Tell me, from whence your fascination with him? He is a fascinating man, I know”

 

“I am sure you do. Subject to much study, I daresay” hissed Flintlock.

 

“Indeed, subject to much study” replied an unruffled Erasmus.

 

“And what dividends did your studies bring?”

 

Erasmus looked away for the first time, through the grated window, to the skies and seas.

 

“Significant”

 

Neither spoke for a moment, until Erasmus continued.

 

“What did you find on Rapa Nui? That was were Blake sent you, did he not?”

 

“I went of my own free will. But Blake pointed the way” agreed Flintlock. “I found nothing but relics from the past. Etchings, scratchings, and a German professor willing to educate me”.

 

“Interesting. I have always like the Germans. Focus. Yes, Focus…” whispered Erasmus, still gazing at the sky, as if he had lost that very quality.

 

“And the etchings I saw. A gateway, said the Professor. Something to summon the Unspeakable one”.

 

Erasmus merely nodded, still lost in thought.

 

“Exactly the same etchings as William Blake was drawing. That’s why I needed to speak to him! I still do!!!” screamed Flintlock, her rage exploding.

 

“I am afraid that is quite impossible” said Erasmus, standing up. He spared Flintlock not a glance.

 

“Your search for the cults of the Unspeakable one have left you too damaged, too deranged. It is for your own good…”

 

He left the room, shut the door, and turned the key.

 

“You will remained detained in High Rock for the course of your life. There is, I am afraid, no cure for your affliction….”

 

Flintlock merely screamed a crazed scream at the departing man, shaking the bars to her cage with so much fury that she might even dislodge them. But High Rock was a serious place. Nobody would ever escape.

 

“What is he doing? What is he doing?” she screamed at Erasmus, who merely half turned his head towards her.

 

“Why, he is decorating…”

 

He left the cells, and walked, slowly and deliberately, to the main courtyard of High Rock. The floor was a half-finished Muriel, a masterpiece. On red knees and red hands, scraped raw from feverish devotion, Mr. William Blake was at work on the work of art.

 

“Nearly finished…nearly finished!” he grinned with mad eyes.

 

Erasmus did not answer, but studied the work for a minute or two.

 

“Yes. A gateway….the Unspeakable one shall come….”

 

He walked away, his feet gently brushing against the art. A giant picture of a gate, with wheeling insane dervishes, playing pipes, and something most horrible and unspeakable on the other side.

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2007
Familiar Faces 
In a darkened corner of the hastily-erected twenty-bed clinic that was possibly the largest hospital left on the face of the Earth, Peyton Smith-Quinn and her allies spoke in hushed tones. "Maybe we should just let him go," Peyton said softly, shooting a glance back at the locked isolation room (once one of the plant's security vaults) that held their patient. "Even when he does turn, with his powers he could be all the way back in California by the time he goes." 


Jack O'Ryan shook his head, his matte-black eyepatch not even catching a glimmer of light from the cracked-open door. "He's a meta. A meta who fought Ferals - and he told us himself he crawled through the Forest for two days to get here." 


"He's delirious, but he hasn't turned _yet_, even after two days. Maybe he's immune," said Peyton softly. "Somebody has to be at some point, right?" 


"We can't take that chance," hissed O'Ryan, a man who rarely raised his voice even in a fight for his life. He'd had a job to do with money in the old world - and in some ways he still lived by calculation. "Not after seven years of Hell. Fully healed, he could go through our defenses like a buzzsaw and bring in the whole northside pack with him. And what if he _does_ find that family he's looking for, and bring them all here too? We could lose everything we've worked for." 


"..all right," said Peyton, closing her eyes and pinching the bridge of her nose. "Thanks, Jack. I just needed to hear it from you, too," she admitted. "Just get it done, and get it done tonight. We deserve safety - and he deserves his dignity. I'll talk to Mendoza, make sure he tells everyone our guest died of his wounds." When she and O'Ryan were finished, they parted ways - O'Ryan to get what he needed from Dr. Mendoza, Peyton to walk out into the hallway - and almost trip over her daughter! 


"Riley!" She didn't quite raise her voice, but it was loud enough that she heard stirring from one of the nearby sickbeds. Riley was staring up at her with an odd expression on her face, but said nothing as they both headed out into the corridor that would take them back to their rooms where they lived. "What were you doing in there?" Peyton asked the young girl, her voice a low whisper as they passed one of the perimeter guards coming back from her shift. She wore the bright red of one of the base metas - bright red to make sure that the Woodsman in the forest, and the other perimeter guards, could see to take her down if she crossed the Feral line. 


"Watching," Riley admitted during their short excursion across the compound grass. A distant, Feral scream echoed from somewhere outside the fence - a quiet night. "Is Mr. Ryan going to kill that man?" she added, her own voice soft. 


Peyton looked down at her, hesitated, and spoke aloud. "Yes, yes he is." 


"...Okay."


Peyton slept with difficulty that night. But she'd slept through worse.


2017 
Way Down We Go 
"You feel it, don't you? The rage? The HATE?" Woodsman kept his voice calm and even as he spoke to Chase Atom, but the psychic could see what an effort it was for the nerve-tight teen to keep his cool. "A-a life lived in the gutter of a murdered world, while spoiled gods in the next world over lived like kings." He swallowed. "And there were these images - of metas here on Earth, like in the tabloids and stuff, and things from home. D-dead babies, Ferals attackin', that kinda stuff. That's what it sounded like - then it just stopped. I picked myself up off the alley floor and headed right back to school as soon as it happened." 


"All right, well, Mr. Smith," said Chase carefully, "what I'll do is go into your mind and verify what happened." He met Riley's eyes and said, his tone serious. "Please note that I'm _not_ denying the validity of what happened to you. What I'm going to help you do is find out if this was the result of an outside attack, or an injury that we'll work to heal in your mind. You said this wasn't the first time you've had intrusive thoughts?" 


"...no, it's not," Woodsman admitted. "But it's always been in my voice before this. Never anyone else's." 


"Whatever happened, we'll find it together," said Chase, his tone carrying the reassurance of a practiced psychotherapist. "If you're worried about a violation of your privacy, many sorts of mental attacks wouldn't even have opened your mind to your attacker. But you need to let me enter your mind and trust me if we're going to find out." 


"...all right." Riley took a deep breath and admitted, "And they won't have to find out, if you don't find anything like that?" 


"Everything we find together will be confidential, Mr. Smith. You'll just have to trust me." 


2027
Only Human After All 


The khopesh whipped past Woodsman's head and he fell back, deflecting a counterstrike with his hatchet as he kept his distance from the costumed vigilante. "You stupid or something?" Riley sneered from behind his facemask, the modulator at his throat turning his words low and mechanical. "What do you think's gonna happen to _you_ if she wins the election?" 


Blue Horus blocked the hatchet with her club, then threw up a kick that sent Woodsman reeling. With his rifle out of reach and his mark almost certainly warned by the superhero he was fighting, it was beginning to look like this job wasn't going to pay off. "Murder isn't the answer," she growled back at him, her armored costume glittering in the darkness of the Ash Street rooftop. "And you're awfully self-righteous for a man making 10 million yen for this job." 

 

"Meat's meat, man's gotta eat," taunted Woodsman. He took a chance and snapped a grenade open from his belt, hurling it on the ground before leaping off the roof backwards, trusting in his reflexes to put him where he intended to go. As he'd expected, Blue Horus had come prepared for smoke and stink alike - but she was used to costumed meta-freaks who liked to scrap it out till they got dragged off to Cahill, not operators who were just trying to make an honest living. He hit the mattresses he'd piled in the dumpster below that night and jumped out, hopping into his motorcycle and speeding off before the goddess above him could leap down in pursuit. 


Not one to do something stupid like stick around when he knew a vigilante was on his tail, Riley kept going, zipping through the Bedlam surface streets, then out of town entirely. It was September in Wisconsin, hot enough that he was sweating inside his leather jacket by the time he stopped for gas at a greasy spoon outside Green Bay. The Packers were on and the cheese fries were good, and he took a moment to smirk that the biggest stares he was getting were for being a black face here in Whitey Central. The bruises he'd taken in the fight with Blue Horus helped too, his jaw and eye darkened. 


It was late enough that soon he and the waitress (one of the few other black faces he'd seen in this part of rural Wisconsin) were the only people left in the diner, and he shrugged when she asked if he minded her changing the channel. When she turned on political news, he just smiled through a mouthful of food.  


A Presidential candidate was speaking, a charismatic outsider who'd won the support of a lot of people across the United States - especially in her native Wisconsin. As the candidate spoke, the familiar lines of the memorial rising behind her, a picture-in-picture displayed the hurricane ravaging the Maine coast. "I just don't know," the lady finally said out loud, "I had a cousin in Freedom, but what she wants is-it's just so dangerous, isn't it?" 


Riley stopped smiling. "Lots of things are." He rose from his seat and headed for the men's room, where after a while he was standing in front of the mirror and contemplating his face when he heard a footstep behind him. He put his hand on his hatchet and smiled tightly at the mirror. "Wondered when you'd get here." 


"It's not too late, Smith." 

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Pacer 10th Anniversay Vignette One More Lap

 

October 2027

 

Okay, this was a problem. It might even be fair to say it was an emergency. The Freedom League was immobilized. Any help from Claremont was off the board. Freedom City was in terrible, terrible danger. And it was pretty much all the fault of one Mona Simms. Not that anyone but her actually knew that. She’d figured out how to permanently lend out her power, thus creating (or seriously empowering) a speedster. They wouldn’t be nearly as fast as she was, but eh, details. Of course she wanted to do it immediately, but…in somewhat uncharacteristic fashion (with age comes wisdom, of a sort), she’d decided to do some research. Pick a person carefully. You know, because somebody who’d go crazy or worse, evil, after she empowered them would be a biiiiiiig problem. You can see where this is going. In all fairness, he was just about the smoothest talker of all time. Mona hadn’t a clue to his true intentions. I mean, the first two went so well. Good, solid heroes. And then this guy happened. He used a bunch of names, but right now he was Finishline. He wasn’t just a speedster now. He could do most of what Mona herself could. Worse, he was going to slow existence to an eternal crawl, just because he was mad for Mona for something (look, she’s got better things to do than listen to motive rants, okay?) she hadn’t even done yet. Somehow, he’d set it up so that even Speed Incarnate wasn’t fast enough to save the day. She needed to be faster. Or…Older Pacer slipped through the time stream. Time for a good old fashioned team up. No ordinary speedster could keep up with what she wanted to do. Fortunately, she knew a couple who could hack it if she pushed them.

 

*********************************************

 

October 2007

 

Little Mona had just finished her lessons with Uncle Frank. She was super happy about that, and ran off to play in the yard. Or as everyone else called it, the world. Older Pacer stepped out of time and into 2007…right in the eyeline of her Aunt Francine. “What is it this time? And did you dye that streak out of your hair? Vanity isn’t like you.”

 

Older Pacer was…a little confused. “I don’t have white hair, and I’ve never visited myself before. Oh, man.” She rubbed her temples. “First time for everything, I guess.”

 

Francine didn’t bat an eye. “So, what did you do and how do we fix it?” She put her hair up into a casual ponytail. “You don’t come by unless there’s problem future me can’t help with. So, out with it.”

 

Older Pacer looked sheepish. “Well…I don’t need you. I need me. Have I ever mentioned the Great Slowdown?”

 

Francine frowned. “Yes, once. Can’t say anything. Spoilers.”

 

Older Pacer frowned back. “Tch, whatever. Where am I today?”

 

Francine waved out at the world and said no more. Older Pacer frowned harder, and sprinted off. Searching the globe would have taken her a significant amount of time…if she was still seven years old.  Even at 17 the time could have been measured in seconds. 27 year old Pacer did it in between human heartbeats. Little Mona hadn’t gotten that far. The burrito place in LA, before it (so extremely sadly) closed. “Hey Mona. Want to go on an adventure?”

 

Little Mona paused for the briefest instant, than scarfed her overloaded burrito down in a flash. “Sure. Have we met?”

 

Older Pacer flashed an impish grin. “Only every day of your life.”

 

Little Mona didn’t really get it, but whatever. Something about this woman just put her completely at ease. She shrugged. “Let’s do it.”

 

Older Pacer picked up her younger self. She’d forgotten how cute she was. “Hold on, we’ve got someone else to pick up.” Older Pacer took a step, and the twosome slipped through time.

 

*********************************************

 

October 2017

 

It was closing. The burrito place in LA. Mona was inconsolable. Mickey gave up and left the ladies dorm lobby…and ran right into his sister again. Who seemed a bit older, and had a little girl with her. Wait… “Seriously? Do you have any idea what this is doing to the space/time continuum right now? Because I don’t, and I don’t want to.”

 

Older Pacer flashed that impish grin again. “C’mon, Mick. It’s an emergency. Hey Mona! Got a bad guy who needs punching and I can’t do it myself!”

 

Mona, in Present Pacer costume, abruptly appeared. “This is gonna be soooo great. Totally makes up for the lost burrito place.

 

Mickey took one look at the three versions of his sister and wished he was old enough to drink. “Oh, for heaven’s sake. Do whatever you want.” He walked to the boys dorm and disappeared inside.

 

Older Pacer was a bit befuddled. “What’s his problem?”

 

Present Pacer shrugged. “He’s my brother, not yours.”

 

Older Pacer suddenly understood. “Ohhhh. That…makes a lot of sense.”

 

Present Pacer realized she’d just insulted herself. “Hey, wait a minute-”

 

Little Mona interrupted. “We’re going on an adventure! ADVENTURE!”

 

Older Pacer shared a look with Present Pacer. “With age comes wisdom.” She took the both by the hand and ran through time.

 

*********************************************

 

October 2027

 

Older Pacer knelt down to talk to Little Mona. “You’re going to run. Around the world, as fast as you can. Over and over again. I know you love it, so GO!” The little girl sprinted away, shouting happily. She had trouble gaining speed, which was weird, but she pushed and got up to hypersonic. Older Pacer turned to Present Pacer. “You run with her. If you see me needing help…help. But otherwise stay out of it. He had a speed draining machine and it’s slowing all of space to a crawl. I’m gonna stop him.”

 

Present Pacer gave her a look. “This is so your fault.” The tone was 100% “you’re not that much wiser than me” smugness. Then she was gone. She had a tough time getting up to speed as well, but didn’t need to push.

 

Older Pacer dusted both of them. She was punching Finishline before either one had completed even half a lap. But the speed drain was still affecting her. She was a fraction of a step too slow, and with a cry of victory long denied, Finishline cranked his machine up as far as it would go. Older Pacer was still casually hypersonic, but that wouldn’t be nearly enough in this fight. And both of them knew it.

 

Instantly Little Mona slipped below the sound barrier. She pushed and pushed, but little by little her speed was dropping. Present Pacer pushed hard, but she too was slowing down. Little Mona slowed down to only human, but it didn’t stop there. She slowed more and more, unable to do anything but slowly freeze in place. Present Pacer wanted to help, but it was all she could do to stay supersonic. And she could feel the sound barrier catching up to her. Then someone with a white strip in her hair picked Little Mona up. “Let me help you with that.” She caught to up to Present Pacer with what seemed like no effort at all. “Let’s run like we mean it.” The older woman’s smile was impish, and the drain on the two younger girls’ speed fell away as if it had never existed. In fact, they felt even faster. They ran. And ran. And ran.

 

Finishline’s machine started to smoke. Energy sparked all over it. Then, with a shattering boom, the main circuit exploded and it shut down completely. Freed from the speed drain, Older Pacer pummeled Finishline unconscious inside an attosecond. She turned to go thank her younger selves, only to find three of her standing there. “Um. Whoa.”

 

Future Pacer (with her white stripe) laughed softly. “The mind reels, doesn’t it? The things we could get up to…” She smiled impishly. “One more lap?”

 

Little Mona leaped in excitement. “YES!”

 

Present Pacer grinned widely. “Oh I am so in.”

 

Older Pacer matched the impish grin. “Bring it on.” The four speedy ladies ran.

 

Little Mona began to fall behind almost immediately, but Future Pacer (without any of the other three noticing due to the raw speed of her motion), slipped back and took her youngest self’s hand for a moment.

 

*********************************************

 

October 2007

 

Little Mona found herself back at her house. She ran inside. “Aunt Frankie! Aunt Frankie! I met a ton of me today!”

 

*********************************************

 

October 2027

 

Pacers Present and Older strained themselves to keep up with Future. But alas, Present just wasn’t quite quick enough to cut the mustard in this race. As with Little Mona, Future Pacer slipped back for a moment and took Present Pacer’s hand.

 

*********************************************

 

October 2017

 

Present Pacer was back in front of the Claremont girl’s dorm. She threw her hands up in the air in excitement. “Future me is soooo awesome!” She then treated herself to another circuit of the globe, just for the hell of it.

 

*********************************************

 

October 2027

 

The two remaining Pacers finished the lap. Older Pacer looked around and didn’t see her younger selves, not even arriving late. She looked at her future self, completely amazed. “Just how fast are you?”

 

Future Pacer smiled mysteriously. “Fast enough. Don’t forget to swing back around here in a while, okay?” Then she simply wasn’t there anymore.

 

Older Pacer shrugged. “Sure, leave the clean up and explanations to me, why don’t you? I never change. Why would I?” She grinned impishly and raced off to clean up Finishline’s mess.

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2007
Somewhere in the Caribbean 


"Aquaria! What are you _doing_?" Vaguely scandalized, Lotan hopped closer even as the smaller female gave a little start. He'd noticed her missing from the celebration and had come looking - only to find her curled up by a small fire with a forbidden artifact. "Do you know what the elders would do if they saw you with that?


Aquaria frowned and stamped her foot on the rocky ground beneath their feet, a temporary home for that the tribe and its allies. "They would say I was listening to what I should not listen to," she admitted. "But this is harmless, Lotan, look-" She opened her secret, carefully hidden since the last time the tribe had encountered Surfacers. "Look, it has nothing forbidden and nothing against the gods. It has pictures of fish - food fish and poison and all the rest. These black marks must be their names - and perhaps where to find them. It must be a song.


Lotan frowned as well, his big jaw muscles moving in a way Aquaria had to admit she found attractive even when he was annoyed with her - and she with him for his hidebound ways. There weren't many males in the tribe her age. Not since the last encounter with Atlanteans. "Why would Surfacers have a book about fish? They die in the Sea and they eat strange foods. Some of them don't even eat fish at all." Skeptic or not, he didn't leave her side, not even with the inviting thrum of drums and bellows from the rocks on the other side of the island. 


Squatting on the rock that the fire had been warming, Aquaria expounded her theories. "Maybe they were collecting them. There were some fish on that boat." Shifting uncomfortably at that memory, she moved over enough for Lotan to join her, which he did. "The other things like this, they fell apart in the water, but this one," she went on, hefting the book in her three-fingered hand, "this one survived. It must be special. I want to know what it means.


"I don't understand you at all," admitted Lotan. "But I know you're strong and brave, so you must not be Misborn." He croaked at her and moved a little closer on the rock, the light of Aquaria's small fire reflected in his large dark eyes. "I will promise I will not tell. If your thing tells you true secrets, tell me as well, so we can both learn new things. I will bring you a great shark if you do."


"Oh really?" inquired Aquaria, rumbling deep in her throat. "If it does have great secrets, it will have to be a great shark indeed. How will you catch it?" She struck with her tongue and caught the crab she'd left to scuttle about on the rocks, swallowing it with a single gulp. When she was done chewing, she began spitting out shell pieces as Lotan's croaking became more melodic. 


"I will use my spear 
and my mighty limbs - soon we
will dance under moon
"  


In return, Aquaria sang, 
"Your spear and limbs are
mighty indeed but I have
sharp teeth - and hunger.


They sang together all night, retreating into one of the island's many caves when the pitiless eye of the Sun grew too bright in the morning. Aquaria kept her book for a while, studying the pictures of fish and looking at the words, but eventually had to leave it behind when the tribe fought a particularly vicious group of Atlanteans. 


Lotan died in that battle of a sword through his heart. Aquaria sang him a beautiful song. 


2017 


Aquaria was hungry and short on time, so she shoved the contents of a box of sliced meat in her mouth before she sat down in front of the computer again. Rubbing gel onto her fingers, she began the slow, laborious process of typing words. Typing was hard, writing was hard - but she liked the idea of writing her words for others to see in the future. 


I HAVE BEEN LEARNING. I KNOW THINGS. Tick-tick-tick, tap-tap-tap. 
BUT IT IS HARD. THE AIR IS COLD AND IT IS DRY. Tick-tick-tick, tap-tap-tap. 
I MISS THE SONG. I MISS THE PEOPLE. Tick-tick-tick, tap-tap-tap. 


The beeping alarm told her that her time was running out, so she set aside her discount laptop and quickly hopped into the kitchen. The wonder that was the slow cooker was still coming along nicely, much to her delight - tossing in a few more spices, she set the lid back down and let it continue its work. By the time Jessie was home from class, the two of them would have a feast of pig meat! 


She hopped back before her computer and began to type some more, enjoying the challenge of bringing the words forth without using her mouth. 


I HAVE LOST. THIS IS THE WAY OF THE DEEP ONE. Tick-tick-tick, tap-tap-tap. 
BUT I HAVE GAINED. I HAVE A TRIBE. Tick-tick-tick, tap-tap-tap. 
AND I REMEMBER THE GODS AND THE WAYS. Tick-tick-tick, tap-tap-tap. 
IF YOU FIND THIS, SING MY SONG. Tick-tick-tick, tap-tap-tap. 
FOR THE STARS WILL BE RIGHT!1!


2027
New Lemuria 


"Sin in her palace,
Nibiru and Nergal,
And the stars are right!


The little ones jumped and croaked happily as Aquaria finished the song, gathered around her in a sea of great black eyes and greenish-white bodies. She thought she could pick out the few that were of her own stock, by sounds from their chirps and croaks if nothing else, but there was little point to dwelling on something like that. 


"Sing it again!" croaked the female that Aquaria had dubbed Far-Seer, after her best friend, the one who reminded her so much both of Jessie and her sister when she fought against the other younglings. "Sing the Song of Beginning again!" Her sisters and brothers took up the chant, but Aquaria just laughed, her throat sacs booming wide. 


"You need your rest, little ones!" She licked a few of the ones that hopped up into her lap, and dropped morsels of fish in the mouths of the cleverest. "This is our age! The sons and daughters of Dagon and Hydra must be well-rested against the day!" She hopped with them to their special place, deep in the bowels of the children's cave, and when they were busy fighting amongst themselves for place she hopped her way out of the cavern and into moonlight, content that their guardians would watch them well when the battle was done. 


She looked up at the great ruddy mass of Sin in the sky and croaked in satisfaction at its light, then hopped from rooftop to rooftop of the great city, booming a friendly greeting to the Deep Ones she passed on the way to her destination. From the buildings and watery streets below she could hear the singing of the colony as they went about their night - some working in building the new temple, others hunting for fish and game, others building from salvaged stone and metal. 


For once her eyes were not for her city and for her people - instead they were on the stars overhead. The great mass of Sin overhead was quiescent tonight, her volcanos sleeping and her ruddy face beginning to dim as it cooled - she would probably see it sleep again by the time she had evolved beyond caring about anything but the tribe. Such an ascension was decades away, though, and in the meantime she had much to care about. 


One of the stars - by now swollen and shaped like no star at all, was moving with the impossible grace and speed that she knew came from borrowed Star Knight technology, a quickly rotating disc that settled down above the great fortress that still protruded above the rising waters of the city. Aquaria was by that point already nimbly climbing the walls of the ancient fortress, for the moment ignoring those that dwelt within as she headed straight for its roof. 


When the vessel's occupants began to emerge, Aquaria was waiting for them - or at least, waiting for the one who stood near the back in the uniform of the Freedom League. It had been a long time since Singularity had been posted to the League station in orbit of the Earth. 


"Jessie!"
 

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Starshot

 

2007

The Glass Nebulae

 

The star was white and bright, still young. A distant twin sun was far away but could be seen. The planet itself was humid and warm, bathed in nutritious light and blessed with a wonderful biotic soup of chemicals. It had become a jungle world.

 

One could barely move through the vegetation that struggled for supremacy. Animal life had not yet evolved, perhaps because of the ever expanding vegetable life that was rich and complex. Some plants moved, twitched, or convulsed in order to reach the sun, reach the water, reach the soil, or, in some cases, rend asunder competing plants.

 

Vines locked in deadly embraces, toxic spores and leaves fluttered trying to poison the competition. One large plant was slowly digesting another with a poisonous maw that moved at a glacial pace, until with a reflexive victorious snap, the maw shut, tearing apart its meal.

 

Starshot could feel the thermo-regulators in his spine whirring over time. Even he could not keep up this heat and humidity long. He took another long gulp of water. He felt sweat run down his body. He wore only trousers and boots, carried only water and a navigator. And a Plasma-Net Gun. His torso was bare, and showed signs of cybernetic enhancements. And deep scars on his left side.

 

*Any sign yet? He must be close mmmwahhh*

 

The oily voice of Zaul Zeno came over the radio. Zaul was not cruel but he was callous, only truly interested in his art of biological and cybernetic expeditions.

 

“He is close” replied Starshot, knowing better than to argue with Zaul. His spine was littered with agoniser nodules and his heart wired with explosives. Not that they were used these days. Zaul had no interest in inflicting pain, just in his objectives. And he was not a slave driver, merely a slave user. He did not drive Starshot to exhaustion. He merely used him effectively.

 

And for all Zaul’s callous interests, Starshot had seen him stop plagues, cure the sick, and build cybernetic replacements for the disabled. Simply out of interest. Just as Zaul had no hesitation in harming others, he had no objection to helping them either.

 

The Xeno’s sensors were top class, and had located the feral mutant on this world. A young Lor man, by the sounds of it, living alone on this vegetative world for a decade and more. Alone. It must have driven him mad.

 

There was a scuffle in the undergrowth. Starshot wheeled round. Fast as he was, he was not quite fast enough.

 

The Lor was on him, a blotched, purple mutant, full of bulbous tumours and wasted flesh. Yet for his all his skinny appearance he was fast. Very fast. He was on Starshot, scrabbling at his face, and gibbering sounds. Whatever language he had was corrupted.

 

“Food me eat Food me eat!”

 

Starshot was not sure if the spluttered words referred to a hunger or a desire to eat his face. But the whole situation was shocking.

 

He put his boot on the mutants chest and kicked him off. Fortunately the mutant, despite his speed, weighed little.

 

The mutant was on all fours as quick as lightning. Fast, so very fast. Faster than Starshot. But he had the second he needed. The plasma net gun came down, drew level, and it was a point blank shot. The sparking plasma net folded open, and folded close, the mutant caught inside.

 

“We have him” he said to Zaul, a little sad, a little disgusted.

 

And so…

 

Back on the Xeno, Zaul slithered over to the struggling mutant, his four arms restless to get to work. Starshot stood to one side, leaning against the interior of the ship. He had a deep nausea and disgust, but he had done such horrors a thousand times. He had little choice, he told himself.

 

But there was always a choice.

 

He bode his time. One day, he would be free of servitude. Until then, all he could do was try to curtail Zaul, or blow his brains out. It was not that the other option had not occurred to him. He was not sure if evading it was brave or cowardly.

 

Zaul stabbed the struggling Lor with a powerful narcotic and within moments the mutant was in a deep anaesthetic slumber. Then, the las-scalpel came out.

Whatever else Zaul was, he was a master of his craft. With dexterity and skill he went to work on his dissection….

 

 

2017

 

Vort-Zoorlis 12

 

It was a cold planet, full of ice and snow, circling a distant blue star. Only the equator was really habitable, and that was still a bleak and desolate place, with hardy plants and moss clinging to stone, with icy rivers flowing slowly on a flat landscape.

 

Vort-Zoolis 12 was at the edge of Lor space. Some might argue just beyond it.

 

It was a stopping off point to pause, rest, and trade. And in particular, trade things that perhaps where perhaps not strictly meant to be traded.

 

The Xeno was parked here. An anomalous ship In the basic, makeshift starport of just a few buildings. Whilst it was sleek and luxurious, the other few ships were designed for hauling cargo, and doing so with plenty of stealth fields activated.

 

There was only one proper meeting place, nicknamed the “Cold Hall”. It was a chilly warehouse, with a small bar serving cold drinks. A few played cards, a few swapped stories, a few got drunk.

 

Starshot was doing none of the above.

 

Ten years ago he had watched Zaul dissect the mutant and extract some kind of parasite from its organs. A dangerous parasite. A weapon. It was a bitter time, and left him sour. He was slowly trying to mop up the mess he had made.

 

There were four spacers, freelance men who dealt with illegal goods and illegal actions. Tough men who acted even tougher. Boots and blasters, a few scars between them.

“…and I rammed the Draxallian right up there. With a carton of tri-noodles. Hwah hwah hwah!” bragged one, finishing his tall tale.

 

Starshot moved silently when he wanted to, and loomed above the four seated men.

 

“Any of you know anything about a parasitic bio weapon?” he asked, voice low and slow.

 

The four men startled, and tried to cover their startle.

 

“What you know about the…?”

 

“Shut up, Troz! We don’t know nothing about nothing, and anybody who asks, gets a face full of blaster!”

 

Starshot remained silent and still.

 

“Didn’t you hear me? Get lost…” demanded the nearest spacer, pulling out his blaster pistol. It didn’t get far. Starshot kicked him over in his chair and put his boot on the hand.

The others responded, but too slowly, standing up and pulling their weapons. They hadn’t expected trouble from a lone man, and that slowed them.

 

Starshot punched the nearest man a dozen yards through the hall, crashing into a pile of tinned beans. In a quick fluid moment he cracked his whip, taking the blaster pistol out of a third man. Much harder, and it would have broken the man’s hand.

 

The fourth got his pistol out and, wavering, pointed it at an unfazed Starshot, who barely looked at him. His boot still crushed the first man beneath him, and his hand fondled the grip of his whip.

 

“You….you picked the wrong people to mess with, mister….” he spluttered, unsure about whether to pull the trigger, flee as fast as he could, or just fumble around and hope that somehow, magically, this wasn’t actually happening.

 

“No decision is a decision” explained Starshot. Out of sight, with the faintest of whirring, his left hand unclamped from his arm. The micro-jets kicked in, and the fingers clenched into a fist.

 

“What’s happening?” asked the last spacer, hearing but not comprehending.

 

His answer was a small cybernetic fist flying through the air and connecting with his skull. He had no time to contemplate the ramifications of his error, for he slumped to the ground out cold.

 

“The parasite. Where is it?” demanded Starshot, crunching his boot on the man’s hand.

 

 

2027

 

The Glass Nebulae

 

Twenty years ago, this had been a fringe jungle world. Now, it was a reservation plant, where endangered species had been translocated and cared for. Supported by the Lor government and generous payments from wealthy men.

 

And Starshot was tending it.

 

He was a wealthy man, now. He had cleaned up what he could of his past. He had hunted all manner of villain and beast and made his fortune. He had bequeathed the Xeno to Dugga, not without some reservations, but even Gunmonkey had accrued a little wisdom over the years and grown up.

 

And Starshot was feeling old. His cybernetic bio-filters kept his body in prime condition, but somehow he felt old inside. A man can only take so much of life. He had achieved what he wanted to achieve out of this life, and this gave him a restlessness.

 

He was sitting in a magnificent leather armchair, overlooking the reserve in front of him. Lost in thought, he did not notice the man take a seat next to him. A purple skilled Lor man dressed in neat, plain, white clothes that gave the impression he was a monk.

 

“Good view” said the Lor, matching Starshot’s gaze.

 

Starshot turned, slightly, sizing up the man. He couldn’t recognise him, but on the other hand, he wasn’t unfamiliar. Something was nagging in his brain.

 

The Lor laughed quietly. It wasn’t a laugh full of mirth.

 

“You don’t recognise me, do you?”

 

 

Starshot remained silent, unmoving. That nagging feeling as growing claws that raked the inside of his skull.

“I don’t blame you. It’s been a long time, and you have been busy. As I have I, in a different way. It took me twelve years until I could speak…” he said, gazing at the Jungle before them.

“And I have changed. Grown. I was just a boy when we first met”

 

Starshot felt the grim suspicion rising in him condense.

 

“It was you. Here. Twenty years ago…”

 

The Lor spun his chair round to face Starshot, and gave him a long hard look.

 

“It was twenty years ago. When I got pulled apart and stitched back together. Saved, in one way, destroyed, in another…” he explained. Now that he was up close, Starshot could see the subtle signs of cybernetics in his body. Crude rather than sleek. Botch jobs. Uncomfortable at best. Probably painful.

 

Starshot contemplated saying it was not his fault, or deflecting the blame. He kept his mouth shut. It would not help, and quite probably it would be a lie anyway.

 

“I have spent over a decade trying to clean up the mess” he explained, slowly and calmly. “Even burnt up those parasites you had in you. Found them on Vort Zoorlis. The spacers smuggling them didn’t come out of that pretty”

 

“What do you expect, a thanks?” came the Lor’s steely reply.

 

Starshot met the gaze steel for steel.

 

“No I don’t” he answered.

 

The two stared at each other a moment, locked in thought and will.

 

“I spent twenty years piecing myself back together. Working bad jobs, trying to pay to get the implants done proper. Had to stay hidden. Back streets and lonely worlds. It wasn’t pleasant. I only managed to crawl through my life by giving it a meaning” explained the Lor.

 

He pulled open his shirt to reveal a network of scars and clumsy cybernetics. But one of them was chrome and shiny. A crisp tube in the centre of his body.

 

With a hiss, it extended forward an inch or two. And then, with a pop of gas, it shot forward three feet, a spike that impaled Starshot’s chest.

 

He winced. It had entered his chest cavity. He could feel blood and air mix in his lung. But worse…he saw something slither down the tube that connected them.

 

“The parasites. They still grow in me” said the Lor bluntly, as the tube contracted back.

 

He stood up, standing over the convulsing Starshot who was frothing at the mouth.

 

“They always kill. Without fail. Except me” he explained, starting to walk away. “I feel no better for your death. But I was compelled to do it. Justice. Poetry, call it what you will…”

 

He turned and left the viewing hall. Behind him, Starshot felt his vision going black….

Edited by Supercape

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September 2007
The Aerie

 

 

The spears clashed in mid-air. Both the combatants were holding them broadly, blocking the other’s with their own. It would be a clash of strength, breaking in this situation was dangerous, the slightest mistake could lead to the opponent’s spear digging into one’s flesh.

 

Yet, breaking was exactly what he did. Taking away the spear’s tip, raising up the shaft, pushing it against his opponent’s spear, and then bringing the tip forwards with a horizontal swipe, stopping only a hair’s breadth before hitting his opponent’s throat.

 

Son-La-Tro dropped his weapon. “You are ready. You have learned everything we can teach you, and surpassed each of us. “ Son was the high instructor of the Aerie’s military, the man who had taught his skills to almost every warrior in the Aerie. And, thanks to that position, one of the Aerie’s strongest fighters. Only few could surpass him. And one more had just joined their ranks. He was different than all of them in one factor. He was only 7 years old. Prince Jann-Lo-Nah.

 

Son had had promising pupils before. But Jann surpassed all of them. It was true what they said. “Once every 10 generations, a great warrior shall be born.” Son had known the prophesy, and for the past 7 years, he knew that one day, he would train this child of destiny, and it would surpass him. He had not expected that day to come as quickly.

 

He had taken over the prince’s martial education two years ago. He’d known a lot even back then, but what he learned during the past two years was what impressed Son the most. The same regimen was meant to last a warrior from their youth until partway into their adulthood, 10 years for most. And even then, many never got quite as good as Son himself. He knew, he’d fought each of them.

 

While the prince began to plan a celebratory hunt, Son reported to his Queen. She had tasked him with the instruction of the prince, and she wanted to know how it went at all times. She would be pleased to hear the news, even if Son did not know what would come next. There was nothing more Prince Jann could learn from the locals.

 

“I have done as you asked, my Queen. The Prince is ready, he has learned all we teach. What do you intend to do with his education now?”

 

“He has become one of our strongest. But in my time beyond, I met many who were stronger than even I was. They will take his education from here. They shall prepare him for the world beyond. “

 

Son would not object, but he did not agree with his queen. Inviting outsiders hardly ever went well. And how much stronger could they be, than him, who had trained all his life. What he had lost in speed and agility, he had more than made up in experience. And even then, it was unlikely that one soldier, even the child of destiny, could stop another attack.

 

It was three days later that the first instructor arrived. And it was that day that, for the first time in over a year, Jann was beaten without the hint of a chance.

 

 

September 2017
Furui-ryu Kenjutsu Dojo, Freedom City

 

 

The swords clashed between the combatants’ bodies. It had been an exchange of about a minute, constant blows, blocks, parries and feints. But neither combatant had managed to get a hit on the other. The cloth holding the straps of bamboo together were starting to wear for both of them, the swords clearly not designed for both the severity and the amount of the strikes being exchanged.

 

Jann crouched, holding his sword by its grip but also halfway up the blade. His high attacks had not worked, the grandmaster able to predict all of them, and to defend against them. And even if there was the occasional opening, he was too skilled that Jann could exploit them. But the same also applied with the roles exchanged. Jann had managed to deflect each blow raised against him.

 

But after his aggression, it was time for Jann to take a more defensive stance. To see just where his opponent’s capabilities lay, to regain some strength, and because that was the custom of duelling. Jann could feel the first signs of his body resisting his every command, the first signs of exhaustion. The grandmaster attacked with an overhead swing.

 

So far, what he’d been told was correct. He was one of the strongest fighters Jann had ever faced, a worthy opponent indeed. For the past month, he’d fought each of his pupils, some younger than him, some much Jann’s senior, just for this opportunity. The higher he rose through the ranks, the more he was challenged. The second-highest, the one who ran the dojo, had required some attention, some care. He’d been a good opponent, but Jann had managed to beat him.

 

Jann’s hand slipped off the grip, grabbing the blade just above the guard. Within the bat of an eye, he raised it up to meet his opponent’s sword, catching the blade between the grip and the underside of the guard. And then, he pushed. 

 

It was of course true what they said. Jann had a physical advantage. Only the most well-trained of them could match his strength and agility, and none of them could match his flight. He refused to use the latter for that very reason, if he was going to fight them, he would do it on their terms. He did not refuse to use the former, however. Contrary to what they claimed, he’d not been gifted his strength. Only the strongest amongst them could match him, because only they could even come close to matching the amount of time he spent honing his body.

 

The grandmaster was not the youngest anymore. He could still match Jann’s movements, and even in this comparison of strength he managed to hold his own, but he could not outrun his age forever. It was a fact that both combatants were aware of. The longer the fight would go on, the more it would favour the young Avian. It was the conclusion from the facts, at least. But both of them had gathered enough experience to know that conclusions did not mean anything. Both of them knew that stamina would not come into play until much later in the fight.

 

Jann pushed the weapon upwards, taking short steps forwards, reducing the range between the two combatants. He did not need to, he had the advantage when it came to natural range. But he continued to push in further, as the grandmaster began to push back down, taking steps backwards to keep the current range. Their eyes had been locked for most of the fight. The slightest twitch would reveal each other’s intent, would lead back to the exchange of blows.

 

 

And then, Jann broke the bind, tilting his weapon ever so slightly, using the full length’s leverage effect to strike his opponent’s blade to the side, and grabbing his own by the grip again, already moving to block the incoming strike, once more escalating into an exchange of attacks.

 

 

September 2027
Osshrak Commerical Station, Edge of the Orto Nebula

 

 

 

This time, there was no clashing. The bullet touched his hit’s body, and went straight through. A clean shot by all accounts. His guards had not been fast enough. If inspected later, one could see that he’d realized what was about to happen, the last thing he’d ever realize. The crowd continued to be stunned, they’d all known what was about to happen when they saw him.

 

The Starseeker had come. He’d claimed his hit. And now, he would disappear. There had been some rumours, yes. Security had been tightened. There’d been massive checks at the venue’s entrance. And then, he just showed up nevertheless. In full armour, wielding a weapon, dropping in from the roof, opening his wings, and floating above the crowd, waiting just long enough for everybody to realize what was going on to take his shot.

 

The guards drew their weapons. They’d failed in their main task, but they could still bring in the criminal. His boots shot fire, some sort of booster, transporting him backwards. It would’ve carried him far, but instead, he crashed into the air behind him, a green field slowly manifesting. It was her. So she was here too. It meant she’d probably brought back-up. The question of why she’d not protected his hit crossed his mind. But it did not matter now. She stepped forward from behind the stage, the guards approaching at the same time.

 

“Starseeker, it ends here!”

 

He dropped to the ground, laughing underneath his mask. Did they not know? The caged animal was the most dangerous. She may have known. The guards didn’t. As was apparent by the difference in their distance to him. The crowd had hurried away, they knew what came next. The first guard aligned his weapon. But before he could fire, Starseeker had already crossed the distance, and was facing him directly, only a foot at most between the two.

 

Ranged attacks would not work with her around. But he knew that the only way she could maintain a Barrier that large was to not create another one. So it really just was a matter of time. She would either engage or back down. The guards, they were no challenge for him. She was. Whatever backup she’d brought also was.

 

A single punch was all it took to defeat the hesitant guard. He’d not pulled the trigger fast enough, so he had it coming. A kick from Starseeker’s cybernetic leg then removed the guard from the premises, smacking him against, and into, the nearest wall. He had not interest in the guard’s sidearm, so there was no need to disarm him. Instead, he spun around, his knee meeting the next attacker’s chest. One more rotation, leading into an overhead heel kick was all it took.

 

And then, the barrier disappeared. Not because she’d gotten weak, or because she’d let him go. But because each doorway now contained at least a dozen guards, more backing them up. And a thermal scan revealed that there was much more than just people waiting outside. She’d clearly planned this.

 

His hand wandered towards his scabbard, attached horizontally towards his lower back. He drew his weapon, gave her a slight nod, and with one swift movement, extended it towards it’s full range, the blade folding open. And then, he waited, as more security personal poured into the room while the civilians escaped. Judging by their apparel, it wasn’t just security anymore, there were mercenaries amongst the crowd. Starseeker just waited. He did not need to act just yet, he would let her take the first move. And she was very defensive, he knew that.

 

She walked towards him, slowly, clearly presenting her intent. The security continued to pour into the room, it had to be at least a hundred at this point. They’d formed a circle around the Starseeker, melee weaponry in the front, guns in the gaps. At any point they could fill the entire area between them in bullets, lasers and plasma. Yet, they waited. He was too valuable to just kill, even after what had just happened. She made her way through the circle, and stared right at him, their masks reflecting each other. She was taller than him, a rare situation. They did not exchange a word. Both knew what would come next.

 

Each took a step backwards. And then, it began. Her defense was perfect. There was no way to get around the shield, and even if he’d managed it, he would still have to deal with armor, and her natural skin. He did not need to injure her, however. She slammed her shield forward, he ducked under. She slammed it down, he used his boosters to gain some additional distance. It continued for some time, he did not attack much, and took a few slight hits. All the while, the security continued to stream in, each as tense as it got, watching the fight.

 

And then, finally, the opportunity he’d been seeking. A high strike of his kopesh was met with her tilting her shield upwards just slightly. But far enough for what he’d planned. It was attached to her arm through a mechanism powerful enough to withstand all sorts of force. Force applied frontally, that was.

 

He jumped to action. His boot expelled the full amount, usually enough to carry him quite a distance. And assisted by that, he raised his leg, his mechanical ankle connecting with the shield’s lower edge, and continuing to travel upwards. There was an audible crack, and the shield, the ancient artefact, flew through the air. It was the situation he’d needed. Using the force from the kick’s aftermath, he spun upwards, into the air.

 

First a Giraxan Flashbomb, much stronger than the ones he’d used back on Earth. Next, his wrist mounted rocket to destroy part of the roof. And then, his back boosters, to carry him through. The few that had managed to avoid the flash’s effect opened fire immediately, failing to hit the fast-moving target. He had roughly 4 seconds before she’d raise a new barrier, just enough time. He got closer to the hole, large enough for him to fit without having to close his wings, when outside, a gunship appeared, its gun spinning up. He did not slow down, or attempt evasive manoeuvres. Instead, he hit his tertiary boost.

 

A few bullets hit him before he closed the distance. Some even managed to pierce his armour. But the pain blockers did their job, and only a heartbeat later, his weapon’s fine blade sliced through the gun’s barrel, and the ship’s front. It hit the reverse, both to pursue and to dodge, but the pilot soon had to admit that it was too dangerous to pursue with this damage. Fortunately, he’d brought a squadron.

 

Two more ships approached, one from either side. Starseeker considered his options. The space in front of the arena was too empty, hiding was not a possibility. And he could not outrun the model Xettron, any reasonable pilot would be able to keep up with him. He turned to face one of them, moving directly at it, once more dodging the incoming shots, this time also getting attacked from behind, his wings taking more than a few hits, the pain blockers starting to not be able to keep up.

 

His knee crashed through the space-proof cockpit window, and into the pilot. He was no longer a problem, and Starseeker took the gunship’s control, as his armour reported that his blood loss was reaching a dangerous level. It had been lined up perfectly, and taking out the opposing gunship’s hover units was an easy task for somebody of his skillset.

 

He could already see a barrier manifest again. He managed to gain just enough distance to avoid the first one, and continued to fly, his gunship warning about more incoming, his armour giving him multiple alerts.

 

Later

 

He’d patched up his wounds, and his armour was running the repair protocols. He would be unable to do anything for a few days while he let his body regenerate, but he could still browse new jobs. One immediately sprung to attention.

 

Location: Terra, Sol

 

He supposed his last visit home had been quite some time overdue…

 

 

 

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Crimson Tiger 10th Anniversary Vignette

2007

Dawn found Mali working the heavy bag. Twelve years old and already focused on heavy duty training. She studied the internet for all sorts of training tips. She was already a prodigy of Muay Thai. Her father started training her when it was evident that her mom couldn't handle another pregnancy. It was America, her dad said. Girls could fight, too.

 

The training was a game, before. It kept her in shape, she enjoyed the practices. She was a fitness expert. She didn't much care for studying at school, but she dove headfirst into the fitness manuals and health books. She wanted to push herself, but she didn't want to hurt herself. She wanted to make sure she wouldn't suffer side effects as an adult.

 

It wasn't a game anymore. Her father had told her the story of her great grandfather, the legendary Black Tiger. If he could be a superhero, so could she. This was America. Girls could be heroes. So she resolved, eighteen years old. She gave herself six years. She'd design a costume, put everything together, put everything to work. She'd study whatever it took, whatever she needed to do.

 

Martial arts were nothing but applied physics. No mysticism to Muay Thai. Maximize the force into a minimal impact area. That kind of power could shatter stone, wood, and bone. She'd seen the kind of power her dad could put out, how hard he could hit if he needed to.

 

She'd be better than him. She'd come at it with everything she had. She wanted to be the second superhero in her family. The stories of her great grandfather's adventures inspired her, drove her, pushed her. She was going to save people, help people, and beat up bad guys.

 

The kids at school already thought she was a freak. Twelve years old and stronger than the boys. She could have joined any of the sports teams, but none of them would be good enough. None of them would give her the rush of training to fight. That sense of satisfaction as she shattered boards and her own limits.

 

She thought about names. Every hero had a name, a motif, a color scheme. All the ones she knew about, anyway. Like Lady Liberty, or Siren. She wanted to go with a tiger theme, like her great grandfather. Something tiger, something like Blue Tiger or Gray Tiger. No, no, her favorite color was red. Red tiger? No. She grinned to herself, Crimson Tiger.

 

2017

 

“Hey, mom, dad.” Mali said, stepping into her parents' home. She was a frequent visitor, but she'd been called over, asked to come visit. It sounded important. “What's up?”

 

Sitting on the couch was a young woman she'd never seen or met before. She was pretty, but sad. Mali's sharpened senses picked up a few things. She was nervous, even scared. Worried about something. Mali didn't know who she was, but she felt for her.

 

Her dad was sitting in his chair, he took a deep breath. “I'd like you to meet Lawan. Lawan, this is our daughter, Mali.” He said in Thai.

 

Mali nodded and smiled. “Hi, nice to meet you.” Mali sighted. Her Thai was slightly rusty, but serviceable.

 

Lawan smiled, still clearly nervous, and nodded politely. “Nice to meet you.”

 

“So.” Mali said. She looked at her parents in confusion. Was she a visitor? A cousin she didn't know about? That was a distinct possibility. There was a big family. This felt different, though. This felt like something more important than a simple visit.

 

“Lawan is Anuman's ex girlfriend.” Her father said. A chill ran up Mali's spine. The man who nearly killed him, nearly killed her. The man who even know rotted in prison. Mali shuddered. “She came here, to the states. After you defeated your cousin, his organization hasn't been the most stable. She fled, worried that she would get caught up in it. That, and her son.”

 

“Son?” Mali said with a blink.

 

“Somchai!” Lawan suddenly said. “Can you come here please?”

 

“Somchai...” Mali repeated, quietly. Somchai was a kind man, her great uncle, son of Black Tiger. This little boy was Anuman's son.

 

Somchai walked in and stared straight at Mali. How much had he been told? What did he know about what happened between his father and her? His gaze didn't linger long, before he said. “Yes mother?”


“This is Somchai.” Lawan said with a nervous smile. “He's my son. I....”


Her father interrupted. “I'll explain to Mali in English, okay?” He said. Lawan nodded, understanding. “Anuman abandoned them when he found out that Lawan was pregnant. She named her son after his grandfather in an attempt to connect them, but Anuman didn't care. He's six years old and has never known his father. She was poor, see...” Her father was a disciplined man, and even as he began to age, he was in great health. Still, his steely will wavered, his voice was shaking in anger.

 

Her mother spoke up. “He's never met his father.” She said again, in English “He knows his father is in prison, that he did something bad. Tarrin called us and asked us if we could host her. He called in a favor with the American government to get her a VISA. She's going to learn English, go to college, and establish herself. She and Somchai will be staying with us for the duration.”

 

“Tarrin didn't want the boy pulled into the scene his father was involved in.” Her father said. “Whatever his father is, this boy is family, and so is his mother.”

 

Mali nodded and understood. Then, she smiled to Lawan, and said. “Lawan, welcome to America, and our family. If you need any help with anything, don't hesitate to ask. Somchai is family, and so are you.”

 

Lawan teared up, and smiled. “I, after what he did, after...” She was shaking.

 

“What he did doesn't reflect on Somchai.” Mali said, looking down at the little boy. She dropped to eye level. “Hi. I'm your cousin Mali. I mean, I guess you can call me your aunt.” She smiled to him.

 

“Hi.” He said. He only spoke Thai, at least for now. That would change. “You know Muay Thai?” He glanced at her arms. It wasn't a far leap, even for a child. It was the national sport of Thailand, after all.

 

She chuckled. “Yup. My dad taught me.” He was a bright kid, she decided. She wasn't exactly showing off, but he could tell she was in good shape.

“Wow.” Somchai turned to her father. “Can you teach me Muay Thai? Mother, can I learn?”

 

Lawan seemed to consider it for several minutes. “Yes.” She said. “If he'll teach you.”

 

Her father considered for a moment. She knew what he was thinking. Six was a good age to start training, she thought. It wasn't much older than she'd been. The basics, just some fitness training, basic strikes. It was good for discipline and fitness.

 

“I don't think so.” He said. “I think I've taught my last student. Mali, though.” He looked at her. “You're as good as I've ever been, better, even.”

 

“I'm...” Mali started to say. Somchai looked back at her. He didn't look angry or disgusted at the idea of learning from her. His reaction sold it. “If you'll help supervise, dad.” She looked at her father.

 

“Alright.” He said. “Somchai.”

“Yes sir?” he said.

 

“My daughter will teach you. I'll supervise, but she is your instructor, understood?”

 

Somchai looked the most excited Mali had ever seen a child. He was overjoyed. “Yes Sir.” He said with a big grin.

 

“Okay, then.” Mali said, standing up. “I'll teach you.” She looked at Lawan, who was a bit nervous, but smiling. “You must mind your mother. You must eat properly. You must do your best in your studies. Muay Thai is a hard road, and you must do your best if you want to succeed.”

 

“Yes Ma'am.” He said, managing all the seriousness and sincerity a six year old could muster.

 

She managed not to laugh. He was taking it seriously, and it would be disrespectful of her to laugh at him. This was important to him, and, she reflected, her too. She'd have to make time. Weekly lesson plans, working with his diet to make sure he was eating enough and the right foods. It was a lot of responsibility, but she realized it was a natural step. She was a few years younger than her father had been when he'd started training her. However, she also had him to fall back on. Somchai would have her father to watch over both of them, to help her train him. She was grateful for the assistance.

 

“Okay. So I'll be in touch, okay? I'll make sure to send a message for when I'm ready to start your lessons. It might be a few weeks, or even a month or two, okay? Please be patient with me. I promise, I will train you. Oh, and when we're not training, you can call me Aunt Mali.”

 

“Okay Aunt Mali.” He said. He seemed a bit disappointed, as if he expected them to drop everything and start training right now.

 

“Oh, I'm so sorry Lawan. I know you agreed to my dad, and...”


“It's fine. It'll help him adjust to the States better if he's surrounded by familiar things.” Lawan said “I'm very grateful. I can never repay your kindness and generosity.” She was nearly in tears.

 

 

2027

 

Somchai was late, but she understood. It was a crazy, confusing time. She remembered it fondly, but at the time she was nervous and scared.

 

“Hey Aunt Mali.” He said, walking through the door to the gym. She had her own facilities, of course. Custom, high end equipment, only the best for her, and her student. “Claremont is crazy. I'm sorry I'm late for training.”

 

She chuckled. “It was crazy when I went there, too. You're fine.”

 

“I did see some cute guys there so, I mean, that was good.” He said. “So, what, no gear? I thought we were training.”

 

“Eh, we'll get to that.” She said. “Hold on.” She walked towards a storage closet, and came back with a box hoisted over her shoulder.

 

She dropped it, gently, on the floor. Then she pulled out a small folding knife, and handed it to Somchai. “Here.”

 

“What is....” Somchai looked at her quizzically as he took the knife, and started cutting into the tape. He knelt over the box and worked it carefully as she stood back and watched.

“Holy...” He said as he sat down and stared into the box. “How did you...”


“I asked your mom.” Mali said. “She knew your sizing, of course, and what you wanted to do. The name you wanted, what you wanted for a costume. She asked me if she could send the information directly to the designer. Said you kept your ideas secret because you were self conscious.”


Suddenly, Somchai snapped up the box and stood up with it. “I'm going to go try it on.” He said, exuberantly. She hadn't even got to see it. Teenagers were impulsive, she decided. Somchai was a smart kid, but even he got excitable and didn't think straight.

 

“Well.” He said. “I think it looks okay.” He was grinning from ear to ear, and gave a turn. “Thank you, thank you so much, Aunt Mali. You don't even know how awesome this feels. Just, look at this. Look at how awesome this is. I'm a superhero. Well, not yet, but I have a costume, and a name.”

 

Mali raised her hand to her mouth and felt tears well up a bit. The costume was, as she expected, black. All black from head to toe. However, the stripes were dark red.

 

“I mean, c'mon.” He said. “Black and red, classic color scheme. Are you okay?” He asked.

“I, I'm fine.” She said, smiling. “You look great, Somchai. I thought you didn't want me to know your ideas because you were embarassed or something.”

 

“No, no.” He smiled, he was tearing up a bit, too. “The Black Tiger is a legend in Thailand, but he's not the one who taught me how to fight. I asked Uncle Tarrin, and he gave his blessing. I figured this could honor both my ancestor and my teacher, you know?”

 

She smiled and nodded. “Come here.” She opened her arms. She hugged him tight. She was proud of him, proud of his strength, proud of his drive, his sense of purpose. She had started training him to fight. Mostly it was a way to help him focus, help him adjust to his new life in the US.

 

Lawan and Somchai had flourished in the US. She learned English, went to school, and became a nurse. She married someone a few years later. There had been an adjustment period, and Mali had heard all of Somchai's grumbles about his new step father during their training.

 

“Why don't you take a day off.” She said “I know school is going to start soon, and you can use a bit of time to unwind. So, go ahead, head out. Hang out with your friends. Just, take your costume off.”

 

He nodded excitedly and took off. She wasn't sure how he managed to get it off so fast, but he was soon back in his street clothes. “See you later, Aunt Mali.” He said with a smile, running off and out the door.

 

She sat down on one of the machines, and sighed. She was still in her prime, and she fully intended to take Somchai out on the occasional patrol with her, show him the ropes, some tips and tricks Claremont couldn't teach him. Yet, in some ways, he wasn't her pupil anymore.

 

She shook the morose thoughts out of her head and headed towards the storage closet. She fetched her gloves and foot wraps. He had a lot to learn, she figured. She could take him on patrols, show him the ins and outs. Tricks he wouldn't necessarily learn at Claremont. She was still in her prime, still had a lot to go. She did some stretches, and started up on the heavy bag.

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Lady Horus 

 

2007 

Los Angeles

 

Anna watched, snapping a few pictures, as little Holly went to town with the yogurt cups. The art project had been Paige's idea for a way to keep the two-year-old busy while she and Richard dealt with the kind of super-emergency you had to deal with right in the middle of a family outing when you're on the sucker side of the law. She had to admit, it really had been a great one. She and her daughter-in-law might not see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, but they loved their families very much. Holly reminded Anna more than a little of Dickie when he'd been that age, full of energy and ready to run around and gabble at the least provocation. Anna was pretty sure that teaching Holly that red, green, and yellow yogurt made great finger-paint was going to work against Dickie and Paige down the line, but the great thing about being a grandma was that you didn't have to worry about those things! 

 

She watched Holly smear the yogurt over herself, and the big white sheet she was on, and took more pictures. She'd made sure to dress the girl in a suitably used outfit for the day, the sort of pretty polka-dot dress that she'd have been dressed in herself when she was that age, but nowadays you hardly could ever find except in the sort of dollar stores that were all she could afford to shop in on honest money. The thick head of little girl curls on Holly's head was topped off with a bow that her grandma had picked out for her.  It was a public park and it was a lovely day, and she'd been out of stir long enough that she hardly ever woke up thinking she was back in the Women's Ward at Blackstone. 

 

"Oh my goodness! Aren't you a darling?!" She'd mostly met other women when she was off showing how cute her bloodline was, and the occasional man that maybe didn't like people of her persuasion - but the guy who'd just stepped off the path looked like just her type. Tall and muscular, his skin was tanned in that slightly artificial way that a lot of men in this city had - but when she coupled that with what had to be a thousand-dollar suit, it meant money. And she liked men with money, especially men who looked to be about a third her real age. "Hello," he said, shaking her hand. "I'm Skyler Green, I do outdoor photography. Who's this precious angel?" 

 

"Say hi to the nice man, Holly!" called Anna, getting back a double-fisted wave and a gabble of words. Holly was normally a good talker, but she'd double-stuffed her face with yogurt. 

"She's so charismatic!" said Green happily, waving back at Holly. He sat down on the grass next to Anna, squatting on his shoes to keep his suit from grass stains. "Is she your first grandchild?"

 

Anna blinked once, twice, then three times. 

 

"...no, she ain't." 

 

2017

Bedlam City 

 

Things weren't looking good for Lady Horus. Her divinely-created magic armor was bulletproof but not electricityproof, and evidently Hammer of Justice was more of an engineer than she'd thought. The throwing stars had embedded themselves in her linen and gold armor and then blasted her with a whole heckuva a lot of volts of electricity, she'd crashed through the skylight of this Rook Island warehouse, and so here she was! She probably should have been more alarmed but that had been a hell of a lot of electricity. 

 

"Was going to kill you," the Hammer of Justice was grunting somewhere like a man with serious constipation problem. Lady Horus heard the distinct sound of a shotgun being loaded, figuring it had to be armor-piercing rounds if he had actually been planning on blowing her head off while the Helm was still on, then the sound of the gun going down. "Realized there was no need." He loomed into her view, a squarer, stouter figure than she'd imagined - it was a form with a wrestler's power rather than a boxer's. "Just take off the Helm and take you in." He laughed, a short, harsh sound. "Never taken a Crime Leaguer before. Thought it would be harder." 


He moved back, out of her view, guessing that perhaps the heavy steel net he'd dropped on her might not be enough to hold the sun goddess. And he was right, though not for the reasons he'd thought. "Oh, art thou so foolish?" She laughed. "If you know mine true name, fool, then you know what will happen should my name be spoken in this town. Thou have quite a kingdom of filth here - a kingdom that will come falling down if any come looking too closely at your work." It was the upside of a celebrity family on the right side of the law. If Anna Cline was arrested in Bedlam City, or killed there, her family would come looking for what had happened - and even if they might never believe what she'd been doing, they'd look hard enough to expose the Hammer of Justice's scam. 

 

"Fooled out-of-towners before," said Hammer of Justice dryly. "Didn't understand what I had to do to protect my city from the likes of you." 

 

"Like violatin' little girls?" Lady Horus hissed in reply, Anna's voice usually clear through the Helm's magic. 

 

"Esperanza isn't a little girl," said the Hammer with a laugh. "She wanted to be a hero, and I showed her what it was like. You know, from what the judge said at your trial, I'm surprised you'd have a-" 

 

Anna screamed in righteous fury - 

 

and in 1927 there was no warehouse, and no chains either. Lady Horus erupted up into the air and then down into the present, glowing ankhs held high - and there was no Hammer of Justice. 

 

The thought that he'd set the whole ambush up just to see if she could still teleport gave her a sleepless night that night. 

 

On the other hand, if he keeps it up, I'll be deada old age by the time he makes a move... 

 

"

 

2027 

Somewhere Else 

 

The Pharaoh sits on her throne - Hatshepsut reborn! Her treasures are all the treasures of the world - the cedars of Lebanon, the iron of the Hittites, the gold of Nubia, and none has greater treasure than the Lady of the Two Lands! When she stretches her hand armies of the finest warriors in the world march against her enemies; the charioteers of Assyria, the doughty spearmen of Kush, and all the rest fall before Pharaoh and her power! She is a god on Earth, her face and body commemorated in marble and sandstone cubits high across the Two Lands! She is beloved by kings, courtiers, and common folk, as well might a woman with the heart of Horus and the face of Isis! Her bacchanalia are legend and in her golden palaces in Heliopolis, all the luxuries of table and flesh are hers to command. Her harem is stocked with men from the Pillars of Hercules to the lands east of Babylon, and - 

 

Hey wait a second! Those old kings and queens just got people killed when they had those wars. And I've been in some harems, honey - that ain't no way to live. 

 

She strides the streets of Heliopolis, keeping her eyes from the temples of the false gods. Her people have been held in bondage for four hundred years - but with the blessings of their Lord, they will soon be held no longer. She is foremost among the rebels and a foe of all kings and queens, especially those who grow fat and bloated from the sweat and blood of the innocent, disguising herself as a simple artisan to hide her true nature from the prying eyes of Pharaoh's many spies. By day she labors alongside her people, by night she plans the day of rising. She doesn't have long to wait. They strike when the signs are there - when the river has turned red and foul, when clouds of insects fill the air, and when the plague runs hot among both the oppressors and their animals. The day of rising is a glorious, albeit bloody victory, and when it's done they flee into the - 

 

First of all, I don't think you're supposed to be showing me that stuff - and second of all, I really don't think I'd fit in with those people. For one thing, I ain't exactly a follower of their-

 

Her home is grand - at least for a peasant's daughter. A little bit of everything in the quarter paid for this place. The house of pleasure where the Medjay make sure the scribes and soldiers treat the girls with respect. The gold that the temple slaves smuggle from the ships going upriver that pays the Medjay. The priests, plied with wine and girls, who make sure that no one stops the flow of gold to this side of the river - and the spices her friends from the lands of the South bring her in return for favors from the priests who need their temple meat flavored just so. She's dealt with a few enemies by poison or blade, especially in her younger days, but she prefers to let her friends and do such work for her. Men pay court to her, and sometimes she accepts their tribute, but she is content to sit in the cool shade of her home's receiving room and let them plead for her favor. She is no Pharaoh, she is no rebel - but she is monarch of  all she surveys! 

 

I like the last one best. But I think I'm just going to sleep. Good night. 

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Ronin

 

2007, Afghanistan, Helmand Province. 

 

Curtis wiped his brow. It was a hot day in Helmand province, but he sweating for other reasons. In front of him was a simple and effective bomb.

 

Billy Corn kept a watch out, fingering his rifle, poking his head out of cover. They were in some shelled out building. It was a miracle it was still standing, and in some places it was not.

 

They were sweeping the area, and came across the abandoned building. Full of improvised explosive devices. Full of booby traps.

 

And now, full of a device ticking down numbers on a dusty LED screen.

 

“It’s gonna blow, Curtis. We gotta split…” hissed Billy, his eyes peeling the horizon.

 

“I got this…” murmured Curtis, maintaining his concentration.

 

Fresh into the US Army, Curtis was a good man. A good soldier. He didn’t like war, but he didn’t run from it either. No honour in shooting a man. But this, now this was right. Dismantling bombs. Stopping death, rather than causing it.

 

“I know you got this, Curtis. But I’m telling you, lets split in case you don’t” hissed Billy, louder this time. “What the hell you doing this for anyway? Let it all blow…”

 

“Firstly, there is enough hi-ex here to blow everything. Not sure we could even outrun this. Second, boys back at Mil Int gonna have a field day taking this apart. It’s all about the clues, Sherlock…Now let me finish this…”

 

“Better finish it real soon, friend, or it us that are finished…” replied Billy, looking at the timer nervously.

 

“Done” said Curtis, calmly, sitting back and wiping his brow.

 

“What you mean done?” screamed Billy, pointing at the counter with just a few seconds left.

 

“You mean the timer?” asked Curtis calmly, as the seconds finished their march to zero. Four…three…two…one…zero….

 

Everything stayed quite calm. The bomb was resolutely unexploded.

 

“Disconnected from the bomb” said Curtis with a smile.

 

“I thought we was kebab meat…why you son of a….” started Billy, a smile breaking out on his rage.

 

Crack! The sound of single bullet. Billy toppled forward, spitting blood, grunting.

 

Curtis whipped up his own rifle, dragging Billy to cover as another salvo of gunfire hit them. Automatic fire now, a bullet tearing open Billy’s leg.

 

There. Curtis saw the attacker now. A lone women, holding her Klashnikov tightly, screaming something Arabic he could not understand. Untrained but determined. Furious. An easy target.

 

Easy to take down. Easy to kill.

 

He pulled up his own weapon and took aim…

 

 

2017, Nancy Street, Bedlam

 

“Curtis!” screamed Ellie, standing up from the table and running over to her brother, embracing him.

 

22 Nancy Street. He hadn’t been back here in, what. Four, maybe five years. And hadn’t really lived here for over ten. He had kept away. A soldiers life, that’s what he told himself. He knew it wasn’t quite true too. He hand grown up on Nancy Street. It had bad memories.

 

Yoshie, his Grandmother was there. Looked smaller than he remembered her, and he remembered she was small. Aside from Ellie, the only good thing in Nancy Street. She was normally calm, verging on stern. Even she broke out into a smile, as if her face forgot she her reserve.

 

They sat down, ate noodles, talked. About Nancy Street, about love, about life. There were tears at times, but not always sad ones. And there were more laughs than tears. Nobody had heard from his father, and nobody wanted to, especially Curtis. Ellie was in the police force now, kicking up a stink. Yoshie tried to look after Nancy street best she could. Her best was good, but she was old now, even Curtis could see it. Back in the day, Yoshie could kick any street punk. Now, well, she had some of that wiry strength, and all of that steely gaze, but time caught up with everybody.

 

And so talk turned to Nancy Street. And here, the talking was no easy listening. Curtis had seen it outside of course. Place gone to hell. But even he hadn’t guessed quite how far Nancy Street had sunk. Time was, when even the crooks had a code, of sorts. Nowadays, everybody was in a competition to see how much of the code they could break. Only code was, to have no code.

 

Ellie took Curtis for a walk down Nancy Street as the sun set.

 

Many folks were warm. Most folks were scared.

 

“There’s 45” she pointed at a rundown, boarded up house. Might have been beautiful once, but now was ravaged and broken. One bum was out cold outside, still muttering to himself in the sleep.

 

“Everybody knows it’s a drug dealers paradise. Cops don’t shut it down, of course. Say there’s no evidence. They say that, and take the pay offs” sighed Ellie. She was angry and despondent at the same time.

 

“You gotta be Razafrikin joking” replied Curtis, shocked. “I’m no cop. I can see that place stinks from a hundred yards”.

 

“Welcome to Bedlam” grunted Ellie. “Come on, lets go…”

 

Curtis pulled away her hand, tugging at his sleeve. “Somebody got to do something about this. It ain’t right…” he muttered, fixing his gaze on the offending building.

 

“And whose that gonna be? This ain’t Freedom City. No Freedom League here. No Dr Metropolis or Foreshadow. We got the Tattered Man and Lady Horus, but this is Bedlam, Curtis. Like trying to hold back the tide…” she shook her head.

 

“Better to try and fail than stand around doin’ nothin’” grunted Curtis, moving forward, on a mission.

 

“What you going to do, huh? So Grannie Y taught us some karate, what, you gonna go kick their ass? I’m a police officer, Curtis. I gotta go by the book, even if that book ain’t working so well right now…”

 

“Then walk away” snapped Curtis, harder than he meant to.

 

But Ellie neither walked away nor stopped him. “I ain’t walking. But I ain’t stopping you either”.

 

“Huh” nodded Curtis, marching up to the front door.

 

He knocked on the door, hard. As soon as it opened an inch, he kicked it harder.

 

The thug on the other end flew back, stunned. He started to pull up his pistol, but Curtis punched the arm out of the way and slammed a flurry of fists into the man, who crumpled.

 

“What in Mama Moses hell name is going on…” yawned another bare chested thug, coming out of a side door. Curtis span round and kicked once, twice, in the man’s groin and head. He crumpled even faster than the first.

 

Now, two more thugs, faster this time, with knives. Curtis leaned back avoiding the first stab, then caught the man’s arm, twisting, slamming him into a pipe that cracked heavily. The knife skittered to the floor. He turned, not quite fast enough. The other thug slashed him, sinking the knife into his side.

 

“That hurt, punk” he grunted, feeling the pain. He feinted a jab, then sank his elbow into the man’s nose, which crunched most satisfyingly.

 

The last thug was a big man. The boss, maybe. Tough, old, like a seasoned oak. Scars and tattoo’s. Faster than he had any right to be for that size and age. And armed. A shotgun. Top of the range, Curtis noted. Weapon of choice in this cramped environment.

 

He dived, as the first nest of pellets exploded from the barrel. He felt something in his leg. Something not good.

 

He stumbled into a side room, noting the horrible state of decay, the smell of despair and ruin. His leg was bleeding. Could be worse, he thought. But could be a whole lot better too.

 

“You stepped through the wrong door, son…” laughed the boss, pumping his shotgun for another round.

 

Curtis kept quiet. He didn’t make a sound. His breathing, controlled, shallow, effective.

 

The door to the side room creaked open, just an inch, the gun barrel poking through.

 

Curtis moved, fast, unhesitating, He whipped the door open, just what the man would not be expecting, and grabbed a wrist. The man was strong, but so was Curtis, and Curtis knew just were to press, and twist. His leg might be slowing him down, but his arms worked just fine.

 

The thug squeezed a trigger, and the blast went upwards, bringing down a little masonry and a lot of dust. Curtis jabbed the man, turned, and threw him over his hip. He caught an arm as the man landed, and twisted it. There was a popping sound as the elbow hyperextended, and a moewing noise of pain.

 

“Wrong door for you” he answered, standing over the man, the shotgun in his hand, barrel pointed at the thug.

 

“Nancy Street is finished. Long live Nancy Street” he added, as the Man started his begging routine.

 

Clack, clunk, clack, clunk, Curtis pumped the shells out of the shotgun. The man beneath him looked relieved, until Curtis span the weapon and slammed the rifle butt into his head.

 

 

2027, Yoshie Chiba’s funeral.

 

Ten years later, was Nancy street a better place?

 

Maybe. Maybe not. Curtis would like to think it was better. Ellie would say it was better. Half the folks on Nancy street would agree with her. But he wasn’t so sure. You took down one gang, another one just sprang up. He could clean up, but better men than me needed to build something in its place that was cleaner.

 

What would Yoshie have thought?

 

Curtis was dressed in his suit, black. Not a fine cut, but he had made himself as presentable as he could. A mark of respect for the old woman.

 

Ellile was virtually inconsolable, leaning on her husband, their young son not quite understanding the proceedings. She had married a good man. He never seemed to be able to manage marriage, had barely been able to have relationships at all. He had other things on his mind. Collecting scars.

 

Yoshie had not really been the religious sort, but they had held funeral at Nancy Street church, which now looked respectable. Yoshie was pragmatic, she didn’t believe in God, but plenty of other folks did, and funerals were for the living, not the dead.

 

Lost in thought, Curtis did not notice Billy until the man actually clapped his hands on him.

 

Billy was older now, walking with the stiffness of a prosthetic limb, a reminder of that day twenty years ago. Married, divorced, two kids. They had kept in touch over the years, but their freindhsip had faded with time. Lost to neglect rather than malice. They would always be friends, but neither had been quite the same after that day in Helmand. Billy had lost a leg. Curtis had lost something else when he shot that woman. 

 

“So she finally went, huh? Never thought she would die. Live to a thousand years old…” sighed Billy.

 

“Longer than me, anyway” agreed Curtis.

 

“Damn well should have, the way you been chargin’ around here”

 

“No more charging for me now, Billy. Resting up the street special. It’s a young man’s game”

 

“No way” gasped a shocked Billy. “You part of the street, man. They should practically rename it after you…”

 

“Maybe they will, one day. Crane St. Gotta ring to it” chuckled Curtis.

 

“But seriously, what gives? Ain’t gonna be the same without Ronin pounding the streets. Ain’t gonna be the same at all. Not good, man, not good at all…”

 

“Police can do a better job than I can” muttered Curtis, defensively.

 

“You think? Remember how it used to be?” asked Billy, pressing the point.

 

“I do. Billy, you know I do. But it’s no good. Violence isn’t the answer. Not in the long term, anyhow. Sure, I cleaned up some bad stuff. Did everything but get the cape. Regular superhero, they called me. Some said I had powers. All I had really had was my will and my people” he smiled, clasping Billy affectionately.

 

“So you go. Then what? Bedlam’s gotta a way of filling a vacuum with the worst kind of trash…” said Billy, not relishing the prospect of Nancy Street without Ronin.

 

“I don’t know, Billy. I don’t. But Bedlam, Nancy Street, it’s never gonna get better with fools like me just kicking, punching and shooting. What we need is schools, education, jobs. Build stuff, rather than tear it down. Won’t work today. Won’t work tomorrow. But it will work. I believe that, truly. That’s the way, Billy, not playing Whack-a-mole…”

 

Billy shrugged. “I guess, man. You know Nancy street better than me…” he replied, unsure.

 

The two men sat in silence, contemplating the future.

 

Billy broke the silence. “But if some scumbag trashes Mr. Yip’s noodle bar, you gonna kiss his ass, right?” he asked, with a knowing smile.

 

“Damn right I am” answered Curtis, his smile full, his eyes narrowed.

Edited by Supercape

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Terrifica 10th Anniversary Vignette Contents of One’s Heart

 

October 2027

 

Terrifica was at Blackstone, the super prison. No, she hadn’t committed a crime. Someone had escaped. The bitterly cold ice still in evidence despite the prison staff’s best efforts (encasing some guards and a few prisoners to boot) was proof of that. She lifted a hand to her ear and triggered her suit’s commlink. “Miracle Girl? It’s me. Yes, Dr. Beardly has gotten loose again. I think I know where he will go. I can handle it myself. You can stay on your case with Excello.” She paused, listening. “Yes.” Her voice wavered every so slightly. Anyone who didn’t know the long tenured crimefighter well wouldn’t have noticed. “Saying that doesn’t make me feel any better, Miracle Girl. He was as much my friend as you are, and I can’t save him from what he’s become. There is nothing that can lessen the sting of that.” She took the opportunity to seize the offensive in the conversation. “Just like there is nothing to lessen the sting of an absent father. I know we’ve discussed this, but…call him. Please. You know very well what I would do and have done to see my father again. All you have to do is make a call.” Her voice was well controlled, only the barest edge of her deepest obsession (and sorest emotional spot) showed through. Those that knew her well would spot it instantly, but few others would. The sad, lonely little girl was still there. It was a smaller part of Terrifica (alias Samantha Carson and Qiaolian Song) than it once was, but it was still there. It would never entirely go away, after all. “Of course. Very well, I’ll say nothing else. Take care of my son. He is as green as you were once.”

 

She started walking out of Blackstone’s boathouse and onto the dock. She had an old friend to hunt down and (most likely) beat unconscious. It was rather bothersome, as her gubernatorial campaign was in the home stretch. Less than a month until the election, and the polls favored the tenured professor (and sitting state senator) from MIT. A buzz from her utility belt caused her to pull out a communicator. “Hello? Oh, I didn’t expect you to catch monitor duty tonight. What is it? Oh, that. I’m already on it. It’s…a personal matter. I’ll take care of it. No, no one else escaped. Well, and stayed out. There was the one I had to-” The voice on the other end spoke for a while longer. Terrifica was amused. “The League can get along without me for a night.” The voice had a few other things to say. “I suppose that is a bit more dire, but there isn’t any reason the rest of them can’t handle it on their own.” She sighed, listening. “Oh, very well. Let me make a call.” She put the communicator away and touched her commlink again. “Miracle Girl? It’s me again. Something’s come up with the League.” She tapped her wrist computer. “I’m sending you the relevant data on Dr. Beardly. Can you take Excello to his room and then take of it for me, please? Excellent. That will be all. This is quite pressing. Apparently I have to outwit the Curator, as apparently that is a thing I can casually do. Good luck with Dr. Beardly.” She shut off the commlink again and flipped open the communicator. “Whenever you’re ready.” The teleporter took hold of her, and she was reminded of twenty years before…

 

**************************************************

 

October 2007

 

Samantha Carson was a part of the freshman class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was pursuing her Master’s degree in physics, to be followed by a doctoral thesis. She had gained a quick reputation as the young woman with the sharpest tongue in all of Cambridge. If she was spoken of, certain words unfit for publication were always used. And that was the extent of the knowledge of the social circle of one Stan Gresham, doctoral student of psychology. Stan himself had one more piece of information. He was a genius at reading people and seeing through the complex interplay of their personality traits to who they were. And what he saw when he looked at Samantha Carson was a sad and lonely little girl who had been well trained in using withering insults and sharply pointed comments to defend herself from literally everything and everyone. Whether there was a need for defense or not. So he decided to get to know her. His social circle was…kind of boring, honestly. They weren’t particularly complicated or complex people. And they were pretty easily manipulated, not that he wanted to do that. He needed a new challenge, and getting to know the prickliest person on campus (which was saying something, given some of the professors) would do nicely. And…nobody should look that sad and lonely. It just wasn’t right.

 

…this did not go well. Stan thought he was well armored against insults and sharply pointed comments, but man did she ever have a sharp mind to go with that tongue. That said, she didn’t tell him to go away or to leave her alone, not directly or even particularly indirectly. He began to catch the little flash of happiness when she saw him again. She wasn’t insulting him so much anymore, and he only got sharply pointed comments for being an idiot. Which was maybe a little unfair, if you weren’t a genius. Still, he started to see the other sides to Sam, as she preferred to be called. The nerdy dork who adored learning, no matter the topic. Her talent for compassion and sympathy, but her struggle with empathy. It was a heck of a surprise when she kissed him, though. But just like that, they were a couple.

 

Stan couldn’t quite pinpoint when or why he fell in love with Sam. One day he just kind of realized it. Telling her was both the right thing to do and a terrible mistake at the same time. She just…shut down on him. Shut him out entirely. It was as if they’d never spent any time together at all. Stan let it go, as he needed to submit his finished thesis and was thus incredibly busy with a thousand little things. But he came back to it after the submission. Before he had to present it, he confronted her about her distance. The result was a blazing argument. The relationship could have ended right there until Stan realized just how terrified Sam was of being abandoned. And how profoundly she’d buried that fear in her mind. The rest, as they say, was history. A thriving practice. A thriving marriage. Two wonderful children. Not that it was easy Marriage is many things, but easy isn’t on that list. They were both committed to making it work, and with two different kinds of genius working at it there was no way they could fail.

 

**************************************************

 

October 2017

 

Terrifica (memories of ten years ago dancing in her bored head) kicked the last goon in the head, and he collapsed in a heap. This was a bust. There was a big thump outside, as Miracle Girl (her protégé and friend) combated a unusually sturdy robot. The mad genius whose home they were invading was further inside. They were also trespassing in a foreign country. Illegal immigrants, which was particularly amusing for Terrifica considering certain American political realities. There had been a lead on Lucas Carson’s whereabouts after his disappearance over a decade ago. It had led here. As it turned out, this was nothing more than said mad genius being angry at Terrifica for something Daedalus did, literally before Terrifica was born. So, a waste of time. Another mighty thud outside. Maybe she should…she looked outside. No, the robot was considerably more battered than Miracle Girl, who appeared mostly unharmed. Her protégé would be fine. To make this ruse convincing enough to fool Terrifica, this mad genius had to know something real. There were no more goons, and only one last robot minion in the way. Relatively speaking, anyway. Terrifica would get the truth out of this man. He knew something. He had to. He had to.

 

He did.

 

Another lead, a bit small but it wasn’t nothing. Terrifica pushed the disturbed expression of her protégé out of her head. She hadn’t tortured the man. It wasn’t her fault he’d chosen to fight her with that decidedly mediocre combat suit. It also wasn’t her fault that it was so fragile. And thirdly, it wasn’t her fault that it collapsed on and trapped him after she broke it. Terrifica couldn’t bend steel, after all, and the one who could was, well, busy. So what if she took the opportunity to…have a little chat? He had information she required, and that was a bit more important than getting the suit off him and providing medical attention. He’d recover from his injuries eventually and Terrifica had learned what she wanted to know. Honestly, she really didn’t see the problem. Hmm? Didn’t she have a tool or two on her belt that could have freed him? Of course she did, and she would’ve used them had her protégé not entered. She wouldn’t have let him die for misleading her about her father’s whereabouts. She wouldn’t have. At least, that is what Terrifica would keep telling herself, praying it was the truth. Praying that she could always control the bitter cold fury she felt every single time her pursuit was thwarted. Praying that she would never turn into a monster like the Empress of Emerald and Jade.

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Lord Steam

 

2007

 

Earth Victoriana, England, Canterbury

 

The young Lord Lucien Lockwood was a most brilliant man, it was said. And it so saying, they would be quite correct. He had sailed through his degrees in physics and engineering at Oxford, and was completing a PhD in quasi-liquid energetics at the London School of Metaphysical Engineering. Even the brilliant minds there could not always understand his theorems. Why, it was whispered that only a woman (an outrageous thing!) could understand him, a Ms. Henrietta Wells.

 

The University of Canterbury was a splendid institution with splendid architecture, situated in Kent, the Garden of England. It was a sunny county, and it was the tail end of summer, with a hot sun languid in the sky, but the hint of cool breeze to take away the stifle. A most agreeable day.

 

For most, it would be a day for cricket, tea, and cucumber sandwiches. But it was also a day for a conference on Metadimensional lensing, and Lord Lockwood was duly attending. Frankly he would rather be out playing cricket or shooting fox’s, but he had, at the lunchtime break, caught up with Ms. Henrietta Wells, whom he genuinely found interesting. Inwardly, he cursed the archaic culture of the School of Metaphysical Engineering for sealing out a woman from their inner machinations. For he would far rather have his PhD supervised by a woman of this unparalleled calibre than the stuffy old Professor Rootclamp, who mumbled most awfully. Lord Lockwood was most suspicious that Professor Rootclamp mumbled to conceal his confusion about n-dimensional ultra-fluid states.

 

A small man in a perfectly tailored but somehow bland suit approached them. In his fifties, bald, a little fat but not too an ungainly measure. Smoking a cigar that had a unique scent (quite unplaceable to Lord Lockwood). He didn’t look memorable in any other way. It subsequently transpired that the small man was most expert in being unmemorable. Or memorable, depending on the need.

 

“I do apologise, Madam. I would like to have Lord Lockwood’s ear in private…” he apologised to Ms. Wells, who capitulated with uncharacteristic ease. Ms. Wells was a fiery soul and thank Vishnu for that; a fiery soul had propelled her through the cobwebs of antiquated culture. And yet she recognised the small man and deferred to him. It was not clear if this was through respect, fear, or admiration. Quite possibly it was a soup of all three.

 

The small man was polite, calm, and unhurried, but had a smooth insistence to him. As he stepped out of Canterbury university with Lord Lockwood, he put out his cigarette and placed his hands together, thumbs pressed.

 

“Allow me to introduce myself. My name is ‘M’”

 

“An unlikely name. How do I spell it?” retorted Lord Steam, not with aggression, but something else; anything mysterious was simply irresistible to Lord Steam, and he demanded of himself that he disentangle any conundrum.

 

“As it sounds” replied M, completely unflappable.

 

“I note your considerable intellectual and academic prowess, your Lordship” he continued. “It has come to my attention, alongside your energy, drive, and other natures”

 

“Talent will out, Sir”

 

“Yes indeed it will. Although sometimes Talent should in. The obscured is sometimes more valuable that the visible. Although sometimes plain sight is the best place to hide” nodded M, who looked like he was enjoying himself.

 

So was Lord Lockwood.

 

“You are an intelligent man, Lord Lockwood” said M, his speech pleasantly oiled. “Quite brilliant, in fact. One of the finest minds in the English empire, I would hazard. Possibly the finest. But you are still rather fresh to the ways of the world”.

 

“I smell diplomacy” answered Lord Lockwood, stiffening just slightly.

 

“Then you have a fine nose, young man. An extra credit”

 

“Do I need credit?”

 

“Ah. Need, no. But you may wish for it. Some are able to utilise it, and a dare say that includes you” answered M, a little chuckle on his lips.

 

“Fair point” conceded Lord Lockwood, nodding sagely.

 

“I shall not press further today” smiled M. Was it a kind smile, or was there more complexity behind it? “But suffice to say, the Government recognises your outstanding talent. You are the kind of gentleman that have need of. And someday, you might have need of!”

 

Without a word, but that same enigmatic smile on his face, M gave a little bow and pottered off. He looked precisely like an unassuming, unthreatening man. As opposed to, say, razor-sharp head of a secret government agency recruiting the finest men and woman of the British Empire. Purely as an example.

 

 

2017

 

Earth “Prime”, Freedom City

 

The tip had come from Foreshadow II. A criminal by the name of Ms Verity Quail, set up a watch makers shop in Wading way. Respectable, arguably legitimate – at least, as far as a business was. It was still owned and run by Ms Verity Quill. Who was, by all accounts, quite the expert in watch-craft.

 

Except Ms. Quail had tried to blow up Big Ben in Earth Victoriana with her timed explosives, and, on failure of this task (thanks to the expertise of M), had made haste to this dimension via some artful burglarising of the Institute of Metaphysical Engineering.

 

Rather than tie himself up in red tape (the interdimensional extradition agreements become progressively more intricate in legal minutiae) Foreshadow had tipped of Lord Steam, and everyone (Freedom City Police included) had decided that it would be an awfully splendid idea if she was quickly escorted back to Earth Victoriana in a manner which whilst not arguably completely legal, did at least have no illegality about it.

In other words, quite the mess. And one would not want lawyers profiteering from, and potentiating the mess.

 

“Good afternoon, madam. I desire to peruse a selection of your finest clock watches” he said, boldly.

 

Ms. Quail, who was discussing a repair with an elderly woman, looked up and sighed.

 

“You…” she croaked, displeasure permeating every twitch of her face.

 

“Delighted to make your acquaintance, madam…” bowed Lord Steam.

 

As soon as his head was at its trough, Ms. Quail turned, and bolted, the magnifying monocle improbably remaining in her eye. Jerking his head upward and clocking the payment for his manners, Lord Steam was not far behind. He vaulted over the counter.

 

“Desist, Ms. Quail! Let us not make a mess of this!”

 

“Stuff your gizzards, Sir! I am off!” screamed Ms. Quail as she ran out the back door onto Toogle street.

 

“Blast, darn, and fiddlesticks!” muttered Lord steam, following her out onto the street. He spied her using and palm and elbow to cut a path through the crowds. Freedom City crowds were not most accommodating to such behaviour, although lamentably they were not unfamiliar with it. Their lack of accommodation did, however, allow Lord Steam a few key moments to make good pace and heft cane in hand.

 

“M would like a word, madam! He says you could be of great service!” he called out.

 

“What? In the tower? No thanks!” she yelled back.

 

With a flick of his wrist, Lord Steamthrew his cane, spinning and tumbling at her legs. Fortune was with him (duly assisted by a sharp eye and clever hand), and the cane entangled itself most splendidly between her feet.

 

“Ooof!” she gasped, as she went flying, carried by her own momentum, hands forward, to land flat on her face.

 

“That will leave some nasty grazes, madam” said Lord Steam, elegantly catching up with her prone body.

 

The beep! Of a horn carried through the air. Blakely, ever efficient, tooting the rather magnificent copper horn on Bessie, Lord Steams’ rather beautiful antique car. Today, as so oft, it was driven by the elegant Mr. Blakely Esq, personal butler to Lord Steam.

 

“In a spot of trouble, Sir?” enquired Mr. Blakely Esq.

 

“Not a bit of it, Blakely. Just taking a spot of exercise!”

 

“Very good Sir…” replied the unflappable Blakely, helping bundle the now – handcuffed Ms. Quail into the Bessie.

 

“Nothing to worry about ladies and Gentlemen” said Lord Steam to the onlookers, some of whom were concerned. A few reaching for their phones. “My name is Lord Steam, this is a matter of national security!” he continued with a deep bow, neglecting to mention exactly which nation’s security he was referring to.

 

“I do hope Mr M appreciates your efforts, Sir” said Blakely as they sped off back to Steam Manor. “I daresay things do not go quite as smoothly as your Lordship might have wished…”

 

“Nonsense. Nothing a bit of diplomatic oil can’t fix” replied Lord Steam, trying to maintain upbeat. It would indeed have been much smoother if they had managed to bundle Ms. Quail back to jolly Earth Victoriana with the minimum of fuss and witnesses. But then again, everyone had implicitly agreed this was the most sensible option. And besides which, Ms. Quail would surely get the proper and due process back on her home dimension….

 

2027

 

Earth Victoriana, London

 

Lord Steam shared a very fine brandy with M. The man had aged over the years. He still had that sharp mind, but even this had the faintest hint of lost edge. M looked tired, and that was something Lord Steam had never seen before.

 

“…And then Captain Thunder found the peacock in his umbrella!” finished Lord Steam, the anecdote completed to the sound of mutual appreciative laughter.

 

Sighing, M finished his brandy and pushed aside the leather bound folder of reports on his desk. “Well you have a very interesting career with us, Lucien. Over a decade in that remarkable dimension not the least of your accomplishments. I understand your replacement, Mr. Worthington, is positively tearing his hair out. They are still asking about Ms. Quail!”

 

“It takes some getting used to, I’ll admit” said Lord Lockwood, generously.

 

“I dare say. And our relationships with that dimension, as well as others, are more solid thanks to your efforts” smiled M, equally generously.

M rocked back in his chair and pressed his hands together, looking upwards.

 

“I imagine you would have succeeded at most things you would turn your hand to, dear chap. I, and the government, are both grateful you came to work for the ministry of extraordinary affairs”.

 

“It has been interesting, I’ll admit. You had me twenty years ago. Planted the seed back then. I suppose you knew I would never scratch that itch…”

M smiled in response but did not reply.

 

“But are you saying that I am no longer needed? I confess that now I immersed in this business, it would be a bitter ale to swallow, should you cast me aside…” murmured a disconcerted Lord Lockwood.

 

“No no no, far from it, far from it…” answered M, gently.

 

“The truth is, I am old” he continued, a bittersweet smile on his lips. “And, I shall admit it, tired. One cannot do this job forever. I have the experience, even the wisdom, but I am not a young man. My health is not what it was. I cannot even say that I am as sharp as I once was” he sighed. “Wait till you get my age, getting up twice a night to hear the call of nature, and relying on Dr Kellogg’s patented colonic mobilising fluid to keep you steady” he said. Whilst a smile was on his lips, he was bitter too.

 

But if nothing else, M had a brutal analytical honesty to him. Sentiment was lethal.

 

He was being candid, yes. But for the first time since Lord Lockwood had known him, he was being candid about himself. Perhaps even allowing himself a hint of sardonic humour.

 

“Surely not” replied Lord Lockwood, upset, and upset about how upset he was.

 

“Surely yes. You know it. Spare me the reflexive pleasantries” said M with a wave of his hand.

 

“Do you not deserve them?” asked Lord Lockwood.

 

“I deserve the fondness behind them, but we can dispense with the dance. I will miss my job. You will miss me. It is sad” he said.

 

It was not often Lord Lockwood was silent, but now he was, nodding acceptance of the situation.

 

“I must make provision for the agency. Namely, a successor. You will appreciate the qualities required. An excellent mind, a subtlety of execution, experience, of course” he said, airily. “A dedication to righteousness blended with the capacity to, yes, a certain brutality at times” he continued, more darkly. “In short, a man of exceptional qualities….and so I was wondering…”

 

“Yes?”

 

“If you had anyone you could suggest for the job?” said M, stony faced.

 

Even Lord Lockwood could not keep the slight facial tic away from his mask.

 

“Err….” He said, clearing his thought.

 

M broke out into a laugh.

 

“Hah. One last joke, Sir!” he explained. “There is only person with enough credit to do this job I can possibly think of…”

 

Lord Lockwood raised his eyebrows….

 

 

 

 

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What’s in a Name?

 

Triakosia

 

The Sanctum, Mount Thor, Baffin Island, Canada

June 17th, 2017

 

When Dancia had the time and needed to think she often came here to the Sanctum to wander among the trophies he'd gathered during his long career. She wondered if he ever struggled with his image? She'd done nothing wrong but she still worried about gaining the respect of the public after everything her evil duplicate had done, most of it might not have happened in Freedom City but it still mattered, even if she'd continued doing what she could to be a hero. She stopped in front of a glass case containing a blue and white costume that Centurion had worn for a little while, Centurion Blue the historian called that time. Maybe she should go for a change of image or even a change of name to reflect a new start?

 

A low humming noise, well below a human's normal hearing, began to come from a strange shield like portal at the end of the room. That and a strange shimmering suggested it was active and from what she remembered it was his dimensional portal. She had traveled between worlds a few times, meeting alternate versions of herself, so its existence wasn't a bother though of cause she wondered why it started up now. It couldn't be a coincidence and she only paused for the merest of moments, the active portal probably meant someone was in trouble. So she stepped through the portal.

 

June 17th, 2007

 

The giant screen at one end of the room showed the date was ten years from where she had left, different dimensions she knew went at different rates of speed. The screen itself showed a massive creature, a mix of humanoid, squid, and parts that made her eyes hurt even watching it through a monitor screen, attacking of cause Freedom City. Two tiny looking shapes appeared to be flying around the creature in blue and gold trying to fight the massive beast. Watching it all was a little girl, around ten or so Dancia would have guessed, who when she saw Dancia came over and gave her a massive hug.

 

"Mommy you are okay, I was so worried about you and daddy!"

 

Trying to hide her shock Dancia knelt in front of the young girl, that face bore a strong resemblance to her own. The mess of blonde hair she must have got from her father, it would have explained the two fighting on the screen.

 

"I'm not your mom honey, I'm just a visitor from another Earth. Do you understand?" the little girl just nodded in hopefully understanding "My names Dancia, what's yours?"

 

"Well I'm not supposed to talk to strangers... but if you another mom then I guess you, not a stranger." the girl smiled at her own logic "I'm Melitta, one day I'm going to be a hero like my mom..." she paused before adding "And my daddy too I guess. Mommy says I can have her superhero name as well."

 

As the Melitta spoke another creature bigger than the first arrived out of the water. Even with the smattering of extra heroes fighting alongside it was going to be a tough fight. She wanted to try and help but she didn't want to worry poor little Melitta

 

"I bet you already have a costume right? I'd really like to see you wearing it, maybe we can take a picture as a surprise for mommy?"

 

The little girl beamed with excitement before running off to show her new not mom, the crisis on the screen briefly forgotten for the moment.

 

The voice on the other end of the commlink sounded to her ears a little older, a little more experienced, but it was definitely her own voice. For a second she didn't know what to say, but she had to gather her thoughts lives were at stake here.

 

"Hello I'm another you from another Earth, I'm at the Sanctum with your daughter..."

 

"Is she there now, please tell me that she's not watching?" there was a fear in her voice, this did not bear well

 

"No I sent her out of the room, she won't be gone long."

 

"Good now listen I know you want to come and help, but it's far too late for any of us. Promise me you'll take my little Melitta away from this world?"

 

Dancia normally knew exactly what to say, but for once she wasn't quite sure what to say. It was such a big responsibility to take on, but how could she refuse if things were that bad?

 

"But... but what do I tell her, about what happened?" she knew that she couldn't refuse this offer, but it was still so much to take in right now

 

"Tell her the truth when she's old enough. Tell her..."

 

They both heard it the slight woosh of a very small person flying back into the room.

 

"Mommy?" little Melitta was obviously worried, but not overly so, luckily for Melitta her hearing must not be that far beyond normal. Luckily the footage from the screen had cut off, she wouldn't get to see how bad things really were.

 

"Mommy loves you very much, but I need you to go with Dancia here. Be brave remember one day you'll be..."

 

Freedom City Hall

June 17th, 2027

 

“...Centuria!”

 

The little crowd gathered around the steps broke into applause and the young woman in her blue and gold uniform stepped up to the podium. Standing proudly in the crowd was Dancia, her hair in a severe style to hide the fact that she hadn’t really aged a day since arriving on this Earth.

 

They'd discussed this moment a lot before this day, something to mirror when  Dancia had reintroduced herself as a hero for Freedom City, inspired once again thanks to all that Melitta's mother who'd given so much to try and save her Earth. What more could she have done but be a real hero again, and help train another generation of hero.

 

She might not have bore her but she couldn't help but feel proud of her as if she had, to all extent they were mother and daughter. She didn't know what the future had in store, but they were ready to take it all on together, she wasn't going to hang up her cape up anytime soon...

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The Red Rat

 

2007, Unknown location

 

Initiating boot sequence…

 

Loading…please wait…

 

Emergency Protocols activated…

 

Biosystem Interface optimisation…

 

….

 

“Hello Agent X7”

 

The Red Rat found herself in a perfectly featureless white room, with a perfect temperature, wearing nothing. She felt like she had forgotten to do her homework, or her teeth were falling out, or something of that ilk. Maybe she would give birth to a rabbit, or the Beatles would dance through the room doing a skiff version of the Soviet National Anthem.

 

It definitely felt like a dream.

 

“Is this is a dream?”

 

“No, it is not, this is an emergency protocol” came the answer from behind her.

 

She spun round, covering herself with hands that felt a bit like putty. Behind her, a three dimensional glowing sculpture of light. Hammer and sickle, gold, with red edged. It pulsed a bit when it spoke.

 

“Emergency Protocol? What do you mean?” she asked. “And could you get me some clothes?” she added, bathing in that dream like humiliation.

 

“This system has not been active for twenty years. Emergency Protocol activates for system analysis” bleeped the glowing sign.

 

“Twenty years?” blurted the Rat, anxiety creeping in. It was not that she liked doing the dirty work of the USSR. But if she had been inactive, frozen, for twenty years, something was wrong…

 

“Twenty years since last activation. Operation Buttermilk, Poland…”

 

“Yes yes, I remember…” shuddered the Rat. Even in the sewage pit of her operations, Operation Buttermilk had been a dirty, strange mission. The cow! The cow! Came the flashback before she put it out of her mind.

 

“…so what happened?” she demanded. For a while she wondered if she was in some kind of afterlife, although it was not an afterlife one would wish for…

 

“Biocyebernetics analysis is running. Feedback monitors indicate mild anxiety activation. Would you care for some light music?”

 

Without waiting for answer, the glowing sign started piping in some oppressive soviet anthem which was more vexatious than tranquilising.

 

“Turn that off!” demanded the Rat, to no response.

 

She paced around the virtual room, breathing virtual air, listening to virtual music, for a few minutes, until the music stopped at a particularly irritating juncture.

 

“Analysis complete!”

 

“About time…” grumbled the Rat.

 

“No anomaly detected. Biological and cybernetic systems fully operational. Cryogeneic link uploaded, no error detected…”

 

“So what’s that mean? Everything working fine? I’m just frozen?”

 

“Correct” blinked the sign, without sympathy or malice.

 

“So what now?”

 

“Returning to normal minimal power operations…”

 

“Back to sleep?”

 

“Yes”

 

“Wait!” snapped the Rat, as the sign began to fade.

 

“Yes?” answered the sign, somehow giving the impression of impatience.

 

“I have some questions!” she demanded.

 

“Questions?” came the steely response.

 

“Yes! Answers! Who built you? I mean, it must have been in the fifties, for Stalin’s sake! The fifties! Who managed to design a brain-computer interface in the fifties?”

 

The question had been bugging her for decades. Of course, the first SLAVE system had been relatively crude, and each time she woke up, it had been upgraded. But still, it was cutting edge technology now, let alone fifty years ago.

 

“I did….”

 

At this, the sign blurred and distorted. In its place, a wizened old woman. She could not have been more than four and a half feet, and her weight must have been almost nothing. Aged, wrinkled skin, and an aged, wrinkled, over sized head. She was dressed in bland grey soviet clothes and had an unpleasantly functional iron cane she gripped on to.

 

“I am mother” she said, with a horrible grin that had mirth and cruelty blended in a quite horrible fashion.

 

And then, the Ice came down, and the Rat went to sleep…

 

2017

 

“This is awesome!

 

Charley Chalks was in the Safe House. She was one of the few people, perhaps the only one, who knew that Noemi von Neuman was the Red Rat, and she had insisted on seeing the old Soviet underground lair.

 

Charley was an attractive woman who wore a little too much make up and a little too little clothes. Somehow, despite good cheekbones and a mess of wonderfully red hair, she didn’t have much luck with men.

 

Maybe it was her mouth.

 

In this matter, Charley was a mixed bag. She had kept the Rat’s secret with firmly sealed lips. If it was this important, to a friend, then she would not speak. And yet, perhaps to compensate, any gossip or tittle tattle of lesser gravity seemed to flow from her mouth like a broken sewage pipe.

 

The Rat raised an eyebrow. In some ways, the Soviet Safehouses dotted around America were marvels. Expertly and covertly constructed underground, with their own power and life support, plus advanced electronic systems. But awesome was not perhaps the right word. They had a bleak, Spartan air about them. They were all about function, nothing about style.

 

She had put a few photographs up. There was a cactus to be watered. She had tried to make it something less than bleak. But still. One cannot polish a turd.

 

“I mean, you got all this stuff! Look at those flashing lights! And those computer monitors!” said Charley, excited.

 

Perhaps it did look like a spy film set. Perhaps Charley was just being generous.

 

“It all works, too” smiled the Rat, pressing a few buttons, which beeped and flashed. “I can watch all cable TV stations. Great…” she said, a small chuckle accompanying her words.

 

To this, Charley laughed her great laugh.

 

“How the hell did this get built anyway?” she asked.

 

It was a good question, and the Rat did not have a good answer.

 

“I don’t know” she answered, honestly. “It seems extraordinary. These bases were built decades ago, completely hidden from the eyes and ears of America. And these computers…” she mused, hands brushing over the dials and lights.

 

“They look antiquated. Odd, even. Like a sci fi film made decades ago. But they are as powerful as anything of this century. How did the Soviets do it?”

 

Charley piped up another question. Another good question that had irritated the Rat for some time. “And if they could do all this…why didn’t we hear about it? I mean, it was the good old U S of A that developed computers wasn’t it?”

 

The Rat shrugged. “Babbage might say differently” she said, softly. She did not have Charley’s Jingoistic bias, but on the other hand, the essence of her point was correct.

 

“But you have a point. If the Soviets had access to computers decades early, why only here?”

 

The Rat had seen many odd things in the Darwin-X Soviet project. Anomalies, you could say. It would be normal for any such programme to have cutting edge technology. But the things she had seen were bleeding edge, or more. And she had her nagging suspicions that there had been something operating within that programme. Something apart from the KGB. A secret society within a secret society.

 

But who were they?

 

2027

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“Just get this damn thing out of me…”

 

The Rat lay on the operating table, trying to relax. This was not easy. Her had was clamped to a vice like machine to stop movement, and was full of local anaesthesia. She would not feel a thing.

 

“The risks…” mumbled Doctor Vorkampf, preparing his equipment.

 

“I know. We went over them. A hundred times. Blindness, brain damage, death. But I can’t go on with this thing in my head, Doctor… I need it OUT!” she said through gritted teeth.

 

She wished she had taken up his offer of sedation.

 

Over the years, SLAVE had become progressively more overbearing. It was like it was updating itself. Slowly, the Rat had felt progressively that it was the master.

 

“Very well then” said Doctor Vorkampf, resolved to his task.

 

Bzzzzzz…..!

 

“Can you feel that?”

 

“No” answered the Rat. She could not feel a damn thing, but she could hear perfectly well. The sound of a circular saw cutting through her head.

“Will it ruin my hairstyle?” she asked, sweating. She had shaved her head in preparation.

 

Doctor Vorkampf did not, it seem, have much of a sense of humour. His talents lay elsewhere, in cutting edge cybernetic brain implants. “I usually put things in, not take them out…” he had explained, before rambling on about his work in deep brain stimulation for neurodegenerative diseases.

 

Then came the burning smell. Doctor Vorkampf was cauterising the bleeding scalp and bone with a precision thermal laser.

 

“Anyone for a barbeque?” asked the Rat, sweating profusely.

 

“Please try to remain calm. I am entering the temporo-occipital junction…” he said, explaining the procedure to everybody and nobody.

 

This time, the Rat could feel something tingling. Her body begun to feel strange, and her head was full of fluffy clouds.

 

“I feel strange…” she slurred, as her consciousness faded.

 

“She is going into status! Nurse! 20mg Fedazolam i.v.! Now!” screamed a Doctor Vorkampf who sounded a lot more anxious than reassuring.

 

As the world faded to black…

 

The Rat found herself in a familiar white room…

 

Activating Emergency Self-Destruct….

 

Soviet Technology Must Not Be Appropriated…

 

Mother knows….

 

Mother knows everything….

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Ouroboros  

 

Ten Years Ago (By some reckoning): Nicholson School for the Gifted

 

One would think that for the unlikely offspring of a Vampire and Mystic Agent of Interdimensional Stability the month of October would hold a special celebratory air.  Unfortunately for young JJ Faretti it mostly meant alot more time in the care of the kindly but terribly dull ghosts of the Manor or with the more stable babysitters his parents could recruit.  It seemed between the thinning of the barriers between worlds and the thematically obsessed subjects of his father's kingdom the Faretti’s were unusually busy for the season as a rule.  Of course now young JJ was able to attend school so he had all new ideas for a solution to this dilemma.

 

Sitting in his preferred corner of the classroom, that furthest from the windows and risk of late autumn sun, JJ was engrossed with his drawing hunched over as he carefully scribbled out his latest ‘masterpiece’.  On the plus side the sometimes, intense, young dhampir was engrossed in his task instead of stalking his classmates.  On the other hand at least two other students still complained of nightmares based on the revelations of the class mask project.  His teacher slowly approached and gingerly asked if he was ready to show her what he’s been working on while nervously eyeing the alarming number of worn down red crayons adorning the table around him.

 

With a suspicious look JJ shook his head and hunched tighter over his work, “Not Yet!”  he announced as he quickly set to applying a few finishing touches.  Pleased with his work he beamed a toothsome smile revealing an unsettling length of elongated canine, “Ready Now!”  the child called out as the teacher had begun to turn away and he held forth his artwork.  

 

Atop a craggy carpathian peak against a blood red moon sat a crooked castle unclear how much its physics defying structure was due to intent or a child's hand eye coordination.  Waterfalls of, red water, The teacher hoped, flowed from the parapets and before the iron banded gates stood a dark clad quartet Ancient power in the hands of the cloaked figure on the left feral red eyes in the tall figure on the right and betwixt them two smaller figures hands clasped and mouths drawn with the jagged lines usually reserved for monsters and sharks amongst the class.

 

“We’re thrick or threating!”  JJ explained quite pleased with his work as the other students looked from him to the teacher uncertainly.  Pointing at the castle broadly he added excitedly, “He chose thrick!” the young dhampir explained hurriedly, “An thish iss Mom and thiss ish Dad and thiss ish me.”  he said pointing at the slightly taller of the pair in the middle.  “And the other little one Jack?”  the teacher gamely asked steering the conversation away from the more questionable implication of what the young man thought “trick” involved in this context.

 

Looking down at the picture then to his teacher like he thought her exceptionally slow for having to ask JJ replied tritely, “My little brother.”  he annunciated with care, “SO I always have someone to play with.”  he elaborated and beamed down at his art that in any normal school would be an immediate call for counseling.

 

One particular student recoiled at the suggestion letting out a gasped, “Oh god two of them?”  he said in horror. Then looked to the teacher, “There aren’t two of them are there?”  The teacher sighed, “Now Rohan, Jack was sharing his work that is no ...”  She hadn’t time to admonish the other youth before JJ had crossed the room eyes blazing with a feral glint, “We’re everywhere just waiting for when you least expect it bloodbag.”  he growled darkly as the other child paled looking faint.  “Jack Huang Faretti that is quite enough, to the office.”  the teacher barked as she interposed herself between them.


 

Present Day(by most reckoning):  Nicholson School for the Gifted

 

Halloween was without a doubt JJ’s favorite holiday.  His parents were always super busy putting down dimensional incursions or rogue vampires with delusions of adequacy and a yen for dark carpathian nights.  That of course meant he was mostly left in the care of Huang and the indulgent ghosts of the Manor.  In a shaded corner of the classroom he was carefully putting the finishing touches on his most recent masterpiece, an ode to the season with cheery bloodmoon and happy bats circling a  castle improbably high amid the clouds.  

 

“And what are we working on today JJ?”  his teacher asked curiously peering over the proud artists shoulder.  “S’not done yet.”  the young dhampir exclaimed as he pulled his favorite red crayon from its box to affix the toothsome smiles on the two figure hovering before the castle gate.  “We’re trick or treating!”  he said happily as he laid out the picture for further examination.  “Shmee an Huang.”  he beamed flashing a length of pearly white fang.  “We’re Thrick or Threating.”  he elaborated and dropped his tone to a conspiratorial whisper, “Huang says we’re gonna go to the castle downtown cus they give out whole bars to anyone who gets up ta the door.”

 

The teachers face wrinkled slightly in concern as the Martel Building was not a thing to scale lightly.  Then again neither JJ nor Huang were exactly normal brothers by any measure.  “What about your mom and Dad JJ?”  she asked, “Where are they in the picture?”  she encouraged with a smile, quite pleased at having worked adult supervision into his scenario of climbing one of the taller buildings in the city.  JJ rolled his eyes, “Dad’s hiding so no one can see him.”  he explained staring at the poor teacher like she was exceptionally slow witted.  “And Mom works Halloween, shwhy we have the parthy last week.”  he nodded matter of factly as Rohan peered over his shoulder with a sigh, “My brother never takes me to the cool spots he says it’s too dangerous for a kid.”  the young boy lamented with a sigh.

 

“Well Rohan, your broth..”  she began before JJ squealed with delight, “I know you can come with us!”  much to Rohans excitement and the teachers alarm as she sighed, “..er just wants you safe.”  Fixing a smile on her face once more she corrected carefully, “Now then you both would need to ask your parents before making plans like that.”  she recommended pointedly though glad Rohan had managed to start making friends at the school.

 

As the final bell rang and the children gathered their things to rush off to waiting parents and guardians the boys promised to ask the respective responsible adults about a joint trick or treating.  “Huang! Huang!”  JJ yelled as he ran down the sidewalk to where his ‘brother’ lurked in the shade of an overhang, “Can Rohan come Thrick or Threating with us?”  he asked eagerly earning a puzzled look from the older Dhampir, “Uhhhhhh.”  Huang replied uncertainly, their teacher quickly correcting JJ, “Your parents JJ ask your Parents.”  earning an all too similar sigh from both boys, “They’ll never go for it.”  


 

Ten Years Later(maybe): A mist shrouded Carpathian holdfast

 

The iron banded doors of the keep hung limply, crushed inward as if by some gigantic fist, the grand hall was an abattoir, here the freshly turned and near feral childer of the castles famed lord had made thier stand, and here their viscera pooled dirtied by the ash and dust of the elder vampires who had come to their makers defense at the last.

 

The grand stair was scored by flame and claw, sorcery and undead might met and the undead were driven ever back into the heart of the castle where the Master awaited.  In the unholy chapel where this curse had been born the progenitor stood haughty and furious.  “You dare face me here?”  he boomed his maniacal laughter echoing from the walls as he approached the invader.  “Foolish foolish little daywalker.”  he sneered as he drew close to where the dhampir lay chained by steel and fell rite.  “You come here to Castle Dracula itself and think I will not be ready for you?”  

 

“Your coming has been long foretold Daywalker.”  Dracula sneers, “I have been guiding fate to this moment, to this Night.”  he smiles a slow sadistic smile, “Your blood will free me from the bonds of night.” the ancient vampire expounded overconfident ot the last.  The blades sunk into Ouroboros skin, his blood pooling and running through the intricate channels and runes carved into the ancient altar.  “You have lost Faretti.”  Dracula spat as he loomed over the doomed dhampir.

 

As the first vampire turned from his distant progeny to prepare the next stage of the ritual a quiet laughter built in the room echoing from the walls.  Whipping around the fell creature glared at the young dhampir quaking with laughter where he was imprisoned.  “Silence!”  Dracula boomed, “You are defeated, your line ends here and I will become unstoppable!”  Huangs laughter died down slowly as he peered from beneath shaggy bangs at his captor his pallid flesh even paler than usual.  A hint of fang visible as he grinned at the raging creature of the night.  “You think I’m the prophesied one?”  he scoffed wincing as the movement dug the blades deeper into his flesh, “All this time preparing to entrap me.”  Ouroboros taunted as he slumped against his bindings.  “You have the wrong Dhampir gramps.”  he sputtered looking over the ancient ones shoulder with a fractional nod.

 

The stake bloomed in Dracula's chest before the Progenitor of vampire kind could turn.  Bloodshot eyes dropped in shock to where the gory tip emerged.  “N-no, it’s n-not possible.”  he stammered in shock, “Ho-how…”  he gurgled as he fell to his knees quaking as the centuries of unlife hammered down upon him.  “Mini me is the hide and seek CHAMP old man.”  Huang laughed as he ripped free from his bindings, “And you should have studied your latin better.”  he added as Dracula erupted into a branching pillar of flame his unlife snuffed out.  The last thing the ancient evil would see is the mirror of his foe help Huang to his feet once more.  

 

Around the world as the first of their kind fell to ancient curse and prophesy the most vile of vampire kind were likewise consumed.  Their sins and revels cut short as their very blood erupted in flames ignited by the evil finally put to rest that had begun it all.  As ash and soot trailed down from the parapets the ‘brothers’ emerged from the mangled gates.  “You shoulda seen the look on his face.”  Huang laughed as JJ helped him down the slope.

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2010 Years Ago
Nuhal Building, Gayaza Training Academy, Lyanka

 

The trainees took their seats. Each of them was a soldier of the highest class, one attempting to join the prestigious special forces of Lyanka, which would directly lead to them moving off-world as part of the Empire’s military. Their backgrounds were as different as their looks, and everything from the upstart rookie to the veteran looking to extend his knowledge were present. What connected them was their ultimate goal, their loyalty, and their skill.

They had not heard much about this upcoming lesson. Just that it was a crucial part, and that the lecturer would be somebody important. There had been some rumours. The High Commander? One of the Councillors of Elders? Or somebody slightly less important? Most assumed the latter. Not many assumed it was a contemporary of theirs, and there was some surprise as Kresh Melek, the first Lyankan member of the Praetorians and wielder of the Shield of Elmega stepped through the door.

While she was not as well known as Lyanka’s leaders, especially outside of the military, she was respected and adored by most her fellow soldiers, even if she was younger than many of them. She was seen as one of the best on her field, she’d led the troops of Lyanka before, and while she refused to become part of the command staff, it was no question that she would probably be able to influence matters if she felt like it.

Getting trained by her directly was an opportunity not many would refuse. It was not a long course, but it still was something not many got to do, and learning from somebody who likely saw more action than the entire rest of the army could do a lot more than more theoretical excercises.

Kresh had gotten the offer as she was currently revisiting her home, after a mission that had gone slightly sideways. She needed some time to recover, the death of her source and three others were something that she couldn’t just ignore. She’d felt her power waver, her shield abandon her. Perhaps the Elders would know, they had more experience than her. They’d suggested the lesson, probably influenced by the High Commander’s requests in the first place. But perhaps they were right, perhaps talking about her mistakes and how to avoid them was what she needed. Of course, it would have to be less specific. She’d been in enough of these situations that she had some idea of what she could say, situations to talk about. Avoiding unnecessary damage and casualties sounded easy, and was already a bit part of training. But executing it was a different matter.

All eyes turned to her as she entered the room, it was time to start then. “You are pursuing a group of pirates as you learn that they planted more bombs than you knew of, what do you do? You have 5 seconds.”

 

 

 

2017 Terran Time
Resshok Refugee Camp, Sharahazad Sector

 

The Sharahazad Crisis, as it had been dubbed, had only worsened ever since it began. While more things came to light every day, more refugees arrived too. And the infrastructure which had barely been able to cope in the beginning was by now at the point where just anything was seen as a success. Fortunately, the galactic community as a whole had proven to be helpful, even if many of them pursued their own goals in this.

Kresh Melek was among the many that had travelled towards the Sharahazad sector thanks to the crisis. Her reason to be there was slightly different than that of most, however. She was there to keep the peace, mainly. Between the influx of desperate people, the opportunities that presented themselves, and other factors, the threat of armed conflict was always present. And while she couldn’t prevent that, she could deal with incidents that may light a fuse, while others dealt with the larger scale through diplomacy. She was best when she was directly participating in the action.

So, she’d arrived at Resshok. It was an old station that a rich Asshui entrepreneur had towed towards the sector and offered as a temporary stay to the many that were arriving. But the rumours were concrete enough to call her into action. Shoo, the entrepreneur, was already surrounded by some controversy. And this all seemed like a great front for some criminal activity. At this point everybody was strained, any small thing could break the camel’s back and set off a chain reaction. So, she had to figure out if anything would happen soon.

Her arrival would set off warning bells, but denying her a chance to visit the camp and help would’ve probably set off more. She was not greeted in any special way, whoever was in charge clearly having some idea of what was happening. And while it was true she was there mainly to investigate, that wasn’t all. She was also there because she was going to help out with the crisis. It just so happened that these people also generally kept their ears open and knew what was going on.

It was the first time she saw the situation with her own eyes. Before she’d unfortunately been fully tied up in matters on a large Lor world, which had taken too long for her taste, but seemed to finally had slowed down enough to warrant her turning her attention towards different matters.

It was, much as she’d expected, dire. Even this apparently fairly wealthy camp was living off of the bare minimum. Rations were the absolute minimum, and she could tell that even with all that was happening, there was only so long they would last. The station grew some supplies, but Barrier had seen these situations enough times to know it was only a matter of time before those would be unable to keep up. In fact, that seemed to already have happened, as she overheard people talking about missing plants. Right on the first day of her stay. It was almost too lucky. She readied herself for whatever was to come next, while beginning to pursue.

 

 

4 days later

The trail was not cold, but she couldn’t really make any progress pursuing it either. It was there, she, and enough others could see that. Most had their suspicions, she decided to hold off for now, at least outside of her thoughts. Still, whatever time she had while not helping the locals, she spent listening into conversations, peeking into hidden areas, and building up a network of information.

Finally, in the late evening, something happened. A tip, delivered through a note. Anonymously. Was it a trap? Probably. But those generally pointed one in the right direction. So it was a risk she was willing to take. It spoke of a meeting, hidden inside one of the dockyards. A place she couldn’t really get into, stealth was not her strong-suit and she was too well known to inconspicuously pass by.  She’d have to send in somebody and just be ready to get involved. And even that was too risky, she wouldn’t risk the life of anybody. Perhaps there still was a way, perhaps somebody she could call on was in the same part of space…

 

 

2027 Terran Time
Osshrak Commerical Station, Edge of the Orto Nebula

 

The Governor took the stage. The masses were cheering, and the security detail got into position. Two next to him, and two on either side, protecting him from everybody that could come up from below. It was completely safe. Or at least, that was what she’d assured him. Barrier knew full well what was about to happen. The rumours had been perfect.

 

She’d been investigating the governor for a long time, and had managed to get trusted enough to be his head of security not too long ago. It was clear enough that he was all kinds of corrupt. But bringing him down would prove to be difficult, he managed to tie up all loose ends. Or, would have proven. She had in fact not engineered the bounty on his head. But the rumours of Starseeker coming to claim it were just perfect. She could finish off two loose ends at once.

 

She’d called in as much support as she could muster. Between the station security that was already on call for the event and herself, that would be enough to take him in. It was not just officers with sidearms. She’d seen how effective those were against him. No, she’d called in the big guns. Even if he’d escape the arena somehow, there were multiple gunships parked nearby and ready to go. And then that mad chase would finally be over. She’d been chasing him for so long now, it all ending was a strange feeling.

 

The Governor began to speak. The longer he went on, the more anxious Barrier got. Was her intel incorrect? Would he not show up? Had he somehow heard of what she’d planned? And then the winged silhouette dropped from the ceiling. Barrier gave herself a sigh of relief, before getting ready.

 

It went as planned. The guards she’d hand-picked for the assignment proved their worth, they were unable to keep up, by the time they realized what had happened, the governor’s lifeless body had already hit the ground. Perfect. She knew him. Now that it was done, he’d retreat backwards. Summoning a barrier large enough to cover the entire arena took some effort, but now instead of escaping, he just crashed into it. It was time to reveal herself.

 

“Starseeker, it ends here!”

 

The guards on the stage, as well as the ones that were with her behind the stage began to close in. They were replaceable, she didn’t count on them to manage anything. But they would slow him down a bit. She, for one, had fought him enough times to know to keep her distance.

 

As expected, the guards didn’t do much more than what Barrier had expected, acting as the role of glorified punching bags. Starseeker fought through them with an ease she that only pronounced why she’d been chasing him for so long, an ease she’d not seen the likes of in her entire career. She regretted some of her choices back in the day, but now was not the time for that.

 

Everything was going according to plan. By now, the various mercenaries she’d snuck into the crowd had revealed themselves, and more began to come in through every entrance. He could deal with a few guards, but not with multiple crews of pirates, a few paramilitary organizations and two Oog’ol Warbands.

 

At this point, she let the spirits return. She no longer needed the barrier, the trap was sprung. Slowly, she approached him. Even after everything he’d done, everything that had happened, killing him was a last-resort option. Partially because he was wanted in so many places, partially because Barrier understood his potential. There still was a chance.

 

The mercenaries had assumed their agreed-upon position. At this point an entire army’s worth of weaponry was pointed at Starseeker. A single command would’ve been enough to permanently get rid of him, and the temptation was high. She was about to give the command, everything else be damned, but there was a part of her that couldn’t.

 

He drew his weapon. The mercenaries had already split to let her through, and the two of them stared down, like they had many times before. She did not need to tell him to yield. They both knew what happened next, words would only waste their breath. And then, once more, it started.

 

Even after all this time he could not get through her defense. They’d each learned the other’s capabilities. Neither could land more than a glancing blow, and both could carry on for as long as they needed. She thanks to her body, him thanks to his injections. He conserved his energy, not doing much to attack.

 

And then, it the middle of an exchange, a twitch in his foot. She immediately realized what he was trying to do, and moved to counteract it, pushing her weight downwards. All of his force connected upwards. It was a cocky move on his side, and she felt that she had control of the situation. Her shield mount was a piece of sacred lyankan technology. And then, a rattling sound. A crack.

 

She raised her arm, to grab onto the shield, but wasn’t fast enough. It had already been propelled away. This was just what he needed, she could not let him get anywhere, immediately chasing after her shield. It was too heavy to fly far, fortunately. It meant turning her back on him, but it was still less risky than what would happen if she didn’t.

 

The sound of two explosions, one from the ceiling. It meant one thing. “KILL ORDER!” This was how it would end. In the end, he would win the battle, but the war would end here. As the grabbed her shield she turned back around, just to see him getting torn apart by the gunship. He’d charged straight into it. She could see the blood drip down, as she grabbed onto her shield directly, having to sacrifice some mobility because of the broken mount.

 

But he didn’t die. He pushed onwards. In a way it was remarkable, as he took care of the gunship in a single attack. She’d not expected this to happen, but she’d taken the necessary measures. He could survive one, but not an entire squadron. For her part, she had to readjust to her shield before chasing just yet, but could feel her power returning.

 

More gunshots from outside. So this was it then, she wouldn’t even get to see his last moments. It was almost sad, but then the distress call arrived. She shot forwards, not in full control of her power, just in time to see the hijacked gunship run away, just outside her range. But she was just as fast as one of them. The pilot would have to help himself, she had more important things to deal with.

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2007

 

Gothenburg University

 

Dept of Biochemistry

 

Professor Nyberg was a brilliant man. Why, everybody said so. In line for a Nobel prize, they said. A tenured professor at so young an age. His insights into RNA hyperevolution promised great things.

 

But fate is a windy road.

 

The recession had hit, and in times of recession, money stopped flowing. And the noble world of academia was hit first and hardest. Even sciences which might have a commercial return struggled, and those without such a clear line were riddled with coffin nails.

And so it was, that Professor Nyberg ended up in a back room of the university, marking undergraduate papers on genetics. He was slumped on one elbow, barely concentrating.

 

A knock on his door provided at least a distraction from the monotony of seeing the same mistakes written down over and over, and the limited variations on essays full of padding that failed to camouflage the woeful lack of understanding or knowledge (or, in many cases, both).

 

“Come in” he mumbled, trying to force himself into wakefulness.

 

A tall, thin man with blond locks and blue eyes came in. He was of elderly persuasion, but had a spring in his step and a vitality to his stride. He wore a non descript coat and gloves. He looked a bit like a spy.

 

“Good afternoon, Professor Nyberg” he said it soft, slightly flat tones. He had a rather dull nature, and did not grab ones attention. “May I have a moment of your time?”

 

“Why not?” sighed Nyberg, motioning towards a chair.

 

The man sat down, a little stiffly.

 

“I understand that times are hard. Research money has dried up. Nobody values science these days” he said.

 

“You understand correctly, Sir…may I have your name…”

 

The coated man did not answer. “I am afraid not. My superior would like to remain anonymous. But I can tell you that we would like to employ your services” he said, bluntly.

 

“Your superior? What are you, a military outfit?” asked Nyberg, suspiciously.

 

“Not exactly” answered the coated man, a thin smile without much joy. Without another word, he brought out a clasped folder to Nyberg and handed it to him.

 

“Perhaps you would like to study this, before you make up your mind?” he asked, politely.

 

Nyberg wasn’t in a particularly good mood, and this didn’t smell good. He had no desire to get caught up manufacturing viral weaponry. Still, taking a look wouldn’t hurt. It was certainly better than marking undergrad papers. Which did, most definitely, hurt.

 

He flicked through the first papers without much hope. And then through some more with growing interest. And still more, with encroaching excitement.

 

“Why, this is quite extraordinary work! Hyper line stem cells, eh? And this work on neuro effusion…yes, very innovative!” he said, almost caressing the research with his eyes.

 

“You understand?” asked the coated man.

 

“Well, the principles…yes, I think so. But you have a problem here with hyper repeating RNA, I see. Mmmm. Yes, quite difficult. But hypothetically, this line of inquiry has…”

 

He put the paper down, contemplating the ramifications.

 

“Medicine would be revolutionised. Cellular regeneration. Adaptive mitochondrial customisation. Why, you could even create life itself!” he finished, boldly.

 

“I am glad you see the potential” smiled the man in the coat. “Would you be interested in pursuing this?”

 

“I could hardly turn it down. But…the university is not in the best of shape, I confess….” He said, apologetically, almost ashamedly.

 

“We appreciate the situation. Which is why we would like to fund this ourselves. A team of world class scientists. A private research station, North Sweden. It is…something of a commitment, you understand. But we would prefer any research in an isolated area in case of contamination. This is biological research, bleeding edge…”

 

Nyberg barely paused. “It is a commitment I can make!” he said, decisively, the passion back in his eyes…

 

 

2017

 

Blackstone Federal Prison

 

Psychological Evaluation Cell. Session 19, Prisoner SH-202

 

It had been several months now, and prisoner SH-202 had been a model inmate, by and large. One skirmish with Kid Colour, and a full on brawl with Big Baby, but in both circumstances, it was generally agreed by the Blackstone staff that Prisoner SH-202 was acting self-defence.

 

However, mental health was another matter. The prisoner muttered to nobody, self-neglected, and seemed to flip in personality quickly. Not violent, but definitely strange.

 

Doctor Rime was beginning to get through, or so he hoped. But then again, this was a unique case. Uncharted waters. Sometimes, he felt the most he could do was to provide a safe relationship.

 

He spoke through a reinforced glass wall to the subject. Not ideal for therapeutic rapport, but this was Blackstone, after all. Knockout gas and electric flooring was available to incapacitate the prisoner if need be.

 

“How are you feeling today?” he asked the subject.

 

Synth looked up at the mirror. She was not feeling great. She rarely bothered with generating skin and muscle. She was bald, albino, almost translucent, with bagged red eyes.

 

“Great” she answered.

 

Doctor Rime did not answer immediately. “You don’t look so great” he answered, after some deliberation.

 

“I’m not in a great place” answered Synth, a layered response of more than one meaning.

 

“No, it’s not” agreed Doctor Rime, fiddling with his pen whilst making notes. “I..We…are not entirely sure this is the right place for you”

 

At this, Synth’s eyes popped up. A painful stab of hope. Could she afford to crush it? Could she afford not to?

 

Could she even afford to leave?

 

“Its safe. Secure” she answered.

 

“But, as you say, not a great place to be…surely you would rather somewhere a little more humane? Somewhere you could recover?” has asked. The decision had not been made yet, but there was a case. Synth’s crimes appeared to be chaotic and wild, destructive even, but not murderous.

 

“Where would you like to be, say, in ten years time?” he asked.

 

This took some contemplation. “Honestly, I would like to have something simple. The countryside, maybe. A farm. A small town, maybe” mused Synth. “Somewhere undisturbed…and undisturbing…” she explained.

 

“Doing what?” asked Professor Rimes, putting his pen down.

 

“…I….don’t know. Living…” shrugged Synth.

 

“That’s not much of an answer. Not much of a goal…” pondered Doctor Rimes. It was the answer, he thought, born from despair.

 

“From what I understand, from our previous sessions, you potentially have the skills of a half dozen world class scientists in your head. Doctor…Nyberg…wasn’t it?”

 

Synths skin rippled. Nyberg was always the most prominent memories, bubbling just under. A safeguard in case of psychological collapse.

 

“You…told me to try and ignore him….”

 

“That’s not quite true” replied Doctor Rimes, as gently as he could. “He should not dominate you. But I think repressing him would do more harm than good”.

 

Synth paused, considering. “It is confusing. Sometimes I don’t know where I end and he begins”

 

“I think that you need to integrate those memories into your own sense of self. Your own ego. If they are dissociated, separate, fractured, I think they will do harm. I think perhaps they were meant to be integrated. But from what you tell me…” he mused, flipping back through his own notes.

 

“…the process was interrupted before your development was complete. From a psychological perspective, anyway” he continued, leaning back in his chair. “I wonder if you could still learn from those memories. They are part of you. And maybe those memories might be put to good use….?”

 

Synth didn’t know whether to look up or down. It was a tantalizing, frightening unknown. Could the skills of Nyberg be put to good use?

“I’ll have to think about what you said. It’s a lot to think about…” was all she could say. For now.

 

2027

 

Freedom City University Hospital

 

“What the hell is this?”

 

Doctor Zimmer was trying to make head or tails of the holographic RNA readout. “Looks like some kind of polymorphic metaresonant virus…” he mumbled, unsure of himself. Someone had released something very nasty in Freedom City.

 

As quick as a panther, Synth came in. She had been working with AEGIS and the rescue services on the ground, trying to keep it all contained. So far, so good, but there was some desperately ill victims quarantined on the infectious diseases ward. And whilst skilled physicians were trying to keep them alive, it was a war they were slowly losing. The viral agent kept mutating at a horrific rate.

 

“Looks like some weaponised version of the Darwin-X virus” said Synth, scanning the protein sequence. “Only a matter of time before someone used it…” she explained. Ever since Vanguard had isolated the virus, it had slowly been leaking out, both metaphorically and in actuality. Nobody knew who or what the leak was, but the fifty year old virus was still extremely potent, extremely dangerous, and extremely expensive.

 

“What do we do? This is outside my field of expertise…in fact, I don’t know anyone who has expertise in this…” said Zimmer, wiping sweat from his brow.

 

Synth took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, breeding calm.

 

“I do”

 

Whilst the memories had, under guidance, now formed part of her identity, they were persona architecture was still there, in particular the failsafe Nyberg. And Nyberg had lead the team that designed Synth. And in that design, in that DNA, RNA, and various protein derivatives, there was a similarity with the weaponised Darwin-X virus.

 

“I’m going to have to bring him up” she explained to Zimmer, who knew of Synths peculiarities.

 

It was still painful, although somehow less than it should be. Nyberg’s body and personality were familiar, like an old jumper or something. Synth gripped the holo table tightly, wincing as her body rearranged itself into Nyberg. And where the body lead, the brain followed.

 

“That always stings” commented Nyberg, frowning and slowly releasing his fingers from the holo table. There were slight indentations from his vice like grip.

 

“Err….” Mumbled Zimmer who found it unsettling as always. “…forgive me, er, Nyberg, er….but it seems time is of the essence” he explained gently, pointing at the holo display of the weaponised virus.

 

Nyberg smiled softly. “Don’t worry, I don’t forget. I am still Synth, just…well….it’s complicated” he said with a shrug. And indeed it was, not even Synth quite understood it.

 

With that, Nyberg studied the holo-display more intently. “Yes, I think I understand. Paramutating microreplication on the umbral helix region” he explained, pointing at the twisting images.

 

“It will be the devil to defeat” he said, scratching his chin complete with stubble. “But I think we can do it…”

 

With that, he sat down by the Genomic Synthesiser, and started his work.

 

He spared a thought for twenty years ago, when the journey had begun.

 

He spared a thought for ten years ago, when Doctor Rimes and their sessions had started piecing his life together.

 

And now, it seemed, he was doing what he always wanted to…

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Pyrrhic Victories

 

December 22nd 2007

Joseph liked super heroes, Most children his age did, they were so awesome; powerful, pretty and important things that he’d only just become used to feeling about himself now he was living with the walkers and away from his father, it was like a fairy tale ending, someone had not only noticed his sorry state but also cared enough to have done something and thanks to a wonderful and kind school nurse called Wesley he’d been whisked away by social services, though the first few homes hadn’t quite worked out, what with him being a somewhat older child and “damaged goods.” He’d found himself dumped back on the doorstep of the government a few times, but now he’d found a good home here, he felt, his new brother wasn’t all to chuffed about it but that’s something he was certain would change and with time enough he and peter would be thick as thieves.

 

His new parents were kind and patient with him and with the investment of a healthy and regular diet and moderate indulgence in his interests and desires he’d  come into his own, though he’d always been tall for his age he now had the girth and physical presence to match his stature like the heroes he’d grown up admiring quietly from the corner of the living room he’d haunted in his old home and whilst he would never call himself statuesque he felt…better about himself for it, that and with his grades improving ever so slightly he felt he’d begun to make something of himself from the mess his life had been so far, he’d even made friends at school and caught a few eyes.

 

He was doing well he thought and it seemed the walkers agreed, enough at least to take a short break in London to celebrate just him, peter and them for four whole days in the capital and whilst he’d never travelled further than his legs could carry him before he rather liked the prospect of it.

 

Things were beginning to look up.

 

January 2018

It had been almost a decade now, it still felt odd to him to think about all that had happened, the terrible incident that had seen his beloved parents killed by the ravages of some engineered disease, his step-brother vanishing from his life and waking up to find himself supported on a pneumaticly assisted flatbed to the sound of nurses and doctors scurrying around him and the terrible reality of being alone again and with his step-brothers disappearance being the next of kin to the walkers and thus inheriting their estate.

 

At first he’d disappeared into his depression, discharged by a hospital that could do nothing for him in his new state, almost twice as tall as he’d been before he’d hit the ground as that sickly green mist had swept over and consumed him and his family, covered in thick skin, impermeable to the point of rendering X-rays impossible let alone IV Lines or surgical proceedures to a silent and empty home he had to crouch to fit into.

 

It might’ve ended there with him disappearing into quiet isolation for the rest of his life if it hadn’t been for the mention of his brother having not only survived along with him but having disappeared a few days before he himself had awoken to the world with his new gifts and so focused all of his attention on this echo of his brief time of emotional fufillment and happiness and lead to his creation of the ironclad charity organization though he’d done so primarily as a means to get his name out there to try and find his wandering brother he saw no harm in doing a little good for children in an all too familiar situation as he himself had once been in and whilst it didn’t make his choice any less selfishly orientated, his selfish choice hadn’t made his charities deeds any less good either.

 

He’d also been formally invited to Join the vanguard, britains premier superhero team and meet one of his idols, Agnus stone whoms music his foster mother had introduced him too and helped him through the earliest parts of his depression soon he would be known the world over and his lost brother would be able to find him again.

 

December 2027

Joseph looked down at the spindly body resting motionlessly in his arms, his brother was dead, body wasted away by the the ravages of the terrible Darwin X Virus that had granted him his “Ultimate Physicality” it had rendered his brother all but crippled even as it drove his dormant psychic powers into overdrive, he couldn’t handle that much activity in his brain, nobody could if the reports were to be believed and whilst it had made him one of the most powerful telepathics in the universe it had driven him utterly insane and twisted his emotional distance into utter murderous contempt for the people around him for “screaming their selfish and disgusting thoughts into his brain.” A hate that he’d managed to control by focusing it onto Joseph.

 

He was almost glad in a way, that he could in some way help his brother like that and keep him from becoming a mass murdering psychopath for so long but whilst his mind could be harmed his body and his physical brain were unbreakable and the frustration of what felt like fruitlessly pounding on a Impervium wall hand finally worn down Peters resove and lead to his launching a massive psionic attack on the east coast of America Driving the heroes strong enough to survive the massive shock every bit as insane as he’d become and beginning a event that had come to be known as “The ten days of darkness.” Where they rampaged uncontrollably.

 

It had been due to his personal involvement with the figure at the core of the event that AEGIS and the American government had opted to leave him out of the operations to put a stop to the crisis for so long and for his part he’d spent the weeks leading up to it praying that whomever they sent would be able to halt peter’s monsterous attack on the minds of American people.

 

When they finally did call upon him he knew it was for one simple reason, there was nobody left, everyone was either dead or insane or unsuitable for the task at hand and so he’d answered the call and after being dropped on the center of the whole horrific affair from 30,000ft overhead began ten days of constant battle with the feral heroes, villains and Civilians as he fought his way to peter, there had been much speculation afterwards as to why he could withstand the psychic assault, some aspects of his powers or physiology enabling him to resist was the most popular theory but Joseph liked to think it was because of some lingering brotherly affection that he and peter held even after their estrangement that had kept his full psychic might from falling upon him all at once even as he tore his way through the metahumans too tough and too far gone for him to simply subdue, bereft of their higher brain functions they had nothing but their muscle memory and sheer physical attributes to rely on and he had them beat in the latter category.

 

He’d smashed his way through all opposition till at last he stood before his catatonic, drooling brother, waded his way through the psychic agony that batted at him like the winds of a furious storm and with one firm squeeze of his massive hand put a stop to the horror and chaos.

 

They’d called him a hero and thanked him for his bravery, it hadn’t felt very brave or heroic, killing his way through a slew of acquaintances driven feral and breaking the neck of his catatonic and crippled brother as he sat their sprawled helplessly before him like that.

 

They’d planned to burn peters body, called him a monster and a fiend and planned to throw the ashes into the ocean where nobody would have to think about him again or worry that a loved one would be buried near such a horrific villain but he’d been able to convince them to let him quietly disappear with his brothers body and see that it was given some degree of dignity, buried with his deceased parents under another name.

Edited by Exaccus

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2007, Freedom City

 

“Haw Haw....I’m fightin’ a goddamn dwarf!”

 

Hector Diaz laughed a mocking laugh, and he was not alone. Half the warehouse, full of crooks and thugs and drunkards, laughed with him. They gladly threw money on Hector winning in the first round.

 

The more astute did not laugh, and put their money on Fred Furlong.

 

Fred was barely over five foot, and Hector was well over six. But on closer exception, Fred was wider, stronger, like a slab of muscle waiting to explode. For all Hector’s bravado, the astute could see. One punch from Fred. One good punch, and Hector would be out cold. Possibly worse.

 

Perhaps reach would win. Hector clearly had the advantage there. But Fred, for all his thick stumpy strength, was not slow. And he was not unskilled. He had footwork, he had the bluff, the feint, the combinations. And he had the determination.

 

For the observant who looked beyond the height, this was not a fight Hector could waltz over. And for the more observant still, Fred was the favourite.

 

Ding Ding! Came the bell, to the sounds of cheers and bellows for blood.

 

It was not pretty. Fred moved well enough, but lacked the reach. Hector slammed two solid jabs at Fred, and there was a crunching sound. But Fred barely moved. He was solid as an oak, his thick neck unmoved.

 

“What da…?” started Hector, now unsure. But alas, his monologue was cut short. Three punches, to the ribs, to the jaw, and a hook that slammed Hectors head sideways. His knees cut out from under him, and he fell to the floor like a sack of potatoes.

 

The crowd fell silent for a moment, not quite taking in the brutality, the brevity. Then they erupted, with cheers, with boos, with all manner of emotions. Cheated, elated, surprised.

 

Fat Jimmy was not sure whether to be pleased or vexed.

 

He was the organiser of these underground fights. It had made him fairly rich, and fairly respected. An ex-boxer himself, he had found himself more gifted with his words than his fists. Now, one could hardly tell he had been sweating it out in the ring himself, bar his broken nose. He was sweaty, he was obese, and all athleticism had deserted the sinking ship of his body years ago.

 

“Damn freak dwarf! He’s a goddamn mutant! I want my money back!” screamed a livid young punk.

 

“No refunds” said Fat Jimmy firmly, nodding to his rather large body guards who loomed in on the youngster.

 

Whilst the punk was in the wrong, for one could not return a losing bet, Fat Jimmy did concede to himself that the young man had a point. There was something a little off about Fred Furlong. He looked odd, for a start. Nobody should be that short and that wide.

 

What to do? Fred was an attraction. An asset. But word was creeping around like a virus. Something unnatural about him….

 

Fat Jimmy fiddled with his thumbs, pondering what to do.

 

And as fortune would have it, an answer presented itself.

 

“Fine boy you have” said the thin man. He was the upper end of middle aged, elegantly dressed in a suit, tie, and hat, and Fat Jimmy recognised him as a Mafia man of considerable influence.

 

“Yes indeed, Mister. Yes indeed!” he said, with plenty of enthusiasm but no commitment.

 

“Handy with his fists. Fast, too, for a man of his unusual strength”

 

“Yes indeed!” replied Fat Jimmy again, aware that he was babbling but without the will to stop.

 

“Man like that. Could use a man like that. Plenty of opportunity for a man like that…” smiled the thin Man.

 

“Sure, sure. But he is doing fine right here” smiled Fat Jimmy, instantly regretting the words that spilled from his lips and wishing dearly he could stuff them back down his lungs.

 

The thin man said nothing.

 

“But who am I to stop a young man’s ambitions” gulped Fat Jimmy, stumbling over his lips in a dash to get the words out fast enough. “I am sure he is a great career with the maf--- with you, I mean. Sure. Great career. Career. Great. Sure…” he gabbled, his fingers fumbling.

 

“I am sure he does too…” smiled the thin man.

 

2017, The Black Pit Bar, Freedom City…

 

On a dirty grim Tuesday, the kind of Tuesday that drains the soul with grey, Bloody Mess and the Hound sat drinking in the Black Pit Bar. It was a bar well suited to the languid bleak Tuesday, a home to drunken despair that permeated every fibre of the professional burn out. It was where cynicism swam in the bottom of a whisky bottle.

 

“Hey, isn’t that Fat Jimmy?” asked the Hound, slouched over some whisky.

 

“No way! Look at him!” replied Bloody Mess, huddled over his third stout. It was for the iron, he claimed. The Hound needed no such façade.

 

Fat Jimmy it was indeed, bald, old, and shrivelled. He looked as thin as a pile of bones, which was in fact virtually his condition. There wasn’t enough fat on him to fry and egg.

 

“Fat Jimmy, is that you?” asked the Hound in hushed tones.

 

“Yeah, I’m Fat Jimmy. Only not so fat, now” croaked Jimmy, his skin hanging off him. He took a sip of his beer sadly.

 

“What the hell happened, man? What’s your secret, huh? How you lose the weight?” asked the Hound, who, in his middle age, was finding his midriff slowly sagging.

 

“Cancer” replied Jimmy, coldly.

 

“Yeah, that will do it…” mumbled the Hound, feeling stupid.

 

“Hey, is that my boy over there? Freddy? Huh! Looking good Freddy!” smiled Fat Jimmy, a trace of a smile on his mouth as he raised his glass.

 

“Yeah! Looking good Jimmy!” lied the Mess. “Haven’t seen you in…years. Eight…Nine…Ten…” he pondered, counting on his fingers.

 

“Ten years. Yeah. When you went to work for the Italians” sighed Fat Jimmy. “You were a good kid. Always fond of you. Should have kept you. But, you know…”

 

“It worked out ok, Jimmy. In the end…” sighed the Mess, full of pity. Fat Jimmy was hardly a good guy, but he wasn’t a bad one either. And the guy looked finished.

 

Jimmy was not so sure. “Maybe it worked out ok. But I threw you out. Got you shot up, from what I here. Should have kept you” he sighed.

 

“You would have got shot up yourself then, Jimmy” replied the Mess. “Least I managed to stand up again” he smiled, encouraging.

 

“Yeah, I heard” smiled Jimmy, faintly.

 

“But I’m dying. And putting a few regrets to bed ain’t a bad way to spend my final days. I shouldn’t have let that happened. Boxing, it’s meant to be to build character, not to grind it down. Meant to be about sweat and hard work, and accomplishment. Not as a tool to knock teeth out” he said, serenely.

 

“I remember you did some dentistry back in the day, Jimmy” said the Hound, although not unkindly.

 

“That I did. Can’t say I should be giving advice. But can say what I regret” countered Fat Jimmy, his final days giving him a breath of serenity. “So keep that in mind, my friends. Make the world a better place, make yourself a better person, and leave more than dust when you die!”

 

And to that, glasses were raised.

 

2027, Freddie’s Gym, Freedom City

 

As a boxer, or as superhero, a man can only take so many knocks to the head before he hangs up his gloves, and Freddie Furlong had taken plenty.

 

So for the past year he had retired. Did a bit of work down the emergency departments during major pile ups, helping deal with trauma. Sometimes it helped. Often, it did not.

 

He had bought the same warehouse he had fought in, twenty years ago. Turned into a boxing gym. The hound ran it, and constantly told everyone how it was a good move. More money, less danger. The Mess knew that the Hound itched to be a detective again.

 

Two thick set hoodlums in suits were talking to a young man called Carlos. Sixteen years old, thin, and full or wiry spring-loaded muscles. The Mess thought he was the best prospect for the big time in his gym. Hard working, fast, dedicated, and with an Iron Jaw nobody could crack. Trouble was, Carlos got into trouble, and his family was good at keeping him there.

 

The Mess bristled as he saw the two hoodlums talking to Carlos. He didn’t catch more than a third of what they were saying, but he didn’t need to. Twenty years ago, the Mafia tried to recruit promising streetfighters with tales of women, wealth, and sharp suits. Hadn’t changed much since then.

 

The Mess had lost his hair, and wasn’t as fast as he had been. Old age had taken the edge of his reflexed and his strength. An injury these days took a week rather than a day to heal.

 

But that said, as he stomped up to the two men, there was no suggestion that he would be anything other than a handful. He didn’t even bother pumping the blood into his muscles. He was still strong enough. He was still fast enough.

 

Reaching up, he grabbed the two mens’ head, and slammed them together. There was a most unpleasant crunching sound, and the two fell to the floor out cold.

 

“What you do that for, Freddy?” yelped Carlos, taken aback by the sickening power of the impact.

 

“Cos’ they needed it” smiled Freddy, sitting down on their bodies quite content.

 

“You shouldn’t listen to them, Carlos. Ain’t going to let you make the same mistakes I did…”

 

“What you mean, Freddy? You were a damn superhero!” said a confused Carlos.

 

“I was that. But I was other things too. Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a man called Fat Jimmy….”

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October 10th, 2007
Jason Numptham Memorial School, Orange County, Vermont

 

It was the time of the year when class presidency had to be decided. Depending on the classes, that could be anything from only one person volunteering and getting it for themselves automatically, or massive fights where the PTA had to get involved, as Ms. Dunrow knew far too well. And this one was shaping up do be one of the latter.

It came down to cliques, as these things usually did. Back a few years ago that had only really started higher up, but she presumed that the amount of new media and their consumption amongst her students started leading to the massive cliques even at their age. There were two that were, for the moment just metaphorically, fighting for the position. Lena Grunman and her friends, and with them most of the girls in the class. On the other side, Trent Holmes. Recess had become quite interesting, with both groups trying to get the few undecided kids to vote for them. In a way it was good, it showed the kids what democracy was like.

In a different one, it only ever led to tears and bruises. The few remaining undecided voters were mainly people that didn’t get along well with either of the two leaders. And then there was Cassidy Bauer. He was an interesting kid, to say the least. He was generally popular, even if, according to what Ms. Dunrow heard, he didn’t do much with others outside of school, instead preferring to chase after his own interests. But he’d somehow managed to get into the inner circle of both the cliques.

It had gotten to the point where a few teachers started to bet, unofficially of course, on who’d get the position in the end. Her bet was on Bauer. She assumed that somehow, he’d manage to pull it around, even if most the teachers didn’t believe her.

October 13th

 

The election happened, and at first, everything seemed to go as expected by most people. Because of how the lead-up had progressed, Bauer had petitioned for a proper secret ballot election. Nobody had any objections, and there had been one unused ballot box owned by the school, so everything was set up. And then, the votes were read. Nobody seemed surprised at first when it turned out that Bauer won. When it turned out he won by getting all but three votes, it got less pleasant.

Still, that didn’t discourage the newly-elected class president, who immediately stood in front of the whiteboard, and began to speak.

“Thanks Guys. I’ll be sure to….”


November 4th, 2017
The Stuart Center, The Theatre District, Freedom City
11:34 PM

 

Tomorrow was Bonfire day. At least, it was, over across the pond. But that was good enough for Cassidy Bauer. It was as good a reason as any to organize an event based around himself. Was that perhaps a bit narcissistic? Yes, yes it was. It also was a good way to interact with the community, the many people he’d met through his work that weren’t colleagues, or lived to far away.

Bonfire was standing inside the center’s lobby, going over all the decoration again. A big banner up top, grey with orange writing on it, read out the entire reason he was here: Bonfire Day. A convention of sorts, dedicated to himself. Paid for by the excess money he made operation Beacon LLC, which had turned out to be way more profitable than he’d thought. And also taken up way more of his time.

He’d first put out feelers about it a few months ago, and it had quickly shown that the interest was there. People wanted a place they could run into and speak to their favourite online personality, after all. So, he’d gotten to work. It was a bit ridiculous, and there was a clear limit on how many people would be able to attend.  For reasons of security, taxes, laws and venue space. Tickets didn’t sell out entirely, but there was a good amount of tickets being sold, and the projected income looked to just about cover the costs, with any potential revenue going to charity as he’d promised.

Everything looked fine, and the colleagues he’d hired to make sure nobody hid a bomb somewhere during the night were ready, so he left, homewards. It was a big day tomorrow, he’d have to be fit. Even with the security present at the event – some of his clients who travelled a fair distance to meet him and to market themselves to his audience in person as well as some local ones – he felt like there was a risk of something going wrong.


10:04 AM

 

So far everything was going just well. Things were as expected, and by the predicted starting time, most people had made their way through the line and security check (that much was necessary simply because of the venue). With some delay, Bonfire got up on the (reasonably small) stage, and began to speak.

“Whoa. Not gonna lie, when I first started to think of this, I didn’t expect, well, this. A ton of people, some showing up from way too far away. You guys are awesome, and I’m grateful to each and every one of you. Now, instead of just standing up here and forcing you all to listen to me, which is something you can experience by just listening to my audioblog, I should probably get to the actually important stuff. …”


2:26 PM

 

Cass navigated his way through the crowd. Exchanging a few words with people here and there, giving a quick nod to one of his clients, it was all like most other days. Instead that this time, he was Bonfire, and that everybody was here because of him. He didn’t really have anywhere to be just yet, but the signature session started soon, so he had to at least move in its general direction.

He’d just finished talking to a group of Canadians as somebody approached him out of nowhere. If there ever was a reason to get somewhat stressed, that was it. The person revealed a flash drive in their hand, and only spoke a single sentence before disappearing into the crowd again. “Take this.”

 

November 5th
To Beer or not to Beer, The Theatre District, Freedom City
8:13 PM

 

The convention had, by now moved from the centre towards the bar that had been rented out just for this purpose. It was right across the street, so moving there was no issue. And for the first time since the day had started, Bonfire had a moment of time to just slip away and have some space for himself. The flash drive had unnerved him ever since he’d gotten it. Clearly it had to be something important, unless it was a practical joke.

He wasn’t carrying his laptop on him, but since this wasn’t the first time it had happened, he’d commissioned a nice little gadget he’d finally get to use. It attached to his phone and allowed him o read flash drives, while also scanning them directly for anything malicious. It took a while, whatever it was it was large. And then finally, after about a minute of the entire thing freezing, it showed up.

Far too large to go through at the moment. But whatever it was, it wasn’t just a tip. It was enough to leak to a journalist of trust. He’d have to check it later on, but for now he had to get back, and outdrink a few people.

 

November 7th
A derelict underground railway station, Greenbank, Freedom City
2:22 AM

 

It had proven to be a massive information dump dedicated to a large-scale smuggling operation. Far too detailed to be from somebody on the outside, either it was somebody directly involved, involved second-hand, or a hacker. The latter of those three was, considering the people Bonfire worked with, both the most likely, and most unsettling. Either way, it was a massive operation.

The station wasn’t on any recent maps, which meant that even if usually Greenbank did get some patrols, they’d be able to sneak by most of those. There was enough manpower to be a threat to even a small team of heroes, and they’d hired out some mercs of their own. Whatever the payload was, it wasn’t mentioned. But it had to be pretty big, for this level of effort and secrecy.

Whatever this was, it was clearly illegal and important enough that it couldn’t fall into the wrong hands. But coincidentally, Bonfire just so happened to have quite a few of his clients close-by, some of them forces to be reckoned with. He’d called in some additional favours too, one of the nice things about having a large amount of evidence.

Everything was in position and ready to go. Bonfire let his powers do their work and created an outfit worthy of an old homeless man wandering the tunnels, and began to move in. Perhaps this was just what he needed to get back into the picture.

 

 

September 17th, 2027
The Mark Lucas Theatre, The Theatre District, Freedom City
7:15 PM

 

The Mark Lucas Theatre had sold out. After all, it was a special edition of “The Week Tonight”. Some people were still taking their seats as the dimming of the lights announced the start of the show, and after the show’s short intro playing on the screen, host Jessie Steele walked out onto the stage to the sound of (somewhat edited) loud cheering. The cameras panned around the room, from the audience onto her, as she took her seat, and finally fixed their position in such a way she was on the left and the big screen still just showing the logo was framed between her and the yet-empty chair to the right.

 

“Hello everybody, and welcome to this week’s episode of “The Week Tonight”, hosted live in The Mark Lucas Theatre in Freedom City, NJ. “ Her tone became more serious as the screen behind her showed the next graphic. “Today is a special episode, as today marks the 3 year mark of the death of Cassidy Bauer, better known to the public as Bonfire. His friends and family have spent the last few years working in his memory, culminating in the upcoming book, “Freedom’s HOTTEST Biography”, which takes a look at his life, his stories, his flaws, and the lead-up to his death. Joining us live here in the studio to talk about the book for the first time is its primary author, and Mr. Bauer’s sister, Charlotte Bauer.”

 

The cameras panned out again, to show a rather muscular woman, wearing a fairly rustic outfit, jeans and a flannel shirt, take the stage. She made her way across the stage to even more applause, setting down the two versions of the book on the table between the two seats, and sitting down.

 

“Thank you for having me, Jesse. It’s a great honour to be here and honour what my brother did.”

 

“In the introduction of the book you mention that you only learned of his identity the day of his death. Was there never any time you got suspicious?”

 

“In hindsight, I should’ve noticed it. Of course, I didn’t see him face-to-face more than once or twice a year since I lived, and still live, back in our hometown. But him suddenly earning enough money without having much to show for his portfolio, him generally being very busy, some more concrete moments, a few of which I go into detail about in one of the chapters, there was a lot. I don’t know if it’d’ve influenced anything, but I should’ve realized it sooner. Maybe I’d’ve been able to do something.”

 

“You mention his portfolio. As is generally known nowadays, Cassidy’s big passion was photography. To the point he actually hired himself as a photographer for his company. Was there ever any notable change in what he photographed?”

 

“We’ve actually been working through his portfolio and all his unreleased pictures, and there’s many good ones in there. The only big change we’ve noticed so far was when he moved to Freedom City for his course. He changed from nature photography to something more artsy and abstract. But from what I can tell, nature photography remained his main discipline. He’d always spend a lot of time outdoors for that perfect picture, as long back as he’d known to use a camera. There’s also a lot of pictures that were part of his blog, where he generally claimed he’d gotten them from somebody else. “

 

“His blog is, of course, what made him famous in the first place. Many of his pieces are, to this day, seen as a great insight into the daily life of superheroes. Together with his company, Beacon LLC, it is currently owned by the “Bonfire Foundation”, of which you are the most outspoken member. Your foundation has done great work in supporting the victims of superpowered attacks, yet there has been some critique, claiming that what it is doing is not living up to what your brother imagined when he wrote his will. How do you respond to this claim?”  

 

“Well, Jessie, of course it is hard to tell what exactly my brother wanted. He was good at being direct when he needed to, but in this case, he wasn’t. Knowing him better than the people who are making these claims, I can tell that he left it open for a reason. He wanted to improve the public, and with our work we feel we are doing what he wrote down that day. I believe he knew he wouldn’t survive, and that he …..

 

Meanwhile
Firuzhok, Chaghcharan District, Afghanistan

 

A dark room, the glimmering of a CRT TV lighting it up.

 

“Oh sis, if only you knew…”

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Consequences (Grimalkin)

 

The Beaudrie Opera House. Friday, October 26, 2007. 8:00 pm 

 

Jeez, this is guy is an idiot!

 

Since her transformation in February, Lynn Epstein had worked her scam down to a science. She'd created numerous profiles on several dating websites, each with a different name, face and backstory. Well, the names were typically some variation on either 'Sheri' or 'Lynn', and to make things easy on herself she was always from Jersey, but otherwise, each profile was a little work of art. Caucasian, Latina, African-American, Asian, blue eyes, brown eyes, green eyes, blonde, brunette, straight, frizzy; you had to spread your net wide to catch all the fishies. Tonight's little fishy was named 'Todd', and despite his MBA from FCU, the man practically had to take off his shoes and socks to count to twenty.

 

"So with the football scholarship, it was Northwestern all the way; Coach said I could have gone pro if I hadn't torn my ACL."

 

"Wow, that is so amazing! So when did you move to Freedom?" Tonight she was Linda "call me 'Lin'" Facinelli, a stacked blonde with dark roots modeled on a few of her cousins on her dad's side. It took so little work to keep losers like this engaged; tell them how good they look, ooh and ahh at their stories, and let a flash of skin show now and then, and you got yourself dinner at a five star restaurant, main floor seats for a touring Broadway show (tonight was Phantom of The Opera at the Beaudrie) and if you were really lucky, you got asked up for a 'nightcap' at a swank Parkside apartment where you could grab a few shinies to pawn the next day. And if the guy was cute, well, that was pure bonus.

 

Todd was cute and loaded but boring, so Lin decided to go for the nightcap and see what she could make off with; she had a look around his office after he fell asleep; she gleefully liberated his top-of-the-line laptop, slipped out the service entrance, and proceeded to blow through the money she hocked it for in a matter of days.

 

 

AMC Ashton 16 Theater. Saturday, October 28, 2017. 6:45 pm

 

Lynn and Gretchen hadn't taken in a show for a while, so the happy couple was excited for the chance to see IT on a proper IMAX screen. While they were standing in the ticket line, the changeling happened to notice the ticket taker in the black and red T-shirt.

 

Where have I seen this guy before? It was a long time ago, but where-

 

"Tickets, please?"

 

Oh my God. It's Todd.

 

Gretchen noticed her girlfriend stiffen, and sent a curious sending her way.

 

 -What's wrong? You look like you've seen a ghost.-

 

-I have; a ghost of my own creation.-

 

The movie now forgotten, the changeling and former con artist approached Todd to get his story, pretending to be a forgotten classmate from FCU. Turns out the laptop Lynn had so thoughtlessly stolen was filled with confidential information about a major client, and someone accessed his hard drive and sold the information on the black market. The client lost millions of dollars, and Todd took the fall; he  lost his job, his girlfriend and his professional reputation. Since then, he'd struggled with money and employment problems, bouncing from one low-paying job to the next as he struggled to pay off his student loans with his meager paychecks.

 

In short, Lynn had completely derailed his career and ruined his life through one selfish action; it made her so sick with self-loathing she had to run into the ladies room and dry heave in the stall. How many other lives had she ruined? She had to fix this. Could she fix this? She had to least try. She wasn't exactly rich, but she was far from poor, and she new a lot of influential people. Surely somehow they could put their heads together and try to figure out a way to repair the damage a young runaway wrought ten years ago. 

 

 

The Beaudrie Opera House. Sunday, October 24, 2027. 6:00 pm

 

Todd had insisted on the location, and at this point Lynn Epstein was in no position to argue with the executive director of the Louis Silberman Foundation; if he wanted to rub her face in the irony of the situation, he had every right to do so. Now in its tenth year of operation, the Silberman Foundation was a large non-profit organization dedicated to helping victims of non-violent crimes, which are so often overlooked in modern society. Of course, its unspoken mission was equally important: tracking down the men and women who were harmed by the changeling's short-lived criminal career, and wherever possible, making things right. Todd was the Foundation's first success, his career revitalized and his reputation rebuilt as his talent for organization and management was finally given a chance to shine. This fundraising gala was just the latest triumph orchestrated by the once-disgraced financial analyst.

 

She'd finally told him the truth, that night in the movie theater, and the hurt and rage in his eyes were almost unbearable, but at the same time, a great weight had lifted from her shoulders, a weight she had no idea she's been carrying for so many years. The feeling that her early success as a crimefighter was built on a foundation of lies and manipulation, that she honed her skills by abusing her powers for her own benefit.

 

It might not be enough, but it was a good start.

 

Spoiler

I realize this might not be long enough for the 10 points, but that's fine. This line of reasoning is a bit unpleasant for me to pursue, and I want to continue to like my character. Peace out.

 

Edited by Heritage

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Ages of Heroism

 

Golden Age of Certainty: July 12th 2016

Steel met with dense, irradiated flesh with a satisfying whump as facsimile felt his blow connect, nearly a ton of dense metal behind the blow as it struck, the Mutant Creature’s bone cracked from the blow and it collapsed like 6 foot tall, 200 pound house of cards to the ground below, his heavy body following through with the momentum and bringing a hard elbow into the next creature, he wasn’t sutre whom he was facing here nor what they wanted exactly but it didn’t matter.

 

The dude was a bad guy, smashing things up for selfish gain, all that mattered was he didn’t get away scott free with whatever it was he was after, him or his weird mutant gecko minion things, between himself and his friends they pretty much had the guy covered all in all, though it was going to be gross for whoever would have to make these angry amphibians hock up the loot they’d swallowed. Yeesh, it made his stomach turn just thinking about it, having seen all to well their gross gummy mouths filled with retractable box cutter like teeth.

 

All in all it had been a busy week, supervillains tended to get really active whenever a large social event was kicking off, perhaps they were all just really disgruntled party crashers? He couldn’t help but smirk at the thought as the tide of rubbery slick flesh finally began to give way and their weirdo leader began to panic.

 

He loved this job!

 

Bronze age of Uncertain Words: August 2018

 

Facsimile felt his body going numb as the images flashed through his mind again,he watched the form falling before him, eyes rolled back and mouth frothing violently as they convulsed uncontrollably in a seizure, he’d known something was wrong, he’d not hit them that hard, he’d avoided any vital areas and yet there this scraggy person was, comatose in a hospital bed.

 

He’d later heard the officers talking, that the man had been a suspect for months now, well known for possession of Class A and above, emphasis on the above, drugs, cursed with a mutation that was practically useless, a secondary stomach that he could store and later regurgitate items from that he’d put to use as a smuggler for a particularly insidious dealer taking advantage of his desperation and poverty.

 

He’d nearly killed him with a solid blow to the abdomen had split one of the bags containing his latest shipment of product after he’d seen him disappearing down an alleyway with two would be customers in football team jerseys, he’d been reassured of course, by all manner of people that he’d done the right thing, that this was just a freak accident that could’ve happened to anyone and he shouldn’t let it get to him.

 

But the thought kept returning to him over and over again.

 

“I nearly killed someone in my ignorance.” he whispered to himself as he looked at his hands, once again made of flesh and bone where once hard steel had been

 

He’d not even tried to talk or capture him; he’d just seen the merest evidence of wrong doing and lept into action, half a ton of steel flying nearly 50ft in an instant and slamming into a 40 year old man who looked almost twice that without so much as a word spoken.

 

He was utterly ashamed of himself and his actions, the callous unthinking he’d given himself over too in his morality was inexcusable he knew better than to see the world in black and white, he’d been raised better, taught better and he had absolutely no excuse.

 

He had to be better, Do better, Be a real hero

 

Not just some violent, metahuman thug on the rightside of the law.

 

Modern Age of heroism March 2027

 

The dull thud of irradiated amphibian flesh impacted his steel palm as his hand met the heal of a heavy kicking leg, powerful enough to crack bones and shatter stone it merely created a deep resonating reverberation when it impacted his steel body with blinding speed and incredible accuracy, he’d grown a lot in the last ten years.

 

“Not bad kid…you’re getting faster and more accurate, my arms a little numb!” his praise was earnest for the young mutant he’d taken under his wing, the grandson of a mad biologist obsessed with Amphibians Mutated son, driven to drugs by his fathers incarceration and when he’d learned of their existence he’d done everything in his not inconsiderably power to ensure the youngster was given the best chance possible, a little twisting and insisting was all it took to see the youngster in Claremont colours.

A deep bass croak of challenge and slight annoyance was the stern reply of his new protégé as he slipped free of his grasp and kicked off his chest back to a comfortable engagement range from his steely grip.

 

“Remember to breath kid, don’t let yourself get wound up, you let some of these guys into your head figuratively or literally and you’ll have a real bad time.” He added, the kid was good, excellent even, had a real sense of footwork and positioning in a fight almost innately zoning his opponent based on what he’d seen with his large black eyes but he tended to get a little fixated to the point it affected his breathing.

 

Another mighty blow from the powerful legs of his apprentice nearly sent him tumbling to the ground when it hooked into the back of his steel kneecaps, but he’d been readier than he’d looked, the kid was overly fond of using his powerful kicks to combat foes, something he’d have to be weened away from to be sure, making every blow a powerful but predictable one was hardly a good habit for this line of work, he’d kept his legs loose, enough that they’d bend slightly with the incoming blows and buy him a precious few seconds to snap them back and reverse the force of the attack back onto itself.

 

“Remember to keep talking too, you never know what they might divulge absent mindedly whilst engaging with you, nor when their concentration might slip and give you the opening you need and most importantly, give you a chance to settle things without tearing each other apart over small potatoes.” A lesson he was still learning but one he’d always empathize as he continued to spar with his 17 year old accomplice.

 

“you always harp on about that talking folks down stuff, Fax.” They responded with a sigh as they picked themselves up “Even when you’re supposed to be teaching me how to fight.” The slight annoyance and disappointment was evident in the kids tone even with his excellent pokerface, disappointment at not being able to force him to take the fight seriously with silent concentration.

Facsimile felt his grin growing across his face “it’s a very important lesson kid, one that took me a long, long time to learn.” His smile faded as his thoughts returned to that fateful day ten years ago “I nearly killed your old man in my haste to put another baddie down for the count.”

 

the youngster looked away, his father was a very touchy subject of course, they’d spoken of his previous encounter before once they’d been assigned to work together as a student and teacher but he’d always been a little uncomfortable speaking about his old man; something to do with his mutation and the old guys self-loathing for being a “freak” having driven him to the drugs in the first place and perhaps now projected onto his even more mutated son.

 

“Ahh but you’ve heard that story before…have I told you the one where there was this pink elephant thing? Man that was a super weird day.”

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2007

 

“Today,” the teacher droned. “We'll discuss the descent of Omega and his Omegadrones. Turn to page 349.”

 

She clicked a button and the projector flashed to life, casting a blurry image of a red-and-black figure framed against the sky. In big, capital letters at the top, THE TERMINUS INVASION in huge, garish font. The page number was printed below it, in font so small that it was hard to read from the back.

 

“The Terminus is another world, ruled by 'Lord Omega.' They struck at Freedom City, and from there, aimed to conquer this dimension.” A click, a new slide. Bullet points began to fade into existence.

 

The classroom was one of the refurbished ones, a haphazard mixture of an older, stone building with modern technology Frankensteined together wherever it could have fit, with ceilings full of crisscrossed air vents, with thick wires and outlets drilled into the walls to draw in electricity and internet.

 

“People across the world died during the invasion. Civilians, heroes, villains . . . No one was spared.” Click. Another bullet point. A funeral. There was a sense in the air. A quiet tension. The kids weren't talking, or pretending to take notes.

 

The history teacher had made this space her own. Her supply of inspiration posters was modest. Instead, she had decorated her wall with newspaper clippings. The Berlin Wall falling. Protesters slipping flowers into a soldier's gun. The Centurion standing in front of the White House, holding a trophy. But there was only so much character that she could inspire out of the dour white brick.

 

“I'm going to need a volunteer.” The teacher looked up sharply, eyes sweeping the room. There was a lot of shifting, looking away. Some muttering. A giggle here and there. No one raised their hand. “Congratulations Katharine. You've been volunteered. Paragraph five, page 352.

 

Kat grimiced and shimmied in her seat. Scarcely eleven years old, she her knees came together underneath her desk. It was on the next page, so she flipped eagerly through her book, hoping to get through this as fast as she could.”While the main thrust of the Terminus invasion was aimed at Freedom City, the attack echoed across the globe. The silhouette of the Omegadrone inspires terror wherever it is seen. Pushing back the assault and throwing Omega back into the Terminus our Hero Centurion was . . .”

 

Her throat dried out. Kat swallowed, pushing on in an unsteady voice.

 

“. . . Killed.”

 

No sound.

 

For a long moment, Kat wasn't sure what to do. When she opened her mouth to push onward, their teacher beat her to the punch. “That's enough. Thank you, Katharine.” She held her hand above her clicker for a moment. Stopped. Looked at it. Closed her eyes. Sat the clicker softly down on her desk. When she started speaking again, the rote rhythm of lecture was gone from her voice.

 

“So. Do you know why you're learning this? Why history is important?” A pause. “There are no wrong answers.”

 

“. . . So we don't repeat it?”

 

her nose scrunched up, but the teacher said. “Yes. That's it. But do you know why?”

 

No answer.

 

“Because history is alive.” She said. A deep breath. “It wasn't that long ago. Fourteen years ago. If you'd been born a little earlier, you might have been alive for it.” Her hands clasped together tight. “My sister. She died in the invasion.”

 

“History is important because it's never just history. It's just what we call the present after it happens. Centurion pushed Omega back. But now he's gone. Omega and his drones . . . ?

 

They're still out there.

 

2017

 

“Hey Li, come over and take a look at this.” It was a little gentle for a command, but Li was keen enough to hear when she was wanted. She hadn't really gotten to know the technicians of the Astro labs yet, and . . . was a little too embarrassed to let him know she hadn't learned his name after these months. Well . . . She'd get a chance to pick it up again, if she paid attention.

 

“What's up?” She followed the tech's voice, pushing through the doors into a room along the side. Her eyes snagged on the object in the center of the room and stopped, her smile dying like a dog traffic.

 

It was a black box, but with too many sharp, sheer edges, lined with red. The tech had opened it up and was sorting through its guts. “The main office sent this in to study. What do you make of it?”

 

Unprompted, her brain answered the question. Whatever that crystal had done to her brain, it was eager to share. She knew, in the same way a bird knows what 'south' is, of the oppressive red sky of the Terminus, the screams of its people, the omegadrones flying overhead. And, dressed in his armor, heart bursting with hate . . .

 

A whistle. Snaps. “Hey, earth to Li.”

 

Kat shook her head sparly and curled her toes. “Steelgrave?”

 

He grinned. “We think so, or at least something inspired by him! Some kind of bomb. A villain was trying to detonate it in Freedom.”

 

“. . . That sounds like a problem.”

 

He could only shrug. “Yeah, but what can you do. This stuff is in circulation and there's not much we can do but deal with what we find.”

 

“I can get rid of it.”

 

“No, no, it was disarmed a long time ago. Couldn't hurt a fly anymore, just metal and wires.” He rapped his hands gently against the metal, as demonstration.

 

Kat bit down on her lip. “I really think we should destroy it.”

 

The tech looked up at her, annoyed now. “You can do what you do with it when we're done studying it. We need to know if there are any signs of multiversal travel on it. And some of this circuitry is fascinating, if we could just . . .”

 

He was off in his own world, now. He'd stopped listening to her a long time ago.

 

Kat let herself fall back, leaning against the wall, as her eyes fell on the machine again. Experiences that weren't hers crawled through her mind, pain, panic and doom. A death march of numberless realities into the cold fire of the absolute end.

 

She looked away. Breathed. Held. Released. Repeat. Until the world stopped spinning.

 

2027

 

A hole opened up in the air and a women fell out of it. Rough and scarred, Warp rose to her feet as the cultists fell down in the circle around her. At their head, wearing a deep hood, with a familiar light behind its eyes, there was a figure that radiated a power that Warp had become all too familiar with.

 

There was a book open in their hand, and on the cover, Warp saw a symbol . . . Ω . Omega.

 

As Warp's hands erupted with dark energy, his eyes smiled. “Katharine,” he said, voice smooth, calm and ever-so-sane. “We meet again.”

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SFX

 

Present Day: SPI Headquarters, Vancouver

It wasn’t often that Zhu could not contain her excitement.  Nor was it often that you got to meet your idols in the flesh.  Yet in both cases, the norm had been broken and Zhu sat quietly while Eric Carlson, Chief Creative Officer at Sony Pictures Imageworks looked over her essay.  She was good at sitting quietly while his pen methodically tapped over and over against the large slate desk. 

 

Click, click, click, pause.  Click, click, click, pause.

 

“So, you’re telling me that you’re the only person who worked on the channel…” he paused looking at the name of the channel, “Sheqi… shendi…” he frowned as he struggled with the name.

 

“Shénqí de shìqíng,” she pronounced the name to him, her hands folded in her lap.  He gave her an odd stare, “it means Fantastic Things,” she provided helpfully while looking out the window at the grey clouded sky.  Rain pelted the windows and it looked thoroughly miserable outside.

 

“I’ll say,” he replied shaking his head back and forth.  “Really.  You’re the only person who directed and produced all of those effects?  That’s amazing.”  He looked over to the other man in the room, John Abraham, head of Technology, “isn’t that amazing John?  You think you could pull that off?”

 

John sat silently looking at the footage on the channel, after a moment he nodded, “yeah, I think so.  Not alone though.  I’d need our crew.  You had to have had some help.”

Zhu shook her head, “no sir, I did not.  Families in Shanghai do not allow too much time for their children to do anything other than their studies.  None of my friends were ever able to help.”

John shrugged and gave Eric a shake of his head.  His posture and body language screamed that he didn’t believe a lick of what she was saying.  However, thankfully he wasn’t rude enough to directly confront her.  A silence settled over the room.

 

Click, click, click, pause.  Click, click, click, pause.

 

“So… look, here’s the deal,” Eric said with the infinite wisdom of a middle age brilliant executive talking to a teen aged girl, “we want to hire you.  We want to give you a shot at internships.  Hell, we look for this kind of thing all the time.  But… and here’s the thing… I need your team.  I need the whole outfit if we’re going to make this work.  So, if you’re telling me that you did it yourself, and my guy John says no way, then we’re going to need something more.  Some proof.  You understand that, right?”

 

Zhu nodded with a smile, proof was something that her teachers had required.  Proof was something that her parents had required.  She had no worries proving anything, “yes Sir, you wish me to give you a demonstration.”

 

“I do!  I know that Claremont is quite a thing, but I can offer you a fast track to citizenship and a hell of a lot more if you can produce the goods!”

 

Ten years Later: Remains of Shanghai

SFX crested the last hill in what had once been the South China Sea.  Now a lifeless bed of clay and mud which presented the most labyrinthine hills and obstacles to get to her destination.  As the sun beat down upon her, she held out hope.  It was really all she had left to cling to.  Home had always been about warm memories.  Parents, friends and family.  Food and familiarity.  These things were all part of SFX’s childhood.  They were all part of a better time an easier time.

As she stood on the hill, all she could see was a grey melted landscape, like someone had sucked the very color out of the world and poured thick grey paint over everything.  The once proud skyline was now nothing more than a series of oddly shaped lumps protruding out of the equally featureless ground.  All her effort to get here, all that she had done to fight, it was for nothing.

 

No one lived in Shanghai anymore.

 

Actually, she was pretty certain that no one lived any more.  It had been months since she had seen another living being.  Even longer since she had seen anything other than the featureless slowly changing grey landscape.  Around her, she could hear a nearly imperceptible buzz as the translucent clouds of death floated by her.

 

[Handshake: Token; A6F8-C189-D876-BC10: Begin: Transmit: ‘ID-SONY_NB_MK99:m<-"m<-0;cat(sub(0,deparse(m),m))";cat(sub(0,deparse(m),m)) Err: 10873 – Replication refused]

 

The familiar code passed through her conscious and she paid it as much heed as a person might focus on their breathing.  Yet there was no ignoring what was left of her home and it was harder to ignore the ghosts of her ancestors which she could practically hear screaming their outrage at SFX for her greatest failure.

 

Ten years Ago: Central Shanghai

Zhu crested the hill in the central park and looked out of the South China Sea.  The brilliant blue of the water perfectly reflected the sun which glistened off the bustling harbor as people rushed about their business.  She was brimming with excitement as only a seven-year-old girl could.  Today, she would test her greatest idea.  A self-replicating robot!

 

True, the clunky looking box like invention certainly didn’t look like much and in truth it only worked in a very specialized set of circumstances.  However, it was one step closer to her dream, nanotechnology.  Instant fabrication!  The possibilities were endless and she could further all her ideas along as long as the first prototypes kept getting better.  Smaller would come later, she was sure of that.

 

“Excuse me,” another little girl came up to her, “would you like to play?  I have a doll?  Is that your doll?”

 

“No,” Zhu replied, “it’s not a doll.  It’s a robot.”

 

She nearly sent the other girl off.  It was so hard to connect with anyone her own age, their interests were just not the same as hers.  But, while she didn’t really share anything common with the girl asking to play, Zhu did have the same feelings as anyone her age and the loneliness was sometimes hard to deal with. 

 

“But… we can play.  That’s a pretty doll.”

 

The other girl smiled and sat down next to her robot going into a very complicated description about how their high-tech family was being run.  It was a social construct that would have left the most creative minds writing for the daytime drama’s in awe.  Zhu smiled and sat down, happy to listen even if she only had a little input into the growing narrative of husbands and children.  Lovers and houses.

 

Zhu was smiling, just amazed at the creativity of it all when the girl set the doll down next to her robot.  With a horrified look on her face, young Zhu tried her best to snatch the doll away before the steel laws opened and took a huge bite out of the doll which had the audacity to utter a single “Mǔqīn” before her robot ingested the circuits and voice processor with a nearly self-satisfied clank.

 

The girl screamed and her parents were already racing towards the two of them.  Some technology was not really fit for playing.

 

Present Day: SPI Headquarters, Vancouver

Eric stood up, looking at her with a grin that seemed to say, ‘you are money’ as he offered her a hand, “so we have a deal.  You show us your technique and if it’s as good as you say, then we’ll take you on as an intern and I can promise only the best and brightest future ahead for you!”

 

Zhu took a deep breath, confrontation was not in her nature, “thank you very much Mr. Carlson, but we do not have a deal.”

Eric and John traded looks.  They’d played hardball with enough actresses to recognize negotiations.  However, it didn’t matter.  Let the lawyers sort all that out.  If this girl could do half of what she claimed, she’d revolutionize the industry. 

 

“Sure sure, I’ll get the lawyers in and they can talk money and structure the contract contingent on your demo.”

 

“No Sir,” she repeated as an old memory of a park and a doll flitted in her mind, “I will not provide you a demonstration.  My internship would be me working on your technology and learning your business.”

John shook his head slightly.

 

“Miss Xieng,” John said in the same voice he used with his daughter, “you have to understand.  What you did in your videos is top notch work.  But, nothing we can’t do on our own.  What makes it special is your claim to having done the entire production on your own.  If you’re not willing to share that… well… there are plenty of interns we can hire.”

 

Zhu nodded sadly, this was not the first time this conversation had happened.  However, she wasn’t sure that the world was quite ready for her technology yet.

 

“I cannot,” she replied, “thank you for your consideration.”

 

 John shrugged and whispered something to Eric.  It was loud enough that she could hear, “told you she couldn’t do all that on her own.”

 

Eric nodded and gave her a smile that she knew meant that there would be no internship.  No easy street and many more years before she could really pursue her dreams.

 

“My admin will show you to the door, thanks for coming.”

 

Zhu stood up and gave them both a respectful bow, “thank you both for listening to me.”

 

The admin, a middle-aged woman came in, all smiles and hips as she escorted Zhu to the door.  As they got there, she looked out the window as the sun peaked through a layer of rainclouds.  As she opened the door, she patted Zhu on her shoulder, “I’m sorry dear.  They talk to a lot of very smart girls and I’m sure you’ll do well.  Just keep trying.”

 

“Thank you Ma’am,” Zhu replied stepping out of the door.

 

“Just keep your chin up, besides, who couldn’t be happier now that the grey is gone and the sun is shining!”

 

Zhu nodded back, walking into the light never knowing the 27 year old Zhu and her dull world, and thankfully, for the moment, having the possibility of becoming her disappear like the now fleeting clouds.

 

Edited by BlazingCoconut

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