“No”, he said, looking over the computer screen in front of him.
“Please”, she whined.
“Oh, come on! Pleeeeeeease!”
“No, no and no. I am not doing it. If you want something I made, you go with MY design ethics”, he said, cutting off any further discussion on the subject – or so he hoped.
“It’s not like you wouldn’t like it! What’s the problem with doing it? It’s not like I’m going to actually be hit, right?”
He slapped his hand to his forehead.
Vasiliki chose just that moment to enter the workshop, wearing a bathrobe and brushing her still-wet hair. She had spent the last third of the night patrolling and actually managed to stop a mugging – which was more than the other two had managed to do during their shifts.
“What are you two arguing about?”, she asked, pulling over a stool and sitting down next to the two of them.
Basil turned to her and said: “Well, I have been working on the armor for Dalia, since she is the only one of the three of us who can not take a bullet – or an energy blast, or any high-powered attack – and expect to survive. Unfortunately, my design ethics and her fashion sense are clashing.” He turned the computer screen so Vasiliki could look at his design.
It was a very tight, very subtle armoring. In fact, under the right light, it could have passed as a strange set of clothes. The armoring was made from the same ceramic Basil had invented for his power armor. Over the last week, he had concentrated his efforts mostly on improving it and, in the course of that, come up with a system that Dalia could use. The new armor (no power armor) was as skintight as armor made of rigid plates of ceramic could be – in this case, a lot, since it was actually closer to scale mail than the more rigid plate armor most people always thought of. Countless small pieces of the ceramic, none larger than the nail on Basil’s little finger, were fastened on a bodysuit designed after the same principle as his own, only accounting for the scales so as to use them to maximum effect. The result was an armor that provided enough protection to survive concentrated automatic fire (though that would leave bruises). It only limited her mobility by a minimal degree and could be worn under her usual costume – so long as she switched out the too-tight leather pants. To accommodate her fashion sense, he had actually developed a way to colour the ceramic, making it a deep red much like her hair.
“That looks great. Where’s the problem?”, Vasiliki asked.
Dalia opened her mouth to answer, but Basil spoke first: “Well, our dear teammate here would like to show off her shiny new body to the world – she wants the armor to either bare her belly or have a neckline that would be considered ridiculous by most porn magazines!”
“And where’s the problem with that?! I mean, look how most heroines and villainesses run around!”, Dalia shot back.
“Those are either stupid, non-combatants or nearly or completely invulnerable! You. Are. Neither”, Basil replied.
“How do you know she isn’t stupid? She certainly seems to value her looks more than her life”, Vasiliki supplied helpfully.
“Oh, shove it up your ass, Ms. ‘I-was-smoking-hot-even-before-my-powers’. Some of us want to enjoy finally being one of the pretties!”
At this point, Basil decided to step out of the argument. This had been going on since their team-up a week ago. It had turned out that Dalia used to be one of the ugly girls and she had suddenly managed to turn into a beauty (making her change of schools very fortunate – which went to show that her power was even more powerful than expected). Now she wanted to have fun with that, showing off her body at every chance she got. Initially, she had thought that Vasiliki would be a kindred spirit – until it turned out that she had already been a beautiful girl even before her manifestation. And she absolutely did not understand Dalia’s desire to show off her body, prefering concealing (though still form-fitting) clothing. The two had been at each others throats constantly about fashion and decency.
It would have been funny to watch, if they did not tend to pull him into it.
So, while they went on arguing with each other, Basil snuck away to another computer terminal and continued work on his ravencycle.
* * *
It was barely a minute later when he got a call from his sister. He picked it up, while the other two fell silent for once.
“Hi Amy. What are you calling for?”, he asked.
“Ten minutes. Any news channel. Watch and enjoy.” And she hung up.
“Oh. I’m alright, don’t worry”, he replied.
“What did your sis call you about? Did she want to know whether we were doing nasty things with you?”, Dalia asked.
Ever since he had made the mistake of showing them a picture of him and his sister (three days ago, actually), Dalia had been making one inappropriate comment after the other. It turned out that she was homosexual (or perhaps bisexual? he could not tell whether her interest in him was real or just to yank his chain) and constantly making naughty remarks was her way of expressing interest. And since Vasiliki had moved into ‘rival’ territory (and made it clear that she was strictly straight), she focused more on his sister (for now).
He prayed to whatever God there might be that she and his sister never actually met in their costumed identities. Even though he hated praying.
Making a frustrated sigh, he replied: “She just asked if I was alright. Anyway, I’m going to work on the ravencycle. Please be quiet.”
“Dude, ravencycle is SO dorky. What’s next, the ravenwing?”, Dalia said.
“Got to agree with her, ravencycle is… way too… how to say this… nerdy?”, Vasiliki threw in.
Basil just ignored them.
* * *
Eight minutes later, he put down his work and turned the TV on. “Let us see if something interesting is going on”, he said. It would not do to have them suspect that his sister had given him a tip.
The girls came over from their respective work (Vasiliki had been sketching out the ritual for a new charm, Tyche had actually done some research on the internet, looking for suspicious information – her power might turn up something by accident) and sat with him in front of the wall screen of the lab.
At first, all he could find were news on the relief efforts for the massive earthquake that had hit Central America – the United Heroes had moved in bulk to support them.
It took less than half a minute of switching channels until a special news bulletin showed up. Heroes United Network was showing a live reportage of a hostage crisis at the hands of the Rabid Eight.
“Rabid Eight? I think I’ve heard of them – aren’t they a bunch of Savage Six fanboys and -girls?”, Vasiliki asked.
Dalia replied: “Yeah. But nowhere near their level. They barely rate a B and the Savage Six hover around A+ and S. Still, way out of our league.”
Basil nodded in agreement. “This could be interesting – I heard that they lost five members to a run-in with one of the Savage Six, but they are also supposed to have found two stronger replacements for them. Plus, since the United Heroes are currently away, the United Junior Heroes might be sent in – and they are supposed to have two new members as well.”
“Umm, Basil, that may be so, but isn’t against the law to send underage heroes into battle against anyone from B- and up? Especially if their enemies are a bunch of murderers and serial rapists?”, Vasiliki asked.
“True, but who are they going to sent in otherwise? The adult heroes, or at least those who are legally registered with the UH, are all away to the south. Asking for help from the illegal heroes is even more problematic. That only leaves the UJH or baselines. And we all know how that would turn out.”
They all remembered the first appearance of the original Rabid Eight in Phoenix, where baseline troops had been thrown against them – if the local division of the UH had not disobeyed orders and intervened, there would not have been survivors.
At that moment, the news report switched over to the “HeroView”. One could see several chairs arranged in a half-circle in front of a large wall-screen. The hostess of the show, one Tamara Werd, introduced her guests for the day: Michael Andrews, Professor for Metahuman Studies at Harvard, a rusty man in his mid-fifties with a goatee that looked like it was shaved with precision tools; Pia Fannington, ex-superheroine, now seventy-five years old and retired; V-Soar, rapstar and part-time superhero; Francisca Dolcetti, from the Metahuman Crimes Unit of the NLPD and Patrick Patrid, public relations officer of the UH.
HeroView was the epitome of the human tendency to turn everyone and everything into a reality- and/or talkshow. Sponsored both by the government, by the UH and several private sponsors, it offered live comments, as well as after-the-fact analysis of metahuman incidents. It actually served a purpose other than raising the quota – the participants always made an effort to explain why a superhero took any action, to avoid public relations disasters.
While the crew made their introductions, various split screens showed the police pulling up a perimeter around the hotel that had been attacked. No heroes had appeared yet.
The hotel stood close to the lake and city park, occupying nearly an entire city block for itself – it consisted of several smaller buildings, with one large, skyscraper-sized center.
The camera suddenly zoomed in to one of the glass walls in the lobby of the central building. One of the (five) Rabid Eight stood there, looking out at the police troops. A tall man, nearly three meters tall, unnaturally thin, dressed in a skintight black bodysuit that covered him head to toe, with no markings or openings, not even for the eyes or the nose. It seemed unnaturally thick and form-fitting, even for a supersuit. There was quite a lot of blood already on him.
“Shit”, Basil whispered. “That is Bloodbath. Guilty of more than a hundred cases of murder, responsible for the Rabid Eights’ constant avoidance of being taken out and an embarissingly stereotypic codename. I had hoped that he had been one of the casualties I mentioned earlier.”
“Wait, how did you know that they lost five members, but not which?”, Dalia asked.
“Simple, really. They only found ashes at the scene of the battle. A few psychometrists went over it – they were able to determine that five of the eight had been killed by Fire Burial, but ashes are really hard to read, so they could not get anything more than ‘Five members of the Rabid Eight died here’.”
“Isn’t he some kind of wild card? I think I remember that his power has something to do with chance”, Vasiliki said.
“Much like the rest of the original Rabid Eight, he has a weaker version of the powers of one of the Savage Six. In his case, it is a combination of subconscious precognition, telekinesis and telepathy that simulate probability control. He is also a level five adonis and a level four shifter. That is not a bodysuit, but rather his skin. And he specializes in creating blades and spikes out of his body. Plus, he instinctively shifts his body into a soft, nearly invincible state whenever he is hit by anything that might harm him. Up to now-“
“Alright, alright, Mr. Exposition. We only wanted to know what his powers were, not his life story”, Dalia threw in.
“I did not even get started on his background!”, Basil defended himself.
“But you were going to! Don’t deny it! We know how much you love to make exposition. Cut. It.Out. Now watch TV”, she continued.
Grumbling, he turned back towards the wallscreen – just in time to see the UJHs appear.
“Wow. They really did pick up a new member”, Dalia said.
Vasiliki just squeed.
* * *
The Junior Heroes stood in a row at the entrance to the hotel grounds.
Basil recognized three of the four heroes in attendance, as Mr. Patrid introduced them one after the other:
Outstep was standing to one side. A tall young man, he wore a supersuit styled like that of a race car driver. He held his helmet to his side, revealing his perfect face under a permanent suntan and bleached blond locks that reached his shoulders. A level five adonis, and a level four time controller specializing in super speed, he was probably the most powerful member of the UJH left after seven of them graduated into full United Heroes membership. His identity was no secret, so he did not bother with it – it had been blown wide open years ago when his parents, both active heroes, had been publicly unmasked by an enemy of theirs.
Tartsche, a thin young man build like a runner, was standing a bit to the front. Unlike every other member of the heroes in attendance, he did not possess the adonis power – Basil felt a pang of sympathy for the young man – but he was a known and constant member of the New Lennston Runners and a passionate participant of every marathon possible, so he still looked well-built. He only had one power, a defensive force-field that became stronger the slower he moved. His costume consisted of a bodysuit styled to look like medieval chainmail, with metallic armor around his legs and arms, as well as a large shield he was currently wearing on his back.
His boyfriend, Spellgun, stood behind and slightly to the side of him, ready to use him as cover while he aimed his weapon. He was a bit taller than Tartsche. A low-level adonis, he had a very effeminate build – in fact, it had caused quite the scandal when it became known that the late PR manager of the UHs had advised him to pose as a girl if he and Tartsche were not going to keep their relationship secret (unfortunately for him, Lady Light had overheard the conversation. She had not been amused). Clad in a purple and blue bodysuit with bodyarmor, he wore a steampunk style helmet with various scopes he could rotate on and off his eyes. His eponymous spellgun (though it was actually more of a rifle) was built in the same style – it was as long as he was tall, with various buttons, levers and wheels spread around the hilt and trigger, as well as no less than six scopes on a wheel that rotated around the barrel. All of it was either made of wood or a golden metal alloy he fabricated himself. A low-level contriver, Spellgun’s power expressed itself in the variable settings of his gun and the various types of ammunition he produced for it.
After introducing the three old members of the team, Patrid turned to the new one – though she hardly needed an introduction.
The young girl stood at one end of the row. She was not very tall – barely a meter sixty – but she was built like a teenager’s wet dream. Her curves were very visible through the armor she was wearing – the armor plates were made from some kind of half-transparent material in a dark blue colour. Under the armor, she only wore spandex shorts and a fitting cropped top, both in bright pink. She was not wearing a helmet, donning, instead, a bright pink visor that covered her eyes, revealing hair that reached down to her hips and full, luscious lips, both painted in something that switched through all the colours of the rainbow at every movement. Ten spider-like legs were mounted on the back of the armor, four lifting her from the ground, while the other six were more specialized. The upper four sported eight speakers each, mounted in twin rows along the legs. The middle two curved around her body, each holding up one half of the control-system – which looked like an oversized keyboard with more buttons than anyone could possibly be able to keep straight.
“Who is that? And why does she seem familiar?”, asked Basil.
The other two just looked at him like he had sprouted a second head. Dalia opened her mouth to give a response, but Vasiliki did not give her a chance.
“Oh my God, how can you not recognize her? That’s Polymnia! Metahuman Popprincess! Oh, this must be the big new gig she was writing about on her blog! You know, she’s a level six adonis, but she hasn’t been able to talk ever since she manifested. But she’s got, like, a perfect ear for sound and she is a level three Gadgeteer who specializes in acoustics and she invented that hairdye and lipstick that switch colours and she has become like the greatest popstar ever since she manifested a year ago and she is like, our age, and oh God, I’m her biggest fan I hope I can get an autograph if we ever run into her…”
“Girl, take a breath!”, Dalia through in, disturbed by Vasiliki’s sudden lapse into fangirlism.
“I can see that she is a Gadgeteer. And that speaker system is just beautiful; I wonder how she is powering it…”, Basil said, as his power flooded his brain with ideas on how it could work out.
“How can you tell that she’s a Gadgeteer?”, Vasiliki asked, interested in anything she could learn about her idol.
“Simple. Her power armor uses the same basic design mine uses – she must have found the blueprints I found online”, Basil explained. “A contriver could not have done that – they would have to start from scratch and create their very own system for it to work.”
While this went on, Patrid explained on TV how Polymnia would put her career as a music star on hold, with only sporadic performances for her fans, for the sake of being a full-time superheroine with the United Junior Heroes.
Vasiliki went on recounting everything that was known about Polymnia’s background (surprisingly little) and everything about her music, technique and life as a popstar (way too much).
On HeroView, V-Soar finished his own recounting of his interactions with Polymnia and Mrs. Dolcetti took over, explaining that the Rabid Eight had only given one single demand for the safe release of the hostages: that whichever heroes were present would meet them in open battle. If the heroes won, they could have the hostages, if they lost, everyone would die. Dolcetti made it clear that she had objected, but that the UH director had immediately accepted and forced the issue – he wanted a battle between the UJHs and the Rabid Eight. Everyone turned to Patrid, as Basil shook his head.
“Oh, don’t worry. We are not going to throw our young heroes to the wolves. We have a very special surprise for everyone – those scumbags included. But before you ask, yes, it’s going to be big and no, I won’t tell you what it is yet.”
The others immediately bombarded him with questions, but he did not give in.
“This does not make any sense.” At the puzzled looks of the two girls, he continued: “Seven, count them, seven members of the UJH graduated from the team a few months ago. Even if Polymnia joined immediately afterward and they just kept it secret to wait for the perfect opportunity to reveal her, she can only have had two months of training – we know from overly interested fans” he glanced at Vasiliki “that she was not a fighter before that. Even if that were enough, she alone cannot provide enough fire power to take down the Rabid Eight, weakened though they might be. They are walking into a slaughter – and if the Eight’s modus operandi is still intact, they will probably kill all of them except for Polymnia and then rape her to death in public, forcing someone to film every second of it. There is no way the director of the UH can want that!”
“Well, maybe she is just awesome enough to take them on by herself, you ever thought about that?”, Vasiliki asked meekly, blanching at the mental picture his words created.
“No. But those people are not stupid. There is something more to this. That ‘surprise’ might be the other rumored recruit. Though honestly, I can not imagine what kind of individual would be enough to warrant this – they would have to be an S-Class to be able to tip the balance this far”, Basil continued.
Just then, the Rabid Eight(ish) stepped out of the hotel lobby, walking towards the heroes.
Basil took a look at them, recognizing four out of the five. “Oh Crap.”
* * *
On the far right of the five villains (from the view of the camera, which currently hovered behind the heroes) walked a very large man. He was very nearly four meters tall and almost as wide. His arms were too long and too thick, reaching far enough down that he could walk like a gorilla just by slouching a bit. Each of them was thicker than Basil’s whole body.
The man’s skin was a dull grey colour, covered irregularly by small, black horns. A pair of black horns, each as thick as Basil’s upper leg and curving around from the sides of his head to point towards the front.
“Bullrush”, he explained to the girls. “Recruited a year ago. Level six chimaera type, with an unrated warper ability that somehow increases the impact of his rushing attacks – but only if he attacks with his horns while doing so. Also becomes tougher the faster he moves.”
Next in line was an anorexic woman, wearing a torn wedding dress splattered liberally with old and new blood. Around her bony hips hung a belt ladden with a lot of knives. Her arms, which the dress did not cover, were instead covered by scars from vertical and horizontal cuts, as if she had repeatedly tried and failed to kill herself.
“Slice Bride. Another original member. She slices herself because anything coated with her blood can cut through pretty much anything. Manifested when her fiancé humiliated her right when they stood in front of the priest. She is manic, but high-functioning. If Bloodbath is the luck of the eight, then she is the brains of the outfit. They even married (after killing the original couple and forcing the guests to take part in their wedding) and then killed the priest (after killing the other guests). Her power may be self-limiting, because she has no ability to heal herself, but the only one she has not been able to cut yet was Lady Light.”
The next in line was Bloodbath himself, several blades already sticking out of his arms, back and feet.
“The guy may only be second-class, but he is good second class. Plus no one knows anything about him. He is one big question mark – just like his great idol.”
If Bloodbath was a complete question mark, the other one did not have enough question marks in her life. A young woman, currently 19 years old, walked with the group. She was 1.71837468991 meters tall and weighed 78.22223485771 kilogram. She was completely naked, lacking not only clothes, but also any kind of hair.
“That one’s new, right? Wasn’t she in the news a few weeks ago?”, Dalia asked.
“Yeah, that’s Exposed. Here name tells you everything you ever want to know about her. Her blog tells you everything else. Immunity to extreme temperatures, can create either ice or fire, though only one at a time and not at a high level. But she is also strong and tough enough to take most bullets available to police forces. That’s not fat, but rather a fat-like sheet under her skin that makes her far more durable than anyone of her rating ought to be. An Adonis-type without the supernatural looks, basically.”
“So, the fifth one is the reason you freaked out just now?”, Vasiliki asked, pointing at the one at the other end of the row. “Never heard of him. Doesn’t look dangerous either. What’s his deal?”
The fifth guy in the row was a young man, a teenager. He looked like a pop idol, the kind of boy a girl would not mind introducing to her parents – who would not mind him, either. Blond, curly hair reached down to his chin. Sparkling blue eyes and a fine cheekbones rounded out the look, accentuated by his hispanic skintone. He was wearing a pair of shorts, despite the dropping temperatures and a hawaii shirt, as well as a pair of sandals.
“I did not think you would know him, but that guy is quite the big deal over in Spain. Pure A-Class. Serial rapist with a taste for girls and boys his age or below. Calls himself ‘El Conquistadore’ – the conqueror, as in, he conquers his victims. Level 8 hydrokinesis. He needs physical contact to control a fluid, but he has the added, extremely rare ability to control the fluids inside another human, provided he can establish skin contact. Also a level 6 Adonis, with a speciality in speed. Plus, he can feel all fluids within a few hundred meters”, Basil explained.
“Wow, I would like to punch his face in”, Dalia commented.
“Yeah, though you will be easy pickings for him if you run around showing skin”, Basil could not withstand sniping at her. She blew him a raspberry.
“Children, please focus”, Vasiliki said in the tones of a long-suffering school teacher.
Over at the Hotel, the fighting began.
* * *
Jason Widard did not like what was going on.
He had signed up with the United Heroes as a non-metahuman operative in order to help the heroes he had idolized since his childhood. Unable to manifest any powers himself, he had first worked as an errand boy for others, until he had caught the eye of the late director of the UH and been reassigned first as a handler of the UJHs and, for the last ten years, master mission control.
Sitting in the large computer room, he worked together with a staff of thirteen other non-powered operatives to give their young heroes every help they could. Every member of the United Junior Heroes had their own handler, who sat here and stayed in constant contact with them. These handlers were more than contacts for their wards. They had been chosen based on psychological profiles so that they would be the perfect fit for each of the young metahumans. Each of them was required to take seminars on teenage and metahuman psychology (as well as teenage metahuman psychology) and many others. They were handlers, contacts, foster parents, BFF’s, a shoulder to cry on – whatever the young hero might need. When their hero graduated into the UH, they would follow them and, ideally, stick with them throughout their whole career as superheroes.
Jason himself had been the handler of Petal, a young superheroine who had, unfortunately, died during a raid by the Savage Six. He had known the child from her entry into the world of capes at age twelve, up to her death five years later. She had been a kind of daughter to him, the eternal single. After her burial, he had been reassigned as master mission control, as reassigning the handler of a fallen cape to a new one was usually a quick road to disaster. Soon he had made a name of himself as an exceptional worker, but he had turned down repeated promotions in favor of remaining in mission control for the junior heroes.
Since then, he had done everything he could to prevent members of the UJH from dying, both to protect them and to prevent another handler from going through what he had suffered.
And there lay the problem, because right now he was watching on the wall screen as four teenage metahumans, one of whom was in her very first real fight, prepared to fight against five notorious murderers, all of whom outclassed them in terms of raw power, experience and viciousness.
Oh, he had read to plan for the day. He knew why the higher ups wanted this fight. He knew that they had taken precautions. But it did not sit right with him – risking the lives of these kids for a PR-stunt.
He turned his head to look at the figure leaning against the wall opposite the wall screen. She looked relaxed while dropping three blue-and-white pills from a plastic container onto the palm of her hand and swallowing them dry. Her eyes turned to him.
As master mission control and senior officer of the UH, he had been allowed to read her file. So he knew that her power had called his focus on her to her attention. He knew that her power was analyzing everything it could read off of him to tell her why he was paying her attention.
She gave him a smile that seemed almost pained and said: “Don’t worry. Nothing will happen to them – I promise.”
It was just what he needed to hear and knowing that she had only said it because her power had told her so did not make things easier for him.
Despite knowing that she could almost definitely keep that promise, he felt that it was quite risky, putting the lives of his wards, his children into the hands of a person who needed several pills a minute to be kept stable. Pills that had needed to be invented and handcrafted by Lady Light.
He saw in her eyes that she knew where his thoughts were leading him. It was probably her power, though it might have been obvious even without it.
“I’ll hold you to that promise”, he said with a weak smile. Then he turned around to watch the fight. There was not much he could do anymore.