Gloom Glimmer had teleported the two of them back to HQ after gathering her ruined equipment. She’d left Polymnia in her workshop to try and salvage as much of it as possible, but the most important parts, her sonic system, were also the most vulnerable.
Two suits trashed in less than two days. This doesn’t really say anything good about my future as a superhero.
Just then, her computer notified her that she had received an e-mail. It was flagged as coming from an unknown source, but it was no spam and it contained a small text file and a big .pdf-file.
No one was supposed to be able to contact her through that e-mail address unless they were affiliated with the United Heroes or the government. And if they were, they would not be unknown.
Out of curiosity, she opened the mail (after running it through every single anti-virus scanner and other check-up she had on her computer. She had a lot).
The address gave her a shock; email@example.com – she knew one person it would apply to. Inside was only a short text: Thank you for all the ideas.
The text file contained a list of several holes in the internet security of the league’s computer network, including the specific ones he had used to send the e-mail to her.
Then she opened the .pdf-file. A quick skim through the text, tables and pictures was enough to make her eyes wide as saucers.
He’d sent her the specifications of his anti-EMP system. All of them. It wasn’t exactly the most effective or inexpensive EMP-proofing, but it was, by far, the most compact and easily adaptable she had ever heard of.
With this, she would be able to fortify all of her equipment! She would, of course, have to notify the higher-ups, if only so they took a look at their security systems. And they would probably want to have the specs in order to outfit as much of their technology as possible.
Brennus had to know that. He had to know that she would not, could not keep this solely to herself. It was customary for gadgeteers to share their work, even make it public, but usually only once they had new, updated versions for themselves.
Somehow, she had the feeling that this was very up-to-date for Brennus.
Great, now I owe him double. Because, no matter what he got out of my work, it certainly wasn’t worth this kind of tech!
* * *
He cut off the internet connection (taking that afternoon a couple weeks ago to work his way through UHL security had paid off.. Not that he had managed to get all that far – he had not managed to access any restricted files, only the restricted e-mail adresses. Whoever wrote their security system was really damn good) and shifted his focus back onto the trail through the woods.
After being smacked around for the third time in less than two days, he was feeling less than up to walking all the way back to his lair.
Fortunately, he had built and programmed his suit to be capable of walking automatically, with only some minor active involvement from him to deal with the uneven ground of the forest.
The girls were not really in much better shape, despite their metahuman physiques. They were actually so tired that they did not argue one bit with each other while they walked.
Brennus did not talk to them while they walked. He was quite preoccupied with his thoughts, now that he had sent his e-mail to Polymnia.
Why did I feel the need to do that, by the way? I mean, I do owe her for everything I already got out of her equipment, not to talk of the upgrades to my ravenbots I will be able to make in time. But still, what I gave her is much more worth than what I got.
You paid her back tenfold.
Oh, it is you again?
Of course. I am always with you, after all.
Why did you feel the need to comment on my present for Polymnia?
I can not say.
I hate it when you say that.
It does not matter. But I do have a question. Do you know who Macian is?
I can not say.
He pressed on, hoping to get something out of this strange entity. Maybe, if it worked on a system of permissions and restrictions, rephrasing the question or asking a slightly different question might yield better results.
Do the memories I experience during my lapses belong to him?
I can not say.
Is he somehow related to me?
I can not say.
Is he somehow related to my powers?
There, a piece of information. He could work with that.
What can you tell me about him?
But the entity did not respond.
He tried to talk to it a few more times, but to no avail.
Thankfully, he had sealed his suit, so the girls did not hear him shouting curses in frustration.
Just when I was finally making some headway!
* * *
Polymnia had followed the summons to her third debriefing about an hour after she got back to HQ. She found Outstep already waiting, along with Irene (they sat at opposite sides of the table, with Outstep pointedly avoiding looking at her), both of them out of costume.
“Three debriefings in two days. That ought to be a new record, right?”, Outstep said to her as she sat down next to Irene. He was wearing simple, comfortable clothing that looked quite rumpled. He himself did not seem to be in the best of shape, with dark rings underneath his eyes.
<What happened to you? What are you even doing here, I thought you were on the way to your parents in California?>, she asked him.
“When I heard about the mess here, I grabbed a parachute and jumped out of my plane. I landed close to a village, took a police car and drove back here to help”, he replied. “I contacted my handler and he sent me to deal with the hostage situation over at the West Hills
That was actually impressive. He must have really pushed himself for that.
<And where are Tartsche and Spellgun?>, she continued.
Irene – who wore a light blue, faux-Victorian dress – spoke up: “Tartsche interfered in a hostage taking by several armed baselines at a restaurant where a birthday party for some kindergartners was being held. In the middle of negotiations, one of the policemen outside accidentily fired his gun. The hostage takers freaked out and opened fire on the hostages. Tartsche jumped into the line of fire and while his armor took most of the damage, he was quite heavily wounded. Spellgun is with him right now.”
<Will he be okay? And why don’t you heal him?>
She shook her head. “My power isn’t giving me any healing right now. So I can’t do anything for him for the time being.” Again, she sounded more annoyed than sorry.
Then, another thing caught her interest. <Why didn’t Tartsche just enter his Absolute Defense Stance?>
This time, Outstep answered: “It’s not called Absolute Defense Stance for nothing, beautiful. He needs to stand, or at least crouch, on his legs, he needs to be still and he needs to be on the ground. Since he jumped into the line of fire, he would have been in the air for at least a few seconds and moving. So no invulnerability for him.”
They all fell silent.
A few minutes of silence later, they were joined by a very tired Widard, who looked even more rumpled than usually.
He sat down at the table halfway between Outstep and the two of them. It took him a few seconds of slow breathing to gather himself, then he looked up and around.
“Alright, I’ve already read all of your reports, including Spellgun’s. Outstep, you did an outstanding job. Coming all the way back here and helping? You’re getting a commendation for this.”
Outstep waved him off like it was nothing, but she could hear his heart speed up a bit.
Widard then turned to the two of them: “Girls… I don’t even know where to start. I don’t know whether it’s just bad luck or some kind of weird evil master plan that throws the two of you into the deep end twice in a row, but whatever it is, it’s bad.” He gave them a weak smile.
“I have forwarded your report to the Board of Directors. Whatever else happens, I’m sure that we are going to get a high-priority order to search for this ‘Macian’. Whoever he is, if the Savage Six are willing to organize a city-wide crimespree just hours after a new gadgeteer who might be him becomes known, he can’t be good news. Or maybe he is the best news in a while.”
He paused and took a breath. “We – by that I mean the local director, Mr Patrid and me – assume that he is a gadgeteer, and a very high-rated one. Any information you might get on him is to be forwarded to us immediately. If you somehow, by some bizarre kind of luck – and seeing what has happened to you two, Gloom Glimmer, Polymnia, in the last two days, it might not be so bizarre – actually find him, then I want you to not engage. Keep your distance and contact us immediately. Whoever he is, we have to assume that he is extremely dangerous.”
Leaning back, he rubbed his eyes. “Anything else of interest? Otherwise, I think we should cut this short. I didn’t get any sleep last night or today.”
Outstep just nodded, but Polymnia spoke up: <There is one more thing. I got an e-mail from Brennus just a few minutes after I got back to my workshop.>
All three of them perked up at that.
“Oh? What was inside the e-mail?”, asked Widard.
<Well, a text file and a .pdf-file. But first, let me say that he wrote it, from an encrypted, private adress and sent it to my personal, league-only e-mail. Which he shouldn’t have been able to do.>
“Oh, great. So now, we have to rework our security system – again“, Widard groaned.
Polymnia gave him a sly smile. <Well, at least the text file contained a list of no less than 22 holes in our security.>
“So, he not only cracks our system and sends you an e-mail to a restricted e-mail account, all without anyone noticing, but now he also rubs our noses into all the mistakes made in securing everything? I like this guy more and more”, commented Outstep with a grin.
Polymnia gave him a glare. <Or, maybe he just wants to be helpful. After all, he doesn’t seem to have caused any damage and he did point out a lot of flaws instead of keeping them for himself to use.>
“Whatever. I’m going to catch some Z’s and then I want to fly out again. Hopefully without any distractions this time”, Outstep replied, waving her off and leaving the room.
<What a jerk>, she commented.
“He’s just really tired”, said Irene.
<Still a jerk.>
Widard brought the conversation back on track. “So, what were the contents of the .pdf-file?”
<You read my report right? So you know how I was taken out of the battle in seconds with an EMP?>
<And how Brennus just got irritated that the Crimson Goblin thought he wouldn’t have made his equipment EMP-proof?>
<Well, he sent me the specs for his EMP-proofing. All of them. And it’s definitely the most compact example of such I have ever seen.>
His mouth fell open. “He sent you the blueprints for an anti-EMP-system that can be built into medium-sized power armor?!“, he half-shouted, incredulous.
This time, it was her turn to nod.
He leaned back on his chair again, taking a deep breath.
“Please send a copy of the file to our tech department. If this is the real deal, then… I don’t even know how far this might go. EMP’s are a big problem for all our equipment that’s smaller than a medium-sized car, and nearly every Electrokinetic out there can produce one like no one’s business.” He rubbed his forehead with one hand, then continued: “Thank God I won’t have to deal with the question of whether or not we’ll need to pay him for this.”
The girls giggled at that.
“Alright, I officially can’t take any more. Let’s finish for today – I’m going to bed.”
* * *
How are you feeling? Taking a blade that large through your chest can’t have been comfortable, Melody asked Irene as they ate dinner together in the cafeteria (both of them had bought the Hamburger Special XXL Menu. Words cannot describe what that entails if made by a gadgeteer-cook). They were pretty much alone.
“It… hurt. Only for a second, then my power kicked in, but you can guess that I’m not all that used to pain”, replied Irene after a few seconds of slowly chewing her hamburger.
“Don’t you dare apologize. You couldn’t have warned me in time. Besides, if my power had given me a warning, I could have helped you all – and you wouldn’t have ended up needing to be saved by Brennus!”
Melody began to reply, but Irene raised a hand to cut her off.
“Let’s drop this – we aren’t going to get anywhere. I’m a bit too irritated right now”, she said.
Why are you irritated? It can’t be just because of the battle, can it?
Irene turned her head away from her and chewed on another bite of her divine hamburger.
Melody reached out with a hand, putting it on Irene’s.
You can tell me, Irene. I’m not going to tell anyone else, if that is what you’re afraid of.
It took a few seconds for Irene to look at her.
“There’s something. About Brennus, I mean.”
What is it?
Irene straightened on her seat, then she looked Melody right in the eye. What she saw in there made Melody really worry – something was scaring Irene.
Brennus was really, really angry. And I’m not talking furious about the whole trap – even before he knew about it, he was boiling over, she said over their telepathic link.
So, it was something private? Maybe he knows Ms Fion?
Irene shook her head. It wasn’t anything so specific. More a general hatred for kidnapping and hostage taking. He must have had some really bad experiences with that in the past.
And why does that freak you out so much? Anyone who had something like that happen to them would be-
No, it’s not the fact that he hates it. It’s the intensity of it. My power actually shut down my empathy in order to protect my mind.
Wow. So that’s why you’re so freaked out?
No. But it reminded me of…
Look, it isn’t so important, let’s just-
No, we won’t drop it! Why don’t you want to tell me?
Irene looked down on to her food again. She took a deep breath and answered: It reminded me of the time I flew into the Protectorate.
If this had been a cartoon, Melody’s jaw would have hit the table now.
You flew into the Protectorate!? Why?
My mother and the British Prime Minister hoped that, with my power, I might be able to approach him and maybe help him out.
I guess that didn’t work out?
With a crooked smile, Irene shook her head. Not at all. I was barely within the range of his empathy when my power took over and literally teleported me to the other side of the planet.
Yeah, I guess that was a bit extreme. Either way, for just a second, my power interacted with his empathy and I could feel his emotions. I never thought I’d feel emotions that intense again until I met Brennus.
Now it took Melody some time before she was ready to say something.
What does that mean? If Brennus has emotions as intense as-
It doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Normal people can have intense emotions just as easily as the most powerful of metahumans. The only thing it might mean is that Brennus is far more unstable than he has let on.
We should tell someone about this!
Irene shook her head. Please don’t. I don’t feel comfortable with spreading this kind of information around so long as Brennus doesn’t do anything bad. Afterall, I massively invaded his privacy when he was risking his life to help out with a crisis, whether or not it was meant as a trap for him in the first place.
Alright, I’ll talk to someone. I’m going to tell my mother the next time we talk. I’ll let her decide what to do.
Irene relaxed and pulled her hand back from under Melody’s. She had finished her hamburger and now turned to her golden-brown fries with the handmade mayonnaise. Melody couldn’t wait to finish her burger and do the same.
Well, I’ve got good news as well regarding next Tuesday, Irene said.
You’re going to love this…
* * *
Basil sat on his bed back in his room at home.
He was wearing only a pair of boxer shorts and holding the black box he had found in the mountainside house in his hands.
After the girls had gone home, he had put on a fake bandage for his shoulder and taken a cab over to the hospital to look for Prisca. Unfortunately, she was still in recovery after her emergency operation, and she would remain in such for at least two days.
At least her mother had been there and she had thanked him for trying to protect her daughter and coming to look after her despite his injuries.
The woman intimidated the hell out of him and he had the nagging feeling that she did not like him. He could use every single brownie point he could get with her.
Now he was sitting at home – Amy was nowhere to be found, though he could guess that the Dark was not happy about the unauthorized crime spree in his home city – looking at the box.
“Just what are you?”
Just then, the box suddenly lit up, a white circle appearing on the upper half.
A melodic, androgynous voice – said: <This unit’s designation is ‘Ori’. It is an artificial general intelligence capable of human-like thought-processing.>
He gave a start, almost dropping it.
“You talk? You talk. An AI? So you are a contrivance?”
<Negative. This unit was constructed by a gadgeteer.>
This time, he really dropped the box and jumped up from his bed.
He caught it before it hit the ground, then stood there, trembling.
An AI. A freaking, non-contrived AI. Assuming it is telling the truth. I assume so. I thought it was impossible – and I have it in my hands!
His thoughts descended into utter gibberish as he thought about all the implications and possibilities. A freaking artificial general intelligence…
The box did not do anything as he slowly got himself back under control.
He adressed it again. “Who made you?”
“What can you tell me about him?”, he asked, hoping for some kind of information on this strange figure.
<Designate: Brennus does not have the clearance to access any further information regarding Designate: Macian. Designate: Brennus may gain access after completing the installation process.>
Finally, a chance to get some answers!
“What does that entail?”
<Designate: Brennus has to determine his preferred settings, so that this unit can properly start up. Please choose preferred gender: male or female?>
He took a coin from his wallet and flipped it.
<Choose preferred personality profile. This choice cannot be changed after the installation process is completed:
1. Snarky Sidekick
2. Servile Butler
5. Eldritch Abomination
I think I like this Macian.
“What does ‘Eldritch Abomination’ entail?”
<Personality Profile ‘Eldritch Abomination’ seems mainly concerned with eating s’mores.>
“That does not make any sense, you are a computer!”
<Hence the ‘Eldritch Abomination’ label. It is quite unstable.>
“I shudder to think what ‘Insane’ entails… no, don’t tell me! And what does ‘chance’ stand for?”
He thought it over for a moment, but there was not really a choice. Not for him.
“I choose ‘Chance’.”
<Affirmative. Do you wish to give this unit a different name?>
“Hmm… I like ‘Eudocia’.”
<Affirmative. The installation process will take 8 hours, 14 minutes and 52 seconds. This unit will be unresponsive until it is completed.> The light winked out.
Brennus sat back down onto his bed. Then he put the box onto his nightstand and lay down – he really needed some rest and there was not much to do right now.
Thinking about the last two days, only one thing came to mind: Man, this whole thing is going completely out of control.