The transition from one reality to another was not as impressive as Basil would have expected – then again, neither had it been the first time. Still, it felt strange to know that he’d moved from a pocket reality to the real world the same way he’d step from one room to the next, simply walking through the door and being there.
He found himself on the empty tracks their train had been using, along with the others, who looked at him funny.
“What is it?” he asked them, looking around. Everyone was there, to his not inconsiderable relief, looking well, if shaken up.
“What held you up?” Tartsche asked. “You were right behind me, but then it took you longer to exit.
“So sound did not carry through the portal? That is interesting,” he said softly, looking over his shoulder only to find empty air. Emyr must have closed the door again. “Blackhill had something to say, not that it made any sense. Either way, we’ve already lost too much time – we should get going.” He looked back at the group again.
Before anyone could reply to that, Hecate stepped forth and took him by the hand, pulling him away from the rest of the group. “A moment, please,” she said in their direction as she took him a discrete distance away. Basil followed, feeling oddly disconnected from it all.
“Basil,” Hecate spoke softly, crossing her arms over her breasts, “Are you…” She shook her head. “No, of course you’re not alright, but… how are you holding up? You were… raw, in there.” She searched for his eyes, her green orbs finding his black ones even through the shadows of her own and his hood, even through his helmet.
He looked down, turning his hands up to look at them. “The girl I profess to love is dying, and I can not save her,” he replied, his voice quiet, even. Though his hands trembled slightly, none of it was noticable from just listening to him. “I can build force-field generators, work with the technology of the world’s greatest gadgeteer like it was a toy,” once he started speaking, he couldn’t hold it in, and it all came spilling out. “I somehow created an AI and I do not even remember doing it. I can build drones, power armour, hack secure systems without breaking a sweat, build a railgun that does not even need its rail to function properly. I can perform surgery with a skill most surgeons would envy, including on myself,” he pressed on, his hands trembling again. Hecate reached out and grabbed them, wrapping her hands around his. “But I can not come up with anything to save her,” he concluded, his voice quiet, monotonous, leaning closer to her. She leaned close in turn, restsing her forehead against his, their hoods joined together. “What kind of hero am I, that I can make all these things, but not the one that actually matters?”
“Oh Basil…” she whispered, her voice thick with emotion. She pulled his hands closer, pressing them against her sternum, close to her heart.
“Then I drag you all into this mess, trying to infiltrate the base of an organisation that seems to operate on a level at least on par with the Syndicate, if not beyond it,” he continued on, “Look at them. A mere watchdog of theirs summoned the fu-freaking Godking of Mars to fight us. And I am pretty sure they are not taking this seriously, otherwise this place would have been swarming with more guards.”
“You didn’t drag us anywhere, chazuli,” she replied in a calm, soothing tone of voice. “We’re the ones who insisted on coming along. And I don’t know about the others, but I assure you, Dalia and I would not have taken a ‘no’ for an answer. So snap out of it – you’re an amazing hero, everyone here knows it. Where you lead, I follow.”
Basil blinked, glad that his mask hid the tears. “I…” I’m Mindstar’s brother. I’ve been lying to you from the start. He couldn’t actually say it, much as he’d wanted to. “Thank you,” he said instead, his voice hoarse with guilt. “Sorry,” he added, feebly.
“You don’t need to be sorry, phile mou,” she replied with a wet chuckle, and he only felt more guilty for continuing to deceive her. “Just be you again and go kick some malakes around for Prisca.”
“You know I don’t speak Greek, right?”
He couldn’t see it, close as they were, but he knew she was smiling. “Nobody’s perfect. Now chin up.” She let go of his hands and tilted her head, briefly pressing her lips onto his mask, right over his mouth. “Let’s go be heroes.”
They got going after that, the others not commenting on their little aside, though Tyche poked Hecate with her elbow, for some reason – Basil missed what she said to her.
Mindful of Legend’s (unwilling) warning that the group they’d fought earlier would have recovered by now and likely be waiting in ambush, they moved carefully, with Gloom Glimmer taking point and Basil and Polymnia (after her the best sensors on the team) flanking her. The others followed after, spread out enough that they would hopefully not all be caught by a single attack, but also close enough to support each other – and most importantly, all within short range of Tartsche, to move under his protection as necessary.
Gloom Glimmer had briefed them all on their powers and what she’d been able to figure out about their interactions, and was also providing safe communication via telepathy – with the understanding that it might vanish at any time, particularly if battle was joined and her power decided to give her something else to fight with – which they’d used so far to formulate battle plans, planning how to respond to their enemies.
So far, most of their battle strategies boiled down to taking down the one they’d first dubbed Rewind, before Gloom Glimmer revealed her codename to be Chronicle, who was the lynchpin of the enemy’s strategy, then mop up the others one-by-one. The only one they weren’t sure they could deal with was Karasuha, whom Basil had fought before, and whose abilities were still in question – Gloom Glimmer came up dry and the last time they’d fought, Basil had defeated her before she could really show much other than her ability to burst into a cloud of ravens and an extending, unnaturally sharp katana. Nevermind that, as a contriver, she may well be able to change at least some of her abilities on the fly, depending on how her contriving actually worked.
‘Let’s please not forget the fact that we’re apparently being used as a way to dispose of an unwanted member of this group,’ Hecate complained. ‘I mean, doesn’t anyone find this whole situation to be completely insane?’
‘They’re supervillains, Heck,’ Tyche thought back at her, sounding much less flippant than she’d normally be while addressing her. ‘They do shit like this.’
‘No they don’t,’ Hecate countered. ‘Not villains with huge city-sized bases with their own transit system. You don’t keep an operation as big as this one running smoothly by letting people like us go around acting like this, no matter how much you might want to be rid of a member. Guys, back me up on this.’ She looked at the junior heroes.
‘I have to agree with Hecate,’ Tartsche said in his usual measured voice, even telepathically. ‘There’s got to be more to this than just getting rid of an unwanted employee.’ He looked at Tyche, who was staying quite close to him. ‘I know you think this Immanuel didn’t lie to you, bu-‘
‘That’s not what I said,’ she replied quietly, looking down at her feet. ‘I said that he seemed totally honest. I’m not so stupid to actually believe he was totally honest.’
‘Honestly, I’ve heard of weirder secret societies,’ Gloom Glimmer finally interceded. Everyone turned their heads to look at her, though all they could see was the back of her head and cape. ‘The Brotherhood of the Bell, The Double-Oh-Conspiracy, the Saurian League… these guys are pretty sane, compared to that.’
‘Wait, there was a secret society called the Saurian Le-‘ Tyche began to say, but was interrupted by Bakeneko.
‘I’ve never heard of any of those!’ she exclaimed in surprise.
Gloom Glimmer just shrugged. ‘Had you ever heard of the Gefährten before? Of course not. Thus, secret society. Besides, mom’s taken most of them down. They were much more commonplace in the sixties and seventies, and during the world war, but once it was over, she could devote the time to hunting them down. And you’ve heard of some of them, at least indirectly. The Saurian League was responsible for the Tsunamis that devastated the West-European coast in ’78, and the Brotherhood of the Bell was behind the assassination of Margaret Thatcher in ’84. The public was merely never made aware of them after mom took them apart.’
Everyone but Basil (who was barely listening to the others) and Polymnia (who’d heard it before) took a few moments to digest that.
‘Why did no one publicise stories like that?’ Hecate asked, putting words to what the others were thinking.
Gloom Glimmer shrugged once more without turning around. ‘Mom deferred to the governments on that, and they didn’t want to make it known just how easy it is for metahumans to form secret societies and pull off such gigantic terrorist attacks,’ she explained, her mental ‘voice’ slipping into the same tone she’d used, so long ago – only it wasn’t all that long ago – when she’d held that seminar at school. ‘Before Point Zero, there were a lot of limits on how far such groups could come, particularly if they wanted to cause large amounts of damage. They had to obtain members, information, materials… all that went out the window with the advent of metahumans. With the right powers, they can strike any time, anywhere, and it’s nearly impossible to see coming – note how all those I named got to actually pull something off before my mother managed to track them down. And there’s God-only-knows how many out there we still don’t know about.’
She turned around, continuing to float backwards as she spoke to them. ‘It’s really not as crazy as it seems to you, Hecate. To a normal organisation, allowing enemy agents to run roughshot around their base to take out one of their own may be a bad idea, but we have no idea what kind of powers are in play – for all we know, losing Dusu will actually make the Gefährten even stronger.’
They looked at each other – again, without Basil – in worry. ‘How could… I don’t get it,’ Spellgun admitted. ‘How could that work?’
‘I think that’s the point,’ Polymnia (whose mental voice was even more melodic than the one created by her vocoder) replied. ‘We don’t know what’s at work here. We can’t know, without knowing all the elements in play, and even Gloomy hasn’t been able to divine them.’
‘So, what’s that mean now?’ Tyche spoke up. ‘We’re fucked if we do, we’re fucked if we don’t? Is the only winning move here not to play?’
‘No,’ Basil interceded, speaking for the first time since Hecate pulled him aside. He was walking ahead, his back to the others. ‘This changes nothing. Whether or not our actions benefit the Gefährten does not change the fact that we need Dusu to cure the victims of the Hawaii plague. Does the possibility that the Gefährten might profit from us achieving that, or from curing the victims, change the fact that curing them is good?’
‘No way!’ ‘Of course not!’ Fuck no, B6!’ ‘Naturally not.’
‘There you go. Now focus on your surroundings and get ready for a fight,’ Basil concluded. In the distance, they could see the light grow brighter as they approached another station.
‘Hey wondergirl, can’t you check ahead?’ Tyche turned her thoughts – it really was a rather strange experience, thinking at someone; if it wasn’t for everything else, Basil would have so many questions – towards Gloom Glimmer.
‘I don’t have that kind of power right now,’ she replied in a petulant voice. ‘All I know is that there’s enemies up ahead.’
Just as she said that, she suddenly fell out of the air, landing on her feet and stumbling forward.
Everyone immediately dropped into fighting positions, with Tyche and Spellgun stepping close to Tartsche to touch him, and Bakeneko jumping onto Osore’s back, but Gloom Glimmer waved them off.
“I-it’s alright,” she stammered, pulling her hood tight in embarrassment, speaking with her actual voice again. “Powers just, changed.” She rolled her shoulders, moving on. “Don’t worry, I’m used to it.” Ripples began to spread out from her feet, wherever she stepped onto the ground, continuing on for a few moments after she moved on, distortions that travelled across the floor and up the walls in circular waves; at the same time, a light haze appeared in the air ahead of them.
They relaxed again, moving on.
Melody walked up to her friend, putting a hand on her shoulder – and her wrist speaker next to her ear. <So, what’d you get this time?>
<Matter manipulation,> she said through their com-system (hopefully it hadn’t been hacked yet, but it was still safer than talking out loud). <I can control any matter that’s being touched by those ripples. Also, a spatial distortion that diverts attacks away from me and potentially back at the attacker. Oh, and a veil – I can hide us from sight, and even divert light-based attacks, at least from one direction.> She smiled slightly. <Been a while since I had such a powerful combination.>
Polymnia squeezed her friend’s shoulder, before taking a step and back, keeping her arm extended and sending ultra-sonic pulses out from one of the speakers, mapping the area ahead of them.
<There’s people in the station up ahead,> she spoke up once she’d properly interpreted the data she got. <Fifteen… eighteen… twenty-four, spread throughout the station.>
<Can you give us a visual map?> Tartsche asked, well-aware of the fact that she usually relied on her hearing alone to interpete the suit’s data.
<Um… I don’t have a light-projector that’d work for that… Brennus, do you have something to convert my data into a visual map?> She looked at the unnervingly quiet vigilante.
<I do,> he said evenly, reaching for his belt and pulling a plug-tipped extension cord from it, holding it out in her direction, stopping still.
Melody joined him, as the others spread out a bit, moving as quietly as they could, and she plugged it into a port on her suit’s forearm. A twitch of Brennus’ fingers gave her access to a projector, after which it only took a minute or so to adapt her own software and send the map out through it.
His left gauntlet – the one that’d projected force-fields earlier on – projected a two-dimensional map onto the floor, causing the others to cluster closer around them and take a look. Melody kept her left arm extended, continuing to map out the station in case their foes moved around.
The only one who didn’t look at the map was Brennus himself, who kept looking ahead even while pointing his gauntlet – though he could probably just call it up on his visor, if he didn’t have better technology anyway.
<Hm, they’re not exactly spread out, but neither are they bunched up… they definitely seem to be watching the way we’re coming, though,> Tartsche observed.
Melody knew what he meant. Their enemies, all twenty-four of them, were forming an uneven half-circle that opened towards the tunnel they were coming from, sixteen of them on the left side of the tracks, seven on the right and one standing in the centre.
<Twenty-one of them are Skulls,> Brennus stated simply. <The others are the ones we fought earlier, as well – Boltstar, Karasuha and Chronicle.>
<How can you tell – they’re around the bend, aren’t they?> Tartsche asked him, looking up from the map to look at the young gadgeteer.
<I sent my last raven ahead earlier,> he replied simply. <It is giving me a live feed.> A twitch of his fingers caused the projection to change, showing the train station from a high angle, the image upside down but sharp. Another twitch rotated it, showing them what was in the station.
Of course he’s got a better solution, Melody thought to herself, sighing softly. I really need to work out some drones for myself.
They looked through the raven’s eyes and saw the Skulls, mostly crouching behind several overturned benches, using them for cover as they aimed their rifles at the tunnel. Boltstar and Chroncile stood with the larger group, behind the Skulls, the latter crouching to give as small a target as possible, though Melody wondered why she was that close at all – probably a serious range limitation on her power. Even though she was wearing a heavy robe and a deep cowl, Melody could tell from her posture that she was quite nervous, a lot more so than the others.
The last one there was Karasuha, looking different from the last time they saw her. She was wearing a set of skintight, jet black platemail now, with a bird-shaped helmet and a purple skirt that split down the front. She even had a different, heavier-looking katana, which currently rested in its sheath, which she, in turn, was holding in her left hand, rather than strapped to her belt.
<Now that looks like someone upgraded in a real hurry,> Spellgun commented, and the others couldn’t help but agree.
<It doesn’t seem like they have any reinforcements,> Hecate added quietly. <I would have expected them to show up with reinforcements.>
<Who knows? Maybe they got someone hidden in there,> Tyche suggested as she charged her rifle. <Or maybe they’re ready to port someone in.>
<If they do, I’m pretty sure I can redirect them,> Gloom Glimmer replied. <Yeah, yeah I’m pretty sure I can.>
Tartsche gave her a nod. <Alright. Let’s work out how we’re going to do this…>
They moved down the rails under the cover of Gloom Glimmer’s veil and entered the train station, sticking closer together than before so they’d all fit in under her power’s aegis.
Basil kept his raven up above, hanging onto the ceiling with its feet like a bat, to observe what was going on – fortunately, the villains hadn’t noticed it.
Looking around with his own eyes, he didn’t feel too worried – only Karasuha was an unknown in this, except…
<That’s not Chronicle,> he told the others, drawing and aiming his rifle. <She’s too tall and too broad-shoul->
“Aw damn, they found out!” a female voice they hadn’t heard before rang out from seemingly nowhere.
The wall and tunnel behind the assembled villains flickered, then melted away into nothing, revealing another two metre to the station – and there stood Chronicle, next to a woman in a skintight black costume with a silver tabbard and a clenched black fist over her chest. The suit extended to cover her head entirely, making her look like a jet-black mannequin, the only distinguishing feature on her head being a silver circlet upon her brow. It did not even have noticable openings or lenses for her eyes.
As if that wasn’t enough, ‘Chronicle’s’ form flickered and melted away in the same way, revealing an even bigger, broadly-shouldered man in heavy grey, brick-patterned body armour.
“Well, the jig’s up,” Skulls said with her customary sneer. “Take th-“
Basil snapped off three shots from his railgun, one at the real Chronicle’s shoulder, one at the silver-and-black-garbed woman’s knee and another at Skulls’ head, before she could finish.
The upper half of Skulls’ head turned into red mist, as did the jaw and throat of the Skullman behind her, but the shots to the other two were unharmed, protected by an invisible force-field that only briefly shimmered as it absorbed the full impact of his shots.
“Screw you, you trigger-happy asshole!” Chronicle shouted at him as she gestured at the fallen Skulls, causing her and all of her Skullmen to flicker, restoring the damage he’d done. “You ain’t catching me by surprise again!” Her bubbly, high-pitched voice made her sound far too young for the group she was a part of – she couldn’t possibly be any older than Basil himself.
<Gloomy, make us some cover!> Tartsche shouted through the coms as he reached out and put his hands onto Spellgun’s and Tyche’s shoulders, covering them with his power. Hecate dissolved into smoke, Basil raised his force-shield, as did Polymnia with her sonic cage, Bakeneko – who’d already turned into that tentacle-cloak thing attached to Osore’s shoulders – wrapped herself around him, her tentacles growing stiff, hard armour…
<Gloomy?> Polymnia asked in worry, as Gloom Glimmer didn’t react at all, looking at her friend.
“Damn,” the silver-and-black garbed woman said. “That was easier than I expected.”
“Thoughtseize, report properly!” Skulls snarled, making the woman shrug, while her Skullmen spread out further, aiming at the heroes below on the tracks, and Karasuha put her right hand onto the grip of her sword, sliding into a ready stance.
“Target’s locked down, boss,” she told him with no small amount of satisfaction. “Looks like the higher-ups were right – telepathy’s really her Achilles’ Heel.” She tilted her head to the side. “Don’t think I can make her fight for us, though. Her brain’s strange.”
“I don’t care as long as you keep the little bitch out of the fight. Focus on her,” she ordered. “As for you annoying little shitstains,” she continued, looking down at them again. “Put down your weapons, now! In the case of you three,” she pointed at Basil, Polymnia and Hecate, “Strip everything off. No more tricks now. Do as I say and we’ll let you live.”
Fuck, Basil thought as he, Hecate and Polymnia moved to stand back-to-back. We were counting on Gloom Glimmer to carry this.
<What do we do now?> Polymnia asked through their comms. <We’ve got to help Gloomy!>
<We need to take this Thoughtsize down,> Tartsche replied, his voice as calm as ever.
“It’s Thoughtseize, you know?” the villain’s voice appeared in their minds. “Seize, not size. Oh, and I can listen in on you easy – did you really think you ever stood a chance?”
“Hey boss, they’re not gonna give up!” she told Skulls at the same time as she distracted them with that message sent straight into their brains.
“Open fire!” Skulls shouted.
Basil dove forward towards Karasuha, glowing bullets pinging off his shield as he aimed his rifle at her, hoping that whoever was protecting the others – probably the one in the brick-patterned body armour – wasn’t extending or couldn’t extend his power to her.
He pulled the trigger, sending an electromagnetically accelerated projectile straight at her mid-section with the assumption that her armour would reduce it to a non-lethal hit.
Karasuha moved with blurring speed, dogging the attack as she flashed forward, drawing her sword in a single, lightning-fast motion – too fast even for Basil to react in time, allowing her sword to cleave through his railgun; except this time, it cut through it from front to back, rather than simply slicing off the barrel.
Behind Basil, the others were being pelted with glowing bullets. Polymnia was stuck keeping up her sonic cage, which seemed sufficient to protect her and the unresponsive Gloom Glimmer from the Skullmen’s assault, but the upkeep of which didn’t allow her to do anything else. Tartsche and the two under his protection were, of course, not even inconvenienced, but whenever Spellgun or Tyche shot back at the Skullmen, Chronicle simply rewound them, which also meant they never had to reload, allowing them to keep on firing an endless stream of bullets.
Bakeneko was doing her best to protect Osore as his form began to bulge and grow, but him powering up also made him an easier target, as she could only stretch herself so far and still remain tough enough to resist the tranquilising bullets. More and more of them were penetrating her and Osore’s skin, causing their movements to grow more and more sluggish.
He fared no better, barely managing to roll under a follow-up kick from the similarly-themed villainess. Coming up behind her, he whirled around, shield-first, to strike her, but she’d already turned around and ducked, kicking his legs out from underneath him.
He snarled, throwing his useless weapon at her, but she simply blurred again, moving far more nimbly than her platemail should allow her to, and grabbed him by the ankle.
She swung him around with inhuman strength, once, twice, thrice, and throw him with such force at Osore and Bakeneko, they were thrown back all three of them to slam into the immovable trio with a sickening crunching sound.
Basil groaned in pain, his back feeling numb, though it didn’t precisely feel broken (it certainly didn’t feel as bad as during his little ordeal at Hastur’s hands), and looked up just in time to see Boltstar unleash a rain of energy bolts from over a dozen of his spheres, raining them down onto Polymnia, straight through her sonic cage.
The young girl cried out in pain as the barrage slammed her into the ground, tearing her armour apart.
Somewhere out of sight, Hecate screamed, once, then was cut off.
And then it all stopped, both the bolts from above and the glowing shots from the Skullmen.
Polymnia was on the ground, bleeding and groaning in pain. Osore was barely standing, and Bakeneko, who was riddled in glowing darts, had gone limp, her armoured tentacles dangling off Osore’s back. Only the immovable trio still stood, watching in horror.
Two Skullmen walked up to the edge of the platform, dragging a groaning Hecate with them by the elbows, several glowing darts sticking out from her chest.
“That enough for you idiots?” Skulls snarled as she stood up from behind her cover and walked up, followed by the brick-patterned villain, who was looking down at them with his arms crossed, looming behind his comparatively shorter leader. “Are you finally going to surrender before I lose my patience and decide to maim you, or do you have any more tricks left?”
Basil looked over his shoulder at the others, his left hand flinching briefly, tempted to reach for the ovoid gadget on his hip. I could use that, but there’s no telling whether it’ll be enough…
Tartsche looked back at him, his eyes wide with fear, yet determined. “Fuck,” he said. “Alright,” he finally said, looking up at Skulls. “Promise that you won’t harm us any more and we’ll surre-“
“There is no surrender,” Osore suddenly said, his voice an octave deeper than normal. “Only the next stratagem.”
And as everyone turned to look at the two-metre tall Japanese boy, he gathered darkness around his right hand and threw it straight into Basil’s chest.
“Twinkle twinkle, little star, how I wonder what…