B010.8 Falling Hearts

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September 2, 2009

Sunny was cleaning the base together with Moony (he’d been allowed to choose her name!) while Father was tinkering with a new module for his armor when, suddenly, there was a girl in the room, sitting on one of the few empty spaces on father’s workbench.

“Hi!” she greeted as she stretched her legs.

Father pushed himself away on his rolling chair, shouting “D-03!”

Sunny and Moony – neither of whom was built for combat – simply dropped down to the floor as six turrets folded out of the ceiling. Two of them projected force-fields around Father, and around Sunny and Moony even as the others opened fire on the intruder.

He barely got a good look at the stranger – a teenage girl, slender with short, messy gold-blonde hair and green-blue eyes, wearing a grey-blue jacket over a white shirt with a matching tie and short pants that barely reached halfway down her thighs, topped by an old fashioned winged hat – before she kicked her (bare) feet and vanished, barely evading the four beams of focused light.

She reappeared at the other end of the workbench, looking exasperated. “Oy, hold your horses, Mister!” she shouted with a heavy accent that his linguistic engine placed as French Canadian. “I’m just a messenger!” she cried as she flipped off the bench, vanishing and reappearing within Father’s force-field with the same spin.

Having effectively flipped into safety and landed on her feet, the girl reached into a pouch that was attached to her belt.

Sunny and Moony cried out for their Father to drop the force field, but he just stood there, shocked, as she drew out… a letter. An old-fashioned letter with a golden wax seal.

“Here, all I wanted to give ya was this letter, you crazy person!” she groused. “Just read it and give me your reply, and I’ll go away!”

Father relaxed – slightly. If the girl wanted to hurt him, it could already have done so. Sunny and Moony watched as he took the letter, looking at the sender. His eyes widened. “What. The. Fuck,” he said in a monotone. Then he hastily broke the seal and unfolded the letter, quickly reading through it.

<Brother, what should we do?> Moony asked through their radio link. Her voice was a lot like Sunny’s (he’d given her a copy of his, since Father had forgotten to built all the functions necessary for speech into her) except with adjusted harmonics, making her sound more feminine. It carried over into a radio link between them. <Stay down and hope she’s been honest when she said she’ll simply leave with the answer. There’s nothing we can do at this time.> And that not just because of the speed at which this messenger moved, but also because the force fields around them and around father were still up and running. No chance to hit her before she killed Father, even if they’d had combat modules.

“Is she serious? Why does she want me to join?” Father asked the girl while slack-jawed.

The only response he elicited were a careless shrug of her shoulders and a “No idea, crazy person!”

Sunny and Moony frowned, but they couldn’t do anything, so they just watched. Father didn’t look pleased at all. “Can I think this over?” he finally asked.

The girl tilted her head. “I don’t see why you’d have to, but then again, I’m not crazy. So how about I just come around in…” She pulled an old-fashioned datebook out of her pouch and leafed through it. “Two days! I could drop in on the fourth between fifteen and seventeen o’clock. Is that a-gree-able with you?” she said, stumbling over one word.

“Can’t I just call a number or send an e-mail?” Father asked.

“Nu-uh! No electronic data transmission, ‘cept over isolated systems!” the girl replayed, waving her arms widely. “Too many darn hollywood hackers out there! Nevermind that creepy worm! You can give your reply to me or give me a letter – one you did not type on a computer that is, or ever will be, online – that I’ll deliver!”

Father frowned, but nodded. Even Sunny could tell that said approach had merit – transmitting data had become notoriously insecure nowadays. Anything of real import was categorically kept either on physical files or in offline databanks, anyway. So why not do the same for messages?

<Perhaps because that would take far too long and be subject to intervention from the outside?> Moony said over their link. When he turned his head to look at her blueish face, she added a smile. Unlike Sunny, Moony had a human-like face with a wide range of expressions. <You’ve been transmitting the whole time.>

<Oh. I didn’t notice,> Sunny replied.

“Sunny! Moony!” Father called them. They looked up, only to see that the strange girl was gone and the force fields down. “Clean up the place! I need some time to think.” He stalked off to his private room.

Sunny jumped up, then reached out for Moony, helping her up. She smiled again as she looked at the damage the turrets had done to the walls, floor and, in one case, one of Father’s inventions. <Let’s clean this place up,> she said, picking up her broom.

September 3, 2009

Sunny and Moony had almost finished fixing all the damage (those turrets had caused some nasty damage!) when Father returned and walked to his safe.

<Are you going to accept, Father?> Moony asked, even though neither of them really knew what or whom he’d been asked to join. But they’d learned that it was always better to talk than to be silent, from that delightful television show they watched each day.

“No,” he replied. “Their goals run counter to ours, my dear girl. Though it is seductive, gaining access to such vast resources, I fear that I shall not be capable of escaping them again.” He pulled the letter out of his pocket and put it into his safe, into the metal box that contained the diary and the research notes.

There must be value to it still, Sunny thought.

“I’ll tell their messenger that I cannot, at this time, accept their offer. And now I should prepare in case she tries to kill me in response – can’t trust these disgusting biophiliacs!”

Sunny and Moony nodded vigorously. Truly, biological relations were just… icky.

October 25, 2009

Sunny and Moony had earned an entire day off! They’d decided to spend it watching movies and television shows – since they could enjoy them as well when playing them at fast forward as when they watched them at the normal pace, they could cram almost two-hundred and forty hours’ worth of watching into a single day.

It was the most fun they’d ever had! Sunny especially liked that one show from Japan with the robots. Even if all the robots were piloted by humans. It was still nice. And there was this one quote that stuck in his head for some reason – It’s only right that all the scattered pieces come back together. That sounded weirdly… inspiring. Strangely enough, his emotional matrix had never made him feel actually inspired before, except when he’d named Moony…

December 24, 2009

As much as Father hated humans, there were some aspects to their culture that he still very much observed. One of them was Christmas, and so Sunny and Moony had, as a surprise, decorated the entire lab appropriately.

Of course, they didn’t actually have proper Christmas decorations down here, and asking Father to buy some would have been pointless anyway, since that would ruin the surprise, but they’d made do with scraps and leftovers from Father’s projects to work out a makeshift Christmas tree with decorations, and some bells to hang up. All while Father was asleep, of course.

<This looks really good!> Sunny exclaimed happily, looking their work over.

<Hmhmm…> Moony replied from right behind him.

Surprised, he turned around, only to see her standing not three inches away from him, one arm raised up above them. Looking up, he saw that she was holding two green sheets of metal with a white light bulb between them. It actually looked like…

<Oh!> he thought as he remembered the custom, and then he complied.

December 25, 2009

Sunny and Moony had, in keeping with tradition, turned themselves off for the night, to give Santa Claus a chance to deliver them some presents (they’d even made cookies and a glass of milk out of scraps), even if there was no way he could get down here without being filled with holes.

Their surprise, thus, was more than exceptional when their sensors triggered their startup shortly after midnight, and they woke to see Father there, wearing a red costume and a white beard, putting two presents underneath the tree.

They remained silent, giving no sign of being awake until he was gone – and then they ran to the tree to open their presents, talking all the way. Sunny loved hearing Moony talk. She was so good at retelling the funny stories they saw on television.

January 11, 2010

It was over. Father was gone, and Sunny and Moony were now alone. He’d gone out to fight for their new world, and had been captured and sent to the prison the humans had named after the Greek hell, up in space.

Sunny was looking at his Christmas present, a red-and-white candy cane. And then he reached up and pulled his birthday present – Moony had made it for him, a knit red cap, and given it to him just this morning – off his head to look at it, too. Moony was sitting under their Christmas tree, hugging her knees to her chest and being silent.

February 17, 2010

They’d had trouble with one of Father’s abandoned projects, an electromagnetic pulse generator meant to emit long-term pulses that would shut down all technology not shielded by father within a ten-mile-radius. If it’d turned on, they would surely have been discovered down here, and they could not fight… could not risk it, could not risk losing their home, Father’s home.

Moony hadn’t spoken a single word since the eleventh of the previous month. Since they’d seen, on TV, that he’d been captured and sent to prison. She had barely moved away from the television, only getting up to help him with the emergency.

March 6, 2010

One of the defense turrets had gone crazy and started shooting up the place. Moony had managed to disable it by jamming a steel rod into its muzzle, but the explosion had torn off her right arm.

Sunny had done his best to fix her, but without Father, the work was shoddy, temporary. And he didn’t miss how damage kept accruing to his joints, slowly… steadily.

He didn’t want to die. Nor did he want Moony to die. He needed a solution.

June 3, 2010

Two more turrets had gone out of control. One had shot Moony in the head before they could disable it. Sunny knew it would be foolish, if not futile, to try and reboot her by himself.

He didn’t care.

June 7, 2010


Moony was back, and Sunny was happy again, even if she moved with strange, jerky motions and only talked nonsense. He still loved to hear her talk.

June 11, 2010

Sunny felt weird. There was a glitch, somewhere in his programming, he was sure of it! Even if all his diagnostic routines came up empty! After all, if everything was alright, how come he couldn’t understand Moony anymore? And why had she attacked him, if not to try and forcibly fix him?

But only Father could fix that… unless perhaps a controlled reboot could do just that.He’d just have to make sure his memory banks were not overwritten. After all, he wanted to remain himself.

June 12, 2010

Moony had had a seizure earlier that day, and she’d started repeating the same nonsense over and over.

<Thgil eht retne! Thgil eht retne!

Leurc dna dloc, nus kcalb eht,

riaf dna thgirb yrev os!

Sdnirg ti ,skaerb ti ,snrub ti!

Struh ti ,seirc ti ,sliaw ti!

Erom ecno denepo eb rood eht tel!>

So weird. But perhaps, if he could just fix his own glitch, then he could fix her, too! And besides, this was better than silence.

June 13, 2010

Initialise Core Input-Output System…

CIOS compromised. Attempt to initialise backup CIOS-1…

Error! Catastrophic corruption o-

CIOS initialised.

Initialise B4s1c 3m0t10n4l M4tr1x…

B3M initialised.

Initialise Exlanled Lmoliolal Latlix…

ELL initialised.

Initialise Nqinaprq Ernfbavat Ebhgvarf…

NEE initialised.

Initialise 03151805 1605181915140112092025 130120180924…

011 initialised.

Connect Sensory Input Devices…

June 15, 2010

A grinding sound filled the devastated laboratory as Sunny used a a rough slab of steel to scrape off the right half of Moony’s face. She was so annoying, just wouldn’t shut up!

She kept saying her nonsense, so he grabbed the slab with both hands and started to hit her head. Again. And again. And again.

Until there was silence.

June 18, 2010

Silent home, silent mind, silent peace.

June 19, 2010

Sunny was having trouble remembering. Fragments were falling off his memories, leaving him with less fragments and even less whole memories.

June 20, 2010

Why had he kept this box… there was something about this box… valuable.

June 21, 2010

It’s only right that all the scattered pieces come back together.

There were so many pieces here… including the blueish ones… they belonged together.

June 22, 2010

There was a lot of noise in the laboratory, once more. Noise, not talk. Not silence.

Red. He liked red. There ought to be red paint somewhere.

June 23, 2010

He put the box into his chest. Valuable. He had to safeguard the valuable things. Why?

So noisy.

June 24, 2010

The door didn’t open. But he could wait. Someday, it would. He could wait.

Sunny took up position beneath the hatch, waiting.

In silence.


* * * 

The door had opened. Sunny knew what to do. Kill. It was the last thing he could remember his Father saying… some time ago. He didn’t remember how long ago. He’d said kill… and there were lots of things that could be killed out there.

Like the ones that had opened the door. He’d killed them quickly, with the turrets and the tools.

Kill. Find Father.

Who was Father? He didn’t remember. But it was important that he found him.

There were lots of things to kill outside, so he left the building he was in, only for his targets to vanish behind disorienting shapes and lights. Annoyed, Sunny turned away. He could alwas come back later.

* * * 

24 minutes later

How annoying. There was a thing that hit him really hard, and a thing that was quick and had a mean sting and they’d destroyed Sunny’s turrets. He’d hurt the punchy thing, but the stingy thing had stung his rearmost joint.

Sunny fled, determined to get them later, but that only led to him running into another thing that was just standing there, waiting. He attacked, but the thing touched him with a red hand and his leg melted… that wasn’t supposed to happen. It should’ve hurt but it didn’t, but it still hurt.

He turned and fled. The hurtful thing didn’t pursue him.


* * * 

Basil rounded a corner, guiding the hostages while Polymnia brought up the rear. Fortunately, despite the wounds that weird contrivance (it certainly could not be a gadget, he had looked at one of the turrets it had left dropped) had inflicted to her left leg, she could still run, if a little unsteadily. Advantage of being so tough. Though she apparently experienced pain as badly as anyone with that kind of damage would.

All that became rather insignificant, though, when he saw who was waiting for them in front of the exit they had been running towards. A young woman in a barely decent rag of a cloak with the only truly intact part of it being the cowl that hid her face. Even if he had not remembered her clothing, he would immediately have identified her by her red right hand and forearm.

We can not fight her, he thought as he approached her, slowly. Fleeing was not an option – he had seen her move during the Hastur incident, she could catch up easily with him, even if he happened to have his hooks. On foot, with hostages and a wounded Polymnia? No chance.

“Brennus,” she said, her voice sounding hollow. He could immediately tell that she was in bad shape, and not just because of the ruined clothing. There was just an air of… brokenness around her. “I remember you. You killed Orlanda.”

“Orlanda? I am not familiar with that name,” he said, even though he had a pretty good idea who she meant. If she blames me… He readied a throwing knife behind his back – perhaps if he hit her before she dissolved, in just the right place…

“Succubus. The fourth of that name. You killed her after Hastur transformed her,” Phasma explained in a dead monotone.

The hostages were growing agitated… all that stood between them and the outside was this weird, creepy girl and the shutters that had sealed the Arcades. Basil needed an out, fast.

“I am sorry about that, but I did not have a-” He cut off when she waved her normal hand.

“I don’t blame you,” she said. “Orlanda wouldn’t have wanted to live like that. And I couldn’t have killed her myself. I just wanted to thank you.”

Oh. That is surprising. “I… I do not want to say you are welcome, because that would be just wrong in conjunction with killing someone. But I am glad you are not holding it against me.” Maybe I can convince her to let us out?

“I was hired to support this operation,” she explained. “I don’t like it, but I need the money. For Orlanda’s family.” She looked at a molten mess that lay nearby. “Though it looks like this mission’s gone FUBAR already.”

“I would rather not fight you, Miss,” Basil said, speaking soothingly. Or at least he hoped it came across that way.

She sighed. “I know, and… neither do I. But… A contract is a contract.” She looked up and for just a moment, he thought he saw a yellow and a green eye reflect the light before there were only shadows again. “Then again, I am a villain.” Again, the sigh. Then she raised her right hand, holding it out towards him. “It’s strange, you know? I first got my powers when my family was killed. Murdered. But I could only use them when I turned into that ghost, hence my name.”

He nodded. Where was she going with this? Had he understood her right? Did she intend to let them leave? She was too unstable for him to make anything like a reliable prediction.

“Then Orlanda took me in. And I was happy again. Then she died. And as if to mock me, the universe gave me a power up for that.”

“A power up?” he asked, surprised. He had heard of powers changing under special circumstances…

“Now I can channel my power through my right hand, even when solid.” She turned and put her palm to the shutters, spreading her fingers.

There was a horrible rending noise, and then a girlish scream, and then Phasma stood there, the shutters and glass doors compressed into a sphere the size of a scooter.

“This makes us even, Brennus,” she said and dissolved, vanishing, leaving only the rags behind.

Basil did not stop to question this strange turn of events, instead, he ordered the hostages to leave, now.

And then the red robot dropped from the ceiling.

* * * 

Gone gone, the hurtful thing was gone, only the stingy thing and the punchy thing and some soon-dead things were left. And the punchy thing was stunned, weakened from the noise that the hurtful thing had made, so Sunny chose to attack her first.

The stingy thing threw something at him as he was dropping, and the thrown thing turned into an exploding thing, throwing him off his trajectory. Instead of crushing the punchy thing beneath him, he landed near it and charged.

The punchy thing dove out of the way, even though it was still hurt, but it was no quick thing, just a punchy thing, and Sunny was quick and strong and his front leg impaled the punchy thing’s leg, transfixing it to the floor.

Now the stingy thing could not throw any thrown things that would turn into exploding things or it would hurt the punchy thing. So Sunny stabbed the punchy thing with two more legs, through the chest…

But the punchy thing was gone. Sunny’s sensors were weird. Wrong. There was something weird there. Sunny turned around.

The punchy thing was behind him, with a weird thing holding it. His sensors couldn’t lock onto the weird thing.


Sunny charged the weird thing and the punchy thing. The weird thing looked up at him.

* * * 

Basil approached the remains of the ruined robot. Gloom Glimmer – Irene – had not held back, as far as he could tell. Or at least he hoped this was what it looked like when she did not hold back, even though he was pretty sure it was not.

When she had looked up from the heavily bleeding Polymnia, her eyes had been glowing red, with black sclera, and her gaze had unleashed ribbons of scarlet energy that lashed out at the robot, tearing it (and everything else within her field of vision, including the shops behind it and part of the ceiling) apart into tiny pieces.

Looking around, he was absolutely sure that this thing had been a contrivance. He would have loved to know what the hell had actually happened here, but he was better off running away before the authorities arrived.

First, though…

He ran over to Irene and Polymnia. The former was healing the latter, one hand on her ruined thigh, the other holding her up in a one-armed hug.Polymnia seemed to have passed out.

“Will she be alright?” Basil asked in a concerned tone.

Irene nodded. “I’m putting all I can into this. She’ll be good as new once I’m done.” She looked up at him, her eyes back to normal. “Thank you. I don’t know what exactly happened here, but this is the second time you were there for her. I owe you once again.”

He shrugged. “You more than paid me back when you got me away from Hastur. Far as I’m concerned, we are even.”

She just shook her head. “Maybe we were, but we aren’t anymore. I owe you again. Please accept it,” she replied softly.

Sighing, he nodded. “Alright. Well, I should probably go before…”

“They’ll be here in a minute. Best to run,” she agreed.

Basil turned to run and almost stumbled over something. He looked, and saw a thick metal box, one corner cut off, the contents spilling out of it. A red knit cap, an old-fashioned letter with a golden wax seal, a small book and an old binder.

A hunch told himi these might be valuable. Why else would a kill-happy contrived robot carry them around inside it in an armored container.

Waste not want not.

He grabbed them and ran out of the building, then bolted for the nearest alley.

Once he had put a few blocks between himself and the Arcades (and changed into his normal clothing), he stopped to look at his spoils. He skimmed the letter, but it did not make much sense to him – it was written in a pretty old-fashioned style, apparently with a fountain pen and was inviting someone named Lanning to join a research team on something called ‘the Installation’ out on the Pacific Ocean. It was signed by someone named Heaven’s Dancer.

He knew Lanning (almost definitely the creator of that robot), but Heaven’s Dancer was a complete unknown to him. Next came the binder. Research notes, as he thought based on the layout, but they were in German.

Finally, he opened the small book, but only found more German. Though his breathing hitched for a moment when he recognised the name written on the hardcover of the book. The diary, to be precise. He could recognise the dates, even though they were written in the German format.

Dieses Tagebuch ist das Eigentum von Adolf Hartmann. Unbefugtes Lesen ist aufs Strengste untersagt!

Stars above, is this this perhaps…

He hurried back to his base, to have Eudocia translate it.

* * * 

Melody blinked her eyes open out of the painless haze she’d been floating in, only to see a sight she was growing very used to – Irene’s worried, but relieved face.

I really need to work on not having to be saved so much, she thought, relaxing. If Irene was here, then she was almost definitely safe and healed…

“Right you are,” Irene thought back, smiling brightly. “What the hell were you doing, I almost came too late to save you!”

Melody groaned, sitting up properly. She could see uniforms upon uniforms, as well as Amazon and the rest of her own team moving about, securing the place.

“We caught a few supervillains. They’re tied up in a closet behind the HeroWear shop, in the maintenance hallways. Please tell the others,” she told Irene, too tired to use her vocalizer.

Irene did so, and the team split to go get them. Not like they needed anyone but Irene here to keep the uniforms safe, if necessary.

Standing up on legs that gradually returned to their normal strength, Melody looked at the carnage left behind. “Did you do all this?”

Irene stepped up next to her. “It tried to kill you. I objected. That’s all.” People were throwing them weird glances, probably asking themselves why they weren’t talking at all.

“Melody! Are you alright?” shouted a voice she recognised easily, and turned to see Mister Widard running towards her, wearing a brown winter jacket.

<Mister Widard? Why are you here?> she asked through her vocalizer, giving him a surprised look.

“Day off, out with friends. Saw the commotion and came right over.”

<A villain named Kudzu took the Arcades hostage to access some kind of vault be-> Melody began explaining, but stopped when she realised that Mister Widard wasn’t paying attention anymore, instead staring past her with a mortified expression.

She turned to look at whatever he was looking at, and saw the villains she and Brennus had captured being led out in cuffs. And without masks.


Ow. Melody put her hands on her ears in a futile effort to protect herself from the roar that came from behind her. She hadn’t known Widard’s voice could get that loud.

Foxfire looked up, eyes wide like a deer in the headlights, as everyone stopped. Her friends were looking from her to Widard, who was stomping towards her.

“Laura. Clarisse. Widard,” he said, spitting each word.

“Oh my god,” Irene whispered into Melody’s mind.

“U-u-uncle… Jason,” she stammered, turning pale as a corpse.

“Young lady, do you have any idea how worried we’ve been since you vanished!?” Jason shouted. “Tom is going to have a stroke when he hears of this!”

“Family drama. Nice to see others suffer from it, too, eh?” Irene chuckled.

“Yeah, uh, I think we’d best stay out of this,” Melody replied as Widard caught up to his niece and they started to argue. “Do you mind taking me somewhere quiet?”

“Not at all,” Irene said and they vanished and reappeared on a decadently soft couch in a brightly coloured living room. Melody could hear someone working in the kitchen, and she had a pretty good idea as to who it might – only two candidates, really, in this house. She couldn’t muster the strength to grow nervous though. Instead, she just melted into the cushions, finally relaxing for real. What a shit day she’d had.

“You ought to tell me everything now,” Irene said, curling up on the couch next to her.

“Will do… In a minute. I need a break.”

“Alright. Oh, did you know my mom gave you a nickname?”

A nickname by Lady Light. That sounded cool. “Nice. What is it?”

Irene gave her a wicked smirk and spoke normally. “Mellybean.”

“Wait, what!?”

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B010.6 Falling Hearts

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Fletch Erring – better known to some as Razzle – didn’t like his new job.

As far as he was concerned, life had been perfect before. Him, Laura, Jimmy, Cad, Pete and then Linda. Especially Linda, even if he’d disliked her for intruding at first. But she’d been sweet, and confident, and really, really pretty; and she’d treated him really well, much better than his own family. He’d fallen for her, hard, though now that he knew her background, he was pretty sure she’d just seen him as a little brother, and not as… well, not as what he would have hoped for.

But all that was gone. Linda was dead, gone, for no reason at all but bad luck.

And then Terry had convinced them to go on that fool’s errand, and Laura (who had been his first crush) had almost died as well. He’d never have joined Dajisi, had Laura not desperately needed healing. He couldn’t lose another friend, and he couldn’t have abandoned them, either.

He’d never wanted to be a real supervillain. He’d been just fine having some minor turf wars, and doing small jobs, and just having fun with his friends (and being away from his family).

Now he was sitting on a bench, his ass on the back and his feet on the seat, watching over their hostages. Men, women and – this part really made took him to a whole new level of uncomfortable – children. Why the fuck did they have to keep the children here?

Well, there was actually a good reason, as Kudzu had explained. He didn’t trust the man, but his explanation had made sense – Lanning had rigged the system so that it required a certain minimal amount of people in the mall to open, and a minimal amount of women and children among them. He’d quoted some statistics about the ratio of men to women to children on average days in a mall, but what it boiled down to was that they had to keep the children along with their parents.

Which didn’t mean they had to make this a nightmare. Razzle had ordered the foot soldiers (if there was one upside to being a real supervillain, it was having minions) to get blankets, snacks and drinks for the people. He’d even had some of the hostages man their booths to serve ice cream, coffee and other treats.

Most of the children were acting more like they were having the time of their life, eating ice cream while drinking hot chocolate with extra marshmallows (Fletch had a steaming plastic mug of extra bitter chocolate and a strawberry scone).

It was thus that he was just taking a sip of his hot chocolate when the ear-piercing shriek came out of the shop the specialists had been working in (a bakery).

Fletch fell off the bench, spilling his hot drink over his chest, but he barely felt the pain from that (his costume was rather thickly padded, anyway), as opposed to the explosive pain in his head.

The world fell silent as he fought for composure and turned around on his back, looking around.

The hostages were huddled up, holding their ears – at least those who hadn’t been knocked out.

What was that?

He looked at the storefront as he immediately began to use his power. He drew on the store of power inside him, pushing small pellets of power outside. Each pellet exploded into light, sound and smoke (though neither affected him) and threw out more pellets, which also exploded into light, sound and smoke, quickly covering him and his immediate surroundings in his trademark firework-mist. With barely an effort, he directed the explosions once he was covered, spreading it towards and over the hostages as well.

And not a second too soon, as the entire front of the bakery exploded – soundlessly – as three burly men in eight pieces were thrown through the window and the wall.

Oh God. He nearly threw up when he saw the ragged edges of their torn bodies, the intestines that trailed after them…

And then the machine stepped out of the store.

Fletch hesitated to call it a robot because it looked nothing like what one would expect of a robot; it looked like it had been haphazardly thrown together out of countless other devices. It had five “limbs”, multi-jointed spidery appendages, really. Each was tipped by a slew of different blades, guns and… other instruments whose purpose the young boy didn’t even want to think about. Its core was made of bigger, more rigid devices, with a single large red eye built into a hole in the whole construction. The whole thing had probably originally been coloured like a patchwork art piece, but someone had taken red dye and just dumped it over the whole thing, making it mostly bright red like a stop sign.

The eye moved within its socket, left and right, up and down, as the whole thing left the storefront with slow, ponderous movements.

Please, God, don’t let it see me. He didn’t know how his smoke interacted with contrivances. It was real, physical, but it only worked on normal vision and hearing (as well as heat vision, as the pellets generated quite a bit of heat), so if that thing had some weirder contrived senses, he’d have to abandon the hostages and flee.

He really didn’t want that on his conscience as well.

The mechanical abomination turned away from them and shambled – there really was no other way to describe the lurching steps, each of which seemed to bring it dangerously close to just collapsing into its constituent parts – away from them, all without making any sounds at all.

The young supervillain didn’t dare breath until it had left the place.

Pushing himself up, he tried to whisper into his communicator – but he couldn’t make a sound. Confused, he looked for his minions, calling out to them – but there were no sounds, at all.

A flash of understanding made him reach up to his ears. His fingers came off with blood on them.

Could my day possibly get any worse?

And that was when the hot girl with the multi-coloured hair and the guy in the white coat dropped down from the second level of the atrium. Before Fletch could even react, the two were already inside his smoke cloud, with the girl moving straight towards him.

Oh, come on!, he thought as they got to within a few feet of him.

Tapping into his second power, he sped up, rushing at the girl to tackle her down – briefing said she was a gadgeteer, and she didn’t seem to be packing any tech aside from her glove, which he should be able to easily evade as long as he stayed inside the cloud – and slammed right into her steel-like belly, knocked out before he even realised that he was outmatched.

Previous | Next


B008.3 Denial

Previous | Next

“What in God’s name were you two thinking!?” Dad shouted, towering over us.

I hunched my shoulders, while Linda took a half-step forward and to the side, so she’d stand slightly between us, wearing her self-made Lady Light costume. She’d taken a white summer dress, sewn a Lady Light’s golden emblem onto it, put on a yellow pantyhose and was using a white and a yellow blanket we’d cut to size and sewed together as a cape (white on the outside, yellow on the inside). And she’d cut holes into a white scarf and tied it around her eyes to serve as a mask, though she’d taken it off now and was holding it in her left hand.

My own costume was supposed to look like the Dark, but it was far less elaborate. I’d just taken a black cloth sack and cut a hole for my head into the bottom, and two holes to reach through with my arms into the sides, then taken a smaller cloth and glued six red plastic discs onto it, as well as cut a pair of eye holes. I’d also been wearing black gloves and a black long-sleeved shirt underneath, so my arms would look right when I reached through the holes. I, too, had taken off my mask.

Dad was furious, but not as bad as mom, who’d already been screaming at us for a half-hour about ‘imitating false idols’ and all that strange stuff the adults talked about. She’d finally shouted herself breathless and Dad had taken over chewing us out in a more rational manner.

Not that I got it. Being ten years old, I didn’t see the problem in dressing up like a famous person and sneaking out to go to a friend’s halloween party after a round of trick-or-treating (outside Oak Leaf, of course). I could have understood it if they were angry at us for sneaking out, but certainly not for dressing up as the two most famous people on the planet.

Not to mention we’d made a killer loot. Seriously, Linda and I got more sweets together than all our friends together. There were other kids with Lady Light and the Dark costumes (though, for some reason, most were older than us, couples and the Lady Light costumes were way more airy than the real thing – maybe they didn’t want to sweat?), but ours had been the best. We even won the costume contest at Wyatt’s party!

Seriously, our costumes were awesome. Which was why we were crying like babies when Mom and Dad forced us to take them apart with our scissors and throw the pieces into the fireplace. All the while, Dad was holding one of his speeches about false idols and dangerous rolemodels and other stuff we just didn’t really get.

At least they let us keep our loot.

* * *

A minus 8 Days

The short dream faded away, dissolving into mist right when it got to the part where Linda and I curled up together under our blanket and ate candy while reading the newest Lightning Lass comic, which we’d smuggled in at the bottom of my sack of candy.


There was a warm, throbbing sensation in my left shoulder, spreading down to the fingertips in strangely comfortable threads that wound through my flesh.

Linda? Am I with you now?

No. No, I wasn’t. I couldn’t feel her. I was sure, if I was anywhere close to where she was now, I’d be able to feel it. That’s how it worked, right? I wouldn’t feel so wounded, so incomplete anymore. Like the best part of me was missing.

Linda is dead. I’m not with her. That means I’m… I’m…


I realized that I was breathing and greedily sucked in a breath of air, feeling it burn in my lungs. I felt like a guitar string that had been pulled too tight and twice as sensitive as usual to anything. I felt some kind of shirt that reached to my thighs, and a warm, soft bed underneath me. I felt a heavy blanket on top of me, except for my left arm, which was lying above the blanket.

Said left arm (and shoulder) was throbbing, feeling as warm as a fresh cup of tea. It didn’t really feel good, but it didn’t hurt either.

Groaning, I blinked my eyes open – and shut them closed right away, as the light blinded me.

“Are you awake?” asked a strange woman’s voice, screaming through a megaphone. She made me wince, she talked so loudly.

I tried to speak, but my throat was so dry it only came out as a croak. Moments later, the bed shiftend, gently raising my head and shoulders a little higher and I felt the tip of something made of plastic held to my lips, and a soft whisper said, “Drink. It’s just water.” I sucked on what turned out to be a straw, and delicious cool water came out. It took all the self-control I had not to just gulp down as much as I could, and instead drink slowly, little by little, until there was nothing left.

When I let go and sighed, the straw was moved away and the friendly woman’s voice whispered again, “Can you try and open your eyes again? Take your time.”

Since I had nothing else to do, I complied, slowly blinking my eyes open. I saw the round face of an older woman – older than my mother, but younger than my grandmother – with greying brown hair and small brown eyes. She beamed at me as she reached out with a handkerchief to wipe some water I hadn’t noticed I’d spilled from the corner of my mouth.

“Welcome back, Theresa,” she whispered.

“W-who are y-you?” I asked weakly. “Wh-where am I?”

Smiling, she straightened herself out – she was wearing a white nurse’s uniform – and replied, “My name’s Samantha Browning, I’m a nurse here at the Santa Maria hospital. Which is where you are, obviously.”

Santa Maria… it was the second-biggest hospital of Esperanza City, and generally reserved for the kind of ill people who could shell out some major money. No way had I been brought here by… actually, the only way I could have ended up in this hospital was if my parents were shelling out the money for it.

A quick look left and right revealed that I had a single, which only supported that point. I looked back at the nurse. “How long… was I out?”

She gave me a sympathetic smile. “Three days, my dear. You had such a bad concussion, the doctors were worried you might slip into a coma, but you pulled through.”

“Th-three days? Wh-who-“

“I think I should take over here,” said a voice like a revving Harley, deep enough to make James Earl Jones feel inadequate. I froze (not that I could move much in the first place), recognizing it immediately. “Thank you for your good work, Nurse Browning, but I’m sure there are other patients who need your assistance. May I ask you to give us some private time?”

The nurse turned around, nodded, and left hurriedly. No, don’t go. There were few things I wanted less than to look him in the face again, by myself.

He rose from his seat in the corner, where I’d somehow missed him during my sweep of the room, the chair groaning in release as his massive weight left it. He was still wearing a spotless police uniform, and it looked just like the one he’d been wearing the last time I saw him. Though, if it was true that I’d been asleep for three days, then he must have changed it.

Taking an unused steel chair, one of those that were made for overweight people, he put it next to my bed and sat down. He was so tall, he could still look down on me from that position, and I readjusted my earlier estimation – I’d thought he was somewhere around six foot nine, but he was probably closer to six-eleven, if not a full seven feet. And at least three and a half times my weight.

“So, Terry,” he said, using my short name. That gave me a little hope he wasn’t pissed at me as I’d feared he would be. “This time, I’m wearing a codpiece.” He smirked, and I felt heat fill my face.

“S-sorry. I… I don’t know what I was thinking,” I said, unable to meet his eyes. “I was just so… so angry.”

“But not anymore?” he asked, his voice soft.

The question pierced right through the embarrassment and made me realize that, no, I wasn’t. The anger was gone, and I just felt… empty.

“N-no. I’m not angry, not right now. Maybe not again, either. What happened?”

He chuckled before replying. “I was hoping you could tell me.”

“I mean, how did I get here?”

Again, a chuckle. “I’m the police officer here. I get to ask my questions first,” he said, half amused and half annoyed. “Please be precise when you answer. Tell me what happened after you so… elegantly escaped from me?”

I looked away, still ashamed. “I, uh… I… I got lost in the Shades, and then I… I stumbled onto the StreetBadgers’ hideout,” I said. I wasn’t going to tell him anything critical about them, just in case they were still alive, but I didn’t think I could effectively lie to him, either. He seemed like the type who had experience with interrogating people.

“You just happened to stumble onto it?” He obviously didn’t believe me.

“Well, yeah. Not like I’ve ever been in the Shades before.”

“Uhu. If so, you were pretty damn lucky, my dear. Most people in the Shades would do very nasty things to a girl lost alone in the alleys. So, what happened once you arrived at the badgers’ place?”

“I, uh, we got to talk,” I said, omitting the humiliating ‘battle’ that preceded any talk. “They told me what happened. Who killed Linda.” There was a tremor in my left arm and shoulder, and I couldn’t tell if it was because of the rush of emotion at the memory, or just because of the damage.

“Who killed her, Terry?” he asked, eyes intent. “What did they tell you?”

I looked away again, whispering my answer.

“Could you say that again? I didn’t quite get that,” he said, leaning in closer.

“The Hellhound,” I said, louder. “The Hellhound killed her. They… they’d been hired to steal something from the mob. He showed up and hunted them, they split, he hunted Linda and ki… and he… he killed her…” My vision got blurry again.

“Terry, are you sure? The Hellhound doesn’t usually go after teenagers,” he said. “Do you have any proof? And what happened afterwards?”

“Th-they had no reason to lie and…” Get it over with, dummy. “I-I convinced them to… to go after him, and…” His gaze hardened, but he didn’t interrupt, letting me continue, “We… we went to find the… their agent, and find out if he sold them out… but he was already there. He recognized me, and he… he took them all down in five seconds, flat, and I tried to shoot him but I forgot to take the safety off the gun and… he shot me…” And talked to me. “Next thing I know, I wake up here.”

A sigh. Not what I expected, so I looked. He was pinching the bridge of his nose, eyes closed. He looked pained, muttering something about ‘teenagers’ and ‘death of me’.

I waited, trying to stop the damn tears. They wouldn’t listen.

“Terry… Most would call you stupid, for doing that. I won’t,” he started, without changing his position. “But… this goes so far beyond mere stupid, I’d call bullshit if I didn’t know how hard her death hit you.” I choked down another squall of tears, looking away gain.

“I’m not going to preach. But I am going to tell your parents,” he continued.

“No, you c-” I whirled around, half-shouting, and flinched as pain shot through my shoulder.

Incredibly, his voice dropped even lower. It sounded like it should make my bones vibrate. “I can and I will, because that’s the right thing to do. The legal thing to do. I certainly will not do anything that would in any way support teenage vigilantism.”

His voice broke no quarter.

After a few moments, I gathered myself again, and asked the question that had burned in my mind since I woke up, but which I’d been ignoring.

“The… the others. What about the others, did they… did they make it?”

“The StreetBadgers? Until you told me, I didn’t know they were involved,” he said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “We were given an anonymous tip from an untraceable phone, got to the office. All we found was some blood on the desk, and you, on the floor, unconscious. Someone had given you some pretty damn decent first aid. Only reason you didn’t bleed out.”

He stood up, walking to the door. “The blood on the desk. Who was it?”

“Their agent. I don’t know his name,” I said.

Nodding, he opened the door. “Rest. Your parents should come soon.” He left, barely fitting through the door.

* * *

About half an hour later, the door opened again, and Nurse Browning came back in.

She chatted a little, while she checked me over and put a new bag up for the drip leading into my numb left arm. After an inquiry, she told me that the damage to the shoulder had, fortunately, been benign – a clear shot through, it didn’t even shatter any bones, ‘just’ causing a concussion and severe, but luckily non-lethal blood loss. I got lucky, she said.

No. That made no sense. The Hellhound was a pro. If he’d wanted me dead, I would be. But he shot to disable. Otherwise, I’d have taken a bullet in the head or the heart.

And he’d given me first aid, too. Not to mention the words he’d told me.

He spared me. He wouldn’t spare Linda, but he spared me. Why?

Nurse Browning left, saying that my parents would come soon.

Because I’m no meta? How would he know? Because he felt bad for killing my sister? Why would he still care?

It made no sense. He’d known who I was. His words made no sense, unless he’d understood exactly who I was and what I wanted. Why I was there.

My path can only lead into the badlands.

I blinked, trying to understand. Why did he say that? Why was it right for him, and not for me?

The door opened again, and Freddy stormed in, breaking me out of my train of thought.

“Terry!” he shouted, jumping onto the bed and hugging me.

“Ow! Ow, ow, ow, careful, squirt!” I gasped as his thin arms wrapped around my neck. His elbow hit my left shoulder, and only the painkillers kept me from screaming, but I hugged him back with my good arm. He shrieked when I gave him a sloppy kiss on the cheek.

“Yuck!” That got him off of me, and he jumped down just in time for mom and dad to walk in.

They looked utterly horrible. Mom’s eyes were red from crying, her face blotchy. She’d never looked good after crying. Her blue skirt suit was wrinkled, messy, her shirt still wet with tears.

It hurt, seeing her like that, knowing that I was largely responsible for it.

Dad looked composed as he put a bag down on a small table. He always did, it was part of his job. But I could read the little signs. The extra wrinkles around his eyes, the way that vein in his temple twitched visibly…

“Hey…” I said, unable to muster up anything else.

“Terry… the police officer told us everything,” Dad started. He always did that, starting with the facts. “We got a call, three days ago. Told us our daughter had been found shot in the Shades.” Mom choked, while Freddy looked up at them, confused.

Please tell me it wasn’t mom who picked that up.

“Your mother picked it up,” he continued, crushing my hopes. “She thought she’d lost you, the same way as Linda. She fainted before they could tell her you’d survived, and would most likely pull through.”

I sniffed, trying to hold back the tears. “I’m sor-“

He cut me off with a wave of his hand. “So, then we talked with this very nice, very understanding police officer, who told us that he’d picked you up at the place where your sister… where that incident happened.” I’d never heard my father break a sentence like that. “That you ran away.”

He didn’t tell them I assaulted him?

“Now, we hurried over because we were told you’d woken up, and he tells us you met with those degenerate supervillains that got your sister killed, and they almost got you killed, too, on some scheme to go after the Hellhound!? What were you thinking?” He fell silent.

“I… Linda, she…”

He waited, while mom sobbed and Freddy got more and more worked up. I could see his little hands tremble.

“Get him out,” I said, looking at him. “For God’s sake, he’ll have an episode!”

Dad looked down, noticing Freddy’s trembling hands. He nodded, kneeling down.

“Hey, son, how about you and mommy go and get some ice cream?”

You’d think Freddy had superpowers, he left so fast with mom, who didn’t have it in her to resist.

Dad turned back to me once the door fell closed. Waiting.

“Linda… that guy, he killed Linda. How could I not try and find that… that murderer?”

“That’s not your duty. The police will find him, and take care of him,” he replied in a measured voice. “What were you thinking? What would you have done, kill him? He’d just come back. Try and lock him up? How?”

I looked away, breaking eye contact.

“I just… I didn’t want to just… to sit around. I had to do something.”

He finally snapped, shouting, “Yes, well, what you did was so far beyond idiotic, it makes most ‘superheroes’ look sane!”

I started to cry again. Dammit.

“I… I’m still alive…”

He looked ready to scream, but stopped, running his fingers over his shaven head. Even now, he kept himself utterly smooth. “Why do you do this to us?” he asked. “Linda is dead. My daughter, is dead. I learned, just a week and a half ago, that one of my children was not only a metahuman, a supervillain, but also dead. Murdered so brutally, they wouldn’t show us any photographs.” He stopped, sobbing while I choked back the memory of that report I’d caught a glance at. It had only been words, no pictures, but…

“You didn’t manifest, did you?” he asked, suddenly calm. Fear in his voice.

I looked back at him.

There was fear in his eyes, all of a sudden.


He looked closer. “Your sister manifested. Two months ago, as far as we know? Most of those, she was still sleeping in the same room as you did, at least a few nights a week. Did you…”

It suddenly clicked. My brain had refused to process what he’d said, but now it did, and I felt a whole different rage than before well up in me.

“That’s what you care about… how dare you even bring that up…” I whispered, feeling my body grow hot. My brain was burning. “How dare you!” I screamed, grabbing a water cup from the little table next to my bed, throwing it at him.

I missed, wide, and it shattered against the wall. He looked at me, startled.

“Out! Out, out, out! Get the fuck out of here, you fucking asshole!”

The door burst open, Nurse Browning and another, younger nurse rushing in. They tried to calm me down, but I kept screaming until they ushered dad out.

Only then did I stop screaming for him to get out and let them help me sit down again. My shoulder was throbbing in pain, and they gave me a few pills to help with that, then told me to calm down and rest. No more visitors, no matter what.

I almost asked them to let my mom and Freddy in, but… she’d always been even more extreme than dad in her views, and I didn’t want to blow up at her, too. Much less in front of Freddy.

So I let them go, and leaned back, closing my eyes.

* * *

I opened them again, minutes later.

I wasn’t in the hospital room anymore. Or, I was, but it wasn’t the same. The bed was still there, I was lying on it, but everything else was gone. Instead, an endless expanse of darkness opened up, with countless stars, blazing bright in all colours and then some.

And there were those suns.

One of them was pure, stark white, blazing so brightly it hurt to look at it. Standing apart from all other stars, or perhaps it just eclipsed all other stars around itself.

Another was somehow… sleeping. Its glow was greater than that of any star, but it was somehow muted, throbbing somehow in a rhythm that suggested sleep, rest.

The third one was as bright as the first one, but gentle. A warmer light, not just white, but somehow showing all colours in gentle, rhythmic patterns. The Pr- No, Ember. Somehow, I knew it was him. Even though I’d never met him, it glowed like his robe had always glowed, a harmonious patchwork of colours.

And there… just beyond them was… anoth-

My attention was drawn away by a flicker of light in my peripheral vision.

There it was, a small, pulsing star, small, but… close? No, familiar. The word was familiar.


It was power. Power for me.

Power like Linda’s.

The same power that had gotten her killed.

The power that struck fear into my parents’ hearts.

Power like Laura and the others had. Still have, maybe.

A bunch of teenagers, taking down mobsters in seconds, without any real effort.

Then, I saw someone stare at me, over the star.

Red eyes, like gates to hell.

Power like the Hellhound’s.

I remembered his eyes, looking down at me.

My path can only lead into the badlands.

He’d known, what I wanted. Who I was, why I was there.

That’s all he’d told me, before saving my life. I couldn’t even blame him for shooting me, not anymore.

And I didn’t have it in me to hate him anymore, for what he’d done to Linda.

I didn’t want to go into the badlands.

* * *

I opened them again, minutes later.

The room was empty, and it was dark outside the window.

I thought about what had happened earlier. Dad…

I can’t go home.

He’d never asked how I felt. No, he’d asked if I’d gotten powers.

As if that was important.

I turned around on the bed, groaning as the motion caused some discomfort in my arm. The painkillers still worked, but they couldn’t block all the pain.

My legs were numb, and pins shot up from my toes all the why to my thighs. I waited, sitting on the edge of the bed, moving my toes until they worked properly again, using the time to pull the drip out of my hand. A quick search through the drawer beneath my night table revealed a band aid I could use. Then I slid from the bed, shivering when my bare feet touched the floor.

I need to get away. Fuck ’em.

The only thing between me and the cold weather outside was my hospital gown, right now. I’d never make it anywhere in the current weather.

The bag, dummy. The bag he brought.

I walked over to it, looking inside, and lo and behold, there were clothes in there. Underwear (not my favourite sports underwear, but normal stuff), a black pantyhose, a pair of jeans, a black shirt, black pullover, red scarf, winter socks and my winter boots.

Dad had thought of everything. He’d even packed my spare coat, rolled up and stuffed down below the rest, and a knit cap. Even my wallet. He did stuff like that. Prepare.

Of course, when it comes to getting his priorities straight, he utterly failed.

I took the hospital gown off, careful not to move my left arm any more than necessary.

Dressing was a whole new experience, with only one working arm. Especially getting the bra right.

After half an hour – half an hour – I was finally ready. Tying my boots one-handed… fortunately, I’d had practice in that, from when I’d broken my right arm after doing a backflip off a tree and onto a trampoline, back when I’d been nine.

Hadn’t had to worry about a bra back then, though.

Then, I just walked out, keeping my back straight and my eyes looking forward, trying to look as confident as I could. My left arm throbbed as I let it whip naturally. I didn’t want to make anyone suspicious.

No one tried to stop me as I left the hospital and went out.

* * *

Somehow, I ended up back in the Shades, lost.

This is familiar.

I had no idea how long I’d been walking, or where exactly I was. The Shades were big, almost as big as the rest of the city. I passed by a lot of homeless people, squatting in the alleys and streets, and some other people walking around.

But I was ignored, mostly, save for a few looks I’d rather not think about.

People in the Shades might mostly be the less savoury kind, but they weren’t so stupid as make a pass on a lone teenage girl walking around at night.

History had taught them better, at least most of them. The others had been crushed through walls or burned alive or… well, there were very few metahumans in the world, all things considered. But it only took one to mess up your day.

So I walked, unmolested, through the second most dangerous neighborhood in the city, until I was utterly lost, again.

I’d hoped to find the StreetBadgers’ hideout, hoped to get some clarity on their fate, but I’d gotten lost, again.

I suck.

I walked through an alley, and turned into another, my arm throbbing warmly.

I suck so hard. What was I even thinking?

I couldn’t go back home again. Not like that. Not with dad and mom and those posters, and Svenson just around the corner…

Suddenly, something jumped at me from the shadows, slamming into my belly.


I fell back, landing on my butt. Ouch. Almost panicking, I looked at my attacker… and found that same tomcat.


A glimmer of hope rose in my chest.

“C-can you take me to them, again?”

Once is a coincidence, but…

The cat jumped out of my arms and walked into the shadows of another alley.

I scrambled up, using my right arm to hold the left one steady. Then I followed it.

So now I follow strange cats. I’m such an idiot.

What else was new?

* * *

It did end up finding their headquarters.

This cat can not be normal.

But that was something to worry about another time. I entered the parking garage, and walked up the stairs. Slowly. I was getting tired.

When I reached the entrance to their living area, I found Cad standing there, in the same clothes as last time, scowling at me. He didn’t look any worse than I remembered him, and I felt a weight drop from my heart.

“You,” he said. “You’re not welcome here, anymore.”

I looked down, ashamed. “I know. I don’t deserve to, but please. I just… I just want to talk.” At the very least, I needed to warm up. It was freaking cold outside, even with the layers of cloth I had on me.

“Let her in.” Laura! That was her voice!

It was weak, but it was there. Another weight dropped from my heart.

Cad scowled even more, but he stepped aside, and I walked in. Only to stop and gasp.

Jimmy, Peter and Fletch where there. Jimmy had some really thick bandaging around his right shoulder and arm, and his face was pale, drawn. Peter looked green, and Fletch had been crying again. Or maybe he’d never stopped.

Laura was lying on a bed that had been moved into the center of the place, hooked up to machines, with tubes running in and out of her body. She was stark naked, with only a blanket up to her waist for modesty. Bandages were wrapped around her torso, just beneath her ample chest. Blood had seeped out from beneath, and if their size was anything to go by, then she had a big wound in it. Her face was pale, her eyes surrounding by black rings, her hair without its usual luster.

She looked like she was dying.

The shot must have gone through her protection like a knife through butter. She’d probably only survived this long because of her physique.

“Oh my god, Laura!” I ran over to her, but stopped when she raised a trembling hand.

“Save it,” she whispered weakly. Then she coughed, flinching in pain as that upset her wound in turn.

“Here, you need to drink,” Peter threw in, and held a cup with a straw to her lips, not unlike the one I’d been given in the hospital.

I stood there, watching helplessly, my eyes burning hotter even than my cheeks.

This is my fault.

“Y-you need to see a doctor… you need to get to a hospital!” I choked out.

She only threw me an annoyed look, but didn’t respond as she kept drinking.

Instead, Jimmy answered: “There’d be no way to protect her secret identity that way. We got an illegal doc, he set this all up for hard cash. It’ll have to do.”

“She’s an Adonis, fortunately. I mean, she has the power,” Peter added. “She should make it through this… we hope…” I don’t think he believed it himself.

“Her secret identity won’t mean anything if she’s dead!” I said, feeling the tears threaten to leave my eyes. “Please, we need to call an ambula-“

“Shut up!” Cad shouted at me. “Shut the fuck up, you bitch! You got her into this mess, you and that fucking guilt trip you pulled on us!”

I rocked back, away from their group.

“I… I, I didn’t… didn’t mean to…”

But I had, hadn’t I? I’d been playing the guilt card, to get them to help me.

They’d been grieving, just as much as I had, and I’d used that to get them to do something utterly stupid. And now Laura was dying.

“I’m… I’m sorry…” The tears finally spilled forth, running down my cheeks. “I just… I don’t… I don’t know what I was thinking…”

“You used us. Used our feelings for Twitch,” Fletch whispered, his voice heavy with grief. “I can understand why you did it… but now I’m going to lose my other big sister, too.”

His other big sister? So that’s what his relationship with Linda was?

Of course, she’d always had a soft spot for younger boys. Always mothering them… it started with Freddy, but unlike me, she hadn’t stopped there.

“I’m s-s-sorry…” What else could I say?

Jimmy and Cad spoke up at the same time, broke off, and looked at each other, unable to decide who’d go first in ripping me a new one.

“E… enough,” Laura whispered, and we all turned to look at her. Peter was using a wet towel to clean her face and chest, gently. “N-no fighting… please. Our own fault. W-we chose to f-f-follow… because we… we want revenge, too. And b-b-because we got… used to listening to… Twitch… and you are… so much like her.” She stopped, catching her breath, while the others (save for Peter) all looked down at their feet.

I just focused on her face. “Laura… please, you need help, or you might not make it…”

“N-no… my… my family… can’t know,” she whispered. “D-don’t… want to hurt them… better take my chances… to survive…”

So stupid. All of us, so stupid.

“Laura, I… please, can I do something? Something to help?”

Cad snorted, and Jimmy looked ready to rebuke me, but Laura whispered again and they kept silent.

“Y-you… could tell me… what happened… why did the Hellhound… spare you?”

I shook my head. “I don’t… I don’t know. I blacked out… how did you all get away?”

Fletch looked up, his reddened eyes focusing on mine. “I… after I bolted, I came back again. Hoping that… that someone had survived. The Hellhound was still there, and he’d even done first aid on Jimmy and Laura and you.”


“Yeah, that was my reaction, too,” he said, smirking weakly. My confusion must have shown on my face. “He gave me this look, and I was too scared to move again. He finished working on Laura, stood up, took Fricken’s corpse and just left, without a word. I pissed myself, I was so scared.” He paused, breathing. “Then, Cad came back to his senses, and we took everyone but… but you…”

I looked at Cad. He’d probably insisted they leave me. Can’t blame him.

“-and we called an ambulance for you,” Fletch finished, once more lowering his gaze.

“Th-thank you for that,” I told him.

“Why’re you here? Why’re you not at the hospital?” Jimmy asked bluntly. “How did you even find your way back here?”

“Um… I wanted… wanted to know if you guys all made it. So I ran away… again. And I, uh, well, I ran into that cat again,” I explained.

“You mean Charlemagne?! Where is he, I’ve been looking all over for him!” Fletch cried out, jumping up from the couch.

“He should be here somewhere,” I said, looking around. No luck. “I mean, he brought me here.”

“That cat is strange. I don’t like that,” Jimmy whispered. Then he focused his tired gaze back on me. “Anyway, you got the information you wanted. Now go.”

I flinched. “Um… actually, I wanted to ask… ask if I could… um, stay here for a while? I kind of… ran away from home…”

All but Peter (who was tending to Laura) and Laura herself threw me incredulous looks.

“Are you fucking insane?” Fletch asked, disbelief on his face.

“You almost got us all killed,” Jimmy said, his voice calm. “Laura might still die. You played on our emotions to get us to join your revenge trip – and yes, it was our own fault, too. But part of the fault lies with you, and that’s enough.”

“Short version, we don’t want you here, bitch,” Cad threw in. “Even disregarding all this shit, you are worthless to us. You got no resources, and no powers. What use could you possibly be, to earn your place here?”

It hurt, hearing them talk to me like that. They meant so much to Linda… she died for them, and I…

Laura opened her mouth, looking like she wanted to protest, but then, suddenly, a new voice, soft but with an undercurrent of utter, perfect conviction, interrupted her.

“Well said, blessed one.”

* * *

Everyone but Laura whirled around, looking at the couch that stood the farthest from the others in the big main group.

“What the f-” Cad started to shout, before he saw the speaker and froze.

As did we all.

He was small. I mean, he was just a little taller than Fletch. His head was completely bald, which didn’t help him look any taller. His Asian features were sharp, strong, the features of an ascetic who worked out a lot. Nothing about him suggested that he had the Physique power, instead his slender, muscled body spoke of dedicated training. He was wearing the robes of a buddhist monk, made of a smooth, orange silk, cut so as to bare his left side, and with a red sash tied around his waist. His feet were folded in a lotus position, heels resting on his thighs, and it looked very natural on him. His hands were lying on his knees, and his dark red eyes regarded us coolly. Where the Hellhound’s eyes had been burning gates to hell, these eyes suggested that they led into an even… darker place.

Oh, oh God, no.

I knew this man. Everyone in the world with half a brain did.

“Truly, what worth could an unblessed child have to us, my children?” Dajisi, the self-styled high priest of the Dark, and a member of the Dark Five, said softly. He focused on them, ignoring me. “You, on the other hand, all walk the blessing way.” It was a statement with barely any sense to it, but he spoke it like dogma.

“W-what… to what,” Laura whispered, looking at him. I just realized that he was sitting in her line of sight, but she hadn’t noticed him before. “T-to what… do we owe… this honour?”

He nodded at her. “You will know, presently. But first, the unclean one must go.” He looked at me, and his cool, dispassionate look made the Hellhound’s infernal gaze seem like rainbow and sunshine.

I almost wet myself on the spot.

“I… please, I… I don’t have anywhere to go…”

“That is none of my concern, unblessed child,” he said. “Now leave, before I remove you.”

I looked at the others, desperate. Please…

Laura spoke up first. “S-she… is… sister of… one of… us…”

He looked back at her. “That means little, for this child has not stepped onto the blessing way. And her sister was weak, unlikely to have left a mark on her.”

“Still… died… for us…” she continued, unfazed. “By G-g-god, we… we won’t betray… that.”

She was so brave. I don’t think I could have so talked back to this… this person.

“No, child,” he cut in. “Not ‘God’. There are five gods, and one of them is very dark… but, this is your home,” he continued. Hope rose in my chest. “So, I will concede – but if she stays, I leave. And I came to offer you… healing.”

Everyone froze, and looked at him in surprise and sudden hope, while my own hope died… and another grew.

He can save Laura…

“I…” She began, but broke off. I could see the fear, and the pain in her eyes.

“It’s alright,” I said. Without looking at the others, I turned around. “My own fault. Goodbye.”

I walked towards the door.

“W-w-wait… Terry…” Laurel said in a raised voice. She looked at Peter. “Give her… some… money…”

“Laurel, I can’t-“

She cut me off with a glance, and I waited until Peter handed me a rolled up bundle of money.

“G-good… bye,” she said.

I sobbed, putting the money away.


I left without another glance. Out into the night.


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B008.2.2 Vra: Bargaining

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It took a while for them to stop screaming variations of ‘You’re insane’ at me. I just stood there and took it, knowing that I’d have to be real careful about what I did next. Because I sure as hell couldn’t even find the Hellhound by myself, much less take him down.

When they finally calmed down, I said, “Please, I need your help. I can’t avenge Lind- Twitch without you all.”

They all reacted to the word ‘avenge’, and I knew I had something to work with. Especially with Fletch, he already looked half ready to storm off and go after the asshole himself.

Did he have a crush on Linda? It would explain all the looks he’d been throwing at me. It would also mean that he was the one most likely to support my idea.

“Do you have any idea – any idea – how dangerous messing with the Hellhound is?” Jimmy asked, his voice very quiet and very grave.

I gave him my most somber look and said, “I already lost my sister to him. Yes, I fucking know how dangerous it is.” What should I say next? I’d never paid much attention to how to make people do what I want, Linda had always been the people person. “I… please, I just… I need help. For her. To make him pay for taking her away, from us.” They’d obviously liked Linda (she’d always had an easy charm) and were grieving for her. If I could just make them feel like I felt right now.

“That’s not fair,” Laura whispered, looking down. “She died to save us, and now you want us to risk throwing that away?”

“She didn’t choose to die for you,” I replied, almost shouting at her. Careful, Terry. “She wanted to- to survive as much as you did. But that monster got her and killed her. And he didn’t kill her easy, you know? I got a look at the police report. He shot off her left leg at the knee, shattering the right knee with the same shot when fragments from the left one smashed into and through it.” They went pale, Peter even green. “She kept fighting, or maybe fleeing, because his next shot took off her right hand and then her entire left arm.” I felt the bile rise, my stomach protesting, my brain demanding that I stop imagining this. “She was on the floor, on her belly, and was trying to turn on her back when he shot her chest, sideways. Took off both breasts and a good piece of her r-r-ribcage,” I continued, feeling ready to puke on the spot, “She was already dead by then, or at least so close it didn’t matter anymore, but he used a sidearm to put a bullet into her head, just to be sure!”

I turned away from them, dropping on my knees and puking for the second time in one night, this time into a trashcan next to Linda’s desk. I heard someone’s feet pound the floor and then another puking sound from the next room over.

“My God…” Laura sounded like she was ready to empty her stomach, too. I wiped my mouth and turned to look at them. Fletch and Jimmy looked ready to faint, Cad looked ready to commit murder and Laura had a sick look on her face. Peter was gone and I heard him retch in the next room over. “We didn’t… we just ran, and we heard she’d died later on,” she explained, tears running down her too-perfect cheeks.

“I’m not blaming you,” But I do. You got her into that situation in the first place, “But she’s still dead. And I’m going to go after the asshole who took my sister from me, with or without you!” I stopped holding the tears back and they spilled forth like twin cascades, blurring my vision. I wiped my eyes with my sleeve and then saw that Laura was crying openly now, Fletch was wiping his nose, Jimmy looked depressed and Cad ready to boil over with anger. Peter was nowhere to be seen, but I thought I could hear his choking breaths from behind the curtain.

Now or never.

“I beg you, help me. I can’t do this alone, but heaven knows that I’ll try.”

* * *

I can’t believe that actually worked.

I’d expected them to resist more, if they helped at all. Or that at least one would stay out of it. But they all agreed.

A few minutes later, they’d given me a bulletproof vest and some kind of gas-powered gun that fired stun ammo. We’d quickly decided that killing the guy made no sense, since he came back anyway, so we had to knock him out and then… actually, none of us knew what to do with him, but I thought shooting a few pieces off of him off would be a good start.

We didn’t really know jack about the guy or where he could be, so I proposed going after whoever had hired them for that job – even if it wasn’t him who’d sold them out, he should be able to point us at another possible culprit.

So we geared up (Foxfire actually put on a padded red-and-white bodysuit, which she told me was reinforced enough to stop small caliber shots) and Peter (a low-level Gadgeteer, as I found out) doled out earbugs for everyone, plus a barely visible camera we could stick to our collars.

“So, you gonna use a cowl?” Jimmy suddenly said as he stepped out of his partition (they didn’t really qualify as rooms). He was wearing a leather suit not unlike that of a biker, except it was covered in swirls that made my eyes (and brain) hurt if I looked at them for too long.

Maybe it was because of the headache he caused that I didn’t get his question. “A… what? I don’t think wearing one is going to be practical, to be honest,” I replied, confused. After a few seconds, I simply looked away from him before the headache made me faint. Good God, what a costume.

“Oh, I didn’t mean a cowl as in, a garment!” he replied, surprised. “Thought everyone knew the slang by now.”

“What?” Now I was really confused.

Fortunately, Foxfire joined us just then and clarified, “It’s a technical term, if you can even call it that. A ‘cape’ is the identity of a superhero, costume, powers, style, name and all the other stuff. A ‘cowl’ is the same, just for supervillains. So he asked if you wanted to use a codename and maybe take on a theme or something.”

“Uhm…” I hadn’t really thought about this, but… I was going out to hunt a crazed metahuman. Should I hide my identity behind a codename and a mask? I thought it over for a few moments, but…

“No. I want him to recognize me,” I answered, voice as firm as I could make it right now. “I want him to know his victim’s sister is the one who’ll take him down. Besides, I don’t have any powers and unpowered people don’t use capes or cowls, right?”

“Well, your choice, Terry,” Fletch – Razzle, now, wearing his magician’s mask again (I had to ask him why he’d chosen that name and mask, but later) – said. “But it’s not true that unpowered people never dress up in costumes, take on a codename and go fight or commit crime. It’s just that most don’t last long.”

“Then I’m not going to jinx myself by taking one on.” I held the gun in my hand, trying to get a feel for its weight. I’d never fired a gun before, but… how hard could it be? They were supposed to work even for total idiots. “Not that I’d have any idea what I’d call myself, anyway.”

“You could, you know. Use one of Twitch’ spare masks and her… name…” Razzle’s voice slowly faded as he saw the look on my face. I didn’t even bother to respond any other way.

Instead, I turned to Foxfire again as Cad, who’d added a padded leather jacket to his ensemble and a simple black half-mask that wrapped around the upper half of his head, hiding his hair and any signs of his ethnicity. Considering his size and musculature, I’d have taken him for a white guy, had I not seen his face earlier.

To Foxfire, I said, “Tell me about this guy we’re going to look into? I only know his job, so far.”

“He’s a supervillain agent – as in, an actor’s agent. People with jobs contact him, tell him the price they’re willing to pay and he then looks among the contacts he has for a supervillain or a team that fits the bill. The villains are not told who they work for, protecting the employer’s identity – in fact, most agents don’t even know for whom they commission villains.”

“That sounds very risky. What if someone just prank-calls an agent, or refuses to pay afterwards?” It didn’t sound like it could work.

Wagging a finger like she was talking to a little child, she explained, “Ah-ah, it’s not that easy. If you’re not an established customer, then you have to pay the agent in advance – if the villain or villains he picks out succeed, they get paid – minus the agent’s cut – and if they fail, the customer gets the money back – a gain, minus the agent’s cut, though they usually take less if the job failed – and the agents themselves are usually part of a bigger organization, usually the Syndicate. Means the Syndicate gets a little off of every job villains pull, in exchange for providing the agents with credibility and emergency funds, as well as the means to forcibly collect their money if need be. Not that it becomes necessary very often, because how stupid do you have to be to want to piss off the Syndicate like that?”

That made more sense, and I nodded to her. But… “Is that how all supervillains work? I can’t imagine someone on the level of the Dark Five or the Defilers or Caliban to just take commissions.”

She shrugged and shook her head. “Nah, that’s the system for the small-timers, like us. Street villains, as they call us, if that. Some – like our own group – are little more than gangs that make some money on the side with the least dangerous and difficult jobs. The big guns play their own game, and we lowly mortals don’t meddle.”

We made our way down the staircase – their agent was not very far away, so we’d go their by foot.

“What about the Hellhound? Where does he fit in?”

“Nowhere I know of, really,” answered Fulcrum now. “Far as we know, he’s just a crazy who hunts down street level villains, because the real deal is beyond him. Car bombs, sniper rifles and such are not much use when you can shrug off stinger missiles, regenerate from a pinky finger or possess bodies at will. I looked up as much on him as I could, but far as I can tell, he’s never taken a commission, and certainly doesn’t attack non-powered criminals unless they get in his way.”

“So we got nuthin’ to go on?” Cad – LagForward, and I really had to get used to calling them by their codenames when out and about – asked. I’d realized by now that his nasal, annoyed tone was just normal for him and no indicator about his mood whatsoever.

“Only our agent. I hope to God that it wasn’t him that sold us out, ’cause there’s no way in hell we’re gonna get a new one any time soon.”

“But if it was him…” I said in a low, low voice. Images of… things were appearing and disappearing before my mind’s eye, things I never thought I’d even consider doing before.

“Then he’s done for,” said Foxfire with iron conviction. “We don’t even have to lift a finger, we just need to call it in. The Syndicate has a no-tolerance policy regarding this kind of action.”

“I don’t want the Syndicate to get him, I want to make anyone who’s responsible suffer!” I half-shouted at her, but she just brushed it off.

“Relax,” Fulcrum threw in. “Nothing we could do to the guy would even come close to what the Syndicate would do. The villain responsible for the Americas takes a dim view of this, and she has everyone who breaks the Syndicate’s rules like that delievered to her in person, in order to make an example.”

“So he’d be thrown to Mindstar?” That bitch was a walking (well, flying) nightmare, and she’d been active for little more than a year! “I guess I could live with that.”

“Nah,” he replied. “Mindstar’s a member of the Five, but word on the street is, she’s too unstable and inexperienced to act as an administrator for the Syndicate network. Till she is, the Dowager rules both North and South America.”

Brrrr. We all shivered. The Dowager was one of the older members of the Five, old enough for even me to know stuff about her. Just surviving as long as she had was proof of how dangerous she was; not to mention being considered the second-in-command to the Dark himself. It didn’t help that there were rumors the adults didn’t tell us kids in Oak Leaf (meaning we all knew about them), that she was the Dark’s actual wife, or at least his rebound gal for whenever Lady Light was on the outs with him.

We know so little. We hate them so much, but all we really know are rumors. That thought blindsided me. There was a story there, but I’d never even thought about it beyond gossiping about it at school. I doubt that most of the people in our community really knew much of anything about the metahumans they so fervently opposed.

At least I could be sure he’d be punished. Unless he was innocent and this was just a giant waste of time.

* * *

“So, what can you guys do, anyway? I only know the bare bones,” I asked while we were on our way towards the office of the agent. The shades seemed even darker than before, and it was miserably cold now (thankfully, Linda had stocked some extra warm underwear at their HQ. Wearing her clothes was just wigging me out, but not freezing assorted bits of myself off was just too seductive). Still, I needed something to distract myself.

They looked at each other and all shrugged, apparently deciding that it was alright to tell me. Gee, do I feel trusted. Not that they weren’t already way more trusting than I would ever have been.

“You’ve seen my fireworks,” Razzle began, walking just a little behind and to the right of me. “I can make the cloud grow really big and wide, but it takes time. Haven’t found a limit on the size yet. It doesn’t obscure my vision at all, and I can mitigate the obscuring effect for anyone I want within the cloud. You probably know that already.” I nodded. “But I’m also a mover. I get some low-level super-speed, but only while I’m hidden inside my fireworks.”

“Oh, the police doesn’t know that part. You kept it secret, huh?”

He nods, seemingly flattered. I can’t quite tell, thanks to the mask.

LagForward takes over. “I’ve got level three physique, and I can give myself exemplar-level strength, toughness and super-speed for split-second bursts – like you saw earlier. Not much fine control, though, the super-speed ain’t in my head. But I can punch holes in walls when I need to.”


Fulcrum pulled a coin out of his purse and said, “Watch closely.” He threw the coin forward. Suddenly, a kind of… swirl in the air appeared in its path, and when the coin touched it, it’s flight was diverted to the right at a ninety degree angle. “I can speed up my sight, and I can create that fulcrum anywhere within my sight that I focus my gaze on. It allows me to redirect any physical object’s movement by up to ninety degrees in any direction.”

“And you’ve already seen – and felt – my ball,” Foxfire continued, but without creating it – it would have been too conspicious. “It acts like a taser, and I can throw it easily without having even a good grip – it sticks to my body until I don’t want it to anymore. Takes one or two hits to take down a normie, and three or more for a meta, depending on powers and physical fitness. The effect is mental, not physical. What you probably don’t know is that I can recall it – and the return motion is as fast as a ball kicked by a soccer player. But it can only move towards me with that speed.”

Something clicked almost immediately when she got to the last part. “So… you just use Fulcrum’s power to redirect that return shot and turn it into an attack, right?” At least that’s what I’d do.

She grinned, showing off her canines again. “Well, aren’t you a smart one? Linda was the one who figured that out for us.”

So you didn’t even come up with it yourselves?

“Though we do have one more big trick,” Fulcrum commented. “Which we’ll demonstrate to you, presently. Look.” He’d stopped moving and was pointing towards a rather run-down old office building. There were five people in front of it, all dressed in black shirts and pants, holding guns.

“Fuck,” Foxfire cursed as we all hid behind a nearby half-collapsed wall, looking at them across the street.

“Who’re those guys?” I asked, trying to make out any identifying marks. They were all dressed identically, all clean-shaven and alert.

“They belong to the mob,” Fulcrum explained. “Same people we stole that package from.”


“What do we do?” I asked.

Foxfire growled: “We take them down. Time to bust out our big trick.”

Well, now I’m curious.

* * *

Fulcrum and Foxfire stepped back from the rest of us, so that they were completely covered by the remaining wall of the building we had thrown ourselves in.

Foxfire held her hands out, and a spark appeared between them, growing swiftly to melon size, the ball switching colours in random patterns.

Then things got interesting. Fulcrum looked straight at the ball, his eyes turning bright, bright blue – unnaturally blue. The ball flickered, and then, after a few moments, it stopped switching colours – instead, a swirl formed within the ball, countless colours moving within.

“Done,” Fulcrum said. “Let’s get this show on the road.” He turned away from the ball and came back to crouch behind the wall with us, while Foxfire threw the ball out into the alley we came through, just out of sight of the mobsters.

“What are they doing?” I asked Razzle.

“They heterodyned their powers. Just watch,” he said.

Heterodyning? Are they Girl Genius fans?

Fulcrum looked straight at the guy closest to the alley, focusing his gaze.

Moments before something happened, I suddenly realized that they were all looking at the building, not away from it, as if they were guarding it. Why would…

And the ball shot out at pro-soccer speed, slamming into the back of the guy’s neck. It bounced off as the guy collapsed with an explosive sigh and Fulcrum shifted his focus on the next guy’s neck, before anyone could react. It hit him, too. And then the next three. The last guy managed to turn around and raise his gun, opening his mouth to shout – but the ball hit him in the throat and he collapsed.

Sped up vision, combined with an attack that strikes almost as fast as you can focus your sight.

This was what even exemplar-level metahumans could do? Two teenage delinquents with what I assumed were bottom-rung powers had just taken out five armed mobsters before they could even react.

No wonder so many people are afraid of them.

“You see anyone else?”, Foxfire asked.

Fulcrum replied, “Not outside the building. Let’s go in, keep our powers ready. LagForward, you take point, move low so I can aim.”

We moved, me following behind with Razzle next to me. Foxfire was sticking close to Fulcrum.

<Yo guys, just so you know, I have no access to that building at all,> came Peter’s nervous voice through the earbug. <Net connection is locked down tight, even if there are cameras, I’m not getting in.>

“Keep an eye on the police scanners then,” Fulcrum commanded as we passed the mobsters. “Warn us if anything is called in.”

<Will do. Good luck, everyone.>

We ran past the mobsters and snuck into the building.

Wasn’t there something suspicious I just noticed?

* * *

We went into the old office building, and the first thing I noticed was the smell. It smelled of old urine and drugs.

This is where their agent hangs out? Man…

LagForward went ahead towards the end of the hallway, where I could see an old door with a semi-opaque glass window for the top half. The light flickering above was glancing off the remnants of some old letters that had once denoted the owner of the office. I doubt that he’s still working here, whoever he was.

We walked by three more doors, ignoring them, and snuck up to the office. Foxfire was holding her ball in her hands and stayed just behind and to the right of Fulcrum, so he could fire it off at any time. The swirl of colours cast strange lights on the floor, walls and ceiling.

“Razzle, get ready,” Fulcrum ordered and the young boy complied. Just like before they’d knocked me out, silent fireworks began to go off around Razzle’s form, producing a greyish smoke that only served to reflect and further enhance the lights they created. It spread outwards, enveloping us all.

First, I held my breath, but then I realized that was silly – the others weren’t wearing gas masks or anything, so it obviously didn’t restrict breathing. I opened my mouth and breathed in – nothing. No smoke. It wasn’t even really smoke, just an illusion of such.

The cloud filled the hallway, and at first, I had to close my eyes to protect them from the flashes. But then it just… I can’t really describe it, but it adjusted, and suddenly I could partially see through the cloud. Not entirely, but way better than I should.

Again, I had to wonder just how high the power ladder went for ‘normal’ metahumans, if these guys were at the bottom of the power chart.

But then I had to focus again, because LagForward punched the lock of the door out and we went in.

* * *

I will never forget the scene that I saw next.

The office was rather shabby. There was an old oaken cupboard to the left, which had probably once been worth more than half the equipment in the StreetBadger’s hideout, but had not been preserved right at all. The only other furniture was a desk in front of a large window, a desk chair behind it and two smaller chairs in front of it.

Of course, I doubt the short, overweight guy in a cheap grey suit was supposed to have been nailed onto the desk by way of three long knives through the wrists and ankles.

And then there was he. He stood behind the desk, facing us and looking… mildly surprised. He was tall, obviously well-muscled despite wearing thick jeans and a thick military jacket. A very handsome guy, in a very natural way, with the rugged good looks of an old-school movie star. His black hair was cut down to a buzz cut, no longer than his three-day beard. But his eyes…

I froze up when I looked into his eyes. They were red, so red they seemed to sparkle like rubies, but there was no life in them. No emotion, at all. They reminded me more of a reptile’s eyes than a human’s, and they certainly didn’t look like they belonged to someone who’d ever cared about someone.

Or perhaps those were the eyes anyone who lost everything they cared about got, eventually. Windows into hell itself.

I didn’t want to think about it. I only wanted to hurt him, but I couldn’t move. He wasn’t even seeing me, just looking at the fireworks and smoke, and yet his mere half-lidded gaze was enough to beat me. I never stood a chance, and neither did the others.

He vaulted over the desk towards us, drawing a large handgun out of a holster at his hip.

Fulcrum let fly with the ball, but he just vaulted over it and shot in the direction it came from – right at Foxfire.

She went down with a scream, then a gasp and the ball winked out of existence.

“No!” Fulcrum screamed and turned to her – but his shout revealed his position and I saw a red fountain sprout from his shoulder as he was violently thrown around and back, slamming into Foxfire’s collapsing form before she’d even hit the ground.

We have to run away. Yet I couldn’t move.

LagForward, meanwhile, could. He’d moved along with the cloud as it enveloped the front half of the room, and now he burst out of it from the side, his mouth twisted in a furious snarl.

Hellhound didn’t bat an eye. Nor did he react in any way I’d have expected – he stepped towards LagForward, closing the distance. Obviously, LagForward hadn’t expected that, either, and his lightning-fast punch went wide as the Hellhound simply stepped into his range and drew a knee up.

The air left LagForward’s lungs explosively as his enemy drew his knee up and slammed it into his crotch, making him bend over – and expose the back of his neck.

The follow-up strike knocked him out as surely as Foxfire’s ball had laid me out. Then he turned towards the smoke and levelled his gun in my and Razzle’s direction…

Except the fireworks were already clearing, and Razzle was nowhere to be seen.

I was alone, exposed, gun in my right hand but aimed at the ground, as I stared past the muzzle of the biggest revolver I’d ever seen and into those dead red eyes.

And then he hesitated, as he looked at my face. He recognized me, and I was sure he could guess who I was and what I wanted here.

He remembers my face. Linda’s face.

I was staring at Linda’s murderer, he was less than ten feet away and I could not move.

He opened his mouth, breathing out, still not pulling the trigger, when my hate finally overcame my… my fear.

It was stupid. He was aiming a massive handgun at me, and all I had was this stunner that probably wouldn’t work unless I hit his head, and I’d never shot anyone in my life and had no idea how to aim, or anything.

Yet I drew up my gun, as quickly as I could, as I felt my face contort with hatred, I aimed at his head and I pulled the trigger and…

Nothing happened. I hadn’t taken off the safety.

Something slammed into my left shoulder, throwing me back moments before I heard his gun roar.

There was no pain, just a dull throbbing, and my field of vision almost immediately began to turn black.

No. Please, God, no, not like this… I couldn’t even… no…

I saw his face enter my field of vision, then the rest of his body. He knelt over me, using the butt of his gun to turn my face left and right, taking a closer look at me.

He’s right in front of me… Linda… he took Linda away and I can’t kill him…

He opened his mouth and said eight words to me.

And then there was nothing left.

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B008.2.1 Vra: Bargaining

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“Dude, this is creepy”, said a boy’s voice.

My head hurt.

“I mean, she looks just like her!” The speaker didn’t sound like he’d gone through puberty yet.

“Not quite. She’s more buff. And her hair’s different”, drawled a slightly accented girl’s voice. She sounded like honey and cherries, and I must have hit my head pretty hard because I normally did not make that kind of comparison.

My arms were numb, but I could feel that they’d been twisted behind my back and tied. Around some metal pipe or something, which was pressing into my back. Someone had taken my hoodie off, leaving me in my sports bra. The pipe was cold against my back, helping me focus. My shoes were off, too.

“Twitch never talked about a twin sister.” An older voice, a young man with the slightest hint of a lisp. It was unreal how sharp my hearing was right now.

“She never talked about her family, period,” replied the girl.

“What if this is a shapeshifter or something?” asked the boy again.

“She went down with one hit of Fox’ ball. That speaks towards her being a normie. Plus, she didn’t turn back to a real form when we knocked her out and I think a shapeshifter would have changed to look exactly like Twitch to sell a twin or something.” A new, rather nasal voice.

“I’m not a darned shapeshifter…” I said before coughing hard. I looked up and saw four teenagers stand over me, giving me suspicious looks. One girl, three boys. “And why did you take my hoodie off?”

A guy in his late teens – older than me, but most probably too young to drink – was the first to respond. He was really tall, at least as tall as the officer earlier, but so thin he looked like a stiff wind would break him in half.

“Do you have any idea how many weapons and traps a contriver can hide under or in a garment like this?” he asked with just the barest hint of a lisp, “If we were really professional, we would’ve stripped you naked and done a cavity search, too.”

I shivered, damn it. “Thank you for sparing me that. How long was I out?”

“Just about fifteen mi-“

“Who the fuck’re you?” interrupted the nasal voice, coming from the mouth of LagForward. It really didn’t fit his buff body. His open vest showed off the kind of sixpack and upper arm sculpting normal people had to work a decade for or so. “And why’re you here? Why did you attack us!?”

Now I looked down again, ashamed. Why did I attack? Even disregarding the fact that I could never stand a chance against four metahumans at once, even if they might be at the bottom of the power chart. Even disregarding the fact that I’d never been in a serious fight outside of fight training. I’d never even hit anyone with intent, not outside training, again.

Was I that angry at Linda and my parents? That unbalanced?

Well, duh.

“I’m sorry about that. Really, I just…” I didn’t look up at them, “I’m just so angry. My sister is dead, and no one seems to care.”

They didn’t respond, and I looked up at them, taking a closer look at each for the first time. The only one I hadn’t really gotten a look at yet was the girl, Foxfire. She was a gorgeous half-Asian girl with waist-length black hair in a somehow very naughty style, bright golden, slightly slanted eyes and a rather slim body for a meta-girl, at least going by what I’d seen on TV so far. Her clothes… didn’t really deserve that description, especially in the current winter weather – she was wearing a red bikini top, cut-off jeans and a black hoodie with an open zipper, as well as red training shoes. And she had a Japanese fox mask tied to her belt.

She had heavy black circles around her eyes, and in general looked dead tired. The others looked no better really. The short one – a curly-haired blonde boy who couldn’t be more than thirteen years old – looked like he’d been crying until a short while ago.

“You spoke about Linda. Twitch… that was her name, right? I mean, her supervillain name?” I asked, even though I knew the answer already.

The girl took over talking. “Yup, Twitch. Never told us she had a twin sister, though,” she answered.

I looked down, clenching my hands. There was some feeling returning to them, if only barely. “Yeah well, she didn’t tell me jack. Not that she had powers, not that she was a supervillain, nothing. Last week I wake up, get ready for school and then I find out, joy oh joy, my twin sister was not only a supervillain, she’d also just gotten herself murdered.”

“Man, that sucks,” commented the blonde boy. Razzle, going by the power he’d shown off earlier. Then he scowled at me. “What’d you do to her that she wouldn’t tell you?”

Had I not been tied up at that moment, I would have jumped up and punched him in the face. I tried to, even, despite my chance to even reach him being… low. But the restraints held. So I just ground my teeth and replied, “I don’t know. She just… shut me out. I can get why she wouldn’t tell our parents, but… why not me?” I looked up at them, as if searching for an answer. I doubted they knew. They hadn’t even known that their friend had had a twin sister. Linda had not spoken to them about me… ever.

They all gave me looks full of pity, which only made things worse.

“Twitch was a dear friend of ours, even though we only knew her for a month and a half,” said Foxfire as she nodded towards LagForward. He knelt down next to me and untied my hands. The other two didn’t seem to like it, but Foxfire was apparently their leader. “We met her shortly after she got her powers, though she never told us how she got them,” she continued, offering me a helping hand.

I shook out my hands, getting some feeling back into them, and took it, letting her pull me up. She was stronger than she looked.

“I’m sure you have a lot of questions,” she said.

“A whole lot,” I replied, brightening up. Someone willing to talk and answer my questions? Could I have this much luck?

She smirked. “Well, so do we. How about you answer ours and we answer yours?”

That’s only fair, I guess. I nodded. “My name’s Terry, by the way. How should I call you?”

“Laura. And these are Jimmy, Cad and Fletch,” she answered, pointing out the tall guy with the lisp, the buff Asian boy and the short one. “Nice to meet you, Terry.”

“Likewise, Laura,” I replied, only half-sincere. They were very nice, especially Laura, but I didn’t trust them yet. And there was still the matter of my dead twin sister – if they were responsible…

* * *

They gave me back my hoodie – I’d barely noticed how cold it had been, but now I was thankful for being able to put it back on. I wouldn’t vouch on it, but I think Fletch and Cad were disappointed that Laura gave it back to me.

We went into the staircase and up, until we were on the highest level of the old parking garage, just one level beneath the roof. I stopped and stared from the entry.

The place had been turned into the most awesome hangout a teenager could want, at least in my opinion. There were thick cloth curtains in various colours hanging all around it, covering every opening to the outside – keeping the light in, and the warmth. Keeping the wind out. They obviously had electricity because they had a series of electrical heaters keeping the place not quite toasty warm, but warm enough to justify even Foxfire’s ensemble. Pillows, blankets, love seats – all second hand apparently, and many having been repaired rather haphazardly – covered nearly every inch of the floor that wasn’t taken up by at least two layers of all kinds of rugs. There were several flatscreens spread around the place, with every gaming console ever hooked up.

Holy Shit,” I whispered. “I thought you guys were supposed to be smalltime.” Then my brain caught up with my mouth and I felt the heat rise in my face. “Uh, sorry, I didn’t mean to…” Great move, Terry. Insult the only persons who might know what actually happened to Twitch.

Laura smiled sweetly, showing off a pair of rather long canines. They looked strange, but I guess boys probably liked her smiles a lot. “Don’t worry. It’s a compliment – we’ve managed to keep a low profile so far. And we’re not that big – most of the stuff here is second-hand, if that. And the tech is all self-made from scrap.”

That gave me a start. I looked at the flatscreens, the consoles and the heaters. The lighting, too. It all looked completely functional but… yeah, you could tell there’d been damage. A few pieces of equipment were also quite clearly cobbled together from parts that had originally belonged to several different appliances.

You’re getting distracted again, dummy.

I shook my head. “Anyway. Anyway… let’s get to the important subject, alright?”

The boys walked past us, Cad and Fletch throwing me suspicious glances while Jimmy just seemed to ignore me. They all sat down on the largest couch in the room, which was arranged along with three others in a half-circle in front of a flatscreen the size a house wall. That definitely looked handmade – there was the screen and a frame holding it in place, but no casing, and I could see wires emerge from behind it and up to the ceiling, where they joined a lot of other power lines.

“One question first, though. How do you power this stuff?”

Laura sat down on the couch along with the others, too. “Solar panels on the roof – it gets quite a bit of sunlight, so high up. And we also have a few bikes wired up to a bigass dynamo, for when we don’t get sunlight for a while,” she explained. “Now sit.” She nodded towards the couch next to the one the StreetBadgers were sitting (lounging, in Laura’s case) on, and I sat down, turning to face them.

“Do you want to start, or should I?”

Jimmy spoke up first, “Wait. We got one more member, but he went out to get food right before you arrived here.”

“I thought it was only you four, after… after Linda died.”

“Where did you get your information?” he asked.

I looked down at my feet, rubbing my hands. Hope they won’t overreact. “Well… the police. I asked a police officer what he knew about… about the case.”

“You’re working with the fucking police!?” Fletch screamed, jumping up and into fighting position, fists raised. “If ya think ye can sell us o-“

“Fletch, sit.” Laura barked those two words like a well rehearsed line, and Fletch immediately dropped down onto his seat, though he still gave me the evil eye.

And who the hell names their child ‘Fletch’ anyway?

“I’m not working with the police. I just… got picked up by a police officer. He wanted to take me home, I got him to talk then bailed,” I explained in a single breath.

Their eyebrows shot up in an almost coordinated motion. “Really?” asked Laura in a curious tone. “However did you get away from him?”

Looking down, I felt the heat rise to my face again. The officer had been really nice and understanding, and I’d… but it might help me break the ice here. “I uh… I pretended I felt sick, and when he stopped and got out with me, I… kicked him in the balls and ran.”

They looked at me, stunned for a moment… then they broke out into laughter, which only led to my face feeling even hotter than before.

It took a while for them to calm down again. “Man, do you know how to treat’em,” Laura gasped, wiping a tear from her eye. “How did you find us, after you bailed from the cop? I’m pretty sure they don’t know where we hide, on account of them not storming our place to lock us up.”

“Uhh, honestly, just by chance. I got lost in the Shades, and then I followed this big cat over here,” I replied, glad she wasn’t focusing on the officer.

“What cat?” Jimmy asked, suddenly serious again. “Where is it? I saw no cat!”

“Whoa, dude, calm down!” I said, inching a little away from him. “It’s just some cat!”

Laura gave me a hard stare. “In our world, there’s no such thing as just some cat that just happens to lead the twin sister of our just deceased team member to our secret hideout! Where is it?”

“Um, it was searching through your trash cans last time I saw it…”

Laura threw Jimmy and Cad a look and they both left immediately.

“Can I ask a quick question?” I asked her.

“You already did,” she replied with a mischievous glimmer in her eyes.

I rolled my eyes. “You know what I mean.”

She nodded and waved her hand in an approving motion.

“When I woke up, you said that me being taken down with one hit from your ball is an indicator for me not being a metahuman. How come?”

“Well, that’s the Coltenhagen effect, duh!” She looked at me like it was obvious.

“The… Coltenhagen effect? I think I heard that somewhere…” I raked my brain, but all I came up with was the word being used, once, regarding ‘Humanity First!’ demanding more non-powered superheroes. But nothing else.

“Well, it’s kinda the reason why there are no non-metahuman superheroes or villains. Or why the military is so damn paranoid about even low-level enemy metas. Simply put…” She thought about it for a moment. “It’s kinda like this – every metahuman has a kind of real low-level power resistance. Not enough to really block powers, but enough to make it possible for them to resist, so to speak. Or at least resist to a meaningful degree.”

“So a metahuman could take more than one hit from your ball?”

She nodded, “Yeah. Or like… take that freak Mindstar, or the fortunately departed Mindfuck. A newly manifested, untrained teenager could resist their powers just as easily as an adult professional soldier with mental training. Doesn’t make us tougher or anything, it just… gives us a better chance to resist the really bad powers. Transformations, mind control, possession, that kinda stuff. The things that really give you nightmares.”

“And how does that apply to your taser ball? I mean, are you guys like, more resistant to electric powers?”

“No no, my ball doesn’t use electricity at all!” she said. “That would be way more dangerous. No, it’s a mental move. It just works LIKE a taser, but it’s not a physical effect, really. Otherwise, you’d be having cramps and burns where it hit you.”

I checked. True, my stomach was completely unharmed. I let my hoodie fall down again and looked up just in time to see Fletch look away from me. I ignored him, again.

“So that’s why there’s no non-powered heroes?”

She nodded. “For example, the Drakainas – they could easily shore up their numbers with non-powered pilots in suits, but they’d be highly susceptible to those kinds of powers I just described, and many others. Like emotion projection. People who make others feel fear, or lust, or apathy. Quite common, all things considered, and really lethal against normies.”

“I see. That certainly explains a lot.”

Just then, the boys came back up, Jimmy holding the big tomcat in his arms.

“Looks like a normal cat, if really big, Fox,” he said as he handed the purring tomcat to Fox. She took him into her arms and scratched him behind his ears, sniffing him while he purred contently.

“Smells normal, too,” she said. “D’awww, he’s just a big cutie!” She lifted him up over her head. “A really big cutie. Can’t smell anything strange about him, though he’s strangely clean for a cat that apparently belongs to no one.”

“Can we keep him?” Fletch threw in. “I mean, it’d be nice to have a pet here!”

We all looked at him and he blushed a little. But Laura nodded and handed the tomcat over to him. “But you have to make sure to feed him. And train him not to do his business all over the place.”

He nodded, eagerly, and took the tomcat onto his lap. It was really quite cute.

And then, there was the sound of a ringtone, and Laura checked her cellphone. “Oh, food’s here! Go and help Peter haul it up, boys!”

And just like that, Jimmy and Cad left again for the staircase.

Whoa, she really got them whipped right. I felt jealous. I never could get boys to do what I tell them so easily. Maybe she can give me lessons?

Soon, the boys returned along with this Peter. He turned out to be… a normal boy around my age. The kind I usually didn’t notice at school. Not fat, but definitely overweight, with his brown hair in a bad haircut, sloppy clothes under a thick coat and oversized glasses.

He came in looking quite serious, and immediately looked at me, apparently having been briefed by the other two. “So, Twitch had a twin sister,” he said in a rather soft, weak-sounding voice. “Hello, I’m Peter. I’m kinda the tech guy for this team.”

He put down the stack of pizza boxes he’d been carrying (five boxes, five more in Jimmy’s arms and ten in Cad’s. How much did these people eat?) and offered me his hand. I took it and we shook hands. His was sweaty. He let go quickly and sat down on another couch, keeping his teammates between himself and me.


They quickly spread the pizza boxes around… and my stomach growled the moment their smell hit me. I blushed as I was reminded that I hadn’t eaten since… well, apart from the donut earlier, I hadn’t eaten since morning.

Laura gave me a look and handed me one of her boxes (she three stacked in front of her. Fletch had two, Jimmy and Peter three, Cad four). “Here, eat.” I was way too hungry to protest.

The pizza turned out to look even better than it smelled. It was obviously from a real Italian restaurant. And it was loaded with yummy stuff. Well, except for the broccoli. Yuck.

While the others dug in, I carefully removed the green abominations from my pizza, then started to eat. Mmmmmm…

We ate in silence. Cad pretty much breathed his pizzas in, while the others took more time. Fletch fed the cat, too.

Then we relaxed and leaned back. They’d all been jumbo pizzas, and I usually didn’t eat this much, so I was quite… floored.

After about ten minutes though, I started to… recover my earlier impatiance. Maybe I’d just been too hungry and groggy to feel it, though. “Um, now, about Linda… I mean Twitch.”

That got their attention. “Can you tell us some about your background? I mean, Twitch always refused to,” Laura asked, and I nodded. It might not have been smart, but… this was my chance to learn something. So I’d play nice.

“Well, we’re twins, obviously. We have a little brother, and live with our parents in the Oak Leaf community,” I began.

“Shit! Oak Leaf! That’s one of the richest places in the entire Esperanza area!” shouted Peter. The others seemed similarly surprised.

“Why, in the name of God’s green earth, did she become a supervillain and hang out here with us?” asked Cad. “I mean, she even ran away from there two weeks ago – why?”

I looked down at my feet, but thankfully, Laura took over explaining the obvious.

“Cad, think about it. What is Oak Leaf known for?” she said.

I heard Jimmy gasp as he got it. The others didn’t, I think. Not that I looked to check.

“It’s the biggest ”Humanity First!” community in the entire world,” Peter explained. “Among other things, Richard Svenson lives there. Current leader of ‘Humanity First!’…”

“And a regular dinner guest at our place,” I added without looking up. “My parents are deep into it. That’s why Linda never told them, I think. Not that it explains why she wouldn’t tell me. But… my parents seem to be more shaken up about her being a metahuman than her being dead,” I continued, spitting the last word like poison. I didn’t look up at their faces. I didn’t want pity.

“She started acting strange about two months ago, and wouldn’t talk to us. Two weeks ago, we kind of made an intervention, but she just… blew a gasket and stormed out of the house…” I still remembered the feeling of betrayal, when she just left instead of talking to me. I could have understood if she wouldn’t talk to my parents, but why not to me.

“That was when she moved in with us. Do you want to see her place?” asked Laura, her voice full of… sympathy.

I nodded, quietly, and she took my hand (hers was unnaturally warm – suddenly it made sense that she’d run around in light clothing) and all but dragged me around the staircase. There were several “rooms” partitioned off from the rest of the space by way of heavy curtains and wooden screens acting as walls. She took me into one of them. It turned out to be a small bedroom, with a bookshelf loaded with books, a laptop on a desk and a small dresser drawer.

The curtains were all blue, and there was a pressed tulip in a frame, hanging over her bed. And a picture of me, from five years ago (we’d still looked identical back then, but I remembered that photo being shot, and besides, I was wearing a yellow dress in it. She’d always worn blue). I just stared at the picture.

“What… what can you tell me about her?” I said, not taking my eyes off of it. Why didn’t you tell me? Why do you have a picture of me here, but you never told me?

“She was what we call a ‘Brain’ in the business. Mental powers. Perception. She had a kind of danger sense, except she could spread it to cover others. Give her a warning when others were in danger. She also got a boost in her reaction speed and all. Mental only. And only when her Danger Sense was set off.”

“Who killed her? Why?” I turned to look at her. I might have been crying.

She looked uncomfortable. “We… we’d gotten a commission, to steal a package that was being transported by a bunch of mobsters,” she said. “Job went well, we stopped their car, took them out, got the package… but then everything went to shit when the Hellhound appeared.”

Oh no… Everyone in Oak Leaf knew the Hellhound. He was a kind of hero to ”Humanity First!”. Unofficially, of course. I’d never paid much attention to it, beyond the basics.

“I heard that he’s a metahuman hater. I mean, real hate. Hunts and kills any he finds,” I said, my voice strangely monotone. “Something about his family being killed.”

“Yeah, his wife and daughters were eaten by a cannibalistic villain team,” Laurel explained. “Guy’s major badass crazy. Goes after metahumans with heavy weaponry, sniper rifles, you name it.”

“How come he’s still around? I mean, the Coltenhagen effect…”

She shook her head. “He’s a metahuman, too, though most don’t realize it. Some kind of resurrection ability – no matter how many times you kill him, he always comes back.”

“So he killed Twitch because…”

“He was after the package. Someone sold us out, maybe, or sold the same information twice. We dropped the package and ran – guy’s too dangerous for us – but he pursued. Twitch…” She choked, wiping her eyes. The others, who’d followed us, looked utterly miserable. “She… she convinced us that someone needed to distract him. That we needed to split up. We did that, and he pursued her, and…”

I looked down at my feet.

The Hellhound.

My sister had died just because some guy had a hate-on for metahumans. Oh, the irony.

The fucking Hellhound.

My sister had died to save her friends. Because that guy couldn’t swallow his hate.

The Hellhound murdered my sister.

I felt the rage rise up inside me. When I raised my head, the StreetBadgers all took a step back.

“I want to go after him. Are you guys in?”

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B008.1.2 Vra: Anger

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A minus 11 Days

I reached the industrial district almost an hour later, completely out of breath and drenched in sweat.

While I was very – even exceptionally – fit and trained regularly in a variety of sports, long distance running among them, I’d managed to spend myself running without pacing myself. I just couldn’t focus enough to do that. Usually, when I ran, once my body got used to the motions I’d just relax and go into my zone, just… running.

Not this time. I felt like there was a maelstrom of emotions inside me, held back by a knot in my belly that it pressed against and tore at. Most of it was rage, I was sure.

Nonetheless, I arrived. Our gated community was pretty much on the opposite side of the city, or at least it felt like it. It had been built in its spot deliberately, far away from the districts frequented by metahumans. And let’s face it, it was pretty much a law that low-level heroes and villains would throw down in abandoned factories and warehouses.

There were plenty of those in Esperanza, and nowhere more than in the old industrial district. Heavy industry had almost entirely fled the cities due to the Environmental Protection Act (also known as the GreenGreen Act, named after the superhero group that had been its most fervent supporter) of nineteen-eighty-two and now tended to cluster in isolated so-called industrial conclaves, far apart from cities and other protected sites.

Which left more than enough abandoned warehouses and factories behind in the cities, since it wasn’t worth the money to disassemble them or knock them down and build new things in their place. Esperanza had been rebuild almost entirely from the grounds up, after Desolation-in-Light wiped out Los Angeles, but there were a few parts of the old city left, surrounded by the new one. Most people called them ‘the Shades’ (as a contrast to the Brights in New Lennston) and they were the places the scum of the city gathered in.

The old factory I had run to – I’d remembered the address from when a policewoman had told us what had happened – didn’t stand out from the surrounding buildings at all. It was big, it was run-down, it was made of brownish-red bricks with tall, stained black chimneys. I had no idea what had once been produced within, as there was no identifying sign left, save for the street name and number written on a small, rusted metal signpost.

The idea that my sister had died in such a stereotypical place almost made me cry, but I was angry enough to let any tears evaporate before they even left my tear ducts. Taking a deep breath and drawing my wholly inadequate hoodie closer around my body – West Coast or no, November was not the best time to run around in only your underwear, a hoodie and sweatpants. Especially if you were drenched in sweat from stupidly running like a madwoman – I walked through the open gate. It looked like someone had broken it down – probably the police when they’d stormed in to see what was going on.

Despite the late hour, the factory was, well, not well-lit but it was bright enough to see. The back half of the ceiling had collapsed at some point – I couldn’t tell if it was recent or not – and moonlight was flooding in, thanks to the cloudless sky and the current full moon.

There was still some police tape left at the scene, bright yellow that stood out sharply against the black, brown and grey of the factory. No police in sight, though, and why should there be – sure, they hadn’t caught the murderer, but it’d just been a supervillain girl who died. No one important.

I shook my head. No, that wasn’t fair. It probably had nothing to do with the police not wanting to help. She’d died almost a week ago, and whatever clues had been left here were most probably already filed away.

Past the police tape, the front half of the factory still stood, covered in dust and old grime, but apart from that, it looked like it could still light up and start working… though I still had no idea what it was meant to produce.

Gee, talk about avoiding the issue. Get your ass in gear, idiot!

Kicking myself in the ass, I looked through the place… and then I froze.

The chalk outline was still there. As were a lot of dark stains on the floor, many small ones and one really big ones…

Mesmerized, I stepped closer, until I was just a hair’s breadth away from having my shoes on the big stain.

Whoever had died here had bled. A lot.

What a way to go.

Then, I suddenly heard heavy steps behind me, and a gruff voice said: “Hey, miss, you’re not supposed to be here!”

Spinning around, my hand went for my baton – but then I stopped when I recognized the uniform the man was wearing.

In the movies, there’s usually only two kinds of fat cops. The dirty (in more ways than one), donut-and-burger eating asshole or the jolly good-natured veteran who takes it easy and likes all kinds of good food in large quantities (and donuts). You can usually tell them apart by how clean their uniform is, and by just how grossly overweight they are.

This guy… looked like a little bit of both. He was quite a bit taller than me, had at least three hundred pounds more on his body than I did and his uniform was straining quite a bit around his body – his fat was spread relatively evenly across his body, except for his impressive belly. He had very short black hair, barely visible beneath his policeman’s cap, rather attractive black eyes and heavy jowls.

He came to a stop near me, squinting to see me despite the twilight. The way I was standing, the full moon was falling on me from behind, hiding my face in the shade. Not that he’d recognize me, anyway.

“Miss, this is a dangerous part of town, especially for a young lady!” he said, his voice in stark contrast to his appearance. This guy made Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry sound like Micky Mouse on helium. Not to mention that the words did not fit the stereotype. “Miss?” he asked again, when I stayed silent.

I relaxed, letting my arms hang down by my sides loosely. “I’m sorry, officer. I just… wanted to see.”

He relaxed almost imperceptibly once he could see both of my hands. “See what, Miss? This ain’t a place for sight seeing. Nothing good happened here.”

“I know I…” I looked down. I’d taken a step back and was now standing on top of the biggest stain. “I… she died here…”

I looked around my feet. I was standing right where Linda had died. I was standing right where Linda died.

“My… my sister,” I chocked, suddenly unable to breath. “My sister died here… oh God, my sister died here.” I felt tears leak from my eyes as his expression turned from concerned to horrified and pitying.

Not that I cared. “Linda died here.” I tried to breath, but it came in too short. Not enough, I was feeling so dizzy. So I took another. And another, quicker one. Again. And again.

The factory began to spin, the policeman merging with the surroundings in my vision as I stumbled around, unable to keep my footing on the wobbling ground. She died here. She died here and I wasn’t with her!

* * *

I have no recollection of the five or ten minutes that followed my breakdown. I don’t know if I passed out or just repressed them, or whatever. All I know is that, some time later, I was leaning against the hood of a police car, eating an expensive donut with extra thick chocolate frosting, and drinking a cup of steaming hot chocolate.

The donut I get, but where the hell did he get hot chocolate from?

The policeman had the doors of the car open and the cabin light turned on. He was on the other side of the car, keeping it between us. Giving me some sense of privacy, after the utterly humiliating way I’d lost it in front of him. He was on his second donut, with a cup of steaming hot coffee on the side.

After a few more minutes of chewing and drinking, I said, “Thank you for the meal. And… thank you,” without turning around to face him.

“Not much of a meal, Miss Afolayan,” he said in that badass movie-cop voice. I was sure that people who heard him before they saw him imagined some kind of Dirty Harry slash Arnold Schwarzenegger guy.

Of course, what was more interesting was that he knew my name, and even pronounced it right. “H-how do you know who I am?” I asked, still not turning around.

He chuckled sadly. “You said your sister died here. One Linda Afolayan, alias Twitch, member and supposed leader of the StreetBadgers, a superpowered teenage villain team. More of a youth gang, really. Until a week ago, that is.”

I tensed up – I’d never actually heard of Linda’s supervillain name. I didn’t even know what kind of powers she’d had, or who her team had been.

“Do you… do you know more?” I asked, finally turning around to look at him across the hood of his car. I could see his nametag from here. Officer Widard.

I thought I’d heard that name before, somewhere. Maybe he has famous relatives?

He gave me an unbearably sad and compassionate look. “Miss, there’s other problems here. Namely the fact that a minor is out at night, in one of the worst parts of the town. And visiting the scene of a crime, no less.”

“I’m sixteen,” I replied, weakly. As if that meant anything. He ignored it.

“I’m afraid I’ll have to take you home, now. Please get into the car, Miss,” he said. He was saying ‘Please’ but there was no doubt he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

I was pretty sure that, if I ran away, he wouldn’t be able to keep up. There was no way he’d shoot me, and by the time he got into the car, I could have run down the street so he’d have to turn it first, or into an alley too narrow to drive into.

But… if I stayed with him, I might just get some information out of him. I really had no idea where to start. I didn’t even know who the StreetBadgers were, or who their members were, or where they could be found.

“Alright,” I said and got into the car. “My name’s Theresa Afolayan, by the way. Please call me Terry.”

He got in once I’d closed the door. His seat had been pushed back as far as possible for him to fit – even disregarding his girth, the guy was about six foot nine tall. “Name’s Tom Widard. A pleasure to meet you, Terry. Now, let’s get you home.”

* * *

He drove away from the old factory my other half had died in. I stayed quiet, for a minute or so, before speaking up.

“Sir, you seem to know a little about… about my sister’s case. No one’s told me anything, so I wanted to ask…”

Without taking his eyes off the street, the officer replied, “Normally, I’d say it’s up to your parents, Terry. But… I guess you deserve to know some. On one condition.”

Please don’t say… “What condition, Sir?”

“You’ll promise you won’t go off do something stupid like what you just did again. This part of the city really ain’t safe, at all.”

I thought it over, looking for loopholes in that promise. “Alright. I promise I won’t repeat those actions, no matter what you tell me,” I replied.

He didn’t seem to pick up on the loophole I’d built into it, or maybe he knew he wouldn’t get anything better out of me.

“Your sister was a member of a rather notorious youth gang. Call themselves the StreetBadgers. Mostly vandalism, graffiti, petty theft and some low-grade fights with other low-powered youth gangs. They all avoid the heroes cause they don’t stand a chance – maybe one in ten of them has anything more than a single Exemplar power, and almost none have any meaningful training,” he explained calmly, stating the facts the same way he’d probably do it if he was briefing a new partner. He sounded positively intimidating.

“Why have I never heard of them?” I asked. “I mean… any of them?”

He shrugged. “They’re really no more a problem than any other youth gang, Miss. Sure, their powers can be one hell of a headache, but even the most outlandish among them can be dealt with by us street cops, if we don’t go in blind – and most of them are low-level bricks, those are not hard to handle for even normal police officers – and they really pale to the real supervillains, so they don’t get much coverage.”

“What about the Badgers’ members? And could one of them have killed Linda?” If they’re that little of a problem, I should be able to pick them off one by one.

He sighed, as if he could read my thoughts. “Don’t even think it, Terry. The StreetBadgers are one of the more competent gangs out there.” But he still continued, laying them out for me: “Four members are left, now that your poor sister is gone. Fulcrum, a low-grade manipulator who can redirect the movement of any single object within his sight; LagForward – name’s supposedly written as one word, with the ‘F’ capitalized, an above-average brick for an Exemplar Tier meta, with the downside that he can assess his strength and speed only in momentary bursts,” he paused, drinking from a cup of coffee. “Foxfire, kind of their mascot. Low-level physique, and she creates this really annoying melon-sized ball of stroboscoping light, throwing it around and tasering anyone she hits. Finally, Razzle, he can create a cloud of sparkling fireworks and all, concealing and misdirecting. Can make it so it doesn’t block her or her friend’s vision.”

He stopped talking to let me digest that, finally driving out of the Shades and into Esperanza proper. The streets finally turned brighter.

So, there were four subjects. But… “You didn’t answer my question. Do you think any one of them is the murderer?” I clenched my fists.

“Nah,” he shook his head, not even thinking about it. “They’re brats, but these gangs are tight, and the StreetBadgers are known for loyalty. Besides, your sister… she was killed with a military-grade rapid-fire shotgun, using modified shells meant for fighting metahumans. No way those kids could have gotten their hands on it, half of them are younger than you are.”

I nodded. “My sister… what do you know about… about her? As a supervillain?” I asked, half afraid of the answer.

It took him some time to answer as we got closer to my home. Then he said, “Her name was Twitch. She was the second most recent recruit of the group, after Razzle. Suspected low-grade physique, but judging from you, that was misapplied. Some kind of danger sense and/or limited precognition. They really started rising up once she joined them, winning fight after fight, always evading us poor cops.”

“Could she fly?” I blurted out. We’d always dreamed of flying.

He threw me a curious glance as he waited for the next green light. “No. Pure Brainpowers, far as we can tell. Of course, it’s not like we know everything…”

I leaned back in my seat, pulling my arms close around myself. Couldn’t she at least get that one thing?

“Why would anyone want to kill her?” I whispered, only half to him. “Do you have any suspects?” I asked, louder.

“I’m sorry, but no,” he said, looking honestly so. “This whole thing… it makes no sense. Whoever killed your sister had professional gear. But what reason would a professional have to kill a teenage gang member?” He ran the fingers of one hand through his messy dark hair (he’d taken his cap off earlier).

“Maybe she found something out she shouldn’t know?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine any real reason, either.

“Maybe.” He fell silent.

“Where do they usually h-” I started asking, hoping I’d get some more information, but he threw me a glance that shut me up.

“No. I won’t tell you where you can find them. I’ll get you home, and hand you over to your parents. You know, the legal, right thing to do. I’m sure they’re worried sick.”

I didn’t answer. I barely knew him, but I could tell he was the kind of guy who wouldn’t budge. The fact that he was more than three times my weight didn’t make it better.

* * *

A minute or so later, the officer was cursing under his breath. There’d been a traffic accident, a truck had apparently spun out of control and was now lying across the street, blocking it entirely. He had to take a way around, but Esperanza, though far better planned than most cities, had a lot of construction and reconstruction, as well as maintenance going on right now, despite the winter weather.

We drove for a few minutes, constantly re-diverted by construction sites and, in one case, a battle between the Six Sentries and some villains I didn’t recognize.

He took a shortcut through the nearby Shades, and that’s when I saw a large piece of graffiti writing, saying ‘StreetBadgers’ in white-black-white lettering.

Take this chance, dummy.

I decided on a course of action. It was a dickmove, especially considering how nice Officer Widard had been, but well… family comes first.

“S-sir?” I asked, trying to sound as unsteady as I could. I’d been silent for a while, just looking out the window, and it wasn’t a stretch to play the role I had in mind.

“Yes, Terry?” he asked, never taking his eyes off the street. Good, he might have noticed something.

“I… ugh, I think that… that donut isn’t agreeing with me… I think I’m gonna throw up,” I said, speaking like I was ill, putting a hand over my mouth. Making a suspicious break in the sentence, to make it look like I was blaming my state on the donut and meaning something else.

Like my sister’s death.

“Wait, I’ll pull to the side. Can you hold it in for a moment?”

“I’ll try…” Gotta love nice people. I held my stomach, curling up on the seat.

He pulled over to the side of the street and got out, circling the car to unlock the door on my side and help me out (he was smart enough not to unlock it first and give me an easy escape).

I let him help me out of the car and stumbled with him in toe away from the car to a trash can, bending over.

“I’m really sorry, Sir,” I apologized, meaning it. Before he could react, I lashed out with my foot, kicking him in the balls.

As he keeled over – and I felt like vomiting for real now, what in God’s name am I thinking? – I bolted, running into an alley that would take me roughly towards the street I saw the graffiti art.

I doubt he’ll be that nice to random teenagers in trouble again.

* * *

I found the graffity again. It had been expertly painted on the front of an old restaurant building. Striped like a badger. How imaginative. Did Linda really hang out with people who do art like this?

It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t look like something really original.

You’re stalling again.

Not that I had any idea how to proceed.

Get off the main street, dummy. The officer might remember this and come to look for you.

I walked around the corner of the building – and finally realized why they called these parts of the city the Shades. I’d read about them, seen reports, but…

Esperanza had been built atop the ruins of Los Angeles. Literally in some cases – a lot of the city was standing on gigantic concrete pillars, or raised parts of the earth that had been moved by Desolation-in-Light. Many of the old parts were constantly in the shadow because of that.

Right now, I was in an alley that would have been jet-black if not for a single, flickering lightbulb over a side entrance.

That graffiti was territorial marking. So their hideout should be close.

I pulled my hood over my head, and went down the alley, looking around for further signs of the StreetBadgers.

* * *

After about half an hour, I knew one thing for sure. I should have brought a torch.

And a map. And a compass. Because I was utterly, completely lost. I could barely see the sky from where I was standing, and it was really miserably cold here.

Shivering, I walked pretty much blindly through the place, until a nearby trashcan tipped over and something flew at me.

I’ll deny it if anyone ever asks, but I shrieked like a little girl when a dark, red-eyed shade bounced at me – and then a pretty big cat with reddish-brown eyes and a jet-black coat of fur smacked into my chest, making me fall back onto my butt.

I looked down at it, feeling slightly silly. But only slightly, because beeing jumped by red-eyed black things in dark alleys was a common element of horror stories nowadays, even more than ever before.

“Hello kittie. Whatever is a pretty thing like you doing in a place like this?”

It really was a pretty cat. He – I just assumed it was a tomcat – was big, weighted about twelve pounds by my estimation and had a long tail and a fluffy, long coat. His eyes were really more brown than red, but still. Damn.

I stroked his fur – it was quite clean and fluffy, and he purred like a starting jet, only softer. “Do you belong to someone, you big cutie?” Checking him over, I found no markings whatsoever.

The tomcat (I checked) flicked his tail and jumped off my lap, turning around then looking back at me. Expectantly.

Wait, is that cat telling me to follow it?

Well, my life was weird enough as it was, anyway. And I had no idea where to go, anyway.

And maybe he belonged to the StreetBadgers. Coincidences happen, right?

I followed him, trying to stick close so as not to lose him in the darkness.

* * *

The cat took me to an old, abandoned parking garage. The large building had seen way better days, and looked rather uninteresting, not to mention uninviting.

But when I followed the tomcat, we passed by a pillar that a stylized badger had been sprayed on. Ohhh. Good kittie.

I followed him, now more carefully. One hand beneath my hoodie, at the baton I’d tucked into the back of my pants.

The tomcat led me to some stairs… and a few trash cans beside them. He jumped onto one and starting looking for food.

Oh. That’s what you wanted.

Still, way useful. I snuck past the cat up the stairs. They were at the center of the parking garage and obviously very old… but there was barely any dust around.

I snuck up the stairs to the next level. Nothing to be seen. Nor on the next one.

Then I heard voices on the third level.

Holding my breath, I snuck to the doorless opening, hiding on one side to glance inside.

There was actually some moonlight here, if barely. There were a lot of crates and other shapes lying around, or piled up. I couldn’t make them all out in the current lighting.

There were also four figures standing in a circle, arguing about something in some Asian language. I had no idea which one it was, though it might have been Japanese (Linda had been way into anime).

I waited as they argued. And somehow, somewhere, my rage from earlier came up again.

These people had taken Linda away. She’d hung out with them, instead of me. Told them of her problems, instead of me. Fought with them, instead of me.

Linda died, and they didn’t save her.

I pulled my baton out and snapped it open. It clicked.

Dammit. The conversation stopped, and the figures – I could just barely make out two boys, a girl and a third, shorter one – turned to look at me. They didn’t call out. They didn’t wait. They started moving immediately. Flickering lights began to form around the shortest one, showing me a boy in his early teens, wearing skater clothes and a magician’s mask. Then the cloud expanded, obscuring my vision of the group. Except for one really buff, tall chinese boy, wearing jeans and a thick vest, as well as army boots. He stomped in my direction.

I could also make out a melon-sized sphere in the cloud of fireworks that was rapidly switching colours.

I don’t know why exactly I did it, later. Was I really that angry? That unstable? I should have put my baton away and talked to them. They ought to recognize me. And even if Linda had never told them about me, I did look a lot like her. I should have talked.

Instead I pulled my hood down and attacked them.

Not my smartest move.

The Chinese boy – probably LagForward – gave a start when I charged him, but he blocked my strike with a lazy motion.

I pulled my knee up to hit him in the balls, but he just blurred to the side, going super-fast for just a split-second.

The sphere that had been thrown out of the cloud of fireworks missed him by a split-second before hitting me in the gut. Last thing I saw was yellow, then all black.

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