Chiaroscuro 10.5

Sean laid as still as he could while the ring of light passed around his body with a hum that made his bones tingle.

“We’re almost done,” drifted a woman’s voice from behind a partition. “just a few more moments and we can get you out of there.

Sean didn’t reply- He’d picked up by now that moving at all just made it take longer.

“Aaaand, done.”

A minute or so later, he, Dr. Mind, and the woman, who went by Dr. Kessler, gathered around a screen to inspected the results of the test. Dr. Mind shifted in his seat and adjusted the lapels of his olive suit.

“The good news is that I don’t see any obvious changes from last night,” Dr. Kessler said. “the bad news is that it didn’t heal immediately either, but given the severity of the injury I wouldn’t expect to see improvement over so short a time. I’d consider stability the best outcome that could be expected.”

“Would you mind explaining what exactly is going on?” Sean asked. He kept staring at the mottled images, uncomfortably aware that they were cross-sections of his own brain.

“Sure,” Dr. Kessler said. She tapped the screen and pulled up a very different looking image of a brain with a much less dramatic color gradient. “What we see here is the brain of a nominally healthy non-metahuman individual.” She pulled up a third image. “And this is a healthy metahuman. This area here,” she drew a circle on the screen and a red circle appeared, “is called the Borden-Hewlett-Dawes area– there’s a funny story behind the name actually. It appears in roughly 80% of metahumans and 2% of non-metahumans, though the expression varies for each individual. In fact, this is the only reliable test to detect metahumans. Now if you look at your brain, you can see that this area is consuming dramatically more oxygen than the surrounding tissue. For whatever reason, your BHD area has become hyperactive even under otherwise normal conditions.”

“But I don’t… feel any different,” Sean said, his brow furrowed.

“You wouldn’t,” she said. “In your case this part of the brain has relatively few connections to parts of the brain responsible for cognition or perception.”

“And remember that this is with the Nullifier on,” Dr. Mind added. “However it works, the Nullifier doesn’t seem to affect brain activity in that way.”

“That’s exactly right.” Dr. Kessler nodded. “Even though your metahuman ability is unable to express itself, your brain is responding as though it’s always active. This would almost certainly have long term side effects if I weren’t going to immediately give you the maximum dosage of denudine I can legally prescribe.”

Dr. Mind looked taken aback. “Is that really necessary?” He asked. Dr. Kessler turned to him and said sternly,

“Given what I saw from your friend’s tests, I could not morally recommend otherwise. He had significant plaque build-up around the BHD area that could cause brain damage and permanent memory loss.”

Dr. Mind looked away and took a deep breath to steady himself.

“So I won’t be able to use my powers,” Sean said.

“It’s probably best to treat this like a normal traumatic brain injury, so that means no power use, yes, and also no bright or flashing lights, no difficult math. Because of the interactions between Denudine and Neuraplast, we can’t use the latter, which means that recovery could take a very long time.”

Sean was silent for a few moments, and Dr. Kessler’s expression softened.

“Normally, in a case like this, if I thought there was a risk of remission, I might investigate the possibility of surgery to remove that part of the brain. You’re very lucky that we already have a way to mitigate the effects while you heal.”

“No, I get it,” Sean said. “It’s just,” He struggled to come up with the words for a moment. “This is who I am. Using my powers to help people is all I do.”

“You are helping people,” Dr. Kessler said, putting a hand on Sean’s shoulder. “This is the first time we’ve been able to study and record this phenomenon. With your help, we could dramatically expand our knowledge of how metahuman abilities are expressed.”
Sean gave her a hollow smile. “I think I’d like to get some rest and do some thinking on my own, if it’s all the same.”

“Of course, take all the time you need.”

Sean left the room and returned to the small long-term suite he’d been moved into. He placed the nullifier he now carried with him on a table and sagged down into a white armchair.

It was several minutes before the thought struck him that he didn’t particularly feel anything. This turned into confusion as he realized he had been simply staring at a wall for some time without any other profound thoughts.

His heart lurched in his chest as a burst of panic gripped at him.

This isn’t right, he thought. There’s something wrong with me. This isn’t right.

***

Jeffrey glanced at his watch to get the next address and took off running. The world slowed around him as his reflexes accelerated to match his speed. The hospital where he’d delivered a heart for an emergency transplant vanished in a blur behind him. It only took a few seconds to hit his top speed, at which point the cars and buildings around him took on a bluish tint. He glanced at his wrist again and, adjusting his direction a bit, ran into the side of a building. The interior of the building blurred past and in less than a second he was out again.

He reached his destination in just a few minutes to find a woman with graying hair holding a small wooden box. One more glance at his wrist confirmed that the deposit had gone through and gave him her name. She startled a bit as he came to a halt.

“Tamara Clay?” Jeffrey​ asked.

“Yes, that’s me,” she said. She held out the box to him and he accepted it. He hefted it a bit, estimating its weight. It was about the length and width of his forearm, and fairly heavy for its size. He didn’t ask what was in it- that would defeat the purpose. After checking his watch for the destination, he gave Tamara a nod, put the package carefully into his backpack, and ran. He had to go a little out of his way to build up speed, because the roads didn’t go quite in the right direction, but soon he was able to adjust his trajectory to vector in on his destination. The fastest route would take him through what looked like a pawn shop.

He went through the plate glass window at nearly sixty miles per hour. Shards of glass blasted through the room, lacerating a patron and blinding the clerk. Hearing the noise and the screams of pain, the heavily-armed men in the back boiled out to discover a scene of absolute carnage, like their front business had been hit by a cannon.

It wasn’t for several days that the remains were identified as the super-fast courier who had unknowingly entered the radius of the null-field surrounding the shop.

***

Graham and I pushed through the double doors into the mess hall. The noise struck me immediately- the large, open room did little to dampen the sound of a hundred or so people eating and talking. I scanned the crowd and vaguely recognized people from Durian Park, but my attention was focused on the food. A short time later, I was seated with a plate containing about half a chicken. My eyes scanned the room, looking for someone who seemed to be in charge. Graham leaned towards me while I ate.

“What are you thinking?” He asked, voice low.

I finished what I was chewing and pointed to a man wearing some kind of security uniform I’d picked out.

“He’s not armed,” I said. “And there’s only one of him for,” I paused and glanced at the people busily eating around the mess, “a few dozen of us. They’re really not worried.”

“Why would they? They’ve got Interdiction on their side,” Graham said.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a woman in a similar uniform to the security guard I’d spotted earlier enter the room and sweep her attention across the room. Her eyes stopped when she met mine and started to approach the table. Graham followed my gaze and, seeing what I was looking at, leaned back and did his best to look disinterested.

“Hello,” she said with a small wave as she got near. “Would you be Shadow?”
“That would be correct,” I said. “You are?”

“I’m Callie,” she said. “I was told I might find you here. Do you mind if I join you for a few moments?”

“please do.”

She sat down roughly across from me, next to Graham, who moved over a bit to give her space.

“I’m going to be giving you a quick rundown of the situation here to get you up to speed. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.”

Yes!

“Does everyone get a personal briefing?” I asked.

A small smile touched Callie’s face. “Not everyone, no. You’re somewhat of a special case, though, aren’t you? And you were actually one of the last people to wake up,” she watched me carefully, gauging my reaction. I betrayed nothing, or so I hoped.

“Sounds right,” I said. “Alright, shoot.”

“If it’s all the same, I’m going to need you to sign some paperwork first.” She passed me a clipboard with a pen dangling from a string. “We need to speedrun some security clearance levels so you’re not already in trouble, actually. Finish that while you eat and then meet me outside so we can go somewhere to talk a bit more privately.”

I didn’t miss Graham’s jealous look. I accepted the clipboard and scanned the first page.

“Neat,” I said, distracted.

It was hard to disguise how far my stomach dropped. Though the layout was slightly different, the form looked similar to the ones I’d filled out recently for my application for full-time hero status, but in place of the seal of the US Department of Metahuman Affairs were the logos of the UN and the International Threat Assessment Bureau. Background check paperwork, but for an organization much less forgiving of villainous ancestors.

“See you outside,” she said with a smile, then stood up and started towards the exit.

My hand shook for a moment, but I steadied it before I started writing.

***

When Patricia heard news of the third Nightmare event in Collswell City in about as many months, she grabbed an energy drink from the fridge and set himself up at her battlestation as quickly as she could without spilling anything. It only took a few keystrokes (and one excessively long password) to get logged into the IRC server she was a part of to discuss the ongoing event. After the initial burst of speculation when the news broke, and a second when the first footage was released, the chat slowed down as people realized this was going to be a long one. At some point, Patricia woke up and was surprised that she had fallen asleep. She checked the time to confirm that her energy drink had worn off but she’d only slept for a few hours. The flurry of activity from the IRC server caught her eye. After skimming a few messages for context, she leapt into action.

The footage from inside the event had very quickly become something of a white whale on the darknet. Generally any video that was uploaded to the internet could be found in an archive somewhere, no matter how fast it’s deleted, but it was being erased even from backups of databases, which meant someone was running a very persistent spider to make sure nobody ever found it. But soon enough, it was found.

For her part, as soon as the file finished torrenting, she yanked the ethernet cables out of her computer. Though she knew it was a faux-pas not to seed, it was more important to preserve the file somewhere. She made a few copies to various clean media she kept around (a few thumb drives, a portable hard disk, a backup laptop). Reconnecting, she found that the torrent she had pulled from was already gone.

Somehow, in the time she had been gone, the IRC had accumulated several hundred new messages. One in particular on the admin messages caught her eye:

Matthias: DON’T WATCH IT UNTIL WE KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO ZILOFONE.

As she ran a quick search for the nickname ‘Zilofone.’

Zilofone: Mine’s done. Gonna watch it

Diplomath: Let us know if it’s worth it Zilofone!

Pyotr: Yeah Zilofone lemme know if it’s NSFL

Pyotr: Zilofone you there?

VantaRay: Maybe he died

Cruxx: Yo anybody know Zilofone or Diplomath? I’m getting worried haha

VantaRay: Shit I was joking but what if he actually died?

The list expanded as another message appeared. With a practiced keystroke Patricia exited the search and jumped to the newest message.

Zilofone: holy shit

Zilofone: holy shit you guys my monitor exploded

An explosion of comments quickly pushed Zilofone’s message off the screen, ending with:

Matthias: What happened?

Zilofone: i was using an old CRT. When i played the footage it burned in super fast and the magic smoke escaped.

Pyotr: Censorware?

Zilofone: I had to find a new monitor

Matthias: not anything I’ve ever heard of. Bad luck maybe? @Diplomath?

Diplomath: mine too y’all. Big dead spot in the middle of the screen.

Diplomath: i got three monitors tho cause Im not a casual

Diplomath: still pissed though, why’d it have to be righty?

Cruxxx: That’s some serious shit, wow.

Pyotr: Did you see anything?

Zilofone: not much,

“What the fuck,” Patricia said out loud, shook her head, and set about scrounging through her shelves of spare parts for a disposable monitor. It wasn’t long before she came across an old projector she used to use to watch movies before she got sick of its relatively low quality. It took her longer to find the right series of converters to actually connect to the outdated hardware. She set up the projector and while the bulb warmed up, in a moment of foresight of which she was quite proud, she grabbed her crutches and headed to the kitchen to retrieve the fire extinguisher from under the sink.

She lowered herself back into her chair and cracked her knuckles for dramatic effect.

Zilofone: there was something on the screen. not censorware.

Zilofone: have you seen The Ring?

VantaRay: come on man.

Patricia typed her reaponse:

Vetinari: I’m going to try. Got a circa 2000 projector rigged up.

She dragged the file over to the projector, took a deep breath, and opened it.

It didn’t look like much initially. Cell phone footage, in the evening.

“It’s starting!” Said someone near the camera.

“I’m cold,” complained a young voice.

A pang of sadness struck Patricia as she realized that these people were caught in the event. They had no idea what was about to happen to them.

The screen lit up with the dim light projectors use as black, a grainy grey rectangle hovering in a dark frame. It flashed white, illuminsting the crowd with reflected light for a moment.

An image like light projected through burning film appeared in the off-center rectangle that was the screen within her screen, bubbles of dull brown growing among a field of tiny white specks. One of the bubbles seemed to burst, releasing a beam of brilliant white light that was visible shining from the projector in the night air. No, not shining from the projector. The angles were wrong. Patricia leaned in closer. The beams of light were shining out of the screen.

It was then that she noticed that the boiling, burning effect had spread beyond the screen-within-the-screen to fill a full third of the area she was projecting onto. The faint acrid smell and the whining of the projector were what finally activated her emergency shutdown response. She slammed the heel of her good foot down on the switch on the power strip that powered most of her battlestation.

The power cut out immediately, but before the light from the projector could fade, one of the bubbles burst, and a beam of light raked across her room.

She blinked the spots out of her eyes as she waited for her racing heart to settle down. Even once her eyes had cleared she she could hardly believe what she was looking at. The paint on the wall she had projected on had bubbled up and charred, peeling away from the drywall in flaky, burned strips.

“What the fuck?”

***

Kevin and wren watched as the red minivan pulled up from their seats atop the chilly chest-high concrete barrier at the edge of the parking lot. Kevin hopped down and waved a greeting to his parents. His mom rolled down a window and called put to him,

“Keviiin!” She waved enthusiastically, and was out of the car almost before it had fully stopped. She rushed over to him and swept him up in a hug, then stepped back and gestured to Wren. He hopped down as well and was on the receiving end of a hug the moment his feet touched the ground. After a moment, he smiled and returned the hug.

“I still can’t believe you both drove all this way,” Kevin said.

“My parents always made me find my own way home. No way am I going to make you go through that,” his father said.

“Hi Dawn, Keith,” Wren greeted the pair.

“Wren, it’s good to see you,” Dawn said. “Kevin told us what happened. I’m glad you’re OK.”

“Thanks.” Wren put a hand on the back of his neck.

It took a few minutes to load suitcases into the minivan.

“I swear to god, I still have no idea how you manage to fit everything in there,” Kevin remarked when they finished.

“I blame Tetris,” Dawn commented.

Keith grinned. “See? All that time was worth something!”

After a brief discussion between Kevin’s parents about who wanted to drive, they all boarded the van and the doors slid shut with a rattling thump.

Wren patted his pockets for a moment and glanced behind his seat towards the trunk.

“Forget something?” Dawn asked.

“Probably not, but I always feel like I did,” Wren said, brow furrowed.

“Well, you’ll remember in a few hours,” Keith said, looking back at them in the rear view mirror. “y’all ready?”

After a round of affirmatives, they were off.

***

The gate buzzed and clicked open, inviting Jamisson to enter. Kismet glanced around somewhat uncomfortably, out of place in-costume among uniformed adults. The Wardens of Tomorrow had only just returned from Japan, where the political situation was rapidly evolving. The young heroes had been compelled to go through a battery of interviews by a vast array of government agencies, but Jamisson had been able to requisition Kismet for the purposes of interrogating another precog.

“Evening, Sir, Ma’am” a guard greeted him in a tired voice and ushered him inside.

Jamisson looked around as he passed through the gate. Almost all of the guards looked similarly tired- lingering effects of the recent Nightmare event. They had yet to get an official designation from Monitor at the ITAB, which was unusual.

“Director,” the prison warden said. “I need to apologise.”

“No need,” Jamisson said. “You reacted appropriately given the information you had.”

“Thank you.” The warden nodded. “Right this way.”

The broad-shouldered man lead Jamisson down the spartan hall toward the interview room.

“We’ve had him under strict precog protocol as instructed,” the warden spoke with his back to Jamisson. “To be frank, I’m not completely comfortable having two precogs under our roof.”

Kismet nodded.

“Three precogs,” Jamisson corrected him and gestured to Kismet.

“Hm,” the warden grunted. “Good thinking.”

They reached the interview room and were ushered through a set of heavy metal doors by the warden. Randolph Ermen sat in a chair on the opposite side of the interview room, a sheet of thick glass separating them. His suit was gone, replaced with an orange prison jumpsuit with a vertical cyan stripe across the front and back.

“Dr. Ermen,” Jamisson said. Kismet pulled a disgusted face.

“Director,” the prisoner replied in unaccented english. “Warden. I should thank you for the denudine. I find it much more comfortable.”

The warden crossed his arms. “I remind you that precogs are often expert manipulators,” the warden said to Jamisson and Kismet from his position by the door. “And Denudine doesn’t undo predictions they’ve already made.”

“It does not,” Ermen agreed, “but it does clear my thoughts, so thank you.”

“Were you responsible for the recent Nightmare events?” Jamisson asked.

Kismet’s eyes widened a moment before Ermen responded.

“Yes,” Ermen said.

The warden looked sharply at Jamisson, who for his part appeared stoic.

“Why?” Jamisson asked.

“I had no choice,” Ermen said.

“No choice?”

“He’s a second-order precog?” Kismet said, looking at Jamisson in horror.

Jamisson gave a small, controlled nod.

Ermen displayed his hands, palms up.“You at least have the comforting illusion of free will, but I do not.”

The vast majority of precogs were first-order precogs who fell victim to the observer effect- that is, the act of observing the future changes their own reactions and thereby changes the future. Because of this they could be caught off-guard, with effort. Second-order precogs, however, could predict events given their own reactions. The only real way to stop them was to put them in a position that was impossible to escape. Classification broke down further into probabilistic and deterministic based on how many possibilities they could foresee. Kismet was classified as a first-order deterministic precog.

“There is only one best possible end to all this. Sometimes there is,” he tilted a hand side to side, “flexibility. But I am a puppet on a wire. Any deviation only makes the future darker.”

“You’re being awfully cooperative,” Jamisson commented.

“The nullifier,” Kismet whispered to Jamisson.

“There is a period of darkness coming into which I cannot see, but sharing what I know now makes the world that comes out of it stronger.” He shrugged, the casual gesture at odds with his serious tone. “I am where I need to be. The world needs to change very quickly if we want to make it through the times ahead.”

“A word?” The warden said, gesturing to Jamisson and Kismet. They leaned in close and he spoke in hushed tones.

“Based on what I’ve heard I don’t recommend interacting with him further,” the warden said. “We’re getting uncomfortably close to Prophecy, which is always risky business.”

“I understand. I’ll avoid further questions on the topic.”

Jamisson turned back to Ermen.

“Tell us about Temple.”

Ermen sighed. “He is a means that I dearly wish was not justified by his end. His unique ability… it also affects himself,” he explained. “The first words he spoke when his ability manifested were ‘I will kill you,’ and this became his singular purpose.”

“What?” Kismet exclaimed, recoiling. Jamisson looked at her in surprise, and the warden drew his handgun and pointed it at Ermen through the glass.

Ermen casually turned his gaze to Kismet. “Look after your friend, Legion.”

***

“Ned, you know how much red tape I keep off your back,” Mary said, struggling to keep her inflection neutral. “Why now?”

“I know. That’s why it’s not fair to expect you to manage such a large account in your condition,” replied the mousy man on her laptop screen. “This is for the best, so you don’t have to worry about work while you recover.”

“I see. My condition.” Her retort died on her tongue, not wanting to burn this bridge. Goddammit, she liked Black Diamond, even if her agent was an ass. Sometimes professionalism was a bitch. “Give my regards to Black Diamond,” she said, and ended the call.

She stared blankly at the wall behind the laptop for a moment. Looking back down, she paused for a moment at the desktop background– a photo of her and Will hiking in the woods out by Redlake. Will was maybe eight in the picture, she couldn’t quite remember. Before everything fell apart.

It’s still falling apart, she thought darkly.

Pressing her thumb to the USB biometric scanner plugged into her laptop, she opened up her books. Three accounts left, now that Black Diamond was gone. The Wardens’ accounts, especially Paragon had been huge and massively successful. With them gone, more than half of her income stream had evaporated overnight, and without the ability to physically meet with potential clients, her ability to find new accounts was severely limited. Her reputation and experience only went so far when she was confined to bed rest. On top of that, the treatments required to stop the nanites from spreading, unconventional at best and untested at worst, were atrociously expensive, well beyond the point her insurance was willing to cover.

A knock at the door pulled her away from that dark spiral.

“Come in,” she said.

The door opened and a nurse entered

“I thought you might like some food. You usually ask for dinner around this time, and the bistro had broccoli cheddar.”

“Thank you, Howard,” Mary said, forcing a small smile. She closed the laptop and set it aside to make room for the tray of food. Howard slid the tray onto the table mounted over her lap.

“Oh, and your husband dealt with your bills.”

Mary paused, setting down the spoon so she didn’t throw it across the room.

“Did he,” she said quietly, jaw setting.

***

The detectives agreed that this was a professional job. Meticulously planned and executed, with a finesse rarely seen in this sort of robbery. At 2:03 pm, a rainbow-colored triangular pillar slid silently through the door, past the row of tellers, and into the open vault, sucking up cash like a vacuum. Moments later, it exited out the back of the bank, clearing out the armored car in the same manner. Two shots fired by security, which somehow neatly punctured the tires of both escort vehicles, before the psychedelic prism lowered itself through a storm drain and disappeared. The entire robbery took barely a minute, so fast the alarm wasn’t even sounded until the vault was already empty. By the time the police arrived, all that was left was a crowd of confused civilians and some shaken security officers.

Yes, the detectives agreed, this was definitely over their head.

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Chiaroscuro 10.4

When we last left our heroes

Two of the three largest metahuman gangs in the city have imploded in the wake of a powerful precog with a vendetta who was also indirectly responsible for the dissolution of the city’s major hero team, but the remaining gang is eying the power vacuum hungrily. Their leader seems to have her eyes on Will for reasons as of yet unknown, and seems willing to cooperate against Temple.

The federal agency that oversees government sponsored superheroes has officially shut down the Wardens of Tomorrow after growing political pressure from Virtue, but they continue to operate in unofficial capacity, creating friction between Jamisson and his superiors.

The chaos in the city has attracted the attention of Dr. Randolph Ermen, a man who rumor says has foreseen the end of the world, and who can make powerful metahumans into ticking time bombs. Into the fray enters Temple, leader of a paramilitary organization by dint of his mind-affecting abilities. Increasing the pressure on his quarry, Temple released schematics for a cheap, reliable power-suppressing device to the public, and in response, Randwulf sent a dangerous piece of dangerous footage to the media.

Something smells fishy within the metahuman registration lobbying organization known as Virtue, and Savage is trying to sniff it out. If the head of the national organization’s son was brainwashed by Temple, who else could be under his influence?

Kevin joined the small but growing team, guilty about his role in the kidnapping of Charity and his failure to protect Wren. In the process,Wren learned that he is a powerful metahuman, a fact that his parents hid from him for many years. In light of the two recent Nightmare events and open gang violence in the city, Collswell University has closed early for Thanksgiving.

Sean was also caught a glimpse of Randwulf’s image and has been taken to a neurological research facility by Dr. Mind, along with the ex-hero Locus, another victim.

The Wardens of Tomorrow inadvertently liberated Japan from its technocratic overlord. Adam gave his life to save his sisters and prevent the return of the late supervillain Dr. Destructo and his army of nigh-unstoppable cyborgs. Thanks to the advanced technology created by Dr. Mind during his time ruling Japan, however, it was possible to revive him from a copy of his consciousness stored before his death. What could this technology mean for the rest of the world?

Will’s father, formerly the notorious villain Psyghast, has returned to Collswell City to check on Will, but his thoughts are clouded by bad news about Will’s mother. Will, his father, and Translocator worked together to teleport the victims of Dr. Ermen’s attack to safety from Temple’s soldiers- or did Translocator have other orders?

***

Awareness returned all at once, with no waiting period. I found myself seated in a wooden chair at a table with a glass of water in front of me.

“Can you tell us your name please?” said the man seated across the table from me a second, larger man stood silently behind him, in front of the door.

I looked around the room, disoriented. How did I get here? I patted the pockets of the body armor I was still wearing to find that my phone was missing, along with my earpiece and the other miscellaneous equipment I carried with me. I still had my parachute cord- I could feel it braided around my wrist. My helmet was gone, but I hadn’t been wearing it at the park anyway. Most importantly, I couldn’t feel the air around me. A null field. I picked up the glass of water and peered at it suspiciously. I was thirsty. Very thirsty.

“Your name,” the man said, more aggressively.

I held up one finger as I drank the water, (to buy time, I told myself), eyes exploring the room. Where the fuck am I? White cinderblock walls, green-painted metal door, an obvious two-way mirror on one wall.

“Do I have the option of speaking to a lawyer?” I said when I finished.

The man laughed a bit, but it was dry and lifeless. “Heard that plenty tonight. You’re not in any trouble. We’re just trying to piece together what happened.”

Right, I thought, taking a closer look at the larger of the two men. Hence the security.

“Your name please,” he repeated.

“Shadow,” I said.

“Your full name,”

“According to UMBRA, that is my name,” I said, watching his face carefully. “If want to know more you’ll need to do some paperwork.” It was that of the man behind him that caught my attention, though. He has until now had been stoic, but his eyes zeroed in on me the moment I mentioned the metahuman registration law. Looking closer, I could see the tension in his jaw muscles. Something was up. They didn’t recognize my hero name, but now they perk up. I guess now I know I’m not in Kansas anymore.

“Will we now?” said the man seated opposite me, not betraying any surprise. “Fair enough. I suppose it’s safe to assume you had metahuman abilities prior to the incident.”

“That would be correct,” I said, settling back into the chair. As if the body armor and the earpiece didn’t already give that away. Or did they really not catch on to that? I thought.

“Would you care to demonstrate?” he asked, leaning forward.

What’s his game here? We’re in a null zone, of course I can’t… Wait. I thought back to Sean summoning his shield despite the null field. If I hadn’t felt this before I wouldn’t know what it feels like. They’re testing if I’ve been affected. I struggled not to react as the thought struck me. That means they know about Randwulf!

“I’d be happy to,” I said, holding up a hand. After a moment, I looked at it, pulling in my brow in mock confusion. “Sorry, this uh, doesn’t usually happen,” I said. I stared at my hand, gradually clenching my muscles to make it shake a bit and held a deep breath to feign exertion. Defeated, I let out the breath and let my hand fall to the table, doing my best to look disappointed. “I don’t know what to tell you. It doesn’t seem to be working. I probably just need to recharge- I’m really hungry.”

As I said it, I realized that it was true- I was starving. I’d eaten most of a box of granola bars in the dorm after Durian Park, but it must have been some time since then.

“We’ll have food for you when you rejoin the others,” he said. “We just have a few more questions.”

The thought of food drove the suspicion from my mind for a moment “I’d be happy to help,” I said, eager to get them over with at the promise of food.

Wait, think. That’s probably what they want. My thought process stalled for a moment. And why is that so bad? Who are these people?

“Could you describe in detail what happened at 8:00 last night?”

Last night? Good, it hasn’t been too long. Probably.

“How much do you already know? I was to make sure I’m not-”

“Just go over everything,” he interrupted.

Damn.

I gave him a brief summary of what had happened, but leaving out a few pieces- Sean seeing and being affected the by the image Randwulf projected, my dad’s role in cleaning up the aftermath, and any personally identifiable information.

When I was done, I paused then asked, “What’s going on? Where are we?” hopefully they’ll feel obliged to share some information now. Come on, reciprocity!

“I’m afraid we know about as much as you do,” he said, not even trying to sound believable or answer my second question.

Fine, that’s how we’re going to play this. Glad I was so cautious earlier.

The larger of the two men stepped aside from the door and the man who had been interviewing me stood and opened it. “You’re free to go,” he said. “there should still be food available in the mess hall to the left.”

I brushed past him, making gentle contact out of habit. Pity I can’t mark him, I thought as I stepped out into the sunlight, then sneezed at the sudden bright light.

***

Busayo crouched down and stared at the huge bundle of I-beams arranged in the construction site. She shifted to one side and glanced up at the structure, then back at the beams. She nodded to herself and closed her eyes while she took a deep breath, then opened one eye. Otherwise perfectly still, she reached out and easily wrapped one hand around the whole bundle. Slowly, carefully, she stood, lifting the bundle off the ground inch by inch. To another observer, the bundle would have appeared to rise inexplicably into the air while she stared at it unblinking from the ground below through a circle made by her hand.

Legally, she was a crane operator, fully licensed and accredited, but she collected the equipment fuel and maintenance budget in addition to her salary. Cheaper, faster, and more reliable than the real thing, and she hardly had to break a sweat.

A car playing loud music approaching on the street behind her distracted her for a moment, but she kept her focus. She began to pivot, rotating the bundle towards the building, where a place had been cleared for it on one of the upper floors of the scaffolding. The music continued to get louder.

“Hey meta!” A voice behind her shouted. “Suck on this!”

The bundle vanished from her grasp so suddenly it made her blink. She barely registered that it was falling, but on reflex she kept only one eye open and put her other hand in its path to catch it. To her shock, it fell past, completely ignorant of her expectation that it should stop.

“Watch out!” called a worker from somewhere on the construction site.

The crash as it hit the ground jolted through her like a lightning bolt and echoed off the neighboring buildings.

***

“He’s not picking up,” Kevin said. He threw his phone onto his bed and resumed pacing.

“Hm,” Wren replied, not looking up from his sketchpad. “I mean, shit. My phone battery died looking for a signal during the Field of Ash event, I’d bet his did too.” Wren’s phone chimed from where it was still plugged in on the windowsill, as if on cue.

“I guess, but he’s not back yet either.” Kevin paced a bit.

“You got a crush?” Wren joked, glancing back at Kevin.

Kevin stopped pacing and gave Wren a withering look. “No. Just worried. And guilty I guess. I should have gone to help last night.”

“Dude, you couldn’t see yourself last night, but you looked like you’d been run over. A few times.” Wren stood up and walked over to the window. “Can you call… what’s his name? The, uh, dispatcher guy?” he picked up his phone and glanced at the screen.

“Jamisson, yeah! Good call!” Kevin retrieved his own phone and scrolled through his contacts list. He looked up at Wren for a moment to see his face fallen.

“Hey, what’s up?”

“My mom called. Four times.” He paused. “Three texts.” He turned and looked out the window into the quad. “They’re here.”

His mother stood outside in front of the building wringing her hands in her typical manner that Wren had come to recognize meant she was concerned for someone’s prospects (typically his). His father sulked in all his mustachioed glory, squinting at the door as though it owed him money. As he watched, a student student walking past stopped and spoke to them for a moment.

“Don’t let them in,” Wren muttered, then swore under his breathbreath when she pulled out her ID and swiped them into the building. Wren threw open a dresser drawer and rummaged through it for a moment before sliding it closed again, still empty-handed.

“Stay in here,” Wren said to Kevin as he slipped out into the hall to meet his parents.

“Hi honey, are you all packed?” Wren’s mother said, rushing up to sweep him up in a hug which Wren reciprocated half-heartedly.

Wren shook his head. “Should I be?”

His mom released him and took a step back “Do you need help? We brought the van so we can fit all your stuff.”

“All my-” he stopped himself and became assertive. “I’m not going with you.”

“We’re here to bring you home,” his mother said as though that was the end of the discussion. “Could you help your father carry your things to the car?” She patted her husband on the arm.

“No,” Wren said. “I’m not going with you.”

“Now I don’t care for your tone of voice, young man” his mother huffed.

“We’re pulling you out. Unenrolling.” his father said.

A stunned silence descended and occupied the hallway. Inside the room, Kevin pulled back from the door a bit.

*You can’t,” Wren said.

“Oh yes we can,” his mother said.

“No, you can’t. I’m 18. I’m not a minor anymore.”

Kevin forgot sometimes that Wren was almost a full year older than him, given that he looked like the younger of the two.

“It’s too dangerous!” His mother protested. “Two events in a row? I can’t have my baby living here.”

“I’m not paying your tuition. You’re coming home,” his father explained, taking a step forward and doing his best to loom.

“I’ll figure something out,” Wren replied, taking a step back.

“And the metas-” his mother continued to wail from behind her husband.

“Fuck you and your fucking politics!” Wren snapped. “I found out, OK?”

Jean-Clement took that moment to poke his head out of his room. This was only the second time Wren had seen their floor’s RA, but it was very welcome.

*Don’t you dare take that tone with me!” Shrilled his mother, but she was cut off by a translucent green wall that appeared between Wren and his parents. His father just stood silently, caught between a surprised gasp and an angry glare, while his mother’s complaints were still barely audible.

“Excuse me, is there a problem here,” Jean-Clement asked Wren in his polite South-African accent. The way he asked made it obvious he’d heard everything.

“There is,” Wren said, his passion from moments ago drained away in an instant.

Jean-Clement nodded and said “You should call the campus police if you like a more permanent solution, but I can make sure you aren’t disturbed any more tonight.”

Wren thanked him and silently returned to his and Kevin’s room. Kevin just watched as he entered and sat on his bed. A moment later the mattress sagged on its spring frame as Kevin sat down beside him.

“Fuck ’em,” he said after a moment of silent deliberation. “You do you.”

***

A hemispherical dome covered the small cluster of buildings, outside of which a swirled white and grey miasma. A faint light filtered through the dome from every direction, bathing the area in an ambient shadowless glow. The buildings themselves were odd mix of welcoming red brick with tall, steeply slanting roofs, and squat, cinder block cuboids connected with enclosed walkways. I clenched my fists as I started to understand what had happened. Translocator betrayed us.

The building designated to me as the mess hall was one of the brick ones, small, high windows facing directly into the featureless grey wall of the neighbouring building. As I walked to the building along a smooth concrete path I continued to take in the location. There wasn’t much in the way of greenery anywhere. Some areas were paved with asphalt or concrete, some were hard packed earth, but not much seemed to grow in the dim light that suffused the area. The air was cool and dry, and smelled artificial, like ozone and chemicals. I could hear the sound of muted fans, like an industrial air conditioning unit, but couldn’t identify the direction or source.

“Shadow.”

I turned to see the source of the voice. A man beckoned to me from between two of the buildings. I hesitated for a moment, then made up my mind and slipped into the alley. I would place him at late twenties, in a warm-looking flannel shirt and jeans with a grey peacoat.

“My name’s Graham. What’s your plan to get out of here?”

I scrutinized his face for a motive but couldn’t gather much beyond the tact thst he was nervous. Claustrophobic, maybe? Or he knows something about what’s going on.

“Why do you think we need one?” I asked slowly, thinking while I spoke.

“I figured out who you are, which means they know who you are. Why haven’t they let you go? Why are we in an interdiction zone?”

Interdiction! It made sense. I chided myself for not realizing. The bubble would be essentially inescapable and impenetrable, and metahuman abilities within could be repressed. Reportedly, he was the inspiration for Dr. Destructo’s original nullifier and force fields. He’d been brought on to deal with powerful villains, but unfortunately he was unable to suppress nightmare-class metahumans- much like the nullifier, I realized.

A thought struck me out of nowhere as I made a strange connection: the Cocatrice, the light weapon Blackwell had been using recently to gain power in the city, was almost an exact duplicate of Basilisk’s ability. Maybe there was some connection there. I filed that insight away for later.

“Graham, I’m sorry, I don’t think you need to worry” I said as I pulled my thoughts back to the topic at hand. “There was a very dangerous villain on the area that may have been responsible for triggering the nightmare event. They just need to make sure nobody else was affected like that.” Hopefully that should get a better explanation out of him.

“Yeah I had plenty of time to figure that one out,” he said. “I think, I think I’m a metahuman now. That’s the problem.” He paused and looked at his hands, which he held up in front of him. His fingernails were painted alternating black and a dark blue. “Tech that gives people powers is illegal as hell, I guess with good reason.” His hands shook a little. “The Nightmare was one of us, wasn’t it? Weren’t they? Could have been me.” He looked back up at me.

“I don’t-” I paused. I don’t know how much I believe the Bureau would be involved in something that shady, I thought, but it was Translocator who brought us here, and Interdictor is here too.

“I need more information,” I finished. “And, food.”

“But then you’ll be trapped here forever!” Graham joked, “but that’s probably not a bad place to ask around if we’re, uh, what’s the word? Circumspect. Fuck I’m tired.” He sagged a bit, losing some of the nervous energy that had kept him going moments before.

Together, we headed towards the mess while I pondered what to do next.

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Update

Thought I ought to update you all on my current situation. Unfortunately, there will not be any updates for the remainder of the summer. This is because the location at which I currently work a) has neither wifi not cell coverage, b) does not allow personal laptop or tablets, c) blocks Google drive, Dropbox, and every other concievsble cloud storage service, and d) does not allow physical storage devices to enter except for pre-approved encrypted drives. As one can imagine this makes it difficult to work on my writing while my scripts run like I usually do. 

On the plus side I’ve been reading a lot of cool research papers. Did you know that AIs (or rather, “reinforcement learning agents”) seem to learn better if we program them to feel regret (via “hindsight experience replay”)?

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Chiaroscuro 10.3

Kevin watched over Wren’s shoulder as a news anchor narrated what was happening in the park. The helicopter gave a clear view of the US military vehicles that tore into the park from where they had been stationed at the edge of Locus’ area of effect.

“Should I-” Kevin said, voice low.

“You wouldn’t be able to make it,” Wren said. “And you wouldn’t really be helpful in this state.”

Kevin visibly sagged, exhaustion catching up with him, relieved but feeling useless. On Wren’s laptop screen, more soldiers poured out of the army vehicles and encircled the dark blob that concealed the center of the park. Out of one of the larger vehicles emerged a group of soldiers in distinctive red and gold powered armor. Leading them was a man in ragged army fatigues with a heavy mask over his face.

“Temple,” hissed Kevin.

All at once, the dark blob collapsed inwards on itself, leaving behind only a cluster of confused soldiers. Temple pointed towards the helicopter and a moment later, the screen washed out with bright white light like an overexposed photograph. The feed cut back to the news anchors. Wren checked his phone and smiled grimly and Kevin took a step back and sat on his bunk.

“Oh neat, classes are cancelled until after Thanksgiving break,” Wren said.

“Not really surprising,” Kevin said.

The faint audio from Wren’s laptop caught Kevin’s attention. “We are now receiving footage from before the event that may shed some light on-”

“Turn it off,” Kevin said, then more urgently, “Turn it off!”

He lunged across Wren, grabbing for the lid of the laptop to slam it shut, but he stopped short. A brightly-colored test pattern flashed onto the screen, cutting off the stream mid-sentence. Wren rocked back in his chair, surprised.

“Woah, what?”

“Attention: this broadcast has been interrupted in response to a precognitive warning received from a reliable source within the United States Department of Metahuman Affairs. This broadcast is believed to have contained potentially harmful images, audio, or information. For your safety, this channel, and other channels broadcasting these signals, will be quarantined until the threat has passed. Stand by for additional information.”

“They can do that?” Wren said. He stared at the screen, eyes wide.

Kevin fell back onto the bunk. “Ugh, I’m going to sleep. Wake me up if the building’s on fire.”

Wren gave a distracted “sure,” and within minutes, Kevin was asleep.

Wren hesitated for a moment, then started up a more aggressive proxying service.

***

In the newsroom, Sam stopped the moment the “On air” light went out.

“You cut me off. Why did you cut me off?” she said.

Amit at the monitor shook his head. “I didn’t,” he said, turning it to face her so she could see the test pattern. “Emergency alert.”

“Goddammit,” Sam swore, “in ten minutes that footage will be old news.”

“As far as we know we’re the only ones who got it,” Amit assured her, but she didn’t seem placated.

“At this rate we’ll be playing second fiddle to the BBC,” she muttered to herself.

In the editing room on the other side of a soundproofed glass partition, Paul listened to the beginning of the emergency broadcast through one ear of his headphones. Anu pulled hers off and leaned back from the desk.

“Glad to see someone up top is finally taking these Nightmare events seriously,” she said.

“That’s not what this is,” Paul said, voice low. He leaned forward and grabbed the keyboard and mouse. “This is a cover-up.”

“It’s always a cover-up with you,” Anu said, then saw what he was doing. He opened up a web browser and dragged one of the clips from the media queue into an upload box.

“Hey, what-”

The door of the studio burst open and a squad of armed, body-armored SWAT troopers poured into the room. Each of them wore a pair of heavy goggles and had a patch on their left arm marking them as ‘MEDUSA.’

“Everybody get on the ground!” shouted one of the MEDUSA troopers. Amit stood, hands raised then lowered himself to the ground. Sam shrieked in surprise, but then did the same, visibly shaking. Paul ducked below the desk, one hand still on the mouse.

“Do what they say,” Anu whispered at him, doing the same as Sam and Amit.

One of the troopers saw them and pivoted to point his weapon their direction.

“Step away from the computer,” he commanded.

Paul ignored him, even as several more of the troopers turned and trained their weapons on Paul. Anu gestured frantically to him from the floor.

“Step away now!” ordered the MEDUSA trooper

Paul stood, hands up, and the MEDUSA troops relaxed a bit. Paul glanced down at the screen out of the corner of his eyes and his hand flicked out and tapped a key.

A sharp *pop* and a burst of purplish light from one of the weapons knocked Paul off his feet, seizing. He hit the desk on his way down and pulled the monitor to the floor with him. Sam stifled a scream, and Anu froze in horror. Amit clutched at the carpet and looked away. The smell of ozone filled the editing room.

The squad converged on Paul. One of the troopers tried to wake the computer, while another trained his weapon on the fallen editor.

“We have a potential upload,” the man at the computer said after it didn’t respond. “Source is fried. Too close to the PEP.” He looked down at Paul still twitching on the floor. “You son of a bitch. You have no idea what you’ve done.”

***

Mafic and Felsic staggered out into the street. Lumen had exited her power armor and was crouched on the curb, the armor standing over her.

“Lumen,” Mafic greeted her. “Get any sleep?”

“Not a wink,” the blonde tinker croaked. “Where’s Seep?”

“Passed out in the lobby.” Felsic groaned. “Y’all want pizza? I could demolish a pizza.”

“And maybe a gallon of beer,” Mafic added.

Lumen stood up and stepped backwards into the power armor.

“One of you grab Seep. I’ll deal with this joker.” She nodded towards Ransom, still half-encased in Felsic’s crystals. “Nowhere will be open. We have food back at HQ.” Now fully armored, she hefted the whole block of crystal into the back of the SWAT van that Ransom had driven in.

The brothers nodded grudging agreement and headed back inside to fetch Seep.

A short time later, they made it back to the Blackwell headquarters. They didn’t bother going through the front business, a relatively upscale club, instead taking the hidden entrance by the loading door straight down to their lair. The brothers threw Seep across a red plush couch in the lounge while Lumen deposited Ransom in a meeting room.

By the time the brothers returned, sans armor and armed with cartons of leftover fried rice, Myriad was waiting, perched on one arm of the couch with a hand on Seep’s forehead.

“Hi,” she said. Mafic and Felsic froze, and after a moment, Felsic offered her his friend rice. She waved it away her strange white-on-black eyes focused on some point behind them. “Thanks, I’m fine. So is Seep, by the by.”

“That’s good to hear,” Mafic said. “I’m, uh, not gonna lie, I’m pretty shaken myself.”

“Ditto,” Felsic chimed in.

Opiate peeked into the central lounge from her lab. “Hello boys,” she said with a huge grin. “Glad you’re back.”

“Lily, go dose Ransom for me, will you?” Myriad said without looking back at the tinker.

“Of course!” Opiate burbled happily. “Neurablast cocktail coming right up.”

“You two seem cheerful,” Felsic said cautiously.

“Yeah, Poppy and I were just needed to wake up a little. Should wear off eventually.” Myriad glanced at Opiate’s retreating backside. “She’s fun.” Opiate, on cue, added a bit more sway to her step.

Mafic groaned as he collapsed onto an armchair. “M, we agreed.”

Lumen slipped past Opiate as the latter entered the room with Ransom.

“She’s right, we need her clear-headed,” Lumen said.

“Clear-headed?” protested Mafic. “She’s high as a kite.”

“I know how this stuff affects me,” Myriad said. She fixed her gaze on Mafic and he looked away. A hint of her normal aggressiveness crept into her voice. “If you want a peek inside my head to be sure I’m happy to oblige.”

The silence grew oppressive for a moment before she resumed.

“The city has changed since the Wardens assembled,” Myriad said. “The triads don’t set a foot outside chinatown anymore. The Yakuza and the Bratva don’t even exist and the Irish and Italian mobs are nothing more than social clubs.”

Opiate lead Ransom into the lounge, a hand on his shoulder. Ransom’s eyes flicked back-and forth between the unarmored Blackwell leadership.

Myriad continued. “Now, though, the Wardens are gone, and my sources say their sidekick club is away. We got the warehouses and the industrial district when the Specialists broke up. Now the anchor boys are split, fighting with each other, and tonight they’re all out of commission.” She looked towards Ransom. “We’re taking the harbor. You want a piece?”

***

Translocator’s teleportation didn’t feel as smooth as mine. Rather than moving fluidly through a static world, our surroundings seemed to shift and warp until suddenly we had always been somewhere else. We appeared in a large hall with a concrete floor and a high, vaulted ceiling. The sudden light was blinding, and with equally sudden fury my headache returned. Translocator glanced towards me and said something in French that I didn’t quite catch.

“What?” I said. I could see white flecks appearing in the air around us, like snow, but frozen in place, or tv static.

Translocator looked away and rubbed the stubble on his chin.

“Pour ce qu’il vaut, je suis désolé,” he said, taking a step backwards.

Désolé… I’m sorry? What is he…

The white noise started to fill the space around us and I could see people in the crowd of civilians we’d brought along with us start to collapse.

“What?” I managed to say again. My voice sounded dull and distant.

Translocator disappearing was the last thing I saw, before the world was filled with static.

***

Sean woke slowly. At some point, he became aware of a pressure pushing him down, like something heavy was resting on top of him. He tried to move only to discover his arms pinned to his sides and his legs likewise immobile. He opened his eyes and immediately shut them again as the light pierced through his retinas.

“Take it slow,” said a voice which he belatedly recognized as Dr. Mind. “Hey, hey, take it slow.”

Sean groaned. His mouth felt like it was the driest it had ever been. The sound of Dr. Mind moving seemed sharp and too loud. Sean opened his eyes again, blinked a few times against the bright light, and saw Dr. Mind offering him a glass of water. He sat up and was surprised to notice that he wasn’t restrained. Maybe he’d been imagining it earlier. His head swam a bit, but otherwise he felt fine.

He took the glass and drank while Dr. Mind spoke.

“We’re at the Holdenstedt Neurological Research Institute. Being who I am gets me free reign of most medical facilities,” Dr. Mind said. “What do you remember?”

Sean had finished the glass before Dr. Mind had finished a sentence. Sean haltingly described the confused conversation with Locus, putting a shield around the jet, and the intense pain and confusion.

“Based on preliminary scans, it appears you’ve had a seizure.” Dr. Mind said bluntly. “What you and Locus experienced on the jet is what’s known as the postictal phase. Often this means headaches, exhaustion, and confusion while your brain recovers. For some, it comes with amnesia or psychosis like what you saw from Locus.”

Sean took it in, a bit numb. He put the empty glass down on an end table next to his cot. The walls of the room had been painted in soothing shades of blue.

“Normally, the risk of recurrence for seizures provoked by an outside source like toxins or trauma is low, but this wasn’t an ordinary seizure. It was very localized to the area of the brain responsible for controlling metahuman abilities. We can’t be sure how it has affected you until we get some scans while you’re awake.”

“Oh,” Sean said.

“We should begin as soon as possible. Just let me know when you’re ready.”

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Shameless self-promotion: Solarian Black

I apologize for the continued flakiness (10.3 is at about 75%), BUT I now have a store selling some of my art. Check it out at solarian.black.

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Ciaroscuro 10.2

Sean laid Locus down in one of the seats lining the back of the jet before taking a seat across from him. The floor rumbled as the VTOL thrusters powered up and the jet began to rise. Sean took a moment to inspect the Nullifier. The metal cube had scratches around the edges where it had been pried open

“I’m flying you to an ITAB facility,” Jamisson said.

“How are you even flying this?” Sean asked. His voice shook a bit, and his arms felt numb. “There’s a reason I was always put on command,” Jamisson replied. “We can talk about it later.”

“Shield, now!” shadow shouted over the comms.

Some instinct took over as Sean leaped out of his seat and focused his power around the ship. A sharp pain axed through his skull and his vision went white as the numbness in his hands changed into intense, burning heat. He heard a distant explosion as he screamed and fell to his knees. He tore his gloves off and helmet

-holding his hands above the fire– the in the fire. The gentle warmth, the sizzle of burning skin-

and threw them on the metal floor. He clutched at his head and curled into a ball,

-a ring of light against a backdrop of stars, and in the center, a humanoid figure, the vitruvian man played out on a cosmic scale-

the images that had flickered across the screen replaying in his mind. Images from his childhood, or that he had seen in dreams.

-His father. His grandfather. His grandmother. His mother, his uncle, lit from within by a brilliant light-

“Paragon!”

Sean’s eyes snapped open and he jerked upright to see Locus looking at him with concern.

“Are you okay? What happened?” Locus asked. His concern faded into confusion. “Where are the others?”

“I-” Sean choked up. He doesn’t realize.

“Stay with us,” Jamisson’s voice said through the jet’s speakers.

Why is he saying that? Sean wondered. The world started to blur and fade around the edges.

“Stay with us.”

***

Wren poked his head out of his door to see us in the common room.

“Thank fuck,” he said in a quiet but intense voice. “Get in here!”

He beckoned me and Kevin into his room. We stood grudgingly and and followed. He had his laptop open to a news stream about the nightmare event.

I groaned. “Can we skip the after-action debrief?” I said, even as my eyes were drawn to the screen.

“No, we can’t,” Wren said. “Look.”

On the screen, shaky helicopter footage showed a bird’s-eye view of a figure surrounded by a ring of a metallic liquid. The silvery liquid flowed and rippled in response to their panicked motions as they swatted at some unseen assailant. Nearby, another person seemed to be on fire, but instead of rising the flames flickered outwards in every direction.

“I don’t understand, what’s going on?” I said. “Are those other heroes?”

“No,” Wren shook his head grimly. “They’re new manifestations.”

The stunned silence lasted for several seconds, during which the news stream switched back to an anchor behind a desk.

“Oh,” I said as the implications sunk in. “Oh shit.”

“How is that possible?” Kevin asked. “Is it like super juice?”

“No it’s-” I paused. “I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s like… a photo or something. An image. This guy, Randwulf, uses it to boost powers somehow.”

Wren’s eyes widened. “Woah. A basilisk hack.”

“Huh?”

“Sometimes you can hack computers through the camera. Show it a specific image or pattern and use that to inject code. Like that, but with people.”

Kevin was just as lost as I was. “What?”

“In this case, I guess it would be an image that causes the specific neurons to fire that trigger a manifestation,” Wren said in an awed voice. “The problem is it’s impossible to contain,” he frowned. “by the time you know it’s there you’ve already been exposed.” He looked thoughtful. “Well, maybe not impossible-”

“Guys,” Kevin interrupted, and pointed to the screen with a shaking hand.

On the laptop, the news stream had returned to the helicopter footage. A squad of uniformed soldiers advanced towards a small crowd, brandishing weapons. With a flash of light, but no sound, the first shots were fired. My heart lurched. I was dimly aware of Wren jumping and Kevin cursing quietly.

I left them there.  A bitter pit settled in my stomach. I got distracted by an easy victory over Randwulf.

On the footage, a familiar dark cloud swept across the crowd and the soldiers.

“I have to help,” I said. I shook off my exhaustion, teleported my earpiece back into my ear from my pocket, and teleported back into the fray.

Darkness surrounded me. I looked around, confused. Feeling the still, silent air, I could sense people around me, but something was wrong. Their positions weren’t consistent. They appeared and disappeared seemingly at random as they stumbled through the darkness. A figure appeared out of the black, a figure I recognized immediately.

“Dad?” I said.

“Will?” His head snapped towards me, but he didn’t look directly towards me. “Where are you? Are you alright?” the world was silent apart from our voices.

He can’t see me. “I’m fine. What-”

“Oh thank god!” his voice threatened to break with emotion. His eyes narrowed in on the sound of my voice and he took a few steps towards me.

“What is this?” I cut in, more forcefully.

“I had to make sure you’re okay. I heard the gunshots and…” he trailed of as I let the shadow covering me fade, making me visible through the fog. He dad rushed towards me and swept me up in a tight hug. “Why don’t you answer your phone?” He said, voice shaking, and laughed.

After a moment he pulled away.

“Is this you?” I demanded as I gestured to the darkness.

“Never let them know everything you can do,” he said by way of confirmation.

“Do you know what this looks like,” I said, voice cold.

That gave him pause. “Will,” he said.

I didn’t let him continue. “It looks like Denizen, Dad. It looks like Granddad. We are on the news right now. I-” I paused as a muffled shot rang out nearby, reminding me why I was here. “We need to help these people.”

***

Jamisson didn’t react apart from a flicker in his eyes when Translocator’s reflection appeared in the monitors in front of him. The screens showed a myriad of scenes, including a live feeds from Durian Park and, Translocator noted, the inside of his jet.

“Where is my jet?” the French hero demanded.

“I apologize for taking your plane,” Jamisson said, looking only at Translocator’s reflection. “You didn’t seem to be using it and I had people who needed evac.”

Translocator stared at him, stunned. “You can’t just steal TAB property. How did you-”

“Listen,” Jamisson said, voice halfway between anger and desperation. “Your little tantrum nearly cost me two of my people, and people are in very short supply right now.” he leaned forward a bit and groaned. “Please, we still need your help.”

Translocator’s guilt crashed over him like a wave.

“I’ll do what I can,” he said quietly.

***

My dad gave me an appraising look, then nodded. “That’s right,” he said, a neutral smile on his face. “There are a lot of people here,” he said.

I wasn’t sure how much to tell him. As much as I wanted to tell him everything, I knew he’d made his living after he retired from daylight robbery as an information broker for  Databank. I decided to share

“Some of the civilians are new manifestations triggered by the nightmare event,” I said. “The soldiers think they could become nightmares. They’re wrong.” I hope.

He nodded, accepting my explanation.

“Move all the civilians to the edge so they can get to safety” I said, then stopped. “No, wait, are there more soldiers outside your range?” I asked. I reached out and tried to feel out the edges of the park, but the details were too fuzzy at that distance. I did notice a few people running towards us, into the dark fog. Not a great sign.

“I think so,” he said. “Hold on, I just found someone interesting.”

“Shadow, is that you in the park?” Jamisson’s voice in my ear surprised me- I’d forgotten I’d put my earpiece back in out of habit.

“Yeah, that’s me,” I said. My father looked at me strangely until I pointed to my earpiece.

“Get out of there. You’re overloading. It’s not safe,” he said. “I’ve got Translocator heading your way.”

Hope blossomed in my chest. I relayed the message to my dad. “Bring him here.”

I pulled the darkness over myself, and my dad faded back into the fog, and a moment later, the French teleporter appeared in front of me.

“Translocator,” I said. “How many people can you move?”

He spun to face me, on guard. “Shadow.” He relaxed once he realized it was me. “As many as you need,” he said, then gestured into the darkness. “Is this you? Were you affected?”

“No, just overloading. Not sure how long it’ll last.” Hearing Translocator say it made me internalize what Jamisson had said moments ago. It looks like I’m overloading, or I’ve been exposed to Randwulf’s… thing. That’s good. No connection to Denizen. “I’ll bring all the civilians together.” I spoke such that my dad could to hear me where he was concealed by the mist and would know what to do. “Do you have somewhere safe we can put a few dozen new manifestations?”

“Newfoundland Station,” Jamisson interjected. “Tell him that.”

Was he listening in? “-like Newfoundland Station?” I appended.

Translocator look a step back.  “How do you- nevermind. Yes.”

“Let’s go,” I said. I could feel the people trapped in the fog moving around, shuffling into position, until they appeared around us in a tight cluster. People shouted and recoiled with surprise, but the moment everyone was in contact, the darkness around us was abruptly replaced with scuffed wood floors, a high, beamed ceiling, and windows looking out into a gentle drift of snow.

***

As soon as Richard felt the group of civilians, and the two heroes, vanish from his fog, he allowed himself to fully disassociate into mist, while at the same time pulling in the edges of the cloud. In gaseous form, he pulled himself through a storm drain back to his parked car a few blocks away. He flowed through the cracked window and reformed his solid body in the driver’s seat. The return of sensation was, as always, abrupt and unpleasant. He took a moment to readjust to physical limbs before he started the car and began to drive, deep in thought.

A huge panther-like creature landed heavily on the hood of the car. It sniffed the air for a moment and stared intently at the passenger with its one gold eye narrowed. Its breath fogged in the air. This street was almost completely vacant, despite the gridlock on the interstates farther out of the city. After a moment, a window rolled down and the driver leaned out.

“To what do I owe the pleasure?” said Richard Denzien.

The creature blurred and shifted and was replaced a moment later with a man in mottled grey fatigues with an eyepatch over one eye. “You planning on causing trouble?” Savage said, now leaning languidly against the hood.

Richard, by contrast, was stiff in his seat. “Just wanted to make sure Will’s safe,” he said.

“Good.” Savage straightened up and walked around the car towards the open window.

Richard hesitated, but gave in to his curiosity. “How long have you known?”

“Since I met the kid,” Savage said. “Powers like those don’t skip generations, and neither does the upbringing. His mother must be a hell of a woman to break that cycle.”

Richard’s voice turned cold. “She is. You should know. She was your accountant.”

Savage stopped in the street. His eye widened and he barked out a surprised laugh. “No shit!” He said. “Did Jamie know?” He asked casually, as if they were simply reminiscing about old times.

“He didn’t exactly approve, given who my parents were, but I think if he knew I would be in prison. Speaking of which-”

“-you’re out of the game, and you were one of the old guard.” Savage slowly approached the open window. “Never killed anyone, no drugs, no human trafficking, nothing like that. Just stealing from the rich and scaring the powerful. Unlike the others that makes you okay in my books. Hell, I even respect that. On two conditions,” Savage leaned in close. “Never put on that costume again, and never ever let that kid cross the line.”

“Like you said, I’m out of the game,” Richard said. Somehow he seemed calmer now beneath Savage’s intimidating glare than before. “We both want what’s best for him.”

“Old habits die hard, Dick,” Savage retorted. “Watch yourself.”

Savage turned and bounded away into a dark alley.

“Good talk,” Richard muttered as he rolled up his window.

A few minutes later, his phone buzzed a short pattern. He punched a button on his car dashboard and spoke into the air.

“You have something for me?” His irritation at the previous encounter seeped into his voice.

“Yeah, I’ve for some news.” The speaker’s voice changed and warped as they spoke, but was always clearly understandable. “Listen, I don’t normally work for free, but in this case I’ll make an exception. It’s… not good news.”

“Talk.”

“She’s relapsed. It’s bad.”

Richard was silent. His hands tightened on the wheel.

“The doctor recommended a procedure that’s not covered by insurance. Experimental tinker stuff, still in clinical trials, but they say it works.”

Richard glanced at the briefcase on the floor in front of the passenger seat and let out a slow breath through his nose. He seemed to empty out, visibly relaxing, but with nothing replacing the tension.

“Thank you, K. I’ll speak to Underhand about payment.”

He pressed the button to end the call, holding it down just a moment too long. Expression neutral, he guided the car to the side of the road again and stopped in front of a parking meter that had been torn out of its post at some point and never replaced.

He stared out into the seemingly vacant city as the sky began to dim.

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly after what felt like hours.

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Chiaroscuro 10.1

The world shook. No, someone shook me. The shreds of something that seemed meaningful at the time slipped away the moment I opened my eyes to see Sean crouched over me. No, Guardian Angel. He still glowed faintly, though it was harder to tell now that the sun had risen. It’s morning? Beams of orange sunlight were visible in air, but the angle was wrong. I could see the silhouette of the cranes rebuilding Cobalt Tower. No, it’s evening!

“You got him,” he said. His voice was hoarse. He coughed. “He dead?”

I sat up. The world spun around me for a moment, but as my vision cleared, a moment of panic took hold. The Nullifier had fallen out of my hand and lay on the grass nearby. I reached to grab it and make sure it was still on. The dark, roughly cube-shaped device had seen better days, but it was still working, running off the strange power source Dr. Destructo had built into it.

Only then did I see Locus. He lay on his back, as he had before, but now he looked… normal. The twisted, distorted figure I’d seen before seemed like a dream now. Thinking back, it all seemed unreal. Even this, now, seemed impossible. The city, so familiar to me, silent, and filled with thick smog. Where did that come from?

“No,” I said, not looking away. My throat was so dry it hurt to talk. “Denudine. And the Nullifier.”

Guardian Angel’s eyes went wide. “That worked?” He said, voice quiet.

I don’t know, I realized. I couldn’t feel Locus breathing. I crawled to him, too exhausted to stand, and held my hand above his mouth. His breath rattled and wheezed but I could feel it on my skin. He was breathing. I rolled into my side, relieved.

A crackling noise in my ear made me jerk my head to the side on reflex, before I remembered that I still had my earpiece in.

“Shadow, Guardian, come in,” Jamison said through the earpiece.

“We’re here,” Guardian Angel said, still quiet.

“You need to start moving people out of there. Emergency vehicles are incoming.”

“Locus is alive,” I said. “Denudine and the Nullifier stopped,” I paused to cough. “Whatever that was.”

I could hear a helicopter in the distance, and, more distant, sirens.

“He’s alive?” Jamisson exclaimed. “That’s-” he choked off for a moment. “There’s no way to know how long the denudine will last.” He paused. “This is my fault.”

A cry nearby pulled my attention to a child who had been woken up by the return to normalcy, and soon others started stirring. It seemed a good number of people had fallen asleep, or just passed out like I had. A cough punctuated the cry as they choked on the foul air.

“Translocator is on his way,” Jamisson said.

“Good,” Guardian Angel said.

Guardian Angel helped me to my feet. He seemed to have recovered much better than I, but once I was upright, I swayed a bit but stayed on my feet.

“We have to get Locus out of here,” I said.

“Translocator can teleport us out,” Guardian Angel said.

“No,” I said. “The Nullifier. He won’t be able to reach us, and if Locus leaves its range-”

“It’s on?” Guardian Angel exclaimed. “But,” he made a fist and a flickering golden sword materialized in his hand.

Oh no. “It’s on,” I said, at a loss for what else to say. I was acutely aware of the numbness of my skin where I could usually feel the eddies and swirls of the air around me. It didn’t stop Locus either. I thought. Or Temple. That’s why Temple is after Randwulf! I was too tired. My brain was stalling.

“I can fly him out,” Guardian Angel said. “Give me the Nullifier. I’ll fly him out.”

“I won’t be able to help. I’m exhausted, and without my power, but-”

“-yeah. It’s not great, but both of us need to get away from the city.”

“Both of us? I- oh.” I paused, comprehension dawning. “You and Locus.”

He nodded, then looked away from me and said, “Jamisson, I was exposed to the same thing as Locus. I feel fine now, but the Nullifier isn’t working on me. I can fly him out of the city.”

There was a crackle of static before Jamisson responded. “Translocator isn’t responding, but I’ve landed his jet on a building nearby. Get there and it will take you both to a secure location.”

I gave Guardian Angel the Nullifier, which he slipped into a utility pocket. He knelt and lifted Locus in his arms, then leapt into the sky, wings flaring out behind him. The moment he was out of range, the space around me snapped into clarity.

“Ugh,” said Dark Archon through my earpiece as I watched Guardian Angel go. “It’s over?”

“It’s over,” confirmed Jamisson.

I could feel people moving around. A few bolted for nearby buildings, one group had clustered together and was shuffling collectively towards the edge of the park. A few were going person-to-person to see if anyone needed help. Someone was moving inside the tent where the projector was set up. The projection tent– that’s where Randwulf must be!

I teleported to the tent in a few jumps and threw open the door flap.

Inside, a man in a tan suit coat with singed sleeves was hurriedly packing equipment into a briefcase. Another man lay sprawled on the floor- presumably the original projectionist. I could feel him breathing, but slowly. The projector guttered and smoked, a burned-out husk.

I didn’t bother announcing myself. I teleported in and wrapped the parachute cord around him, then pulled it tight with my hands, tying his legs together and his hands to his sides. He fell as I pulled his legs out from under him.

He cried out in pain as he was unable to catch himself before he hit the ground. He twisted to look up at me. “Wait! You can still save them. Go now!” His face was haggard, with hollow, sagging cheeks and drooping eyelids.

“What?”

“Please,” he begged. “It’s not too late.”

Through the open front of the projection tent I could see Translocator’s jet lifting off of the roof of one of the shorter buildings. Not too late…

“Shield, now!” I all but shouted into my comm. I was almost expecting it when I saw the rocket trail flying towards the jet. A golden shield shimmered into existence a moment before the rocket hit. It exploded ineffectually against the shield and I turned back to Randwulf. Where the fuck did that come from? Randwulf signed in apparent relief.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.” To my surprise, I saw he was crying. “You have to help me.” What.

“Jamisson, I have Randwulf. I said into my comms. “So you’ll come quietly?” I asked Randwulf, not quite believing it.

“Yes. I’m just-” he gasped. “So tired of running. That lunatic, he was hired to kill me, to destroy my research. I used the sigil to escape, but it only made him stronger. He told me my research would be used to create monsters, and now I-” he shuddered. “I can’t stop!” he cried. “I never wanted this.”

A moment of sympathy tugged at my heart. He’s as much of a victim as Locus in Temple’s crusade, I thought, exhausted brain unable to muster an ounce of skepticism. I knelt and started to pat him down, leaving black handprints on his body. Once he was mostly covered, I did the same to his briefcase, then stood.

“Jamisson, I’m bringing him to the metamax.” I said, then teleported to the warden I’d tagged the previous day.

The warden hunched over a table, a cup of coffee clutched between his hands.

He looked up at me when I appeared.

“Think you can take one more?” I asked, tossing the spent denudine injector onto the table.

He eyed me through the steam rising from his mug. “You are a god-damned saint,” he said. He eyed Randwulf, who was still mostly covered in darkness. “Who’s this?”

“Dr. Randolph Ermen,” I said. I thought back to what Adrian Banks had said. “Power enhancing precog, maybe. Keep him away from the other inmates.”

The warden gave an impressed whistle. “Double whammy.” He stood and lead us out of the break room. “We’re short handed, since some of the guards passed out and most of the off-duty staff isn’t responding. We have some private security on their way to fill out the ranks. Fortunately the event affected the inmates too, so it’s been quiet.” We entered the prison proper and passed rows of small cells containing of inmates asleep in their bunks.

“And the escape attempt?” I asked.

“Surrendered as soon as the event ended.”

“Hm.” The Upright Man knew about the event ahead of time. Did they?

“Your friend has been keeping the more durable inmates in check,” the warden continued.

Oh yeah, Kevin! “Dark Archon, come in,” I said into my comm.

“Yeah I’m here,” he replied. “I’m about ready to pass out but I’m here. This trip did not go as expected.”

“They rarely do.”

A few minutes later, Dark Archon, the warden, and I showed a mute Randwulf into a cell, to be dealt with later, and soon Kevin and I were back in the dorm. We sat down in the common room, in civilian clothes, exhausted.

“I think I need to sleep for about a day,” I said.

“That sounds beautiful,” Kevin sighed.

“You know what I just realized?” I said. “I still have homework to do.”

Kevin laughed. “Fuck, I do too.”

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