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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Scenes from a Changing World 6

Kismet watched Dame Danger fidget on the floor with a partially dissected piece of technology she’d been given as a gift from Japan’s new leadership, uncomprehending. When the jet had landed, in a moment of terror and confusion, their powers has all slipped away. The entire island nation had been blanketed with Dr. Destructo’s nullifiers.

“If you die with one of those implants, when you come back, is that still… you?” Jessica had asked Raine when she had taken Adam’s backup to be installed in his new body as it grew. “I mean, you have the same memories, but all the neural connections… it’s not just your memories, is it?”

“It doesn’t just store memories,” Raine had reassured the young tinker. “It creates a full backup while you sleep so you can retain any skills you learn.”

Something about that still bothered Kismet. Nobody really knew what the mechanism was for metahuman abilities. If it was biological, they might not transfer over to a new body, and you could lose them forever. At the same time, if it was biological, you could deliberately move yourself into a body that’s a clone of a powerful hero or villain and maybe gain their abilities.

But if they did transfer over, was that possibility really any less worrying?

Dame Danger growled in frustration and pushed the circular white disk away from her.

“I wish we could go out and explore,” she said. “I can’t believe they’re keeping us locked up in here.”

“I can guarantee we would get lost,” Kismet said half-heartedly.

“Yeah but that would at least be interesting!” Jessica countered. “My brain feels totally numb.”

Kismet looked up, then nodded. She leaned towards Jessica.

“So, how much do you still know?” Kismet asked. “If you learn something through your power, do you keep that?”

“I think so,” Dame Danger said. “I still remember how all my tech works. I think I could probably recreate something I’ve already made? I just, couldn’t make anything new.”

“So you’re still smarter than me,” Kismet said.

The younger girl smiled. “Thanks. It still feels weird though. When I look at a piece of tech I can usually just tell how it works, like reading a sign. It’s hard to look at it and not read the words, even if they’re in a different language or I don’t understand what they mean right away.”

“So now it’s like you can’t read,” Kismet said, and Jessica nodded. “I can see how that would be annoying. For me it feels more like there’s a few seconds of lag between when I decide to do something and when it actually happens. I’m just… slow.”

“That’s rough,” Jessica said.

Kismet hesitated for a moment before asking the question burning in her mind. “Have you ever looked at the Nullifier?”

“I-” Jessica paused and looked away, abashed. “Yeah. Dr. Mind always said he couldn’t understand it but I was desperate to find my specialty. I was trying everything.”

“And?”

“It didn’t make any sense!” she said, throwing out her arms in exasperation. “It was so simple. There were no advanced components at all, just… shapes. It looked like one of those fake infinite energy machines.”

“Huh,” Kismet said. She furrowed her brow. “

“I was thinking maybe it’s psychosomatic or something, but it still works when you don’t know it’s there.”

“So that means it’s not a placebo?” Kismet said.

“Yeah.”

“Huh. I wonder what’ll happen if they turn all of ’em off here.”

“You think they will?”

“I dunno. I’m not sure it would be a good idea.”

They lapsed into sober silence.

“What even is this place?” Kismet asked, gesturing at the blank white walls. “A hotel?”

“Huh?” Jessica said. “No, it’s a hospital. Or something. They can grow you a whole new body here.”

“Hm. Makes sense.” Kismet sighed. “I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that they can do that.”

“Seriously,” the tinker agreed. “It’s like something out of cyberpunk. I think it was Altered Carbon or something.”

“Oh yeah, I heard about that show.”

“I meant the book, but same concept.”

“So would you do it?”

“Uh,” Jessica said. “I dunno.” She stood up and sat down on the other bed. “I think I probably would, to be honest. Local backups only, though, and that is one EULA I would read all the way through. How about you?”

“I really don’t know. Like, the idea is cool, but it’s also kinda gross, you know?” Kismet said. “It makes you wonder like, how much would a new body cost? Probably hecka expensive, right? ‘Cause nobody’s going to decide not to buy one if they can just because it’s too expensive. But then what if it is too expensive? Will only poor people die?”

“Oh yeah.” Dame Danger looked thoughtful. “Plus overpopulation is already an issue, and if people keep having kids, things will get really bad really fast. There’s an easy solution to that one though!” She grinned. “Let’s colonize space!”

“An easy solution?” Kismet laughed.

“Sure, why not? I bet we could do it at this point. Just get a whole bunch of tinkers together and give them us each a million dollars when we solve it. Boom, done.”

“I notice you included yourself in that.”

“Heck yeah! It was my idea!” Dame Danger kicked her feet. “but you’re right. It could be really cool, but it could also get really bad.” She shot Kismet a sly look. “We’ll just have to make sure it doesn’t.”

“Hell yeah!” Kismet agreed.

The next day, the team was gathered back together. Eve and Lilith sat apart from the others, talking softly with one another, while the others were less subdued.  

Raine entered the waiting room and the conversation died off almost immediately. She swept her gaze around the room, and her eyes lingered on Eve. Her face locked into a neutral expression and she looked away. Eve clenched her eyes and turned her head to face towards a wall.

“You’ve all been very patient so I’ll jump straight to the good news,” Raine said. “Your friend is doing fine. I’m told he finished installing last night, so should be waking up a few minutes.”

A cheer went up from the collected teens.

“His c-stack had schema for most of his nonstandard augs, and his sisters were able to provide the rest. They decided to exclude a few of the more… questionable ones, and some needed upgrades, so he should be better than new.”

“That’s some crazy stuff,” Legion said with a huge grin. “Pretty soon I won’t be the only one on the team who’s died.”

“Dude,” groaned Jet with a grimace.

“What? It’s true. Seriously, you should all see if you can get one of those things installed.” He made a motion like he was plugging a cord into the back of his head. “It’s super cool.”

“I’m sure there’s a lot more to it than that,” Plateau said skeptically. “Look what happened here,” he turned to Raine. “No offense.”

“None taken,” she said. “You’re right, though. It has brought us great hardship, but now that we have it, we can’t take it away. That would be murder,” she sighed. “There’s was a group here once that thought that immortality devalues human life, that a thing can only be beautiful if it is fleeting. A very traditional notion.”

“Was?” asked Jessica.

“By their own metric, I suppose, they were beautiful,” Raine said, eyes distant. “We have a long road ahead of us to restore our culture.”

“I’m sorry,” Eve said quietly, eyes downturned. The others shifted uncomfortably and gave each other uncertain glances. Even Raine seemed at a loss for what to say. Lilith put a comforting arm around her and pulled her close.

“No,” Lilith said. “You don’t have to be sorry. None of what that narcissistic asswipe did was your fault.” Lilith’s brow furrowed with anger. “You are awesome and beautiful and strong. Remember that.” Eve hugged her sister and buried her face in Lilith’s shirt. “Don’t you ever be sorry.”

The door opened again, just a crack, and every head in the room turned to look with bated breath. Eve sniffled but stared with wide eyes. A moment later, Adam entered.

He looked exactly the same. He saw his friends gathered around the room, and his sisters with light in their eyes. He gave a tentative smile and a wave.

“Hi,” he said.

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Scenes from a Changing World 5

The leader of the squad on Riley street turned away from the barricade that had been hastily erected around the sphere of darkness that enveloped a fair portion of the city. The sound of engines approaching cut through the eerie quiet that had fallen over the city.

“Are we expecting backup?” asked one of the men under his command.

“We’re not. Everett, Holcomb, Whitney, with me. Everyone else, keep an eye on the orb.”

The designated soldiers formed up along the opposite side of the barricade, facing out into the city.

“Hopefully this is just a news van and we can turn them around without any trouble,” he started to say, but that hope was dashed the moment the vehicle entered his line of sight. An armored personnel carrier, wedge-shaped front, camouflage-patterned, and half again as wide as the traffic lanes. It drove straight down the center of the street without regard for traffic laws or safety.

The APC rumbled to a halt in front of the barricade and the back lowered down, forming a ramp down onto the street. The man in charge approaches the vehicle and rapped on the window. The driver, army, like he was, mouthed,

“I’m sorry,” through the glass, but didn’t roll down the window.

A pair of heavy boots hit the ground behind the truck. A moment later, a searing light filled his world.

Temple took a deep breath before he spoke, mentally preparing himself to speak the truth. 

“I am in command of this unit,” he said, the strange harmonics in his voice rumbling through the bones of his skull and chest. He could feel his mind shifting, and he knew that he was in command.

“Yes sir!” said his subordinate, with a hasty salute.

Temple approached the squad of soldiers manning the barricade. “I am in command of this unit,” he repeated, to a chorus of similar replies. “When this event ends, you will maintain a perimeter around the affected area and watch for a man matching this description,” he said. “Randolph Ermen. German, Five feet, six inches tall. Blue eyes, brown hair, balding. Wears a ragged tan or brown suit. If you encounter this any matching this description, you will kill him without hesitation.”

The acknowledgement was immediate and enthusiastic. It was only reasonable, of course. This man needed to die, plain and simple.

Temple nodded, satisfied, and turned to return to his vehicle. Since he’d lost access to the precog Brandon Lim, he had lost a measure of control, but it was no matter. His secondary objectives in this city were already complete, and his primary goal was closer than ever.

The driver started the armored vehicle and began to drive towards the next barricade.

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