The world rocked from the events of the past week. A Nightmare-class metahuman appeared in Collswell City for the second time in ten years, resulting in the death of one of the country’s top-tier heroes. Though it was one of the lowest-casualty Nightmare events since their beginning, its effects could be felt across the country. Even past his prime, Paragon had been a symbol of a time many considered more innocent, one of the last first-generation heroes.
He had two funerals, as was traditional for heroes who wished their identities to remain secret even in death. The first was attended by costumed legends, political figures, and media: a public memorial to his legacy. Guardian Angel, Shadow, and the Wardens of Tomorrow were seated behind the members of the former Wardens of Justice, come out of retirement in-costume for the occasion. Savage wore a crisp black suit and panther mask, to conceal his identity in his human form. Dr. Mind also wore a suit, though he looked uncomfortable in it. His identity was public, so he wore no mask. Blueshift wore his mask and a deep blue suit over a black shirt. Atlas, the enormous CEO of AtlasTech sat next to Bulwark, as the two were now engaged to be married. Only Locus hadn’t returned for the service, but rumors were circulating that his mental health problems had worsened since the team disbanded, so his absence wasn’t a shock.
The Wardens of Tomorrow each took it differently. Plateau struggled to remain stoic, and failed. His composure began to crack bit by bit as each of the Wardens of Justice took their turns to speak. Kismet fared better, looking merely tired until the three-quarters point, when she broke into tears. The rest were less stoic- Legion seemed unable to believe that Paragon was gone, and the youngest two, Jet and Dame Danger (back in her old costume) were deeply shaken.
Guardian Angel wept openly- it was public knowledge that Paragon had died to save his protegé, so no-one faulted him for it. Shadow was inscrutable behind the dark haze around him, as were Tipping Point and his crew behind their masks. The out-of-town heroes had stayed in the city for the service, even though they had planned to return days ago.
The mayor of Collswell City, Adrian Banks, gave a speech dedicating a memorial to be built near the new police station, opposite the Rose of Thorns memorial. “Thanks to him,” he said, “We don’t need space for a long list of names this time. We only need space for one.”
The second funeral was a much smaller affair. Done was the service for Paragon. This was the service for Benjamin McNaugh. There were no costumed heroes, no mayoral endorsement. This one wasn’t for the media, it was for those who actually knew him. The Wardens of Justice didn’t attend, but there were a few faces unfamiliar to the extended family. A large woman, A black man with one eye, an athletic-looking man, and a few others.
Sean McNaugh saw his father for the first time since he lost custody. He sat with him in the front row, opposite an aunt Sean had rarely met. He didn’t cry again, though he wanted to. He felt as though there were nothing left in him, and so he sat, face blank, mind numb, watching the priest eulogise. And then his father stood and approached the dais. His eyes were red and his face ruddy to match, but when he spoke, his voice was clear.
“I was wrong,” he said. “Ben, wherever you are, I just need you to know that I was wrong. I told you that there were some things I couldn’t forgive. I used to think-” his voice cracked and he swallowed before he continued. “I used to think I’d never be able to forgive you, but Ben, the only thing I can’t forgive is that you went first, and now I never got to tell you I’m sorry.” He choked up as he spoke and let out the last few words in a rush before he broke down completely. He took a few deep breaths, then looked at Sean before finishing. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but pushing you and yours away is the only one I really regret.”
After the service, the mourners attended a reception, where Sean tried to avoid his father, but failed.
“Sean,” he heard his a familiar voice say behind him. When he didn’t turn, his the man continued. “I want you to know, what I said up there… I said it for you. I- I forgive you, Son.”
It was too much. Sean spun and confronted the man he’d once called father. “Forgive me for what?” he asked, voice simmering with quiet fury. “For being born? For being who I am? That’s not something you should have to forgive.”
His father reacted like he’d been struck. “I- I’m sorry, I-”
“No you’re not,” Sean said, lip curling in contempt. “I didn’t choose to be what I am, but this?” Sean held his right hand in front of his father and peeled off the glove that covered it. “You chose this.” His father paled at the sight of the puckered, red scarring that covered Sean’s hand. “And until you get that, you can’t apologize for shit.”
“You’re just a bitter old man who can’t get over the fact that your brother got powers and you didn’t.” Sean turned to walk away when his father spoke.
“I did,” his father replied. The sadness in his voice stopped Sean in his tracks. “I got over that ages ago. Before you were born, even.”
“Then what-” Sean started, then stopped. He knew the answer. He’d realized it himself only recently.
“You’re his son.”
Sean looked down at his shaking hands and pulled the glove back on.
“I know,” he said.
“He… Marissa… He slept with my wife. Before we were married, after we were married, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. He knew I loved her, but… I wanted what he had, I guess he wanted what I had too.”
It was hard to imagine. Sean had known, but he hadn’t realized what it meant.
His father barked out a bitter laugh. “It seems impossible, doesn’t it? My brother, the paragon of virtue. Well, he was human, just like the rest of us, and she was beautiful.” His voice became wistful when he spoke about his late wife and he looked out into the small crowd. “I guess that’s the one place we could agree. He would never have admitted it, but I think he loved her to the end. Why else would Massacre…” He didn’t finish the sentence. He looked back at Sean. “His lawyer, Mr. Bailey called me up yesterday. Ben left almost everything to you, but Mr. Bailey said there was also a significant donation to Mercy Memorial in her name.”
“Good,” Sean said.
“You know what he left me?” He asked. “A box of old videotapes. I had to dig up our old VHS player to watch them. They’re all home videos of us testing out his powers, back when we were young. We were just dumb kids, but I guess… I guess he was the only one who grew out of the first part of that.” He looked down at his feet, then back at Sean, then away. “Damn I could use a drink,” he said. At Sean’s look of disgust, he added, “But I ain’t gonna fall off the wagon now.”
On an international scale, this news was overshadowed by the developments in Japan. The news first broke when a signal came out of Japan that Metatron had disappeared and power had been taken by a revolutionary faction. The international fleet that surrounded Japan only a few days later was met with curiosity from the Japanese people when they landed. Footage from the first landing party went viral on the internet after a member of the Indian military leaked it to his blog.
In the footage, a group of soldiers and diplomats rode a military vehicle across a road past deserted fields and villages empty of people. A few minutes in, the man with the camera shifted it to give a view out the front of the vehicle. The outside world’s first view of New Tokyo, Metatron’s megalopolis. Skyscrapers half again as tall as those in the rest of the world filled the horizon, and above them, hanging impossibly in the air, was a second layer of city, and a third. Trees and greenery spilled over the top layer like the frosting on a titanic birthday cake. Huge, cubic buildings fanned out from the central structure at regular intervals, for some unknown purpose.
One of the soldiers said something in Indian, which the captioning helpfully translated as “Oh my god.”
“How many people do you think live in there?” another asked.
“All of them,” said the diplomat. She gave the soldiers a look that clearly meant “shut up,” in any language.
The convoy ground to a halt and the diplomat stepped out of the vehicle. The man with the camera shuffled forward to see what was happening outside. An army of huge, alabaster-skinned men stood like statues in the road, stretching hundreds deep and into the distance in either direction.
“Hello! English?” called a voice. He was barely audible in the footage, but the captions provided a transcription of the conversation. “I was told you would be coming this direction.”
“Yes, I speak English,” said the diplomat. She walked out of the view of the camera. “Why not Japanese?”
“Hardly anybody speaks Japanese anymore,” said the man.
“Metatron was English.”
“Wouldn’t you want to speak Japanese then, now that she’s gone?”
“I do. You misunderstand. Metatron didn’t want to learn Japanese, so she forced everyone else to change. One day, we all woke up speaking English. Brahms,” the man introduced himself, extending a hand.
“Pavi,” the diplomat replied.
The camera shifted as the man with the camera tried to get a better angle, and the diplomat moved back into view, standing across from an odd-looking Japanese man with long, thin fingers and what appeared to be jewelry on his wrists.
“What are these?” The diplomat asked, gesturing to the pallid army.
“Cherubim- Metatron’s foot soldiers and enforcers. After Metatron disappeared, they started marching out of the tunnels under the city. They made it this far before they stopped. We’ve been trying to clear paths in and out of the city, but there are a lot of them, and they’re heavy.”
The footage jumped to later. The vehicle was in motion again, and the Japanese man was seated across from the diplomat.
“-all baseline,” the Japanese man said. “I would have expected your soldiers to have some mods… at least a C-Stack. Why is this?”
“Baseline, what does that mean?” asked the diplomat.
“Unmodified. Baseline human. I’ve got my hands, my tools, my eyes,” he gestured with his hand and the many slender strands dangling from his wrist went rigid and formed a shell around his hand, then peeled away and tucked themselves back into his sleeve. “I don’t have to eat or sleep much at all, I don’t produce any odors, I can make various hormones at will, all the basics. As far as I can tell, none of you have any mods at all. That’s all but unheard of.”
“Holy shit, it’s like Neuromancer,” One of the soldiers said under his breath.
The man’s eyes flicked that direction for a moment, but he didn’t comment. The diplomat flashed the soldier the stinkeye again before speaking.
“You mean cybernetics,” said the diplomat. “There is a transhumanist movement in India, but nothing like what you’ve described.”
The japanese envoy made a thoughtful sound then asked the soldiers, “So if you die in combat, you restore from a backup you left back at the barracks?”
The internet exploded over this last line, speculating what he could have meant. Overnight, the world became convinced, correctly, that Metatron had discovered the secret to immortality, and wanted in. Twenty-four hours after the footage leaked, the United Nations passed a unanimous ban on human brain uploading until the safety and security of the process could be assessed, validating the rumors without explicitly confirming them.
Public outcry over the ban rose swiftly as people across the world took up the belief that the government (international or otherwise) could not morally deny citizens the right to immortality, saying that everyone who died until the ban is lifted was their fault. An equally powerful faction spawned soon afterward, saying that the technology is immoral, that it is impossible to transfer a human soul with technology, or, that the technology could be used to influence or control people’s minds.
Soon after the debate began to heat up, an anonymous forum poster claiming to be a Japanese citizen who had hacked into a major ISP to access the internet made a post urging the people of the world not to accept offers of immortality or instant learning, saying that this was how Metatron had taken power, and that no one agent or agency could be trusted with control of this technology in any capacity. Attached to the post were schematics for what the file called a “Cortical Stack,” which would replace the uppermost vertebra, and a system for storing backups remotely.
This design, read the post, has none of the security flaws that Metatron exploited. It does not have capacity for any wireless communication, and as such cannot be hacked remotely. Further, the stack can now only write to an empty brain, so it is impossible to change the behavior of an occupied body. Finally, I have created a much more secure encryption system based on quantum computation-hardened hashing, so it should be impossible to modify your backups. These limitations might seem arbitrary and restrictive, but security is more important than any other consideration.
The post was taken down by forum moderators for violating international treaty, but the damage was done. Though many denounced the post as a hoax, a well-respected tinker in the grey-hat community said soon after that he’d done some digging and “it looks like it could work.” Though the surgery necessary to replace the first vertebra without severing the spinal cord, the manufacturing technology needed to create storage with memory density high enough, and the ability to grow new bodies lagged far behind what was used by Metatron, it was only a matter of time. Despite the international effort to contain the potentially dangerous technology from Japan, bits and pieces continued to leak out and be swept up into the growing transhumanist movement.
Unbeknownst to the international community, the UN diplomat was not the first outsider to be let into New Tokyo. A few days prior, a small jet landed atop the administration tower more gently than ought to have been possible. Though the tower was mind-bogglingly tall, only the top few floors pierced through the Terrace plate.
“I’m surprised they let us land,” Raine said.
“It is my tower,” Eve said from the pilot’s seat. “Or was Metatron’s. Either way, I still have the same hardware.”
The rumbling of the jet’s inertialess drive faded and and it dropped a few inches as gravity took hold on it once more. The entrance ramp at the back of the jet swung open and the small group disembarked.
“This architecture is incredible,” Dr Mind said. “I can only assume it’s based on the same technology as the jet.” Dr. Mind had insisted on accompanying the group, citing a need for “adult supervision,” and while Lilith had been irritated at being condescended to, she didn’t protest.
As soon as the jet was empty, A squad of black-clad people with advanced-looking weapons poured out of the doorway of the elevator leading into the building. They formed ranks in a quarter-circle between the visitors and the elevator, weapons trained on them.
“Metatron!” shouted one of the men, who stood behind the others holding a radio. “We have taken the administration tower. Surrender now, or we’ll destroy the gravity generators.”
“Gravity generators! So that’s how he did it,” Dr. Mind exclaimed.
“Metatron is gone, Brahms,” Raine said, stepping forward to stand between Eve and the militants. “She was as much a puppet as the people of Japan.”
“Raine?” asked Brahms, disbelieving. “Rokuro said you’d gone off on some suicide mission after what happened at the HQ.”
“I did, and I was successful,” Raine said. “With the mission, but not the suicide. Metatron wasn’t who we thought she was. May I speak to Rokuro?”
“Be my guest,” said Brahms, and tossed the handheld radio to Raine. Unlike the rest of the technology, the radio was large and bulky, more like what you would see outside Japan than any of the ultra-sleek tech manufactured by Metatron.
She held down the button and spoke into the radio. “Rokuro,”
“Raine! I must say, it is a surprise to hear from you again,” He replied, recognizing her voice, then spoke in Japanese, “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Raine struggled to remember the bits of Japanese he’d taught her to use as code phrases. “Baka wa shinanakya naoranai.”
Rokuro’s laugh was distorted by the small speaker, but it was genuine. “Yes, indeed. May I ask why you are standing between Metatron and justice?”
“That is not Metatron. Her name is Eve. Metatron was-”
“The remnants-” Dr. Mind butted in, and Raine waved at him to be silent and continued speaking.
“-a parasitic intelligence infesting her cortical stack,” Raine finished.
“…Ah. Yes. And I suppose it’s reasonable to assume that if Metatron had really returned, the security in the tower would have flushed me out by now. Men, stand down. Show our guests into the tower,” Rokuro said.
The elevator was large enough to comfortably fit the entire group- it was likely designed to carry the jet down into the building. The elevator moved quickly, floors of the building blurring past behind the transparent enclosures, yet even at this speed, it took several minutes to reach the lowest floor of the tower.
At the bottom, they were greeted by a large Japanese man with a full beard. He stood by a partially disassembled obelisk of circuitry that stretched up into the next few floors of the tower, an array of tools scattered across the floor around it.
“Raine, it’s good to see you,” he said, then spotted Eve. “And you aren’t Metatron?”
“I’m not,” Eve said.
“No, you are not,” he sighed. “I would know it if you were. Your voice… well, that doesn’t matter now. We won’t be giving power back to you, in case you were wondering.”
“I don’t want it,” Eve said. “I never wanted… this.”
“What do you want?” Rokuro asked.
“I want you to bring back my brother,” she said. Lilith reached into her pocket and held out the black disk.
“Ah yes, this… this I can do,” he said. “If you tell me a story.”