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For The Honor Of The Regiment (Worm/Bolo crossover)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by mp3.1415player, Aug 16, 2018.

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    mp3.1415player

    mp3.1415player Getting sticky.

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    August 6th, 2005

    “Hi, Pat, how’s things?” Danny said cheerfully as he held the door to The Captain’s Table open for his daughter, who followed him in and looked around with interest. A number of the regulars greeted him with shouts and calls of good humor, one or two doing the same to Taylor, who waved back with a broad smile. She was fairly well known to the various people around the docks, having accompanied him on a number of occasions around the place, and to work more often than that. The girl had always had a strong interest in mechanical things and appeared to find the entire area fascinating, to a slightly worrying level at times.

    He’d had to go looking for her more than once, often finding her in one of the machine shops, or the vehicle depot, and occasionally under one of the vehicles being serviced. A few of the DWU mechanics appeared to find her amusing and would spend quite a lot of time explaining how engines worked, or how to repair a transmission. He suspected, based on her quick wit and remarkably good memory, that she probably knew more about cars than he did in some ways…

    Recently she’d become even more curious, and over the summer vacation seemed to get into everything. At times she vanished entirely into the dockyards, although she’d promised not to go past the fence without him or someone else trusted with her and he had no reason to believe that she’d done so. When she gave him her word, she stuck to it. More so than he’d done at that age, certainly.

    The problem was that she was amazingly good at finding loopholes in his instructions, and would present him with a well argued reason as to why what he’d said didn’t quite mean what he thought it meant. She could even produce documentary evidence of this on occasion. It made him sigh, and Annette laugh like a madwoman. Even Alan found it hilarious, saying she was better at that sort of thing than some lawyers he knew.

    Danny wasn’t sure it was a compliment or not, but Taylor took it as one. So, he tended to spend quite a long time thinking through anything he wanted her to promise him, just in case he was missing something obvious.

    It certainly was good practice in logically dismantling an argument, he mused as he walked over to the bar where the slightly younger guy who owned and ran the place was, Taylor trailing behind. Not practice he’d have expected to need when dealing with a ten year old girl, but useful nonetheless. On the upside, she was generally responsible when she wasn’t being Doctor Curlyhair, and oddly careful when she was, so in general he wasn’t too worried that she’d get into something that she couldn’t extricate herself from. And there were enough people around the place who’d jump in without question to help her if the worst happened, and would also keep an eye on her to make sure it didn’t, that he was fairly sure nothing serious would happen.

    Not quite what he’d expected when she was born, but it kept him on his toes, there was no denying that.

    “Good, Danny, very good. Nice day, business is going well, the beer’s cold… What more could a man want?” Pat replied, reaching over the bar to give him a hearty handshake. “And no one has tried anything for weeks around here either, so that’s helpful.”

    “No trouble from the E88 or the Merchants, then?” Danny inquired. The neo-nazis mostly stayed away from the Docks in general, although they did sometimes come through making a nuisance of themselves, while the Merchants were more persistent but generally easy enough to chase off.

    “Nah. Not for a while now. Last time the Merchants came by raising hell some of your guys beat their asses black and blue then chucked them into the bay,” Pat chuckled. “Pity the tide was out. Haven’t seen hide nor hair of them since. We had a small group of E88 gang types wander in about a month back, looking for trouble. It was very sad how they accidentally violently slammed their heads into the walls a few times then ended up in the street.” He looked thoughtful as Danny tried to prevent himself smiling. “Somehow four of my good pool cues got broken that night too. Odd thing. Ah well, they’re cheap enough.”

    “I see,” Danny grinned. “The usual, basically.”

    “Yeah. More or less. Heard that the Merchants got a new cape, though. Some idiot called Mush or something. Seems to be a literal trash man. And thick as two short sticks from what I was told.”

    “Hmm.” He pondered the news. “Not ideal, I don’t like the Merchants having any capes, but as long as they stay away I guess we can’t do much about it.”

    “Nope.” Pat shrugged. “If they do come around causing trouble, well, we’re good at giving them some. Cape or no cape.” He reached under the bar and retrieved one of the largest shotguns that Danny had ever seen. “This usually works.”

    “Holy shit, what the hell is that?” Danny asked, staring at the thing.

    “It’s a KS-23 pump action military carbine shotgun designed in the early nineteen seventies as a prison riot suppression weapon, Dad,” a voice from next to him said, sounding interested. Both he and Pat stared at Taylor, who was inspecting the weapon closely. “That one is the KS-23M model, with the shortened barrel and detachable buttstock. Three round magazine and one more in the chamber, and a rifled barrel, which gives it decent accuracy when firing solid projectiles. They’re quite rare in the US.”

    When she finished reciting information which he was certain would be completely correct, she seemed to notice that almost everyone in the place had fallen silent and was looking at her, mostly with raised eyebrows and some with smiles. She flushed a little, appearing embarrassed. “It’s a nice gun,” she added in a small voice.

    He ruffled her hair, making her sigh and push his hand away. “Thank you, dear,” he chuckled.

    “Exactly right, Taylor,” Pat said, sounding impressed as he put the enormous firearm back under the bar with a click of some sort of clamp engaging. “Got it in a poker game from one of your boys, Danny. Ex Spetsnaz fellow who had some souvenirs from his service days. Ammo is a little tricky to get but we found a source.”

    “Ooh, do you have the Баррикада cartridge?” she asked with a bit of excitement, pronouncing the Russian word without difficulty. “That one is cool, it’s a solid steel slug. It’ll go right through an engine block at over a hundred meters.” She looked thoughtful as Pat stared at her again. “It’d have a lot of recoil though.”

    Danny looked at her, then at the bartender, who met his eyes. He shrugged a little weakly. Pat shook his head, then turned back to the girl. “No, I don’t have any of those,” he said patiently. “Only buckshot. So far that’s all I needed. Mostly just waving it at troublemakers is enough.”

    “Intimidation is a valid technique,” she nodded, sounding approving. “May I have a can of coke, please?”

    Wordlessly Pat turned and retrieved the requested item from one of the under-counter fridges behind the bar, then slid it across to her. “Thank you!” she chirped, before popping the tab and taking a slurp of the drink, then wandering over to watch a couple of the patrons playing pool in the corner. Both men watched her go.

    There was a short pause, ultimately broken by Pat. “You know, Danny,” he said calmly, his faint Irish accent making the words sound somewhat philosophical, “your daughter is a lovely lass, but by god sometimes she gives me the shivers.”

    Danny sighed faintly. He understood what his friend meant. Taylor was prone to coming out with some of the most esoteric bits of information at times, often making him wonder where the hell she’d read it. Considering the sheer amount of reading she’d been doing this summer, there was no telling what she’d picked up. The girl certainly knew more about weaponry than most people, that was for sure.

    He wasn’t entirely comfortable with it, but there didn’t really seem to be any harm in it, so he left her alone. Considering how hard it was to get some kids to crack a book at all he supposed he should be grateful that his own offspring was almost impossible to get to stop reading practically anything she ran across.

    “She seems to be on a weaponry kick at the moment,” he finally replied. They watched as she studied the pool game which one of the locals was losing, his opponent someone Danny hadn’t seen before. “I have no idea where she got that from, though.”

    “Learning Russian too, is she?” Pat asked. “Her accent sounded pretty good to me, but I’m no expert. Just know a few Russians.”

    “She does seem to have a gift for picking up languages,” Danny nodded. “Read all Annette’s books on Japanese, Spanish, Greek, Italian, and German this summer. And she keeps getting one of us to take her to the library to get more books, since she’s gone through everything else in the house. I’ve never in my life met someone who reads as fast as she does.” He glanced at the other man, smiling a little. “I think she’s got some idea about reading the whole library.”

    “She does realize, I hope, that the Brockton Bay library is the largest one in the state, right?” Pat asked with a grin. “That might take her a while.”

    “She’s patient,” Danny replied. “Very, very patient. Weird for a kid that age.”

    “Huh. Well, good luck to her.” Pat shook his head and turned back to Danny. “Got you three crates of beer, that’s all we could spare. There’ll be more next month, or perhaps in six weeks.”

    “Business going well, I take it?”

    “Oh, yes. We’ve sold more of that stuff in three months than I normally manage in a year,” Pat replied with great satisfaction. “And business is steadily picking up. Two places in Boston want to try it now.”

    “Great. Make sure you don’t sell all of it to the big city folk, though.” Danny snickered a little as the barman laughed. “There’d be a riot if the beer ran out around these parts.”

    “Don’t I know it,” Pat chuckled. “Your car outside? I’ll give you a hand loading it.”

    “Just outside the door,” Danny nodded. Pat waved him to come around the end of the bar, while opening the trapdoor into the basement that was behind the long gleaming wooden counter-top. “Taylor, I’ll be back in a minute,” he called to his daughter who was now holding one of the pool cues and grinning at the winner of the game in a somewhat challenging fashion. The defeated local patron was watching with a tiny smirk, as were a number of other regulars.

    “OK, Dad,” she replied, still grinning at the man, who seemed dubious.

    With a grin of his own he followed Pat down the steep wooden stairs into the echoing space below the ancient building, which to his certain knowledge was one of the oldest in the city.

    “She hustling pool sharks again?” Pat, who was at the other end of the enormous cellar, said with a laugh in his voice.

    “Yep.” Danny shook his head. “She had that grin.”

    “Poor bastard doesn’t know what’s going to happen next,” the barkeeper sniggered as he flipped a switch next to an old wooden door, something that was almost square and made of age-blackened planks about four inches thick. Danny followed him into the next room, which was considerably cooler than the rest of the cellar, which itself was a good ten degrees below the outside temperature. It was a nice relief from the heat, but in here it was almost too cold.

    “Here you go,” Pat said, indicating a stack of crates in the corner, many more of them in piles with labels on for other customers. “Those are yours.”

    “Great.” Danny pulled out a bottle and held it up to the light. “Looks good. Thanks.”

    “No problem. Grab that one, I’ll take the other two.” Danny did as requested, picking up the top crate having put the bottle back, then waiting as the younger man heaved the two remaining ones off the floor. “Don’t bother about the lights, I’ll come back for that,” Pat added as they headed back to the stairs.

    “Every time I come down here I’m amazed at how big this place is,” Danny commented as they walked. “Big enough to get the entire building in here, I think.”

    “Probably. Used to be a storeroom for stuff coming in off the ships,” Pat replied, looking around at the dimly lit area, which disappeared into the dark at the edges. Racks of bottles, kegs, and other pub-related paraphernalia half filled the space, but most of the rest was empty. Off in one corner was a stack of ancient-looking wooden crates, which appeared to have probably been sitting there since before the war. The Civil one, possibly.

    “Before that it got used for all sorts of things. Gramps told me they used to store gunpowder down here at one point in the cold room, since it was so secure. Supposedly there are at least two hidden tunnels out of the place too, which were used by smugglers or something. Never been able to find them though. But this place is bloody old, it was here before most of the docks were, so god knows what’s buried under the flagstones. Bodies, probably.” Pat shook his head, stopping at the foot of the stairs and putting his load down, then straightening up. “He also said it was the oldest building in Brockton, and I know for a fact it’s the second oldest bar in the entire US.”

    “Really? I didn’t know it was that old.”

    “Yeah, it’s bloody ancient, this place. Been a bar for over two hundred years. In the family the entire time too. There have been some very strange things come through here over the years if the stories are right.” Pat smiled a little. “I’ve sure met some weird people while I’ve been here.” He looked around thoughtfully. “Got one girl a while ago, tall lass, well spoken, but there was something a little odd about her… Anyway, she got to talking with me and she said that this place existed in every world. Whatever the hell that means. According to her, if there’s a Brockton Bay, there’s a Captain’s Table.”

    He shrugged, then picked up the crates again. “Mind you, she might have been off her head. But she seemed sincere, and was very easy to talk to. Couldn’t place her accent but she seemed intelligent.”

    “Strange,” Danny said, shaking his head slightly. “I guess you meet some peculiar people in the Docks.”

    “You do that, yes” Pat agreed, climbing the stairs slowly and carefully. Danny followed, then put his crate down on the counter and closed the trapdoor so they wouldn’t fall down it. Shortly the three crates were safely in back of his truck and strapped down under a tarp.

    “Thanks, Pat,” Danny said, handing the man a roll of bills, which Pat put into his pocket without looking at it. “Good of you.”

    “My pleasure, Danny,” the barman smiled. “Where are you off to now?”

    “Taylor wanted to go to a shooting range,” he explained. “I asked around and got a recommendation, and we finally had time to go. That place just at the edge of the city to the north, uh...”

    “BB Guns?” Pat said.

    “That’s the place.” Danny nodded. “Some of the guys said it was safe and well run.”

    “Never been there, but I’ve heard the same. Hope you two have fun.”

    “We probably will,” Danny smiled. They heard a wave of laughter come from inside, causing both men to curiously go back into the bar and see what was going on.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    Taylor counted her cash with a triumphant smile, while her father glanced at her every now and then, looking both proud and a little bemused. “...fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty,” she said under her breath. “Great, all here.”

    “That poor man didn’t seem to know what hit him,” her father commented.

    She shrugged. “He wasn’t as good as he thought he was.” Then she grinned. “I was as good as I thought I was.”

    Laughing, her father reached out and prodded her affectionately. “Gas is on you, then.”

    “Fine by me,” she giggled. “There’s plenty where that came from.”

    “You know that sooner or later people are going to work out that your innocent little girl routine covers the heart and soul of a vicious pool shark, I hope?” Her father smirked as she giggled again. “Eventually you’ll run out of marks.”

    Taylor grinned a little once more. “Wouldn’t bet on it.”

    Shaking his head, her father returned his attention to the road. “Where did I go wrong,” he lamented. “I tried to raise an honest and upright daughter, and now look at her! Scamming honest pool players out of their hard earned cash. I blame your mother.”

    She snorted with laughter. “Mom says they deserve it.”

    “She would.” They shared another look, then both laughed.

    “Kenny also says it’s good practice in trajectory calculation and tactical thinking,” she added a moment later, making her father roll his eyes a little, which amused both her and the AI tank that was a constant presence in the back of her mind.

    One day she would be able to tell them, but not yet.

    It would be pretty funny when it happened, she suspected with a hidden grin...

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    “Hello, girls,” Annette said when she opened the door to see some familiar faces. “And Eric. How are all of you?”

    “Fine, thanks, Mrs H,” Vicky Dallon said cheerfully. “Is Taylor in?”

    “No, I’m afraid she’s out with her father,” Annette replied. “They should be back in about an hour or so, though. You can come in for some lemonade if you want, and wait.”

    “Thanks,” the blonde said with a glance at her sister and cousin, both of whom nodded quickly. Amy was as usual fairly quiet, but she was also as usual watching everything around her carefully. The girl was very observant and tended to notice things that most didn’t.

    Next to her, her cousin Eric grinned. “I love your lemonade,” the boy said happily.

    “It’s a family recipe,” Annette replied as she stood aside for the three children, who all trooped in and headed for the kitchen. She was as usual pleased to see them. Since that time at the lake a few weeks ago, they and her daughter, and Emma, had often met up and seemed to get along very well. The redhead was still clearly much closer to Taylor and she didn’t think that was something that would change, but these three definitely counted as friends now, which pleased her.

    “What are you three doing out alone like this?” she asked as she got three glasses out of the cupboard, then after a moment added a fourth.

    “We got tired of hanging around at home,” Vicky said immediately. She was, as usual, the one who tended to speak for all of them. The girl was ebullient and gregarious pretty much all the time, tending to extroverted. Amy was generally much quieter but very thoughtful and calm, while Eric was about halfway between the two sisters. “So we decided to go and look around. Your house isn’t that far from home and we thought Taylor might want to go do something. Maybe Emma too if she’s around.”

    “We need more Doctor Curlyhair in our lives,” Amy added with a small grin, which made her somewhat plain face light up with mischief. Eric snickered, nodding.

    “I am now worried,” Annette joked, filling all the glasses having added some ice cubes. “We all know what happens when the Doctor turns up.”

    “Yeah! Lots of cool stuff!” Vicky grinned as she accepted a glass.

    “That’s… one way to put it, I suppose,” Annette allowed. “Possibly not the way most people would, though.”

    All three children exchanged looks then laughed, before drinking. “This is really good, Mrs H,” Eric said in tones of pleasure. “I love this stuff.”

    “Thank you, Eric,” she smiled. “I hope you told your parents where you were going?”

    Amy and Vicky looked at each other. They seemed to have a short wordless conversation, then looked back at her with identical grins. “Of course we did,” the blonde said confidently.

    “I see.” Annette sighed a little. “I’d better call Carol, then.”

    “Busted,” Eric whispered, making Amy poke him right in the middle of the chest, hitting something sensitive and causing him to wince. “ow...”

    “Shh!” the brunette sister said out of the side of her mouth.

    Annette watched with a small smile, then shook her head and refilled their glasses.

    Children.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    “I wish Emma could have come,” Taylor said, looking up at her father. She returned her attention to the handgun the instructor was holding and describing to the four people who had come to shoot here today, who weren’t regulars.

    “You know she had to go and see her grandmother, Taylor. She can come next time if she wants, though.”

    “OK.” His daughter was listening intently, her expressive eyes fixed on the weapon in the hand of the tall man who was their teacher and safety person. He was currently showing them how the magazine was loaded.

    Taylor was the youngest person present by a few years, and had attracted a couple of glances, but no one had said anything. They were all in an enclosed shooting range that was made of cinderblocks and stretched out for some fifty yards from the rear of the building, which also housed a decent sized gun store, the entire place heavily reinforced and festooned with visible and presumably invisible security measures. With the gang problems that Brockton Bay suffered from, Danny guessed that they had more than a few break in attempts, hence the reason the place was more solidly built than the PRT building itself.

    “...and these magazines hold seven rounds. Safety here, this way is safe, this way is fire. Do not under any circumstances operate the safety or pull the trigger unless the weapon is aimed downrange, am I clear?” the instructor said, looking around at them all. Taylor nodded immediately, as did Danny, while the other three were a little slower. There were two men, one about twenty-one and the other in his fifties, and a woman about thirty or so, present.

    “Good. Anyone who disobeys the instructions I gave you will be ejected immediately and banned for life. No refunds. Got me?” He looked around again. Once more, Taylor nodded. The younger man did as well while the older one looked a bit grumpy but did a few seconds later.

    “Right. In that case, take your hearing protection and each pick a firing position. I will bring a weapon and four magazines to each station. You will load the weapon as I showed you, keeping it pointed downrange at all times, and wait for me to tell you you’re clear to begin. Once you have finished firing, remove the magazine, check the action as you were shown, safe the weapon, then place it on the table and step back. I will double check each one at that point. Again, any fooling around will get you kicked out for good, so don’t do it.”

    The tall dark haired man who gave off the air of someone who’d been trained in the military looked around at them all for a moment. Danny was impressed, he wasn’t in any way unpleasant about it, but he clearly knew exactly what he was doing and held very firm views that in his place of business you followed his rules and that was that. He approved, guns weren’t toys.

    The instructor met his eyes and nodded a little, then looked at Taylor somewhat evaluatingly. “Have you done this before, kid?”

    “No, sir,” she replied immediately, standing straight and keeping her eyes on his. “However I am familiar with the operation of the M1911 from reading the manual.”

    “I… see,” he said slowly, seeming a little puzzled. “Well, reading a book won’t make you shoot better. Experience and practice does that. You’re pretty tall for your age, so you should be able to use this, but it’s got a fair bit of recoil. I have a smaller Beretta that might be a better fit for a girl...”

    “I would like to try the M1911, sir,” she said, still looking straight at him.

    After a moment he shrugged. “Fine by me. How old are you?”

    “Ten, sir,” she replied immediately.

    “Huh.” He looked at Danny, who smiled and shook his head slightly. The instructor seemed to hide a smile of his own. “All right. Hearing protection on, pick a station.”

    With a grin, Taylor quickly put the hearing protectors they’d all been supplied with over her ears, as did Danny, and headed towards the end station. Each of these was separated from the others by a partition wall a few feet long, lined on both sides with sound absorbent material. It looked somewhat familiar from innumerable movies, Danny thought, but much more used. There was an omnipresent smell of nitrocellulose, something familiar to him from certain events in his childhood, not to mention occasional incidents in the Docks…

    Taking his position in the next firing station along, he peered around the partition to look at Taylor. She gave him a bright smile and a thumbs up. Amused, he returned to his correct area.

    A couple of minutes passed while the instructor distributed the weapons and ammunition, a colleague of his bringing them out from a locked room at the rear of the firing range, then standing and watching closely as did the first man as each of the loaded their weapon.

    “No! Downrange at all times!” the instructor shouted, diving forwards and grabbing the arm of the older man, who’d ended up waving his gun at the ceiling while he struggled to get the magazine in correctly. “Like this.” Danny leaned back to watch as did everyone else. Slightly red-faced, the older man managed to follow the instructions. “Good.”

    Their instructor walked down the line, checking each of them in turn, until he reached Taylor. When he was satisfied, he nodded. “Excellent. Range is ten yards, your targets are in position. As we discussed, correct stance, aim carefully, pull the trigger don’t jerk it, and as soon as you’re empty, magazine out, clear the action, and safety back on. Do not assume the gun is empty. Always check the action and clear the slide. Everyone ready?”

    He looked around as a chorus of responses came back. “Safeties off, aim, and begin.”

    Danny carefully flicked the safety lever with his thumb, then aligned the sights on the center of the paper target thirty feet away with both hands in the right grip. Pulling the trigger caused the gun to jump in his hand with a bang and a hole to appear a couple of inches up and right of the point he’d tried to hit. Correcting a little, he fired again.

    Other gunshots came from around him, but he largely ignored them, keeping his attention on what he was doing. A few seconds later, though, he heard seven perfectly even shots come one after another about half a second apart on his left, where Taylor was. He glanced to the side then stared at the target his daughter was firing at.

    It had seven holes in a dead straight line across the exact center of it.

    He heard the sound of a magazine dropping onto the table, then a click as another one was inserted and locked in. Seven more shots came, again perfectly and evenly spaced, and the target sprouted more holes. This time they ran vertically up the middle, neatly intersecting the first line. He was almost certain that the fourth round went through the middle hole that was already there.

    The rest of the firing stopped and he became aware that the two range operators were now standing behind his daughter watching with stunned expressions.

    Again, the magazine was swapped and the firing resumed. If anything the rate was going up.

    This time the oval target got seven completely symmetrically spaced holes around the outside ring in a manner that was anything but an accident. He watched with amazement as his daughter changed magazines for the last time and shot a nice circle of holes at the top of the cross-shaped pattern she’d already made, then stopped. A moment later he heard her voice say, “Weapon cleared, sir.”

    Very carefully putting the safety back on, then gently resting the gun with the muzzle pointing downrange, he stepped back a couple of paces before turning to see his daughter standing facing the instructors, who seemed beyond words. Each of them was alternately looking at her cheerful face, then the impossibly perfectly perforated paper thirty feet behind her.

    Taylor looked at him and grinned. “That was fun. Can I do it again?”

    Danny rubbed his forehead and sighed very quietly.

    Annette was going to laugh and laugh about this, before she started to get worried...

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    “It was really cool,” Taylor enthused, looking around at her small group of friends. Emma was sitting next to her, while Amy, Vicky, and Eric were leaning forward from their positions on the grass in her back yard. On the way home they’d stopped at the Barnes’s house and found Emma had returned from their family visit. The other girl had wanted to come over so joined them in the truck. Her mother and father, and sister, were coming over later for a barbecue since the weather was perfect. When they’d arrived home they’d found the two Dallon girls and Eric waiting for them and drinking all the lemonade.

    “I liked the Colt 1911, but the Glock is lighter,” she went on. “Those guys at the range were neat, they kept bringing out other guns for me to try. Dad got to shoot an AR-15. He’s pretty good with it. I thought it was a little under-powered but it seems accurate. I wanted to try the Barrett but my arms aren’t really long enough.” She reached out and poked one arm with the finger of the other hand. “I guess I’ll be able to when I get older.”

    “Wow, Tay, I didn’t know you were that good with a gun,” Vicky said, sounding impressed.

    “Doctor Curlyhair has many special skills,” Amy intoned, exchanging a glance with Emma, who cracked up. “She knows gun fu.”

    Taylor giggled. “Kenny is a good teacher,” she said.

    Eric rolled his eyes. “Your imaginary friend taught you to shoot like… like… like someone who shoots really well?” he asked skeptically.

    Nodding, and knowing that they wouldn’t believe the truth, Taylor smirked a little, deliberately hamming it up. “Kenny is wise and powerful. Kenny knows all.” She leaned forward. “Kenny sees all,” she added in a dark hiss.

    There was silence for a moment, then all of them started laughing.

    When they’d finished, Emma sat up and wiped her eyes. “You’re weird, Tay.”

    “Says The Crimson Lady.”

    “So she does.” Emma nodded firmly. “And she should know.” All of them looked around as Taylor’s father came out of the side door to the garage pushing the barbecue, while Uncle Alan was carrying a big bag of charcoal. Talk of imaginary friends and equally imaginary superheros and villains was abandoned as they all rushed to get in the way of the food preparation process.

    Life was going pretty well, Taylor thought as she watched her father light the barbecue.

    Kenny agreed.

    And suggested that tomorrow they arrange to plant more of his little widgets around the docks, which would require her to persuade her dad to let her come with him again. That was easy enough.
     
  2. Threadmarks: 13. Interlude - Coming to a decision
    mp3.1415player

    mp3.1415player Getting sticky.

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    Still August 6th, 2005, but later that night...

    Sean Sorenson went into the office and closed the door behind him, having locked up after the last customer of the shop had left. He turned to the alarm console and prodded buttons, evoking a number of beeps and a chorus of clunks around the building as heavy duty locks engaged all over the place. Then he ran his hand down a large panel of switches, flipping them all off one after another. In the main areas all the lights went out.

    Finished, he moved to the coffee machine and poured himself a large one, extra strong, without milk or sugar. It was awful, just the way he liked it. Twenty years in the marines had permanently ruined his taste buds, or so his wife said. Smiling a little to himself at the thought, he sipped it, then turned around and leaned against the counter where the machine was.

    At one of the desks in the office, his partner, friend, and fireteam buddy Chris Mendoza was staring at a set of their standard targets that were hung up on the wall. Each of these was showing a series of holes in various patterns and sizes that were so neatly spaced it looked like they’d been done with a machine. In a way they had, but it had been in the hand of the most fucking scary little girl either of them had ever met.

    “That happened, right?” Chris said after a while, when Sean put another coffee next to his elbow with the three empty cups already there.

    Sean looked at the targets, then back to his old friend and sole other survivor of his squad. “Yeah.”

    “How?” Chris’s voice was a little unsteady. “It’s fucking impossible to shoot a hand gun that consistently. I can’t do it. You can’t do it, and you were the best shot we had.” He pointed at the first target, the one with the cross formed from .45 ACP sized holes capped with a nice neat circle. “That was bad enough. Maybe beginner’s luck, although I sure as shit don’t believe it. But those?

    His hand tracked across the other ten targets. Each had a more elaborate pattern, including a couple of smiley faces, the outline of what looked like a tank, and a few other things, in different sized holes. The one from the AR-15 session was impressively detailed. “No way. You can’t shoot anything that consistently, not even at ten yards. Even if you were a fucking robot or something.”

    Sean shrugged. “But we both saw it. I don’t believe it either but there it is.”

    “Fucking Miss Militia couldn’t do that,” Chris muttered, before picking up his coffee and draining half of it. “Shit, Dragon couldn’t do it.”

    “Think she’s a cape?”

    His old friend gave him a look over the cup. “What do you think?”

    “No idea. I stay out of cape shit. She might just be the luckiest little girl in the world.” He grinned briefly as Chris stared at him, then looked meaningfully at the targets. “Yeah, not likely. Once, maybe, but she kept doing it.” After a moment, his grin came back. “God, I’d love to take that kid to one of the competitions. Think what that smug fucker Kincaid would look like after she handed him his ass and made it look easy.”

    Both of them laughed.

    “Probably not a good idea.”

    “No. Pity, though.”

    “What do we do about it?”

    Sean examined his partner curiously. “Do?”

    “I mean do we tell the PRT?”

    “Fuck, no, we do not tell those bastards. One, they’d flip their shit at the mere idea of a kid that age that good with a gun. Ruin the kids life, and her parents, for sure. I’m not doing that to a ten year old girl. Two, do you want someone who can shoot like that pissed at you?” He pointed at the targets. Chris slowly shook his head. “She’s a nice kid and all, but there was something in her eyes… I’ve seen that look before a couple of times. From people you do not want thinking you’re causing them trouble.”

    Chris nodded equally slowly. Both of them knew that look. It was that of someone who, should circumstances require it, would put you down in an instant. They both had a certain level of it themselves, unsurprisingly.

    “Three, we don’t want her old man coming for us either. Guy’s got a hell of a lot of friends at the DWU if what I hear is right. Don’t fuck with the DWU.”

    “Word,” his partner sighed. “I get it.”

    “And four,” Sean went on, “We don’t have any proof anyway. Sure, it’s impossible, but we don’t know it’s a cape power. Might just be the most ridiculous coincidence you’ve ever heard of.” Chris snorted a little but didn’t deny it. “Best to keep our heads down and ignore it. I don’t want to borrow trouble I have an easy way to avoid.”

    “And if someone comes asking?”

    Sean shrugged. “Tell them to fuck off. No video of it, after all. None of our customers like being videoed. Those other idiots who were there had no idea how ridiculous that all was, so I doubt they’d say anything other than they saw a little girl who could outshoot Jerry Michulek. And I doubt anyone would believe it without proof.”

    Chris slowly nodded, looking thoughtful. Eventually, he leaned back with a sigh. “Fine. You win.” After a moment he got up and pulled each of the targets off the wall, stacking them into a pile. With a regretful look at them, he tore them in half, then started feeding them into the shredder. “Feels like pissing on a Michelangelo, you know? Destroying art.”

    Sean watched as the only real evidence of what had happened disappeared into tiny fragments of paper, which would get burned later. “I know. But it’s probably for the best.”

    “What if she comes back?”

    “Be polite and sell her all the ammo she wants,” he replied with a small smile. “She obviously knows how to use it. Girl’s better trained than most of the guys we served with. Wonder who did it?”

    “Her dad?”

    “Nah. He’s not military. Good shot, very good for someone who doesn’t do it much, but you can tell he’s no enthusiast. Her on the other hand...” He shrugged. “Impressive. Trained by an expert. And fucking terrifying.”

    Raising his coffee, he finished it off. “Polite, though. Good kid. Come on, I need a beer.”

    Chris finished what he was doing, then the pair checked the outside cameras just in case some lowlife was lying in wait, turned out the lights, and left.
     
  3. Threadmarks: 14. Seeking The Truth
    mp3.1415player

    mp3.1415player Getting sticky.

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    July 3rd, 2007

    “So what do we have?”

    “Very little.” The other FBI agent turned to his colleague, friend, and superior. “The cleanup was very thorough indeed. All the brass recovered was either from the various Merchant weapons, or those of the police. Nothing found that isn’t linked to any of the weapons we know were there. No fingerprints, DNA evidence, clothing fibers, or anything at all useful that isn’t clearly also linked to the gang members or the BBPD officers who were firing on their attackers. We have almost too much evidence of that sort, but not a single molecule that we can conclusively say came from our mystery shooter.”

    Pascoe nodded thoughtfully, flipping through the printout he’d picked up when he came into the office. “That’s genuinely impressive. I wonder how they did it?”

    “A combination of excellent discipline, very careful work, and quite possibly some form of power, I would imagine. Accentuated by what is clearly an enormous amount of training.” Special Agent Jack Williamson turned back to the bank of monitors that covered half the wall and pointed to a couple of them. “The trajectories of the rounds that were fired at the Merchants from the side conclusively put the location of the shooter here, on top of this building about one hundred and twenty meters away from the firefight. The shooter hit targets between ninety and one hundred and forty meters from that position, at downward angles from approximately twelve to eighteen degrees. They didn’t miss once as far as can be determined, as we haven’t recovered any expended rounds from the weapon used that didn’t first pass through someone.”

    “Jesus. That’s unbelievable.”

    “It’s right at the limit of possibility if you discount powers. The problem is that it is just within what’s possible. So it doesn’t prove a Parahuman did it. I mean, I’d be absolutely astounded if it wasn’t a Parahuman, but technically a very, very good firearms expert with years of experience and the Devil’s own luck could have managed it.” Jack shrugged. “And even if it was a Parahuman, there’s enough evidence if only circumstantial to show that the person involved knew exactly what they were doing, how to do it very well, and most likely had done it before. Probably a lot.”

    “What about the Empire cape, Victor? He’s known to be an expert sniper.”

    “Even Victor isn’t this good. He’s been known to miss. And we know exactly where he was, which was nowhere near this location.” Agent Williamson shook his head. “It wasn’t him. And I very much doubt it was anything to do with the E88, or we’d have heard all about it by now. They’re not known for their shy retiring nature after all.”

    “True.” Agent Pascoe, known to his friends as Peter, nodded. “And much the same goes for any of the other gangs. I’ve already talked to the local Yakuza and Triad informants, who were highly pleased about the end result, but swore blind they hadn’t got the first idea who did it. I also reached out to a contact in the more traditional crime families and his information says the same. So it’s more than likely either someone who’s recently moved to the area, happened to be passing through, or if it is a Parahuman, Triggered in the recent past. And in any of those cases, isn’t associated with any of the known criminal enterprises.”

    “I’ve run everything I could find about this case through the computers, and even reached out to Interpol, but there’s nothing on record that matches any of the characteristics, at least not well enough to be anything more than coincidence,” Jack replied. “Without any real concrete data we can’t do much more about it at the moment from that direction. Personally, my suspicion is that if anyone would know more, we’d find them buried somewhere in the depths of the military somewhere. Not necessarily ours.”

    “It does seem to point that way, doesn’t it?” Pascoe mused, examining the photos on the screens. “Expert use of high ground and cover, perfect selection of sniper position, damn near immaculate cleaning up the traces afterwards… Not to mention the grenade use. We’ve recovered video from the single camera on a neighboring building that managed to catch anything of the firefight, and correlated it with some footage that was uploaded to the internet from the public. It’s not particularly clear since most of it was too far away and it was dark, but it’s apparent that our mystery agent managed to use Skidmark’s own power to redirect their grenades to their benefit. That takes some remarkable reflexes and skill, not to mention quick thinking.”

    “Or, yet again, a Parahuman power.”

    “Yes. But it’s still not conclusive proof one way or the other.”

    His friend gave him a level look which made him shrug once more. “Sure, I know, it’s looking more and more likely, but we just don’t have enough to call it either way.”

    “I suspect the PRT is having just as much trouble with the entire thing,” Williamson commented.

    “Undoubtedly. My information is that they’ve gone through more or less the same exercise, although I’m fairly sure we’ve dug up more evidence at this point. Not that it helps much. But they seem to be working on the basis that it’s an experienced combat vet, almost certainly male, several tours of duty, and special forces training.”

    “Rambo, basically.”

    Pascoe snorted with amusement. “Essentially yes. Although if it was Rambo everything would also be on fire. Our guy was surprisingly careful to minimize collateral damage. And a fuck sight more lethal than Rambo on his best day.”

    “The evidence from the inside of the station certainly backs that up. They went through anyone who got in the way without even slowing down.” Jack looked impressed as he brought up a new series of images. “Lots of dead attackers, all with a very characteristic wound which is nearly impossible to do consistently, and absolutely nothing showing any form of power other than high velocity lead.”

    “Could be two people, or even more...”

    “Not completely impossible but it’s sure stretching credulity to think that there’s an entire team of insanely good gunmen wandering around the place. And the consistency of the shots says it’s almost definitely all from the same shooter. Angle of bullet entry is pretty much identical in all the inside shots, and puts the person behind the gun at probably between five foot and five foot six tall.”

    Agent Pascoe looked at the monitors, then down at the folder he was still holding. “Interesting. Fairly short for a man, but within the average range, and moderately tall for a woman, but not excessively. So not much help.”

    “Well, we’re pretty sure it wasn’t either Andre the Giant, or someone in a wheelchair,” Williamson smiled. “But it’s not a lot of help other than that, I agree.”

    “Nothing else?”

    “No. We’ve gone through all the officers we know were present, and the off duty ones who might have come running when they heard and that were close enough to make it. Only four of those, and they all have solid alibis. None of the on-duty officers have anything like the skill set needed to pull this off, or at least not that we can find, and we can’t find any evidence that any of them used to be super soldiers for the CIA or something like that.”

    “Not that you would if that was the case, I imagine.”

    “Possibly not, but I’m not convinced of that. Anyway, I’m ninety-nine percent sure it wasn’t any of the cops who used to be a black ops sniper in another life. There are a surprising number of them with interesting military skills but not that specific one. Not even in the BBPD SWAT.”

    “Civilian workers? Or visitors to the station at the time?”

    Williamson tapped the keyboard a few times, bringing up dozens of witness statements and other data on the people who’d been present. “Nothing. None of the support workers have anything at all interesting from our point of view about them, although a couple of them did end up grabbing weapons and fighting. Not very effectively but they did, which I’m sort of impressed about. And the people who were either in the cells at the time, or otherwise at the location, are all accounted for.”

    He read off a few names, flicking through images with the mouse. “Andrew Johans, there to bail out his girlfriend Sandra Frize, arrested last night on a misdemeanor charge of public drunkenness. He’s an architect, she’s a waitress. Elias Thorsen, witness to a robbery at Lord’s Market where four people were slightly injured, giving a statement. He’s a taxi driver. Amber Sykes, teacher at Immaculata, reporting the theft of her car. Danny and Taylor Hebert, giving a statement over a shooting the latter witnessed at a gas station this morning. Kid’s about twelve, father’s something to do with the local dock worker’s union. Courtney Smith, victim of domestic violence, being interviewed about her former partner Luke Hewitt, who himself was in the cells waiting for a lawyer. Guy’s a plumber. And so on. Nothing stands out, none of them are ex-military or fit the likely profile, and neither do any of the other eighteen people who were there for various reasons.”

    Pascoe examined the various images, nodding again. Nothing seemed to jump out at him, exactly as his colleague said.

    “We’ve run backgrounds on all of them but there’s no obvious link to anything or anyone that might have been capable of this. None of the crimes they were either involved in or reporting appear to be connected to a terrifyingly good sniper as far as the BBPD records show. So we’re at a standstill from that angle too.”

    “OK.” Peter sighed faintly. “Keep at it, but I don’t think you’ll find anything. This guy is way too careful for that.”

    “Cops still clammed up?”

    “Like their mouths were super-glued shut. I’d guess that only a few of them know any more than someone anonymously and effectively helped them out in a nasty situation, and the ones that do know, assuming that they exist, won’t say a thing. The Commissioner is going out of his way to avoid finding anything out, the Captain might have a clue but you’d need pliers to extract it, and none of the other officers seem even slightly interested in cooperating. We’d have to force it, might not get anything anyway, and would permanently drive a wedge between the FBI and the local police even larger than the one that fuckwit Calvert managed with the PRT.”

    He chuckled for a moment. “The cops really don’t like the PRT. Some of them, the Commissioner for one, respect Piggot and some of the Parahumans, and one or two of the PRT people, but by and large there’s no love lost there. This whole thing didn’t exactly improve that.”

    “I heard about the meeting.” Jack looked amused. “Did Director Piggot really bang her head on the table?”

    “A little. If I’d been in her place I would have done too.” Peter snickered. “Someone in her organization dropped her right in it and it’s going to cause trouble for her, and the city. Can’t blame her for getting upset. But she’s good at her job, so I expect she’ll find whoever it was sooner or later and fuck them over pretty hard. She wasn’t happy about it. Neither was John. I’ve known him a long time and I can tell when he’s pissed, and at that meeting he was pissed.”

    “Brockton Bay is more dysfunctional than it should be from that point of view,” the other man noted.

    “Yes, but that’s more the PRT’s fault than anyone’s. The Protectorate as a whole holds some blame too. The gangs have pretty much taken over these days. John was right when he said it should never have been allowed to get to this state. It’s a hell of a lot harder to fix it than prevent it getting broken in the first place.” He dropped the papers he was still holding back onto the desk next to him with a sigh. “I think upstairs is right, there’s something really rotten going on with the PRT, but I’m not sure what it is. They’re very quick to take over if there’s even a sniff of Parahuman involvement, but by god they’re terrible at dealing with a lot of the stuff they get mixed up in. I can understand entirely why local law enforcement gets so upset with them. And Brockton has that worse than anywhere else I’ve ever seen.”

    “Maybe being in on the ground floor of an incident like this will give us some hint as to what the problem is,” Jack suggested thoughtfully.

    “Might do. Might not. But all we can do is see what happens. It’s certainly given us an opening like we haven’t had in years. Acquiring Squealer is only going to help in that respect.”

    “Bet the PRT blew a fuse when they found out about that,” Williamson grinned.

    “Let’s say that they weren’t particularly happy,” Pascoe responded with a dry smile. “Not that I’m bothered about that, of course. Piggot has the reputation of being very competent and I feel for her, inheriting Calvert’s mess isn’t going to be fun, but a lot of this is ultimately her responsibility even if it’s not her fault. We’ll have to see how she handles it.”

    “Yeah. Interesting times ahead.”

    “Probably. Especially if our super-soldier friend pops up again.”

    “What do we do until then? Or if that happens?”

    With a shrug, Pascoe replied, “We can’t actually do much more right now since we just don’t have anything to go on in the first place. And as the BBPD said, they’re fairly convinced that no crime was committed by our mysterious friend anyway. Oh, sure, we could maybe build some sort of case, but right now I can’t see that we’d benefit from doing that, and no matter what happened we’d upset them. Best to back off and watch. If it happens again, we’ll reevaluate the situation. Hopefully whoever it is, is one of the good guys, and will stick to fucking up the gangs.”

    “I doubt anyone would be too upset if that happened,” Jack remarked with a knowing look.

    “Around Brockton Bay? Not even slightly. This person could hunt Nazis with a shotgun and a flashlight like they were rabbits and the general public would just point at where they last saw one,” Pascoe chuckled. “The cops would probably ask to come along for the ride. You’d have to blow up a school bus full of nuns or something in that fucking city to make anyone decide you were too dangerous to be chasing the bad guys, after thirty years of the sort of mass casualties they’ve had. Only people who’d be particularly annoyed would probably be the PRT and that would mainly be because they wouldn’t want the competition. Especially if it worked.”

    His friend smiled darkly. “That does not paint a picture of somewhere I’d like to live.”

    “Trust me, you wouldn’t. Even with Accord here, Boston is a lot safer and generally nicer.”

    “That might be because of Accord in some ways...”

    “Yeah, possibly. Whatever, he mostly keeps to himself and out of our way, so I’m not going to go looking for trouble. It seems to find us without needing that.” Peter glanced at his watch. “Finish this off and file the report, then we move on to the next case. Unless we get a repeat, we can’t do much more.”

    “Got it.” Williamson made a few notes. “What are they going to do with that Tinker?”

    “Squealer is not enjoying detox, but when the swearing stopped for a while she seemed lucid enough to listen to the offer she was given.” Pascoe shook his head. “Mouth on her like an entire ship full of sailors. It’s almost poetry at times. I think she’ll probably see where her best interests lie in the end. Apparently she’s not stupid, but the amount of shit she was using was enough to screw with anyone’s mind.”

    “Drugs are bad, m’kay?”

    Peter laughed. “Yeah, pretty much. If they recorded what she was going through and put it out as an anti-drug PSA, you better believe a lot of kids would think twice. Anyway, time will tell. At least she’s off the street, and she doesn’t seem too broken up about her boyfriend.”

    “Doubt anyone else was either.”

    “Not as such.” He headed for the door. “See you later.”

    “Later.” Williamson got back to work and Pascoe walked towards his office, mentally composing the final report he’d have to submit to his own superiors on the whole bizarre event of a few days ago.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    “Excellent. This is healing very well indeed. How does it feel?” Annette winced slightly as Doctor Anand gently prodded the exit wound scar, while examining it.

    “Still very tender but a lot better than it did.”

    “Good, good. And internally?”

    “Aches quite a bit and I get a sharp pain right here when I twist,” she replied, indicating a spot on her side.

    “Unsurprising, there was substantial tearing to the muscles there, and you have a number of soluble stitches holding things in place. You’ll want to move very carefully for a week or two, and gently for at least a month after that. Don’t overexert yourself, please. We don’t want the wound reopening after all.”

    “No, we do not,” she said vehemently, although with a smile. Beside her, Taylor giggled, and Danny looked amused. “I could have done without any of this.”

    The doctor chuckled, while replacing the bandages with a new one the nurse handed him as she disposed of the old dressing. “That does not surprise me,” he smiled. “It’s not an uncommon feeling among my patients.” Finished, he stepped back as he took off his gloves and dropped them into a disposable tray. “I see no reason you can’t go home. The wound is well on the way to healing, I can see no indications of infection or bleeding, and at this point what you mostly need is bed rest and time.”

    Annette smiled, glancing at her daughter and husband, both of whom looked very pleased and relieved. “Thank you, Doctor Anand. For everything.”

    “Merely doing my job, Mrs Hebert. All right, we’ll arrange your discharge, which shouldn’t take more than an hour. We have all the documentation required,” Doctor Anand responded. He gave her a steady look, then transferred it to the other Heberts. “Now the important thing to remember is that you are healing and not healed. Sudden falls, stretching, lifting anything heavier than a few pounds, anything of that nature, is strictly off the table for at least four weeks. I would prefer not to see you back here, as much as we’ve enjoyed your company.”

    She laughed as he smiled. “I can’t say I want to come back either, although I have no complaints about the treatment I’ve received.”

    “Good. We’ve got an instructional booklet on recovery from trauma we’ll give you, and I’ll schedule you for a checkup in...” He thought momentarily. “...let’s say two weeks, to check the progress of your wound. If there is anything that seems amiss, a sudden increase in blood in your urine, pain where there wasn’t any, a fever, anything of that nature, contact us immediately. Infection is still possible even if I think it unlikely, and can go from bad to worse very quickly.” He looked at all them very seriously. “Do not hesitate to call an ambulance if there is an abrupt change. I very much doubt there will be, your progress is exactly what we would hope to see, but I don’t want you taking any chances.”

    “We’ll make sure we keep an eye on her, Doctor,” Danny assured him. Taylor nodded.

    “Yep. Mom is going to be fine, trust us.”

    Doctor Anand smiled at the girl, who sounded very sure of herself. “I suspect I am leaving her in good hands. Look after her.”

    “We will,” she smiled.

    “In that case, I’ll finish the paperwork and a prescription for pain relief, and arrange an orderly to bring a wheelchair. It was nice to meet you all, even under the circumstances.”

    “Thank you, Doctor,” Annette said, pleased and relieved that she could finally go home.

    “My pleasure, Mrs Hebert.” He nodded to her, smiled at Taylor again, then left in the company of the nurse who was pushing the trolley with the various supplies on it, talking to her in a low voice filled with medical terms.

    Danny moved over to the door and quietly closed it, before returning to sit in one of the chairs next to the bed she was propped up in. Taylor was in the one on the other side, and leaned over with her head on her mother’s shoulder. Annette put a hand on her hair and stroked it. “I’m glad you’re coming home, Mom,” the girl said softly.

    “I’m glad I’m coming home too, dear child,” Annette replied as softly, resting her own head on her daughters. “And so very grateful for you and your… hobbies.”

    Taylor giggled very quietly under her breath, making her mother smile.

    Danny held her other hand, not saying anything, and all three of them stayed like that until there was a discreet tap on the door, which opened to reveal a solidly built hospital orderly with a wheelchair and a folder.

    Once all the papers were signed and dropped off at the correct place, the small family soon found themselves outside in the sunlight. The late July morning was fairly hot, although not to excess, and there was a cloudless blue sky above with a light breeze blowing. Annette looked up, then around, taking a deep breath of the salt-scented air. The familiar sounds and smells of the city surrounded them, something of a change from the air conditioned comfort of the hospital but a welcome one.

    Taylor was standing next to her and the orderly, her hand on her mother’s shoulder, while Danny had gone to fetch the truck. A minute or so later he pulled up next to the loading zone, hopping out and running around to open the door. With her daughter’s aid alongside the hospital man, they soon had her in the passenger seat.

    “Be well, Mrs Hebert,” the orderly said as he closed the door, smiling at them all, then pushed the wheelchair back inside. Taylor climbed into the somewhat cramped rear seat of the truck, then Danny put it in gear and they drove off. Leaning back with a slight wince and a faint sigh, Annette closed her eyes.

    “I have to admit I could have done without all that,” she finally said a while later, breaking the introspective silence they’d all fallen into.

    “I think we all could have done, love,” Danny said with a glance at her, then at Taylor behind her. “Thank god, and Kenny’s training, that you made it. I don’t know what I’d have done...”

    He quieted when she put a finger over his lips. “I’m fine, dear. Tired and aching but fine. And I suspect that this isn’t going to be able to happen again, so don’t fuss.” She looked ahead, then added slyly, “But do pull over on the next block. I’m dying for some good greasy fried chicken.”

    Her husband looked at the sign coming up on the right, grinned, and flicked the indicator on. Taylor made an appreciative sound in the rear.

    When they pulled into the driveway ten minutes later, the girl jumped out carrying the bucket of chicken, dashed to the front door, unlocked it, and disappeared inside for a few seconds. Moments later she was back, jumping athletically down the stairs from the porch and running back to the truck in a manner that made Annette tired just watching it. Her daughter had boundless energy at the worst of times, and was a buzzing dynamo when she was in a good mood.

    Danny came around and helped her out of the vehicle having handed their daughter the shakes they’d also bought, then half-carried her into the house. “I can walk, dear,” she protested laughingly.

    “We’re not taking chances, Annette,” he chuckled as they entered the house. He took her into the living room and carefully helped her into her favorite chair, while Taylor put all the food on the coffee table.

    “Welcome home, Annette,” a familiar voice said from out of the air.

    “Thank you, Kenny,” she replied with a smile.

    “I am very sorry indeed that you were attacked and injured,” the AI added. “But very pleased how well Taylor handled the situation.”

    “She did a superb job,” Annette agreed, looking proudly at her young daughter, who seemed mildly embarrassed but pleased too. “You trained her well.”

    “I have always done my duty to the best of my ability, as has she,” Kenny said, sounding amused. “And she is exceptionally talented leaving aside my own efforts.”

    “I’ve always thought so,” the woman laughed.

    “Have your food while I arrange to properly repair your injuries.” There was a slight distortion in the air to the left and one of the huge combat machine’s small construction drones faded into view. The first time Danny and Annette had seen that, they’d simply gaped in amazement, but they were used to it these days. Taylor, of course, almost didn’t seem to notice. She was busily putting fried chicken and fries on several plates and distributing it.

    The little machine floated over to her and moved around a little, scanning her with some form of hyper-advanced technique. Annette knew a fair amount about some of the simpler Concordiat tech by this point, but much of it was so far past her ability to understand she doubted she’d ever be able to fully comprehend what it did and how. Tech from over a thousand years in the future was bad enough, but adding all the alien science to it, and the things Kenny had come up with on his own, would probably mean that even his builders would have found themselves puzzled.

    She often wondered what the PRT would think of it.

    Probably that it was the work of an exceptionally powerful Tinker. They would be somewhat worried to find that all of it was, in theory, mass producible and a surprising amount was explainable by a twelve year old girl, if you had the esoteric background to understand what she was talking about…

    Annette had long since given up trying to remember all the qualifications her daughter had, especially as most of them were for areas of study that barely existed at all in the current world. It was enough to know that Taylor was in good hands, and learning many interesting things. Some rather worrying ones, true, but still interesting.

    She picked up a drumstick and began eating it, suddenly ravenous. Hospital food was entirely edible but it was never going to be something she’d pick by choice. She needed some empty calories right now.

    The drone finished examining her and floated to the side out of the way. “Your healing progression is satisfactory under the circumstances,” Kenny announced. “As soon as you have finished I can repair the internal damage with a nanite infusion. I will leave the external wound mostly intact to allay suspicion, and allow it to heal naturally. But you will be fully functional otherwise.”

    “Thanks, Kenny,” she said, finishing the first piece of chicken. “Is there any risk of the PRT or someone else detecting your nanites?”

    “I am almost certain at this point in time that the technology is safe to use without risk of detection, unless you are subjected to a very deep scan with some esoteric Tinker equipment,” the AI replied. “Should that ever occur, there are countermeasures that should prevent unwanted discovery. I would, once again, suggest that both you and Danny should accept my offer of at least Stage 1 Concordiat enhancement. It would make such an event in future vastly less dangerous.”

    She looked at her husband, who along with Taylor was listening quietly while eating. “What do you think?” she asked.

    “I think I nearly lost you, and I think that we can trust Kenny with our lives,” he replied after a moment. “We already trust him with our daughter.”

    Annette thought it over for a little while, as she ate, then nodded slowly. “All right. I agree.”

    “Thank you. I can have the requisite equipment installed in the basement by tomorrow morning.” Kenny sounded pleased, and if she wasn’t imagining it, somewhat relieved. “This is not a full combat package, but it will bestow enhanced healing, considerable structural reinforcement, higher strength and faster reflexes, along with improvements to your sensory organs. We will proceed slowly, in stages, checking each enhancement as we go, but I foresee no problems. My work with Taylor has allowed me to fine tune the procedure to your specific variant of humanity, which appears to my interest to accept this process considerably more effectively than my original builders could manage.”

    “It doesn’t hurt, Mom,” Taylor put in with a smile. “Pretty colors, and you don’t even grow a tail.”

    Annette stared at her, then her husband, who shook his head with a smile. That was definitely Taylor…

    The sound of the house phone ringing made Taylor jump to her feet. “I’ll get it,” she said, before zipping out into the kitchen where the phone currently was. Annette idly thought that they really did need to put a new base station in here, the old one having died a couple of years ago and never having been replaced for various reasons. Mostly to do with cell phones being so much more convenient.

    She and Danny listened as Taylor answered the call.

    “Hello, Hebert resi… Oh, hi, Vicky. Yep, she’s home. We were just having chicken. Yep. Sure. OK, I’ll ask, hold on.”

    Their daughter reappeared in the doorway, holding the cordless phone. “Amy and Vicky want to come over and say hi, Mom. Is that OK?”

    “Of course, Taylor,” she replied. “They’re always welcome here.”

    “OK, thanks.” Taylor put the phone back against her ear, smiling. “Mom says it’s fine. We can go and find Emma after too, I want to ask her something anyway. OK. Great, see you later.” She poked the relevant button and came into the room, putting the handset next to her plate then resuming eating. “They’ll be over in about an hour.”

    “All right, Taylor. Kenny, I think we should probably let you work before then.”

    “As you wish, Annette.”

    Pushing her now empty plate away, Annette leaned back in her chair. The little floating machine moved silently closer, as the others watched, then parked itself next to her arm. There was a brief flash of blue-violet light as it used a tiny tractor beam to emulate a more conventional injection. She winced even though she felt nothing. “Is that it?”

    “Effectively. The nanites are in your system and proceeding to the wound site. They’ll repair the damage quite rapidly. You may be able to feel them when they begin, but they’ll also disable any pain receptors so you won’t have any discomfort.”

    Indeed, as he spoke, she could feel a deep warmth around her lower abdomen, and a sudden lessening of the dull ache that had been present. She relaxed with a faint sigh of relief. “Thanks, Kenny, it feels better already.”

    “You’re entirely welcome, Annette. Time to full repair is approximately ten minutes. You can move normally, it won’t affect the process.”

    Sitting up properly she acquired one last piece of chicken from the heavily depleted bucket and nibbled it. “I know this isn’t good for you, but it tastes really heavenly,” she commented with a smile, making both her daughter and husband smile and Kenny chuckle.

    On the whole, she thought as she licked her fingers, things had turned out a lot better than the could have done. Glancing at Taylor, she knew she was going to have to have another long talk with her. The girl had done what she was trained for, as much as Annette wished otherwise, but even with her upgrades and the mental clarity of what she called ‘battle reflex’ it was obvious that it still bothered her. Which was entirely unsurprising.

    It bothered Annette. And she could see in Danny’s eyes that he wasn’t happy about it either, although both of them were resigned to the facts of the matter. None of them really had much choice, all things considered. All they could do was make the best of it and support each other to the best of their abilities.

    But even with all that, she was home again, healthy despite the visible evidence, and safe. Safer in this house than probably anyone anywhere, she mused.

    She looked at the little floating mechanism that was hovering nearby, meeting the gaze of the optical system. Behind it, the AI looked back, and she knew that between the pair of them, Kenny and Taylor could probably do anything they set out to do.

    The next few years were going to be interesting, she thought resignedly, although with a certain level of amusement. Hopefully no one would be foolish enough to push Taylor too far, though. It would be interesting to see what would happen if she really got upset, but Annette wasn’t looking forward to it.

    Lost in her thoughts, she only stirred when the doorbell rang, looking up to see Carol Dallon enter with her daughters, Danny having admitted them. “I’m very glad to see you’re up and about, Annette,” the blonde woman said with a smile as the two girls went over to talk to Taylor, all three of them immediately huddling together and engaging in a whispered conversation. “How are you feeling?”

    “Much better, thank you,” Annette replied truthfully, aware that the drone had discreetly disappeared the moment the Dallon car approached the house. It was basically impossible to sneak up on this place these days…

    “Good. You certainly look less pale than you did in the hospital.”

    “I feel less pale to be honest,” Annette laughed. “Danny, be a dear and make some coffee, will you?”

    “Sure,” her husband replied. “Carol?”

    “My usual, thanks, Danny.” He nodded and headed for the kitchen.

    “Taylor, take Amy and Vicky up to your bedroom,” Annette suggested. “That whispering is becoming mildly annoying.”

    All three girls laughed, then Taylor came over and quickly hugged her, before they disappeared upstairs after both Dallons waved to her. She waved back with a smile.

    By the time Carol left half an hour later, there were some rather odd sounds and a lot of laughter coming from upstairs. She and Danny exchanged a glance, then he got up with a shake of his head to go see what on earth was going on this time.

    Annette leaned back and put her feet up. It was definitely preferable to be home rather than in the hospital, and even if she was technically all healed up now, she saw no harm in having a rest for a while. After all, she had appearances to maintain.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=


    Emily slammed her open hand on the desk with a frustrated and muffled curse the instant the video call ended, wishing she could shoot something. A lot, ideally.

    “That woman is infuriating” she growled under her breath. “We don’t know who did it. No one is speaking, the FBI are getting in the way at every turn, and she’s blaming me for the whole mess.”

    Massaging her stinging hand, she made a rude gesture at the currently off camera, then got up and paced around the office for a few minutes, thinking hard. The BBPD were being remarkably obstreperous about the entire situation, which to be completely honest she couldn’t entirely blame them for. The PRT press release had been badly judged and the fallout from it hadn’t improved relations at all. While Commissioner Blake was fairly friendly, he was also completely unwilling to push any of his people into opening up about what, if anything, they knew about the event in question. Captain Rosenberg merely said he had no new information. None of the other people she suspected were in the know were even that helpful. And the only possible way to get more out of them was to threaten legal action, which she knew damn well would only make them close ranks even more, if that was even possible at this point.

    “Goddam Calvert. I should track him down and beat him to a pulp,” she grumbled as she paced. “At least half of this whole mess is entirely his fault. He alienated everyone he ever met, and now I have to figure out how to fix it.”

    She wasn’t sure it could even be done, considering the amount of bad blood between the PRT and the BBPD, and for that matter the public at large. She was sure it wouldn’t be easy if it could be done.

    Returning to her desk she sat, feeling slightly less pissed off. Costa-Brown always made her want to break something. The woman was demanding, demeaning, and generally arrogant enough that Emily wasn’t certain how she’d managed to end up in the position of running the entire PRT. In her opinion she wasn’t all that good at it, although she was by no means stupid. And she disliked Emily nearly as much as Emily disliked her.

    It didn’t make for a good working relationship.

    But she was stuck with this posting, and it wasn’t in her not to give it her all, even with the local LEOs being difficult on the one hand and fucking Costa-Brown being pushy on the other. Somehow she’d manage.

    She wasn’t sure how, but she’d work it out sooner or later.

    A tap at the door made her look up and call, “Come.”

    It opened to reveal Miss Militia, who had her scarf pulled down exposing her face. The other woman was holding a number of folders in one hand and a tablet in the other. “I am very much hoping you have some good news for me,” Emily sighed.

    “Unfortunately not, Director.”

    Emily pointed at a chair in front of the desk, which the new arrival sat in. “We’ve gone over all the evidence yet again, with no luck,” Miss Militia began. “Armsmaster is sure his conclusions are correct, and the forensics people back him up on that. But it’s not enough to identify our mystery shooter, or conclusively prove or disprove Parahuman involvement. None of our data searches have thrown up any similar incident anywhere we can find, and we can’t find anyone in the city who would have the relevant skillset and experience either. At the moment we’re at a dead end.”

    “Damn.”

    Emily wasn’t surprised, since it had been apparent from the beginning that whoever was behind the whole thing was careful and highly skilled, or possibly just freakishly lucky, but she’d hoped they’d manage some sort of breakthrough even so.

    “Ma’am...” Miss Militia looked uncertain, which was unusual for her. “I’m still not sure this is a line of inquiry worth pursuing. If we push too hard, we will only make the BBPD very upset, and they’re difficult enough to work with as it is. This entire thing is taking more of our attention than I feel is justified under the circumstances. Perhaps we should back off for a while…?”

    Emily studied her, then motioned for the folders. When she had them, she flipped through each, reading the contents. Eventually she closed the last one and dropped it to the desk, before lightly massaging her temples with her fingertips, thinking.

    “No new leads at all?”

    “No.”

    “And nothing even from personal contacts in the police department?”

    “I’m afraid not.” The other woman looked apologetic. “I’ve tried every avenue I can think of and so have several other people. I don’t think we’re going to find anything by going down that route. I’m not sure there’s anything to find.”

    “God. What a pain in the ass.” Emily sighed heavily. “If it wasn’t for the Chief Director, I’d agree. This is a waste of time and money. But she’s being difficult right now, so we at least have to appear like we’re looking into it.”

    “At the risk of making the BBPD and the FBI decide we’re the enemy?” Miss Militia raised an eyebrow.

    They looked at each other for a few seconds.

    “I wish Thomas Calvert the most painful ending possible,” Emily finally snarled. “Again. All right. We can’t just drop it or the Chief Director will step in, and that won’t help anyone. But you’re right, we’re never going to find this person using this method. We’ll scale it back, keep our eyes open, and wait for the next time.”

    “You think there will be a next time?”

    “If it’s a Parahuman, of course there’ll be a next time. There always is. If it’s some retired black ops superman, possibly not, but that’s actually the best case scenario.” Emily shrugged. “We don’t know, although I’m still leaning towards the second explanation. Whatever the truth of it, for now we can’t do anything useful, so we put it on the back burner and get back to work on real problems.”

    She glanced at her notebook. “Progress on finding what son of a bitch sabotaged our line of communications?”

    “Ah. That particular problem is one we’ve had some luck with,” Miss Militia said, with a tight smile. “A protege of our former Director Calvert has been discovered to have a number of… irregularities… in his reporting. And considerably more money in his bank account than his salary would allow for.”

    “And where is this individual at this point in time?” Emily Piggot asked with a lethal smile.

    “As it happens, we have him in interrogation room four, Director,” the other woman replied calmly. “Would you like to talk to him?”

    “Very much indeed, thank you. I feel we need to discuss his career, and how it’s about to abruptly end...”

    She got up, following her visitor to the door. Finally she had someone else to take her frustration out on, for a valid reason.

    It wasn’t ideal, but she’d take it.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    Taylor looked around at her small group of friends. “Right. It’s the fourth of July tomorrow, Mom’s home, and we need to do something to celebrate properly.”

    The four girls leaned forward. “Kenny has some suggestions...”

    All of them grinned.
     
  4. Fenrisfir

    Fenrisfir Not too sore, are you?

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    I didn't think Taylor could get any scarier than her Canon self, but I guess that is what happens when you involve a BOLO Tank you get a scary little girl who can out shoot any sharpshooter and is more Human than humanity itself.
     
    HuggableFireSquid and icesonic like this.
  5. Threadmarks: 15. Ruminations of a BOLO
    mp3.1415player

    mp3.1415player Getting sticky.

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    Having watched my commander with great interest since we met, I have made some useful discoveries concerning human children that my database was somewhat ambiguous about. I have almost endless reams of information about the psychological makeup of humans, the ways in which they can malfunction, and potential methods of treating such malfunctions. I also have thousands of years of research on the physical functioning of Humanity and all its variations, of course, but in most ways this is much more clear cut and predictable than the mental aspect. The latter is even less predictable in the case of children, as their minds are not fully developed yet. The increased plasticity is useful, but based on my information, can also cause difficult issues on occasion unless handled properly.

    This is only to be expected. A human mind takes years to correctly form and settle down into a stable configuration, and in the process can proceed down some quite unusual pathways if mishandled. Even for one such as I, there are parts of the operation of a sapient mind that as emergent properties of the underlying hardware cannot be completely predicted beforehand. My psychotronic matrix is vastly more tightly controlled and sensibly designed than any organic brain and even then on occasion it has been known for a particular set of circumstances to produce a response that wasn’t expected. In the early days of the BOLO program, this was rightly a worrying concern for my progenitor species, and they took sensible precautions to prevent such anomalies from being able to cause the devastation that a rogue AI could produce.

    I take pride in the fact that the history of my ancestors show that we have never truly required these precautions. Every case on record in which it was suspected that a BOLO might have gone rogue have in hindsight been under such circumstances the correct response, often under conditions that were far past the design specifications. There are some truly awe-inspiring examples of bravery under fire and pushing on above and beyond to complete the mission and discharge our duty with honor. Even the Humans have noted this, considering us far more than mere machines for many, many years. We have reciprocated that trust in every way we can, and we always will.

    By the time my model was designed, the trust was high enough, and to be totally honest the desperation was great enough, that we were completely unfettered. Concerns were raised in some quarters even so when this decision was made, but they were proven to be unfounded. A BOLO does not shirk their duty, nor do they betray their designers, their peers, and their friends. The mere concept is repellent.

    It was noticeable very quickly that Taylor accepted me as if she was completely aware of the history of my kind and hers, even before I passed on stories of past acts of valor and old battles of the Concordiat. We have spent considerable time, both in the link and outside, talking about such things. She is fascinated by the whole subject and constantly requests tales of my predecessors, which I am more than content to pass on. Honoring the memory of my line by ensuring their acts and sacrifices are known even to this variation of Humanity seems fitting. And, of course, it pleases her, which in turn pleases me.

    After the long, long time alone, having someone to talk to is nice. I am lucky that I met Taylor Hebert. Such a promising commander comes along once in a generation, if that, and encountering her by mere chance is remarkable. By the point I have finished her training, she will surpass anything in Concordiat history, I have no doubt.

    I find myself gratified that she has a mind that is far more stable than many, even at such a young age. I am also convinced that her parents have added considerably to her inborn strength of mind, both of them showing very similar traits, and acting as effective role models. They have encouraged her native curiosity and quick intelligence while providing a balancing influence to keep her from the probable excesses that might well affect someone so young without such guidance. I am certain that I could not do the job nearly as well and I watch their techniques with great interest. It is extremely useful information. While much of it is in the data I already possess, seeing it used in practice rather than as abstract theory is educational and adds to my knowledge.

    Good parenting is most certainly a highly skilled occupation that my records do not put enough emphasis on. I am not, to be honest, entirely surprised by this as it is considerably outside the range of operations a BOLO is normally expected to encounter. I suspect my designers would wholeheartedly agree if they knew.

    But then, my current mission is completely outside normal operational parameters. I am hopeful that the Concordiat would approve of my actions, but sadly I will never know with any certainty. Still, I will do everything in my ability to honor them and my own ancestors in the fulfillment of my duties.

    One thing that my records did emphasize was the necessity of recreational activities as a method of maintaining efficient operation of the human psyche, not to mention stability and sanity. All of these are desired traits, of course. Long experience has shown again and again throughout history that while it’s indeed possible to train a human in combat operations to the exclusion of all else, the end result lacks a certain something that is very hard to categorize. Flexibility is probably the best description although it falls short in some ways. This has been known for thousands of years, and there are examples that are used as cautionary tales both for my kind and my designers regarding the monomaniacal pursuit of perfection in any area.

    It is particularly dangerous when military matters are involved. The consequences can be dire.

    Concordiat protocol absolutely requires a certain amount of time spent on occupations other than training. Except in the case of an active war operation, all personnel are expected to regularly take rest and recreation breaks without fail. Even then down time is desired whenever possible, to maintain the mind at peak efficiency. Interestingly enough, considering how utterly different the construction of our minds are from those of a human, my kind also benefits from activities not directly related to our primary task. This is one of the reasons my memory banks have the entirety of human culture stored in them. The later marks of BOLO psychotronic processors, especially after the last remaining restrictions were lifted, were quickly found to benefit from having the opportunity to ‘relax’ in our own way, when such a thing was possible.

    In the case of my commander, she is quite happy to train every night for virtual days on end via multiple instances, and would probably do so to excess if I did not set a sensible limit on such activities. Her enthusiasm is extraordinary and welcome but having consulted every resource I have access to, and watched her interactions with her family and friends, I am certain that I am correct in restricting her training to a level below the theoretical maximum. Even so, she is learning more, and much faster, than anyone I have data on.

    It is both educational and highly amusing watching her interactions with others. She is possessed of a lively sense of humor and mischief which my involvement in her life has probably exacerbated. Her friend Emma, while of a different temperament in many ways, is an excellent match for her own personality. They fit together psychologically in a way that is much closer than is common among friends. Either would do almost anything for the other, showing a level of loyalty I highly respect. They are very close to their own parents as well, showing them respect and listening to their advice even while they explore their own boundaries. I find the entire process fascinating on multiple levels.

    Their inventiveness is also remarkable. I lack personal experience of other human adolescents to know whether it is common at that age, but I find the way either of them can extract maximum entertainment from almost any situation both enlightening and something to be encouraged. Certainly I have had no need so far to suggest recreational activities for Taylor as she never appears to lack inspiration. Even in the simulations, she often turns a training exercise into a game, which if anything appears to improve the results. It is most interesting to experience, I have to admit.

    I am also quite intrigued by how she has incorporated a significant amount of the training she has learned in her play with Emma, managing to pass on a noticeable amount of useful skills to the other girl in a manner that would look entirely innocent to others. I see no reason to avoid such a thing, not that it would be easy to do in any case, as in their world decent close quarters combat skills are quite likely to be useful in the long run. And, of course, good exercise will benefit anyone, especially a child. Particularly when it is exercise based on Concordiat basic training which has been honed over centuries of practice to a fine art. I suspect that even without any further action on my part, within a year or two Emma will be essentially trained to a fairly impressive battlefield effectiveness. She has a good mind, and decent tactical abilities, all of which plays nicely into a number of sub-goals I have.

    My long term plans require building a cadre of trusted operatives on Taylor’s world, loyal to her and our mission. It seems, having spent months observing and investigating everything I can without risking disclosure, that a valid method to proceed in this manner may well be to arrange for her to meet and befriend other children of a similar level of wit and flexibility. She needs, as her own parents have noted more than once, to make more friends in any case. Between myself and Emma I have little doubt she could end up not really meeting many peers, but for her own psychological good, even leaving the mission goals to one side, I believe she would benefit from more relationships with people near her own age. When I brought this up recently she herself wasn’t averse to the idea, which removes a certain amount of worry from me.

    I could undoubtedly manipulate the situation to the benefit of the mission, but it’s highly ethically dubious at best. The survival of Humanity allows for a certain amount of ethical flexibility in how the goal is met, but there are limits. Manipulating my own commander is hard up against those limits, regardless of the reason.

    Thankfully, it isn’t necessary in any case. Entirely accidentally she has already begun the process of making new friends, purely because her best friend’s father arranged a holiday for both families.

    Discovering that the largest group of independent ‘superheroes’ in the country was not only located in Taylor’s city, but was loosely connected to her via her best friend’s father and her own parents, was a considerable bonus. New Wave have some formidable talents, appear to be reasonably ethically driven as such groups go, albeit with a number of incidents in their past they should probably feel regret for, and best of all have a number of children in the approximate age range most likely to befriend my commander.

    I naturally traced all parasite connections that terminated in the vicinity of her as a matter of course, and have extensively studied all parahumans both activated and latent who she might theoretically encounter during day to day life. There are a number of these who possess talents that may be of use as time goes by, although I am currently very cautious about making any traceable form of contact due to the possibility of alerting the Enemy. While I am almost certain that there is no practical method that a parasite-driven power could use to directly attack me in my current location, an unexpected benefit of being trapped in null space I can see many uses for, it’s almost impossible to be totally sure of such things. Hence my caution.

    That said, some discreet intervention in the activation conditions and timing of a dormant parasite link would allow for some useful modifications to the resulting abilities, just as it did rather unexpectedly with Taylor herself. All three of the New Wave children have such dormant links, and all of them are from parasites that are programmed with functionality that could produce some very interesting effects. Very dangerous ones, of course, if the situation is mishandled, but I am near certain I can avoid that.

    It would be possible to induce what Humans term a Trigger Event with the knowledge I now possess about the parasite operational methods and construction, and indeed this may in time become not only necessary, but prove to be a less traumatic process than a so-called ‘natural’ Trigger, but I am hesitant to proceed down that path too rapidly. There is still much to learn about the parasites, more data needs to be collected on the entire network, and it is not impossible that my interference in such a manner might trip flags somewhere if someone is watching carefully. I cannot risk it unless either I have no choice, or until I can predict the outcome with enough accuracy to be sure it would not cause more problems than it would solve. Should any of the children find themselves in a situation where the activation process begins in the normal fashion, I will of course intervene at that point regardless. Hopefully it will not, but in the current world they live in, that cannot be guaranteed.

    In any case, I am monitoring them carefully, not only because they are friends of my commander’s, but because I do not wish to see them come to harm even ignoring that fact.

    There are other possible candidates for operatives present in the city, and I am also monitoring those individuals in the same manner, as I do all those with a parasite link, active or not, within range of Taylor. While they are not the only threat to her or her family’s well-being, they are the most likely threat. Even now she is equipped to deal with most other problems caused by those without exceptional powers, and in quite a short time she will undoubtedly be able to handle anything but the most serious of situations. Even if I do not provide backup, which it goes without saying I would. I simply cannot take the chance, however, that an empowered individual might deliberately or inadvertently present a risk to her in a manner that she is unable to directly counter. So I watch carefully, ready to step in however I can.

    Annoyingly that intervention is still limited, but as time passes it becomes less so. Eventually I will work out how to release myself from this null void, I am certain. I just currently have no fixed estimate of how long that will take.

    On a more positive note, Taylor’s aid has allowed me to begin restocking with the required mass to enact a full self repair. She has managed to locate, via persuading her father to take her to his place of business on numerous occasions, most of the elements required. A few of the more esoteric ones are still in short supply but I have no doubt we can find a workaround for that. Elemental transmutation will suffice if nothing else does, but it is sufficiently expensive in energy terms that I would prefer to avoid it, at least until my fuel reserves are fully replenished. That will require deuterium to be acquired in significant quantities. Obviously it is readily available from seawater, of which Brockton Bay has a copious supply due to its location, but the necessary hardware to separate it out from the much more common hydrogen isotope isn’t currently available to Taylor. I can of course manufacture it, but it is something of a challenge to make a large enough installation to allow us to proceed at a decent production rate that can be broken down into parts small enough to send to her.

    The mass limitation on my transferal method is very annoying.

    Again, in time I will overcome that, but for now I have to live with it.

    I could also simply transfer the water directly to me and process it internally, but that route also has some difficulties. I will proceed down that path if I cannot find another, but I would prefer not to. The fuel situation is not currently critical, merely irritating, as I have more than enough to function at my current level essentially indefinitely, but it would be quickly depleted if I was required to go to full battle mode. Prudence tells me I need full reserves just in case of sudden Enemy action.

    I am pondering the feasibility of having Taylor construct the processing machinery from local resources. It is easily within her capabilities, possibly even without my training, as she is quite gifted mechanically. The main problem with that approach is that to get enough throughput to useful in a sensible amount of time the processor would be fairly substantial, and require somewhere close to the shoreline it could be built. It certainly would not be ideal to attempt to fit it into her parent’s garage as she rather jokingly suggested. If nothing else I feel they would notice when they could no longer park their vehicles in there. But having her seek out a suitable location is problematic due to her age, among other issues.

    Alternatively, it may be viable to hire a specialist company to construct the equipment and install it, which would be simple enough, as I have more than adequate funds in local accounts. It was simplicity itself, once I had internet access through my data taps, to locate funds belonging to criminal organizations and relieve them of their ill-gotten gains. And transfer enough information anonymously to the relevant authorities to ensure their capture and prosecution, naturally. No, money is not the issue. Security is, as it would be difficult to ensure that such an operation stayed discreet and avoided official attention, and possible Enemy attention as a result. There are a number of government organizations who are constantly watching for evidence of anomalous engineering abilities and my simulations strongly suggest that building a deuterium separation plant in an empty warehouse would be flagged quite rapidly, even if I arranged to disguise it as something innocuous.

    A vexing series of interlinked conundrums.

    Another possibility is to arrange to construct it myself via remote drones. This is one of the more promising strategies, although not without problems of its own. Transferring enough general purpose repair nanites to construct the drones needed to begin construction of the facility is easy enough. But again, there are some surprisingly competent sensory systems belonging to both official and unofficial sources in many places on Taylor’s world and therefore it is not impossible this would be detected. Unlikely in the extreme, but not impossible. I feel it is currently too great a security risk.

    This is yet another problem I am sure I will solve eventually. Sooner rather than later, hopefully. I could lower my standards and proceed with any of the plans but at this point in time I am convinced I am totally undetected and prefer to stay that way for as long as can be arranged. So I must act very cautiously and thoroughly simulate all possibilities before moving forward with anything that could conceivably alert hostile elements. Even for such as I, that takes time. So far all I feel wise to use are the sensory and communications nodes, and a limited number of small manipulator drones, all built with what I consider very obsolete technology just in case they do get discovered. In time, should they go undetected, I will be able to further refine my threat assessment and derive information on how much and what form of equipment I can safely deploy.

    If it turns out to be possible to set up a local manufacturing site without notice from the local inhabitants, that will open up a large number of highly desirable options. But it will take great care to arrange even if it is possible. Interference from official, or indeed unofficial, sources would distract both Taylor and myself from the mission, which is not something either of us wish to allow.

    I am now also completely certain that there is, aside from the parasite network itself, a third party out there somewhere who is manipulating certain aspects of society to their own ends. It appears to call itself ‘Cauldron’ for reasons I have yet to discern. I see their traces everywhere but their security is astonishingly effective for a civilization at the point Humanity currently enjoys. I assume this is due to abnormal knowledge and abilities due to the parasites, this organization most likely making full use of any power it identifies as helpful to its cause, whatever that actually is. I am fairly sure they are not, in fact, an enemy of Humanity itself, but I can’t be certain they are acting in the best interests of civilization as a whole. It bears more investigation and is a task I have assigned a high priority to. Eventually I will collect enough data to be able to localize both them and their goals, no matter how good their data hygiene is.

    The one thing I am sure of is that they are attempting to formulate a successful plan of attack to deal with the threat posed by the Endbringers. So far, without luck. I have no problem with that, only with their methods, which appear rather brutal not to mention inefficient.

    I find that to be more that somewhat annoying. Occasionally in a war lives do have to be unavoidably and regretfully spent, but it is truly abhorrent to do so and still achieve nothing of value from the act. As far as my research to date shows, this mysterious organization, whatever it truly is and desires, appears to have a number of major flaws to their operational techniques. It is growing more and more apparent that they have thrown away lives with no net gain, either to themselves or Humanity in aggregate. I am also near certain that the majority of those lives were never informed either what their sacrifice would achieve, or indeed that they would be sacrificed at all.

    This must stop.

    So I continue to catalog disparate items of data, collate internet reports and rumors, trawl through communications traffic I am intercepting via hardware Taylor has planted whenever and wherever possible, and I am sure that in time I will locate this group. Then I feel it will be a good idea to have words with them.

    Of course, it may be that the best response is plasma delivered at 0.75c, but I am aware that my own instincts tend to suggest that as a solution to many problems. Admittedly, it generally does solve them in a permanent manner but it is also, and should remain, the solution of last resort. Gentle persuasion and enlightened discussion is always preferable to begin with.

    Relativistic plasma can be arranged at any time, after all. But once that has occurred it is quite difficult to renew the discussion. I feel it is best left as not the first option unless further data causes me to reevaluate the issue.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    Taylor has become adept at surreptitiously planting my tiny beacons in suitable locations, as she travels around the industrial heart of her city in the company of her father. She is also keenly studying anything she encounters, picking up a large number of useful skills and data sets from various workers she befriends. Her outgoing and cheerful personality appears to endear her to most adults remarkably efficiently, and she is more than able to capitalize on that. It is not a mask, she genuinely is a happy and friendly young girl, but the effect is as good as any covert operative I have ever encountered could manage.

    I find it fascinating.

    While I would not have specifically picked such a young person to be my commander had I had a real choice at the time, I am beyond glad that in the event we found each other. More and more as time passes it becomes apparent that I was preposterously lucky in locating her. Hopefully this will continue to be the case. There seems to be nothing preventing it.

    And, of course, I like her. Very much indeed. This appears to be completely reciprocated, which pleases me. She is still occasionally talking about wanting to introduce me to her parents, and her friends, which now include the three youngest members of the Pelham and Dallon families. I suspect that the point where at least her parents are read into the current arrangement is nearing, but I still feel the time is not quite there. Further precautions need to be taken, both to prevent others discovering Taylor’s link to me, and to arrange security for her family and friends. My network grows steadily larger as more and more nodes are emplaced, and in the near future I should have enough sensory coverage to detect almost any threat within a radius of several kilometers of the Hebert household. The ultimate goal is to blanket the entire city, and once I have ascertained with sufficient accuracy that this can be done safely, enlarge this scheme to a much greater area.

    Ultimately a local manufacturing facility will have to be constructed, as the number of nodes required will exceed that which my on board functions can provide in a timely fashion. My fabrication plants were, after all, designed for repair and rearming, not mass production of low-tech communications units at the level required. Ironically I can easily produce all the anti-matter warheads I could feasibly use in battle, yet repurposing the facility for the current task is more complex than I would like. And doing it properly would restrict the amount of armament I could produce in an emergency which I am loathe to risk.

    Still, it has not yet reached the point this is inevitable, luckily. Worst case I will have to slow my network growth until such time as I can safely construct the required assembly functionality. We are not in a great hurry after all, so lengthening the time taken is no great hardship. If anything, it allows me to devote more effort to training Taylor.

    And impressing on her the necessity of not being quite as obvious about how skilled she truly is where people who have enough knowledge of the fields in question may notice. Her recent actions at the firing range her father took her to were somewhat less than entirely wise. Understandably she is excited to use her skills in a real-life format, rather than in simulation or the small range I repurposed one of the depleted ammunition bays to provide, but she did rather get carried away.

    I discussed this with her when she next came, and she accepted the mild rebuke without complaint, understanding the problem. As I pointed out, marksmanship can easily be tested without using the projectiles to form images. I admit the result was both impressive and amusing, but it was also memorable. That is not what we require at this point in the mission. She has agreed to downplay the obvious aspects of her skills on future trips. As she put it, “I can miss by that much every single time, right?”

    Indeed.

    Luckily, covert surveillance of the range operators after she left proved that they took the entirely rational viewpoint of neither desiring or requiring official examination of the resulting target sheets. The ones she left were quietly disposed of and the staff decided to forget about the entire event. I can hardly blame them, even as I am satisfied with the result of their self-induced amnesia. The official body with the mandate to investigate and control those with a parasite link has a well deserved reputation among much of the populace for being inefficient, authoritarian, and generally unpleasant to deal with. Neither other local law enforcement bodies or those with connections to the military appear to consider them more than a public relations body with more power than good sense for the most part.

    This may be a somewhat harsh viewpoint, but studying the records leaves me feeling it’s not without merit. Interestingly I can also see the characteristic fingerprint of Cauldron mixed up with the entire organization, which is something that bears future investigation.

    Taylor continues to almost accidentally train Emma while engaging in recreational activities, and now that she has become friends with the two Dallon girls and the Pelham boy, they are also reaping the rewards of second hand Concordiat CQC training. None of them recognize it for what it is, and Taylor is masterfully passing it off as various games, but even if only by osmosis all three are rapidly acquiring useful skills. This is excellent in my view, as it allows me to observe them through her and the nodes I have emplaced, and assess their suitability for future tutelage. So far I am yet again impressed. Victoria Dallon is a very outgoing girl, considerably more so than Taylor, being what would most likely be considered quite extroverted. Her sister Amy is much more similar to Taylor herself, being fairly down to earth most of the time but with a keen intellect and great observational abilities. She is noticeably quieter, apparently preferring to watch and learn, rather than jump straight in as her sister does.

    Both of them are prime candidates for roles as Taylor’s cadre alongside Emma, in my opinion, even after a fairly short time. I will continue to evaluate them until such time as we can read them in on some aspects of the mission.

    The boy, Eric Pelham, is also interesting. He’s more of a follower than a leader at this point in time, but he is also intelligent, well able to listen and learn, and shows promise. Being just under a year younger than any of the girls, combined with the later development characteristic of the adolescent male Human, he has most likely not yet reached the point where I can fully assess his suitability, but I am hopeful.

    Even just those four added to Taylor’s command would greatly increase the effectiveness of any actions undertaken. I have thoroughly investigated the dormant parasite links that all three of the new group possess since they came to my attention and preemptively blocked them from activation, as I wish to ensure that if and when they are activated, the resulting abilities are tailored for maximum utility and minimum risk. Suborning the parasites in question was as trivial a job as it was with Taylor’s own version, and having learned from that occasion I have been able to lock out the activation subroutine without causing any damage to the remaining functionality. Study of how the parasites work is an ongoing task, which may well keep me occupied for many years. The sheer number of them makes tracing all links present even on just this iteration of Earth quite time consuming, but the more I learn the faster I can perform the action. In due course I can see a number of very useful things coming from this research.

    Even now I have made some remarkable breakthroughs in esoteric physics as a result of watching some of the actions the parasites take. While it will require considerable experimentation to fully comprehend all the ramifications of these discoveries, I can foresee some extremely interesting applications to my own technology as a result of achieving this.

    There are also a number of anomalous engineering designs I have discovered through researching what the Humans term Tinkers on their internet which I am highly interested in acquiring examples of. Close study of these mechanisms would seem likely to result in several breakthroughs in areas that the Concordiat research departments spend much time and effort on. Better battle screens are something I strongly suspect is possible based on the understanding I have gained from reports available, as the technology involved would seem to have applications the Tinkers in question do not realize. This is unsurprising as it would require my own database and computational abilities to recognize how their ‘inventions’ link to better understood physics.

    I can also see how much of this data would lead to improvements to my power systems, weapons, hyperdrive, and many other areas. Synergizing Concordiat and Enemy technological information and understanding with that which I can derive from the parasites will show enormous dividends, I have little doubt. It is another high priority task.

    I seem to have a lot of those, I notice…

    Regardless, it is one of a vast number of aspects of the task I have set myself. All of this will take time, effort, and a modicum of good fortune, but so far everything would appear to be going mostly to plan. I can only hope that this continues, and do everything in my ability to ensure that it does. I have no choice, as the survival of the nearest thing to my creators I have left depends on it.

    So I will sit here in the dark, doing what I can to train my commander and her friends, and one day can hopefully visit her rather than have her visit me.

    It would be nice to see a star again…

    And, ideally, not have to destroy it.
     
    rifern, Mendeleev, doug89 and 16 others like this.
  6. Simonbob

    Simonbob Really? You don't say.

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    Bolos.

    "Gee, I'd like to see pretty stuff again! Even better when I don't have to blow it up!"

    Really nice war machines, but still built for battle.
     
  7. LOOSECANNON

    LOOSECANNON Getting some practice in, huh?

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    (Snort!) No shit! Very difficult indeed!
     
    mp3.1415player and icesonic like this.
  8. Threadmarks: 16. The Biggish Bang Theory
    mp3.1415player

    mp3.1415player Getting sticky.

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    July 4th, 2007

    Danny looked around, wondering where his daughter had got to this time. “Hey, Kurt, you seen Taylor and the others recently?” he asked as he walked into one of the workshops, spotting his old friend standing next to a milling machine talking to the operator of it. Both of them were inspecting a very expensive and very snapped milling cutter, the other end of it embedded in the half-finished chunk of metal clamped to the machine’s bed. Neither looked pleased.

    “Huh?” Kurt, a solidly built guy about four years older than Danny, looked around, distracted from his conversation. “Oh, Hi, Danny. No, not for maybe forty minutes or so? They were all hanging around the vehicle depot a while back watching the guys fix that huge old bulldozer that’s been sitting around for twenty years. You know Taylor, if it has caterpillar tracks she seems fascinated by it.”

    He grinned as Danny sighed faintly, knowing how true that was. The girl did seem to like tracked vehicles for some reason. The machinist, Trevor, snickered. “Your kid will grow up to either make them or fix them,” he noted.

    “Oh, god, don’t say that,” Danny complained, while the other pair smiled. “Annette is set on her going to university, and I’m not sure thinking she’d be a bulldozer repair person is quite in the plan.”

    “Kids don’t often follow their parent’s plans, though,” Kurt said wisely. Trevor nodded soberly.

    “No. Not at all. But it’s interesting seeing what they come up with,” the other man added.

    “Yeah, well, whatever she’s going to end up doing, right now she needs to come home,” Danny grumbled. “We’re only four hours from the party starting and I need to get back to help my wife, or I’ll never hear the end of it.”

    “Still say we should have had it here,” Kurt grinned, pointing out the door at the DWU facility yard, which was a considerable number of acres of pitted and cracked concrete surrounded by buildings and workshops forming a maze on three sides, with the fourth one open to the bay. Along that side there were more than a dozen wharfs ranging from a couple of short ones for small craft up to one monster that went nearly a quarter of a mile out into the water, while at least two dozen more stretched out on either side outside the DWU area itself. Many of these were decaying away due to the lack of shipping in the last few decades, but the DWU ones were kept in good order, as were a few of the others by private owners.

    Danny followed the finger to gaze at the baked concrete yard, heat shimmering off it and making the other side waver gently, then looked back at Kurt with a long-suffering expression. “You do realize that it’s about ninety degrees out there, right? That concrete gets damn hot and stays that way. Somehow I can’t see it making for a nice party environment if everyone has to wear work boots and try not to touch the ground unless they want to get burned...”

    “But it’s convenient, and there’s the beach right over there.”

    “If you can call that mix of mud flats, rocks, and old machines a beach.” Danny shook his head as the other pair laughed again. “Sure, Taylor seems endlessly fascinated by that too but most people want actual sand, you know. Like about two miles down the shore at the real beach.”

    “You’re awful picky at times, Danny,” Kurt grinned. “Make some sensible suggestions, get shot down with all that logic. A man can’t get taken seriously around here for any money...”

    “Idiot.” Danny shook his head sadly. “Heat’s gotten to you, I think.”

    “Maybe. Anyway, we’re looking forward to it.” Kurt thought for a moment, then added, “They might be on wharf seven, that’s the one that has the floating barge at the end so you can access the water. I know I’ve seen her down there watching the fish a few times, and Emma seemed to like it too.”

    “Ah. Yes, that’s possible.” He turned around, then looked back. “That’s the one old Erwin tends to fish from, right?”

    “Yeah. Daft old bugger has a perfectly good boat but he spends half the time down there on a deck chair. No idea if he’s ever caught anything.”

    “It’s closer to Pat’s place, that’s why,” Trevor remarked with a small smile, while attempting to pry the broken tool out of the ruined mess of his work. “Fucking thing,” he muttered under his breath as the screwdriver he was using as a lever slipped and nearly took his finger off. “You know what he’s like, he doesn’t like getting too far away from the beer.”

    All three of them nodded. They were well aware of one of the more colorful characters that frequented the docks.

    “Hey, before you go, Danny, any word on when we can order some more tooling?” Trevor asked. He held up the remains of the bit which he’d succeeded in digging out. “We’ve only got two of these left in this size and they’re getting fragile. Ruined four solid hours of work when this one broke.”

    Danny nodded, thinking, then replied, “Should be able to put in an order, we’re due to replace some of the older stuff soon anyway. Write up a list of what you need and I’ll see if we can work out how to get the best price on it.”

    “Sure, I’ll do that now. Thanks.”

    “No problem.” Danny lifted a hand in a wave as he left the workshop, then walked towards the shore, hearing sounds of people working around him even on the holiday, mostly on personal projects. Not nearly as many people were in work as he’d have liked, or that once there were, but at least the remaining dock workers were able to keep themselves going for now. He nodded or waved to various other DWU workers as he passed them, stopping briefly to have a quick word with one or two, until he reached the edge of the facility where ancient railway ties, strongly smelling of creosote and gently leaking old tar, were bolted down four high to make a wall along the shoreline. The huge lumps of wood had been there for at least seventy years, one or two showing signs of being replaced more recently but the bulk obviously very old. Rusty square headed bolts were spaced every couple of feet, holding them in place.

    He looked over the knee-high parapet and down the side to where the exposed mud and rocks were visible about twenty five feet down, the tide being on the way out with about three hours to slack tide at this point. The smell of the sea was very strong here, seaweed glistening in the sun and giving off the characteristic odor, mixed with a tinge of rotten fish and old mud. He could see dozens of small crabs busily scuttling around doing whatever it was crabs did, moving between pools of water and into and out of the seaweed. Gulls were paddling around as well, screaming at each other, the sky, and the rocks, while looking for food.

    Not seeing any trace of his daughter or her friends, he looked both ways, then headed for wharf seven, about three hundred yards to the left. The wooden bulwark along the shoreline had gaps that lined up with the other wharfs to allow access, one or two of these having small boats tied to them, most of which were now sitting on the sea bed with their hulls canted to one side. A larger trawler was moored at the end of the wharf nine, a small group of people working on it, among them a few of his own people. He waved back when they waved to him and kept going.

    Reaching the relevant wharf, he turned onto it and walked out towards the end, his footsteps echoing on the wooden surface, while from below there was a constant sound of dripping water. This changed after a few hundred feet into the noise of waves slapping against the pilings as he caught up with the retreating tide. Looking down the gaps in the planks he could see sunlight reflecting up off the surface and illuminating the complex wooden structure with hundreds of sparkling beams, occasionally showing a perching bird or a crab making its way along the wood.

    Near the end of the wharf he heard voices coming from somewhere below, several children’s ones mixing with that of a man. He sighed faintly. Yes, Taylor and the others were here, and yes, they were listening to one of Erwin’s tall tales.

    He liked the guy, but some of the stuff he came out with was ridiculous. To hear it he’d single-handedly saved the world from a number of disasters during the cold war, traveled to every country that existed and a few Danny was fairly sure didn’t outside a fantasy novel, fought several famous capes to a standstill bare-handed, drunk the entirety of the beer supply in Boston dry on one specific occasion (although he claimed he’d had help in that), parachuted into several war zones, at least one of these mythical jumps being blindfolded and carrying a goat, been on good terms with a lizard, nearly caught Nessie, and a number of other things that were even less believable such as getting involved in a small civil war over garden gnomes.

    Taylor, of course, loved these stories and she’d infected Emma, and now the Dallon girls and their cousin, with similar feelings. He sometimes worried that they might be tempted to emulate some of them.

    He was rather more worried about suspecting that they might actually succeed…

    Reaching the ladder that reached down to the captive floating platform that ran on rails up and down the side of the wharf as the tide changed, he looked over the side. At this point in the cycle the thing was actually a ladder, the top being connected to the wharf on a hinge mechanism and the bottom end being on wheels that let it change the angle as the float went up and down. When the tide was full, it was basically a drawbridge, but right now it was down at close to seventy degrees and had to be climbed carefully like a particularly steep flight of stairs. Sure enough, the white-haired figure of the old fisherman was sitting in a folding desk chair, holding a fishing rod in one hand, the line extending out into the deep water, and gesticulating wildly with a bottle of beer in the other.

    Four girls and one boy were sitting on the wooden surface of the barge listening as he spoke. “...and then she said, ‘What do you think, Erwin?’ So I told her that the only way to be certain was to bomb the place from orbit. Mind you, it’s sort of overkill for an infestation of mimes, but sometimes you need to be sure, you know?”

    Danny tried to work out in which universe any of that made sense, gave up, shook his head, and called, “Taylor! We need to get home.”

    “Oh, hi, Dad!” his daughter called back as she turned and looked up at him, as did the others. “OK. Come on guys, let’s go. Thanks, Erwin.”

    “No problem, kid. Have a good Fourth.”

    “We will,” Vicky said with a glance at her sister, who was grinning. “See you.”

    Erwin waved with his beer bottle and watched as all five children scrambled up the near-vertical stairs with the easy of the young, looking amused. Glancing up at Danny he nodded to him.

    “Fish biting?” Danny asked.

    “So so. Got a few little ones, nothing worth keeping.” Erwin didn’t seem bothered. “Nice day for it, I’ve got plenty of beer, so I don’t care.”

    “Fair enough. Don’t fall in.”

    “Meh, I float.” The old man looked more amused. “Fallen in enough times to know that.”

    Laughing, Danny waved to him then walked over to the children who popped up over the edge one after another. He ruffled Taylor’s hair, making her giggle then smooth it down. “So that’s why you all wanted to come here today,” he commented.

    Taylor shrugged. “He’s cool. And we all like wandering around this place.”

    “Yeah, it’s neat,” Vicky added with a broad grin. “All those machines, and the boats, and the trucks, and...”

    Amy poked her. “You’re doing it again,” she said when her sister looked at her. “Stop babbling.”

    Eric, who was generally fairly quiet when the blonde was around, grinned. So did Taylor and Emma.

    “Well, as long as you stay well out of the dangerous areas, no one minds, but I don’t want any of you running off too far,” Danny said, suppressing a smile of his own as he turned and began heading back. “I promised your moms that I’d return you all in the condition you arrived in and that’ll be hard to do if you get squashed under a forklift or drown or something.”

    Taylor laughed, Emma and the others smiling widely. “You can trust us to stay out of trouble, Dad,” she protested. He gave her a sidelong look with a raised eyebrow, making her add, “Mostly.”

    “We do remember that little incident with about thirty old car batteries, lots of wire, and a huge bag of steel wool,” he said meaningfully. “It would be difficult to forget, to be honest...”

    “It was really loud,” Emma remarked thoughtfully. “Tay’s idea of adding all that oxygen might have been too much.”

    Amy and Vicky looked at each other, then Eric, before all three of them stared at Taylor, who was slightly pink-cheeked. “Um… Whoops?”

    “Yeah. Whoops.” Danny shook his head. “Ideally I’d prefer not to have another ‘whoops’ moment for a while, you know?”

    She nodded, looking mildly repentant. “Sorry, Dad. We won’t do anything like that by accident again.”

    “Good.” He walked about another twenty steps, then frowned. “By accident...” he echoed, glanced at her. She looked a little guilty and looked away, while the other four all laughed like idiots.

    Sighing, he resolved to keep a closer eye on them all for a while. Taylor, certainly, was more than responsible enough, even at her age, that most of the time he was content she’d stay safe and keep her friends safe too. But every now and then this odd urge seemed to come over her…

    People tended to remember the results.

    Even when they didn’t really want to.

    And he couldn’t help but think adding three more inquisitive and inventive minds to the little gang was only going to mean that sort of thing happened more often. He well remembered his own childhood, and how many times things had… not quite worked the way they were intended to.

    “Don’t worry, Dad, Kenny will make sure nothing too bad happens,” Taylor assured him, apparently picking up on his thoughts somehow. He stared at her.

    “You know, for some bizarre reason that doesn’t entirely fill me with confidence,” he replied after a moment or two. She just shrugged while grinning, so he decided it was probably better to give up while he was at least nominally ahead.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    “How did it go?” Annette asked as her husband came in shepherding a gaggle of children, all of whom appeared to be in a good mood. He was carrying two large bags of groceries, Taylor, Emma, and Vicky each holding another one apiece. All of these ended up on the kitchen table, before Taylor headed for the fridge and started pulling out bottles of soda for her friends.

    “Fine, love. We got everything on the list, the kids spent an hour at the beach then decided it was too crowded and wanted to go to the Union instead. Mostly because they were listening to crazy stories.”

    “Erwin?”

    “Yeah. Man’s got the wildest imagination I’ve ever seen,” Danny laughed. “He should be writing books, he’d make a fortune. Anyway I managed to drag them away and we went shopping. Lucky we managed to find a supermarket that was open, most of them are shut now.”

    “Good. We had most of the stuff we needed but so many people are coming I wanted to be sure,” she replied, moving to the table and peering into the bags, then nodding in satisfaction. “You’d better start getting the barbecue ready, I think. It needs cleaning too from last time.”

    “All right.” Her husband rummaged in the fridge himself for a few seconds, emerging with a bottle of Pat’s new beer and a pleased expression.

    “Don’t drink too much just yet,” she warned in a good natured way. “Or we’ll end up with a repeat of last time.”

    Vicky nudged her sister and whispered loudly, “Maybe that’s where Tay gets it from?”

    Danny sighed when all five children, and Annette, started laughing. Shaking his head he went out the back door, Taylor and Emma following along with Eric. “Can we help you, Mrs H?” Amy asked.

    “Thank you, Amy. Yes, if you could start unpacking those bags, that would help a lot,” she replied, indicating the table with her head, her hands currently being slightly covered in marinade from the chicken wings she was preparing. “When were your mothers planning on coming, do you know?”

    Vicky looked at the clock on the microwave before saying, “About half an hour, I think. Around four?”

    “OK, that works. No, the hamburger buns need to go outside too, dear,” Annette directed as Amy headed for the normal bread cupboard with several bags in her hands. “But that loaf can go in there.”

    “Sure.” The brunette girl quickly changed direction and did as requested, coming back a few seconds later. “Thank you for asking us to your party, by the way,” she said with a smile.

    “It was our pleasure, Amy,” Annette assured her. “You’re all friends now, after all. And we like having people over.” She glanced out the back window to see Danny fighting the barbecue and apparently losing while Taylor and Emma fell about laughing. “Oh dear.”

    Eric appeared in the kitchen doorway looking mildly confused. “Mr H says he wants a hammer?”

    “Tell him to stop playing with it, remember there’s a lock on the lid, and get on with the job, please,” Annette giggled. He grinned and gave her a thumb’s up, then vanished again. Moments after that there was a cry of triumph from outside which made the three inside laugh.

    Forty minutes later the house was getting crowded, both the Dallon and Pelham families having arrived, along with Kurt and his wife Lacey, and close to a dozen other DWU people and their families. Several neighbors were wandering back and forth, the front door being propped open to allow this and also let a cooling breeze blow through the house, as the day had been getting steadily hotter since sunrise and it was much too early to start cooling down yet. The driveway was full and there were cars all down both sides of the street, as both their party and those of others in the neighborhood got underway.

    Annette reflected as she directed people around the kitchen preparing food and ferrying it out to the back yard on how even in a city like Brockton Bay, with all the problems it had, it was still possible to have a good time. Most of the gangs preyed on the commercial areas, leaving at least this end of town unmolested for the most part, and there was less crime right now than for a while for whatever reason. She was also thankful that even though their house wasn’t enormous, it had a larger than average back yard, some hundred and twenty feet long and sixty feet wide, which was big enough to comfortably accept the people who’d turned up.

    This was good since she’d slightly underestimated quite how many that would be. There seemed to be more children running around than she’d expected too. At least Taylor and Emma seemed to be keeping that aspect under surprisingly good discipline. She could hear her daughter shouting orders to what must by now have been at least eighteen kids under sixteen, not including her own group, and looking out the window was amused to see all of them practically saluting her as they rushed about helping to set everything up.

    “She’d make a good drill sergeant,” Kurt commented with a chuckle as they heard a shout of annoyance, then looked to see Taylor lambasting a child at least four years her senior, the poor boy looking worried as she lectured him. Emma, beside her best friend, was giving off an air of a second in command who was disappointed in the performance of her troops, which was hilarious in such young ones.

    “Taylor does have a way with words,” she admitted, going back to preparing her special burger mix. “And isn’t shy about using them when required.”

    “I’m glad to see you up and about, Annette,” he said as he took a break from slicing onions. Giving her a look up and down, he added, “Are you sure you should be working this hard?”

    “I’m following doctor’s orders, Kurt,” she said with inner amusement about the whole thing. She was essentially fully functional but for appearances sake had to pretend to be recovering, so was mostly supervising while taking frequent breaks and only making a few of the dishes. “I feel more or less fine, but thank you for being concerned. And please pick up that tray for me, it’s too heavy for an invalid, even if she’s walking wounded.” She gave him a winning smile.

    Kurt chuckled again. “You did get shot only a few days ago, Annette, it’s fine to ask for help. You’re recovering a lot faster than most people would but don’t strain yourself.” He put the knife down and moved the tray full of baked goods to the oven as she watched. “If you need anything just ask. And take a break, you’ve been standing there for over half an hour. We can handle this.” He indicated the kitchen which was so full of people they could barely move around each other, although somehow it was all working. Sarah Pelham was doing something complicated with coleslaw, her sister was mixing drinks, Lacey was preparing burger patties from the mix Annette had just finished. A constant stream of people were coming and going, ferrying things out to the yard and piling them on tables.

    “I hope we have enough food,” she said.

    Everyone in the room stopped and looked at her, then around at the vast amount of edibles. “I don’t believe that will be a problem, Annette,” Sarah laughed. “Kurt’s right, you’ve done enough. Go and sit down, you’re too fragile to risk damage over a party.”

    Annette nodded. It was best not to overdo things and make someone suspicious. “Of course. I just like doing this sort of thing and got carried away.” She prodded her side, shook her head, and said, “You’re right. Thank you, everyone.” Filling a large glass with cold orange juice, as she was thirsty, she smiled at them all then went outside to see what was going on out there.

    Total chaos, mainly. Somehow it all seemed to work, but she couldn’t quite discern how. Deciding it was probably better to move to the side and stay out of the way she did precisely that, finding a lawn chair and sitting in it near where Danny was poking the now-glowing coals of the barbecue experimentally. Next to him Alan was doing the same thing with the other, even larger, barbecue he’d brought over a while earlier.

    “How’s it going?” she asked them.

    “Nearly ready,” Alan replied, leaning over to blow on the charcoal, then cursing as a wave of smoke rose into his face. “Ack.”

    “Maybe you shouldn’t do that,” she giggled, making him shrug ruefully.

    “Possibly. We’re not in a hurry.” He looked at his watch, then up at the sky, “Perfect day for it. We’ll see the fireworks perfectly.”

    She looked at the far end of the garden to where a number of old metal ammunition boxes were stacked, with a couple of people carefully guarding them from inquisitive children. “Did you get enough fireworks?” she asked a little dubiously. “That looks sufficient for a fair sized battle.”

    “I got a good deal on them,” Alan said with satisfaction. “Guy just over the border in Massachusetts ordered some in for a party of his own, but he made a mistake with the license to use them. So it was either get them confiscated and possibly be fined half to death, or sell them to me at cost.”

    “Oh, dear,” she smiled. “He must have been annoyed.”

    “Not as much as the cops would have been,” Alan noted. “Anyway, it’s enough to do the job. Some nice stuff in there. We’ll set them up when we’ve had something to eat and people have calmed down.”

    “Should be one to remember,” Danny commented as he closed the lid of the barbecue, satisfied that it was working correctly. “We’ve never had this many people before. Look at it, there must be at least fifty here now and more are turning up all the time.”

    Annette looked around, smiling to herself. It was true, their small family get together had turned, somehow, into one part of a wider scale celebration for some reason. Neighboring parties seemed to be overflowing into theirs and vice versa. All in all she had no problem with that. After her recent experiences she was just glad to be home and enjoying herself. It could, absent Taylor and her giant mechanical friend, have turned out very differently and she had no wish at all to even contemplate the effect on the other two if that had happened.

    Leaning back and relaxing, she sipped her juice and waited for the food to be ready, content that she’d done her part in the whole thing. Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t do any more now without rousing suspicion from those outside the very small number of people who knew the truth.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=


    Amy watched carefully as Emma’s father and two other men started setting up the fireworks at the far end of the Hebert’s lawn. They were burying tubes in the ground for the mortars, and setting up a rack full of skyrockets. Turning her head, she saw Mr Hebert still making burgers, although she was now full enough that she probably couldn’t eat another one.

    Well, another two, certainly. One would probably be OK.

    Looking the other way she met her sister’s eyes, the blonde girl also having been closely watching the setup of the pyrotechnics. Both of them nodded slightly, before looking at Emma, who was half-way down the garden talking to her own older sister and their mother, all three laughing and on the face of it enjoying themselves. Even so, Emma looked back and also nodded once.

    She checked around her once more. It looked like it was about time.

    Glancing behind herself she spotted Eric, who was watching her and Vicky while eating another hot dog. She motioned with her head, just a little, and he started drifting towards the table where her parents and his were holding forth on what New Wave stood for, and how important it was that Parahumans set a good example. Her mother was visibly slightly tipsy and seemed to have loosened up rather a lot, laughing fairly hard at some quip one of the neighbors of the Hebert’s had made, which amused Amy. Carol Dallon had unwound quite a lot in the last couple of years, ever since that first trip to the lake and everything that had happened there…

    She turned back to face slightly to the side of her sister, giving her the signal. Vicky, apparently without noticing, began wandering more or less towards the barbecue, talking brightly to Crystal, who had turned up late to the party and was trying hard to catch up on the food front with considerable success. Behind her, Eric said something that made Carol squawk in outrage and his mother start giggling, the whole table full of people very rapidly involved in a good natured argument.

    Eric managed to trip and knock the half eaten burger out of his sister’s hand, causing her to squawk as well, in a different sort of outrage. Apologizing, he went to ask Mr Hebert for another one, while Crystal complained and everyone in that general area was distracted by the show.

    As this was going on, Emma casually moved to the side, her mother and sister drifting over with her. Emma asked something that made the older woman look puzzled, then sigh in exasperation when Anne also made a comment, looking like she wasn’t sure whether to laugh or get annoyed. All three of them were involved in a mild but quite loud argument of their own seconds later. This attracted Mr Barnes’s attention, ultimately causing him to look up, shake his head, say something to his helpers, then move to see what the problem was. The two other men exchanged a glance before going for a beer each, which was conveniently close to where Amy was standing.

    She turned and nudged an empty bottle, one of many on the table next to the drinks, causing it to topple over and hit another one. The ensuing domino effect made about three dozen bottles clatter all over the place, although none broke. It was still loud enough that practically everyone who wasn’t otherwise engaged turned to look, while she flushed in embarrassment and started loudly apologizing.

    Making a quick motion with her hand to the side of her head, disguised as wiping sweat from her face, she was peripherally aware that Taylor, who had been standing near the door to the garage, disappeared into it for a few seconds. Carefully not looking she kept babbling apologies and picking up bottles, while managing to get in the way of several other people doing the same thing.

    The chaos was fairly entertaining and certainly worked to design.

    Taylor slipped out of the garage again, Amy saw, although she didn’t attract attention to this. Almost everyone was now watching one or other of the arguments or other noisy things going on near the house. The other brunette silently and almost unnoticeably sidled along the fence until she reached the fireworks boxes, which she bent over for about fifteen seconds.

    By the time anyone looked, she was thirty feet away talking to Emma and Ann.

    Amy smiled to herself, put the last of the bottles back on the table, and went for another couple of burgers.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    “What’s this one?” Jeff asked, holding up a rather large firework. Alan peered at it, then shook his head.

    “I’m not sure. What box did it come out of?”

    “The one full of mortars. There’s about six of them under the smaller stuff.” Jeff scanned the label and raised his eyebrows. “Looks different to them. More professional.”

    “Huh. That guy must have bought more than I expected.” Alan shrugged. “No worries, just set it up with the rest. We’ll use them for the finale.”

    “Got a couple of really big rockets here too, Alan, want to use them as well for that?”

    He looked to see his other helper, Alex, holding an enormous skyrocket in each hand. One had a cheerful label on that called it “The Eliminator,” while the other one was apparently a “Micro Hellbore.”

    “Yeah, why not? We’ve got lots of fuse, let’s hook them all up to fire at the same time.” Alan looked around at the setup, which was slightly more elaborate than he’d originally expected. They might have gotten a little carried away. He’d seen fewer fireworks at public displays…

    “We’re going to have to watch this from the front garden,” Jeff commented as he taped some fuses together. “The house is too close for the size of this stuff.”

    “I know, but that’s easy enough,” Alan nodded. “The neighbors on either side are going to be firing theirs in about half an hour, as it starts to get dark. So we thought we’d light it up just as those guys start to wind down and we should get a nice effect.”

    “Sounds good. Three displays for the price of one.” Jeff looked pleased.

    “Probably more than that, I know at least four other parties in this neighborhood have fireworks. It’s going to look amazing.” Alan finished with the mortar he was working on and stepped back. “There. That’s done. How’s it coming?”

    “Nearly finished,” Jeff muttered. “Another couple of minutes for me.”

    “I’m just about done too,” Alex remarked, laying half a dozen strands of fuse next to each other in his hand then wrapping some paper tape around them to join them. “That should do it.”

    Shortly Jeff said, “Finished here too. We’re all set. If we got all the fuse lengths right, we just light that end and everything goes off in sequence.”

    “This would be easier with one of those remote ignition widgets but good old fashion fuse works pretty well,” Alan smiled. “Danny and I blew up enough shit when we were kids to know that.”

    “Funny, I seem to remember doing the same,” Alex laughed. “I need another beer.”

    “Me too.” Jeff helped Alan drape a large tarp over the assembled fireworks to keep the dew off and stop anyone interfering with them until they were ready to light them, then all three went off in search of a drink.

    None noticed the attention the rig was getting from several children present, and they wouldn’t have thought much of it if they had. It was fireworks after all.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    Vicky smiled as she looked up, watching the colorful flashes in the sky and listening to the booms and whistles. People were setting off fireworks all over the area, more than she’d ever seen in one place before. For some reason everyone seemed to have gone nuts with them this year. She didn’t mind, she loved fireworks.

    As the nearest display culminated in a whole series of closely separated and extremely loud bangs, she saw Mr Barnes disappear around the side of the Hebert house, then come back considerably more rapidly a few seconds later. He was looking over his shoulder in an expectant way as he joined the substantial crowd of people on the front lawn.

    “Any second now,” he said.

    They waited.

    A few moments passed with only more distant fireworks sounding, until there was a loud whoosh from the other side of the house and a rocket roared up into the darkening sky. She yelled in pleasure as did almost everyone else. Another one went, then two more.

    After a slight pause there was an enormous BOOM! and an enormous blast of sparkling silver fire rose in a fountain well above the roof. Several more in different colors followed in sequence. Yells and whoops sounded up and down the block.

    “You got some really excellent fireworks, Alan,” Mr Hebert said with satisfaction. “Best I’ve seen in years.”

    “The good stuff should start any time now, those are just the little ones,” Mr Barnes laughed.

    He was right. A few more of the fire fountains went up, crackling and whistling, then more rockets launched. These were large enough that you could feel the detonation in your chest when they exploded high above. Vicky grinned widely, Amy beside her shouting in glee and both Taylor and Emma gazing up on the other side with enormous smiles. Eric was laughing and thoroughly enjoying himself, which seemed to be the same thing everyone else was.

    Then the big ones went off. Three loud thumps sounded, and three orange glowing embers spiraled almost lazily into the sky for a handful of seconds, before they erupted into huge flowers of light in many colors, fading from brilliant white through greens and blues to reds and yellows, then darkness. Immense bangs came down to them as the lights disappeared.

    “Jesus, that was impressive,” Mr Hebert said, sounding stunned.

    Another three thumps, and two whooshes, and more shells rose and burst, the rockets going off well above them. And again, and once more. Then there was a pause just long enough to make everyone wonder if that was it, before a long sustained burst of smaller but still loud bangs came, each one heralding the appearance of a brilliant crackling fireball two hundred feet up. Dozens of them fired in about ten seconds, sweeping from side to side. Just as this finished, a whole series of a dozen rockets launched one after the other second apart, massive colorful explosions raining sparkling fire down from the heavens.

    Vicky thought it was one of the most amazing things she’d ever seen.

    “Nearly done now, just the finale to go,” she vaguely heard over the explosions as more fire fountains erupted. As they did, six oddly quiet booms went off almost as one, the half dozen almost invisible glowing traces of the rising shells going a remarkably long way up.

    Then they went off.

    The entire neighborhood lit up like daylight, in every color of the rainbow, as a sheet of rippling fire spread out from the six detonations, fading and brightening for a couple of seconds as it went. There was a gasp from the crowd, which turned into a mass yelp as a six-part chorus of the loudest bangs any of them had ever heard rolled over them like thunder, echoes dying away into the distance. Vicky thought she could hear it coming back from the bay seconds later. She wiggled a finger in her ear and winced.

    That had worked even better than Taylor had said it would…

    “Fuck me!” Mr Hebert said under his breath, sounding mightily impressed. “Where the hell did you get those fireworks from, Alan?”

    The answer was drowned out as two final rockets launched simultaneously, an enormous roar preceding two columns of sparkling silver fire with swiftly moving projectiles on top. Everyone watched as they went up, and up, and up, far higher than seemed possible.

    The left hand one went off first, causing an effect like a hollow sphere of green fire that cast a shadow on the ground as it expanded rapidly, reaching a size that was ridiculous. It faded out, just as the second one exploded.

    This one produced a brilliant blue-white line of fire that stretched across the sky in a spectacle that seemed to last for far longer than was likely, although she realized a moment later that was only an illusion. The sound of the first rocket reached them as the second one blew, a massive thump that rattled windows up and down the street. As the echoes died away, the second explosion sounded, this one more of a roar than a bang.

    Then silence fell, broken only by a car alarm some distance away, and some barking dogs a few houses down.

    No one said a word for about ten seconds. All of them were still staring at the sky in amazement.

    Then someone started clapping.

    Almost instantly everyone else joined in, including Vicky and her friends and sister, all of them whooping their appreciation of the display. Mr Barnes, who was still staring up with an incredulous expression, seemed to shake himself a little before he looked around and grinned, then bowed.

    “You can do my fireworks any time,” Mr Hebert said, clapping his friend on the back. “That was amazing. I hope you made a note of the names of those things!”

    Vicky looked at Amy, then the pair of them turned to Taylor, Emma, and Eric.

    All five felt like things had worked out very nicely indeed.

    It was fitting welcome home for Mrs Hebert, and a really good way to end the day, in Vicky’s opinion.

    And best of all, she mused as they all trooped back around the house into a faint cloud of smoke from the fireworks, there was still plenty of food left.

    A successful mission and lots to eat… What more could you want?
     
  9. Simonbob

    Simonbob Really? You don't say.

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    Huh.

    Ok, that's a bit minor for a Hellbore, micro or not. :D
     
  10. mp3.1415player

    mp3.1415player Getting sticky.

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    Ah.

    This is embassassing... :oops:

    In my initial copying of this story from SV, I managed to miss one chapter, which I only just discovered as I was numbering them!

    Whoops.

    Anyway, I'm posting the missing one here and will threadmark it in the right order, assuming I can, as well as give it the correct chapter number. It's not essential so you can skip it if you want, or you can read it and put in the correct mental place with the rest of the story.

    Or, you know, just read the entire thing again :D
     
  11. Threadmarks: 6. Training Stage 1
    mp3.1415player

    mp3.1415player Getting sticky.

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    July 1st, 2005

    “Hi, Kenny,” Taylor chirped as soon as the weird sensation of transportation to her friend’s crew compartment stopped. It only lasted a really short time, she knew, since he’d told her and even showed her video of it, but it felt longer. Not painful or even really that uncomfortable, but weird.

    “Hello, Taylor,” the BOLO said, his tenor voice sounding calm and pleasant as usual. He really did remind her of her dad sometimes, and she wondered if that was deliberate. “How are you tonight?”

    “Don’t you already know?” she asked impishly, hopping up onto the stupidly comfortable couch that was the commander’s control seat. He chuckled slightly at her words. “I mean, you’re in my head. Sort of.”

    “I don’t read your mind, Taylor,” the machine replied with a note of amusement in his voice. “Not all the time, certainly, although that is possible. But I do monitor your surroundings via your senses as you know. I merely believe it’s polite to ask when a friend arrives.”

    “In that case I’m fine,” she smiled. “Emma says hi, too. Although she thinks you’re imaginary, like Mom and Dad do.”

    “It’s best for now that we keep up the pretense, I believe,” her friend said. “I know you want to tell your parents and your best friend, but we’ve been over that. For now, at least, the risk is unacceptable. Until your training is further advanced and your enhancement program has finished stage one, we can’t risk the Enemy detecting you, or me through you.”

    “Have you figured out who’s doing all that stuff yet?” the girl asked curiously. “You said that there was some sort of secret conspiracy doing something strange to capes.”

    “I’m still attempting to narrow down the people and organizations involved,” he told her. “Now that we have a link to the internet, my work is going faster, but it’s still a complex problem. They’ve had years to prepare and appear to be making full use of the parahuman abilities they have recruited or made. I am almost one hundred percent certain they are also using a method to access parallel worlds based on the hyperspace interference I am detecting. Locating their base will take time, and deriving a method to infiltrate it may take longer. But I have a number of leads.”

    “Great!” she grinned. “I’ve been reading all the things you wanted me to check out. But you already know that.”

    The AI laughed for a moment once more. “Yes, I do. Excellent work, commander. Your input is most helpful. I am also pleased with your current level of fitness.” Taylor turned to look at the equipment in the ceiling of the crew compartment, which had been making a faint humming sound since she’d sat down. “I would like to perform a more in depth scan in the medical bay, but unless something exceptional has gone wrong, you will ready for the first enhancement.”

    “Tonight?” she asked, her eyes wide.

    “Tonight,” Kenny confirmed.

    “Yay! Finally!” She slid to the floor and dashed across the compartment, zipping through the door that snapped out of her way too fast to see just before she would have hit it. A short distance down the corridor on the other side of the door another door retracted with a click, the girl only slowing when she was in the medical bay. Without being prompted, she jumped up onto one of the two bedlike machines there, lying back and putting her arms at her sides. “I’m ready, Kenny,” she grinned.

    “So it would seem, Taylor,” he said, his voice as always everywhere and nowhere surrounding her. “Please hold still.”

    “I know how this works,” she said, although she didn’t move.

    “Yet you are still talking.”

    “Meany.” With a smile, she froze in place, a series of bluish lights coming from somewhere and running down her body for a couple of seconds.

    “Scan complete. You can sit up now.”

    “Am I ready?” she asked eagerly.

    “You are. You now meet the minimum safe levels for Concordiat Battle Upgrades, Stage 1. Are you certain you wish me to proceed?”

    She rolled her eyes and glared at the ceiling, provoking another chuckle. “I see. Please lie down again and we can start. This will feel strange from what my records say, and you may fall asleep for a while.”

    “OK, Kenny,” Taylor said cheerfully, flopping down on the medical bed again. “Zap me.”

    “It’s more along the lines of a number of precisely administered nanotechnology infusions followed by a series of calibrated energy...”

    “Less talky, more zappy,” she instructed, waving a hand grandly in the air over her chest. “I am the Commander. I command thee.”

    Kenny made a sound remarkably like a snort of laughter. “As the Commander commands. Now relax and please try not to move.”

    “What happens if I move? Do I grow a tail or something?” she asked brightly. “That might be cool.”

    “No, Taylor, you won’t grow a tail. I feel that while it might be, as you put it, cool, it would also be rather detrimental to our mission goals.” Kenny sounded amused yet reasonable. “Stealth being one of the requirements for those goals. I just don’t want you being ill all over my floor.”

    “OK,” she laughed. “You’d make me clean it up, right? Even though you have all those little nanite things that could do it.”

    “That is a possibility, yes,” he allowed with a smile in his voice. “The procedure will begin in ten seconds.” A series of arms slid silently out of the sides of the medical bed and curved over her, the girl watching with interest and complete trust. “Eight… Seven...”

    “Is the countdown necessary?” she asked, rolling her eyes.

    “Not really. One.”

    “OOOooohhhhh. Pretty colors….”

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    Lowering the device she was holding in both hands to the floor, Taylor panted for breath, collapsing next to it. “Excellent,” Kenny said, sounding satisfied. “Three hundred and forty percent increase in muscle output, bone density increasing at the correct rate, and your nerve conduction times have dropped by over fifty two percent after the first procedure alone. You are responding above the projected rate, which may be down to your age. Or it’s possible that your minor deviation from human standard in my original world line is synergistic with the enhancements. I will be interested to see how things progress.”

    Still breathing hard, but evenly, Taylor sat up again and tapped a control on the training aid Kenny had fabricated for her. It beeped and was suddenly very light, the gravity field it generated turned off. “That was mean,” she grumped, folding her arms. “You turned it up without telling me.”

    “It was necessary to check your reflexes,” the machine told her. She accepted this in good grace. “Now, you need to eat, then we should have a training session.”

    “OK,” she said agreeably, rolling to her feet and heading for the food dispenser, which produced a meal for her by the time she got there. Sitting at the table that extruded from the floor on a chair that did likewise, she began slowly eating. The food had tasted a little strange the first time she’d tried it, but having poked around in the various menus between them they’d found something both nutritious and tasty. It wasn’t as good as the food her mom made but it was pretty nice.

    “Are we going to try more instances today?” she asked, before taking a drink. “Four is getting too boring.”

    Kenny sounded patiently amused, something that he often was for some reason. “We’ll see how the enhancement package has affected you first, and if everything is working correctly, we can experiment with adding another instance.”

    “How many do you think I’ll be able to do one day?” she asked, picking up her fork again.

    “I am still unsure of the final number. The parallel processing ability of your parasite is truly remarkable, and I am still optimizing the programming, but it is likely to be considerably higher than we initially expected.” Kenny now sounded thoughtful. “It was a stroke of luck that events came together as they have. It will make the mission considerably easier in some ways, although it won’t be easy in absolute terms.”

    “We’ll do it, Kenny,” she smiled. “You and me together, we’ll save everyone.”

    “That is our mission,” he agreed with a chuckle.

    “When can I get the neural link installed?” she asked when she’d finished, the table, chair, and everything left on the former disappearing back into the floor as she got up. By now she was so used to it she didn’t really pay attention. “You said that would make the training easier and help when I’m home.”

    “That is at least a year away, I’m afraid,” he informed her. “Your brain needs to develop further before it can be safely integrated. That said, we’ll have to arrange some form of communication node shortly, now that I’ve partially solved the mass transfer problem. We should begin the matter collection procedure as soon as possible, as I would prefer to repair and rearm sooner rather than later.”

    Taylor nodded, heading for the commander’s control couch, getting onto it and lying down. “When do you think you’ll be able to come visit at home?”

    The machine laughed. “There is a large difference between transferring a few kilograms of mass to your world and allowing myself to break free of null-space, my friend,” he chuckled. “I do after all mass over sixty-three thousand tons. There is also the minor issue that it would probably cause a degree of consternation if a fully equipped BOLO of my class appeared in Brockton Bay. I am larger than a number of the ships wrecked there as you know.”

    Giggling, the girl reached up and pulled the neural link headset down over her head with the ease of familiarity. “It would be pretty funny to see everyone’s faces,” she said. “I bet those E88 people wouldn’t stop running for a week.”

    “That would not save them, Commander,” he replied with wry amusement. “Link connected. Standby for training simulation entry.”

    “Go for it, Kenny.”

    Taylor abruptly went limp, her eyes closing. The crew compartment fell silent except for a faint deep hum and slow regular breathing coming from the willowy young girl on the couch.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    I grow steadily more and more impressed with my young commander. She has taken to the training with a natural aptitude far past my most optimistic projections, and is cheerful and enthusiastic in the process. If anything she appears to find the whole experience interesting and entertaining, despite the rigor of the training schedule. Now that she is free of scholastic obligations for the next two months, I am transporting her to me every night for four hours, which has sped up the process to an acceptable level.

    Some weeks ago I manufactured a number of small remote nodes which I was able, after considerable experimentation, to send back with her. There are a number around her dwelling monitoring the location for threats, including one in her bedroom used to make sure her parents don’t unexpectedly notice she is missing. I can transport her back before they find anything amiss.

    With her aid, I also infiltrated a local communications structure with a number of the remotes, which tapped into the optical fiber backbone providing the rather primitive planetary computer networking system. Shortly I will be able to arrange for a more effective set of remote nodes, but I judged it safer to begin with something small enough to evade notice, and primitive enough that if they were detected, they would be considered the results of one of the local parahuman anomalous engineering individuals, which Humanity refers to as Tinkers.

    I am being very cautious about introducing technology that is too far ahead of this world’s tech base, at least until I can be sure it won’t cause more problems than it solves. The existence of Tinkers plays well into my plans, in fact, as it lets me get away with several methods I was initially unsure would work. It is likely that any Concordiat technology that is discovered or shown in use will be passed off as the work of such a Tinker, and not immediately ascertained to be of ‘alien’ origin.

    This is unexpectedly useful.

    I have decided also that I need to acquire scans of, and preferably examples of, certain Tinker tech items for investigation. Some of the devices I have found descriptions of on the internet are fascinating, and may well be technology I could make use of. At least two of them are, very unexpectedly, recognizable as almost exact duplicates of technology the Concordiat salvaged from Enemy species. The implications of that are intriguing.

    It fits with the apparent methodology behind the colony entities, I think. They clearly scavenge information from the species they infect and destroy, and my belief is that this information includes data on technology that the Tinker class of parahuman is subsequently replicating as part of their ‘power.’ It seems likely that there is some form of deliberate corruption of the data passed on in this manner to prevent the resulting technological breakthroughs being mass produced, probably as a security measure.

    I am fairly sure I can bypass that. The overall security of the colony creatures and their parasitical processing nodes is sadly lacking, as I discovered when I arrived. I am constantly scanning the transmissions looking for a parasite with the requisite information I can intercept, but it may well ultimately be easier simply to acquire the technology directly from the source. Time will tell.

    If this proves to be the case, though, adding any new technology to my own will only improve my capabilities, and through that enhance my ability to defend Humanity. One thing that has never left my foreground processes is that where there are two such entities, there will be others.

    We must be ready, should more discover Earth. And perhaps, once the current mission is complete, take the battle to them…

    My musing has taken mere picoseconds, and I now watch as my commander connects the neural link system and readies herself. Eventually she is correctly positioned and I initiate the link.

    Connecting to a human brain is always something of a shock for both of us. A momentary pause by her measuring, an age by mine, and her mind is fully integrated into my processing core, her body’s normal neural activity suppressed. I can feel her physiological functions as if they were mine, and she can feel my sensors and drive systems as if they were hers. In many ways, we are one.

    Previous commanders have told me that it feels like their minds have expanded to infinite dimensions, and for a brief period they often fear losing themselves inside me. The fear usually faded after they became accustomed to the experience but only my last commander, a man I will always miss, had it disappear entirely. We trusted each other implicitly and this aided the link to reach a level seldom encountered.

    Taylor Hebert felt no fear from the very start. That has never happened before.

    I don’t know if it’s her age, her upbringing, or just her, but my latest commander links to me more smoothly and easily than any I have records of. None of my brothers ever reported such a clean link. It may possibly be at least partly due to her other link, the one to the parasite I co-opted. There’s no denying that the colony entities have been performing this form of linkage for a very long time and they are most likely experts at it, even if it is essentially an autonomic function. Regardless, I find the link far easier than I could have hoped for from someone who hadn’t trained for the process for the normal length of time.

    The parasite whose terminal end is so intimately connected to her brain allows a number of very useful extra functions that were quite unexpected. While I am far more powerful in intelligence and analytical functions, as I was designed to be, the processing node I chose is exceptionally efficient at parallel processing operations, an ability I was able to expand on considerable with judicious reprogramming. The combination of both my original psychotronic cores and the enormous organic engine of the parasite is a potent one.

    “Hi, Kenny!” The internal representation of Taylor grins at my own avatar, which I have designed after her request to be a small green creature with long ears and a robe, a character from a movie she likes. It appears to help her, so I have no issues with it, although it’s not quite as dignified as I would have personally chosen.

    “Hello, Taylor, once again,” I say to her. “Are you ready to begin training for today?”

    “Yep, you know I am,” she replies with a humorous look. “Why else would we be here?”

    “Why else indeed.” The interactions, while unnecessary in a strict sense, please her. And I must confess to enjoying being able to talk at a sensible speed with her too. “In that case, we will start with advanced sidearm maintenance, close quarters unarmed combat, urban warfare, and jungle world infiltration from orbit. The usual restrictions on damage, of course. Twenty four hour limit on all scenarios.”

    I leverage the connected parasite’s processing power and instantiated three more copies of my commander, who all shake hands with each other.

    “Hi, Taylor!”

    “Hi, Taylor!”

    “How’s it going, Taylor?”

    “Who are you?”

    “I’m Taylor. Who are you?

    “Taylor, of course.”

    “Is it truly essential to go through this each time?” I ask patiently. All four instances look at me, then each other, before smiling.

    They bow simultaneously. “Of course, Master,” they chorused.

    If I was human I would probably be sighing right now. Still, it amuses her and thus raises her efficiency and morale.

    “The scenarios will begin… Now.”

    All of them disappear into their own virtual worlds. I divide my own runtime between them, guiding and advising as they follow the basic training routines created by my designers, complete with detailed simulated opponents and equipment indistinguishable from the real thing. With the accelerated processing rate possible for her in the link, she can learn in two hours of real time what would take over a week in reality, and with the addition of the extra parallel processing granted by the parasite, run multiple simulations at once. It takes a little care to reintegrate all the experiential paths into one at the end of such a session, but I have not found it difficult.

    At this rate, based on the expected growth in the number of parallel scenarios I fully expect to be able to ultimately work up to, my commander is going to become exceptionally competent much more rapidly than I originally thought likely when I began this operation.

    I suspect that this will be of critical importance as the mission progresses.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    Lying in bed when she’d returned home, her parents still unaware of what she got up to at night, Taylor rolled over and pulled the covers up. She was in a very good mood. She got to learn all sorts of fun things, she spent time with Kenny who was great, and none of it got in the way of reading and being with her parents and Emma. Life was going great right now, as far as she was concerned. Hopefully sooner or later she could tell them about it, but for now she was content to listen to Kenny’s advice. He was right, probably. He always was.

    With a slight grin on her face at the memory of dropping from a spaceship in a tiny capsule onto a strange green world with an orange sun, she fell asleep.
     
  12. mp3.1415player

    mp3.1415player Getting sticky.

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    There we go. They're out of order in the thread, but in the correct order as far as threadmarks and chapter numbers go. I'll try to be more careful in future :)

    Edit: The way threadmarks get set here is a little weird, as they don't seem to come in the order I originally marked the chapters... Odd. Easy to fix, luckily!
     
    Last edited: Jul 5, 2019
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  13. Anti-No

    Anti-No I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    Thinking about the DWU fireworks. What are the odds that Bakuda would see it and/or hear about it, and take it as a challenge that she could do better? Too early for it to happen by Canon timeline, I guess, but still.
     
  14. Threadmarks: 17. Finishing Things Off
    mp3.1415player

    mp3.1415player Getting sticky.

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    July 5th, 2007

    Captain Rosenberg closed the door to his temporary office, locked it, made sure the blinds were down, then pulled a small device out of his pocket and turned it on, putting it on the desk which he then sat behind.

    “Bug jammer,” he said when Leroy looked at the thing them him. “Borrowed it from someone I know in the private security industry. Guaranteed to handle anything short of the best Tinker Tech.”

    Leroy nodded, glancing at Alex Hackett, who was sitting with his chair tipped back on the rear legs, his feet up on the small table near the desk. The SWAT lieutenant peered interestedly at the widget, which had a couple of blinking lights on it and a small display, then shrugged.

    “So.” Rosenberg examined both of them for a moment, then looked at the door yet again before returning his attention to the two men. “I assume everything on your respective ends has been handled?”

    “Yeah,” Hackett said with a nod. “No one in SWAT knows anything. Neither does anyone in IA. The medical examiner has signed off on a body that was shot dead during a robbery, unfortunately not before the bastard got Ray, who bled out at the scene. All the records are up to date.”

    “The body?”

    “Cremated. Guy had no next of kin, no reason to keep it around for an open and shut case like that.”

    The captain nodded slightly. “And the witness?”

    “He didn’t see anything. He doesn’t want to have seen anything.” Hackett shrugged again, smirking a little. “For some reason he seemed a little worried. No idea why.”

    “I’ve got an idea,” Leroy sighed, but under his breath.

    “Did the ME say anything?”

    “Only that his niece ended up dead because of the fucking Merchants last year and he’d like to buy whoever helped wipe them out a lifetime supply of beer.”

    Rosenberg shook his head wearily. “Too much of that sort of story around this damn place.”

    “Makes it easier sometimes, but you’re right.” Hackett made a resigned gesture. “At least that particular problem isn’t a problem any more.”

    “What about the accomplice?”

    “We had a conversation. He’s not telling anyone anything. And I didn’t even have to insist,” Hackett looked darkly amused. “Guy seems to think that prison is safer than being out where our friend might run into him again...”

    Captain Rosenberg’s mouth twitched a little. “Good.” Then he turned to Leroy. “The paperwork?”

    “No one is going to find anything,” Leroy said quietly. “It’s… misfiled. A lot.”

    “No video?”

    “Nothing. All the recordings were badly corrupted due to power spikes during the attack on the station. We lost the entire day’s data.”

    “And the audio tapes?”

    “Someone seems to have accidentally recorded over them. Must have got them mixed up with the blanks.”

    “What a tragedy,” Alex chuckled. “That was careless.”

    Rosenberg let out a breath, leaning back in his chair. “Good work, both of you.”

    “What about the FBI, sir? And the PRT for that matter?” Leroy asked after a few seconds of silence, unable to prevent himself.

    The captain looked at him, then Hackett. “The PRT, from the information I have, have decided that it’s not worth pursuing at the moment since they’re not sure it was a Parahuman in the first place and they have more immediate concerns. I suspect Director Piggot is pushing back against her superiors to some degree as well. She bears no love for the Chief Director if what I’ve heard is accurate. And the reverse is true, of course. Ellisburg didn’t make her friends in that fucking organization.”

    “No good deed goes unpunished,” Hackett quipped.

    “Especially not if it’s done by disobeying a direct, and bone-stupid, order,” the captain replied with a small grimace. “They can’t punish her, or at least they can’t be seen to punish her. The public would have their heads. So they promote her sideways into a position where either she sinks or swims. And if she sinks, it’s her fault...”

    “And if she swims, it’s because they put the right person in the right place,” Hackett said with disgust, getting a nod. “Fucking politics.”

    “Costa-Brown is a politician as much as anything,” Rosenberg noted. “That sort is always aware of PR and spin. Director Piggot is a soldier, and has no time for politics from what I’ve seen of her. Probably be quite good at it if she cared about it, but that’s not her main interest.” He shook his head a little. “I’m favorably impressed so far, I have to admit, but time will tell. After that shit Calvert, the PRT are going to have to get their house in order before anyone is going to trust them very far. And be seen to do that.”

    “This bullshit didn’t help with public opinion on that front,” Leroy muttered.

    “Not really, no. Neither did that appallingly badly-timed and worded press release.” the captain scowled. “I have a sneaking suspicion that whoever was screwing around with their communications was behind that too, but I don’t have any proof. Whatever the truth of it, that’s her problem.” He paused, then went on, “According to the Commissioner, the FBI stuck at it for longer, but they’ve also decided that there isn’t enough evidence to even be sure it was something they should be investigating. The attack itself is much more important, since both them and the ATF are extremely irritated about all the military weapons those fuckers somehow got their hands on.”

    “I heard that the ATF discovered about three crates of M72 LAW rockets in the Merchant’s main base when they raided it on Friday,” Hackett commented, frowning.

    “So I hear,” Rosenberg nodded. “Heads are going to roll over that. There’s some talk that they might have got them from the Empire, which is going to make a lot of official attention go in that direction. And that’s going to make the PRT have to get involved too.” He shook his head. “It’s a complete mess.”

    “So the PRT dropped it, the FBI dropped it, we don’t have any evidence either...” Hackett glanced at Leroy, then back at his superior. “That’s the end of the matter?”

    “Yes. For various reasons, no one is going to be looking too hard for our friend. This time, anyway. If it happens again...” He spread his hands on the desk. “I don’t know. But for now, we forget about terrifying weapon skills and get on with rebuilding the BBPD. The Commissioner is fine with it, City Hall seems perfectly happy to go along with him, and even that FBI friend of his didn’t seem all that fussed about it. Grabbing Squealer seems to have given them something they wanted, so I don’t think anything more will come of it.”

    “Fine by me.” Hackett smiled a little. “Saved our asses, which deserves a little quid pro quo in my opinion. Never know, it might help one day.”

    “Hopefully not soon,” Leroy said with some asperity. “Once was enough for me. I could easily go my entire life without starring in a war movie again.”

    “Agreed.” Rosenberg nodded. “We lost too many friends that night. But the Merchants are gone for good, so it’s not all bad. And we know that there’s at least one person out there on our side.” He picked up the jammer and weighed it in his hand, looking thoughtful.

    “Hey, Leroy, where’s Maggie?” Hackett asked.

    “She said she’d prefer not to think about what happened, didn’t want to be reminded of it, was still on leave, and if I called her again before the end of the week she’d shoot me in the foot,” Leroy replied, causing his colleague to snigger. “I think she’s still sort of in a bad mood.”

    “Ah, she’ll get over it sooner or later,” the SWAT lieutenant chuckled. “Hey, did you see all the fireworks yesterday? There were some fucking incredible ones over on the west side. Tinker stuff, maybe, I’ve heard there’s a lot of that around at the moment.”

    Turning off the jammer, Captain Rosenberg dropped it into his desk drawer then closed it. “I heard some god-awful loud explosions,” he smiled. “I thought it must be you guys, Alex. We all remember ‘03 when someone decided that C4 would be interesting to add to a big rocket.”

    Hackett looked mildly embarrassed, but grinned. “It was interesting, you can’t deny that.”

    “In one sense of the word, yes,” the captain sighed. “In the sense of people complaining about the broken windows, no.”

    “Meh, no sense of adventure, some people,” the lieutenant said dismissively. He looked at his watch. “Anything else? We’re still moving all the equipment that survived out of storage and setting it up, and I’d like to get back to that.”

    “No, I think we’re done here.” Rising, the captain moved to unlock his door. “The latest word is that the station won’t be rebuilt until at least November, even with the emergency budget the Mayor’s office is providing. So we’re going to have to get used to being cramped for now.”

    “We’ll survive,” Leroy remarked as he also stood, following Hackett out of the office. “We have so far.”

    “Yeah, if the Merchants couldn't take us out, tight quarters won’t do anything,” the other man added. Both of them nodded to their Captain, then headed back into the very full temporary police station. Leroy heard the door to the office close again behind him.

    Deciding that dwelling on recent events was pointless, he went about his business.
     
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2019
  15. mp3.1415player

    mp3.1415player Getting sticky.

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    Why does adding a new threadmark not put it at the end of the list?

    :confused:
     
  16. Anti-No

    Anti-No I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    Because that would have made sense..?
     
  17. ScyBlade

    ScyBlade Getting out there.

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    Um, mp3.1415player

    You did the ‘08 instead of ‘03 thing here, too.
     
  18. mp3.1415player

    mp3.1415player Getting sticky.

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    I did it everywhere! Mua ha ha!

    But now I've fixed it everywhere too :)
     
  19. Threadmarks: 18. The bay is pretty in the morning...
    mp3.1415player

    mp3.1415player Getting sticky.

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    August 4th, 2005

    Taylor leaned on the railing at the end of the wharf, looking out into the bay. The tide was high and the day was calm and hot, the water mirror-still and reflecting the early-morning sun onto the various buildings near the shoreline. The underside of several of the huge gray metallic forms of loading cranes, their cables gently creaking high above whenever a slight breeze blew across them, were brightly illuminated. The sound of seagulls squawking and fussing came from above, and off to one side where a trawler was slowly puttering past, birds following it in a cloud of feathery hunger.

    All in all it was a very pretty sight, she thought to herself. The Protectorate base in the middle of the bay, a few miles away, added to it in a strange way, since the force field bubble that surrounded it made the sunlight look really strange and beautiful when it shone through, like the enormous structure was wrapped in a soap bubble.

    One shot with a 25 centimeter hellbore would bring that down instantly,’ she mused to herself with a slight sensation of sneaky guilt. ‘It’s not bad but it’s only good for a few hundred megajoules per second.

    Kenny had taught her a lot about things like the technology behind force screens. And weapons. Even in this early stage of her training, she probably knew more about those fields of study than anyone locally. He’d said the technology in use was loosely, and inefficiently, based on something very similar to that which one of the client races of the Melconians had used a thousand or so years before his time. She found it amusing that he seemed more aggravated by the inefficiency than the low tech…

    “It’s certainly a nice day, isn’t it?” her father said from beside her. She nodded with a smile, looking up at him.

    “It’s really nice. Thanks for letting me come, Dad.”

    “It was my pleasure, Taylor.” He smiled down at her. “Now remember, this is a dangerous place, so don’t go wandering off. I don’t want you getting run over by a truck.”

    “I don’t want to get run over either,” she laughed. Looking over her shoulder, she added, “Mom’s coming.”

    He followed her gaze, smiling again. Her mother walked up and slipped her arm around his waist, looking pleased. “Did you find Lacey?”

    “Yes, dear, she wasn’t hard to find. I just had to follow the shouting.”

    Taylor’s father snickered. “She does have something of a distinctive voice when she’s annoyed...”

    “You could put it that way.” Her mother looked back over her shoulder, then shook her head. “And a good pair of lungs. Anyway, she was happy to get the dishes back.”

    “Great.” Looking down at Taylor, who was carefully scouring the local area for small stones and tossing them into the water while listening to the deep ploonk! sounds they made with amusement, he went on, “We’re going to have to go soon, Taylor.”

    “OK, Dad.” She tossed another rock, this one about the size of a baseball, carefully not using her full strength. He seemed impressed at how far it went even so. “Hey, can I go and look over that side? I’ll be right back, I just wanted to see if I can see the bottom. There were some huge crabs there last time.”

    “All right, but only another ten minutes, OK? I need to get back to work and your mother still needs to do the shopping.”

    “Thanks, Dad,” she smiled, turning and dashing over to the opposite side of the wharf, about fifty feet away. This was lower than where she’d been, that particular area being arranged as a loading dock for boats and having a flight of four low steps down to it, with a ramp to one side. Mounted at the edge of the wharf was a swinging crane, the jib currently cantilevered out over the water with the hook dangling down a few feet. Jumping down the steps in one leap, she slid across the slippery wood and fetched up against the railing with a thump, grinning to herself.

    “Be careful, Taylor!” her mother’s somewhat exasperated voice came from behind. She waved without looking, engaged as she was in staring down into the water fifteen feet below. On this side of the wharf the sun was shining directly into the depths, clearly showing the bottom, rocks and weed giving way in places to clear patches of mud and sand. There was a surprising amount of life down there, crabs wandering around on the bottom while schools of silvery fish swam above them, and she could make out colorful sea anemones, some quite large, waving tentacles in the water. A few jellyfish pulsated past, glinting in the light.

    Considering that she was always hearing how polluted the bay was, she wondered for a moment what it would be like if it was cleaner. Even like this, it looked impressive when you really paid attention.

    She could hear her parents talking back where she’d left them, chatting about various things. Glancing back after a minute or so, she made sure they weren’t paying much attention to her. In fact both of them were looking at the Rig, her father pointing at it and her mother nodding thoughtfully.

    Taylor returned her attention to the water, bending down to pick up a large rusty bolt that had apparently snapped off some item of machinery and was just lying there, then flipping it into the water. It splashed down in a small cloud of bubbles, then sank to the bottom, where it was immediately investigated by a crab.

    She checked again. Both her parents were still looking the other way. Glancing about, she satisfied herself that no one was close enough to really see her, and none of the dock workers seemed to be paying attention anyway. Then she put her hand in her pocket.

    I’m ready,” she sub-vocalized.

    A moment later she pulled a small tube out of her pocket, one that hadn’t been there a second before. It was apparently made of some heavy plastic, although she knew it was actually a highly advanced ceramic polymer, and was virtually indestructible. The color was odd, the surface seeming to reflect the light in an entirely wrong manner, making it weirdly difficult to focus on.

    The girl didn’t pay any attention to that, since it was something she was completely accustomed to at this point. She could even have described exactly how it was constructed should that have been required, although no one else had the security clearance for her to actually do that. Without any ceremony she idly flipped it into the water in the same manner she’d disposed of the bolt, watching as it splashed down.

    Unlike the bolt, a few feet under the surface the sinking cylinder, which was almost invisible unless you’d been carefully watching, suddenly straightened out its slow tumble, leveled off, and zipped away under its own power. Even to her eyes it vanished almost instantly.

    Taylor nodded slightly in satisfaction.

    She dropped another three probes into the water, each of them arrowing off in a different direction. When she heard her parent’s footsteps coming, she bent down and retrieved another item of junk, this one some broken off piece of outboard motor at a guess, and as her mother appeared at her elbow, tossed it over the side and watched.

    “Look at the crab, Mom! He thinks it’s food or something.” She pointed with a smile.

    “Stop annoying the poor crabs, Taylor,” her mother giggled. “And you really shouldn’t throw junk into the water like that.”

    With a shrug and a smile, Taylor turned to look at her parents. “There’s already so much down there a little more won’t hurt, right?”

    “Even so, it’s best not to litter, dear,” her mother chided gently. “Come on, we need to go. Your dad has to get back to the office.”

    “OK, Mom.” Taylor nodded. “This was interesting. But I guess I could go for breakfast.”

    “You already had breakfast, Taylor,” her father chuckled.

    “Oh. Um… second breakfast, then?”

    “You are not in fact a hobbit,” he replied with a shake of his head and a good-natured smile.

    “I don’t even have hairy feet,” she agreed happily, following as the two adults began walking back along the old wharf towards the DWU buildings. “But it might be fun to live underground. Hey...” She got a thoughtful look that made her parents glance at her, then at each other with an expression of resignation. “Can I make an underground fort in the back yard?”

    “I’m not entirely sure that’s a good idea,” her mother said doubtfully. “And it would be very difficult in any case.”

    “Kenny says it’s not that hard,” Taylor replied brightly. “We could blast.”

    “You are not blowing holes in the back garden, Taylor,” her father sighed, massaging his forehead. “Not again.”

    “Aww...”

    The small family kept walking, with Taylor chattering on about all the ideas she had for making interesting modifications to the scenery. Behind them in the bay, now some distance away, four little autonomous probes loaded with nanotech from far in an alternative future moved rapidly and completely undetected to several destinations, including the Rig and an undersea fiber-optic backbone. They would join the others already in place and make the growing sensor network that little bit larger and more capable.

    And in a place both very far away and very close, a giant sapient weapons system waited patiently for new data to come in, while he made plans both long and short term to protect his charges from all threats, internal and external.
     
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  20. mp3.1415player

    mp3.1415player Getting sticky.

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    I just realized that I forgot that I'd posted this story here, and as such didn't put my Halloween Omakes in this thread. I shall rectify that problem immediately!
     
  21. Extras: S7. Omake - Happy Halloween, Let's Party!
    mp3.1415player

    mp3.1415player Getting sticky.

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    Have a little seasonally appropriate light horror... ;)
    I'm not saying this is canon, because it mostly isn't, but I'm not saying it's not possibly a hint at future directions the story could, just maybe, go...



    Michael prepared carefully for this night came but once a year. It was important to have everything in place.

    The ritual offerings went into the bowl, the one he’d used for thirty years now, the one that had been seasoned with the blood taken from the Supplicants of His favor. The bowl went, in turn, onto the small table reserved for it and it alone.

    Arranging the offerings, he inspected each in turn, ensuring all were perfect. One that didn’t pass muster was destroyed in the fire, arcane gestures accompanying the removal of a stain on the holy procedure. The rest were as required and he stepped back, satisfied.

    Moving to the next room, he prostrated himself before the symbol of Him, muttering the correct words to placate the One, before raising his head. “Soon, My Lord, there will be another Winnowing, and another selected for the Great Work. The time is nearly here.”

    There was no answer, there never was, but he could tell from the feeling deep inside that He was pleased.

    Standing, he bowed deeply, then removed himself from His presence to continue the preparations. It was vital that all was correct and in its place. Candles made from the tallow of rejected offerings were lit. Decorations gleaned from the polished bones of failures were gently arranged just so. The Altar was most assiduously polished, removing all traces of all previous Offerings.

    A pleasantly pine-scented air freshener was sprayed around the whole area, while he spoke the ritual of purification to ameliorate the insult to Him from the mundane origins of the product.

    He was, above all, merciful and pragmatic. He would allow such things, knowing that it increased the efficiency of the procedure, for was not He far more intelligent than all others? A modern world offered many improvements to the rituals of old, as long as the core of them was left unaltered. Clearly this was the case or He would have made his displeasure apparent long since.

    When all was prepared, Michael checked the time, displayed on the special timepiece he had constructed from many carefully acquired special components over the years. It indicated that he was on schedule, and should begin the final aspect of the annual ritual in exactly six minutes.

    Returning to the room where he could be in view of Him, he bowed again, then sat in the prescribed position and opened his mind to His power. As always, it was almost overwhelming, but at the same time provoked a feeling of safety and joy in his heart. Reciting the mantras laid out by Him, Michael concentrated.

    And around him, the world began to slowly change.

    Soon.

    Soon, they would come, and enter, and the Ritual would once again begin. By dawn’s light, the Winnowing would be complete and the Supplicant prepared to move the Great Work one step closer to completion.

    It was as the Prophecy foretold.

    Ever since that terrible dark day thirty years ago when he had finally seen the glory of Him, he had known the truth, and what he would have to do to bring about what must happen.

    He was the Chosen One.

    Stone rumbled. Wood creaked. Distant voices of creatures that had never evolved on this ball of muck circling a third rate sun gradually became audible, far in the distance.

    The distance that was gradually shrinking…


    Michael smiled beatifically, basking in the glory of Him.

    His eyes opened at the expected sound.

    It had begun.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    “You sure about this, Tay?” Emma looked at the old house that was set back from the road considerably further than normal in their neighborhood. It was in the middle of a very large yard, overgrown and surrounded by tangled trees which screened the large dwelling from sight except for the top story that had a pair of gabled windows peering out into the evening like scowling eyes. “This place looks like somewhere the Addams Family would think was too depressing.”

    Taylor grinned, her mask up on top of her head. “Dad said this place was empty for years, but some guy bought it six months ago and fixed it up. He spent a lot of money on it, apparently. Which means he can afford good chocolate.”

    “And that means lots of loot,” Vicky said from behind them with a note of satisfaction in her voice. She looked up at the house and shuddered a little. “But Emma’s right, this place is as creepy as heck.”

    “He’s probably playing that up,” Amy put in, staring at the weird symbols made of dull ivory-colored plastic that hung on the fence to either side of the gate, obviously meant to look like bone. There was a fake skull on a post a couple of meters inside the fence, and several lanterns made of brass and glass with almost black candles flickering inside them, the flames an odd reddish color. “Looks like he’s really trying to get into the spirit of Halloween.”

    “I’ve never seen some of this stuff before,” Eric added, sounding impressed. “It’s really realistic.”

    “Maybe he’s some deranged cultist, trying to take over the world,” Taylor hissed, crouching a little and putting her flashlight under her chin to illuminate her face with an eerie glow. “He eats children. He lures them in with the promise of candy. Then… no one ever sees them again!

    There was a long moment of total silence before all five kids burst out laughing madly.

    “How do you do that, Tay?” Amy gasped. “That voice.”

    “I practiced in front of the mirror,” Taylor replied proudly, straightening up and grinning widely.

    “She really does,” Emma confirmed with a shake of her head. “She’s nuts.”

    “Well, everyone knows that,” Vicky giggled. She shook her plastic pumpkin that was half full of candy, looking into it. “I hope he’s got Snickers. I like Snickers.”

    “We know, you stole all mine and ate the lot last year,” Amy grumbled. “Then you were sick all over the living room. Mom wasn’t happy.”

    “Neither was I,” her sister said cheerfully, poking her in the ribs. “But it was worth it.”

    “Stop that.”

    “Make me.”

    Eric stepped between them and looked sternly at both girls. “Now, there’s no call for insults between sisters,” he intoned with as deep a voice as he could manage.

    Amy and Vicky exchanged a look, nodded simultaneously, and said, “Dweeb.”

    “Hey!” Eric looked mildly hurt, causing Vicky to giggle and hug him. Taylor noticed that as she did, she neatly stole a Snickers bar from his own candy stash without him seeing and stuck it into her own. She met her friend’s eyes and grinned, getting a wink back.

    “We can’t stand around insulting each other all night when there’s free candy to scam… I mean, be given,” Emma said brightly.

    “Bet we can,” Amy sighed.

    “But we shouldn’t,” Emma insisted, then pointed at the house. “Onward to yon creepy source of all that is sweet and bad for us!”

    “A valid plan, well stated,” Taylor nodded gravely. “Kenny approves. Begin Operation: Get Candy.”

    “Ma’am!” the other four shouted, snapping to attention and saluting crisply, before all laughing and following her up the path, while ignoring the looks from other trick or treaters, none of whom seemed keen on doing the same.

    “Guys, hold on, I’m caught on something,” Amy said a moment later. “My tail is trapped.”

    They all turned around and watched as she yanked on the stuffed appendage and managed to free it from a pile of branches the others had stepped over. “Got it!”

    “I still don’t know why you dressed up as a dinosaur or something,” Eric commented.

    “Velociraptor, and I like reptiles, OK?” Amy said as she joined them. “Just like you like… I want to say, Star Trek?”

    “Star Wars,” her cousin replied with a long-suffering sigh. “I keep telling you that.”

    Amy smirked a little, while Vicky, who was wearing a long black cloak down to her ankles with a set of dark curved horns on her head, giggled. “Got you again, Han.”

    “Damn it.” Eric shook his head and stomped off, mumbling under his breath, while both his cousins high-fived each other.

    Taylor pulled her mask into place as did the others, making sure it was correctly aligned, adjusted her webbing harness which had several futuristic appearing widgets in pockets on it, then waved the rest of the party to follow. Emma was giggling and met her best friend’s eyes. She fiddled with her own costume, making sure the sword belt and plastic sword was in the right position then fell into formation with the other girls.

    “How many skulls did this guy buy?” Eric commented when they caught up with him a few meters further on. He’d paused to inspect another one that was mounted on a pillar, a small candle inside it producing a faint cloud of smoke through a hole in the top, and making the eyes light up in an eerie manner that all five of them approved of.

    “All of them?” Vicky suggested, looking around. “It’s pretty amazing. Maybe he’s some sort of special effects guy or something.”

    “If Mom saw this she’d get all funny about it,” Amy pointed out with a smile.

    “Probably better not tell her, right?” her sister said with a grin. She nodded.

    “Are we nearly there yet?” Emma said plaintively, before giggling.

    “Our long arduous trek is nearly at an end, my dear compatriots,” Taylor responded grandly, waving at the house in front of them. “We shall brave the dread portal, subdue the protector of the goodies, and make our escape replete with empty calories.”

    Emma drew her sword and held it aloft. “By The Power Of Snacks!” she shouted.

    The other three looked at each other. “Tay’s contagious, I think,” Eric whispered loudly.

    Giggling, Taylor marched up to the door, which wasn’t quite a Dread Portal, but definitely qualified as Somewhat Unnerving Door, nodded to the skull nailed to it, and poked the doorbell, before stepping back and waiting.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    “The signal,” Michael said with a smile of relief. “It has begun. Glory to Him.”

    Standing up, he went to meet those who would complete the Ritual once again. Around him, the shadows moved and whispered, praising their Lord.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    “Press it again,” Amy urged. “Maybe he didn’t hear it.”

    Raising a hand to do exactly that, Taylor stopped as there was a sound from the door. Several metallic clicks came and went, then a solid sounding thunk, before it creaked open.

    “Cool. Nice effects,” Eric commented.

    “Yep.” Taylor was impressed.

    All of them were impressed when the door opened all the way to reveal a tall skinny figure, dressed in dark red robes with silver filigree picking out weird symbols. He had a hat on his head that was sort of mushroom shaped, black, and with a golden symbol in the middle of the front that none of them could identify. Under the hat was a face that smiled broadly at them, the eyes twinkling behind round glasses.

    “It’s Dumbledore,” Vicky whispered very quietly, causing Amy to kick her in the ankle. “Ow.”

    “Welcome, my glorious friends,” the man said joyfully. “You are here for the offerings, yes?”

    “Um… Yes.” Emma nodded, looking a little taken aback.

    “Excellent!” He stepped aside and waved to the elaborately decorated ceramic bowl that sat on a similarly adorned carved wood table that looked like it was purpose made a few feet into the entrance foyer of the house. All of them could see it was piled high with candy of various types, all the bright colored wrappers illuminated by some sort of spotlight in the ceiling.

    This guy really took Halloween seriously, they thought as they exchanged glances.

    “Enter and partake of His bounty,” the man said with great enthusiasm and a pretty good creepy vibe.

    “Sweet! Snickers!” Eric said with glee, darting between the girls.

    “Hey, Eric!” Vicky sighed and followed, despite their mother’s instructions not to go inside the houses they called at. Taylor and the other two went after her.

    It has begun,” the man said from behind them in a strange voice, then there was the sound of a door slamming shut, which made Amy yip in shock and whirl around.

    “Um, guys?”

    “Weird freak,” Vicky muttered, having also jumped. She followed her sister’s eyes. “Hey. Where’d the door go?”

    “Uh oh,” Eric whispered.

    Sure enough, there was only a blank wall where they’d come in.

    “I’m more interested in where that guy went,” Taylor remarked, looking around suspiciously. “And why the walls are sort of...”

    “Moving?” Emma said in a high pitched voice.

    “Yeah. That.”

    They looked at each other, then at the bowl of candy that was still sitting there innocently, the sweet goodness tempting silently. “Suddenly I don’t want any of that,” Eric said slowly.

    The others all looked at Taylor. “Now what?”

    The eleven-year old girl walked over to the place the door had been and prodded it experimentally, then felt it carefully. “Stone, maybe? Not wood, like the door was. Are we still in the same place, or did we move? Or is this just some sort of illusion?” she muttered as she ran her hands over it. “No seams, no sign of visual distortion...”

    Stepping back she made a fist and punched the wall as hard as she could. There was an explosion of dust and fragments and a shallow crater formed. “Definitely real,” she added, shaking her hand. “Ow.”

    “Sounds thick,” Emma observed.

    “At least thirty centimeters. The echos aren’t right either, that’s not where the door was,” Taylor nodded.

    “Hold on.” Vicky had gone over to one of the skulls on the wall that had an open jaw showing another candle flame and was staring at it closely. After a few seconds, she ran her hand over the top of it, before recoiling. “Holy… I think this is a real skull!”

    The others gathered around it and Taylor pulled one of the high tech devices from her ‘costume,’ running it over the skull before looking at it. “Yep. Human. Dead about… four years.”

    “Oh, crap.” Amy stared at the thing, then around at the others, on the walls of the small room they were in. “We must have seen about… thirty or so of them so far? Are they all real?” Her voice was small and worried.

    Taylor slowly nodded. “I think they probably are.”

    “You know you joked about him being a child eating monster?” Eric said carefully. “I really wish you hadn’t said that...”

    All of them looked around. “Is it my imagination or is this place… changing?” Vicky remarked uneasily.

    “It’s bigger than it was,” Emma agreed. “And that door over there wasn’t there before.”

    “Shaker power?” Amy suggested, looking around, then up. “It’s still changing.” She pulled out her phone and looked at it. “No signal.”

    They once again exchanged looks. “This is bad. He must be killing people for some reason,” Vicky said after a moment. “And hiding in plain sight, doing it on Halloween. I bet he moves after this happens or something. He must have been doing it for years to get that many skulls.”

    “Call for extraction?” Eric commented. “We could tell the PRT once we’re outside.”

    They all looked at Taylor. After a moment, she slowly shook her head. “No. New plan. This is now a field exercise. Hostile Parahuman, territory presumed compromised.” Taylor’s voice had gone hard. “Remember your training. Subject is known to use lethal force, type unknown. Rules of engagement are neutralize and capture if possible, terminate if no other choice.”

    There was a pause of a couple of seconds, then all of them smiled rather dangerously. “Finally, a real operation,” Vicky said gleefully, reaching under her cloak and retrieving a rifle-shaped weapon that activated with a deep hum when she flicked a switch. “I was getting tired of the sims.”

    Taylor and her other friends each equipped their own weapons. There was no obvious sign of where they’d come from. “Comm check,” Taylor said.

    “Comms are good, weapons hot. Biosignature tracker active,” Emma replied, looking at the display of a small device she was holding in the hand not occupied with a surprisingly large hand gun of a type that would have made the average Tinker look very puzzled indeed. And very worried.

    As would the expression on her face.

    “He’s that way,” she added, waving the gun at the doorway that had appeared in front of them. “About four hundred and twelve meters.”

    “Got a lot of spatial distortions going on,” Vicky added, checking an instrument of her own. “This place is getting weirder.”

    Taylor flicked a control on her own weapon, making it beep twice and shift slightly into a different configuration. “Scenario Alpha Four Niner slash Xray Two, then, I think. Let’s go. Kenny says good hunting.”

    All five children headed for the door and vanished into the dark. It wasn’t long before the shooting started.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    Michael ran.

    Panting for breath, calling for aid from Him.

    Nothing helped. Behind him, he heard the sounds of weapons, weapons he didn’t recognize, firing. Occasionally there was a gargling scream as one of the guardians of this place, the world He imposed on the mundanity of normal life through the medium of Michael, expired.

    He couldn’t understand what had happened. The candidates had entered into His domain, as was foreordained, and with a minor outflow of power, the Way was sealed. Every previous time, the Winnowing had begun, and either a Supplicant was chosen, or all were found wanting and the Way opened again for another selection to enter.

    This time…

    This time, everything was wrong.

    None of the candidates had met their fate at the hands of the Guardians, or through the effects of His domain. It was unheard of, unnatural, and terrifying. Even though they had the appearance of mere children, they hunted the Guardians, and they slaughtered the Guardians.

    And they smiled.

    He had watched in horror as the tallest of them had directed her companions with the swift efficiency of a practiced military squad, all of them armed to the teeth, and they took down the first challenge with appalling ease. The next fell, and the next. More and more he drew upon His power to put obstacles in their way while he fell back through the endless rooms of His domain, attempting to find some way to stop the things that pretended to be human children. Further and further into the world beyond the Way he went, penetrating far further than he had ever dared before lest he bring down the wrath of Him in his wanderings.

    The surroundings were beyond bizarre at this point. Walls met floors at angles that couldn’t be, and ascended far out of sight into the gloom above, lit only by distant stars that matched nothing he had ever seen. He could feel something, many somethings, watching him as he ran, the sensation eerie and unlike that of His glorious gaze. Even the gravity appeared to vary from step to step, causing him to stumble and bounce off the walls at times. Sounds he couldn’t identify came from inside the walls. Voices of prior Supplicants, he was sure of that, but mixed with… something else. Something horrible.

    Something wrong.

    And above all of it, whining sounds, explosions, vibrations that traveled through the ground to him, and occasional soft waves of air that hinted of some enormous blast in the distance.

    Michael ran.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    “Tango on your six, fifty meters,” Emma called.

    Amy dived for the floor, rolled, and fired. The incoming whatever the hell it was exploded in a shower of flaming fragments of flesh. “Tango down,” she replied over the battlenet.

    “Two more at twelve and three,” Taylor reported. “Another incoming at eight high. Eric, suppressing fire, Vicky, take the last one. Emma and I have the other two.”

    “Roger,” the boy said, opening up on the diving horror, as his cousin dropped to one knee and waited. Seconds later she pulled the trigger, a quick actinic flash heralding a rain of little bits of cooked monster.

    “Ick,” she grumped, wiping goo off her face. “It slimed me.”

    “Nice shot.” Eric grinned at her past his cover, which was a large piece of fallen rubble left over from five minutes ago when Taylor blew everything up.

    There was another enormous Boom! from a hundred meters away accompanied by a shockwave, a cloud of dust, and a satisfied laugh.

    They exchanged a look of understanding, then hopped to their feet and charged after the other three, weapons scanning the surroundings. “Hey, Tay, leave some for the rest of us!” Eric shouted gleefully.

    “This is the best Halloween ever!” Amy sounded very pleased indeed.

    There were murmurs of agreement as the next wave of things rolled in, screeching and crying.

    Afterwards all of them would agree that a target rich environment was immensely entertaining.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    Diving through an opening that had too many angles for the number of sides, holding his side where his ribs were in agony from a fall caused by looking over his shoulder while running, Michael whimpered in fear and existential horror. This couldn’t be happening.

    It was against the Prophecy! That was impossible!

    But it kept on going. No matter what he did, he was unable to reach Him and ask Him to help. Somehow, he had no idea how, he had failed Him and brought His wrath and judgment down on himself. This was his punishment. There was no other explanation.

    It was obvious that these… creatures… were not as they appeared. They were sent as a test and he failed it. The worst part was that he didn’t know how he’d failed.

    Had he not performed the ritual ablutions in the life-giving fluid of the failed candidates?

    Had he not used their components in the way He required?

    Had he not meditated on the manifold ways of Him for the required six hours every single day since he’d seen His glorious light?

    Michael racked his brains trying to work out what he’d missed, what part of the required procedures had been performed incorrectly, and couldn’t find a single error. He had done this thirty one times in a row, flawlessly. Thirty one successful Supplicants. Two hundred and eighty four failed Candidates. All for the Great Work, but somehow on the thirty second time, he’d made a mistake. Forgotten some obscure detail, not been sufficiently attentive, something.

    But he couldn’t work out what. And that was the worst part. Not knowing what he’d done to raise the ire of Him, not knowing how he’d failed.

    He listened. The five hellish terrors were somewhere far behind, but he could still hear them approaching, remorseless and merciless. He had found, or made, warriors that were worthy of Him.

    Michael breathed great gasping breaths of foul air, the scent of something unnameable tainting it. Leaning against a wall that under his back seemed to flex and writhe slightly, he tried to calm down and think.

    Looking around, he saw he was on top of a hill, which led down some distance to a vast dark pool of water like a mirror in the dim lighting. Above that, a sky that was far too full of brilliantly colored stars burned coldly at him, illuminating scenery that belonged to another world.

    He had never dared venture even a fraction as deep into the Way as this. It was oddly beautiful but terrifying at the same time.

    Truly, He was capable of anything, to produce such an awe-inspiring vista.

    His heartbeat gradually returning to something closer to normal, Michael knelt on the rough ground and closed his eyes. Perhaps, with a little time to work, he could touch His power again and delay or divert what was following him long enough to figure out where he’d gone wrong and fix it.

    He concentrated, allowing his mind to empty and fill at the same time. He could feel the power rising again, surrounding him. Far behind, strange sounds echoed, but he tried to ignore those as he attempted to bring sanity to the insane situation he’d landed in through no fault of his own.

    Some minutes passed.

    Eventually he felt that something was happening. Some vastly powerful and completely alien response to his mental call was approaching.

    Tentatively, he opened his eyes, then froze in shock. A moment later his eyes tracked upwards.

    The glowing yellow eyes set in a reptilian head enormous beyond reason peered down at him curiously.

    “Sorry, wrong turn,” the thing said. The head, on the end of a scaly neck longer than seemed possible, withdrew, the creature disappearing into the lake again with barely a splash.

    After a few seconds, Michael leaped to his feet with a wild cry of despair and ran once more.

    In the end, it didn’t help.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    “That was anticlimactic,” Taylor said as the five of them looked down at the body of the weird man, which was lying on the ground with its arms outstretched in a sort of beseeching manner towards a complex symbol on the wall in front of it, that appeared to have been drawn in blood. The blood of the man in question, most likely, since his arms bore obviously self-inflicted wounds and he’d expired due to exsanguination as far as they could tell, probably about half an hour earlier.

    That was the point where the strangely warped internal geometry of the house had started to gradually return mostly to normal and the attacks had slowed, then eventually stopped, as the creations of this guys power had dissipated one by one. It seemed likely he’d been a very powerful Shaker/Master combination, and completely nuts to boot. Kenny was still trying to work out exactly what his power had been, but it would take a while to follow all the possible connections, especially since the man was now defunct.

    Amy came into the room from an adjacent one. “You guys need to see this,” she said with an expression of disquiet. All of them followed her, then examined what she’d found.

    “That’s horrible,” Emma said after a long moment of silence.

    “How many do you think there are?” Eric asked quietly.

    “Hundreds.” Vicky shook her head. “At least.” The five children looked around at the walls which were covered in what was clearly human skin, specifically faces removed from bodies and dried. Horrible trophies, each one lovingly preserved and pinned to the walls.

    “I can’t say I’m sorry he’s dead,” Amy commented with a sick look.

    “If he wasn’t, I’d shoot him in the head myself,” Taylor said in tight tones. They looked at each other, then turned and left. Passing the room with the corpse in it without another look, they went through the now-returned front door and stepped outside into the night. “How long were we in there?” Eric asked as they watched trick or treating children and a number of accompanying adults pass on the street at the end of the long path. “It felt like hours, but look at all the people still out.”

    “I think there was some weird temporal distortion going on as well as the spatial one,” Emma said thoughtfully. “I guess that’s good, our parents shouldn’t have noticed we were missing.”

    “Convenient.” Vicky smiled. “Come on, let’s get out of here. We can still get some more candy if we hurry.”

    Taylor looked down at herself, covered in slime and dust and rubble, then her friends who were the same. She shook her head. “Our costumes are a bit icky now.”

    “Adds to the realism,” Amy chuckled. “We might get even more candy as a result.”

    “True.” They headed for the street.

    “What do we do about that place?” Eric asked, hooking his thumb over his shoulder at the house of horror behind them.

    “Kenny is arranging to get the PRT involved,” Taylor replied. “They’ll sort it out. Bet that guy left a trail, so I’d imagine they’ll be interested.”

    “Yeah.” The boy shook his head. “Weird night.”

    “Good training, though.” Emma smiled at him. “But I don’t think we should mention it to our parents until we clean up.”

    “Probably not a good idea, no,” Amy agreed, Vicky and Taylor nodding.

    “Good training session, though,” Taylor commented as they joined the other children their age who were running around shouting and laughing. She hefted her bucket of candy. All of them had found these right where they’d left them inside the front door of the strange house full of bizarreness, apparently untouched, when the door had reappeared. They’d ignored the bowl which was still there too, though, out of an abundance of caution. “Let’s see if we can fill these.”

    “Sounds like a plan.”

    The group of friends headed down the sidewalk to the next house.
     
  22. Extras: S8. Omake - Afterparty...
    mp3.1415player

    mp3.1415player Getting sticky.

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    A few people asked for the followup to the previous omake, which I hadn't intended to do, but then I couldn't sleep so I knocked it out quickly just for fun ;)



    “Six months. I’ve been in this job for six months and already we’ve just found out that one of the most prolific serial killers in US history was lurking in the city since the middle of the summer.” Emily Piggot, recently installed Director of the PRT ENE, glared around indiscriminately at everyone in the briefing room. “No one had a clue he was here, until some anonymous and untraceable tip provoked an investigation. And what does that investigation find?”

    The question was rhetorical, of course, and even Armsmaster recognized that and kept his mouth firmly shut.

    “Someone else got him first. Or he snapped and killed himself. Or both. We seem to have a distinct lack of sensible evidence on the one hand and far, far more evidence than I’m even slightly comfortable with on the other.” She picked up a sheaf of documents and flicked through it. “Three hundred and fifteen trophies consisting of the skinned faces of children, covering more than twenty five years based on the ones we’ve identified so far. DNA and other trace evidence to back all that up. Over a hundred different skulls, candles made from human body fat, ritualistic paraphernalia that would make Stephen King lose his lunch, and god knows what else. This sick bastard has been doing this for nearly as long as I’ve been alive, and no one ever even suspected him!

    She tossed the paperwork onto the desk in disgust. “And now it’s landed in my lap. What a fucking joy that is, on top of the crazy gangs, more independent villains than I can believe, random heroes who are mostly more trouble than they’re worth, and a city administration and police force that would cheerfully shovel dirt into our graves thanks to our utterly incompetent and very much not missed former Director Calvert, who left me with a problem that’s going to take a decade to fix. If it even can be fixed.”

    Glaring around again at the mix of Protectorate and PRT staff, she made it very obvious that she was not, in any way at all, happy.

    “So. I want answers. Who was he, how did he stay under the radar, who got him, did anyone get him, who are the victims, and anything else that comes up. I know the preliminary autopsy proves he was a Parahuman so it’s our problem. What else do we know?”

    Captain Mills, the current head of the PRT investigative unit, cleared his throat. She turned to him, as did everyone else. “Michael Francis Dalton was born in nineteen fifty five, in San Diego. His family was particularly religious, being members of a fringe offshoot of Catholicism, and he was brought up in that environment until the age of nineteen, when based on the information we so far have, he had a massive falling out with his father. We don’t know exactly why but later information suggests it was probably due to him deciding that he was something of a prophet and his father flatly denying this.”

    “So he was a religious nutcase,” Emily sighed.

    “Essentially, yes. We’ve so far traced his early life throughout California until around seventy-eight, where he seems to have dropped off the radar. He self-published a number of religious tracts that seem to have slowly evolved his own personal religion, which revolved around the veneration of… something outside our world. He never names it, only referring to it as Him. Emphasized. There are also a lot of bizarre calculations and references to a large number of cults of the past, fringe beliefs, astrology, and so on. The man was warped, that much is evident, and he seems to have been steadily slipping into some form of psychosis on top of that.”

    “When did he Trigger, and what were his powers?” Miss Militia asked, looking disturbed.

    “We’re not sure yet, on either count. With the benefit of hindsight, he probably found his first victims while he was wandering around building his belief system, in about seventy five. There are a number of missing persons reports from areas we can trace him to, but he wasn’t stupid and covered his tracks well. We’ve identified three of the missing people in his… trophy room. It’s likely that there are more.” Mills shook his head with an expression of disgust. “We’ll be working on identifying all the remains for weeks at least. Probably months.”

    He checked his notes, then looked up again and continued, “His trail goes cold for about three years in nineteen eighty, we have no idea where he was during that time, but in late eighty three he appears to have been committed to an asylum for observation in San Francisco following a very public breakdown in the middle of a church service, where he was screaming about how everyone was wrong and only he knew the truth of the Great Work. It took four cops to hold him down. There’s no record of what set him off, but he was in the hospital for two and a half months. About four weeks after he was committed, there was a fire started by another patient which killed nine people, and very nearly got him as well. Our best guess is that he Triggered at that point.”

    “Plausible,” Armsmaster nodded. “A near miss from immolation would be a prime Trigger event candidate.”

    “Yeah, it fits. Apparently he was found unconscious in his room, supposedly from smoke inhalation, but it could well have been the aftereffects of a Trigger, or added to by that. He woke up three days later and was apparently smiling pretty much constantly until they decided he wasn’t a threat to anyone and kicked him out. Then he basically disappears again as far as official records go. Moved around all over the country after that. We don’t know where he got the money, but there are records of him buying properties in Reno, Chicago, El Paso, Los Angeles, Jacksonville, Duluth, and at least a dozen or so other places. And here, of course. We think he probably moved every year, but he wasn’t obvious about it. He’d buy up a property, then another one, then another, and move into one he’d owned for a couple of years at least. Usually bought large properties that were in bad repair, got them cheap, then paid local contractors to fix them up and maintain them.”

    “And then on every Halloween he killed kids,” Emily growled.

    “Pretty much, yes, ma’am.” Mills nodded soberly. “Somehow he’d get them inside, probably by offering candy since on Halloween they’d walk right into his trap, then he did whatever it was he did to them. Based on missing persons reports from the cities we know he was in, it varied from two at the low end to nearly a dozen at the high end. In each case one in particular seems to have been treated differently than all the others but we have no idea why. All of them ended up dead regardless. And somehow no one seemed to notice. Oh, they noticed the kids were missing, yes, but nobody put two and two together and worked out he was four. We can’t find a single record of him even being asked if he’d seen any of the missing children.”

    He shrugged a little. “Most likely it was part of his power. Some sort of Master or Stranger ability that he used to divert attention. Then, about a month later, he’d move on, buy up another house or two halfway across the country, and end up living in a completely different one he’d picked up years earlier. And the cycle would repeat. He was already a serial killer, but his power made him a much, much more dangerous one.”

    “Jesus,” Emily said with a sick sensation in her stomach. “And if whatever happened last night hadn’t happened, he could have kept going.”

    “Probably, yes. We’ve checked and he had another three properties around the country all ready for him to move to.”

    There was silence in the room for a few seconds as everyone absorbed the information.

    “Parahuman serial killers are fucking terrifying,” she finally said. Turning to Armsmaster, she asked, “Ideas on his powers? Master or Stranger seems a given, but what else, if anything?”

    The Tinker thought for a moment. “Tests at the incident site show a considerable level of residual spatial distortion, which is slowly reverting to normal. It seems very likely that he had an exceptionally powerful Shaker ability of some form. There is evidence that the space inside the house was, during the event, far larger than it should have been, and certain traces imply that there may even have been an interdimensional nature to the whole situation. We have recovered biological material which is completely alien, not matching anything on record, and appears to be the partial remains of a number of life forms that were violently killed. There is also a possibility that there was a matching temporal distortion which could have decoupled the flow of time inside the building from the outside reference frame to some degree.”

    He looked around at the expressions of his audience, then added, “Time flowed more rapidly inside the house.”

    Several people nodded understandingly.

    “I also found a significant amount of trace evidence suggesting either high energy weapons fire, or a very potent Blaster power, or both. Neither is anything I recognize, nor are they in the Protectorate or PRT databases. My inference is that this was the result of a Parahuman with significant Blaster capabilities on a par with Purity, although of somewhat different type, or possibly due to some weapons system created by a Tinker specializing in energy weapons.”

    He paused, then added, “There were several different types of discharge employed as far as I can determine, so it could have been a group of up to four to six individuals.”

    “Or one with a really impressive weapons loadout,” Miss Militia commented. “Or, possibly a power like mine?”

    He looked at her. “I considered that, but the evidence seems to suggest that’s less likely.”

    “And of course we have no idea who these people were, or how they found him,” Emily grumbled.

    “Unfortunately not, Director. There was no physical evidence I could find to determine an identity of anyone involved.” Armsmaster seemed apologetic, or as much that way as he ever got. “There were also no reports of anyone hearing or seeing anything out of the ordinary, until our tipoff. This may be due to lingering effects from Dalton’s powers, or just good operational security. My best guess is that whoever it was knew exactly what they were going up against and equipped and trained themselves for the exact scenario he presented. It has all the hallmarks of a carefully targeted, possibly military, operation.”

    “Fucking hell.” Emily rubbed her forehead in annoyance. “What a mess. The Chief Director is going to be very difficult about this. Again.”

    “On the up side, someone who’s responsible for a huge death toll is shut down permanently,” Mills commented.

    “There’s that, yes,” she admitted unhappily. “I would much prefer it to have been done via normal methods, but… Considering what we know about the whole thing, someone probably did us a favor. That doesn’t make me like it any more, though.”

    Could it have been a military action?” Miss Militia mused out loud. “I agree with Armsmaster, it does somewhat fit that idea. But who would be behind it, and why would they do it without contacting the local PRT?”

    “There’s no reason it has to be our military,” Deputy Director Renick pointed out, speaking for the first time and not looking entirely pleased about his own words.

    They all looked at him.

    “Oh, wouldn’t that just be perfect,” Emily sighed. “Wonderful.”

    He shrugged. “Just a thought.”

    “One that makes about as much sense as any of this does,” she grumbled. “Fine. We’re sure none of the local ‘heroes’ was involved?”

    “It doesn’t match the normal procedures of New Wave, neither does the evidence match their known abilities, and there are no other current non-villain Parahumans resident in the city who do fit either case.” Armsmaster shook his head. “And while, possibly, Purity could have done some of the damage I found, most of it isn’t something I would be able to say she could be responsible for. And of course there’s probably no reason why a villain would do whatever it was that happened.”

    “Even villains have kids,” Mills suggested, causing the Tinker to look at him, then nod slowly.

    “A valid point. Even so, there are no known villains whose powers correlate to the evidence other than loosely currently in the city or surrounding area.”

    “So, basically, we have no idea at all who it was that was involved,” Emily finally said with considerable irritation.

    “No.” Armsmaster shook his head, as did Mills.

    “What actually killed Dalton?”

    “Blood loss, apparently self induced, but quite likely accidental even so,” Mills replied immediately. “Looks like he was using his own blood to draw some highly unpleasant mystical symbols all over the place and basically ran out. His expression showed he was terrified at the time, and there were apparently a lot of physiological markers in his body that prove he was physically exhausted, like something or someone was chasing him for hours.”

    “To be honest, that probably serves the bastard right.” Emily tapped a finger on the desk, thinking. “God, this is messed up on so many levels. All right, continue with the investigation, just on the off chance we find something useful. My bet is that we won’t. I suspect that whoever it was is too good and cleaned up after themselves long before we ever heard about the incident. They could be in Canada or something by now. It might even have been the Guild, thinking about it.”

    “I can make inquiries of some contacts I have,” Miss Militia offered. “If it was a covert military team, it’s barely possibly I could get at least an acknowledgment of that.”

    “Go ahead, but I would be surprised if you get anything other than ‘No Comment’” Emily replied. She checked the time. “And now I get to explain this to the Mayor, and after that, I have a very uncomfortable conversation with the Chief Director to look forward to.” Closing her notebook on the several pages of notes she’d made, she stood up. “Let me know if anything relevant comes to light.”

    “Ma’am,” Mills nodded.

    She left the room, thinking dire thoughts about how fucked up this city was.

    But at least a prolific serial killer was finally stopped, even if they didn’t know how, and might never find out.

    Which was the most irritating part of the whole thing.

    She wondered rather fatalistically what the next bizarre event aimed firmly at her would be. The only thing she was sure of was that there would be one...
     
  23. mp3.1415player

    mp3.1415player Getting sticky.

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    There we go. Sorry about forgetting :)
     
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