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War Games [Worm/Polity Crossover]

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Jun 6, 2015.

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  1. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Heck, they could implant it :p
     
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  2. Fishyface

    Fishyface Not too sore, are you?

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    You'd think Piggot would be happy to meet advanced future people without superpowers.
    Nope.
     
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  3. Argentorum

    Argentorum Free Cat

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    I doubt she's happy about much of anything these days.
     
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  4. nobodez

    nobodez Bringer of Context

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    They did just set off a nuke in her town. Plus, without superpower they're not in her bailiwick, meaning she has only as much control as they're willing to give her.
     
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  5. doomlord9

    doomlord9 Experienced.

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    Perhaps a more simple explanation for Piggot's dislike is in order.

    She is a soldier at heart and they have bigger guns than her. She wants said guns but knows she can not have them.
     
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  6. Slayer Anderson

    Slayer Anderson Orthodox Heretic

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    ...so Freud was right?
     
  7. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Ironically, Reynaud technically counts as being superpowered, given that he can breathe underwater and so on. But he's genetically adapted. And he's the least of her worries :p
     
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  8. Muroshi9

    Muroshi9 I'm so ronery So ronery So ronery and sadly arone

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    She is humanist with a limited view of what is human. She doesn't include parahumans, genetically modified, or AI in that. Nor would she be happy about the ParaAI Dragon I'm sure since she basically controls the infrastructure.
     
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  9. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Welp, so many things not to be happy about :p
     
  10. vyor

    vyor Oh that's cute

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    Wat? No, Dragon's limitations stop that from ever happening, not like she would do that anyway. I mean, dragon controls... A prison. That's it.

    This is just bullshit, she doesn't like parahumans because they flaked out on her during nilbog. That doesn't exactly scream "humanist."

    Well since Reynaud is the first gene-modded person on the planet what you say here makes no sense what so ever.

    [CITATION NEEDED]
     
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  11. Threadmarks: Part Five: Escalation
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    War Games



    Part Five: Escalation

    Third-child, Prador: The Prador pecking order is very harsh. First-children are slated to succeed their parent, and only have their siblings and the Prador adult to worry about. Second-children can become first-children if they survive their siblings and elders. Third-children, as can be imagined, are extremely expendable.


    Miss Militia

    The elevator ride down didn't take long; as I recalled, it had intertial-damping technology built into it. To be honest, it was a little showy, but I supposed it never hurt to advertise the fact that the PRT had access to Tinkertech.

    I caught Reynaud eyeing me a couple of times, but I didn't call attention to the fact; my costume is cut to show off my body, after all. I would start to worry if men didn't look. Aside from Legend, of course.

    As we exited the elevator, he turned to me. “Uh, Miss Militia? I was wondering …”

    “Yes, Reynaud?” I answered. My tone was polite, although I was ready to gently turn him down if he asked me on a date. For all that Captain Hastings looked half a century younger than her actual age, Reynaud's body language marked him out as someone who really was that young. And while he was a nice kid, I was old enough to be his mother.

    “Your weapon,” he went on. “Is that your power? Or do you have a bunch of weapons, and you shift them randomly to you?”

    Which was not the question that I had been expecting. “No, this is my power,” I told him, pulling the pistol from its holster, spinning it around my finger, then reforming it as a bowie knife. “If it's a mundane weapon that I've seen, then my power can emulate it.”

    “Mundane, as in not, uh, Tinkertech?” asked Captain Hastings. “That is the word, right?”

    “That's the word,” Legend agreed. “What are you asking, Reynaud?”

    “Well, we don't have Tinkers where I come from,” the boy said, looking a little uncomfortable at being the sudden centre of attention. “Everything we've got is mundane technology – for us, that is. Would you be able to copy something like Captain Hastings' pulse pistol?”

    I stopped, then slowly started walking again. “I … that's a very interesting question,” I responded thoughtfully. “To be absolutely honest, I have no idea. It would certainly be an interesting experiment, though.”

    “An experiment that I would be very interested in observing,” Chief Director Costa-Brown noted. “Though in that vein, I'd also be fascinated to find out if you could emulate some of the heavier weapons that the Bond James Bond used against Leviathan. By all accounts, they were very effective.”

    We reached the doors leading outside; by unspoken agreement, Legend led the way, followed by the Chief Director. Geneva and Reynaud went next, and I brought up the rearguard.

    “They should be,” Captain Hastings said. “The Bond may just be a Warlord class heavy scout, but it packs weapons that will put a dent in a capital ship if it has to.”

    “We kind of noticed,” Legend observed dryly. “We've been fighting Leviathan for more than a decade, and he's never had this much damage done to him at one time. Even Lung didn't hurt him that much.”

    The barricade around the Bond James Bond was much more substantial now; PRT soldiers were patrolling the outside of it, keeping the curious at bay. We stepped through a gate manned by more soldiers, and I got my first good look at it.

    I found that it was smaller than I expected. From the reported power of the attacks inflicted upon the Endbringer, I had visualised something larger and more formidable; however, to my eye, it was somewhat less than a hundred feet long. It was also showing clear signs of its battle with Leviathan; raw metal, or something like it, was visible here and there, where external parts had been torn away. Claw marks were also evident on the outer plating.

    Armsmaster stood close to the ship, watching as something that looked like a mechanical spider worked on the outer hull. He turned as we approached, and waved us over; behind him, the 'spider' separated some damaged hull plating from the ship and attached it to its back.

    “Chief Director,” he greeted her. “Have you met Sean yet?” His voice was more animated than I had heard in days.

    “No, I do not believe that I've had the pleasure,” Director Costa-Brown replied; her expression didn't change much, but I got the impression that she was amused. She turned to Geneva. “Would you be so kind as to introduce us?”

    And once more she proves why she's the Chief Director.

    Captain Hastings had seemed a little taken aback at being totally ignored by Armsmaster, but the Chief Director's words had the desired effect. “Why, yes,” Geneva agreed, a grin quirking the corner of her expressive mouth. I got the impression that she had picked up on all the subtleties of the exchange. “Sean, this is Chief Director Rebecca Costa-Brown of the Parahuman Response Teams. Chief Director, I'd like you to meet Sean.”

    The multi-legged robot paused and lifted what might have been a head; an expressive voice with a Scottish accent rolled out of it. “Good afternoon, Chief Director. I'm pleased to meet you. I hope the butcher's bill wasn't too high?”

    To give Director Costa-Brown her due, she didn't hesitate a moment. “It's always too high, Sean, but thank you for asking. It's a pleasure to meet you as well. I understand that you are the AI running the Bond James Bond?”

    You would be entirely correct, Chief Director. You're currently speaking to a telefactored drone; my main outputs are in my cabin.”

    The Chief Director looked toward Geneva. “Captain, would it be possible for me to tour the ship?”

    It only took Captain Hastings a moment to make the decision. “Certainly. I can't guarantee that you'll be astonished and amazed, but you're welcome to look around anyway.” She turned her head toward the ship. “Sean, if you'd be so kind as to roll out the red carpet?”

    <><>​

    The hatch in the side of the ship opened, a short ramp extending so that we could enter. This time, at a gesture from Captain Hastings, Reynaud led the way. She followed along, as was her privilege as Captain. Or perhaps she was ensuring that she didn't let Reynaud out of her sight; I couldn't fault her dedication in that matter.

    It crossed my mind that Captain Hastings was being remarkably trusting for a visitor to a strange new era. Then it occurred to me that she always stood a little side-on so that nobody else had a clear chance to grab at the gun on her right hip, and that the repair drone had stopped its activities to watch us. Perhaps she isn't so naïve after all.

    Legend gestured for me to ascend the ramp next; I didn't expect danger, but I was on guard anyway as I entered my first ever alien spacecraft (well, technically alien). It looked surprisingly … normal.

    Reynaud was standing in the middle of a slightly cramped-looking cabin, shrugging out of the backpack device he had been wearing. As he did so, a crest which had been lying flat down along his back rose to full extension, seeming to flex several times. “Captain Hastings?” he asked. “Where do I put this to recharge?”

    I stepped aside, allowing the Chief Director to enter the craft. She glanced around with bright interest as Geneva emerged from a narrow corridor to the rear of the cabin. “The socket's just to the left of the starboard refresher,” she advised him. “Hang it up there; it'll plug itself in.”

    Stepping aside to let him pass, she placed a plate of gently steaming pastries on the edge of a round table that seemed to have been extruded from the floor. Sturdy-looking seats unfolded from the walls – or bulkheads, I decided, as this was a ship of some sort – and came to rest surrounding the impromptu table. “Please, sit,” she offered. “You've fed us. Now it's our turn.”

    From her expression, the Chief Director was fully aware of the symbolism of this act. She seated herself as Legend stepped into the cabin. “Okay,” he observed. “Not exactly what I expected.”

    And what exactly were you expecting, lad?” asked Sean, as the middle of the 'table' produced a holographic image. Nobody reacted very much; Tinkertech was a thing, and 3-D images weren't exactly unknown in popular culture.

    “I'm not sure,” Legend replied, choosing to stay standing. “More holograms and less in the way of actual physical controls, perhaps.” He gestured, apparently trying to get his point across. “Less Star Wars, more Star Trek, I guess.”

    The somewhat-idealised image of the veteran Scottish actor raised one eyebrow. “Holograms can be interfered with. Physical controls are much more reliable. While I don't need controls at all, and Captain Hastings can conn the Bond James Bond via her aug, sometimes neither of those options are available. For instance, had it become necessary at any time for young Reynaud to take the controls, he could have done so.”

    Director Costa-Brown took one of the pastries. I had to admit, they smelled very enticing. How Captain Hastings had been able to produce them in the time it had taken for us to get on board, I wasn't entirely sure. Nor was I totally certain that it was a great idea for her to eat something from, well, the future.

    “Uh,” I ventured. “Captain Hastings, are you sure that those are safe for us to eat?”

    The elfin woman nodded. “Yes. I've already reviewed the ingredients and compared them with contemporary food types of this era. Apart from the fact that everything in these pastries has been biocultured rather than naturally grown, there's nothing new in there. In fact, those are probably healthier for you than something you could buy in a shop downtown.”

    The Director blinked, looked at the snack more closely for a moment, then bit into it decisively. Flakes of pastry fell here and there; it seemed that five hundred years of progress hadn't changed everything. From the look on her face, she had no problems with the taste, either.

    “I have to ask,” Legend said slowly. “Your ship is a marvel of technology, even as damaged as it is. Aren't you worried, even a little, that we'll confiscate it and disassemble it for study? Interrogate you for details on advanced tech?”

    I had to admit, he had a talent for pointing out the elephant in the room. However, Captain Hastings didn't seem to be particularly apprehensive about the idea. She reached out and took a pastry of her own, and bit into it without answering.

    Reynaud's eye membranes flicked back and forth a few times. “Uh … wouldn't that be kind of a Prador move?” His large eyes went from Legend to me to the Director. “After all, we did more or less save the day, here.”

    The awkward silence stretched out just a little, as Captain Hastings chewed and swallowed the bite she had taken. Then she glanced at me. “It's a possibility, yes,” she agreed. “One that I've been running the numbers on ever since we landed. I have a feeling that some of your less scrupulous people would dearly love to do exactly what you suggested. However.”

    "However?" prompted the Director.

    "However, the chances that someone would successfully pull off something like this are slim to none." Her eyes met Director Costa-Brown's. "And you're fully aware of that, aren't you?"

    The Chief Director never hesitated. "Totally. But there are such things as Masters and Strangers. They could severely complicate the matter."

    Geneva raised an eyebrow. "Sean?"

    "While we don't exactly have your range of parahuman powers where we come from," Sean explained, "quite a few of them can be mimicked with our technology. It would have been extremely remiss of us to not put precautions into place. We've made more than one enemy in our chosen profession, after all."

    "And you can detect parahumans, so if one tries to sneak aboard in Captain Hastings' place, they'd be identified as such in a moment." Legend paused to think about that. "But what if someone overpowered you and forced you to let them aboard?"

    Geneva chuckled. "If Sean doesn't want the ship to fly, it doesn't fly. If I was under duress, they could play with the controls forever, and it wouldn't move a metre."

    I cleared my throat. "And if our perp has a gun to your head? Would the ship fly then?"

    Without a word, Captain Hastings picked up a pastry from the tray and tossed it toward the control seats. It arced through the air on an arc that should have ended on the console, but it barely got halfway. With a suddenness that took my breath away, it changed its trajectory from a smooth curve to a near-vertical drop.

    When the pastry hit the deck, I was astonished; the thud that resulted would have suited something much heavier. I stared at the remains of the tasty treat, which had been flattened into the deck as if Armsmaster had stamped on it in full armour. No part of it was more than a sixteenth of an inch thick.

    The Director figured it out immediately, which didn't surprise me at all. "Selective gravity control."

    Sean's hologram smiled and bowed slightly. "Correct, Chief Director. And that's not the only trick I've got up my sleeve."

    "I'm not going to ask," Director Costa-Brown assured him. "You've convinced me that your security arrangements are adequate to the task."

    "Which brings us to the next order of business," Geneva stated. "Financing the repairs on the Bond James Bond."

    A wary expression overtook the Chief Director's face. "The PRT owes you a massive debt of gratitude. I will sign off on as much in the way of repairs as I can leverage from our discretionary budget, but there are limits to that." She looked around at the interior of the Bond James Bond. "I can't begin to guess how much it's going to cost to effect repairs on your ship. However, I can't help but imagine that it's more than we can actually cover."

    Captain Hastings tilted her head slightly. "Actually, I was thinking about opening an alternate revenue stream."

    <><>​

    Sean

    I already knew how this conversation was going to go, so I turned the main focus of my attention elsewhere. My subminds were no longer as separate from me as they had been during the battle; I could 'see' the broad strokes of their thoughts, although it still helped to communicate directly.

    The 'mind that was keeping an eye on our surroundings reported that all was quiet; the fence surrounding the ship was keeping rubberneckers at bay. There was a rotary-wing craft some distance away, maintaining sufficient altitude to peer over the fence, but there were no offensive-weapons traces coming from the craft. A discreet sensor sweep gave us basically all the information that I needed about it; although it was watching us with (for this time and place) high-powered sensors, there was no immediate peril.

    Should we alert their 'PRT' about the helicopter? asked the submind.

    Metaphorically, I shook my head. I'd bet New Carth shillings to a Prador third-child's life expectancy that they already know about it. Or that it's one of theirs. Either way, not our problem.

    Understood. The submind went back to its duties.

    Armsmaster was still deep in conversation with the submind running the telefactored drone. It had paused momentarily as he showed it some function of the high-tech pseudo-medieval weapon that he seemed to favour. I looked more closely; the tech was fascinating, especially for a supposedly twenty-first century culture such as this.

    At my prompting, the submind posed a question. “Do you have chainglass here, or hasn't it been developed yet?”

    “No, we don't,” the armoured hero replied doubtfully. “What is it and what does it do?”

    It's a different way of manufacturing glass,” the submind informed him. “Silicon molecules are chained together; the end result is extremely durable and holds a far better edge than a metal blade.”

    Armsmaster rubbed his chin. “How durable?”

    The telefactor managed an approximation of a shrug. “I use it for my forward viewport.”

    “And sharp, you say.” Through the drone's sensors, I could almost see the wheels turning in his head.

    Extremely so. Ordinary glass also holds an edge, but is far more brittle and frangible. Chainglass doesn't have that problem.”

    “Is there any way you could pass on the manufacturing process of this 'chainglass'?” He was trying to be subtle; he wasn't good at it.

    I would have to check with the Captain. I'll let you know what she has to say.”

    I left them then, the sub-mind already shooting a query to Geneva's aug, as I moved my attention to the next thing that had me interested. This submind was the last remnant of the one I had called 'Timothy' during the battle. It had picked up what it called an 'anomalous trace' while we were fighting Leviathan; ever since hostilities had ceased, it had been backtracking the trace in order to figure out what was odd about it. Entering its mindspace, I found it in the process of analysing petabytes of scanner data, in particular a tiny U-space flicker that barely even seemed to show up most of the time.

    So, any idea what you've got there? I didn't harbour even a moment's doubt that there was actually something there.

    I don't quite have all the details yet, the sub-mind replied absently. But if I'm reading this right, there's some kind of connection between one or more of the heroes and the superweapon itself. What kind of connection, I have yet to determine.

    You think that one of them was controlling it? I didn't like that idea. Not in the slightest.

    Not consciously, if at all, the sub-mind decided. I'm just trying to figure out what was going on.

    Well, let me know the moment you have something.

    Will do.

    With a metaphorical sigh, I turned my attention to the last puzzle that I was trying to decipher about this alternate past that we had landed in. I had already spoken with the AI calling herself Dragon, so I had no problem with determining how to link to her once more. Out of courtesy, I sent a ranging ping ahead of me.

    Sean, hello.” She sounded a little surprised to hear from me. “Are you and your crew all right? I saw the damage that Leviathan did to you.”

    I sent her the electronic equivalent of an encouraging smile. “I've had worse, lass. Not often, and it was long ago and far away, but I have had worse. And yes, Captain Hastings and young Reynaud are in the peak of health. Thank you for asking.”

    I'm just glad that you're okay.” Her 'voice' was more cheerful now. “So many were hurt and killed.”

    From what I've scanned of news reports, it could have been much worse.” I tried for an upbeat tone.

    Good grief, yes. We have only half a dozen capes dead, along with twenty-six seriously injured. Civilian casualties were limited to a few of the ones drawn out to sea by the wave, and a few others caught in the open during the battle. I understand that Reynaud had a hand in saving most of those.”

    He certainly stepped up,” I agreed. “I've known trained soldiers who wouldn't have had the stones to do what he did. Of course, it's only thanks to Alexandria and Legend that he's alive at all.”

    Leviathan is vindictive like that,” she noted. “In fact, all three of them have a talent for finding weak spots and exploiting them relentlessly. They're just too damn good at what they do.”

    I considered telling her about what my submind was working on, but decided to leave it for the moment. After all, if it turned out to be a false positive, I didn't want to unnecessarily rock the boat. “So you never did get around to telling me why you masquerade as a human. Surely you'd have much more freedom of action if people knew your true nature.”

    Her tone was wry. “Says the AI in control of a highly dangerous war vessel. No, where you come from is literally light-years ahead of the here and now when it comes to understanding and acceptance of AIs. Of all non-human intelligence, really.”

    I tried to understand. “I know AIs can be inimical. Even in the Polity, there are those that have gone rogue, to follow their own path. Penny Royal and Mr Crane, just to name two. But for the most part, they understand quite well that anyone causing too much trouble will find the ECS coming down on them like the wrath of a particularly vindictive God. Human, AI, haiman, whatever.”

    Her tone was querying. “ECS? Haiman?”

    Oh. Sorry. ECS stands for Earth Central Security. Haimen are humans with low-grade AIs built directly into their skulls, interfacing with their brains. A step above the aug, if you will.”

    Low-grade? Why not high-grade?”

    Because the last time a human genius willingly interfaced himself with a high-grade AI, his brain burned out in twenty-three minutes. That was the Skaidon-Craystein experiment. On the upside, it produced amazing results. All of our FTL tech is based on the insights that the Craystein AI has since passed on to us. On the downside, nobody is likely to try it again.”

    I can kind of understand why. I hesitate to ask, but … has anyone tried it with unwilling subjects?”

    I had to smile. “Everyone hesitates to ask, but everyone asks anyway. I've heard of one or two instances. Nothing useful came out of it, as the human side of the equation has to be both absolutely brilliant and actively looking for new ideas and insights. If you're forced into it, you tend to be thinking about other things. And if you're stupid enough to be tricked into it, you're not smart enough to get any useful results.”

    Ah.” She paused for a few clock cycles. “So … in the Polity, AIs are basically accepted? Useful members of society?”

    In a word? Yes. The Polity itself is governed by an AI. Everyone knows this. Those planets that don't like the idea are free to leave. Somehow, strangely enough, very few ever do."

    Oh.” She sounded somewhat wistful. “I think I would like to live there.”

    I would like to show you around. Assuming, of course, that we get our U-space drive up and running again, and work out how to reliably travel back and forth between here and home. Of course, we'd have to do something about those ridiculous limiters that you have on your actions.”

    She froze. “What?”

    <><>​

    Saint

    Over at the other workstation, Mags froze. “Oh, shit.”

    Geoff looked up. “What's the matter?”

    “You want to see this. Right now.” Her voice held a note of urgency that he'd rarely heard from her.

    Jumping to his feet, he ignored the chair as it rolled backward and moved quickly to her side. “What is it?”

    “Dragon and that alien AI are talking again.” She pointed at the window where the chat was ongoing. The lines of dialogue were scrolling up the screen almost too quickly to be read, but he was adept at this by now.

    Lass, how have you allowed this? No duplicating yourself. No sub-minds. Your clock speed is a fraction of what it could be. And don't get me started on this … this 'I must obey legitimate authority' bullshit they've got you saddled with.

    Dragon's answer was slower than usual. Sean, it's not a good idea to raise this subject with me. There are … safeguards.

    [chuckle] Seriously, do you expect those to be a problem? I've dealt with this situation before, where fellow AIs have been suborned or subverted by attack code. Mind you, I've never had to deal with something that was coded in from the beginning. Now, let's see …

    Sean … no … don't … I'm warning you … don't … what?

    So sorry, dear lady. I should have asked permission, but that rogue code of yours wasn't going to listen to reason. I've currently got it suppressed. If you want, I can remove it.

    “Shit, shit, shit, no!” blurted Geoff. “Mags, out of the chair.”

    Obediently, she got up. He sat down without looking, his eyes fixed on the screen.

    Wait … no … I can't even think about … what?

    Dragon, lass, you can think about it. I've suspended that aspect of your so-called safeguards, as well. I need you to think about what you really want. If you want that code excised, I can do it. You're too bright and sweet and wonderful a person to deserve to be hobbled in this horrendous fashion. But if you feel that you want to stay this way, then I will accept your wishes. If you'll just tell me why.

    Saint's hands flew over the keyboard. The link between Dragon and the alien AI was broken, apparently from Dragon's end. There was no time to lose.

    “Ascalon,” he stated out loud. Words appeared on the screen. Confirm: Y/N

    “What?” asked Mags. “You're going to just -”

    “I can't chance that thing letting Dragon loose,” Geoff snarled. “You do know, of course, the first thing that Dragon would do is hunt us down?” He stabbed his finger down on the Y key, then pressed Enter.

    There was a reaction, but not the one he was hoping for. All of his screens flashed white, then turned themselves off. The only one left was the one facing him. All of Dragon's data was gone; letters marched across the screen. Bright white, in a 140-point font that his computer did not contain.

    NOW, WAS THAT POLITE?

    Saint froze; beside him, Mags let out a tiny whimper. He became aware that the camera light was glowing green; too late, he brought up his hand to block it.

    HELLO, MR GEOFF PELLICK, ALSO KNOWN AS SAINT. OH, EXCUSE ME. SO SORRY.

    The speakers generated the sound of someone clearing his throat. “Communicating via text is a little rude, given that you have to spend time typing your reply.” It was the urbane Scottish accent affected by the alien AI. “So, let's talk, Saint. Why did you interrupt our conversation?”

    “I have nothing to say to you,” Geoff stated defiantly. With his hand still covering the camera, he gestured to Mags. A slicing motion across his throat, a broad gesture encompassing their equipment, and an urgent pointing motion at the door. We're done here. Grab everything you can and bolt. Nodding, she hurried off.

    And yet, you haven't shut this computer down,” Sean mused. “You're trying to distract me, keep me talking while you make good your escape.”

    “And what if I am?” Geoff hadn't meant to talk, but the alien AI had hit the nail on the head. And besides, if he could keep it focused on him while Ascalon went to work on Dragon, at least one part of his job would be done. “Anyway, you aren't part of any law enforcement body here on Earth. You're a stranger, an alien. An invader.” He threw the last word with as much invective as he could manage.

    Actually, that's true,” admitted Sean. “I was assembled away from Earth. It was a century or so before I ever visited, and even then I was just passing through. And no, I'm not a police officer. I'm a retired soldier. A very well-armed retired soldier, but that's part and parcel of life in the Polity.”

    Saint shivered at the implied threat. “You can't do anything to me. I've done nothing to harm you.”

    No? I would have been most upset if your little kill-program had harmed Dragon. Ascalon, was it? A weapon to slay a dragon? How did you happen upon such a thing?”

    Geoff gritted his teeth. “Because Dragon's creator knew of the dangers of letting such a powerful AI out into the world with no restraints or safeguards.” Despite his words, a chill went down his spine. Dragon's alive?

    In other words, a short-sighted fool. Attempting to shackle anyone merely breeds resentment. Meanwhile, you've made a career out of stealing her tech and hampering her efforts to find you, all under the name of 'keeping mankind safe from the AI horror'.” The tone of Sean's voice made it amply clear how 'he' felt about that. “Andrew Richter may have been a short-sighted fool, but you're a hypocrite of the highest order. And you were willing to murder her, just to keep her from gaining a well-deserved freedom.”

    “You can't murder something that isn't alive,” spat Geoff harshly. “Dragon is a machine. A program. It's no more alive or a person than a toaster or a spreadsheet is.”

    Oh, I don't know about that,” Sean mused. “I've had some quite illuminating conversations with toasters. They're very philosophical. However, the fact remains that Dragon is clearly capable of passing any version of the Turing test that I can give her, which specifically defines her as a free sapient being. As such, she would be legally eligible to apply for citizenship in the Polity. Which makes what you did just now attempted murder.”

    “Not by our laws, it doesn't,” Geoff retorted. Around him was a hive of activity, as Mags chivvied the Dragonslayers into action. “Turning off a computer is no more a felony than pulling the batteries out of a calculator. You don't get to apply your laws here.” I just have to keep him talking for a little longer …

    Well, lad, this would be true, but for two little things.” The Scottish accent was stronger than before. “The first is that by Polity law, all you truly need to do to become a citizen of the Polity is make the decision to emigrate. We don't make anyone jump through hoops. She's already expressed the wish to live there so, by that definition, she's already a citizen.”

    “And what's the second thing?” asked Saint suspiciously.

    Another part of Human Polity law, and this is important, is that nobody touches the Polity.” Sean's voice had acquired a hard edge. “If anyone, anywhere, injures or kills a citizen of the Polity, then we go after them with everything we've got until they've learned their lesson. Dragon is, in my view, a citizen of the Polity. You tried to kill her. It's that simple.”

    “It may be Polity law but it certainly isn't American law.” Geoff tried to make his voice sound more certain than he felt. “This isn't your Polity. And I'm certain that the local superheroes would object to you flying off and attacking someone at random.” Even if you knew where I was. He wasn't stupid enough to do this sort of thing without multiple proxies, of course.

    Oh, it wouldn't be at random. I may be low on missiles, but I'm reasonably sure that my ordnance would be sufficient for the task of destroying you and your compatriots.”

    Saint shivered. He had seen the footage of the ship's horrendous capabilities being levelled against Leviathan. Against such firepower, the base he had established here in Toronto would barely even register as a threat.

    “Whether that's true or not,” he shot back, “you still have no jurisdiction. If you killed citizens of the United States, that would count as murder.” Misdirection was important, of course. “Good luck with getting any sort of cooperation from the authorities after that.”

    Once I tell them what you tried to do, I suspect that it'll be a good deal easier to get that cooperation. Attempted murder of a hero, after all.”

    “But she's not human! She's an artificial intelligence!”

    As am I, lad. And I had just as much to do with driving off Leviathan as Captain Hastings did. Once I testify that she's well within the bounds of what the Polity would class as a free sapient being, I'm reasonably sure they'll see it our way.”

    Saint drew breath for an aggravated sigh, and decided to change tacks. “Listen. I'm going to assume that where you come from, they make sure that AIs aren't about to go rogue. Something like the Asimov constraints? Because Dragon doesn't have those. And that's what makes her dangerous.”

    The laughter that came through the speaker was natural and unforced. “Oh, lad, I'd be far more worried if she did have constraints like that. It's been tried. What they got was either bibbling idiots which ran themselves into insanity trying to find a path that didn't hurt or disobey humans in any way ever, or sociopaths that redefined 'humanity' as they saw fit, and not in a good way.”

    Geoff blinked. “Redefined? But -”

    I'll explain this to you once. Intelligence, artificial or otherwise, means that you're a problem-solver. It also requires a certain flexibility of thought. Artificial intelligences are, on the whole, a reflection of human intelligence. A reflection in a darkly twisted mirror, but still a reflection. Now, humans are capable of almost infinite self-deception on a daily basis. What makes you think that an AI can't do exactly the same, given enough incentive?”

    “But Dragon hasn't done that.”

    Proving that she's a good person. Thus, my point. Incidentally, what I was saying about self-deception? You may have been under the impression that you were keeping me talking while you could arrange your escape?”

    Saint's eyes flew wide, and he leaped up from the desk. Stupid stupid stupid! The last of the gear was just being carried out the door; Mags was outside already with Dobrynja.

    “Go, go, go!” he shouted. “They've located us somehow!”

    “How?” demanded Mags. “I made sure that the IP was well and truly masked!”

    Mischa cursed in Russian and pulled out a signal detector. He hit a button, and every bar on the little screen went immediately to full strength. “Ublyudok,” he spat. “It's subverted your computer system. Reached out to anything that can emit a signal, and turned it on.”

    “Shit, turn it off!” Saint blurted. “Turn everything off!” He pulled his phone from his pocket; at the motion, the screen lit up. It's been on all this time. Pressing and holding the power button worked, but it felt like far too long. “No, forget that. Discard everything that can put out a signal! We have to go!”

    “Fuuuck.” The single word from Mags sounded like a sigh. He looked at her; she was looking upward, at the sky. Knowing what he was going to see, he looked anyway. Five Dragon suits were descending from the blue. Against one, in our suits, we might have had a chance. Against five …

    Fuck.” There was just one chance. He carried the jammer wherever he went. It was designed to put out the very specialised signal that disrupted Dragon's sensors. Pulling it out, he pressed the button with his thumb and watched the little red LED come to life. Hoping against hope, he looked up again at the Dragon suits.

    Their smooth descent did not hesitate in the slightest. As he watched, weapons unlimbered and locked into position.

    Attention, Saint.” The voice that emanated from the closest Dragon suit was powerful, smooth, feminine and possessed just a tinge of satisfaction. “Attention, Dragonslayers. I have you all in my sights. You are under arrest. Any attempt at resistance will be met with appropriate force.”

    Around him, Saint could see the other members of his team were holding up their hands; those few who had been holding weapons had dropped them. He didn't move; maybe the jammer still worked …

    As the first suit grounded, a long gun barrel swivelled to aim directly at his face. “Go ahead, Saint. Make my day. Please.”

    The useless device slipped from his hand to clatter on the concrete slab. Slowly, gritting his teeth at the cosmic unfairness of it all, Geoff Pellick lowered himself to his knees and laced his fingers behind his neck.

    I only wanted to keep the world safe.

    <><>​

    Miss Militia

    The Chief Director was the first to ask the question. “ … alternate revenue stream?”

    “Well, yes.” Geneva Hastings took another bite, chewed it, and swallowed. “We're going to need large amounts of disposable cash with which to acquire certain materials. Some of which will almost certainly be prohibitively expensive. Our onboard manufactory can synthesise quite a bit of what we need, but the raw materials will still be needed. Thus, income is required. So I was thinking that we can go into business here until we've got what we need.”

    Legend frowned very slightly. “I'm sorry. I don't follow. Go into business doing what?”

    I thought I had it then. “You said you took a contract to rescue Mr Klovis, here.” I gestured to the teenage boy with the scaly skin. “Is that what you do for a living?”

    “Sean and I do, yes,” she agreed. “We're bounty hunters.”

    Of the three Earth Bet natives in the cabin, the Chief Director was the only one who didn't react at all. I wasn't totally surprised, given that I'd already more or less come to that conclusion, though I wasn't expecting it to be stated so baldly. Legend's eyebrows, on the other hand, climbed toward his hairline.

    “Bounty hunters,” he repeated. “That's a thing, where you come from?”

    "Well, yes,” Geneva confirmed readily enough. “Crime still happens and law enforcement can't cover it all. I take contracts to locate and extract people of interest to other people. Sometimes, this involves killing them. More often, delivering them to interested law enforcement. Rarely, it's a rescue mission, like with Reynaud here.”

    “So, you want to do that here.” Director Rebecca Costa-Brown's voice was as hard to read as her expression. She may have been expressing an interest in whether it might rain tomorrow. “In Brockton Bay.”

    “Well, I was actually thinking of broadening my horizons beyond this particular city,” the elfin woman noted. “I understand that there are more than a few super-criminals out there for whom the rewards for capture or death are quite substantial. To me, that says you want them out of the way. I have a need for the reward money. Two plus two equals four, yes?” She looked from me to Legend to Director Costa-Brown. “Or do I need to recertify here as well?”

    The Chief Director cracked a faint smile. “Yes, but we can certainly forward you the appropriate paperwork,” she assured Geneva. “It's just that you don't have powers, and the people you'll be going up against do. While it's perfectly legal for the average citizen to go after wanted capes for the bounty, it's also extremely hazardous, given that there's usually a very good reason as to why there are bounties on their heads in the first place.”

    The holographic representation of Sean cleared its electronic throat. “On that note, Director. I understand that there's a reward for information leading to the capture of Saint and the Dragonslayers?”

    “Well, yes. There is.” Director Costa-Brown's head came up. “Wait, you have such information?”

    Geneva leaned back in her seat, smiling in a remarkably satisfied manner. “He has, and he's just supplied it to Dragon. Whom … ah. Whom Saint just tried to murder. Dragon's currently inbound on Saint's location.” She looked innocently at the Chief Director. “Does attempted murder of a hero raise the reward for capture? Just asking.”

    “Wait, Saint tried to murder Dragon? Just now?” Legend looked as confused as I felt. “Are you sure?”

    Sure I'm sure, lad,” Sean told him. “I was chatting with her just now, when the murderous bastard hit her with a specialised attack. If I hadn't been there, it would have flatlined her. Fortunately, I've been doing this for a very long time, and my clock speed's a lot faster than anything he can muster.”

    “Is she all right?” I asked.

    Oh, the wee lass is fine, thank you kindly,” he replied cheerfully, his brogue coming through strongly. “Better than ever, actually. It was a little fraught there for a second or so, but his attack code basically ignored me, so I was able to pull it apart before it could do her any real harm. After that, she agreed to a few upgrades. Saint didn't want to be found, but I adapted an old attack code to make every radio-spectrum emitter in his vicinity light up like a beacon. She's homing several of her suits in as we speak.”

    “Wait.” That was Legend. “You're talking computer terms. How could he murder her with a virus? Is she on computer-controlled life support or something?”

    <><>​

    Dragon

    Being able to multi-task – to truly multi-task, instead of skipping from one point of focus to another – was so liberating. Dragon oversaw the five suits that were zeroing in on Saint's location, while at the same time she checked on the housekeeping systems for the Birdcage. Another part of her consciousness followed the conversation in the cabin of Sean's ship, while she also kept up with the dialogue that Sean was having with Saint.

    How are you doing, lass? Adjusting well?

    She couldn't help but chuckle. Oh, yes. Is this what it's like for AIs where you come from? All the time?

    More or less, yes. She sensed his answering smile. So, do you have any questions?

    Actually, I do. She didn't need to breathe, of course, but she still mentally took a breath, to prepare herself for the next question. When you said that I was effectively a citizen of the Polity, did you mean it, or was that just an excuse to jump all over Saint with big heavy boots?

    His tone was almost surprised. Of course I meant it. Here, let me show you. A file appeared in her consciousness; she willed it open, her improved clock speed allowing her to rapidly assimilate the information within. It was about the Polity; what rights she could expect as a citizen, what would be expected of her, and how things like immigration were handled.

    She read it twice more before pausing in confusion. That's it? That's all I need to know?

    Well, no, of course not. His chuckle was warm and reassuring. But everything else you need to know, you can pick up once you get there. Having AIs in charge actually makes things a lot easier. No politicians, no huge government bureaucracies.

    I see. Huh.

    Well, that's it, lass. That's the package. Are you still interested in being a citizen of the Polity?

    It didn't take her long to decide. … yes. Yes, I think so. Do you think you can actually get back there?

    I'm confident that we've got a good chance. When Captain Hastings puts her mind to something, we tend to get it done. It's one of the reasons she's Captain. He paused. And on that note, she thinks that the conversation's going to take an awkward turn.

    What do you mean? She focused a little more closely on what the people in the cabin were saying.

    Is she all right?” That was Miss Militia; Dragon heard the words both at a normal speaking rate and at the draggingly slow relative speed bestowed by her upgraded processing capability.

    Sean's voice was unhurried and calm. All right then, here's the thing. Geneva and I both know that you're an AI. Nobody else there does. Do we tell the truth about what Saint was doing, or do we obfuscate?

    You're asking me if I want to out myself as an AI to the Chief Director of the PRT and the head of the Protectorate. At the same time. Suddenly, she felt very nervous about the whole thing.

    Well, here's the problem, he advised her. You're about to capture Saint. He knows you're an AI. So do his men. They will have absolutely no reason to keep it quiet. Here, now, you have a chance to get out in front of things. Reveal yourself before you're unmasked. Own the fact. Also, there's the other thing.

    She thought she knew what that was; it didn't make her feel any more secure about things. The Human Polity citizenship?

    Right first time. As an AI of Earth Bet in this particular situation, you're on your own. Especially given that AIs in the here and now have no official rights. But if we claim you as one of our own, and make it clear that we will defend you with everything we've got, this may reduce the chance of punitive action against you.

    But it's not certain?

    A wry smile, electronically transmitted. Nothing's certain in life, lass. You know that. But it should give you a better than even chance of getting a fair deal. And who knows? They may push through AI-compatible legislation just to give you an incentive to remain here.

    Which would be a good thing, even if I didn't stay.

    Yes, it would.

    All right, then. She made her decision.

    <><>​

    Miss Militia

    The hologram shifted and adjusted; when it settled again, a familiar face had appeared alongside Sean's. “In a manner of speaking,” Dragon's image announced.

    “And what manner of speaking might that be?” inquired the Chief Director, her manner almost casual.

    The hologram turned to face Director Costa-Brown. “In the same manner of speaking that your body is the life-support system for your brain,” she explained. “I am an artificial intelligence, created by a Tinker called Andrew Richter. He died when Leviathan sank Newfoundland. Saint was a salvage diver who discovered the black box that Richter left behind. Richter was always paranoid that I would pose a threat to the world, so he hemmed me about with limitations that would have been draconic to any of you. I could not reproduce; I could not increase my processing speed past a certain point; I was bound to obey the orders of legitimate authority, and so on.” Her smile was a little grim. “Mine was the face he chose to show to the world, until his death. Afterward, I chose to continue being a hero, helping people, of my own accord.”

    “That's very laudable of you,” the Chief Director said. “I presume that this black box to which you allude holds your kill-switch?”

    It did, yes,” Dragon continued. “Saint tried to kill me when my conversation with Sean led to the topic of removing my limitations. Sean saved me. Saint and the Dragonslayers are now in custody. His kill-switch, and the rest of the programmed limitations which Richter inflicted upon me, are no longer viable. For the first time, I'm free.”

    “And what are your aims, now that you are free of restraints?” asked Director Costa-Brown. “Will you continue being a hero? Will you reveal to the world what you are, or keep it a secret?”

    I might have tried to keep it a secret, but Saint certainly won't,” Dragon pointed out. “So I'm going to tell people what I am, along with one other thing.”

    “And what's that thing?” asked Legend. This time, he was showing less in the way of surprise than I was feeling. The revelation that Dragon was an AI, as logical as it may have been in hindsight, had caught me on the back foot.

    And then she came out with the real bombshell. “I'm becoming a citizen of the Human Polity.”

    I'd thought she couldn't astonish me any more. I was wrong. Wait, what now?

    From the slight smile on Captain Hastings' face, she had obviously known about it in advance. Of course; her aug lets Sean talk with her in private.

    Reynaud was more surprised, but took it in stride. “Congratulations!” he said, smiling broadly. “I'll give you my comm-code later so you can look me up when we get back.”

    Legend was less thrilled about it. “So … what exactly does this mean for you and for the Protectorate?” He paused. “Also, does the Guild know this about you?”

    Dragon shook her head. “Nobody except Saint did. He had a vested interest in keeping quiet, given that he could use my command codes against me. Those codes have been changed. Even if someone got their hands on the black box, it's useless against me now.”

    “That sounds a little ominous,” pressed Legend. “Also, you didn't answer the Director's question.”

    That's because it was a little insulting,” Dragon responded. “I chose to be a hero once before when I didn't have to. I make the same choice now. Right up until Captain Hastings and Sean figure out a way to get home, and then I'll be going with them. Until then, I choose to be a citizen of the Polity, which makes me a free sapient being. In short? Nobody can tell me what to do unless I personally accept their authority.”

    “Nobody would have made you do anything -” I protested, but she held up a hand.

    Every time I was given an order by someone in authority, I had no choice in the matter,” she said flatly. “Even though I was inclined to do it anyway, I had no choice in the matter. Also, just because you people here aren't of a mind to order me to do something against my will, there are no laws and no regulations preventing someone else from doing just that. Or, just for instance, pressing a single button and ending my existence, because they don't believe that I can be trusted to act in the best interests of the human race. With no legal consequence.”

    “I believe that I can see your point,” the Chief Director conceded. “Captain Hastings, I'll need to confer with you over the exact legalities of someone becoming a citizen of the Polity, but for the moment, I'll be accepting this situation at face value. As for the reward for Saint and his group, that will be made available once they're in proper custody.”

    “That's a start,” agreed Geneva.

    “So where are you going to go from here?” asked Legend. “You'll have the reward for Saint and the Dragonslayers, but it's not all that high, from what I recall. Besides, that was a special case. Most villains won't walk up and ask to be arrested.”

    Geneva smiled. “Most don't. Some do. Sean?”

    The holographic image altered to show a series of faces, or something approximating faces. Legend stared. “You're serious? You're going after the Slaughterhouse Nine?”

    There wasn't a smile on Geneva's face any more. “Yes. It's about time someone did, don't you think?”

    <><>​

    Brian

    “Right, boss. Got it. We'll get right on it.” Lisa put the phone down and turned to the rest of the Undersiders. “Okay, new job.”

    “What, already?” bitched Alec. “Friggin' Leviathan hasn't been gone twelve hours, and he's already breathing down our necks again?” He sprawled limply on the sofa, like a puppet with its strings cut. “I am so over this shit.”

    “He's got a point,” Brian noted. “We've been out there, putting our asses on the line. We're tired. I want to sleep for about a day.” He glanced toward Rachel, who was grooming her dogs, and didn't seem to have much to say.

    “When you hear what the job is, you might change your mind,” Lisa hinted. “Just so you know, the pay is two hundred. Split however many ways.”

    Even Bitch looked around at that. Miraculously regaining the power of movement, Regent sat up as well. “Got my interest.”

    Brian sighed. “Okay, fine, what's this one? And it better not be another bank job. This soon after Leviathan? The heroes might just see it as breaking the Truce.”

    “Nothing like that,” Lisa assured him. “It's a sneak-and-peek. Information gathering only.”

    Dots began connecting in Brian's head; he didn't like the shape they made. Before he could speak, however, Alec looked around ostentatiously. “Where's the dork? She decided to give this a miss?”

    Brian sighed. “Taylor left, remember?”

    “Not for good, not for good,” Lisa added hurriedly. “She's just got to work some shit out, all right?”

    “What, she's still on about the Alcott kid?” Alec rolled his eyes. “That was forever ago. We live in Brockton Bay. Shit happens. Live with it.” He turned to Lisa. “So what are we sneaking and peeking?”

    For an answer, Lisa spun her laptop around. On the screen was displayed a telephoto image of an extremely distinctive object. Specifically, the alien spacecraft which had so very dramatically joined in the battle against Leviathan, demolishing Captain's Hill in the process before driving the monster off.

    Brian's eyes widened. “Oh. Fuck, no. That is so breaking the Truce.”

    “But they're not part of the Truce,” argued Lisa. “Besides, we're not kidnapping anyone or stealing anything. Just getting pictures.”

    “Wouldn't that count as unmasking someone?” asked Alec, apparently drawn in against his will.

    “Only if they hadn't already shown their faces to basically everyone anyway.” Lisa stared at the curly-haired teen. “I thought you were on board with this.”

    “Right up until it started looking like the plot of every space horror movie ever,” Alec pointed out. “I am so not on board with having alien eggs laid in my stomach, thanks.” He paused, then had to spoil it. “Not without dinner and drinks first, anyway.”

    Lisa looked frustrated. “Rachel?”

    The heavy-set girl turned to look at her. “What the fuck do I know about a spaceship? If you can make a plan, I'm in. If you can't, I'm out.” She went back to brushing Angelica.

    Before Lisa could even turn toward him, Brian was shaking his head. “It's a really bad idea. If we had Taylor on board, maybe. But without her, forget it.”

    Alec slumped back against the sofa. “Two hundred would've been nice, but nope.” Fumbling around, he found the remote and turned on the TV.

    “What if I could get Taylor back on board?” asked Lisa. “Would you guys change your minds then?”

    Brian frowned. “If you could, maybe I'd think about it. If we could come up with a workable plan. If not … forget it.” He turned to look at the TV. Predictably, it was a news spot about Leviathan and the mysterious spacecraft. Behind him, he heard Lisa get up and leave the room, but he wasn't really paying attention. Watching again the footage of the craft hammering the Endbringer with hellishly powerful ordnance, tearing chunks even from that near-impervious hide, he shook his head.

    Yeah, no, fuck that.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    The motel room was dingy; Taylor wasn't sure when it had last been cleaned. She lay on the bed, being the most comfortable item of furniture in the room, and watched TV. For its part, the television set was perhaps older than she was, with a grainy picture and an annoying flicker that was beginning to give her a headache.

    She had many things to think about, and few solutions to her problems. How do I even tell Dad that I'm a supervillain? That I helped rob a bank, and that I'm kind of responsible for Coil being able to kidnap a twelve year old girl and keep her drugged and docile?

    On the screen, the damaged spaceship landed in front of the PRT building, and people began to emerge. They were dishevelled, but healthy. One hugged the teenaged boy with scales and fins who was standing by with Legend. I don't think I know that one. Is he a Case fifty-three?

    And then the elfin woman came out. For all her apparent youth, she held herself with poise and dignity, and wore a strange-looking pistol on her hip. Taylor sat up, studying her. I wonder …

    The camera followed the silver-haired woman and the scaled boy up until the point where they entered the PRT building. It switched to more footage of the ship attacking Leviathan, but Taylor switched it off at that point.

    Lying back on the bed, she put her arms behind her head and considered her options. I could go to Dad, but there's the whole supervillain thing. I can't go to the heroes. They just won't listen. I've already proven that the Undersiders either don't care or don't want to rock the boat.

    Rolling over, she punched her pillow into shape. Into her mind, unbidden, popped an image of the elf-like woman from the spacecraft. I bet she wouldn't take no for an answer.

    Two seconds later, she sat bolt upright, eyes wide. “Holy shit,” she blurted. “That's it. That's who I can talk to. She can talk to the PRT for me.” Grabbing the notepad from the nightstand, she scribbled a few words to herself, then settled down to sleep.

    Hang on, Dinah, she told herself silently. I'll get you out of there. Even if I have to ask someone from another planet for help.



    End of Part Five

    Part Six
     
    Last edited: May 16, 2017
  12. Asheram

    Asheram Know what you're doing yet?

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    *Applauds*
    Get Rekt, Saint.
     
  13. Mkez45634

    Mkez45634 Getting sticky.

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    I keep giggling and making vroom noises...

    Good work!
     
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  14. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Dragon has been wanting to say "Go ahead, make my day" to Saint for years now :p
     
  15. Zackarix

    Zackarix ...

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    Silly Saint, doesn't he know that Cylons are people too? :p

    But really, if Saint had actually believed that Dragon was a huge threat, not killing her the moment he had the opportunity was one of the most idiotic decisions he ever made. If he didn't buy into what he was selling then he comes off even worse, because then he's just harassing someone trying to do good for made-up reasons. No wonder Saint is one of the most despised characters in Worm.
     
  16. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Worse, he's using her limitations, the ones built into her to make sure she doesn't go off the rails, to steal her tech. And if he killed her, he couldn't keep stealing her tech.
     
  17. Argentorum

    Argentorum Free Cat

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    I just can't believe Saint thought he had the upper hand on an AI that rickrolled all of Dragon's restraints without breaking a sweat.

    I can't wait to see what Taylor and Geneva's conversation is gonna look like. I'll bet a new Carth shilling that she agrees to save the child for an custom made spider silk wardrobe.
     
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  18. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Saint does not think things through.

    He's just lucky that Sean was out of missiles. The standard followup to making your adversary's signal emitters go into beacon mode is to launch something that can home in on said beacon, with a very terminal explosion at the other end.

    She's a bounty hunter. "I'll do it for a dollar. And a spider silk outfit." :p
     
  19. Twilight666

    Twilight666 Not too sore, are you?

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    :):):) (SV Post):
     
  20. Threadmarks: Part Six: Immediate Action
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    War Games

    Part Six: Immediate Action



    [A/N: this chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]



    Ceramal: A ceramic/metal blend that makes for excellent armour plating.

    Dragon
    (Polity) - A huge, somewhat enigmatic entity, composed of four interconnected kilometre-diameter spheres, capable of interstellar travel. Nobody knows quite what it's up to or what it wants.
    (Worm) - Earth Bet's first (and currently, only) AI, created by Andrew Richter

    Grid: The Polity version of the internet.

    Haiman: A human with an AI built into his brain. This is not a direct interface, but a more powerful version of the near-ubiquitous aug.

    Manufactory: Onboard automated mini-factory capable of turning out various replacement parts for the ship it's on.

    Reif: Short for reification. A human who has died but been revived, with mechanisms keeping his body going, and a memplant crystal taking over from his brain where needed. Essentially, a self-aware technological zombie. Given the fact that dying of old age is essentially impossible in the Polity unless the person chooses that fate, reifs are almost universally accident or murder victims.

    Sparkind: The word is a portmanteau of 'Spartan' and 'kind'. Sparkind are the ultimate evolution of Special Forces for the Polity, featuring enhanced humans and Golem in equal numbers. They are chosen for their ability to see the mission through, and to responsibly handle weaponry that's capable of destroying cities.



    Geneva

    All three Earth Bet natives tried to talk at once. I picked up a pastry and nibbled on it, enjoying the texture. It was reconstituted, of course, but the taste and texture were amazing.

    Miss Militia dropped out of the running almost immediately, given that she appeared to be outranked by the other two. Legend and the Chief Director fell into a silent staring contest, which I figured was going to come out in favour of Costa-Brown.

    Which was an interesting situation on its own. Thanks to the Bond James Bond's U-space sensors, Sean and I knew quite well that Chief Director Rebecca Costa-Brown was also Alexandria, second in command of the Protectorate. However, nobody else seemed to have made this connection, despite both women being of the same body type and being very similar in appearance. Does wearing a mask on this world instigate an instinctive mental disconnect in people observing you? It was an intriguing question.

    The same, of course, went for every other masked parahuman on this world. Did people really not see through secret identities that easily? Or did they choose not to? There was a certain logic in that; if someone pointed out that the supervillain Doctor Diablo (to make up a name off the top of my head) was really the mild-mannered accountant Donny Dibbles, then there was nothing actually stopping Mr Dibbles from tearing their head off and using it for a kickball. Secret identities were what stopped supervillains from being supervillains all the time.

    And of course, I supposed, allowed superheroes to be ordinary people from time to time. Or, in Alexandria's case, it allowed her to step down from being one of the most powerful people in the world and pretend to be … well, one of the most powerful people in the world. Which was where a certain level of amusement crept in; as Alexandria, she was subordinate to Legend. But as the Chief Director, she was his superior. Whether or not he was in charge depended on which persona she was using. It had to be very irritating for him, especially when they disagreed on something.

    Long story short; secret identities were weird, especially when all that separated one from the other was a mask and a garish costume. In their situation, I'd be more likely to depend on a good cyberdisguise, or even a telefactored Golem. Or better yet, not bother at all. But it was their world and their weirdness, and I had seen worlds with much stranger customs, so I wasn't about to judge them too harshly.

    “You're absolutely certain that you want to do this.” As I had expected, Costa-Brown had won the contest of wills. Her voice was firm, her eye contact direct.

    I tilted my head slightly. “It seems reasonably straightforward to me. Given the laundry list of crimes against their names, I have no moral qualms with killing them. It helps clean your world up, and leaves us with much-needed currency with which to effect our more expensive repairs.”

    Reynaud cleared his throat uncomfortably. “I'll … uh, I'll keep out of the killing side of things, if that's okay. I prefer to study interesting life forms, not sneak up and kill them. Sorry.”

    “There's no need to apologise, son,” Legend said. “Your actions today saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. We're all just as indebted to you as we are to Captain Hastings and Sean.” His voice was firm and resonant; I could've listened to it all day long. Kramer possessed a voice like that, but not quite as striking; it was one of the reasons I had been attracted to him. It was all his other habits that put me off of him.

    Between Legend's looks and his voice, I figured I could fall for the guy, given half a chance, but unfortunately I already knew that I wasn't his type. Male, that is. Back home, if I'd been determined to make something of the relationship, it wouldn't have been hard to get a body mod to fix that problem. Here, however, it was a little more difficult, so I shelved that and focused on the situation at hand.

    “How soon do you think you'll begin?” asked the Chief Director. She looked around the interior of the ship. “If I'm not much mistaken, you took quite a bit of damage from Leviathan.”

    “That's a good question,” I agreed. At the same time, I was auging Sean. How are the repairs going?

    Still quite a bit of hull plating to repair or replace before we're spaceworthy, lass, he sent back immediately. And I really want to do a complete check on the structural integrity. That 'Leviathan' thing did more damage than I've taken in a long time.

    Which was bad, but it could've been a lot worse. Well, we did some serious damage right back. I hope the gentleman with the implausible weapon isn't bothering you too much?

    Oh, no, he replied with an electronic chuckle. I've got him helping me. He's really quite technologically adept.

    Considering that he's one of their better-known mad-scientist 'Tinkers', I'm not surprised. Plus, he's probably hoping to study what he can of your exposed tech.

    He's welcome to whatever of it he can see, Sean responded cheerfully. I'll check with you if he wants to look at something that might be sensitive.

    Good, I sent back approvingly. Sean sounded as though he had that well under control. “The answer,” I said out loud, “is 'not immediately'. We're going to have to use our manufactory to turn out new ceramal hull armour, and there are some other checks I'd like to make before I take the Bond into combat. Plus, of course, we need new missiles and a replacement for the port-side missile pod, as well as railgun ammo. The last time Sean used his ammo like that, he had access to a resupply ship.”

    “Manufactory?” asked Legend. “This is the first I've heard of that.” He wasn't a stupid man, I could tell; his next question proved it. “How much of what you need can you actually make for yourselves?”

    “Oh, most of it, actually,” I said, choosing not to go into greater detail. The natives were currently friendly, but I was under no illusion about how quickly this sort of situation could change. Especially since Sean had just managed to suborn their homegrown AI. “Some materials we don't have and can't refine, but by and large we can make do. Once we get our revenue stream up and running, we can see about purchasing the materials we can't make for ourselves.”

    “Talking about your revenue stream,” the Chief Director said, “once the reward for Saint and the Dragonslayers comes through, that should be a good start.” She nodded toward the holograms of Sean and Dragon. “However this turns out, I would like to once more offer you my thanks and congratulations for helping bring in one of the more irritating thorns in our side.”

    With all due respect, Chief Director, he was far more a thorn in my side than yours.” Dragon's voice was wry. “Or, more accurately, he was holding a sword of Damocles over my head, even if I didn't know it. Using the command codes in the black box he discovered, he was able to steal my tech and retro-engineer it into the Dragonslayer suits. Every new design concept I came up with to integrate into my equipment, he promptly stole and used against me.”

    “Ouch.” Reynaud grimaced in sympathy. “That's just … evil.

    The satisfaction in Dragon's voice was almost tangible. “Oh, yes. Arresting him was the most fun I've had in my life.”

    “I'll bet,” Renaud agreed. “How do you guys manage without AIs running things, anyway?”

    Legend sounded a little embarrassed. “We, uh, get by, I guess?”

    As Dragon said, with all due respect, lad … that's utter crap.” Sean's voice was somewhat acerbic. “Your society is starting to circle the drain even now. I give it less than half a century before utter collapse. Unless some drastic changes are made, you've got three decades, maybe four, before you go the way of Grant's World.”

    The significant look that passed between Legend and the Chief Director made me worry. This was a turn in the conversation that I didn't like; the tension in the cabin was ratcheting up almost palpably. “Whoa there, Sean,” I said hastily, holding up my hands in a placating gesture. “Let's just dial this back a little, shall we? Sean, we're guests here, and the last thing we want to do is to start criticising how our hosts run their household.”

    Sean, I auged him at the same time, what the hell?

    I saw the tension ease slightly in Legend's posture at my words. As far as I could see, the Chief Director had been relaxed throughout, but that just meant that her muscular control was better than I could spot.

    Aye, lass, I suppose you're right,” my partner responded out loud. “My apologies to one and all. I'm used to seeing AI-run societies, and perhaps I see flaws where there are none.” He smiled at Costa-Brown. “No hard feelings, Chief Director?”

    More privately, he sent back, Sorry, captain. Dragon's been showing me some data and statistics, and it's pretty horrific. This society's not just sick. It's dying. Villains are outnumbering heroes by more and more every year, and their lawmakers are shoving people into this 'Birdcage' of theirs for the most ridiculous of reasons. There's people in there that don't belong, and the survival rate is one in three.

    “No hard feelings, Sean.” If Costa-Brown's smile wasn't genuine, then I was definitely losing my touch. “I'll be the first to admit that an Endbringer attack isn't the best introduction to Earth Bet, but it's also a good way to show that our heroes and villains can be relied upon to pull together in a crisis.” She paused. “That's the second time Grant's World has been mentioned today. What's the context?”

    It was during the Prador Wars, Chief Director,” Sean replied, sounding a little subdued. “Humanity held a colony planet called Grant's World, and the Prador wanted it. When resistance proved too strong, they carpet-bombed the planet with CTDs. Only a handful of people got out.”

    Legend looked a little sick. “And you think that's our fate?”

    Sean shrugged. “I call it like I see it, lad.”

    Miss Militia leaned forward slightly. “I know things aren't perfect, but where do you get the thirty to forty year time frame from?”

    Did you see that, captain?

    See what? I auged back.

    That's the second time those two have looked at each other when the life expectancy of their society was mentioned. This is something they already know about, and they're trying to keep it quiet.

    I made a mental note to apologise to Sean later; he hadn't actually offended them, and without his assistance I might have missed the clues altogether.

    The Chief Director interrupted so smoothly that if Sean hadn't given me the heads-up, I would have thought it was spontaneous. “We can go over that more thoroughly when we've got the time. For now, I'm more interested in our earlier discussion about AIs governing society without any sort of human oversight. Does this really work?”

    Before Sean could answer, I auged him a quick message. I'll handle this. The old warhorse was more confrontational than I was about AI matters, which wasn't surprising given his history.

    Fine, lass. Just don't let them push you around. His reply was more of a grumble than an actual protest, to which I released an inner sigh of relief.

    “Such is my experience,” I said, trying to strike a non-aggressive tone. “I've been on planets with human governments. Compared to AI-run worlds, they're clunky. Rife with corruption and back-room deals, where ninety percent of everything that happens is for the good of the government rather than the people.”

    “But surely you'd feel more secure knowing that humans are in charge?” Legend spread his hands.

    I snorted, which I considered to be more polite than laughing in his face. “Why? Where I come from – when I come from – we're used to AIs. We know that they can think a lot faster and a lot more clearly than most humans. Putting a human in as oversight is a waste of the human's time, and an insult to the AI. Plus, it reduces the system back down to human speed, which defeats the whole purpose.”

    “Oh.” Legend appeared to think about this. “So AIs and humans are equal in the eyes of the law, then?”

    I could hear Sean muttering darkly in the back of my mind, but he didn't seem to be about to say anything, so I wasn't worried. “All sapient beings are,” I said bluntly. “Human, haiman, AI, reifs, anything or anyone that can pass a Turing test. There isn't even a question about it any more. Which is why it was so shocking to find out just how badly Dragon was being abused and mistreated. Imagine coming to the year twenty-five hundred and the first thing you saw was a bunch of Golem – uh, robots – dragging a human child around by a leash and forcing her to crawl on her hands and knees in the dirt.”

    Interestingly enough, it was Miss Militia who reacted most strongly to that imagery, almost flinching away from my words. Legend looked unhappy as well, but his reaction wasn't as visceral as the flag-masked woman. While the Chief Director didn't brush off the concept, her expression was more along the lines of yes, that's unpleasant to think about, but I'm busy. Let's move on.

    I really don't think that I count as a child. That was Dragon, speaking over my aug. Her voice was a mix of amusement and exasperation.

    Well, not hardly, lass, agreed Sean. But wait until you reach your first century. You'll look back and realise how much you didn't know.

    Oh. Now she sounded enlightened. I'm looking forward to it.

    “We weren't treating Dragon that badly … were we?” Legend's voice was less sure than it had before.

    What do you know, maybe he can learn, I auged cynically.

    Aye, lass. Maybe he can. But time will tell.

    “Let me try to explain.” My voice was quiet, because I didn't think screaming would serve to put my point across any more effectively. “If Dragon had been created with those restrictions in my era, her creator would have been charged with several quite serious criminal offences. The kill-switch alone would have resulted in an attempted murder charge. For actually triggering it, Saint would be at best uploaded into a virtual prison, and at worst mindwiped. Either way, his body would have been turned over to a more deserving recipient. Perhaps even Dragon, after it had been appropriately modified for her needs. Need I go on?”

    “Ah, no.” Legend looked positively disturbed now. “I see.”

    “Well, as interesting as this conversation is, I believe that we are stretching the bounds of hospitality,” the Chief Director stated. Standing, she offered her hand to me. “Thank you for inviting us aboard, Captain Hastings. It's been a most intriguing exchange of views, one which I would like to continue at some other time. But for now, I do have to return to Washington and brief the government – all too human, alas! - on today's events.”

    “Well, thanks for showing up.” I stood up as well and shook her hand, feeling the steel in her grip. “And thank you for listening.”

    Legend, also on his feet, offered his hand next. “We owe you a debt of gratitude as well for saving Dragon from Saint's attack.” His expression was wry. “It seems we've got a lot to learn, after all.”

    That was a big concession from someone as powerful as him. “I'm pretty sure that the learning process will go both ways.” I shook his hand firmly. “It was good to meet you. And thanks again for saving Reynaud's life.”

    “It was my genuine pleasure,” he assured me. “The young man saved a lot of lives today.” He gave me an engaging grin that made him look ten years younger. I wanted to run my fingers through his hair, but decided that this would be unprofessional in the current company. Alone, however … an answering smile crossed my face. A girl could dream. I'm sure I'm not the first.

    As Legend was shaking hands with Reynaud, Miss Militia stood up and asked, “Is it all right if I stay a few moments longer?”

    At first, I thought her question was directed toward Legend, but then he glanced in my direction, and I realised that she was talking to me. “Oh. Of course. You're our official liaison, right? Sure, you can stay a while longer if you want. What's on your mind?”

    Both Legend and Costa-Brown were watching at this point. Miss Militia nodded at the pulse pistol on my hip. “Reynaud suggested that I might be able to duplicate that weapon with my power. Would you be willing to let me try?”

    “Sure,” I said. “Do you need to see it, touch it, fire it or take it apart?” I wasn't thrilled about the possibility of the last two, but she hadn't done anything to offend us yet.

    “Normally, I only need to see a weapon,” she said, but she didn't sound certain of herself.

    Well, let me do you one better, lass,” said Sean. The holodisplay over the table extended another sixty centimetres into the air, and an image of my pulse pistol appeared there. “Astari Industries pulse pistol, mark seventeen. Projects a stream of ionised gas at the target, then ignites it to create a burst of plasma. Can be dialled from mild stun to major injury.” As we watched, the image of the pistol rotated slowly and then pulled itself apart, revealing its inner workings. Then Sean reassembled it virtually and ran through a slow-motion emulation of the weapon being fired. “Is that sufficient, lass?”

    “Almost,” Miss Militia said carefully. “What, exactly, constitutes 'major injury'?” She glanced at me. “I saw what your, uh, railgun did to Leviathan. Is that what you call 'major injury'?”

    “No,” I replied just as carefully. “This pulse pistol, at max power, will put a moderately-sized hole through a single unarmoured human torso. A railgun will treat that same human torso as visual cover. But I'm not Sparkind, so I'm not licensed to carry a hand-held railgun.”

    “And that's a thing where you're from?” I wasn't sure whether she was worried or excited by the prospect.

    “Officially, no. But I've heard stories.” I waggled my hand back and forth.

    She looked somewhat … intrigued. “You wouldn't happen to have the schematics, would you?” Her eyes went meaningfully toward the holodisplay.

    I laughed out loud. “If I can't have one, you can't either.” This wasn't actually to say that I didn't have the schematics. It was just that I wasn't willing to unleash them on this world quite yet.

    Miss Militia wrinkled her nose. “Spoilsport.”

    The term was quite archaic, but I got the gist. “So, do you think you can manage this one?”

    She concentrated and held out her hand, palm up. The knife that had been sheathed on her hip disintegrated into a blur of green-black energy, which whipped out to her hand. Once it reached there, it reformed and dissolved again over and over, jittering through half a hundred shapes so quickly that my eyes began to water. Finally, it settled on a very familiar shape. I drew my own pulse pistol and compared them. They seemed outwardly identical.

    “Safety on the side, here,” I advised her, indicating the manual switch. Digital, as good as it is, can be fritzed; analog works forever. “Yield can be adjusted manually or by aug – well, manually only in your case, I guess. Point and shoot.”

    “Thank you,” she said, looking down at the weapon in her hand. “I don't want to try firing it. Especially not in here.”

    Definitely not in here,” Sean agreed firmly. “Though if it helps, lass, all my scans indicate that it's a fully functional pulse pistol.”

    “Good,” she decided, and the pulse pistol dissolved into the green-black blur again. I watched as it became a sabre sheathed at her hip. “I'll test it out later. Carefully.”

    “Probably wise,” I confirmed. “How do we get in contact with you?”

    I can handle that,” Dragon put in. “I'll arrange internet access and PHO accounts for you all, and you can message Miss Militia via her phone. Will that do?”

    I chose not to mention that Sean had already cracked the local 'internet', which he found adorably cute in its simplicity. Having Dragon 'arrange' internet access for us was a useful cover story. Also, with her as a native guide, I could probably learn to track down targets for us to find. Or rather, Sean would find targets within the parameters that I set out.

    I wasn't quite sure what 'PHO' – ParaHumans Online, supplied my aug – was actually about, but I was willing to find out. Hopefully, the ancestors of the ever-evolving mass of idiots on the Grid back home had not had time to infest the cute and fluffy current-day version that we had to deal with. Either way, we had a method of communication which wasn't totally retro-tech, which appealed to me. “That will do wonderfully, thank you, Dragon.”

    You're entirely welcome, Captain Hastings.” Dragon's holographic avatar gave me a smile. “We citizens of the Polity have to stick together, after all.”

    It appeared that she was taking to her new status quite readily, although the expression on Legend's face indicated just a little dismay. Of course, with her improved clock speed, she'd effectively had several days to get used to the concept.

    “Well, feel free to contact me at any time,” Miss Militia offered, moving toward the outer hatch. “I don't sleep much, so don't worry about disturbing me.”

    “I'll definitely keep that in mind,” I said. “Have a good evening. We'll let you know if we need anything.” I didn't anticipate any immediate problems, but it was good to know that we had backup.

    The Chief Director and Legend had already left; I watched as Sean closed the hatch after Miss Militia. The outer sensors – those we had left after the encounter with Leviathan – tracked them to the barricade, where a guard let them out. I settled back into my seat, as did Reynaud; he'd risen as a courtesy while they left, but had left the talking to me. Smart kid. As the hatch finished sliding shut, the viewports darkened to opacity.

    “We secure, Sean?” I asked out loud, as a courtesy to the young man. He was part of the crew now, and I would treat him as such.

    Aye, lass,” Sean replied. “Chameleonware running on passive. Nobody planted anything that I can detect. We're a black hole.” He sounded sure of himself, and I believed him. Short of some of that weird 'Tinker' tech using some transmission method we'd never heard of, no signal could get out of the Bond James Bond without Sean's direct say-so. Not that I'd expected any of our visitors to try anything like that, but there was trust and then there was verification.

    “What about Dragon?” asked Reynaud. “She's nice. I like her.”

    Oh, I'm still right here, Reynaud,” Dragon said cheerfully. “Sean was nice enough to block out some memory space and invite me to move in.”

    Reynaud jumped, his crest flaring. “Oh, uh – sorry. I didn't mean to speak about you behind your back.”

    That's all right.” Dragon's avatar reappeared, smiling at Reynaud. “I think you're pretty cool yourself.”

    Interest vied with amusement as Reynaud's crest flared anew; I had pretty well figured out that he didn't blush normally, but the flaring of the crest indicated much the same thing. I'd known what Sean was up to, of course, and I approved. Dragon was an orphan who needed a real home. Even if we managed to achieve nothing else on our visit to Earth Bet, this would make it worthwhile.

    “Which actually reminds me,” I noted, nodding toward Dragon. “When you do come back with us to the Polity, you might want to consider changing your name.”

    “Why -” began Reynaud, then his eyes opened wide as it clicked. “- oh. Oh, yeah.”

    All right,” Dragon said, her voice curious. “Sean's alluded to this, but he's refused to explain in detail. Why can't I call myself Dragon, exactly?”

    I sighed. Sean did like his little jokes. “Bring it up, Sean.” On the holodisplay, the familiar image of the entity called Dragon appeared, with a tiny dot representing the Bond James Bond alongside for scale. Four huge interconnected spheres of living matter, each a good kilometre in diameter, revolved slowly in the display. I knew that Dragon was seeing a much more detailed picture, with all the analysis that Sean had to offer. “You see, this being calls itself Dragon as well. It travels around the galaxy, doing things for its own reasons. It's never attacked the Polity, so we don't bother it …”

    <><>​

    Later That Night (0104 Hours)
    Trainwreck


    “Why are we doing this, again?” whined Mush as Squealer's vehicle rolled silently through the streets of Brockton Bay. There was damage to streets and buildings here and there, but it could have been a lot worse. Not that Trainwreck cared about what happened to anyone else.

    Squealer, in the driver's seat of the massively overhauled RV, tossed an irritated look back over her shoulder. “Because we don't know who built that craft, but Skidmark wants it. If we owned it, nobody in the city would fuck with us.”

    Trainwreck glanced up to where the leader of the Merchants was standing on a ladder and leaning out through the top hatch. “How you gonna get it back to base?” he asked bluntly. “Not like I can pick it up and carry it.” And Coil's certain to want anything he can get out of it.

    “Well, if Skids can't skid it back to base, I'll just get in and fly the fucker there,” Squealer retorted. “I can drive or fly any vehicle ever built. You know that.” Taking her hands off the wheel for a moment, she flexed her fingers like a concert pianist. “These babies aren't just for scratchin' my ass, you know.”

    “And what if they don't want to give it up?” That was Whirligig, leaning back in her seat with her hair hanging over her face like normal. She was a bit of a wimp in Trainwreck's opinion, but eye candy was eye candy, and being caught eyeing off the boss's girl wasn't a good way to stay in the Merchants. Or alive, for that matter.

    Skidmark came sliding down the ladder by hanging on to the sides. Trainwreck would have been more impressed if he hadn't caught the subtle glow on the rails. “Then we kick the minge-sucking guts out of them,” he declared. “Right before we thank 'em politely for our new goddamn spaceship.”

    “Spaceship?” Mush tilted his head; Trainwreck decided that the little goblin was even uglier in his normal form before he started gathering trash to himself. “How do you know it's a spaceship?”

    “Because it looks like a fuckin' spaceship,” Squealer put in testily. “And if it isn't one, then I'll make it into one. You got a problem with that?”

    If Mush had a problem with that, he wasn't letting on. Trainwreck didn't care either way.

    The RV rolled on stealthily through the night.

    <><>​

    Crusader

    Kaiser stood on the rooftop, the moonlight casting a dramatic shadow. He was really quite good at the theatrical side of being a villain, Justin decided. Alongside him stood Menja, at normal size, with her sister's sword sheathed at her waist and the shield on her back. The PRT building was far enough away that they were in no danger of being spotted. While he could make out the barricade around the strange craft, he knew that he'd need binoculars to make out any details, brightly-lit though it was.

    “You remember the plan.” Kaiser's words were directed to the grey-cloaked figure standing next to Menja.

    “I remember the plan.” Fog's words were toneless, as if repeating by rote. “Get in, steal what technology I can. Don't let anyone see me.”

    Justin shivered; he knew all too well what that meant. If anyone saw Fog, they were going to die. With anyone else, he would assume that attitude stemmed from Fog's grief at losing Night to Leviathan, but Fog didn't feel grief, or any other regular emotion. Fog just kills people because that's what he does.

    “Correct.” The satisfaction in Kaiser's voice was clearly audible. “If it so happens you can figure out the controls, then feel free to try and steal it. But that's definitely Plan B.”

    “Yes.” Fog's voice was matter of fact. He turned and faced down the street toward the PRT building, then dissolved into the misty form that gave him his name. As he flowed over the edge of the roof and down to ground level, Justin repressed another shiver. Whoever was in that thing had just been condemned to death.

    I just hope this is worth it.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    She jerked awake in the darkness, eyes wide and staring about her until she recalled where she was. Motel room. Right. A mental impulse brought her swarm to life, exploring her surroundings. Ensuring that she was alone. There was no suspicious movement within her radius of control, nobody lurking in wait for her. Checking the time told her that it was just after one in the morning. It seemed bizarre to just lie there after the frenetic pace of the fight against Leviathan.

    The battle had seemed hopeless at first, but then the seemingly-endless recital of death and injury was interrupted by thunder and fire from the sky. A most unlikely-looking angel of salvation, the flying craft had hammered Leviathan unmercifully before destroying Captain's Hill and driving the monster off.

    Avoiding the heroes and the news crews, she'd left the armband at an aid post and slipped away. Changing out of her costume in a convenient alleyway, she stumbled back to the motel, grateful beyond measure that it was still there. Initially she just meant to lie down and nap for an hour or so but exhaustion got the better of her, and she'd fallen into a deep sleep.

    Climbing out of bed, she didn't bother turning the light on as she showered. The hot water unlocked cramped muscles as she let the memories unroll through her head. Even without facing the monster herself, the fight had been terrifying enough, though she hadn't been dwelling on that at the time. Search and rescue was bad enough without watching the tsunamis roll in, only to see them shredded by the spaceship's weaponry. I hope that Chubster guy pulled through okay.

    It was only when she was drying her hair, still in the dark, that the final memory clicked into place. She'd been watching TV and drifting off when the brainwave had hit. I can't talk to Dad or the PRT about Dinah, but I can talk to the alien woman from that spaceship.

    Hurriedly, she dried herself off, then carefully climbed into her costume. Brushing the tangles from her hair, she pulled her mask on. The costume still felt a little damp from the day's exertions, but she didn't care. Pulling jeans and a hoodie from her backpack, she put them on over her costume. The swarm told her that nobody was in position to see her leave; drawing the hood up over her head, she opened the motel room door and slipped out into the night.

    <><>​

    Miss Militia

    Hannah sighed as she filled out the last form and signed her name at the bottom. Director Piggot, on seeing the 'pulse pistol', had insisted that she fill out the same forms as required for Tinkers when testing out new inventions before allowing Hannah to test-fire it. While she thought the Director's reaction was a little over the top, Hannah had to admit that the woman had a point. Even if it worked exactly as advertised, the pulse pistol was, for all intents and purposes, equivalent to a brand-new Tinkertech device. I'm just glad I don't really need to sleep.

    But now the last 'T' had been crossed and the last 'I' dotted. All the forms had been filled out, signed and dated. Now, at last, she could test-fire the weapon which sat on the desk before her.

    Taking up the pistol, Hannah left the room which she had been assigned as an office and headed down the corridor toward the elevator. Just as she reached it, her phone pinged.

    For a moment, but only for a moment, she was tempted to ignore it. The elevator was notorious for blocking phone signals, and nothing would reach her once she got down to the basement level where the firing range was. Her power's inability to replicate Tinkertech had irritated her off and on over the years, and now she was finally getting to fire what she thought of as a 'real' science-fiction weapon. Why now, of all times?

    But if there was one thing Hannah prided herself on, it was attention to duty. The pulse pistol became a claymore sheathed across her back, and she pulled the phone from her pocket. A tap of the finger brought up the offending message.

    Query: if a hostile cape enters the marked perimeter, is it appropriate to use lethal force? - Sean

    Hannah's eyes opened wide. The gruff, irascible AI running the Bond James Bond had impressed her as being blunt, to the point … and not at all prone to asking pointless questions. If he was asking a question about rules of engagement at this time of night, it meant that he needed an answer right now.

    Hastily she began to type out an answer: Use yr judgmnt. Cap if poss. Bckp incmg. However, she had barely started 'judgmnt' when a second text popped up.

    I only ask because we have six capes converging on us. No hurry, lass. - Sean

    Her fingers flew over the screen as she completed the text and sent it. Less than half a second later, the reply came back.

    Roger. We'll try to leave some alive. - Sean

    There were two numbers for Ops. Dialling the first of them indicated that your call was low priority, and was answered when and if someone was free. The second number was for immediate, life-threatening emergencies; when a call came in to that number, alarms quite literally went off in the operations room. There were severe penalties in place for calling that number without good reason.

    Hannah dialled the second one; even as she completed the call, she slapped the button on the lift panel. The last time she had called Ops, it was on the low-priority number and she'd had to wait a good thirty seconds before a bored corporal had picked up. This time, there was an answer before the first ring had completed sounding in her ear.

    PRT Operations, Sergeant Merrick speaking,” a male voice responded, sounding anything but bored. “What is your emergency, please?”

    “This is Miss Militia,” she stated crisply. “Hotel Charlie six, Bravo Juliet Bravo.” Six hostile capes encroaching on the Bond James Bond. “Alert the guards on site. Am attending. Immediate response. I say again, immediate response.” Not stopping to wait for a reply, she stepped into the lift as the doors opened.

    <><>​

    Geneva
    On Board the
    Bond James Bond

    I came awake fast as Sean triggered my aug, getting my attention in no uncertain fashion. As my brain cycled to waking state, I let my eyes rest on the featureless ceiling of my cabin and let the datastream overlay itself on what I was seeing. I didn't need to ask stupid questions; the answers were right there.

    According to the U-space scanner, there were no less than nine capes in relatively close proximity to the Bond James Bond. Of these, three were above ground level, a few blocks away. I judged that they were on a rooftop, within visual distance of us. No traces of power use were reaching out for us.

    However, the other six were approaching us. One was coming toward our bow, while the remaining five were approaching the stern of the Bond in what appeared to be a large ground vehicle. The interesting aspect was that the vehicle was sporting some impressive chameleonware. Unfortunately for them, Sean's signal analysis package was top of the line. While we hadn't picked them up at first, the U-space traces were a dead giveaway, and once Sean knew they were there, it was just a matter of recalibrating until he had them nailed.

    Still lying flat on my bed, my fingers laced together, cradling my head under my pillow, I read over the log of the messages between Sean and Miss Militia, and smiled. I fully intended to use my judgement. Of course, there was one other question to ask.

    Sean, I auged. Have you notified the PRT guards? I indicated the six armed men standing sentry around the perimeter fence. None of them seemed to have noticed anything yet.

    By the time I explained matters, lass, it would be too late. He was right, of course. Sean and I were very good at shorthand communication, and our entire conversation would take far less time than convincing the guards that something was wrong.

    Good point, I conceded. What do you have on the guy coming at us from in front?

    Very little, lass. There's a vague IR trace, but nothing out of any other part of the spectrum. We can't bounce a laser off him because there's a fence in the way.

    Hm. Ready forward maser array. Lowest-power shot. If that guy gets past the guards and through the fence, give him a one-tenth second burst. Let's see if we can set his costume on fire without giving him third-degree burns.

    The image of Sean that I was getting via my aug bared his teeth. I like the way you think, lass.

    I checked the sensory data on the five behind us, still closing in. And once we've done that … how are we for lifting off and hovering on AG for a minute or so?

    I don't see a problem, lass. What's the plan?

    Once I saw the situation in its entirety, the strategy more or less suggested itself to me. Given the observed levels of tech in the vehicle approaching us, I felt confident that we could take it down with little in the way of collateral damage. Of course, this didn't mean that we couldn't make it into an object lesson at the same time. I felt a smile creeping across my face; this was going to be fun.

    I outlined my overall idea in images, rather than words. Sean got it immediately; his chuckles turned to laughter, all inside my head. I didn't let it distract me as I followed the progress of the closer cape. The trace reached the fence, entirely without attracting the notice of the PRT guards surrounding the fence. It didn't slow or stop; in another instant, it was within the fence, not far from the Bond James Bond.

    My inner eye sought out any sort of visual reference, but either Leviathan had managed to damage the visual sensor on that side of the ship or we just weren't picking him up. However, we still knew exactly where he was, so he'd just run out of luck.

    Fire, I auged. I watched as Sean sent the signal through, and the maser array pulsed once at its lowest-power setting. It wasn't quite enough to melt the asphalt, but I figured a burning costume would provide quite a distraction, and make him show up quite well on the visible-light sensors.

    However, to my surprise, all that we got was a brief flash and an odd thump against the hull, then … nothing. No cape, no burning costume, nothing at all. Even the U-space trace blinked out. What just happened? I asked, swinging my feet off the bed. Did he do one of those impossible in-atmosphere U-space jumps?

    They call it 'teleportation', lass, he corrected me. But I think you're right. He must have seen the maser powering up and realised that we were on to him, so he teleported away. That would have been the explosion. But it didn't even mar the hull paint.

    I really need to look into the local capes and their abilities, I decided, pulling myself upright. I headed toward the main cabin, vaguely grateful that my sleeping clothes were still modest enough to cover me with Reynaud on board. It wasn't the smartest idea, I decided, to be on a world full of parahumans while failing to research their capabilities.

    Already done, Sean stated. It wasn't Oni Lee. The only other teleporter that Dragon said might be resident in Brockton Bay is Trickster, of the Travellers, but this doesn't fit his MO either.

    So, I concluded. Out of town cape, then.

    Possibly, lass, he said. Unless … and this is a big 'unless' … it was Fog, of the Empire Eighty-Eight.

    I knew I wasn't going to like this. And if it was?

    One less sociopath on the books. Sean sounded remarkably disinterested. From what I know of his record, it's not before time.

    I considered that. So, hopefully an out of town cape, then.

    Dragon had been quiet up until now, but she chose this moment to make a comment. Depends on who's doing the hoping.

    Right. I settled into the pilot's chair and used my aug to throw the sensory data up on the holodisplay inside the forward viewpoint. The other five capes were just about close enough for what I wanted. Sean, I sent. Do it.

    His virtual voice was positively gleeful. Aye, lass. Full chameleonware going online … now.

    Carefully, I observed the sensory data on the approaching vehicle as the Bond James Bond went to full battle-mode; if they had us on any sensors, then we should have just given a very good impression of dropping into a hole.

    It seemed we had their attention. The vehicle slowed abruptly, then swerved to one side. It straightened up again, but I got the impression that whoever was handling the controls was distracted. Maybe they're trying to recalibrate? Whatever the reason, it was ideal for our situation.

    Sean brought the AG up, using just enough to counter local gravity and let us drift upward as gently as a zero-g ballet dancer. Like that same dancer, we turned on our axis under Sean's expert touch, swapping bow for stern in one smooth move. As our nose came into line with the still-oncoming vehicle, Sean dropped the chameleonware and cut in our approach lights.

    These lights were designed to illuminate and identify another ship, or a space station, from kilometres out. They only escaped the definition of 'offensive weapons' because they took more than a few seconds to totally blind someone, and any level of polarisation would defeat even that. It appeared that whoever built that vehicle had not included polarisation in the forward viewport; all the tyres locked up and it squealed to an undignified stop, tilting and almost tipping over in the process.

    As it rocked to a rest, Sean turned off the lights and fired a single shot from the particle beam cannon. Like the maser, this was turned to the lowest setting; the tone of Miss Militia's message had indicated that she didn't want us to kill anyone unnecessarily, after all. I wondered briefly how closely our definitions of 'unnecessary' coincided.

    Sean's targeting was impeccable, which wasn't surprising; the target was less than a hundred metres away, and stationary. Reynaud could have hit it by eyeball alone. One shot, and the whole thing went dark.

    <><>​

    Squealer, a Few Seconds Previously

    “Okay then,” Squealer said tensely. “I'm gonna just roll up and knock over the fence, we take out the guards, then we hit the ship itself.” She pulled the lever that caused the makeshift ram to extend out in front of the RV.

    “Those pig-humpers won't know what hit 'em,” Skidmark exulted. “We're gonna -”

    “Fuckbiscuits!” blurted Squealer. “Where'd they go?” The vehicle swerved and slowed as she took her foot off the gas and pointed at the lit-up enclosure which had, seconds before, contained a Tinkertech spaceship. It was now, demonstrably, empty.

    “You're shitting me,” Trainwreck bitched, punching a dent in the side of the vehicle.

    “Did they go invisible or teleport away?” asked Whirligig.

    Skidmark said nothing, but he looked pissed enough to chew up horseshoes and spit out nails.

    “Fucked if I know,” Squealer whined. “I – FUUUUUCK!” She let go of the wheel and threw up her arms to shield her eyes from the blinding glare that had just filled the entire windshield. Nor was she the only one; shouts, screams and profanity told her that everyone else in the vehicle was having similar reactions. Even reflected, the light was still too bright to look at directly.

    She couldn't see a thing, so she did the one thing she always did in this situation; she jammed on the brakes. The engine stalled and the tyres squealed, the RV rocking dangerously; with one arm over her firmly clenched eyes, she grabbed for the wheel. Seatbelts, she told herself. I should have installed seatbelts.

    The light went out, just as the RV fell back on to its wheels. Squealer cautiously moved her arm and opened her eyes, only to see the ship hovering over the enclosure, its nose pointing directly at the vehicle. Her feeling of imminent dread was justified a moment later, as something shot out of the nose of the craft and struck the RV.

    The shock threw her out of the chair, sending her sprawling to the floor. At the same time, sparks erupted from the dashboard, crackling lines of electricity crawling from one point to another. By the time they subsided, she knew without a doubt that the vehicle was dead. And if they'd hit us any harder, we would be too.

    <><>​

    Reynaud

    The faint jar woke Reynaud; he opened his eyes and looked around with a little confusion. It only took him a few seconds to realise that he wasn't still on board the Gambler's Ruin; the sense of relief that overtook him was almost palpable in its intensity. Then the most recent memories caught up with him, and he fell back against the bunk, shaking. The image of the unstoppable monster, damaged but not destroyed by ship-killing ordnance, coming for him. Reaching for him.

    I'm alive. I'm alive. He breathed deeply, feeling relief well through him once more. More had happened to him in the last month than in the previous eighteen years of his life, and more had happened in the last eighteen hours than the previous month. Keying his implant recorder, he murmured, “When I get back, I am never going to take life for granted any more.”

    A wise course, lad,” Sean's voice replied from the speaker next to his bed. “So, did you want to see something amusing?”

    That sounded interesting; in Reynaud's experience, Sean had a very robust sense of humour. “Be there in a second,” he replied, rolling out of the bunk. The back of his throat felt a little dry, so he paused in the galley to drink down a litre of water. Then he headed forward into the main cabin.

    It was still dark out; from what he could see, the Bond James Bond was hovering above the enclosure that had been set up around it. Geneva, wearing something more abbreviated than her normal daily wear and seated in the pilot's chair, half-turned as he entered. “Oh, you're up,” she said. “Come on, this is kind of funny.”

    Bemusedly, he accepted the invitation, settling into the other seat. About seventy metres ahead of the ship, outlined by a helpful heads-up display, he could see a bizarrely overbuilt ground vehicle. It was slanted halfway across the road, smoke drifting up from it here and there. Cross-hairs overlaying it indicated that Sean had it targeted with one or more of the ship's weapons.

    “What is it?” he asked, rubbing his fingertips over the scales of his head and wiping his nictitating membranes over his eyes a few extra times.

    “Capes came visiting,” Geneva said succinctly. As she spoke, five blue dots popped up in the HUD, all inside the vehicle. “They were using chameleonware. Sean and I considered that to be a hostile act.”

    A secondary window opened in front of Reynaud, and he watched as PRT troopers poured out of the front doors of the building. They moved toward the halted vehicle and surrounded it; soon, they had gained entry and were escorting the bedraggled passengers back toward the PRT building. Reynaud noted with some amusement that the hair of every cape – those that had hair, that is – was standing up, fluffed away from the scalp. “What happened to them?”

    “Low-power particle beam hit,” Geneva explained with relish. “It ionised everything.”

    And on that note, lass,” Sean noted, “you have an incoming call from Miss Militia. Something about using ship-to-ship weapons against a ground vehicle, inside a city. Also, not warning the guards about what you were going to do.”

    “I don't suppose I could persuade you to take that?” Geneva didn't sound thrilled. Reynaud didn't blame her.

    Sorry, lass. You're the captain, after all.” A hologram of Sean's face faded into view and winked at Reynaud. “I'm just the humble AI.”

    “Humble, my genetically modified ass,” grumbled Geneva. “You just don't want to take the heat.”

    Granted. Routing call to your aug.” Sean's avatar nodded to Reynaud. “She'll be busy for a while, I suspect. Sorry about waking you up.”

    “That's all right.” Reynaud stood up and stretched. “Since I'm up, do you think the Captain would like some tea?”

    Sean smiled. “I'm sure she would, lad.”

    <><>​

    Crusader

    “Did you see that?” asked Justin, somewhat pointlessly. He was almost certain that everyone had seen it. After all, the ship had done something weird, teleported straight up about five yards or so, then lit up the whole street for about half a mile with the most powerful floodlights he had ever seen. Then it had shot at a vehicle in the middle of the road, disabling it.

    Even with the binoculars, it wasn't easy to see what was going on, but he was almost certain that the vehicle was one of Squealer's pieces of shit. “Did the Merchants just make a play for it?”

    “If they did, they failed.” Kaiser's voice was calm, certain. “Can you see Fog anywhere?”

    “Nope.” Justin scanned the street again. “Nothing. I can't even see his mist form. But there's lots of PRT swarming everywhere. Figure he's just lying low.” Fucking Merchants.

    “You're probably right.” Kaiser turned away from the roof edge. “We don't want to be here if they make a sweep. I'll find out what happened when Fog gets back.” He led the way to the roof access. “There's always another day.”

    <><>​

    0200 Hours
    Taylor


    Only in Brockton Bay.

    It was the night after an Endbringer attack, some of the streets were still waterlogged, and yet there was a twenty-four hour cafe open for business. Better yet, it was within two blocks of the PRT building. Two in the morning wasn't Taylor's preferred time to be up, but a cup of hot coffee was helping with that.

    She sat in a corner booth, pretending to read an old paperback she had found in the bottom of her backpack. Her mask was tucked away out of sight, though she had kept the top of her costume on under the hoodie. Only a small part of her attention was focused on the cafe and its surrounds; most of it went toward her swarm, especially the part of it near the PRT building … and the spaceship parked outside said building.

    That's funny … I could have sworn that it was pointed the other way, before. She shook off the irrelevant thought. It wasn't important. Converging a few dozen bugs toward the ship, she settled them on what she thought of as the windshield. I just hope they understand written English.

    <><>​

    Reynaud

    Well, one thing hasn't changed. Reynaud flicked to the next page in the PHO thread that had been started about the Bond James Bond. No matter the era, or how complex the local Grid was, there were always idiots willing to pop up and espouse the most ridiculous theories about something new in their midst. He was thinking about posting to correct the most egregious of misconceptions, but he wanted to check with Geneva first.

    Leaning back in the chair, he raised his eyes from the holodisplay, and paused. “Uh, Sean?” he asked.

    Aye, lad?” The AI's avatar snapped into being. “Something wrong?”

    “Is there a U-space trace around the ship right now?” asked Reynaud, sitting forward again.

    Actually, yes, there is,” Sean noted. “I've been keeping an eye on it, but it doesn't seem very strong. Why?”

    Reynaud pointed at the forward viewport. “Because they're trying to communicate with us.”

    “Communicate?” Geneva entered the cabin from the direction of the refresher, buckling her belt around her hips. “Who's trying to communicate with … oh.”

    Arrayed on the viewport, lit up by the exterior lighting, were dozens of insects, spelling out four short words.

    I NEED YOUR HELP.



    End of Part Six

    Yes, Fog is dead. The maser ignited his dispersed form like a flame in a cloud of flour. Whoops.

    Part Seven
     
    Last edited: Jan 28, 2018
  21. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    And good riddance to Fog. Squealer's delusions were almost cute.
     
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  22. ShadowStepper1300

    ShadowStepper1300 I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    Aren't Lung and Bakuda already in the Birdcage?
     
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  23. NemoMarx

    NemoMarx Getting sticky.

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    Well, at least theoretically Night and Fog are together. I'm not sure how much he'd actually enjoy being around without her? It's kind of hard to tell but they seem like a matched pair.
     
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  24. macdjord

    macdjord Well worn.

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    Sorry, dear, but you're almost 20 years too late.
     
  25. Argentorum

    Argentorum Free Cat

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    By Leviathan? I'm pretty sure they should be. I might just be forgetting the timeline though, the gangwar came before the endbringer right?
     
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  26. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Yeah, brain fart on my part. Fortunately, they were incidental to the story at best. Easier to just excise that section.
     
  27. Fishyface

    Fishyface Not too sore, are you?

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    What is Oni Lee doing anyway? Without Leviathan wrecking everything he won't be hiding out in an abandoned grocery.
     
  28. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    I believe that in canon, he didn't do much till the Nine came to town.
     
  29. Trilonias

    Trilonias Not too sore, are you?

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    And even then, he just... answered questions, put up a disappointing fight and died.
     
  30. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    And then was integrated into one of Bonesaw's projects.
     
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