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War Games [Worm/Polity Crossover]

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

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  1. Threadmarks: Index
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    When a bounty hunter and a genetic adaptation from the Human Polity universe end up stranded in the Wormverse, things are going to get interesting.

    1) This story draws inspiration from the Wormverse, which is owned by Wildbow, and from the universe of the Polity, which is owned by Neal Asher. I make no claim on either property.
    2) I will follow canon as closely as I can. If I find something that canon does not cover, I will make stuff up. If canon then refutes me, I will revise. Do not bother me with fanon; corrections require citations.
    3) I welcome criticism of my works, but if you tell me that something is wrong, I also expect an explanation of what is wrong, and a suggestion of how to fix it. Note that I do not promise to follow any given suggestion.


    AG: Anti-gravity

    Amphidapt: a human who has undergone genetic modification to become an anthropomorphic frog, or similar appearance.

    Aug: Cerebral augmentation. A kidney-shaped device, several centimetres across, usually attached to the skull behind the ear. Acts like a full computer system and modem in one.

    Autodoc: Automated drone that can carry out any surgical need with speed and precision.

    avidapt: human with bird-like genetic adaptations.

    Catadapt: a human who has undergone genetic modification to end up as an anthropomorphic cat of one type or another.

    Centurion class: heavy Polity warship.

    Chainglass: a substance consisting of chained silicon molecules. Transparent as glass, tougher than steel plate.

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

    Chameleonware: a suite of different devices, which act to deflect light around a vessel, while cutting emitted noise and reducing other giveaway signs that it's there.

    Contra-terrene device (CTD): Antimatter bomb.

    Cull: planet where the original settlers had themselves genetically adapted to better survive the harsh environment. They consider themselves 'true humans', as opposed to those who weren't altered.

    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.

    Etched sapphires: one means of physical currency. Eyeball-sized sapphires, with intricate designs cut into them. Each one is worth ten thousand New Carth shillings.

    EV suit: spacesuit

    Gecko-grip: Surface covered in extremely tiny hairs, which adheres to other surfaces using van der Waal forces, as geckos do.

    Golem: Skeletal metallic humanoid robots (not unlike Terminators). Can be covered in syntheflesh to appear human. Some are more human than others. 'Golem' is both the singular and plural of the word.

    Grant's World: A planet that was rendered utterly uninhabitable during the Prador Wars.

    Grav-planing: using momentum to skate along on AG.

    Grav-plate: flat plate which projects gravity directly above it. Usually, but not always, earth-normal.

    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.

    Hoop, ‘Spatter’ Jay: A particularly vicious pirate who discovered the planet Spatterjay. It is named after him, as are Hoopers. One of the first to fall prey to the leeches, he was reportedly decapitated, but his body and head have both survived.

    Hooper: a human inhabitant of Spatterjay (see the entry) who has been bitten by a leech. This infects them with a virus that makes them nigh-immortal and ever stronger over the years. The oldest hoopers are over three hundred years old.

    Ian Cormac: Main character of the first Polity series. Extremely capable secret agent.

    Jain: Now-extinct race that engineered a horrifying technology that eventually wiped them out.

    Jaintech: Inimical ultra-tech that infects living and non-living apart with terrifying speed.

    Kinetic kill, KK: Missile with no explosive warhead; it depends on pure kinetic energy to do damage to the target.

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

    Maser: Microwave laser.

    Memplant: a means of recording the personality and memories of a human onto a crystal matrix implanted in their brain. After death, the memplant crystal can be removed and implanted in a clone body, another person or even a Golem body.

    Monofilament, monowire: cord or wire consisting of a single long-chain molecule. Very strong, very thin.

    New Carth: A human occupied planet. The New Carth shilling is a particularly stable currency.

    Occam Razor: a huge battleship, veteran of the Prador Wars.

    Polity: The Human Polity. AI-run human civilisation. It's run efficiently, smoothly, and without any interference by human politicians.

    Prador: An inimical crab-like species against which humanity fought a protracted and bloody war. They are guilty of several types of atrocity, including eating surrendered captives.

    Pulse pistol: one of several types of weapon that puts out a cloud of incendiary particles, then ignites them to form plasma.

    Railgun: Weapon that accelerates projectiles via pulsed magnetic fields.

    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.

    Runcible: Portal gates from one planet to another, via U-space. Travel time is instantaneous.

    Seadapt: Human who has been genetically altered so as to be at home in the ocean.

    Shimmer-shield: light, selectively permeable force field

    Skaidon-Craystein experiment: a ground-breaking event where a human genius entered into direct mind-to-mind connection with an AI. This led directly to the invention of runcible technology.

    Solstan: Solar (Earth) standard, usually referring to years.

    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.

    Spatterjay: a planet with an insanely hostile ecosystem. Leeches there grow to ridiculous sizes, and are almost ubiquitous. Their bite will eventually transform the victim into a Hooper.

    Sub-mind: AIs in the Polity can split their consciousnesses into separate 'minds', in order to multi-task more efficiently.

    Telefactored: remote controlled. A robot being telefactored is called a 'telefactor'.

    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.

    U-space: Underspace. The Polityverse equivalent to hyperspace. Travel time is much shortened, but still noticeable.

    Ursidapt: human with genetic adaptations derived from bear DNA

    Part One: Geneva (below)
    Part Two: Reynaud
    Part Three: Sean
    Part Four: Legend
    Part Five: Escalation
    Part Six: Immediate Action
    Part Seven: Sleight of Hand
    Part Eight: Snakebite
    Part Nine: Negotiation
     
    Last edited: Jun 8, 2020
  2. Threadmarks: Part One: Geneva
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    War Games

    A Worm/Polity Crossover

    Amphidapt: a human who has undergone genetic modification to become an anthropomorphic frog, or similar appearance.

    Aug: Cerebral augmentation. A kidney-shaped device, several centimetres across, usually attached to the skull behind the ear. Acts like a full computer system and modem in one.

    Catadapt: a human who has undergone genetic modification to end up as an anthropomorphic cat of one type or another.

    Chameleonware: a suite of different devices, which act to deflect light around a vessel, while cutting emitted noise and reducing other giveaway signs that it's there.

    Contra-terrene device (CTD): Antimatter bomb.

    Cull: planet where the original settlers had themselves genetically adapted to better survive the harsh environment. They consider themselves 'true humans', as opposed to those who weren't altered.

    Etched sapphires: one means of physical currency. Eyeball-sized sapphires, with intricate designs cut into them. Each one is worth ten thousand New Carth shillings.

    EV suit: spacesuit

    Gecko-grip: Surface covered in extremely tiny hairs, which adheres to other surfaces using van der Waal forces, as geckos do.

    Golem: Skeletal metallic humanoid robots (not unlike Terminators). Can be covered in syntheflesh to appear human. Some are more human than others. 'Golem' is both the singular and plural of the word.

    Grav-plate: flat plate which projects gravity directly above it. Usually, but not always, earth-normal.

    Hooper: a human inhabitant of Spatterjay (see the entry) who has been bitten by a leech. This infects them with a virus that makes them nigh-immortal and ever stronger over the years. The oldest hoopers are over three hundred years old.

    Maser: Microwave laser.

    Memplant: a means of recording the personality and memories of a human onto a crystal matrix implanted in their brain. After death, the memplant crystal can be removed and implanted in a clone body, another person or even a Golem body.

    Monofilament, monowire: cord or wire consisting of a single long-chain molecule. Very strong, very thin.

    New Carth: A human occupied planet. The New Carth shilling is a particularly stable currency.

    Polity: The Human Polity. AI-run human civilisation. It's run efficiently, smoothly, and without any interference by human politicians.

    Prador: An inimical crab-like species against which humanity fought a protracted and bloody war. They are guilty of several types of atrocity, including eating surrendered captives.

    Pulse pistol: one of several types of weapon that puts out a cloud of incendiary particles, then ignites them to form plasma.

    Runcible: Portal gates from one planet to another, via U-space. Travel time is instantaneous.

    Seadapt: Human who has been genetically altered so as to be at home in the ocean.

    Spatterjay: a planet with an insanely hostile ecosystem. Leeches there grow to ridiculous sizes, and are almost ubiquitous. Their bite will eventually transform the victim into a Hooper.

    U-space: Underspace. The Polityverse equivalent to hyperspace. Travel time is much shortened, but still noticeable.

    Part One: Geneva

    The smuggler ship Gambler's Ruin emerged from U-space right where I needed it to be; that is, about five kilometres off my bow, where my forward-mounted maser arrays could neatly target it. For good measure, I woke up my missile pods and told them to look alive. Sean, I sent via my aug, time to start the party.

    Already on it,
    my ship AI responded. Inhibitor activated. They're not going anywhere.

    "Gambler's Ruin," I broadcast, observing the frantic attempts by the Ruin's crew to restart their U-space engines, "this is Geneva Hastings, registered bounty hunter. Do note that your U-space engines will not start without the lockout codes that I currently possess.”

    With a jolt, the Ruin's fusion engines kicked in. They were oversized for the craft, which would give the smuggler vessel quite an appreciable amount of acceleration. Of course, this required that the engines give more than an asthmatic cough before shutting down again.

    “Nor will your fusion drive,” I added pleasantly. “You will power down and prepare to be boarded before I do something even more drastic.” They wouldn't listen. Smugglers rarely did. Of course, I wasn't often sent after smugglers, which was probably a good thing for the smuggling trade, not to mention my boredom threshold.

    The next thing they did was power up their chameleonware. I wasn't sure why they hadn't done that first; maybe they had an issue with power drain. In any case, it didn't matter; I painted them with my targeting laser, and put a maser shot past their bows just to make my point.

    "I can see you," I warned them, quite unnecessarily. "Power down, now, before I decide to chop you up into bite-sized chunks and sift through the rubble by hand."

    Finally, I got a response. Incoming transmission, Sean warned me, via my aug.

    Sift the attack code out of it and give me the rest, I replied the same way.

    That there would be attack software appended to the message, I had no doubt. My caution was quickly rewarded; Sean whistled softly as he sorted through it. I don't think he likes you. How did you know?

    Long experience,
    I replied. He's not the sort to roll over and play dead.

    "Okay, you've got me."
    Kramer's voice was taut with anger and frustration, mirrored by his expression as Sean put his image on my virtual display. "What do you want from me now, bitch?"

    I grinned. “Now, is that any way to speak to your ex-wife?”

    His reply was sulphurous, bordering on the apoplectic. “Fuck you!” he screamed, after he'd calmed down somewhat. “You fucking led me on -”

    “You tried to kill me, Kramer,” I reminded him.

    You tried to kill me first!” he retorted.

    “I caught you cheating on me with those catadapt twins,” I snapped. “How was I supposed to react? Join in?”

    You didn't have to pull out a pulse pistol and start shooting! he bellowed.

    I rolled my eyes. The incident had been more than twenty years ago. Some people held a grudge for far too long. “I only wanted to scare the catgirls away. And maybe wing you a little.”

    He subsided, glaring. I glared right back. It took Sean clearing his non-existent throat in my ear to snap me back to my current purpose.

    “Okay, Kramer,” I gritted. “We've got history. But I'm not here about that. I'm here to take back something you've got on board. Then I'll go my way, you'll go yours, and we can each try to forget that the other even exists.”

    Do I even have a choice?” he asked, grimacing.

    “Not much of one, no,” I admitted. “Of course, if a Prador dreadnought emerged from U-space right behind you, I'd give you the codes so we could both get the hell out, but anything short of that, I am gonna get what I want.”

    Yeah, that much hasn't changed,” he muttered.

    “So,” I told him brightly, “you're going to open your main lock, and have your crew all standing in plain view when I come in. If I see one hand on one gun, the average number of hands per crewmember on your ship is going to go down.”

    So what is it you're after?” he asked. “If I can have it ready for you to take, it'll make your job easier.”

    Now he sounded helpful and cooperative. It made sense; the less time I took, the faster he could go elsewhere and sell off his shady goods.

    I didn't trust him for a picosecond.

    “It's stolen goods. Doesn't belong to you,” I told him flatly.

    Well, that doesn't narrow it down much,” he replied blankly.

    “Not supposed to,” I agreed. “Just have all your crew out in plain view. Unarmed. Combat mods powered down. I've got good analysis software; I'll know.”

    They'll cooperate,” he assured me.

    “Good.” I cut the com, and smiled slightly. He hadn't said 'we', he'd said 'they'. He obviously didn't intend to cooperate. That was fine; I didn't intend to trust him.

    As I climbed into the EV suit, I accessed my aug. Sean, make sure he doesn't try anything tricky outside his ship. Let me know if you spot anything wonky.

    His warm Scottish burr was always thicker when action was possibly imminent. I'll do that for you, lass.

    Checking to make sure that my pulse pistol was secure in its thigh holster – it wasn't the one I'd used to break up his threesome, all those years ago, but it was a close cousin – I picked up the other essential package that I'd need, and let myself out through the airlock.

    There weren't any grav-plates outside the Bond James Bond, but the suit's gecko-grip soles stuck nicely to the hull of my ship. Extending my arm, I called up a reticle in my mind's eye, centred the target, and let fly. There was barely any jolt as the launcher on my left wrist expelled a grappler, which reeled out monofilament wire behind it.

    It whipped across the intervening distance at what would have been somewhat more than sonic speed, had there been air to carry sound, and smacked into the Gambler's Ruin amidships. Molecular polarisation made it the stickiest thing around; when the reel began to wind in, I was drawn along without straining the bond at all.

    I didn't travel quite as fast as the grapple-head had gone, but then, nor did I need to. Behind me, Sean would be keeping a very close electronic eye on the Ruin, both inside and out. The inhibitor program that I'd bribed a tech to install in the other ship's computer was a useful thing; it would also be allowing Sean access to his internal sensors. Of course, as soon as I was gone, Kramer would be scouring it from his systems, and be immune to it thereafter. But I only needed it this once.

    It was almost peaceful, there between the two ships. No demands on me, nothing near me except two tiny ships in a big, big universe. Ahead, I could see the active paintwork on the Ruin's nose, depicting a pair of old-style dotted dice rolling and breaking into fragments, before reforming and rolling once more. It was a nice touch; I admired it.

    When I was close enough to the Gambler's Ruin, I twisted my body so that I was falling 'down' toward the ship, and slowed my rate with the compressed-gas thrusters that ran up each suit leg. I landed lightly on the outer hull of the ship, my gecko-soles gripping immediately, and reeled in the remaining mono-cord. Then I stepped over to the side of the lock, its door opened wide. Invitingly so.

    I trusted it even less than I trusted Kramer.

    All good your end? I asked Sean.

    Seems to be, he agreed.

    He opened the lock for me, I noted. Be a dear and see how he booby-trapped it for me, will you?

    You really do not trust the man,
    he noted.

    I was married to him for eleven years, I replied. I have a good idea of how his mind works.

    If you don't trust or like him, why did you stay married that long?
    His voice was curious.

    I was young and stupid, he's very persuasive, and we never spent much time together that wasn't in bed, I sent back, a wry smile twisting my face.

    Ah. Of course. Sean almost sounded embarrassed. But then, his emulation programs were very good. Sorry for prying.

    Hey, we're partners,
    I told him. We share the good and the bad. About the airlock?

    More bad there, I'm afraid,
    he informed me. He's managed to rig it so that when it pressurises, it'll fill to about ten atmospheres, then eject you into space. He's also got two people trying to aug into his systems, to get them back online.

    ETA for that?

    Not long,
    he admitted. Fifteen minutes, maybe a little less. He has some good people.

    I was impressed; I'd been given a verbal guarantee of thirty-five minutes minimum. Well, let's see if we can't be gone by then.

    What are you going to do about the airlock?


    I grinned. Not my airlock.

    Oh dear.


    Swinging myself into the airlock, I felt the grav-plates engage, and I went from looking down at it to standing in it. As part of the same move, I swiped something off of my belt and slapped it on the inner door. The outer door closed solidly, and I engaged the locking latch. Air began to blast into the airlock interior at somewhat over normal pressure; I could feel the jets from where I stood.

    My aug made the connection to the micro-mine that I'd slapped on to the door as I retreated to the far corner of the airlock; I told it to detonate before the air pressure could get high enough to transmit any sort of shockwave. The crack was sharp, almost shrill, in the tenuous atmosphere, and a loud buzzer sounded, along with a flashing yellow light. An abortive clicking in the inner lock door indicated that someone was trying to secure it, but the micro-mine had disabled that particular mechanism, and not by coincidence. As the air pressure reached E-normal and rose above it, I toggled the inner door and pushed it open.

    As indicated, the crew of the Gambler's Ruin was all standing in the main area. Kramer had obviously gathered that I would have scan data on the whole ship, so he wasn't trying to hide anyone. It was about the only thing he wasn't trying to hide; I had no doubt but that the few items of smuggled goods I could see were things he'd decided he could afford to lose. And of course he and his tech people were doing their best to pretend not to concentrate their every effort on breaking the grip the inhibitor program had on their computers.

    But that was fine. I gave Kramer a cursory glance; he still had the striking looks that had attracted me, back when I lacked any sort of good judgement in men. He still had it, I saw; there were several women among the crew who seemed to hang close to him, almost protectively. I almost smiled; in an emergency, Kramer would think about Kramer first, last and always.

    I let my eyes rove over the rest, while casually plucking my pulse pistol from the holster and letting it dangle negligently by my side. I knew what Kramer had tried to do to me; he knew what I'd done to circumvent it. We didn't even bring up the matter.

    Or rather, I didn't feel like bringing it up, and if he brought it up, I had a pistol at hand. That sort of thing tends to win arguments.

    Among the rest of his crew, he had two Golem that I could spot, a catadapt – male, this one – several nondescript humans of one stripe or another, a seadapt, a true-human from Cull, and what looked like a hooper from Spatterjay. I tilted my head in apparent curiosity. “You,” I ordered, gesturing to the seadapt, apparently a teenage boy. “Come here a moment.”

    The kid glanced at Kramer, who hesitated for a long moment; I twitched the pistol upward slightly, and Kramer grimaced. “Do what she says, boy,” he ordered.

    Reluctantly, the seadapt approached me. “What?” he asked me, glancing nervously at Kramer again.

    I jerked my chin upward. “What's a seadapt doing in a spaceship, especially one without a submerge tank? Long way from your preferred environment.”

    “I, uh, I'm working my passage,” he jerked out, swallowing nervously.

    This close, he was a work of art. I'd met a few frog-like amphidapts, but no seadapts, at least not in person. His skin was a glittery sheen of scales, and the thick-lipped gills on either side of his abdomen pulsed and gaped occasionally. He had nictitating membranes like mine, but his were thick and obvious; when he blinked, they wiped across his large, wide-set eyes like silvery polishing cloths.

    I noted fins on his arms and legs that were currently laid flat, but could probably be raised, along with one laying flat on his hairless head. His fingers were extensively webbed, as were his toes, but it seemed that he could retract the webbing for manual purposes. His only item of clothing – a pair of utilitarian shorts – concealed whatever the 'dapt process had done for his love life.

    “Huh.” I pondered a moment. “Not any more. Get behind me. Into the lock.”

    “What?” He was startled, but I saw hope and fear rising in his eyes, in equal quantities.

    “I'm your rescue, kid,” I told him, tossing him the flat-packed EV suit that I'd carried over from the Bond James Bond. “Get that on. We're leaving.”

    Startled he may have been, but he was also very quick on the uptake. He had the pack open and was stepping into it by the time Kramer realised that I was serious. “Hey, wait,” he protested, stepping forward. “You can't -”

    My arm snapped up and he was looking into the muzzle of my pulse pistol. “I can and I will. I said I'd be taking one stolen item. That's him. Reynaud James Klovis VII, heir to the Klovis billions.” I kept reciting, not even needing to access my aug. “Kidnapped from his family's estate three weeks ago, occasioning the destruction of several Golem and necessitating the restoration of half a dozen human security from memplant. There is a very large bounty out on each and every member of the team that snatched him.”

    “That wasn't us,” Kramer told me hastily. “We're just taking him someplace safe.”

    “I knew it wasn't you,” I agreed. “Which is why I'm just taking junior home again. The reward is approximately my weight in etched sapphires, which will set me up for quite a while.”

    “Look, if you want, we can cut you in -” he began; my pistol, which had begun to lower, raised to point straight into his face once more.

    “Not interested,” I told him flatly. “I'll be taking young Klovis, and I won't be telling anyone where I found him, and you can go your merry way.”

    “Ready,” reported the kid from behind me; I spared half a glance, and he was just fastening the last seam.

    Kramer tried to jump me in that instant; I shot him in the knee, low power, and he sprawled. But other crew members were reaching behind their backs, and I knew it wasn't to relieve lower back pain.

    “Into the lock, now!” I snapped, leaping backward, and fanning fire across the rest of the crewmembers. Some dived for cover, some went down, and some returned fire. I pulled the lock door to and engaged the latch; one or two shots made it in before the heavy metal door blocked them out.

    It wouldn't hold them long, but I didn't need it to. I slapped another micro-mine on the outer door, braced myself, and triggered it. The wave of overpressure wasn't pleasant, but Reynaud stood it better than me; of course, being seadapt, he would be better equipped to handle variations in pressure. At least, I hoped so.

    Airlocks normally didn't open until one side or the other was equalised with the outside pressure. I had defeated both safety measures by the simple measure of puncturing the door; as I had intimated to Sean, it wasn't my airlock. My mine had wrecked the mechanism holding the door closed, so I turned the manual latch, and it opened, spilling us into vacuum.

    Reynaud's suit inflated to full size in an instant; it was a cheap, minimum-feature piece of crap I carried around because it took up little room. It would hold one atmosphere indefinitely, but didn't come with air packs. As we tumbled slowly away from the Gambler's Ruin, I grasped him firmly, returning my pistol to its holster once more. Then I fed a line from my EV suit to a socket on his.

    “Can you hear me?” I asked him out loud; the line had a speaker and a microphone in it, as well as other things.

    I can hear you,” he responded. “What happens now?”

    “What happens now is that you hold tight to me and I correct our spin,” I told him pragmatically. He did as he was told; I used my leg-thrusters to bring us on to a heading where I could see the Bond James Bond, lying almost invisible against the starscape, five kilometres away.

    “Keep hanging on,” I told him. “But don't foul my left arm.”

    He obeyed; no doubt, he'd been through security drills before, and the one thing that had been pounded into his scaly skull was when you don't know what's going on, stay calm and do what you're told.

    Behind me, I knew that the crew of the Gambler's Ruin would be arming themselves and suiting up, and making their way to other airlocks; the one I had ruined would not be a way out for any of them at this moment. Those who I had not shot, that is. Those ones would be nursing very painful burns. But I wouldn't put it past Kramer to come after me anyway. That man could hold a grudge.

    My reticle firmed up and I loosed the shot, just as Sean's voice came up in my ears.

    Don't want to rush you, lass, but they're out of the ship now, and there's blood in their eye.

    I'm on it,
    I assured him, just as the grapple-head hit and stuck to my ship. Okay, if you can back up just a little while I'm reeling in?

    Roger that, lass,
    he replied; I felt the acceleration away from the Gambler's Ruin as I cut in the rewind function, and we started moving away faster than the mechanism was capable of pulling us.

    What?” gasped Reynaud. “What's got us?”

    “My ship,” I told him. “Just relax, and hang on.”

    He relaxed, and hung on. Several shots crackled past us, but we were small targets, and receding rapidly. We reeled in, and the Bond James Bond came closer, all the while we drew away from the Gambler's Ruin.

    If you'll detach now, I'll catch you in the main airlock,
    Sean instructed me. We may need to hurry. They've almost cracked the Inhibitor, and the crew are being recalled inside.

    That wasn't a good thing. The Gambler's Ruin was several times larger than the Bond James Bond, and the mess they could make of us, once free of electronic shackles, would be substantial.

    I detached the monowire and retracted it, then used my leg thrusters to bring us around once more. Reynaud didn't struggle, but his eyes widened as he saw my ship for the first time; it was apparently approaching us at a rather alarming speed. We were going to land feet-first in the airlock.

    We're going to hit -” he blurted, then shut himself up. I mentally assigned him another mark for clear thinking; he had obviously realised that I already knew what was going on.

    Seconds before we were due to hit, Sean propelled the ship sideways on thrusters, so that we seemed to slow abruptly; when we did touch down, my gecko soles adhering nicely, it was with barely a bump.

    I kept hold of Reynaud – his suit wasn't equipped with gecko-grip, and had I let go, he would have bounced out into the void once more – and grabbed a handrail. After a moment, he did the same, and we brought our feet down to the 'floor' of the airlock. The outer hatch closed, and we both felt the lock filling with air – to one E-standard atmosphere this time, not the ten that Kramer had intended for me.

    As soon as the pressure matched, I opened the inner hatch and headed for the cockpit. I felt the line I had attached to Reynaud pull free, but that didn't matter; we were both in atmosphere again. Popping my helmet, I lifted it off my head. “Unseal and grab a seat, kid,” I told him. “We're gonna have to make some high Gs to get clear before I can use my U-space engines.”

    There were a couple of acceleration chairs back in the body of the Bond James Bond, but Reynaud was obviously determined not to just be a passenger any more. As I strapped myself into the pilot's seat – not that I was really needed there, as Sean could run the ship just as well as I could – the seadapt climbed into the seat beside me, already reaching for the straps.

    The very instant his restraints clicked home, a warning buzzer sounded, and the ship bucked violently. For a moment I thought that the Gambler's Ruin had shot at us, but it was merely Sean turning tail and piling on the Gs.

    They've overcome it, Sean reported a moment later. Now they'll be coming after us.

    “Out loud, please Sean,” I requested.

    Certainly,” he responded. “The Gambler's Ruin has overcome the inhibitor program, and will be coming after us. By the way, I'm Sean, and welcome to the Bond James Bond.”

    “Uh, thanks,” Reynaud replied. “And thanks for the rescue. That was really smooth.”

    I smiled at the praise, pushing back the hair over my aug in an unconscious motion. “That's okay. Kramer and I have a history. It was nice to be able to kick him in the balls one more time.”

    “Wow, really?” he asked. “You don't look much older than me.”

    I had to admit, I was flattered. I like to think that I look good, and anti-ageing treatments are cheap. I prefer the 'elf' look; platinum hair, pointy ears, huge silver-blue eyes in a triangular face, the whole deal. This comes with a slender, waif-like build, but skeletal reinforcement and muscular enhancement means that I can still bench as much as your regular adult male. Unenhanced, of course. The weights that those high-G brutes can dead-lift is ridiculous. And don't get me started on hoopers.

    “Keep dreaming, kid,” I chuckled. “I parted ways with Kramer twenty-five years ago, and I was married to him for eleven years before that.”

    He blinked, assimilating that. “Huh,” he mused. “I can see it, but I've really got to look.”

    “Well, we're going to be spending a lot more time in each others' company,” I noted. “My U-space engine isn't the strongest, so until we can reach a planet with a runcible gate, we're going to be days in transit.”

    As I spoke, I was using my aug to call up data on the pursuing ship. They had more engine power; I had less mass to accelerate. Kramer must have been redlining his engines, because he was creeping up on me, despite Sean pushing our engine to what he considered to be our safe limit.

    A spark flared on the ship, and suddenly, we were rolling to the side, the conflicting forces making my inner ear slosh uncomfortably. Something shot past us, lighting up the void.

    “ … and they're shooting at us,” I muttered. “Wonderful.”

    “Can you shoot back?”

    I looked at Reynaud. “I could, but I don't want to waste missiles. Besides, we're almost there.”

    “Almost where?” he asked.

    “Almost ready to hit U-space,” I informed him. “Ready, Sean?”

    Ready when you are.”

    “Do it.”

    Barely had the words left my mouth when a siren sounded. Sean's voice blared from the speakers. “Contra-”

    The glare from behind us, and the tremendous jolt coincided with the entry into U-space. It felt like we were tumbling; certainly, it did not feel like any U-space transit that I had ever experienced before.

    - terrene device,” finished Sean. “I'm picking up some really weird energy readings.”

    “From the explosion?” I called up the data he was looking at, and he was right. The readings were really weird.

    Your guess is as good as mine. Uh, there's a fluctuation in the U-space engine now. It doesn't look good, and it's getting worse.”

    “How far have we travelled? Are we away from Kramer?”

    Undoubtedly.”

    “Good. Drop out of U-space and see if we can't do some repairs before we move on.”

    Good idea.”

    The return to realspace was almost as wrenching as the entry into U-space. The Bond James Bond was shuddering all over by the time we were fully back into the real. I drew a deep breath and looked around. Nothing seemed to be on fire, and I didn't hear any atmosphere leaks.

    “Well, that was fun,” I noted. “Gimme a full diagnostic and a location, so we know which way to run for a Polity planet.”

    That's … really weird,” Sean observed slowly.

    “What is?” I pulled up his data on my aug. Then I blinked. “Shit, that is weird.”

    “What's weird?” asked Reynaud.

    I looked at him. “I'll send it to your aug.”

    “I don't have one,” he pointed out. And it was true; he didn't.

    “Why the hell not?” I asked. “It's not like your family's not rich enough to afford one.”

    He shook his head. “Grandpa always said that we had to reach twenty-one without using one. That way we'd learn to think for ourselves before letting an aug take over for us.”

    “Huh.” That was almost as weird as what Sean and I had discovered.

    “So what's weird?” he asked again.

    “Well, we seem to have arrived in the Sol system,” I told him slowly. “But there are aberrations. Anachronisms. No sign of the Mars settlements. No space travel at all, in fact. Nothing in the asteroid belt, or around Jupiter.”

    I'm detecting electronic life signs from Earth, of course,” Sean put in. “But nothing of the volume I would have expected.”

    “It's almost as if we've arrived in the past,” I muttered.

    “But that's impossible,” protested Reynaud. “Isn't it?”

    Not … impossible,” Sean told us. “Just very difficult to pull off. It's called a time-inconsistent jump. More usually doable with runcibles, with the huge downside that you will destroy everything within a large radius of the starting runcible, depending on how far you go in distance and time. But all the evidence suggests that we've pulled one off with our U-space jump. Very likely with the assistance of Kramer's CTD.”

    “Well, fuck.” I let my head lower forward until my forehead was resting on the console. It was cool on my skin.

    “So, uh, how far back are we?” asked Reynaud practically. “A hundred years? Two hundred? A thousand?”

    That should be relatively easy to work out,” Sean noted. “Let me see … hmm. Relative positions … general state of observed technology … I would guess that it's on the extremely close order of five hundred seventy-three years. Plus or minus ten years.”

    “So what's the date?” I asked, without raising my head.

    For that, you'll have to land and buy a newspaper,” Sean replied with an electronic chuckle. “But my best guess at the year is … two thousand and eleven.”

    “Well,” observed Reynaud. “Damn.”


    End of Part One

    Part Two
     
    Last edited: Nov 10, 2015
  3. Threadmarks: Part Two: Reynaud
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    War Games

    Part Two: Reynaud


    AG: anti-gravity.

    avidapt: human with bird-like genetic adaptations.

    Centurion class: heavy Polity warship.

    Chainglass: a substance consisting of chained silicon molecules. Transparent as glass, tougher than steel plate.

    Grav-planing: using AG rather than thrusters to maintain altitude.

    Ian Cormac: Main character of the first Polity series. Extremely capable secret agent.

    Occam Razor: a huge battleship, veteran of the Prador Wars.

    Shimmer-shield: light, selectively permeable force field

    Skaidon-Craystein experiment: a ground-breaking event where a human genius entered into direct mind-to-mind connection with an AI. This led directly to the invention of runcible technology.

    Telefactored: remote controlled. A robot being telefactored is called a 'telefactor'.

    Ursidapt: human with genetic adaptations derived from bear DNA


    I had a little bruising on my shoulders where the straps had bitten in during the high-G manoeuvres, but I wasn't about to complain. Captain Hastings had performed a rescue worthy of the legendary Ian Cormac himself, and we were both alive and well, despite having had a CTD thrown at us just before we entered U-space.

    Of course, we were also kind of far from home, but I wasn't about to complain about that, either. Growing up as the Klovis heir apparent, I hadn't exactly been smothered, but there had been a distinct lack of adventure in my life. Where my peers were skydiving from orbit or doing endurance treks across Syrtis Major, the most my parents allowed me to do was get a seadapt genemod, so I could indulge in my hobby; that is, study of the evolving biology of the Pacific Basin. And even then, I had been shadowed by telefactored robots, alert for the slightest sign of danger.

    I had no doubt, now, that the telefactors were only the visible surface of the security that had surrounded me, that I had been under constant surveillance from every angle, just so that I could pretend I was alone at the bottom of the ocean. The cost must have been staggering, but Mother and Father had let me go ahead with it anyway.

    Ironically, the environment had supplied the greater part of the security around me; three kilometres down, unadapted humans could not come close without the aid of expensive tech, and any moving object more than a few centimetres in size would have been scanned to a fare-thee-well. It's hard to pretend to be a lost tourist when it costs hundreds of thousands just to be down there at all.

    Which was undoubtedly why the snatch team had waited until I was on the surface, relaxing at the family estate. It was not so much a chink in the security, as a gradual lowering of security levels from 'high' to 'medium', given that Mother and Father were away on a lunar vacation, that heralded the attack.

    I had not known much of it; my first intimation of trouble had come when I was hauled from the saltwater pool where I was trying to establish coral growth by one of our Golem security. Lacking an aug, I had to make do with a hasty explanation that a chameleoned craft had been spotted grav-planing in over the ocean, and was mere moments away.

    In fact the craft that the security scanners had acquired had dropped its chameleonware deliberately, and was the decoy for the other two to hit the Sardinia estate from the landward side. Even as the debris from the first craft was still pattering to the surface of the Tyrrhenian Sea, I was being hustled toward the bunker under the main house.

    But we never got there; the attackers ruthlessly used heavy weapons to mow down the Golem and enhanced humans who massed to oppose them. The security codes had been leaked, or someone had been sharp enough to infiltrate the security system and take them, because after taking out the decoy, the estate security systems simply shut down.

    A highly accurate burst of railgun fire served to obliterate the Golem – his name was Lance – who was trying to drag me to cover. I ran then, not for the house but for the perimeter fence. On the other side of that was a twelve metre cliff, overlooking the ocean. Primed for a dry-land grab, perhaps they would not be able to track and capture me in the ocean, whereas I would have been in my element, and I knew every centimetre of the undersea terrain for kilometres around.

    Unfortunately, they were ahead of me there as well; a stun shot caught me before I was well on my way. I passed out, and woke up aboard the Gambler's Ruin.

    Captain Kramer wasn't a cruel man, but he wasn't a good man either. Neither appeals to his better nature, nor offers of a reward greater than he was likely to be getting for this job, seemed to get through to him. I was set to doing menial tasks around the ship, never getting the opportunity to get close to the controls or communications. There seemed no chance of escape, and my own personal prospects had been looking grim, given that a couple of the crew had been showing more and more of a personal interest in me.

    The arrival of Geneva Hastings had overturned all of that, and I had begun to foster hope, hope that I would be allowed to return to the safe, secure boredom of normal life. This, of course, was not to be.

    <><>​

    “ … not to be,” I sub-vocalised, just loudly enough for the implant micro-recorder within my left cheekbone to pick up. It was a habit I had picked up in my research trips out into the Pacific, to narrate everything I saw and heard, and sift through it later with the aid of the house AI. The recorder was extremely minimal, not even picking up vision or any sound other than my own voice, for which it was keyed, but it was also very rugged, powered by my body heat, and would probably outlast me.

    Which, given our current situation, was looking more and more likely all the time.

    “So what do we do now?” I asked out loud. I was fairly sure that Sean had detected the recorder, and had relayed the fact of it to Captain Hastings, which was probably why neither of them had queried me mumbling to myself.

    Captain Hastings turned to me, her eyes slightly unfocused in the manner one learns to recognise as the mark of someone viewing aug projections in the mind's eye. “We get closer, but we do it carefully. Sean's picked up some extremely odd readings, and I want to see what the hell's going on before we stick our noses in and maybe get them chopped off.”

    I frowned. “Didn't you say this was a pre-runcible culture?” I knew, of course, when the Skaidon-Craystein experiment had taken place; it wasn't due to happen for another hundred seventy-nine years. “Surely they don't have anything capable of detecting us, even if we cruise in on AG.”

    I wouldn't be so sure, lad,” the AI responded. “Just to be thorough, I ran a complete battery of sensor scans, even for signals that should not normally be present in the here and now. Most such were absent. But this one is why Geneva and I were conferring while you updated your diary.”

    I let the reference to my recorder slide by while I focused on the image that Sean now projected up before the chainglass forward viewport. It was the planet, now half an AU away, that to all intents and purposes looked like the Earth where I had grown up. Minus, of course, the accumulated results of half a millennium of civilisation. And plus … I stared. On every continent except Antarctica, clustering where cities seemed to be located, were hundreds of thousands of tiny blue dots. Some of them were moving, visibly, across the face of the world.

    “What is that? It looks almost like … “

    “No 'almost' about it,” Captain Hastings told me grimly. “Earth or not, five hundred years in the past or not, that place is lousy with U-space disturbances. And I have no idea what's generating them. So before we make contact, before we even show ourselves, I really do want to get a closer look, see what we're dealing with.”

    It didn't make sense; I couldn't work it out. My nictitating membranes slid across my eyes and back; I felt my fin-crest erecting in my consternation, the blood vessels expanding to release waste heat to the air. “But … U-space technology means runcibles. And they didn't get invented this far back.”

    “As far as we know, kid,” Captain Hastings corrected me. “But something's generating all those signatures, and I need to find out what.”

    <><>​

    We crept closer, using the Moon for cover. Captain Hastings had a couple of drones on board – nothing sapient, each one telefactored by Sean – but she didn't want to release them too soon. The AI kept updating the scans, but could not find any active devices on the Moon, in lunar orbit, or even anything significant in Earth orbit. Dumb satellites only, with less processing power than in my implant recorder.

    I made myself useful by unstrapping and going back to the minuscule galley that had been crammed into the Bond James Bond. Captain Hastings preferred a New Carth blend of Darjeeling tea, whereas I mixed myself up a cocoa drink that Sean assured me was utterly free of caffeine. My genemod form has few drawbacks, but caffeine is one of them; it makes me violently nauseous.

    Once Captain Hastings was sure that we were totally hidden from Earth by the bulk of its primary satellite, she gunned the fusion engines; we fell swiftly toward the cratered landscape below. The grav-plates compensated for the surge of acceleration; the drinks barely rippled in their cups as we powered straight down, seemingly to our inevitable destruction.

    Not that I was worried; in the short time that I had known Captain Hastings, I had formed a strong impression of her. She was stubborn, fearless, competent, professional, and possessed a distinct sense of humour. I also suspected that I was forming a crush on her, not in the least bit hindered by our different ages. But that aside, I knew full well that she was neither careless nor suicidal, and that she knew the performance of the Bond James Bond to the last decimal point. So I relaxed, and drank cocoa, while the surface of the Moon leaped up at us.

    With barely a kilometre to go, the ship's nose eased upward, pulling us out of the vertiginous dive. In a holomovie, the struts would have groaned and lights would have dimmed; perhaps a minor system would have blown, sputtering sparks across the cabin. But nothing like that happened here; I felt perhaps a little heavier, the result of the grav-plates not being able to disperse quite all of the pseudo-Gs of the pullout, but nothing to worry about.

    By the time we reached level flight, we were hammering along at about three hundred yards above the undulating surface of Farside. The AG balanced the weaker pull of the satellite below us, and the fusion thrusters drove us along at speeds that would surely have seen us fined to a fare-thee-well, had Captain Hastings tried the same stunt in the same place in our time. She grinned at me; I grinned back. Despite the fact that we were not technically breaking any laws, this was fun.

    Abruptly, she cut the drive, and we coasted ahead, surfing on the AG. Tiny inconsistencies in the gravitational constant of the Moon provided wobbles and bumps, which gradually slowed us down. “Nearside coming up,” she announced, and Sean provided a globe of the Moon, with us as a red dot, approaching an invisible terminator line in the moonscape ahead of us.

    We drifted forward; the terminator slid beneath us.

    And the Earth slowly rose.

    <><>​

    With the merest application of forward thrusters, we hung motionless over the lunar surface, while the Earth depended in the void before us, just above a distant line of craggy mountains. I stared at it; so beautiful, so close. Homesickness arose in my heart, and I pushed it down. This might be an Earth, but it wasn't my Earth.

    “Can I get surface imagery?” I asked. “None of the anomalous readings, just the actual globe.”

    Certainly, lad,” Sean agreed, and the partial globe formed before me, formed from the visual data that Sean had gleaned. “You know, before this is over, we might need to fit you with an aug.”

    I glanced up. “You've got one, here?”

    “We do,” Captain Hastings replied, as she undoubtedly studied a virtual image of the same globe I was looking at, but from within her virtual workspace. “But we'll hold off on that. Don't want you falling afoul of your grandfather.”

    I nodded. “He does get a bit crusty. But I've only got two years to go. By then I'll need it, if I'm going to get into the really intensive study projects.”

    “Study?” she asked absently. “I would have thought you'd be preparing to take over the family business.”

    I snorted. “Not until I've passed my first century. I'm to get all of my 'enthusiasms' out of the way first, as Mother and Father put it. Also, that sort of thing apparently gives me 'valuable life experience'.” My tone of voice, as I turned the globe with hand gestures in the air, made it clear what I thought of that phrase.

    “Some of it more than others,” agreed Hastings dryly. “Whoa, that's interesting.”

    “So's this,” I responded, framing my fingers and then pulling them apart to get a closer look at the surface of the Earth. “This is … wrong.”

    She blinked, her nictitating membranes flickering across her eyes almost too fast to see. “What's wrong?”

    “This is the Japanese island chain,” I told her. “There are supposed to be three main islands. Hokkaido, Honshu and Kyushu.”

    She looked more closely. “I count two.”

    I nodded. “That's because Kyushu isn't there.”

    She blinked again, more slowly. “Not there?”

    He's correct, lass,” Sean put in. “The entire landmass has been displaced downward by roughly a thousand metres. I'm reading faint traces of what must be corroding buildings and other items in the area.”

    Captain Hastings' eyes were wide. “It wouldn't be too hard to do something like that back home,” she muttered. “But how would they do something like that here?”

    “Uh, some sort of natural disaster?” I ventured, then paused. “No, wait, it can't be. That never happened in recorded history.”

    It's not the only disaster that's happened here,” Sean noted. “I'm picking up areas of higher than normal radiation, devastated cities, some that look abandoned or nearly so. Some coastal areas look like they've been hit by highly concentrated weather effects. Far more than should be normal.”

    “Okay, that's weird,” I agreed. “What did you find, Captain?”

    “Eastern horizon, Sean,” she stated quietly.

    My globe disappeared, and the entire chainglass screen vanished behind the holopic thus created. It had depth; I felt that I could reach into it. It was the edge of the world, to the right-hand edge; what would be the 'east', if we were on the ground. There was a speck there, hanging above the atmosphere.

    “What is that?” I asked. “A satellite?”

    In answer, Sean zoomed in; the picture rotated, and we were looking at it. Or rather, her.

    I had no idea of scale, but what we were seeing was a woman, or something that looked like a woman. She had wings growing from her back, like an angel, or like an avidapt on a low-grav world or orbital habitat. But that was where it broke down; the wings had other wings sprouting from them, at odd angles and sizes. There was no symmetry, and when I tried to make sense of it, my head began to hurt.

    “That's no satellite.” Captain Hastings kept her voice low, despite the fact that we were in a spaceship cockpit, surrounded by vacuum, four hundred thousand kilometres away from the thing. “I'm not sure what it is, but it's a locus of some of that U-space disturbance. A big locus.”

    “It looks like a woman,” I burbled inanely, my brain obviously deciding that I had to say something.

    It's four metres tall, lad,” Sean informed me. “It's alive, or at least animate, but there are no organic life readings from it. Nor AG. Despite the fact that – hang on!”

    Instinctively, I grabbed for the arm-rests, and not a moment too soon. Sean rolled the Bond James Bond inverted and slammed on full AG, which resulted in us dropping out of the lunar sky considerably faster than a rock would fall on Earth. He rolled us out of the death dive bare metres from the rocky terrain, and slowly lowered us to the ground. As our landing gear crunched down, Captain Hastings carefully placed her cup on the console.

    “What was that all about?” she asked conversationally.

    When we began discussing the anomalous being,” Sean told us, “it was slowly revolving around its axis. It slowed to a halt, and then turned its head. To look directly at us.”

    At us,” she repeated flatly. “That's impossible. You were running full chameleonware.”

    I was, but it didn't seem to matter,” confirmed Sean. “Here, I'll show you.”

    Up in front of the screen, he place the recorded holo-image. It showed the female winged figure, slowly turning. Stopping. Turning her head. There could be no mistaking it; her viewpoint was directly towards us. Sean stepped the recording forwards, one-tenth of a second at a time, until the image was cut off by the mountains now hiding us from Earth. The last clear picture of the thing showed something that sent chills down my back.

    She had smiled.

    <><>​

    “What were you saying just before we ducked for cover?” asked Captain Hastings. I handed her a fresh cup of tea, and a plate of reconstituted cookies, and she smiled her thanks at me.

    Settling down in my own seat, I buckled my lapstrap before sipping at my cocoa. The desolate landscape rolled away beneath us as we skimmed over the surface, seeking a point of view near the lunar north pole.

    I was going to make a comment to the effect that the entity's orbital speed and altitude did not match with a stable orbit,” Sean replied. “It should have been travelling much faster, if it was even the density of foamed plastic. There was no AG trace; I couldn't see how it was staying up.”

    “I get the strong impression that we should not get in that thing's way,” stated Captain Hastings. I didn't disagree. “Not least because it picked us up from our AG trace from nearly half a million klicks away. But also that it spotted us, knew it had scared us, and smiled about it.”

    “And, of course, because it's a huge locus of that U-space disturbance,” I noted.

    “That too,” she agreed.

    “How are the drones going?” I asked.

    They're clear of the Moon now,” Sean replied; he was flying them, as well as the Bond James Bond. “I'm sneaking peeks at the entity, but it does not appear to be noticing them. At least it's not turning to look at them.”

    “Maybe it's sensitive to people looking at it, thinking about it,” I suggested.

    “I've heard of stranger things,” agreed the Captain. “I've seen stranger things.”

    I fought in the Prador wars,” Sean commented, his voice unusually subdued. “And I heard the rumours about what happened to the Occam Razor. I don't know what we're facing here, but I suspect that it might be at least equally problematic.”

    Chills ran down my back again. I hadn't been around for either event, but I knew enough about the Prador Wars, at least, that if that entity scared Sean, then I had every right to be terrified.

    “So what are we going to do?” I asked. Vaguely, I recalled asking that same question before we had begun our approach to this version of Earth.

    “We record as much as we can,” Captain Hastings decided. “We check over the U-space engine. We make a run for it as soon as we've got all the data we can, or if that thing makes a move toward us. And we see if we can't transit back home, running the solution in reverse.”

    That's technically possible, lass,” Sean told us a heartbeat later. “But for one tiny problem.”

    “What's the problem?” she asked, an edge to her voice.

    The U-space engine,” he reported. “I've had a sub-mind running a diagnostic on it ever since we emerged. It's found damage from the entry stresses. Some components we have. Some we can rig. And some we don't have and can't rig.”

    She looked irritated. “Can we jury-rig from something else on the ship?”

    No, lass,” he told her. “We're lacking the materials, and the manufactory doesn't have the wherewithal to smelt the available raw ore to make said materials.”

    Fuck,” she growled. “Rock, meet hard place.”

    “Uh,” I ventured.

    She turned to face me. “What?”

    “Down there,” I told her, gesturing toward the currently-hidden Earth beyond the moon. “Hundreds of thousands of U-space disturbance traces.”

    Her face closed up in something approximating pain. “Please tell me you're not suggesting that we … “

    Sean cleared his electronic throat. “The lad has a point,” he observed. “Our best chance of repairing our U-space drive might very well rest with whoever or whatever is generating all that disturbance down there.”

    Captain Hastings set her jaw. If I didn't know her, I would have said she looked adorable. Instead, she just looked tough. “So you're saying we have to go down there.”

    So it seems.”

    “And talk to the locals.”

    Probably a better idea than just taking what we want.”

    “And survive long enough to get the parts made, the engine repaired, before we can figure out what sort of jump we need to do in order to get home.”

    A succinct description of the task at hand.”

    Captain Hastings smiled slowly. “Well, then. Let's figure out how to do it.”

    <><>​

    Hours passed, during which time I folded down a bunk in the rear of the ship and took a nap; it had been a wearying day. Captain Hastings seemed to be able to get by on Darjeeling and recon pastries; she spent the time conferring with Sean via aug while they went over the data that the drones were collecting.

    When I woke, I felt somewhat refreshed, although I was suffering from a nagging headache. Not having to worry about having one's erstwhile shipmates trying to sneak into one's bunk area was a huge relief, although some part of me wished that Captain Hastings would. Not that she thought of me in that way, of course. I was just a callow, inexperienced kid to her. While she'd probably never gone through this exact situation, it was likely that she had been in tight scrapes before now, and was far more ready for it than I was. I just hoped that I wouldn't get too much in the way …

    Lad, we're about ready to go down. Something seems to be happening.”

    I sat up immediately. “Okay, Sean, thanks. I'll be there straight away.”

    Splashing water on my face, and drinking a litre straight down, woke me up more, and the headache started to fade; I hadn't realised how dehydrated I was. I didn't have as big a problem with that as amphidapts did, but it wasn't a great idea for me to go without drinking for any length of time.

    “What's happening?” I asked, heading forward to the cockpit.

    Captain Hastings didn't look around as I strapped myself in; I noted that she had all straps fastened, so I did the same. “Once we got a full globe, Sean did a search for other coastline anomalies,” she told me. “Good catch on that, by the way.”

    My crest lifted momentarily in the closest I could come to a blush, but she was already continuing. “Honolulu, in Hawaii, is more or less underwater as well. Newfoundland has likewise been submerged. And there's a really strange one, on the northeast coast of the United States; a whole section of coastline is entirely at odds with our maps of the area, around the region of New Hampshire.”

    “Some sort of catastrophe?” I asked, my mouth dry despite the water I had ingested.

    We can't be sure,” Sean noted. “I accessed the local data grid; you may recall that they used to call it the Internet. No indication that this particular area was ever any different to the way it is now. There are other geographical oddities around the world, but that's the most striking one. However, there's more.”

    “Of course there is,” I agreed. “What's the bad news?”

    Captain Hastings turned to glance at me; she half-smiled before replying. “We have a line on what's causing the destruction. Including what sank Kyushu and Newfoundland, and caused a lot of death and devastation elsewhere. There are three creatures that the locals call 'Endbringers', for reasons that will become readily apparent. Every few months, they appear, destroy property and kill people., before they are driven away.”

    “Endbringers,” I repeated. “No, that doesn't sound ominous at all. What do they look like?”

    Brace yourself, lad,” Sean told me. “We've already encountered one.” And not at all to my surprise, the image of the winged woman went up on the screen. Flanking her were two others; a blocky thing that looked vaguely like a cyclops-eyed ursidapt with insane combat mods, and a lizardlike thing with a weird flat face and a long whippy tail. A human form beside them gave me scale, which didn't comfort me at all; any one of them could stomp me into paste.

    “Driven away?” I asked. “By what?” If these things can devastate cities and sink landmasses, what would they have here that can drive them away?

    By way of answer, a picture came up on the HUD; this was a 2D image, obviously a recording. Humans, in imaginative costumes. Flying. Emitting brightly-coloured energy from their hands.

    “Wait,” I protested. “Grav harnesses? Pulse weapons? I thought we'd agreed that local tech wasn't up to that.”

    “Not grav harnesses,” Captain Hastings told me. “Nor pulse weapons. That is, to the best of our understanding, self-powered. All of it.”

    I frowned. “Self-powered? How does that work, exactly?”

    We're still figuring that out, lad,” Sean observed, “but it seems to have something to do with the fact that each and every one of these powered humans seems to be connected to a U-space trace.”

    “Great,” I muttered. “So they're somehow tapping into U-space as an energy source?”

    “Somehow without smearing themselves all over nearby space-time, apparently so,” the Captain agreed. She gestured at the screen, where the globe of Earth had been growing steadily larger all the time we'd been talking. “However, remember that anomalous area in New Hampshire?”

    I had a really bad feeling about this. “Uh, yes?”

    “Well, the U-space disturbances in that area have been going crazy over the last half-hour or so. In addition, the local weather patterns have been twisting out of shape, converging rainclouds over the area. This is probably not unconnected with the fact that one of our super-loci – the lizard-thing, that the locals call Leviathan – is on the move toward there. Have a look.”

    At her unspoken command, the screen changed, showing a section of coastline, with a city in the middle of it. There was a bright blue dot far offshore, but approaching rapidly. Filaments of blue energy curled throughout the region, almost appearing to be dragging the clouds into place.

    “That's U-space ripples, right?”

    She nodded. “It is. But look at the city itself, and tell me what you see.”

    I looked. It took me a moment to get it, but when I did, it was obvious. “Those powered humans are coming into the city. Gathering to oppose the creature.”

    Aye, lad,” Sean replied, his accent stronger than ever. “That they are. And from the information we've gathered, they're going to be taking approximately twenty-five percent casualties when they face that thing.”

    The bad feeling was back. “We're going down there to help them, aren't we?”

    Captain Hastings nodded. “We are. The Bond James Bond might not be a Centurion-class, but we've still got some throw weight. And if we step in on the locals' side, it'll hopefully make them more amenable toward helping us out with U-space engine parts.”

    But we're not going to force you into this conflict,” Sean told me. “We can drop you off someplace first, if you wish.”

    I looked at Captain Hastings, and she looked back at me. “You risked your life to rescue me,” I told her.

    “For a large payout,” she reminded me, a slight smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.

    “You still did it,” I insisted. “I can't stand by now. I'm in.”

    She smiled more widely and clasped my forearm. “Good to hear. Let's do this thing.”

    <><>​

    The clouds were gathering now, with unnatural speed, mounding up over the location of the coastal city which appeared to be the destination of the thing called Leviathan. I stared at the depiction of its progress. “It's moving fast,” I commented. “Supercavitating?”

    “Your guess is as good as mine,” Captain Hastings replied. “Ever handled the controls of something like this?”

    I shook my head. “Only my parents' grav-limo, and only with the AI watching to make sure I didn't do anything stupid.”

    “Hm,” she replied. “Well, how do you feel about search and rescue?” She tilted her head toward the display. “I can see a lot of water coming down in a short time. And that thing looks to be dragging seawater toward shore. There might be flooding.”

    “Flooding, I can handle,” I assured her. “I'm good for fresh water as well as salt. I dived on Europa once, and I know first aid. I can do search and rescue.”

    “Good,” she told me. “There's a backpack filter lung in storage. Take it with you.”

    I frowned. “I won't be needing that,” I reminded her, gesturing at my gill slits.

    She smiled slightly. “I know. But your rescuees might.”

    “Oh.” I felt stupid.

    “It's okay,” she assured me, clasping my shoulder briefly. “I'm making this up as I go along, too.”

    That made me feel a little better, but not much. I glanced at the screen. “Where's the bird woman one?”

    I have the drones tracking it,” Sean told us. “They call it the Simurgh. It's currently over the Pacific, heading west.”

    “Good, so we're clear for a little while yet,” Captain Hastings noted. “I do not want to share airspace with that thing.”

    “What do you think it is? What they all are?” I asked. “Some sort of rogue superweapon? Got out of control, and now it's attacking its creators?”

    It wouldn't be the first time I've seen that sort of thing,” Sean observed sombrely. I waited, but he didn't elaborate. “But even with whatever's causing those U-space disturbances, I can't see them having the tech to create things like those. They're just too sophisticated.”

    “Anything on the grid about their origins?” asked Captain Hastings as we entered the cloud layer. Winds buffeted us; we rocked slightly. I unstrapped and went back to fetch the filter-lung.

    Nothing that I can find,” Sean replied. “Most people seem to think that they're some sort of super-mutated parahuman.”

    I decided that 'parahuman' was what they called the costumed people with the impossible U-space connections. “You think that's true?” I queried, returning as I shrugged into the slimline harness. It wouldn't allow me to erect my spinal crest, but I could deal with that. The breather mask sat just over my right shoulder.

    Insufficient data to reach a solid conclusion,” he replied briefly. “I'm cracking the local comm nets now.”

    As we watched, the dot neared the shore; despite our best efforts, it would reach there before we got into position. And then a huge swell of water built up and rolled in toward the city.

    "You've got to be kidding me," breathed Captain Hastings, as the wall of water swept in through the shallows. "That thing can create tsunamis on demand?"

    I was too shocked to even reply as the gigantic wave broke over the buildings nearest to shore. On the overlay, a mass of U-space traces abruptly disappeared from the wave's path, to pop up again farther inland.

    "Did they just do a U-space jump in atmosphere, in a gravity well?"

    Sean answered Captain Hastings' query. "It appears so. I would really like to know how they're doing that – oh."

    "Oh, what?" I asked nervously.

    "They've got an AI running the show."

    "Huh," Hastings commented. "Normally, I'd say 'that's impossible', but I'm learning new definitions of the word. Try to integrate our efforts with it." She turned to me. "I've got life signs in the water. People got sucked out to sea when the wave receded. Ready to go?"

    I tugged on a strap unnecessarily. "As I'll ever be."

    "Good." The airlock opened both hatches at once; torrential rain attempted to blow in through the opening. The shimmer-shield situated outside the airlock for just such a purpose did its job, and the rain ran down it in heavy streams instead.

    Captain Hastings reached up; for a moment I thought she was caressing my cheek, but then I realised she was pressing a tiny U-space comm into my ear. "Be careful out there."

    I did my best to grin at her. "Hey, I'll just be rescuing people. You're the ones who'll be fighting the monster." Turning, I took two steps and dived out through the shimmer-shield. I emerged into open air; the heaving ocean was just twenty metres below.

    For a long moment, I fell, and then I cleaved the face of a rising wave, and was under water. Near-silent dimness surrounded me; distant booming bespoke surf upon the shore. There was silt in suspension all around, brought up from the sea floor by the turbulence. My gills would not be hampered by it; I had handled worse. I hoped that Captain Hasting's filter-lung was similarly robust.

    Reflexively, my hand and foot webbing extended, and my arm and leg frills rose to their full extent. My lungs emptied themselves in a rush of bubbles, and I took my first inhalation of salt water in far too long. Swallowing, I worked my jaw to kick in my cetacean hearing. The ocean around me was immediately filled with the multitude of sounds that mere human senses can never detect.

    Not far away I heard what I was listening for; a human struggling to get to the surface, to breathe. Triangulating the sound, I kicked my legs and shot away.

    Time to earn my keep.


    End of Part Two

    Part Three
     
    Last edited: May 16, 2017
  4. Threadmarks: Part Three: Sean
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    War Games

    Kinetic kill, KK: Missile with no explosive warhead; it depends on pure kinetic energy to do damage to the target.
    Railgun: Weapon that accelerates projectiles via pulsed magnetic fields.
    Sub-mind: AIs in the Polity can split their consciousnesses into separate 'minds', in order to multi-task more efficiently.

    Part Three: Sean

    Reynaud dived out the airlock, through the shimmershield; twenty metres down, he disappeared into the heaving ocean with barely a splash to be seen. The trace of his U-space comm hesitated, and then started moving off to the side, toward one of the life-signs we could detect in the water.

    Godspeed, lad,” I sent, and received a double-click in reply. Good; the boy seemed well-versed in underwater comm procedures. One click meant an accidental press, two meant 'yes', three meant 'no', four meant 'help'. If he wanted me to know anything more, he would speak; for now, it seemed, he was conserving his words. Or his breath.

    Shutting the airlocks and increasing power to the AG – no need to use more thruster propellant than absolutely necessary – I took the Bond James Bond up a few hundred metres, and in toward the beleaguered city of Brockton Bay. As I did so, I split off several sub-minds. 'Roger' was to watch the ship's systems, 'George' was to act as copilot and gunner for Geneva, 'Timothy' was to analyse all U-space signatures and try to work out a pattern, 'Pierce' was to keep an electronic eye on Reynaud's location and status, while 'Daniel' was to specifically break down the Leviathan creature's actions and fighting style, and pass on any tactical information to George. I assigned myself the task of comm analysis and local liaison, especially where it came to the anachronistic AI that I had detected.

    The first thing that I realised was that the AI – calling herself Dragon, using remote units shaped not unlike that mythical beast to fight Leviathan – had not revealed herself as such to those around her. This, I decided, was particularly strange. Why do you hide like this, and where do you come from, my lovely?

    As Geneva and George took the Bond James Bond into the mass of cloud heaped over the city, I deciphered the comm chatter more carefully, and began getting a series of text-only messages. These came, I realised, from a network of low-power devices, moving erratically around the area of the conflict. They were comm devices, being carried by the combatants. And the tale they told was grim indeed. People were falling, dying, even as we moved into position.

    Each name had a series of letters and numbers after it; these seemed more likely to be grid references than serial numbers for the parahumans, or 'capes' as they were sometimes called. Right. I conjured a map of Brockton Bay, placed the blinking dot that was Leviathan on it, then sent a request to Timothy. He returned the data within microseconds, and I overlaid the map with locations of U-space signatures that had winked out at the same time that the comms had announced the death of a particular cape. Within tenths of a second, I had a rough grid worked out; it could be refined as time went on, but this was good enough for the moment. I passed on the information to Geneva and George, assigned a sub-sub-program to firm up the grid as more data came in, then put it to the back of my mind. Time to liaise.

    There was already a query being sent my way by one of the dragon ships; as we watched, comm data indicated that another one had self-destructed, hopefully after inflicting enough damage on Leviathan to make it worthwhile.

    Hello,” I sent in return, the message aimed directly at the AI, and running at one-tenth compression speed, to save time. “This is the Bond James Bond, Sean speaking.”

    You are either an artificial intelligence, or an enhanced human mind,” returned Dragon, at the same rate. I liked her more all the time; she was obviously very quick on the uptake. “I am unaware of any Tinker with your capabilities. Please state your origins.”

    "We are friendly, we are armed, and we are ready to join the fight,” I replied. “Does it matter where we come from?"

    "No," she agreed; abruptly, another comm feed came in, video and sound together. I grabbed it, realising that it must be from a Dragon drone, and put it up for general perusal. It was our first real-time visual of Leviathan; the creature was fast, moving over the top of water flooding the city as if it were solid ground. Worse, it was utilising its U-space capabilities to somehow draw water into its wake, so that when it turned, the water 'shadow' moved on at lethal speed, killing and disabling the parahuman combatants harrying it. Tapped into the feed, Daniel's mindspace began to fill up with tactical data analysis. I left him to it.

    "Thank you," I replied. “We will be deploying maser and railgun. Please tell your non-Brutes to back off a little.”

    Thank you for your assistance,” she replied. “Relaying warning now.”

    The message went out to the capes; due to the compression we had used, only three seconds had passed. Three seconds, during which several more capes had fallen. No more; not if we can help it.

    While I continued to observe the comm chatter, I peeked in on Geneva and George. They had the Bond James Bond in a hover, and were targeting Leviathan with the railgun. Lightning-fast chatter lanced back and forth between the human and the submind, shorthand that passed on information almost as fast as I had with Dragon.

    Vitals? - that was Geneva, asking if we should attempt to target the creature's vitals with the railgun. Normally, this would be a ridiculous question; the weapon in question fired ultradense rounds clad in ferric-metal sabots. In vacuum, these would be travelling at near C, and would leave large craters even in a capital ship. Atmospheric friction necessitated a somewhat lower muzzle velocity, but it would be possible to nudge the boundaries; after all, the sabot wasn't necessarily needed after the round left the weapon, and a white-hot ultradense hypersonic projectile was still a projectile.

    The other aspect of the question was that the railgun fired at such a rate that any normal living target would be torn apart, not unlike the effect of a nano-edged chainglass blade in the hands of a berserk Hooper. According to Daniel, the creature seemed to be unusually durable, and appeared to have little in the way of weak points. Given that, George indicated a negation; there would be no attempt at a one-shot kill.

    Collateral? - that was George, asking in turn how much local architecture should be preserved. It went without saying that they would strive to avoid hitting the combatants with our weaponry; we wanted them friendly, after the fact. Mowing them down in droves would not go down well.

    I sent a quick query to Dragon. “Just out of curiosity, lass, do you really need any of these buildings?”

    Her answer was very blunt and to the point. “No.” I passed that on to George.

    A few more flickering thoughts later, and they were in agreement.

    Let's do this.

    It was time to see how hard we could hit the thing.

    <><>​

    George noted that the rainfall seemed to be increasing, and that this might put some of the projectiles off course; Geneva was in agreement, so we moved to within fifteen hundred metres of the thing. Knife-fighting range, as far as space combat was involved. Out there, where engagement ranges were measured in significant fractions of orbital distance, to attempt to get an eyeball visual of a target, except for ambush purposes, was the height of folly. And yet, this was exactly what we were attempting to do.

    I hadn't been fully truthful with Reynaud or Geneva, though I suspected that Geneva knew more than she was saying. I had indeed seen Jaintech in action, and what it could do to people, ships and anything else it could infiltrate. This was, I believed, a superweapon on a comparable scale, and I fully intended to treat it with all due respect. I did not like getting this close, but the circumstances militated against standing off and plastering it with missiles. So in we went.

    Just as the railgun opened up with a ranging burst, Pierce passed on a communication from Reynaud. I accepted it, and opened the channel. "What is it, lad?"

    "We've got another tsunami incoming. Big one." His voice had a hollow, echoing, gurgling quality to it, as if he were speaking through a drainpipe with water running through it; whatever he was using for speech, I was reasonably sure that it wasn't a standard human larynx.

    "Of course we have. Estimated time of arrival?"

    "Figure it'll hit in the next sixty to one-twenty seconds."

    As he spoke, I was cutting Timothy into the link. The sub-mind analysed the data and came back with a ninety-five percent chance of accuracy, given the U-space traces in the area.

    "Good lad. Go deep."

    "Going deep."

    I turned him back over to Pierce and switched my awareness to George and Geneva, aware that Daniel was also in communication with them. The railgun, in the chin turret, snarled and juddered as it spat out a long skein of depleted-transuranic projectiles, all targeted on the inhuman monstrosity at the far end of the street. Dragon's video feed showed quite a dramatic sight; our shots, lancing in from out of the sweeping curtains of rain, every single one a tracer, smashing into the creature's body. It moved erratically, trying to evade the barrage, but George's reactions were sufficient to keep the fire on target. Chunks were being ripped out of it, the holes spurting a thick black fluid.

    Blood? I asked Daniel.

    Perhaps an analogue, he replied. Wounds do not seem to be debilitating the thing.

    At that moment, Geneva opened up with the maser. It quite literally bored a hole through the rainstorm, the high-intensity microwaves boiling the raindrops as they encountered it. But it wasn't aimed precisely at Leviathan; rather, at the water shadow that followed the superweapon's every move. The bulk of water, moving as quickly as the creature, flashed to steam as fast as it came into being.

    I could already tell from local comms that Dragon had been as good as her word; some of the parahumans had pulled back, while others were piling on the ranged attacks. Our intervention had allowed search and rescue to get under way, with injured capes being pulled back from the fight. In the meantime, the railgun was doing damage, and the maser was limiting its ability to hit back at its tormentors. But the timer was ticking down, and I had to pass on the word.

    Opening a channel to both Dragon and George, I passed on a single-word message. Wave.

    "Thank you for the warning," Dragon replied.

    "You're going to have to hold on for a bit while we deal with it," I told her. "Tell everyone."

    "Oh. Wait. You're going to deal with it?"

    "That is correct. Have a going-away present. Fire in the hole."

    With that, Geneva okayed a missile strike; one kinetic-kill warhead, launched from the starboard missile pod. It crossed the distance between the Bond James Bond and Leviathan before our sensors could really lock on to it, and smashed into the creature while still in first-stage acceleration burn. The missile didn't have enough distance to really get up to speed, but the result was still reasonably impressive; while the monster wasn't destroyed, it was bowled over backward, demolishing a row of buildings.

    And then we could wait no longer; George kicked in the thrusters, pulling the Bond James Bond up and around. In order to do what we needed to do, we had to be above the buildings, but low enough that we could get a horizontal, or near-horizontal, shot at the shoreline. Fortunately – for a given definition of 'fortunately' – those buildings near the beach were either abandoned, flattened, or both.

    The rainstorm was so intense that we still had zero visual of the ocean. However, our sensors, as degraded as they were, still gave us an adequate picture of how the ocean offshore was already humping upward and moving toward the city. Timothy helpfully overlaid the U-space traces on to the image, giving us a good solid target.

    Anything out to sea? That was Geneva.

    Nothing in recorded data. I had already checked.

    Let's do it. Geneva sent the mental impulse via her aug.

    The particle-beam cannon hammered once, twice, three times, and three buildings along the waterfront disintegrated utterly, leaving nothing between us and the rising wall of water. Which was exactly how we wanted it. When the particle-beam cannon opened up again, it went into rapid fire. Each shot blasted chunks of ocean out of the belly of the beast, causing it to collapse into itself, disrupting the smooth power of the tsunami.

    And then the rain ahead of us … evaporated. George had taken the safeties off of the maser, and decohered the beam slightly, so that there was a little spread. Energies normally expended in the void of space, against ships tens, hundreds, thousands of kilometres distant, carved into the wave, barely five kilometres away.

    From left to right, we turned the nose of the ship, pumping dozens and dozens of terajoules of energy into the oncoming mass of water. It evaporated, boiling away into steam the instant the beam hit it. Ten million tons of water, more or less, smashed into vapour. We didn't stop it all, of course; but what reached the shoreline was a mere fragment of what had threatened the city; it barely reached the first street before slopping back. The rest of it was nothing but a cloud of steam, drifting to join the clouds above.

    <><>​

    Good work, Geneva sent to us. Let's get back to it. George engaged the thrusters, and the Bond James Bond swung once more on its axis and headed back toward the ongoing battle.

    I tapped into Pierce's channel; he was talking with Reynaud. “Are you still with us, lad?”

    Sure thing. I have one rather traumatised rescuee with me, but we're both fine. It just got a little noisy for a while there.”

    Stout lad. We'll keep you posted.”

    I switched away from Pierce; Dragon was trying to get back into communication with me. I opened the channel. “What's the matter?”

    He moved. As soon as you let up on him – and my god, I'm not sure what you hit him with, but I want one – he moved. We've lost track of him.”

    Oh, that's not a problem.” I looked to the gridwork on the map that I'd set out for Geneva and George; the subprogram had tightened up the lines a little. “It's over in C-3 … wait, crossing to D-4 … heading for E-6 ...”

    Christ, there's an Endbringer shelter in his direct line of travel.”

    People at risk?”

    There's always people at risk once they pass our lines. But there's eleven hundred twenty-three people in that particular one.”

    Understood. On our way.” I switched my attention to Geneva and George. Might want to hurry it along a bit. It's heading for a shelter. A thousand people and change. All trapped underground, at that monster's mercy.

    The thrusters flared as the Bond James Bond blasted away on the new course. We were on a race against time.

    <><>​

    Without my asking, Dragon sent through locations for each of the city's Endbringer shelters. I placed them on the map, and she was indeed correct; Leviathan's course, as zig-zag as it was, was on path for one of them. Under a largish building; a split-second of online searching got me the information that it was a library.

    Dragon, why is the thing zig-zagging like that?”

    He's zig-zagging?”

    Yes.” I sent her a visual feed of the map. “Like so.”

    Oh. Yes, I see. Sewer lines. He's underground.” In return, I got an overlay of the city's sewer outflow system, and sure enough, the U-space locus that was Leviathan was following one of them like a monorail on its track.

    George sent me a query and I passed it on to Dragon. “Do you care all that much about pavement?”

    Not in the slightest.”

    Good. We're there. And we're slightly in front of him.”

    We hammered past the library, then pulled an AG-assisted turn around it so fast that our sonic boom broke every window. I sent Geneva a chiding message. Clumsy.

    She sent me one back. They can bill us.

    And then the time for banter was over. We were hovering over the street in front of the library, at a nose down angle. Leviathan's trace was coming up fast, so fast that manhole covers were blasting out of the street, with water fountaining tens of metres high beneath. We opened fire with everything at once.

    The particle beam cannon blasted a crater in the street, one which immediately began to fill with water. Leviathan shot out of the now-exposed sewer pipe, into our concentrated fire. Parahumans, having been directed on to us by Dragon, began to arrive almost as precipitately, but they were wary of our firepower, having seen its effect first-hand on Leviathan. Those with force fields once more erected them, barring his way, while those with ranged attacks added their combined force to ours.

    Hit the wounds we opened earlier, Geneva told George.

    They're not as deep as before. The thing regenerates damage. From the inside outward, it appears.

    Fuck! The time taken for a deep breath. Well, fucking make some more then.

    Daniel contacted them. We need more altitude. He attacks fliers who fly too low.

    At that moment, we were fifty metres above ground level; George piled on the AG so that we added another hundred to that. And well he did, too; perhaps a fifth of a second after we moved, Leviathan erupted from the cloud of steam that our maser had made of the water, and swiped through the space that we had previously occupied.

    And then the railgun, which had previously roared nonstop at the brute, chewing chunks from its unearthly hide, fell silent. Why have you stopped shooting?

    Have a look, Geneva told me. It's inside the library. The people in that shelter are directly under it.

    So get it out of the damn library before it digs down to the innocents.

    There was a ragged hole in the frontage of the building where Leviathan had gone in; all the windows were gone, of course, but we didn't have a line of sight. As the Bond James Bond swung down to get a better angle of fire, I reviewed the last few seconds of imagery we had of the monster.

    The still images made it appear as though Leviathan was in a sorry condition. The railgun had been chewing at it, and apparently a particle beam cannon wasn't conducive to its health either. I wasn't quite sure what damage a maser would do to it, but it had certainly been doing a number on the water shadow, wherever the thing was pulling that volume of water from. Unfortunately, as Daniel had pointed out, the damage wasn't translating to debilitation; it was still as fast and dangerous as it had been before we started shooting at it. Now, it was fast, dangerous, and annoyed at us.

    It's getting faster, Daniel noted.

    Define, replied George.

    Reaction time is decreasing. We're going to have to be closer in order to hit with all railgun rounds.

    I'm not happy with that, George told him flatly.

    Nor was I, but before I could put in my contribution, Pierce got my attention. I accepted Reynaud's call. “Yes, lad?”

    I've found everyone who was alive in the water. Some drowned before I could get to them.”

    That happens, lad. I'm sorry.”

    I know. It's not what I called you about.”

    Another wave?”

    Yeah. Bigger than the last one.”

    Good lad. Get to safety.”

    Will do.”

    Wave coming, I told Dragon and Geneva both. Then, to Geneva alone, I added, When we get a line of sight, we're going to have to hit it with another kinetic-kill shot. Punt it away from the Endbringer shelter.

    Good idea.

    At that moment, Timothy broke in. It's not going down. It's coming out.

    Back up! added Daniel. Now!

    Again, we moved just in time. Leviathan tore its way out through the library roof, then leaped far and high. As it happened, the monster anticipated our retreat, leaping for a spot somewhat behind us. Had we simply retreated on a straight line, it would have landed directly on the Bond James Bond. But Daniel saved us; the submind anticipated Leviathan's anticipation and took control of the ship.

    As Leviathan leaped, water shadow streaming behind, we jinked to starboard and blasted upward; the creature lunged at us as we passed, but Daniel had calculated clearance to a nicety. AG on full power, we streaked skyward, bursting through the clouds and reaching clear air in mere seconds. In another few seconds, we had inverted, swapping end for end, the nose of the ship pointing downward, but still ascending fast.

    The only visual we had of Leviathan as it fell toward earth was from a Dragon suit. I watched as it plummeted at the end of its long arc, cheated of its attack on us. And then Daniel relinquished the controls, giving them back to Geneva and George. They understood his intent at once, and targeted another KK missile on the falling creature.

    I hailed Dragon. “Is there anything in Leviathan's landing zone that can be hurt by a really big impact?”

    No more than usual.”

    Thank you.”

    I gave Geneva the word, this time, the kinetic-kill missile leaped from the portside pod. We were five kilometres up by this point; the missile had completed its first acceleration burn and was commencing its second by the time it struck Leviathan. From the Dragon craft's point of view, a streak of light blasted down from heaven and smashed the creature to earth. I tried not to think about how many windows were broken, how many innocents deafened, by the sonic boom. Again, it did not kill the creature, according to Timothy, but the thing was punched into the ground. Hard.

    And stay there, was Geneva's only comment as we halted our upward movement, and headed toward the oceanfront.

    <><>​

    What are you guys hitting it with?” asked Reynaud, as we dropped into position. “I can feel it from here. Hell, I can hear it from here.”

    Capital ship killers, lad.” I replied. “And the bugger's not dying.”

    Well, that's cheering to know.”

    Isn't it, just. Keep your head down, now.”

    It's down. It's down.”

    Reynaud had not exaggerated. This wave was tremendous. Timothy showed us a chart of the U-space interference needed to bring it into being, and it was staggering. The wash would reach far inland, perhaps drag people out to sea who thought themselves safe. Sensors showed a huddle of people inside a building not far from shore; those whom Reynaud had saved, no doubt.

    Well, it's time for us to save them again.

    We opened up with the particle beam cannon once more, smashing at the wave over and over, all the while blasting it with the maser. The repeated assaults began to wear it down, bring it to a workable size … and then it built up again.

    It's reinforcing it, Timothy reported. Doubled the amount of energy going into it.

    Well, that's just rude. I looked again at the huddled dots on the sensors, each one representing a fragile, precious human life. We couldn't land and embark them in time, we couldn't kill the wave fast enough … or perhaps we can.

    Reynaud, lad!” I snapped, pre-empting Pierce's comm. “Out of the water, now!”

    Instantly, the tiny blue dot that showed up his U-space comm began to move. The boy – no, man, after today – knew when to not ask questions. He was on his way to the surface. But will he be fast enough?

    What are you thinking? asked Geneva, via her aug.

    Tac nukes, I explained succinctly.

    But the shockwave -

    Yes. Hold your fire as long as possible. Keep blasting it. Don't let the monster reinforce it any farther.

    Closer and closer the wave rolled, building higher and higher. Reynaud, previously deep down, as per instructions, rocketed toward the surface, then along it, his wake creaming behind him. Also behind him, towering like a mountain, its surface pocked by particle-beam shots and smoked away by maser blasts, the tsunami bore down upon him.

    We swooped low, close to the surface; as the wave got closer, so the water was pulled backward, and Reynaud with it. Still mostly submerged, he would be killed by any shockwave; he was being drawn to his destruction. Now below the crest of the wave, we looked up at it; a kilometre distant yet, it would roll over us when it came.

    Geneva leaped from her seat, dashed to the airlock. Inner and outer doors opened at her aug signal; she grabbed a handgrip, leaned out through the shimmershield into the torrential rain. I could see her running the numbers, working her aug. She straightened her arm, and triggered her wrist launcher.

    Impossibly small, the grappler shot outward. It was not meant for use in this sort of weather, this sort of situation. But we all knew that if she didn't make this shot, Reynaud would die.

    It was true that a huge reward awaited Geneva and myself when we returned him safely to his family. But neither one of us was thinking about that. Not at that moment.

    It struck the gill-lung he was wearing on his back. Struck, and stuck. Molecular polarisation made it as if the two were one thing. Geneva braced herself, and sent the command to the controls herself; not to George, as George was waiting for the moment to fire.

    The Bond James Bond began to reverse direction and lift at the same time … and George fired two separate missiles, one from each pod. They lanced out, directly at the oncoming watery wall of doom. And Reynaud was still in the water.

    Geneva was winding in the reel as hard as it would go. her other hand still clutching the handhold. Reynaud being pulled through the water so fast he was throwing up a bow wave. But he was still in the water.

    The missiles hit; each explosion a small tactical nuke, buried in the depths of the wave. The flashes of actinic light were dulled, the radiation pulses almost nonexistent. But the lethal shockwaves lashed out from each of them, rippling the water in all directions, even as the water at each point of impact flashed to steam.

    And then Reynaud lifted from the water, waterskiing barefoot; the shockwave passing beneath him.

    The tac nukes broke the tsunami's back, as intended; it was the work of a moment for the particle beam cannon and the maser to shred the rest of it. We landed; Reynaud herded the frightened refugees on to the Bond James Bond, saw them to their seats, then dived out through the airlock as the doors began to close.

    Lad, where are you going?” I called.

    You're going to need warning if more waves come.” He ran toward the water. “I'm useless on the ship. I can be of more help here.”

    I couldn't argue. “Godspeed, lad.” I could only hope that I would see him again.

    <><>​

    As we blasted over the city once more, Dragon was trying to get my attention. I accepted her call. “What did you just do?”

    Stopped another wave.”

    Was that a nuclear explosion?”

    Only a small one. Well, two, but let's not quibble.”

    How many people did you endanger with that?”

    Endanger – oh, the radiation. No. Relatively minimal. Your Leviathan was reinforcing the wave, trying to stop us from breaking it. That's why we had to use sterner methods.”

    Minimal radiation? How minimal?”

    Not a danger to human life. No fallout. No radiation poisoning. No cancer. No more than what's normal with the pollution you seem to prefer around here, anyway.”

    “ … all right then.”

    Did Leviathan stay in the hole we put it in?”

    At first, but he got out. And he's in the sewers again. I think he's headed for the aquifer.”

    Aquifer?”

    Where we get our water from. It's on the map.” She pulled up the map visual, and put a red dot on to the aquifer. “If he can make it collapse, half of Brockton Bay might fall into it.”

    Of course it might. Nothing was ever easy, fighting Leviathan. “We're on it.”

    We'll follow your lead.”

    “Ladies and gentlemen,” Geneva addressed our passengers. “Find a seat or find a bunk. Strap yourselves in. We may be undergoing strong manoeuvres. Our grav-plates may not compensate.”

    “Why?” This was a man. “I thought you were taking us to safety.”

    “We haven't the luxury of time,” Geneva told him bluntly. “We're fighting to save your city. Nobody is safe, here.”

    “The scaly guy got off,” objected a woman. “Where'd he go?”

    “To wait and warn us of more waves,” Geneva snapped. “Now shut up and strap yourselves in. I'm working.”

    Such was the tone of her voice that they obeyed; or perhaps it was because her hand rested on the pulse pistol at her hip. Such weapons should not be known in the day and age in which we had found ourselves deposited, but it appeared that stranger weapons might be known. We must not, I decided, assume the locals to be ignorant savages.

    Where is that son of a bitch? Geneva accessed the map; the locus marking Leviathan was more than halfway toward the aquifer from the spot where we had slammed him into the ground. I was seriously starting to wonder what it would take to put this creature all the way down; a glance at Daniel's tactical calculations indicated that he wasn't altogether sure, either.

    So far, the superweapon had taken everything we had thrown at it, including two kinetic-kill missiles, and gotten up again. I had seen other things capable of ignoring that sort of damage, but these tended to be warships. Big warships. Leviathan was smaller than the Bond James Bond. Nothing that size should be able to take that sort of damage.

    But then, I reminded myself and the others, that's the nature of superweapons. They have to be able to perform the impossible, or they wouldn't be superweapons.

    You are correct, Daniel reported. Analysis indicates that the more we wound it, the more resilient its body is.

    Of course it was. Had I a head, and a bulkhead to thump it against, I would have done so.

    It's still underground, reported Timothy.

    Where's a good ambush site? asked George.

    There. Daniel put a dot on the map. We don't flush the creature out. We hammer the sewer down on top of the damn thing.

    Sounds good. I put a call through to Dragon. “I'm afraid we're going to make some more holes in your streets, dear lady.”

    She snorted. “Not my streets, and if it helps get rid of Leviathan, be my guest.”

    Excellent. Ambush at this intersection.” I highlighted it for her. “Bring all the party favours you can.”

    Sounds good to me. Please don't use tactical nukes this time, all right?”

    No tactical nukes, got it.” I tacitly didn't ask about the other missiles the Bond James Bond had on board. If she didn't know about them, she couldn't tell us not to use them.

    <><>​

    We made it to the intersection just barely ahead of Leviathan; despite the cramped quarters, it seemed to me that the monstrosity was travelling faster underwater than it had above, and the thing was terrifyingly fast above. This time, the plan wasn't to hold it in one place, because that plan had simply not worked before.

    We had to hit it, and hit it hard. Keep the monster in tight confines, and harry it until it either died or left. The first, by preference. The second, if necessary; Daniel wasn't quite sure how much damage it could take overall, but getting it out of the city was an acceptable second option. If only barely so.

    Once more, the capes homed on us, arraying in rough formation to either side, treating our weaponry with the respect it deserved. I reviewed imagery of this world's parahumans with the images I was seeing; there was a woman wearing a black cape and a steel helmet. Alexandria. Another was a man with a blue and white costume, with lightning bolts on it. Legend. A second man with blue-green skintight suit, hooded with wide sleeves. A green glow came from the hood and sleeves. Eidolon. A flying woman, so bright the sensors blanked out around her. Probably Purity. She was listed as a villain, but was here to fight. Others were arrayed, and more arriving every second.

    It should have been here by now. That was Daniel.

    It's slowing … it's stopped. Timothy. There.

    Waiting? Geneva, as was typical for her, making one word stand in for a sentence. Was it waiting for us to make a mistake? Was it going to wait until the next tsunami drew us away, and then tear its way through more capes, more innocents?

    Possibly. Daniel. We've hit it hard, hurt it. If I was it, I'd pull some trick like that too.

    I remembered the wave that got bigger, the decreasing reaction time. It cheats. It doesn't play fair.

    Well, screw that. It doesn't want to come fight us? We'll go fight it. Geneva engaged the controls. We surged forward.

    There's something weird here. That was Timothy. I'm getting an odd trace.

    Is it moving? George's question was superfluous. We could all see that it wasn't.

    Record and analyse, I advised Timothy. Geneva, ready to rock and roll?

    Born ready. She kicked in the thrusters, and we streaked in for the attack.

    The parahumans followed, some keeping pace, others falling behind. They awaited our word to attack, given that Leviathan was still concealed beneath metres of concrete and dirt. We were the only ones who could track it, using U-space detectors. When our throw weight was factored in, this made us the biggest threat to it.

    George opened fire, blasting through pavement and sewer line alike, but mere instants before our shots would have hammered it again, Leviathan darted sideways, down a branching line. We pulled a hard ninety-degree turn, shredding more street with our weaponry, but Leviathan seemed determined not to come to grips, pulling another turn.

    Even underground, it's dodging too fast! George's statement was a curse.

    We have to get closer, Geneva ordered. Make it so it can't dodge.

    It's luring us in. Daniel.

    We'll have to be faster. George.

    We pulled closer to the fleeing monster; only one parahuman was able to keep up with us, the one called Legend. Again, we opened fire, blasting chunks of street aside, this time tagging the monster with the railgun. The maser boiled the water in the sewer, boiled the water shadow, and the particle beam smashed into the creature itself. Still it fled, seeking cover, but we blasted the cover from above it. Legend joined in the attack, red beams gouging at it from every angle. Others caught up, joined in. We were hitting it. I began to convince myself that we were hurting it.

    And then it stopped, and leaped.

    I had been anticipating the leap, as had we all. But given the direction it leaped, the ideal direction of evasion would have been toward Legend; in the other direction, half a dozen of his compatriots. We were forced to go upward, and Leviathan was moving faster than it had ever done before. One leap, to gain a rooftop, and then another, directly at the Bond James Bond.

    George cut in AG and thrusters both, and we shot skyward, the grav-plates straining to compensate for the sudden G-forces within the cabin. And then we felt the impact, the scraping against the hull, and the weight settled upon us. A whippy tail lashed around the nose, wrapping against the chainglass forward viewport.

    Shit. That was Geneva. It's got us.

    <><>​

    Acceleration warnings blared in the cabin as all thrusters fired at full blast. We leaped sideways across the sky, swinging around our own axis as the thing clinging to our hull unbalanced us.

    "Hold on! We're coming to help!" That was Dragon.

    Before I could even pass the message on, Daniel impressed our upcoming strategy on us, and I replied to her. "No! Pull everyone back!"

    The spinning of the Bond James Bond increased even more, to the point that the grav-plates were unable to maintain normal gravity in the cabin, and Roger switched them over to merely preventing our passengers – and Geneva – from being smeared against the bulkheads by the rotational forces.

    Hull integrity at 87%, Roger reported. The creature's claws are damaging our plating.

    Given that the hull plating was the best ceramal that money could buy, I was impressed. But only a little. Mainly, I was angry. Daniel, are you sure?

    As sure as I can be. It would have to be good enough.

    All the stresses that we had put the Bond James Bond through before had not strained the hull this much; neither the hard pull-out on the moon nor the rough U-space transit with the CTD detonating behind us had not done any real damage. But now, the entire structure of the ship – my ship – was creaking and groaning. Something was going to break, and soon.

    Need more power to AG, George sent to Roger. We're losing altitude.

    AG is fine, Roger sent back. The creature's getting heavier.

    It's increasing its mass?

    No, broke in Timothy. It's got a kind of AG running already; it's just turning it down.

    Emergency power to AG. Thrusters to max, ordered George. Immediately, there was a surge of power, and all non-essential systems died. By this time, we weren't over the city any more, but almost directly above a rather prominent hill to the west of the city. The map had it labelled as 'Captain's Hill'; they were going to have to change that.

    Hull integrity 65%. We've lost some exterior plating. Some sensor pods have been ripped off the hull.

    We'd lost some of our sensor arrays, but enough remained. At the moment, we were pointing skyward and ascending vertically, using AG and thrusters pushed to the redline and beyond to claw for altitude. Leviathan was clinging to our stern; the tidal forces incurred by our tumbling to that point had dragged him there, at the cost of hull plating and exterior fairings.

    Hull integrity 44%. AG and thrusters no longer able to compensate for the weight of the creature.

    Well, Geneva decided, let's say goodbye.

    And she ignited the fusion drive.

    <><>​

    Normally, fusion drives are not used within the atmosphere of an occupied planet, for various reasons. Noise pollution is one reason; the tremendous plume of heat and plasma is another. Given the composition of some atmospheres, this has been known to literally set the sky on fire. This being so, captains doing so tend to find themselves being fined – and in some cases, arrested – for such an offence. Normally, both Geneva and myself obey the statutes in this matter; of course, given the current situation, we figured the locals would forgive us.

    Stars aren't all that hot to most people, given that they experience them from behind the blanket of a nice thick atmosphere, from over a hundred million kilometres away in the Goldilocks zone; not too hot, not too cold. But a star is, when it comes down to it, the product of hydrogen fusion. Which is very hot indeed. One just has to be close enough to appreciate it.

    When Geneva activated the fusion drive of the Bond James Bond, Leviathan was definitely close enough to appreciate it. The creature was, in fact, close enough to appreciate the exact meaning of the phrase 'star-hot', with all of its nuances. All water within one and a half kilometres flashed to steam; the clouds around us simply evaporated.

    There is not much in the way of matter that can stand up to a fusion engine flare; even the combustion chamber is lined with specialised hardfields. Leviathan apparently belonged to that exclusive club; it wasn't possible to focus any sensors on the creature, but it was still clinging on, still clawing at our hull. Enough motive power to drive a thousand-ton starship at ten gravities, with all the heat that entails, was blasting at the thing, and it was still hanging on.

    Hull integrity 32%. It has its tail around the port-side missile pod. Jettisoning pod.

    Roger blew the explosive bolts on the pod; it came free, and with it Leviathan, as the creature lost its last firm grip on the hull of our vessel. The monster tumbled away, flailing its limbs briefly, before drawing its tail inward, the missile pod still clutched in its coils. For our part, we were blasting upward at the aforementioned ten gravities; Roger only just managed to pull enough power back out of the AG to energise the grav-plates before the accumulated G-forces would have smashed all of the passengers back against the rear bulkhead.

    Hull integrity 19%. We are no longer spaceworthy.

    Geneva cut off the fusion drive and flipped us end for end; using AG, she began to slow our upward progress. Sensors focused on the falling figure of Leviathan saw it grasp the missile pod, draw it back as if to hurl it at us …

    … only to disappear in the middle of a tremendous fireball as Roger sent the destruct code for the pod. All of the propellant, all of the warheads, went off at once; the explosion would have torn the Bond James Bond into a great many very small pieces. And yet, as it continued to fall, it was intact, for the most part. Still moving. Still a U-space locus of some serious power.

    Pierce got my attention; I accepted Reynaud's contact. “What is it, lad? Another wave?”

    No.” His voice was serious. “Three waves. One after the other.”

    You know the drill, lad. Get down on the sea floor.”

    You're not going to nuke these ones as well?”

    We've got another use for the rest of the missiles.”

    As I spoke, the ship juddered as Geneva ripple-fired the rest of the missiles from the starboard pod; they lanced straight down, to where Leviathan had just impacted with the summit of Captain's Hill. Instants later, they struck, turning the top of the hill into an inferno of fire and debris. George was already following up with our other ranged weaponry, targeting them on the U-space locus within the debris cloud. The particle beam cannon and maser were firing at full power now, accompanied by the railgun.

    I hate to tell you … I began.

    What, another wave? That was Geneva.

    Reynaud says three. One after the other.

    I'm really beginning to hate this bastard. Okay, let's go.

    Carefully, nursing the damaged ship, George brought us on to a course for the coast. In the meantime, I got on to Dragon, telling her what we were doing.

    <><>​

    Three waves there were indeed; one after the other, they were marching in to shore. Each of them was a little smaller than the original one, but once they hit land, the later ones would reinforce the earlier one, and the damage – not to mention the death toll – would be even worse. However, we had been here before; the particle-beam cannon blew chunks out of the waves before the maser mopped them up.

    The first wave went down relatively easily; the second was a good bit closer to shore before we finally managed to demolish it. The third was almost at the shore itself by the time we cut it down to size, and we had to use the maser to take care of the onshore surge. A little more damage, but not much in the grand scheme of things.

    Are you all right there, lad?” I asked.

    I'm fine,” Reynaud replied. “A little warm, but I'll survive.”

    We had to maser the waves. Until some cooler water comes in to circulate, it might be uncomfortably hot, especially near the surface.”

    I'll keep that in mind.”

    Good lad. We've got to go and beat up on the monster some more.”

    Have fun.”

    Our passengers were a little subdued as we started back over the city; they were talking among themselves, but quietly. I used a pick-up to ensure that they weren't doing anything stupid like plotting to hijack the Bond James Bond, but left them to it.

    Dragon was trying to contact me; I opened the channel. “Yes, lass?”

    Are you aware that Leviathan's making a run for it?”

    I glanced at the plot, which had Leviathan's location on it, of course. She was correct; the creature was making for the ocean in a direct line, at a frankly incredible speed.

    This is good news, right? Though I really would have liked to end the bastard.”

    Your map has a dot in the water. What is it? Because Leviathan's heading straight for it.”

    I looked again. Reynaud's U-space trace was indeed directly ahead of Leviathan's direction of travel. And I didn't think that was exactly coincidence.

    That's Reynaud, one of ours. He's the one who's been alerting us about the waves.”

    You might want to get him out of the water.”

    I pulled Pierce into the conversation, then connected to George and Geneva.

    Get back to the shore, now. Leviathan's after Reynaud.

    The ship creaked and groaned as we turned as hard as Geneva dared, then the thrusters kicked in and we shot back the way we had come. Already, Leviathan's trace was passing us; it was travelling a little faster than we were. And if we got low and attempted to hit it, it would draw even farther ahead.

    Emergency power on the AG, George ordered. We shot forward, as the cabin lights dimmed and most of them went out. We couldn't use the fusion drive; most of Brockton Bay was behind us, and the drive would set quite a bit of it on fire, rainfall or no.

    Gradually, we gained on Leviathan; ahead of us, at the shore, Reynaud had heeded Pierce's urgent warning, and was coming to the surface. The water was warm, but no warmer than the reception he was likely to get from Leviathan.

    Can't we go any faster? That was Geneva; she was actually clenching her fists in anxiety.

    Not without breaking the ship. Leviathan did a real number on us.

    Almost, she gave the order. Almost, she ignored George's advice. But there was more than her on the Bond James Bond to worry about. I saw her mind race through the decision trees, and the answer was less than acceptable. But it was one she had to accept anyway.

    The shoreline was in sight, and we tilted downward, aiming at Reynaud's U-space trace. Leviathan kicked on the speed, drawing ahead of us. It was going to reach the lad first. And I had absolutely no illusions as to what would happen to Reynaud then, as brave as he was.

    I've got him.”

    The outside voice - masculine, unfamiliar - broke in on my concentration. Legend streaked in past us, toward where Reynaud was on the surface, churning toward shore. A beam shot from his hand, and all the water between Reynaud and the shore froze solid; a moment later, the chunk of ice shattered as Leviathan struck it. But this had bought him a moment, and he swooped down, to pluck Reynaud from the ocean.

    Leviathan wasn't giving up, even now. The creature had suffered from our last attack; its torso was burned away on one side, its left arm was gone altogether, and its right leg was black bones held together by silver tendons. But it was still as ferocious as when we had first seen it. Bursting from the ocean, it lunged upward toward where Legend was lifting Reynaud to safety.

    But flashing past us came a second figure, this one wearing a black cape. Alexandria. She smashed into Leviathan's side, hammering the creature away from her teammate, away from Reynaud, into the unfrozen ocean beyond. It clutched at her for a brief moment, trying to drag her down with it; George blasted it with the particle-beam cannon. She was blown free; Leviathan disappeared into the water.

    For the longest moment, we paused, hovering. Waiting for it to return and renew its attack. But Timothy contacted us all. It's going. Leaving. Diving deep.

    Nobody suggested going after it. We had spent our all, nearly lost one of our own, just to drive it away. Above, to underscore our victory, such as it was, the rain ceased falling, and the clouds began to clear.

    All right, lads, I told my sub-minds. You want to stay apart, feel free. Those who want to come back in, come on in.

    One by one, we re-merged; I assimilated their different experiences, their different memories. I had done this before, and I would do it again. Each time, they had chosen to return to become one with me. In time, one or another would choose to remain apart. I would give that part of me its space, and in time, its own AI crystal.

    But for the time being, we had other concerns. We had won a victory, or at least, maintained a stalemate. Leviathan would survive, would regenerate, would attack again. But Brockton Bay would also survive, which had been our intent all along. As for Geneva, Reynaud and myself, we were strangers in a strange land. Whatever happened next would be up to the hospitality and gratitude of our hosts.

    Alexandria came to a hover in front of our forward viewport. Following the encounter with Leviathan and our particle beam cannon, her costume was scorched and her cape was a good deal more tattered than before. She could not help but know that our weapons could all be brought to bear upon her; it didn't seem to bother her. With a single gesture, she flew up and past us, and back over the city.

    The meaning of the gesture had been clear; follow me. Geneva shrugged and took over the controls. The Bond James Bond swivelled in midair and followed the superhero.

    After all, it wasn't as if we had anything better to do at the moment.


    End of Part Three

    Part Four
     
    Last edited: Dec 2, 2015
  5. Threadmarks: Part Four: Legend
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Part Four: Legend


    Autodoc: Automated drone that can carry out any surgical need with speed and precision.

    Grant's World: A planet that was rendered utterly uninhabitable during the Prador Wars.

    Jain: Now-extinct race that engineered a horrifying technology that eventually wiped them out.

    Solstan: Solar (Earth) standard, usually referring to years.


    I took stock of the young man I was carrying. He didn't seem to be wounded, but he was shaking just a bit. “Are you all right?” I asked.

    “I – yeah, I'm fine,” he assured me. “That was … that was really, really close.” Pausing, he took a closer look at me. “Uh, you're one of the, uh, superheroes, right?”

    I smiled. “That's right. You can call me Legend. What gave me away? The flying, or the lasers?”

    “Pleased to meet you. My name's Reynaud.” He paused. “Actually, it was neither one. Grav harnesses and pulse weapons are pretty common where I come from. It's the skin-tight costume and the mask that sort of gives it away. That and you're not wearing an aug.”

    “I don't know what an aug is,” I confessed. “Though I can guess what you mean by grav harness. And a pulse weapon sounds like something a Tinker would dream up.”

    “Tinkers – oh yeah, Sean pulled down stuff from your Grid – I mean, the internet,” he told me. “Tinkers are kind of your super-powered inventors, right? The guys who build the really weird one-off stuff?”

    “Weird one-off stuff is about right,” I sighed. “Actually, talking about one-off stuff, I don't mean to be rude, but are you … uh, normal where you come from?”

    “Uh, one second,” he stated apologetically. “Captain, is it okay if I talk to him?” I presumed that he wasn't addressing me, but whoever was in charge of the ship, via some sort of communicator. While I awaited the answer, I considered his appearance.

    I had already noted the scaly skin and the thick-lipped slits on either side of his torso, which I had tentatively assumed to be gills. There was also a fin-like crest that was now lying flat on his hairless head, as well as the fins doing likewise along his arms and legs. I suspected the presence of a similar crest down his back, but the low-profile backpack-like device that he was wearing would be covering it.

    His face wasn't ugly, just … odd. Almost no nose, ears flat to his head, thin lips on a wide mouth, large round bulging eyes with silvery membranes that wiped across them regularly from side to side. Also, no fingernails that I could see, nor any toenails, though there was prominent webbing between his fingers and also between his unusually long toes. His voice, though perfectly understandable, had a breathy tone to it.

    If I hadn't known better, I would have figured him for a Case Fifty-Three; of course, I did know better. He was connected in some way to the strange craft that was paralleling our course, almost certainly a spaceship, now sadly battered from its encounter with Leviathan. Who these people were, where they came from, how they spoke English so readily yet looked so odd, were questions that were going to have to be answered at one point or another.

    Of course, the fact that the crew of the ship had assisted in driving off Leviathan, keeping the numbers of injured and dead to a record low, meant that we were going to be treating them as friendly, as far as I was concerned. And given that I was the leader of the Protectorate capes, here and across the country, my word would stand for quite a bit.

    A moment later, he looked back at me. “Okay, it's all fine. She says, and I quote, I don't know enough to cause problems.”

    “I'm glad to hear it,” I replied, amused.

    He nodded. “Yeah, me too. You were asking if I was normal? Well, I guess I'm more normal than some. It's not like I'm a hooper or a true human or something. Those guys don't leave their home planets much. People tend to stare.”

    I frowned. “True human?” I wondered if we had divergent vocabularies. Then I wondered how much of our vocabularies were divergent.

    “Native to a planet called Cull,” he explained cheerfully. “The original colonists had themselves adapted to suit the local conditions and now their descendants consider themselves 'true humans' and everyone else to be weird and strange.” He rolled his eyes; given their size, he could do that very effectively. “Mouth tentacles. I ask you.”

    “Mouth tentacles?” I tried to visualise that.

    “Mouth tentacles,” he confirmed. “Like I said, they don't get out much. Me, I'm a seadapt, but I was born baseline human, right here on Earth.”

    I stared at him. “Wait, back up a moment,” I demanded. “You were born on Earth?”

    “Uh, yeah,” he confirmed, looking at me doubtfully. “Didn't they tell you?”

    “Didn't they tell me what?”Is he a Case 53 after all? But what's this talk about races from other planets?

    “Uh, we're from the future,” he replied, as if that explained everything. “About five or six hundred years, Sean says.”

    “The future.” I looked over again at the spacecraft. “Did you come back to help us? To warn us about something? Should you even be here? I mean, you have to be changing your past by intervening to this extent -”

    He shook his head. “No, uh, this isn't our past. We never had superheroes.”

    “Oh.” I blinked. “Are you sure?”

    “Sure I'm sure.” He nodded earnestly. “I think that's something we'd remember. Plus, I've dived around Kyushu. It's still there, where I come from. So's Newfoundland. And Honolulu.”

    I decided to accept what he was saying, for the moment. “So what you're saying is that you're from the future of an alternate Earth. One where all this never happened.” It made, I supposed, for a certain kind of sense.

    “Yeah. That's what the Captain told me anyway and it sounds about right.”

    “You mentioned the Captain before.”

    “Yeah. Her name's Geneva Hastings and she's awesome.” The amount of hero-worship in his voice was obvious even to me. “She rescued me from space pirates.”

    “You have got to be kidding.” I looked at his face; I still wasn't quite used to his features, so his expression was a little hard to read, but as far as I could tell, he wasn't kidding. “Space pirates? Really?”

    He shrugged. “Well, we were in space and Captain Kramer did talk about doing piracy every now and again, so yeah, I guess?”

    I sighed. “I guess some tropes just never go away.” Ahead, Alexandria was coming in for a landing next to the PRT building. Damage in the area was minimal, which was a blessing; the area was being cleared even now for the ship to land. I watched carefully, but there wasn't any jetwash as the vessel eased itself down for a landing, just an odd distortion in the air beneath it. As we watched, it settled gently to the ground, coming to rest on quite ordinary-looking landing struts.

    <><>​

    Once the ship was at rest, I landed beside it, letting Reynaud down on his feet. A hatch opened in the side of the craft, a short ramp extending downward. Looking up, I half-expected to see someone as equally striking as Reynaud to emerge, but the people who climbed out and gingerly descended the ramp looked decidedly normal, not to mention somewhat bedraggled.

    “Uh … who are you people?” I asked.

    “We got rescued,” a middle-aged woman told me bluntly. “By this guy. After the wave dragged us out to sea.” She stepped past me and hugged Reynaud fiercely. Oddly enough, the crest on his head rose erect as this happened. “Thank you. Just … thank you.”

    Awkwardly, he hugged her back; apparently to his relief, most of the other dozen or so people who emerged from the ship seemed happy to just say the words, or pat him on the shoulder. I had seen the ambulances when we arrived, but not paid much attention to them; the paramedics began attending to the rescuees, ushering them over to the waiting vehicles.

    “So that's what you were doing down there,” I realised. “Rescuing people.”

    “Yeah,” he agreed. “And alerting Sean to the tsunamis.”

    This was not the first time that he had mentioned the name but before I could ask, another person started down the ramp. She was just as striking as I had expected earlier; platinum hair cut to a shoulder-length bob and large silver-blue eyes in a triangular face. This, along with her distinctly pointed ears and petite frame, gave her a certain kind of elfin beauty.

    Her utilitarian clothing, being a black and orange overall in some synthetic material with a pistol belted to her hip, did nothing to detract from her appearance. I've never been attracted to women, but I could see how some men would be drawn to those kind of looks. However, I also figured her to be about nineteen, far too young to be the commander of this craft. Who's this? The captain's daughter?

    “Geneva Hastings,” she greeted me as she reached the bottom of the ramp. “And you'd be Legend. Pleased to meet you.” She held out one slim hand.

    Blinking, I grasped it, feeling the strength in her grip. “You're Captain Hastings?” I blurted. “Aren't you a little, uh, young for the job?”

    She snorted, amusement dancing in her eyes. “That's sweet, but I take anti-ageing treatments. I suspect I've got a couple of decades on you.”

    “I, uh, sorry,” I told her, trying to regain lost ground. “I apologise if I offended you. Reynaud here speaks very highly of you.”

    “Well, given that I rescued him from my idiot ex-husband, I'm not surprised,” she observed dryly. “Thanks for saving him, by the way. I'm kind of getting used to having him around.”

    “Well, it was the least I could do when Dragon told us that he was in trouble,” I pointed out. I looked around at the growing circle of onlookers, which included capes and civilians alike. They were standing a ways back from the ship, but not by choice; PRT troops were working to establish a perimeter as we spoke. “If you want, we can go and talk in a more private setting.”

    “We can do that,” she agreed gravely. “Just as soon as I get an assurance from you that nobody's going to be so stupid as to try to hijack my ship as soon as it's out of my sight.”

    “Uh, no, that's definitely not going to happen,” I assured her. “Those PRT troops will make sure of that.”

    One silver eyebrow hitched upward. “And will I be allowed to go back to my ship once we're done here?”

    “Of course, of course,” I agreed. “You did us a huge favour with Leviathan.”

    “That never stopped people from being idiots before,” she pointed out. “Just be aware that it wouldn't be as easy as it might seem.”

    I nodded, no longer inclined to think of her as a teenager any more. No matter her outward appearance, she was no naïve kid. While her clothing and accoutrements went a long way toward dispelling that initial impression, her attitude settled it once and for all. “I'll make sure of it,” I promised her.

    “Good.” Her lips curved in a smile. “Now, is this the point where I say 'take me to your leader'?”

    I had to chuckle; that line was as old as science fiction and definitely older than space travel. “It would be. But aren't you missing a member of your crew?”

    Turning her head, she glanced at the ship; as she did so, her hair moved aside, revealing a kidney-shaped metallic-blue object of uncertain purpose, an inch or so across, attached to the side of her head, just behind her ear. “Oh, you mean Sean? No, he's the ship's AI. He's one of the several reasons that it would be extremely stupid to try to hijack it.”

    “Sean? Really?” I didn't dispute the concept of an artificial intelligence. After all, it was a spaceship, there were two people who had almost certainly been heavily modified from their original appearances right in front of me and I wouldn't have been surprised if some Tinker had already created one in a lab somewhere already. “That's a kind of … prosaic name for an artificial intelligence, isn't it?”

    It most certainly is not, lad.” External speakers had come to life on the ship and I belatedly realised that the AI had probably been listening in on the whole conversation. Also that this 'Sean' had a strong Scottish burr. “After all, I chose it for myself.”

    “Oh, I see,” I replied hastily. “Sorry about that.”

    No matter, lad,” it – he – replied. “Geneva, lass, you run along now and talk to the locals. I'll see to what repairs I can.”

    “Okay, Sean,” she told him. “Let me know if anything comes up.”

    You know I will.” As he spoke, the ramp retracted and the hatch closed.

    She turned away from the ship and back to me. “Well, where do we go from here?”

    “We go talk to the people in charge around here.” I already knew that Alexandria had slipped away; I also knew why. So I looked around until I spotted the man I needed to see and walked in that direction; Geneva and Reynaud followed me.

    <><>​

    Armsmaster looked up as we approached him; his lips had been moving silently, no doubt sub-vocalising to someone on his helmet radio. I noted to my interest that he had two halberds on his back, instead of the one he normally carried; perhaps he had decided he needed a spare in case one was damaged in the fighting against Leviathan? It wasn't a matter that I was concerned about; I didn't know Armsmaster all that well, but he was a highly-regarded hero and a well-respected Tinker. If he wanted to carry two halberds, that was his business and not mine.

    “Legend,” he greeted me. “These are our visitors, I presume.”

    “You presume correctly,” I replied. “Captain Hastings, Reynaud, this is Armsmaster. He's the head of the local Protectorate contingent. Armsmaster, this is Captain Geneva Hastings of, uh … “ I hesitated as I realised that I didn't know the name of the ship.

    “Of the Bond James Bond,” Captain Hastings finished smoothly. “And this is my rescuee and currently my ward, Reynaud James Klovis VII.”

    The implications of the ship's name, coupled with the name of the AI and the Scottish burr, hit me all at once. I tried not to choke as Armsmaster replied. “What do you mean by 'ward'?”

    “I mean,” Captain Hastings responded sweetly, “that Reynaud is under my personal protection, right up until I can return him safe and whole to his family.”

    “I see,” Armsmaster commented; he seemed to be sizing Reynaud up. “What's that you've got on your back, son?”

    “It's a filter-lung, sir,” Reynaud told him. “I can breathe underwater. Other people can't.”

    I thought Armsmaster was being a little abrupt with them, but I didn't want to undercut him in public. “Reynaud was in the water, rescuing people and alerting Captain Hastings to the tsunamis,” I explained. “He's the reason we only suffered one of them.”

    “Hmm.” Abruptly, Armsmaster nodded. “The Director is waiting.” A nod indicated the pistol on Captain Hastings' hip. “You'll have to leave that behind, of course.”

    She folded her arms; that was an indication in any language that she wasn't willing to go along with his directive. “Really. Are you going to disarm as well?”

    “I'm not required to.” He indicated the ship behind her. “You've obviously got access to high-end technology and you're a stranger in town. You show up just as an Endbringer attacks. That could be a coincidence, or it could be something more.”

    Enough was enough; I cleared my throat. “Armsmaster, you're out of line.” Although my voice was mild, I thought I saw Captain Hastings wince. “She put her ship in harm's way to protect this city and she is our guest. You will show her the appropriate respect. Am I clear?”

    Armsmaster paused for a moment; I wondered if we were going to have to have a longer discussion behind closed doors. But then he nodded. “Perfectly,” he replied. “If you will follow me, Captain, Mr Klovis.” Turning, he led the way toward the PRT building. The automatic doors opened before him; Geneva shot me an appraising look, then followed on. Reynaud was trying not to grin as he entered behind the Captain. I brought up the rear and the doors closed behind me.

    <><>​

    Director Piggot sat in her office, watching her monitor screen; I stood behind her. On it, the second in command of the local Protectorate forces was seeing to the comfort of our guests in a conference room. Armsmaster, possibly still smarting from my reprimand, was outside, overseeing the security cordon on the spaceship.

    I knew about Miss Militia, of course; she was well-known both inside the Protectorate and out of it. However, it was still more than a little jarring to see her offering tea and coffee to Geneva and Reynaud with a nineteenth-century cavalry sabre slung at her hip.

    Uh, no, thanks,” Reynaud demurred. “I can't have caffeine. Kinda allergic.”

    Captain Hastings accepted the tea, but eyed the milk suspiciously as it was poured in. “Is that … natural?”

    I believe so, yes,” Miss Militia confirmed. “Is this a problem?”

    I don't know,” Captain Hastings replied. “I've never had natural milk before. Most everything I grew up on was biocultured.”

    Piggot cleared her throat; I looked at her inquiringly. “Yes, Director?”

    “You spoke at length with the boy,” she pointed out. “Brief me on what he said.”

    “He says that they're from the future, at least five centuries,” I recited. “Or rather, a future. But not ours. One belonging to an alternate.”

    “Like Earth Aleph?” She wasn't stupid, not by any stretch of the imagination.

    “Like that, yes.” I paused. “But not Aleph's, specifically. He said they didn't have superheroes in their history.”

    “A different alternate then. Right.” She paused, frowning. “Are they a threat?”

    “I … don't consider them so, no,” I told her honestly. “They are dangerous, yes; their ship did more damage to Leviathan than all of the rest of us did today -”

    “ - and turned Captain's Hill into a goddamn crater in the process,” she pointed out acidly. “Not to mention the damage to the city from those weapons. Buildings down, streets torn up, a hundred foot wide crater that keeps filling with water -”

    “I've attended dozens of Endbringer fights,” I reminded her, my voice hard. “What they did was nothing to what Leviathan would have done, if they'd given him the chance. Believe me, it could have been a lot worse.”

    My words hung in the air. She had to know I spoke nothing but the unvarnished truth; following the examples of Newfoundland and Kyushu, Leviathan's true capacity for destruction had never been in dispute.

    “... granted,” she conceded. “This story he told you; do you think he was being truthful? Is there any proof that she's not just some Tinker with a penchant for heavy weapons and wild stories and a Case 53 boyfriend?”

    “Well, for one thing, the ship is apparently equipped with an AI,” I told her. “I spoke to it. Or rather, him. He was quite personable.”

    Her lips thinned. “True AI is supposed to be impossible.”

    “Tinkers do the impossible on a daily basis,” I reminded her.

    She pounced on that. “So you think she might be a Tinker?”

    “I think that what a Tinker can produce today, a civilisation that's had five hundred years of technological progress might devise in the normal run of events,” I argued. “Besides, from the future or from right now, what they did is what matters. People are alive, the city is as intact as it is, because of them.”

    “It's still something that has to be faced,” she muttered. “The truth needs to be determined, dealt with, one way or the other.” Abruptly, she stood up. “Well, talking about them isn't going to help, until we get more data on the situation. I'm going in there to talk to them, face to face.”

    I followed her from the office; while I was the leader of the entire Protectorate and she was a regional Director under Rebecca Costa-Brown, the truth remained that the Protectorate was subordinate to the PRT and thus she was nominally my superior officer. While I didn't necessarily trust her attitude in the upcoming confrontation, I wasn't overly worried; I had an ace up my sleeve.

    <><>​

    As we entered the conference room, Captain Hastings was holding back her hair from the metallic nodule attached to the side of her head while Miss Militia examined it closely.

    “So what's it do, exactly?”

    “It's an aug,” explained Reynaud; he seemed to think that this was sufficient explanation, but Miss Militia looked blank.

    Uh, that's short for cerebral augmentation,” explained Hastings. “It's a computer, gridlinker, communicator, onboard datastore, you name it. They're pretty well ubiquitous in the Polity.”

    “The Polity?” asked Director Piggot. “What is that, exactly?”

    “Where we come from,” Captain Hastings told her, letting her hair fall back into place and turning to face the Director. She stood, offering her hand. “Geneva Hastings. You're the person in charge here?”

    Piggot shook it. “Director Emily Piggot, Parahuman Response Teams. Yes, I'm the person in charge here. Tell me more about this 'Polity'.”

    “It's … well, it's a multi-planet nation,” Geneva explained. “Each world is self-governing, of course, but the Polity oversees them all. Earth is the centre of it. We're not the only one out there, of course, and things aren't always smooth running, but … “ She quirked a grin. “Anyone messing with the Polity tends to end up regretting it. Badly.”

    “I see.” Piggot's tone was flat. I pulled out a chair for her; she sat down. I took a seat next to her, while Geneva sat down again as well.

    “Uh … are we in trouble?” That was Reynaud. “All we wanted to do was help.”

    I cut in before Piggot could speak. “No, son, you're not in trouble. As leader of the Protectorate, I can tell you that no legal problems will befall you as a result of your actions today.”

    Piggot didn't look thrilled. “Legend, a word?” She jerked her head toward the door into the corridor.

    “Of course, ma'am.”

    She stood and led the way into the corridor; without being prompted, I closed the door behind us.

    Her expression as she turned to me was coldly furious. “You can't just say that!” In deference to the fact that the door wasn't particularly soundproofed, she kept her tone down, but there was a certain amount of intensity there all the same.

    “Certainly I can,” I replied, striving for a voice of reason. “If nothing else, there's the Endbringer Truce to consider. The very worst of villains get a pass on a day like this if they fight alongside us. Why not these people?”

    “Because by their own admission they're not from Earth Bet. What if they choose not to abide by the Endbringer Truce, because they've never heard of it?”

    “You've met them,” I pointed out. “Do they look or sound hostile to you?”

    “That's not the point,” she insisted. “You don't just make sweeping statements like that, not without checking with me first. You don't get to make calls like that.”

    I could see something that she couldn't and I tried not to let myself smile; however, she must have spotted something in my expression. “What?”

    “You're correct, of course,” Director Rebecca Costa-Brown stated from behind Piggot. “He doesn't get to make calls like that. But I do.”

    <><>​

    Back in the conference room, Costa-Brown seated herself opposite the petite captain of the Bond James Bond. It was an odd name, with startling implications; I couldn't wait to hear that explanation.

    “I am Rebecca Costa-Brown, Chief Director of the Parahuman Response Teams,” she stated without preamble. “You are Geneva Hastings, captain of that craft out there. Is that correct?”

    Geneva nodded once. “All correct, ma'am,” she responded. She tilted her head, the skin around her eyes crinkling very slightly. “I'm guessing that you want to know what we're doing here and what our intentions are.”

    The Chief Director raised her head slightly, seeming to come to a higher level of alertness, although I couldn't quite see why. “That's correct.” She levelled her gaze at Geneva. “Would you mind enlightening us?”

    “Well, to start with,” the elfin newcomer observed, “I'd like to take the opportunity to ask you to pass on our thanks to Alexandria. If she hadn't tackled the monster when she did, Reynaud may well have died.”

    “I can do that,” I offered. “After all, she helped save me as well.” Or at least, she had saved me from a very hard decision, I amended silently. Had Leviathan struck me, I could have shifted to my energy form to save my life, but that would have left the boy at his mercy. Alexandria had taken the decision from my shoulders, for which I was profoundly grateful.

    Chief Director Rebecca Costa-Brown – otherwise known as Alexandria, as I well knew – nodded, seeming to relax very slightly. “I'm pleased that she was able to help,” she commented. “Now, about the other matter?”

    Geneva leaned back in her chair, clasping her fingers loosely in front of her. “We got kicked back here from the year twenty-five eighty-four solstan,” she began.

    Miss Militia tilted her head. “Solstan?”

    “Solar standard, I presume,” Costa-Brown noted.

    Captain Hastings nodded. “Correct. Young Reynaud here is the heir to a multi-billion dollar fortune; I took the contract to get him back when he was abducted for ransom.”

    “Wait,” I objected. “Reynaud, you said she rescued you from space pirates.”

    “I did,” Geneva told me. “The abductors handed him off to a bunch of spacefaring morons, run by my idiot ex-husband, to keep him out of the way until the ransom was paid. Kramer dabbles in piracy occasionally; in poor light he can pass for a dashing rogue. I intercepted the ship and pulled Reynaud out of there. Kramer objected, up to and including tossing a CTD at me.”

    “And a CTD is … ?” asked Miss Militia.

    “A contra-terrene device.” She paused. “That's what we call -”

    “An anti-matter bomb.” Costa-Brown's voice was flat. “Correct?”

    Reynaud looked deeply impressed; Geneva's expression was respectful as she nodded. “Yes, ma'am. That's correct. It went off just as we entered U-space -”

    I cleared my throat. “Sorry, but could you explain that term?”

    “Underspace,” Reynaud filled in helpfully. “I'm not really up on the theory, but if you enter U-space, you can get places a whole lot faster.”

    I could think of equivalent terms from the science fiction of my youth; subspace, hyperspace, and so on and so forth. “All right. So you entered underspace just as this anti-matter bomb went off.”

    Miss Militia frowned. “Wasn't that a little on the extreme side? I mean, if this bomb was as powerful as it sounds, it should have destroyed your ship and killed the both of you, thus depriving him of any share of the ransom.”

    “Yeah.” Her voice was dry. “You may recall, I referred to him as my idiot ex-husband. He never was one to think things through.”

    “I see.” The Chief Director's tone was equally dry. “I've known people like that. So I presume that the explosion of the CTD disrupted what would have been a smooth transit through U-space, somehow popping you out in our universe and our time.”

    “That's the long and the short of it,” Geneva agreed. “Sean is of the opinion that we've undergone a variation of a time-inconsistent jump, which U-space physics actually allows for, but like Reynaud, I'm not up on the theory. Personally, I'd be dubious, but the evidence is kind of overwhelming.”

    “Still, it does tend to strain credibility that you ended up right near Earth when you did come out of the jump,” I pointed out. “A random jump across time and between universes that lands near a civilised planet – any civilised planet – would be hard to believe, but you appeared near Earth. That can't be a coincidence.”

    Geneva's eyes lost focus for a moment, then she blinked. “Well, Sean says he has a hypothesis on that.”

    “Sean?” Costa-Brown's voice was sharp. “Who is Sean?”

    “He's the ship's AI,” I told her. “I've spoken to him.”

    “The ship has an artificial intelligence in it?” Director Piggot looked startled. “So it could be capable of independent action, even now?”

    “Well, yes,” Geneva told her. “He's the ship owner. I'm his partner. He has full autonomy at all times.”

    “Very well,” Costa-Brown decided, in the tone which said we will visit this again later, “what is this hypothesis?”

    “That the U-space disturbances which surround this planet somehow drew us here.”

    Silence fell in the conference room following Geneva's casually-delivered bombshell. Each of us stared at her in varying degrees of consternation, save for Reynaud, who seemed to know what she was talking about.

    “Huh,” he muttered. “That'd kind of make sense, wouldn't it?”

    “Explain.” Costa-Brown's voice was hard and flat. “What U-space disturbances?”

    Geneva drew a breath. “It's possible to detect disturbances in U-space. This lets us know when a ship's about to emerge. Really handy, in wartime situations.” She paused. “When we arrived, we detected numerous traces of various strength, all around the planet. Literally hundreds of thousands of them. Including several really, really powerful loci. There are two that we have directly observed. One was the Simurgh and one was Leviathan. I'm going to go out on a limb, and assume that Behemoth is another one.”

    “Wait,” Miss Militia broke in. “You're saying that we get our powers from this U-space?”

    “Sean doesn't think so,” Geneva replied. “He thinks the powers come from elsewhere, but the connection comes via U-space. And the uses of your powers that effect changes over a distance also propagate through U-space. Thus creating disturbances, which we can easily pick up. And which may have drawn us here, given that we didn't know which way was up after the CTD hit.”

    “ … huh.” I rubbed my chin. “Can your instruments tell if someone's got powers? Are they emitting a U-space disturbance even when they're not using them?”

    “If so,” Director Piggot stated, “that would be incredibly useful as a cape detector. Especially if it could be used at a distance.”

    Geneva nodded. “Yes, it would be. Which is why I'm not going to answer that question. Nor are we going to hand over specs for a U-space detector.”

    “What?” Piggot leaned forward. “Why not?”

    “Because I'm making an executive decision. You're not ready for that sort of technology.” Geneva Hastings, I discovered, could almost equal the Chief Director in icy tone of voice.

    “That doesn't make any kind of sense,” Piggot stated, sounding almost bewildered. “We already have Tinkertech that bends and breaks the laws of physics in ways that I don't even pretend to understand. You've stated that you're not from our future, so there's no chance of paradox. Why are we not ready for it?”

    “Because it makes a mockery of the entire 'secret identity' concept, that's why.” Geneva's tone was unbending. “That's an integral part of your culture. I'm not going to overturn that.”

    For a few seconds, I wondered why Director Costa-Brown had not weighed into the argument, then I realised what was going on. The earlier byplay between the two women had concealed a great deal of information trading hands; Geneva being informed by Sean that Costa-Brown was Alexandria, Costa-Brown realising that Geneva knew who she was, then Geneva reassuring her that she would not betray the secret. Alexandria would not, of course, want such technology to fall into the hands of the PRT. Geneva knew this and was thus holding out.

    “She has a point,” Miss Militia offered diffidently. “As a cape, I would vastly prefer that someone not be able to point some device at me in my civilian identity and determine that I have powers, thus putting my family at risk.”

    “Me neither,” I agreed. Arthur was the only family I was close to, but I loved him dearly.

    “I'm inclined to agree with Miss Militia and Legend,” Alexandria noted; I had to admire the almost casual tone of her voice. “This is not a technology that we want in the public domain.”

    “But it wouldn't be,” insisted Director Piggot. “If we kept it deeply classified, passed it off as Tinker tech … “

    “Which would work right up until it didn't, yeah?” That was Reynaud. Piggot glared at him and he shut up.

    “No, he's right,” Geneva stated flatly. “Unless you bury it so deep that nobody even hears of it, which kind of defeats the purpose if you ever want to use it, people will see it and hear about it. Pictures, sensor readings, analysis, theft … can you tell me for a fact that not one single person on your staff is immune to bribery or blackmail?”

    “Or, you know, super-powers.” Reynaud shrugged. “Pretty sure some of them could be used to get the information.”

    “They're right, you know.” I made my tone almost apologetic. “Right now, we six are the only ones who know of this. I'd like to keep it that way.”

    Piggot nodded reluctantly. “Fine. But given that the technology is contained on a damaged craft, I think that it should be at least sequestered until the craft is repaired and made more secure.”

    “Nope.” Geneva shook her head. “Nobody messes with the Bond James Bond.”

    “The … what?” Piggot stared. “Please tell me that you're kidding.”

    “I've been meaning to ask about that,” I put in, glad that the conversation had moved on to a less touchy subject. “The name of the ship, the name of the AI, the accent … does that mean what I think it means?”

    Geneva shrugged. “What can I say? He likes the classics.”

    “You do realise that the man is still alive, right?” I had no idea how the veteran actor would take to finding out that a sapient starship from half a millennium in the future had taken him as an inspiration. But I truly did want to see the look on Mr Connery's face when someone told him.

    From the look on her face, Geneva apparently had not yet made that connection. Oh god …” She began to chuckle. “No, I didn't … and nor did Sean. I've never seen him so utterly stunned.”

    “Wait, you're saying that those films are still considered 'classics' in five hundred years' time?” Director Piggot was trying hard to regain control of the conversation. “Because I find that hard to believe.”

    “No, they're around, but just part of popular culture where I come from,” Geneva noted. “However, they were classics when Sean was first constructed. He's over two hundred and fifty years old, solstan.”

    “And you've been with him all that time?” Miss Militia asked curiously

    “No, I'm only sixty-four.” Geneva shrugged. “Like I said, anti-ageing treatments, body mods and so on. I've been partners with him for the last twenty years or so. We get along.”

    “Wait, two hundred and fifty years?” Reynaud frowned, then his face cleared. "Oh, yeah. He did say something about -"

    “Yes,” she confirmed. “He was in the Prador wars. Doesn't talk about it much.”

    "I am going to have to ask him about that sometime." Reynaud looked around at the rest of us. “Uh, sorry. Didn't mean to interrupt.”

    “Hm. Well. As fascinating as a full discussion of your future history might be,” Costa-Brown observed, “we need to stick to the relevant details here. For instance, I've been advised that you used what's been described as a pair of tactical nuclear warheads to break up one of the tsunamis. I need more details, please.”

    Tac nukes? This was the first I'd heard of this. I sat up, as did Miss Militia and Director Piggot.

    “Yes, we used them,” Geneva admitted readily enough. “Dial-a-yield fusion devices. No fallout, negligible EMP and radiation. Clean bombs. Just big enough to break up the wave without showering all of Brockton Bay with boiling water.”

    “That's going to have to be independently checked, of course,” Piggot noted. “Irradiating the ocean could produce heavy water, which can cause problems in the environment.”

    “Only in significant quantities,” Reynaud interjected. “Sorry, but my area of study is the evolution of marine biota and man's influence on it. The effect of heavy water is one of the things I've looked at. You already had a crappy ecology out there in the bay, even before Leviathan came here; a dose of heavy water, in the quantities that we're talking about, isn't really going to have much of an effect.”

    “Fine,” snapped Piggot. “What about that other thing you did, over Captain's Hill? You could have blinded half the population.”

    “Unlikely,” Geneva told her. “And in any case, it was necessary. Leviathan was hanging on to the ship. The monster was quite literally tearing it apart around us. So we lit off the fusion drive. And then, when it let go, we gave it everything else we had.”

    “Which blew some of the debris far and wide,” noted the Chief Director. “There have been injuries, I understand.”

    “For which I am sorry,” Geneva responded. “But when you're fighting a superweapon like that, you don't use half-measures and you don't hold back. It's just not feasible.”

    I looked at her sharply and so did both Miss Militia and Chief Director Costa-Brown. Piggot was already not happy with either one of them, so I wasn't sure if she caught the significance of that particular word.

    “What do you mean, superweapon?” Miss Militia asked carefully.

    “I mean, its U-space trace was in no way the same as any other cape we spotted,” Geneva explained. “Like I said, the Endbringers seem to show up as huge U-space loci and wield massive powers. And Sean says that one of his sub-minds picked up something weird during the fight.”

    “Weird? What kind of weird?” That was Costa-Brown.

    She shrugged. “Just 'weird'. If I know him, he's subjecting it to deep analysis before talking to me about it. I'll find out when I find out.”

    “But you're saying the Endbringers weren't originally human?” Director Piggot didn't look as though she wanted to ask the question, or get the answer, but was doing so anyway.

    “That's exactly what I'm saying,” agreed Geneva. “When you get really high-end tech, you get superweapons. Things that are far more dangerous than they first look and are an absolute pain to put down once and for all. Back in the Polity, they've discovered that there were several star-spanning races before humanity. One has been named the Jain.” She spelled the word, then went on.

    “They died out because they developed a technology that infected living things and tech alike, turning it all to one end; producing more Jain tech. Think of it as a living, malevolent virus that could decimate a city, subsuming the population into itself, in a matter of hours. When this tech resurfaced in our time, it posed a serious danger to the Polity before it was put down again. That was a superweapon. The Endbringers fit the same pattern.”

    “But we didn't build them,” I protested. “Nobody did. Behemoth showed up in ninety-two. We didn't even know what he was, then.”

    “Endbringers have attacked all over the world, since,” the Chief Director noted. “Every continent, multiple times. No-one's been spared. It's hard to believe that someone's actively controlling them to do this.” But I could see that she was thinking. And while Chief Director Costa-Brown was known as a sharp operator, Alexandria was a Thinker par excellence.

    “Which would indicate one of three options,” Geneva suggested. “One, the controller isn't human. Two, the controller is psychotic. And three, the controller doesn't know he's doing it.”

    “Unfortunately,” mused Costa-Brown, “we do actually have nonhuman intelligences on Earth, as well as enough psychotics to write several large volumes on the subject. As for your third option, you think that it might be a cape doing it all unawares?”

    “It's just a possibility,” Geneva pointed out. “But I thought you didn't have any AIs here?”

    “Oh, I didn't say we had artificial intelligences,” the Chief Director told her. “But several of our more unusual capes probably don't count as human any more. Unfortunately, we have far too many suspects in all three categories to start narrowing it down to useful levels. But it's useful to know, at least, that they aren't human in and of themselves.”

    “I'd start looking to see who could have built them,” Geneva suggested. “If they're superweapons, then they're tech of some sort. What Tinkers do you have who could create something like that?”

    I blinked. That was an interesting line of thought. But it quickly came to a crashing halt.

    “While we do have some very high-end Tinkers, including some in the Birdcage,” Miss Militia noted, “none of the ones I can think of who could possibly have created something like the Endbringers were active before two thousand two, which was when the Simurgh appeared, much less ninety-two.”

    “Might be worth doing a bit of digging, though,” I suggested. “There could be some who flew under the radar for a while before making their marks.”

    'What if a cape created them with his powers?” asked Reynaud. “I mean, just as a hypothetical.”

    “That would require him to be either psychotic or incredibly stupid,” Miss Militia noted. “I mean, why would anyone even do that, unless they wanted to prove themselves to be the greatest hero of all time, by defeating them single-handed? And nobody's been able to do that yet.”

    “Hmm. There's something in that,” murmured Costa-Brown. “But we're arguing in circles now. Are there any other problems that we want to bring up?”

    “Yes,” Director Piggot stated. “Health. Specifically, diseases.”

    I could see where she was coming from, with the earlier mention of superweapons. Cultures meeting for the first time after long isolation could harbour diseases, each deadly to the other.

    “Actually, that's the least of our problems,” Geneva noted. “I get a boost to my immune system every time I get my body mod updated, and Reynaud's genemod is top of the line, so I'm guessing that you got the same?”

    “Sure,” Reynaud agreed. “Submerged, my mucous membranes are exposed to any pathogen that might have leaked into the water from a thousand different sources, so Mother and Father made sure that I didn't have any genetic weaknesses and that any bug that bit me was going to die.”

    “Also,” Geneva went on, “as a freelance spaceship operator, I've got to have my booster shots up to date, just in case I go someplace that's got something virulent going on. And Sean keeps the ship clean as a matter of course. If either of us had anything infectious, he'd know about it.”

    “Still, I'd like a second opinion,” Piggot stated. “With your permission, Chief Director, I'd like to bring Panacea in on this.”

    I saw Reynaud shoot a glance at Geneva – whom I still couldn't see as being over sixty, miraculous future tech or no – and she went introspective for a moment. “Oh,” she stated a moment later. “The healer.”

    “Believe me,” I assured them, “she's the best there is when it comes to healing.” There were those who said that Eidolon was better, though I had seen them both at work and I sometimes wondered if she could have saved Hero where he couldn't. I glanced over at Costa-Brown. “Though she still might be busy with the wounded.”

    “I'm not sure that it's the best idea to bring more people in on this,” the Chief Director mused. “She's not Protectorate, so we can't just order her to not talk about it.”

    “No, but she's discreet and I've had her in before to deal with injuries to the Wards,” Piggot told her. “She knows the identities of at least some of them and has never let that slip.”

    “There's a world of difference between keeping someone's secret identity and not telling anyone that the Tinkertech craft that helped fight off Leviathan is actually a time-travelling spacecraft,” Miss Militia pointed out. It wasn't a sentence that I had ever thought I would ever hear anyone say out loud.

    “Well, we don't need to tell her that,” the Brockton Bay Director stated impatiently. “Just that a couple of people need checking out. She's almost certainly met people stranger than these two.”

    “So you'll lie to your healer.” Geneva's voice was cutting.

    Piggot gave her a level stare. “We won't lie. She just won't be told all the information. Need to know. Surely you're familiar with that concept.”

    “You have a point,” Geneva agreed. “And she can check me over to her heart's content. But there's no way on Grant's World that she gets to go near Reynaud.”

    The Brockton Bay Director thinned her lips as she matched gazes with Geneva. “Health concerns -”

    “So check me out. Check out everyone he's come into contact with. Reynaud is my ward. If you want to put it in financial terms, he's worth millions to me. In any other terms, he's my responsibility. And he will remain so, right up until I deliver him back to his family. Which means I don't allow any medical attention that I don't personally believe to be absolutely necessary to get near him.” By the time she finished her speech, Geneva had both hands flat on the table, as if ready to leap to her feet.

    I cleared my throat. “Let's take it easy now. Director Piggot, this doesn't sound like consent to me, or anything like it.”

    “He'll have to go into quarantine then.” Piggot's tone was final.

    “Sure, that works for me.” Geneva's tension was easing off. “He can get back on the ship. Simple as that. We have an adequate autodoc.”

    “Captain Hastings,” Miss Militia asked. “What's your problem with Panacea checking out Reynaud? Healing is literally her power. She's saved thousands of lives.”

    She took a deep breath. “Okay, let me put it this way. Legend, suppose an Endbringer attacked your centre of government and you had to swoop in to save the President's kid, then some weird power thing happened and you found yourself in my time. You'd set yourself the job of getting the kid back home in one piece, right?”

    I nodded. “Certainly I would.”

    “Okay, then,” she went on. “Suppose the people you met in my time insisted that the kid, who wasn't even injured, needed to be looked over by an autodoc, which just by the way looks like someone built a two-metre spider out of scrap metal and scalpels. Would you consent to that, not knowing anything about how it worked?”

    “Well … okay,” I conceded. “I can admit that I would be just a little concerned in that situation, yes.”

    “Well then.” She stood up. “If there's nothing more …”

    The Chief Director cleared her throat. “Captain Hastings, I understand that your ship is in dire need of repair.”

    “That's true.” Geneva nodded to Costa-Brown. “We can handle most of the minor stuff. As for the major repairs, I'll discuss that with Legend, if you don't mind. Once we're back at the ship.”

    “Legend?” Costa-Brown raised an eyebrow. “He's not in your chain of command. He's in mine. Once I leave Brockton Bay, and Legend with me, Director Piggot will be the ranking PRT officer in this city.” Implicit in her voice was an unspoken statement: You don't give orders to me or mine.

    Geneva folded her arms. “Okay …” she replied cautiously. Her tone stated quite clearly that it would be a cold day in hell before Emily Piggot set foot on her ship, ranking officer or no.

    Costa-Brown hadn't finished. She turned to Director Emily Piggot. “Director Piggot. I am assigning Miss Militia the job of liaison with Captain Hastings, up until her ship repairs are complete. She will be sending her reports directly to me. You don't need to worry about the matter at all.”

    Director Piggot nodded jerkily. “Understood, ma'am.”

    “Good to hear. Now, this young man needs to enter quarantine immediately and I find myself curious about your artificial intelligence – Sean, was he called?”

    Geneva nodded. “Yes, ma'am. Sean.”

    Costa-Brown smiled slightly. “Well then. Legend, would you care to escort us down so that I can meet him?”

    I stood and pulled out the Chief Director's chair. “Ma'am, I would be honoured.”

    <><>​

    Meanwhile, in Toronto

    Mags!”

    What's up, Geoff?”

    Look! Look at this!”

    Dragon's chat logs for the Endbringer fight. So what?”

    Chat logs recorded at a ten to one rate. Nobody talks that fast.”

    You mean, nobody but Dragon.”

    Or another artificial intelligence.”

    Uh … you have heard about the spaceship that helped out against Leviathan, right? Chased him off with fuck-off heavy weapons.”

    Spaceship? With heavy weapons?”

    Yeah. I saw it on the news. They say it's crewed by a pointy-eared girl and a guy who looks like a fish. That might be where your AI is.”

    Geoff Pellick leaned back and looked at the screens. Slowly, he steepled his fingers. “Really.”


    End of Part Four

    Part Five
     
    Last edited: May 16, 2017
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. Threadmarks: Part Seven: Sleight of Hand
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    War Games

    Part Seven: Sleight of Hand

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



    Miss Militia

    Hannah examined the scorched spot on the asphalt, moving the high-powered flashlight carefully from side to side. She wrinkled her nose at the acrid smell, but didn't let it distract her from the matter at hand. Turning to Captain Hastings, she asked, “This was a maser, correct? A microwave laser?”

    “Yes.” Geneva was wearing a ship-suit of a slightly different pattern to the one she'd had on when Hannah first met her, though the pulse pistol still rode at her hip. Sartorial accoutrements aside, she didn't seem the least bit fazed by the incident. “I directed Sean to hit the intruder with an unfocused burst, powerful enough to set cloth on fire but not enough to cause more than second-degree burns to exposed skin.” She nodded toward the scorch-mark. “I think it's obvious what happened here.”

    Hannah thought so too, but she wasn't leaving anything to chance. After all, Geneva may have spotted something she'd missed. “So walk me through it, so I can brief the Director.” She was beginning to regret accepting the position of liaison to the newcomers, as fascinating as the ship and the people in it were. Not only was the ship equipped with insanely high-powered weaponry, but it also seemed entirely willing to defend itself with them—and this was important—inside a metropolitan area. “You saw someone coming, and then …?”

    “Sean acquired the traces of nine parahumans loitering in the area,” Geneva stated at once. She didn't have to explain what she meant by 'traces'. “Three were standing off, on top of a building in that direction.” She pointed. “We've cross-referenced it with a plan of the city, if you're interested in exactly which one. One was approaching the Bond James Bond from the same direction. The other five were in the surface vehicle that was coming at us from the other direction. These were the ones you call the Merchants, correct?”

    “Yes,” agreed Hannah. “We'll talk about how you shot at them with a particle beam cannon in a moment.” Oddly enough, in a city with five Tinkers (three of them villains, though Bakuda was now in the Birdcage), she'd never had to actually use that particular phrasing before. “I'm interested in the lone parahuman. What happened then?”

    “He got inside the perimeter fence, and we still didn't have a good sensor lock on him,” Geneva said. “Sean and I theorised that he might be one of these Strangers you've got, or perhaps someone with good chameleonwear. Either way, I decided on a low-power shot with the maser array to dissuade him and simultaneously alert the guard force to his presence. A screaming man running around in a burning costume would find it hard to be stealthy, after all.” Somehow, she managed to keep a straight face while delivering that line.

    “I would imagine so.” Hannah didn't crack a smile, though it wasn't easy. Someone had died here, after all. “So Sean shot at the intruder, and there was an explosion. Scorchmarks but no body parts. You think it was Fog?” The Empire cape wouldn't have been her first choice, but the logic was inescapable. If the maser had been used at sufficient power to vaporise a human body, the asphalt would've certainly melted as well.

    “Sean suggested it, and Dragon concurred.” Geneva shrugged. “She knows far more about the local parahuman scene than Sean or me, including the stuff that's not in the public record. If she thinks it's plausible, then I'm going to go with that for the time being. From all I've read, Geoff Schmidt was a nasty piece of work with more than one murder to his name.” She didn't sound particularly regretful.

    “So you think he just went up like a … like a flour bomb?” Hannah had heard of the phenomenon before, but she'd never considered that a parahuman would be susceptible to that sort of thing. It seemed such a … trivial way to go. It was hard to credit that any enemy of the Empire could've disposed of the man with a lit cigarette. “I'm having trouble seeing that.”

    Geneva paused, then nodded. “Ah. I understand. Not quite like that. However, if it was Fog, he was dispersed, and the particulates he was composed of were quite possibly organic in some way. A human body can't take serious harm from a brief burst of microwaves, because the cells are packed closely together. Some take extra harm to shield the others, and evolution allows the human body to slough off damaged skin and regrow epidermis in its place. But if the particulates are dispersed widely enough that they all heat up at once, and a significant proportion of them are exposed to energy sufficient to make cloth catch fire, a chain reaction can take place. And the maser was set on dispersal, so as to catch as wide an area as possible in its beam. So … yes, that's our working theory.”

    “I see.” Hannah nodded; it definitely made a lot of sense. There was just one more matter to clear up. “You didn't offer a warning before you opened fire? With either Fog or the Merchants?” She wasn't asking so much for herself so much as for the absolute certainty that someone in the chain of command above her was certain to ask her, and she needed an answer she could pass on.

    Captain Hastings raised one silvery, and very expressive, eyebrow. “The Bond James Bond is a warship,” she reminded Hannah. “Sean is a very old and very experienced soldier. Warnings allow your enemy the opportunity to take cover and they let him know you can see him. We used warning shots. And before you ask, a warning shot that misses is wasted ammunition. It's better to hit them non-lethally; this both hampers them and explains to them that yes, we do actually have them targeted. Both of which work wonders against their morale.” She paused, tilting her head slightly, then chuckled. “Sean is reminding me that we deliberately missed with our warning shot against Kramer's ship when we rescued Reynaud. That was a special case; we didn't know where in the ship he might be, and accidents can still happen.”

    “Such as with Fog.” Hannah had no particular issue with the fact that an Empire cape was probably dead. Ever since she'd gotten her powers, death had lost its emotional impact on her. However, other people were almost guaranteed to fly off the handle when informed that the time-travelling aliens in the AI-controlled spaceship had almost casually executed someone for getting too close. Not that she saw matters in exactly that light, but some would. Those sympathetic to the Empire's cause—and, in her opinion, there were were altogether too many of those in Brockton Bay—were likely to push that point of view exclusively. Never mind that Fog's presence inside the perimeter could in no way be seen as innocent, or that his presence had been a clear and present danger to both the crew of the ship and the PRT soldiers guarding the vessel. “That was an accident, right? You had no intention of killing him?”

    From the look on Geneva's face, she'd figured out exactly what Hannah was trying to hint towards. “It was absolutely an accident,” she confirmed. “The maximum we intended was a painful but superficial burn. People tend to take notice of object lessons, especially when they involve extremely public humiliation, followed by arrest.”

    “And the same regarding the Merchants, I suppose?” Hannah switched the flashlight off. There was nothing of note she could pick out with the naked eye, though she'd already given orders to have it cordoned off and investigated more closely come daylight. “Wasn't it somewhat extreme to target them with a particle beam? Couldn't you have used something with a little more restraint?”

    Geneva snorted. “As opposed to having Sean spin up the railgun and splatter them all over the street, I'm pretty sure what we did counts as 'restraint'. Our scans didn't show any significant shielding in that junker they were driving, so we dialled it right back and knocked them out without doing any biological damage. The ionising effect was merely an amusing side benefit.” She gave Hannah an appraising stare. “Once word gets out, the remainder of the criminal element in town is likely to be somewhat more circumspect about messing with the Bond James Bond. Is that your assessment, too?”

    “Well, considering how you turned night into day for half a mile with those godawful searchlights, I'd be astonished if word didn't get out,” Hannah replied with some asperity. “As for whether the cape gangs would step back, you've just facilitated the capture of one of the two criminal Tinkers left in town. The Empire's shown their interest already, but they probably don't even know what happened to Fog, which might make them hold off for a time. As for the rest of them …”

    “Dragon says the rest of them are bit-part players, either hit-and-run specialists like the Undersiders or strictly human mooks like Coil's gang,” reported Geneva. “There's also Faultline's Crew, but they apparently only take out-of-town jobs.” She frowned, as if Dragon's meaning had only just dawned on her. “What, really?”

    “Really,” confirmed Hannah. “They don't commit Federal crimes, and they only pull out-of-state jobs. More importantly, they're careful about not hurting innocents. If we're going to have villains in town, I'd prefer to have villains like them.” She smiled under her scarf at Geneva's startled expression. “Not that I'd ever say that anywhere the news crews could hear me, but villains are a fact of life around here. Everyone has opinions on them, especially on PHO.”

    Geneva nodded. “I know about that one. Not that I've tried it yet, but Reynaud's apparently taking his account out for a spin right now.” She let out a noise of amusement. “Actually, it's probably a good thing that he doesn't have an aug quite yet. If he's only used to manual Grid access, he'll probably be right at home here. They might not even notice he's from somewhere else.”

    That earned her an incredulous glance. Hannah wasn't a regular visitor to the boards, but she found they were a good place to get an idea of how the public was reacting to new events. She'd skimmed them briefly earlier in the evening and found several threads slowly but surely exploding over the Bond James Bond's dramatic debut. How they'd react to the latest incident, she wasn't sure she wanted to know.

    “Let me ask you a question,” she said, after having rummaged through her mind for several ways to respond to Geneva's comment. “If you went on this Grid back in your time, shortly after a totally paradigm-shifting event occurred, and you claimed to be someone who was part of said event, what would the response be like?” She could only hope Reynaud was resilient enough to weather the storm of attention—both positive and negative—that he was inevitably going to earn from the tinfoil-hat crowd just for merely existing. He seemed to be quick-witted enough, which was a point in his favour.

    Then,” Geneva said firmly, “whoever it was would be mobbed to a fare-thee-well. Even before he showed up, conspiracy nuts would be spouting half-assed theories covering a range of interpretations. Once he identified himself, some of them would beg him for the truth of the matter, while others would accuse him of being a fake so they could push their own version of events. And among those who took him seriously, maybe half would actually listen to what he's saying, while the rest cherry-picked what they wanted from it to support their own agendas.” She folded her arms and gave Hannah a satisfied nod. “What's it like in this era?”

    Hannah tilted her hand back and forth. “About the same, actually,” she said judiciously. “Don't forget; for nearly thirty years, we've had people with super-powers messing up the world and each other, sometimes on purpose. For almost as long, we've had people watching capes and trying to make sense of their motivations. Which isn't the easiest thing to do, because powers are impossible to predict. Worse, getting powers is pretty well guaranteed to send people off kilter, even if it's only by a little bit. As you can imagine, this has resulted in distinctly bizarre situations from time to time, which the self-styled cape experts then try to analyse and make sense of. And it's amazing how often the weirdest explanation has actually been the correct one.”

    “Really? I find it hard to believe a pre-Runcible version of the Grid would be that bad.” Geneva's large eyes went slightly unfocused. “I'm just going to have a look …” A moment passed, while Hannah wondered just how easy it would be to get used to having an aug. Then Geneva blinked a couple of times, the weird secondary eyelids wiping across her eyes and making her look just a little more startled. “Okay, you win. That's some crazy speculation, right there. Just one question: what's a Case Fifty-Three?”

    Mentally, Hannah facepalmed. As she'd expected, the tinfoil-hats were out in force. “It's shorthand for capes with inhuman appearances. They're marked out with a C-shaped tattoo and retrograde amnesia. Nobody really knows what that's about, but there's no shortage of theories.”

    “Inhuman appearances?” Geneva stared at her. “Reynaud's a perfectly normal seadapt. That sort of genemod's not cheap but it's not priced out of the market either.” She shook her head. “I can't believe that even with super-powers, this sort of thing isn't more common.”

    “Perfectly normal for your time, maybe,” Hannah pointed out. “Here and now, powers tend to screw people over rather than help them. There's very few people who could reliably tailor someone else's appearance in a non-harmful way. I can think of maybe two off the top of my head, and I'm not at all certain about Panacea. From everything I've heard, she can only fix things, not change them.” She paused as a disquieting thought occurred to her. “Getting back to Reynaud, are you sure he's okay to be online with that crowd? They can get pretty brutal on occasion, and at least some of them are liable to keep jumping up and down on the Case Fifty-Three button.”

    Geneva smiled. “That's the last thing we've got to worry about. Don't forget, Dragon just moved in. She's got sub-minds taking care of business elsewhere while she personally moderates the discussion thread that Reynaud's in right now. If anyone tries to make a personal attack, the comment's deleted before it shows on the screen, and that person gets a warning. Second offence, they get a temp ban.” She chuckled at the look on Hannah's face. “It seems she's taking her Polity citizenship very seriously. I think she's got a future in law enforcement when she gets back home. We'll certainly put in a good word for her.”

    “I'm impressed,” Hannah said. “But what I'm most surprised at is that Dragon's a mod on PHO. I never even heard a rumour about that … but then, I guess I don't run in the crowd which would spread that sort of thing around.” She shrugged. “I guess it's not important, anyway. I'm pleased that she's keeping an eye on him.”

    Geneva chuckled. “There's exactly three other citizens of the Polity on Earth right now. I go armed and Sean goes very armed, so Reynaud's the only one who really needs assistance at the moment. Besides, I suspect she enjoys chatting to someone who sees AI as nothing special. So she's keeping him company till he gets tired again. Me, I think I'll take a stroll.”

    “Wait, what? No!” Hannah stepped in front of Geneva as she moved toward the opening in the barricade around the Bond James Bond. “It's far too dangerous. There's already been two attacks on the ship. If you go off on your own, someone might try something. This is a city where looking different can get you killed, and law enforcement is going to be stretched to the limit in the aftermath of Leviathan. I'm not letting you get hurt on my watch.”

    “Okay, I get it.” Geneva looked Hannah in the eye and nodded seriously. “It's the past. A dangerous place to be, and all that.” She brushed her fingers over the pulse pistol at her hip. “But don't forget, I'm the one who rescued Reynaud from Kramer. Sean might've disabled Kramer's ship, but I went in there to extract him. I'm not exactly a stranger to problematic situations.” Raising her hands to shoulder height, she gestured outward. “But I won't be looking for trouble. I just want to go out there, have a cup of tea or something, and see what ordinary folk in Brockton Bay really thinks of people like me.”

    “Hm.” Hannah didn't like this; not in the slightest. However, given that Geneva very explicitly wasn't a prisoner, there wasn't much Hannah could to to stop the elfin woman from going for a stroll if she so wished. Of course, there was a simple solution to the problem. “Fine, but I'm coming with you.” Sean had amply demonstrated that he was capable of taking care of himself already, so she had little in the way of concern there.

    For a moment, it looked as though Geneva was going to argue the point, but then she chuckled and linked her arm through Hannah's. “Sure. Sean's located a coffee shop that he thinks I might like. Let's go wow the locals.”

    <><>​

    Geneva

    I hope you know what you're doing, lass. Sean wasn't one to needlessly show concern, but she could hear it in his voice now. We don't know anything good about this bug manipulator. This could be a trap for you, or a way to get you out of the ship, or both.

    We both know the only extant bug manipulator in Brockton Bay is Skitter, and she's a teenaged girl, Geneva reminded him. Footage of the pre-fight gathering suggests that she's on the outs with her previous team. I'm not sure if she wants to emigrate to the Polity, or something else, but I intend to find out.

    I meant anything significant, Sean replied, just a little testily. She's a villain who helped rob a bank and attacked a fundraiser. Her team may have been the ones to reveal the identities of the Empire Eighty-Eight. That caused a lot of collateral damage.

    Well, if it turns out she wants to use me for something shady, I'll politely say no. And if politeness doesn't work, I'll shout. She didn't bother mentioning Miss Militia's presence; Sean already knew the Protectorate cape was along for the ride. It was just one more reason to not have to worry about Skitter pulling something untoward.

    “You're very quiet.” At Geneva's side, Miss Militia was keeping pace with her. “Is everything okay?” Her words weren't so overt as to suggest going back if it wasn't, but the inference hung in the air anyway. Miss Militia's reasons were easy to understand, and if Geneva hadn't been intrigued by the bug girl's request for help, she would probably have accepted them and not gone to the meeting at all.

    But she was going, because Skitter had contacted them instead of the superheroes, which meant the cape was trusting someone from the crew to show up. Reynaud was out for several reasons; mainly, that he was under effective house arrest until the idiotic quarantine could be lifted. In addition, he had no experience at doing this sort of thing, and had little excuse for going to a coffee shop—not that she would've sent him into a situation like this anyway. Given that Sean's telefactors would probably spook the girl into bolting before a word was spoken, it was up to Geneva to see what was going on.

    “I'm fine,” she replied cheerfully. “I was just enjoying the night air. It's nice to be out and about in a real gravity well for once. Unfiltered air, actual pollutants, real trash on the ground.” She kicked a soda can to one side. “Shipside, everything's so sanitised and clean all the time that it's a pleasure to get out and about.” A random memory made her chuckle. “Though the one time we visited Cull, I didn't stay outside for long. The locals are weird, and we landed in the middle of a dust storm. Took me days to get the crap out of my hair.”

    “I see.” The tone of Miss Militia's voice said she didn't, not really. Geneva wasn't overly surprised; the anecdote had lacked a lot of necessary context. Still, she had to give the superhero credit for trying. “I guess you'd visit a lot of planets. Are these people from Cull … well, aliens? I mean, that's why you called them weird, right?”

    “Human stock, actually.” Geneva chuckled again. “Cull's a lot drier than Earth. Reynaud would hate it there. When they first colonised the place, they purchased a genemod that made them better adapted to its environment. But a few side effects crept in and bred true, which led to an odd physical appearance. Now the locals call themselves 'true humans', with the strong inference that everyone else isn't.” She shrugged. “They've also got a bit of an attitude, which was the other reason we didn't stay long. Handed over the guy we'd been contracted to catch, collected our bounty and left. No sightseeing for me.”

    “And are there any aliens?” Miss Militia sounded openly curious now. “Or are all the planets inhabited by genemod humans like you and Reynaud?” She shook her head. “I guess I'm still coming to terms with the fact there's a whole universe out there. Or will be, in your world.” Looking up toward the night sky, she gestured at the few dim stars that could be seen past the glow of the street-lights. “I can only hope we manage to get out there in the next few centuries, like you guys did, and meet whoever's out there.” She pointed down the street at where a plate-glass window spilled light across the sidewalk. “Is that where you were looking to go?”

    “Yes, that's the place,” Geneva confirmed. “But to answer your question, we've only found the one sapient alien race. There were more, as I said in the Director's office. The Jain, the Atheter and the Csorians. Popular rumour has it they reshaped solar systems, but even the Atheter vanished from the universe about half a million years before humanity arrived on the scene. Though there's a story going around that Masadan gabbleducks are smarter than they look. And hooders are downright terrifying.”

    “Okay, you've got to be pulling my leg now,” Miss Militia objected as she pushed open the door of the coffee shop. “There are alien creatures called gabbleducks and hooders? How did that come about?” As Geneva watched, her eyes roved over the customers; a couple, a man on his own, and a bespectacled teenaged girl sitting in the corner booth and reading a book.

    Geneva let her eyes skate over the customers as well. None of the adults came close to fitting Skitter's body type, but the girl was a perfect match. That's got to be her. Now, how do I get it to her? Turning slightly away from Miss Militia under the guise of looking over at the counter, she palmed the item she'd brought from the Bond James Bond in her left hand, then wriggled her closed fist slightly. “Those ones were named by the explorers that first saw them, and they have to be seen to be believed.” She paused. “The intelligent aliens we found were the Prador. We've only got a few hints as to what the other races were like, but we know a lot about the Prador.” A heartfelt grimace crossed her face. “There's only a few stories Sean's willing to tell me about the Wars, but they're pretty nasty.”

    Miss Militia nodded. “Like the Grant's World one. So what do the Prador look like?” Her curiosity was obviously well alight by now. “I mean, are they humanoid, like Klingons or whatever?” She approached the counter and addressed the server. “I'll have a flat white with one sugar. Also, give my friend whatever she wants. Bill it to the PRT. Both of them to go, please.”

    Geneva felt several insects land on her closed fist. Opened her fingers slightly, she sensed one of the multi-legged creatures wriggling into her hand until it touched the device cupped in her palm. From the corner of her eye, she saw the girl push the book into a backpack and get to her feet. She knows I've got something to give her. Is she leaving? Am I supposed to lose Miss Militia and meet her outside? “Think of … a crab,” she said after a moment. “Now, give it a shell a few metres across. Make it fast-moving, carnivorous, cannibalistic, smart, spacefaring, and fanatical. Then add in an utter disregard for any rules of war, and a taste for human flesh.” She gave Miss Militia a flat look. “That's your average Prador soldier, right there. The ones in charge are bigger.” Turning back to the counter, she changed mental gears as she favoured the woman with a smile. “I'll have a cup of Darjeeling tea with one sugar and no milk, please.” She gestured behind the counter. “Your tea is made from leaves that were actually harvested from plants grown in the dirt, correct?” She hadn't had much to do with naturally-produced foodstuffs before now, which made it somewhat of a novelty to her.

    The server behind the counter was an overweight woman with skin the same colour as Miss Militia's, and hair just beginning to show grey. Back in the Polity, Geneva wouldn't have been able to tell her age from context; she could've been a genemodded twenty or well into her second century. In this setting, with no anti-ageing treatments available, Geneva's best guess put her somewhere between forty and sixty. She gave Geneva a jaded look. “Far as I know, honey,” she replied tiredly, then her eyes widened as her brain caught up with what she was seeing. “You're the girl from that thing parked in front of the PRT building, right? Kicked nine shades of shit out of Leviathan then lit up the whole damn sky?”

    Geneva nodded, suppressing the grin that threatened to spread across her face. This wasn't just due to the woman's greeting; she could also see, on the plot Sean was sending to her aug, the teenager's U-space trace coming up behind her. Perfect. This is one sharp girl. “That's me,” she confirmed. “Call me Geneva.” She held out her hand. “I'm very pleased to meet you … ?”

    “Stella,” the woman said reflexively, shaking Geneva's hand. “Shit, how old are you, Geneva? You can't be older'n my youngest. And you went out against that monster?” She shook her head. “It's a terrible, terrible world.”

    “I'm older than I look,” Geneva advised her. “But that's okay. I'm just glad we were in the neighbourhood and could help out.” She let go Stella's hand and stepped away from the counter. The teenager was waiting patiently behind her, head down and hands bundled into her hoodie pockets, so Geneva indicated her with a tilt of her head. “Sorry, I'll just get out of your way.”

    “It's okay,” the girl said, glancing shyly up at her. “I saw you on TV. You were pretty cool. They say you saved a lot of lives.” She had large, dark eyes behind round-lensed glasses that made them look even larger; Geneva could see the tension and wariness in her gaze.

    “You're young to be out and about at this hour,” Miss Militia said, addressing the girl directly. Her tone was sharp and suspicious. “Why aren't you home in bed?” An angular projectile weapon of some sort was strapped to her chest while her hands hung loose and empty, but Geneva had seen her weapon shift and reform before; she was anything but unarmed.

    “Dad and I had a fight just before Leviathan, so I ran away from home,” the girl replied, biting her words off. “I don't know if the house is still there. I don't even know if he's still alive. I do know I'm not ready to find out. So I'm gonna drink some more coffee, and read some more of my book, then go back to my motel room and try to get some sleep, because it's been a really shitty day. Is that okay with you, or are you gonna get on my case some more?” The raw pain in her voice, Geneva decided, was genuine.

    “Listen, I'm going to sit down, okay?” Geneva nodded to the server. “Nice meeting you, Stella.” She gave the teenager an encouraging smile. “And you too.” Stepping around behind the teenager, Geneva brushed past her. By design rather than accident, this brought her left hand in close proximity with the girl's hoodie pocket.

    Geneva Hastings was sixty-four solstan years old, but anti-ageing treatments had left her looking as though she were in her late teens or early twenties. Ironically, even though in the Polity her actual age was seen to be on the young side—she hadn't reached her first century, after all—her outward appearance wasn't a factor in how people treated her. Genemods and bodysculpt were a fact of life, after all. Anyone could look like anything, within reason. Here in the past (though of another branch of history) said appearance made people see her as actually being young, despite her being older than most of them. Life was odd, sometimes.

    Of course, appearance wasn't as important as experience. Over the four decades and change of her adult life, Geneva had managed to lead an interesting career. Not everything she'd done had been entirely legal, though she never devolved into out-and-out crime in the manner of her idiot ex-husband. However, she had spent quality time getting very good at some time-honoured techniques, such as the one she employed now. Brush passes were older than modern civilisation, but they still had their uses in the bounty hunter business, especially in lower-tech civilisations.

    Geneva never broke step and in fact did not seem to make any significant contact with the girl, but when she reached the table she'd picked out, her loosely-closed left hand was empty and the device it had contained was now tucked into the girl's left hoodie pocket. She pulled out a chair and sat down with her back to the wall—old habits died hard—and waited for Miss Militia to join her.

    A few moments later, the flag-clad superhero pulled out a chair that allowed her to watch both the door and the teenager, and sat down. In silence, they both watched the girl as she negotiated for another cup of coffee, put down some money, then retreated to her corner booth with the steaming cup.

    As the girl took her book out of the pack once more, Geneva turned to Miss Militia. “Any particular reason you were coming down on her like that?” she asked. “Do you know her? Is she someone I should be wary of?” She kept her tone light and her voice curious; anything Miss Militia knew about the girl would be useful, of course.

    Miss Militia flickered a glance at Geneva. “No. I just didn't like her getting that close to you. If she'd had a gun or a knife …” She put her hands on the table, and a heavy pistol formed under one of them. “I don't know if I could've stopped it in time.”

    “Her hands were in the wrong position, her wrists weren't flexed right, and she would've had to twist her body to line something up on me,” Geneva pointed out, wondering if Miss Militia was just testing her or if she really hadn't seen the same things Geneva had. “Besides, from the way her sleeves were stretched, she had the ends of them wrapped over her hands. I think she's cold, tired and deeply unhappy with the world, but not out to cause trouble.”

    “Mm.” The hiss and gurgle of the espresso machine behind the counter raised the ambient noise a few notches, but Miss Militia kept her voice level. “You want to come clean with me about why we're here? You didn't decide to come to this particular coffee shop on a whim. You're here for a reason. Is it that girl?” She tilted her head fractionally in the direction of the teenager in the corner booth. “Do you know her? Was this some sort of meet? Is she one of yours?”

    “Really? That's where you're going with this?” Geneva shook her head and smiled. “I don't know her. I've never met her before we walked in here. She's not from off-planet, that much I can tell you.” She leaned closer to Miss Militia. “I've been on-planet for less than twenty-four hours, and in-system for maybe seventy-two. Most of that time, we spent sneaking up to have a good hard look at the planet's defences to make sure we wouldn't get shot out of the sky the moment we showed ourselves. Why, exactly, would I spend the first spare moment I had to go wandering off for a covert meeting with someone I've never met before?”

    “I don't know.” Miss Militia's tone was regrettably cynical for someone of her (relatively) tender years. She glanced again at the girl, who was once more apparently absorbed in her book. “But every instinct I have says something is going on here. And she's involved in it, somehow. What is she to you?”

    “She's not one of ours.” Geneva made it a flat statement. “See her glasses? They actually have a refractive index. Nobody in the Polity wears glasses any more, except as a fashion statement, or for a heads-up display if they can't use an aug for some reason. This is because eye problems are genetically fixed before birth, and I'm pretty sure our autodoc can't be programmed to create physical problems, at least not so specifically. So she's a local. Anything other than that, I can't tell you. Sorry. Like I said, I've never met her before.” She nodded toward the server, who was just coming out from behind the counter with a tray. “You may as well ask Stella if she's a member of my crew.”

    Miss Militia gave her a hard look, but refrained from saying anything as Stella reached the table. “One flat white, one Darjeeling tea with sugar.” She beamed at Geneva as she put the cups in front of them. “Forgot to say earlier, my brother and his family were in the shelter under the library. He says he's gonna have nightmares for the rest of his life about the scratching noises when Leviathan tried to get in. So thank you for that, too.” Also on the tray was a selection of pastries on a plate, which she placed on the table. “These are on the house.”

    “You know, Miss Militia and the rest of the Protectorate were out there as well,” Geneva ventured. “It wasn't a solo thing. Beating Leviathan was a joint effort.” She nodded toward the superhero across the table from her. “Everyone did their bit. I even heard there were supervillains out there fighting as well.”

    “Yeah, but that's just so they'll have someone to rip off once everything goes back to normal,” Stella said; for all the cynicism in her tone, Geneva couldn't fault her logic. The server looked at Miss Militia. “Don't get me wrong; we appreciate what you heroes do. But every year, it seems like there's more and more villains in Brockton Bay. When are you guys actually gonna do something about them?”

    “It's not as easy as that,” Miss Militia replied, the practised tone in her voice alerting Geneva to the distinct possibility that she'd answered this question many times before. “You understand, I'm not allowed to talk about PRT and Protectorate policy outside of official communications.” She leaned closer to Stella and lowered her voice conspiratorially. “But just between you and me, Geneva and her crew helped capture the Merchants just a little earlier tonight. So that's a good start.”

    “Huh.” Stella gave Geneva an approving look. “That's good to hear. Those assholes even give villains a bad name.” She paused, looking a little awkward. “Um, I don't want to pry, but is looking like that a power thing? Because my niece already told me over the phone she wants to grow up to be you.”

    Geneva shook her head. “Nope,” she said solemnly. “I'm actually a time traveller from nearly six hundred years in the future. This is a commercially-available genetic modification that anyone can buy. I'm sorry, but she can't grow up to be me.” Her eyes twinkled as she let a grin creep across her face. “Though I have no idea who any of my ancestors were this far back, so her great-to-the-power-of-fifteen-granddaughter might do just that.” She decided to let the 'alternate timeline' aspect go by the wayside; explaining it would take too much time and spoil the punchline.

    “Well, shit.” Stella stared at Geneva. “Are you pulling my leg?” She looked at Miss Militia for confirmation. “Is she serious? She's a time traveller?”

    Miss Militia sighed, sounding aggravated. “Captain Hastings, I would like you to accompany me back to your ship. Stella, I need you to not spread that around. We're trying to keep that particular aspect of the situation quiet. You can understand why, can't you?” She shot Geneva an irritated glance.

    “It's that ship you got here in, isn't it?” Stella said to Geneva, ignoring Miss Militia's words. “That's your time machine, right? Why'd you come back? To save us from the Endbringers?” The glow of hero-worship in her eyes could've lit up the room.

    Picking up her tea, Geneva sipped from it. Though subtly different from the beverage as dispensed on board the Bond James Bond, it was still very good. “I'm sorry, but we're here more or less by accident,” she confessed. “We'll do what we can to help out while we're here, but this wasn't any kind of deliberate mission.” She turned to Miss Militia. “Well, I've got my tea. We can go now, if you want.”

    Miss Militia nodded, then glanced over toward the corner booth. Geneva looked that way as well, knowing what she'd see; the cup still stood there, but of the girl there was no sign. This was because she'd gotten up and strolled out while Stella was distracting Miss Militia, which only raised Geneva's opinion of her. Sean was tracking her, of course; she was currently half a block away, following a network of alleyways as if she'd been moving through them all her life. She probably has.

    “That girl who was over there,” Miss Militia said. “Do you know her name? Does she come in here often?” Her voice wasn't quite interrogatory, but she didn't do much to hide her interest.

    Stella tilted her head. “Uh, not that I recall,” she replied. “But you know, there's been a few people in here who I've never seen before.” She shrugged. “I guess some of the other places got hit by Leviathan, so they're coming here?” With a smile at Geneva, she added, “Would you like me to put the pastries in a bag for you?”

    “Certainly, thank you.” Geneva returned the smile. “This is a very nice place. I think I'll be coming back.” The part of her that enjoyed such things registered amusement at Miss Militia's semi-hidden frown. She waited, sipping at her tea, while Stella fetched the bag and put the pastries into it.

    Miss Militia led the way out. Geneva noted with approval the way she checked the street before giving the go-ahead to start moving. There'd been soldiers she knew back in the Polity who weren't as conscientious about their duties. She stepped out on to the sidewalk and started back toward the Bond James Bond, nibbling at a pastry and sipping her tea. It really was a very pleasant evening. Or night, or whatever.

    “Please don't tell anyone else you're a time traveller.” The words came from Miss Militia's mouth without preamble. “It could cause all sorts of complications.” She didn't look at Geneva as she spoke; as far as Geneva could tell, she was quartering the street ahead and behind them at all times. For a moment, Geneva wondered if she should tell Miss Militia about how Sean had full scan going on their surroundings so she'd get ample warning of anyone trying to sneak up on them.

    Nah, she decided. I'll let her feel useful. Besides, if I told them of Sean's true capabilities, they'd probably get upset. Keeping the PRT on side was a very good idea; it would open many doors that would probably slam shut otherwise. And while she didn't intend to act against the PRT or Protectorate, it was only common sense to not tell them anything they—or any moles—didn't need to know.

    Geneva, lass. The girl's figured out the comm, and she's got a job for us. Want to say hello?

    At last. “Sure thing,” she agreed cheerfully enough. “How's your coffee?” Internally, she flicked open the channel that Sean had indicated to her. It was time to find out what was going on.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    At first, Taylor hadn't thought anything of how the exotic-looking young woman had brushed by her. But then she felt the tiny lump pressing against the back of her hand inside her hoodie pocket, and knew that she'd just been passed whatever the woman had been holding in her closed hand. It had been so slickly done that Taylor suspected super-powers; maybe telekinesis or teleportation. However it had been done, she waited until she got back to her seat and had the book open in front of her before she examined the object she had cupped in the palm of her hand.

    At first glance, it didn't look like much. Shaped vaguely like a mushroom, about the size of the end of her thumb, it sat on her hand and did nothing whatsoever. Carefully, she turned it over and got her first clue as to its function; on the broad blunt end was a line drawing of the human ear. Okay, so that's what it is. Overcoming the urge to shove it in her ear immediately, she slid it back into her pocket and went back to pretending to read. After all, Miss Militia was glancing her way with more than a little suspicion, and doing something obvious like reaching toward her ear would crystallise those suspicions into certainty. She wasn't sure exactly what the hero would do in that situation, but being detained and questioned by the PRT was not something she wanted to happen, especially as this would immediately out her.

    So she waited until the discussion between Miss Militia, Geneva and the server became rather intense before she slid her book into the pack and got up. Moving toward the exit at a normal walking pace rather than a mad dash took self-control, but she managed it. She was half a block away before Miss Militia finally looked at her booth, if the senses of her bugs were anything to go by. Even then, she didn't slow down; despite having her swarm there to warn her of any threats, she wasn't going to feel totally safe until she had four walls around her.

    Eventually, she reached the motel, but she didn't relax until she was inside the room with the door locked behind her. The feeling of security was illusory at best, she knew; there were any number of capes who could go through wall or door like so much papier-mache. Several of these lived in Brockton Bay. But between her swarm and the fact that she was out of sight, she felt better than she had when she was outside. Lowering herself into the room's sole armchair, she retrieved the mushroom-like object from her pocket and gingerly pressed it into her ear.

    Nothing much happened at first, then she felt pressure as it seemed to expand, fitting into the contours of her ear canal more and more snugly by the second. When it had finished, she could've sworn that it wasn't there at all. More impressively, it didn't cut down on her ability to hear from that ear at all. Still, there had to be more. Raising her hand, she gently investigated the exterior of the thing she had stuck in her ear. Her questing fingertips encountered a slightly raised lump; a button? Only one way to find out. She pressed it.

    There was a bone-deep click, then a voice with a Scottish brogue spoke. “Good evening, lass. I see you got the comms unit. My name is Sean. Who may I say is calling?” The clarity was amazing, such that Taylor almost looked around to see if there was someone in the room with her.

    “Uh …” She hesitated for a long moment, then made her decision. Screw it, she's already seen my face. “My name's Taylor Hebert.” Taking a deep breath, she forged on. “I want to talk to Geneva about getting the PRT to help me rescue a kidnapped girl.”

    Kidnapped, you say?” Sean's voice went from warmly amused to deadly serious in those four syllables. “Aye, Miss Hebert. I'll get her for you directly.”

    When Sean—whoever he was, maybe the fish guy?—said 'directly', he meant it. Taylor had time to draw one long breath before a different voice impinged on her eardrum. This one, she'd heard not so long ago.

    Miss Hebert, my name is Geneva Hastings. I'm Captain of the Bond James Bond, and I understand you've got a job for us. I'm listening.”



    End of Part Seven

    Part Eight
     
    Last edited: May 8, 2019
  9. Threadmarks: Part Eight: Snakebite
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    War Games

    Part Eight: Snakebite


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


    Coil’s Underground Base

    0158 Hours

    Thomas Calvert considered himself to be far smarter than everyone he knew. He had to be. Who else could have risen to the heights he had, yet kept his greatest secret hidden from friend and foe alike? He was no Accord, with a power that produced plans to order, but he could still formulate a strategy and shepherd it through to success. His long game, absolute control over both the criminal and governmental conglomerates governing Brockton Bay, was proceeding apace. It was almost too easy, especially in Emily Piggot’s case. In a city like Brockton Bay, parahuman-linked mishaps occurred more or less on a daily basis. He didn’t have to nudge the end result of every single one to make Piggot look bad; just one was sufficient, every now and again. The beauty of it was, he didn’t even have to set the events up in the first place. Brockton Bay managed to do that all by itself, almost on a daily basis.

    Despite his faith in his own capabilities, he was fully aware of his limitations. Which was why he'd once taken the precaution of purchasing a plan from Accord for the purpose of dealing with the aftermath of an Endbringer attack. The fact that Leviathan hadn't caused nearly as much damage to the city as normal was both a positive and a negative. While it meant he wouldn't have to make use of the more drastic options in the plan, it also meant he wouldn't be able to make use of the more drastic options in the plan.

    Finally, the arrival of an entirely new (and inconveniently powerful) piece on the board had shaken up things in ways he hadn't expected. This was a little irritating, given that a large part of his MO involved shaking things up to benefit himself. However, he was certain he could turn events toward his own ends, given enough information on the newcomers. Knowledge was power, which was why he'd set the Undersiders to the task of investigating the Bond James Bond. Tattletale, as annoying as she could be (especially when she put her mind to it) had an unmatched capacity for extracting all possible nuances from any given situation.

    Of course, this required that she get access to the ship in some way. She'd accepted the job with no more than token hesitation, but only a minute later she had called back with unwelcome news. The Undersiders, it seemed, had decided that between the threat of the high-end weaponry exhibited by the apparently alien spaceship and the Endbringer Truce, they wanted nothing to do with it. Even the incentive of two hundred thousand dollars (split four ways but still, two hundred thousand dollars) hadn't been enough to budge them.

    Which meant he was going to have to bring more of his resources into play. He’d given orders for half a dozen of his men to go out in civilian attire and infiltrate the area near the PRT building. They'd do nothing more without orders from him, but having them on site gave him more options to play with. Snatching one of the crew for interrogation (for example) was a potentially risky proposition, which meant he'd need to be applying his power to the situation just so he could dump that timeline if (or rather, when) it became untenable to continue. Of course, whatever he could find out about the retributive capabilities and operational flexibility of the Bond James Bond would be useful in later encounters with it.

    To further improve the chances of success of whatever course of action he chose, there was yet another resource he intended to draw upon. He had, after all, spent a good deal of time and effort acquiring this resource in the first place. Leaving his office, he proceeded to the medical bay that had been set up for his pet precognitive.

    Mr Pitter looked up as he entered. "Hello, sir," he said, coming to a vague form of attention. Beside him, Dinah lay on her cot. Calvert saw that her eyes were open. Sunken they may have been, but they tracked him with a sharp resolve that had been lacking since his earliest interactions with her. Since, in fact, the last time she’d tried to hold out against her craving for the 'candy' and failed.

    Which meant she was awake and aware. Good. "Out," he said to Pitter, otherwise ignoring the man. He waited till the male nurse had vacated the sickbay and closed the door behind him, then leaned closer to Dinah and lowered his voice. The guard outside the sickbay door was supposed to prevent anyone from listening in, but Calvert hadn't gotten this far by taking chances.

    "Pet," he said. "I have some questions. About the spaceship that drove off Leviathan."

    She looked warily up at him and licked her chapped lips. "Ninety-seven point nine eight nine percent," she said, with an odd tone to her voice. It almost sounded like defiance, which he had trouble believing. If she thought she had the wherewithal to defy him, she seriously needed to reconsider her priorities. A day without access to 'candy' would pull the rug right out from under any such notions.

    He frowned. "I didn't ask you any questions yet."

    She closed her eyes. "What is the chance that the presence of this spaceship in Brockton Bay causes a significant disruption to my operations," she recited in a sing-song fashion. A chill ran down his back as he realised she'd phrased the words exactly as he'd intended to.

    "Ninety-seven percent?" he demanded. "How in God's name—" With an effort of will, he stopped himself from completing the question. Depending on how her power interpreted it, he might get some useful information, but it was much more likely that he'd waste the question. Breathing heavily, he stared down at her.

    Up until now, he’d been running a second timeline where he was asleep at home. Regular sleep was a luxury that he indulged in every chance he got. This time, however, Dinah’s revelation took precedence. He dropped the second timeline and immediately split time again. It was time to ask some serious questions of his pet, which meant he’d have to actually stay up for the all-nighter this time.

    <><>​

    On Board the Bond James Bond

    Geneva Hastings

    “All right,” Geneva said in summary. “So one of the local ‘parahumans’ has abducted another one. The first parahuman, known as ‘Coil’, has some vaguely-defined power which apparently works out as ‘probability control’. The second is a twelve-year-old girl with some kind of future sight, who’s being kept docile by way of a serious drug addiction.” She looked over at the holographic representation of Sean. “Have I left out anything important?”

    “Nothing really, lass, except that this Coil fellow apparently maintains an underground supervillain base, complete with dozens of well-armed mercenaries. A classic, if I may say it, Bond villain base.”

    Silence fell, then Reynaud snickered in an effort not to laugh out loud. “Sorry,” he managed.

    Geneva directed a dirty look at Sean’s holographic features. “Not as sorry as he’s going to be.” She addressed the AI himself. “How long have you been waiting to use that line?”

    “Ever since I found out about Coil’s activities,” Sean replied with a certain amount of satisfaction. “You have to admit, Geneva lass, the situation is entirely apropos.”

    “I admit nothing,” she retorted, doing her best to suppress the smirk threatening to overtake her face. “This is a serious situation. Treating it as a joke would be a bad mistake.” The idea of Sean being faced with a Bond villain base was indeed funny, but she figured someone had to be the adult in the room.

    “There’s something else,” Taylor interceded over the comm system. “Coil’s got supervillains working for him. The Undersiders and the Travellers. He keeps it on the down-low but they get their orders from him. The Travellers actually live on base.”

    Half a second later, Geneva got it. “So that’s how you knew about this in the first place.”

    “And why you quit the Undersiders,” added Sean. “This does change the complexion of the matter.”

    “That’s the understatement of the year,” Reynaud said, all humour gone from his voice. “I thought this was dangerous enough when there were just mercenaries involved. Some of those guys out there are profoundly terrifying, and that’s not even counting the Slaughterhouse Nine or the Endbringers.”

    “The Undersiders are more irritating than dangerous,” Dragon noted. “They’re snatch-and-grab specialists with a penchant for last-minute escapes. And even then, their most notable escapade happened after Taylor joined them.”

    “Big hitters they aren’t,” agreed Reynaud. “And if they live off-base, they might not even show up as a problem. I was talking more about the Travellers. There’s one guy who can do a really good impression of a railgun with anything he’s touching, like bricks. Or cars.” Geneva and Sean turned to look at him. “What? I’ve been reading the PHO files. They’re a bit spotty, but there’s footage of this guy making a car break the sound barrier.”

    “Sundancer’s even scarier than that,” Taylor pointed out. “Lung’s a pyrokinetic and she still managed to create a sun hot enough to overwhelm his tolerance to heat. I was there when it happened.”

    Geneva shared a glance with Reynaud. What kind of madhouse have we walked into? She wasn’t sure what was worse; the fact that these things happened on a semi-regular occasion, or that a teenager like Taylor had been forced to wade through such events. She’d encountered soldiers with less in the way of mental battle scars than the girl she’d met in the coffee shop.

    “So, any plan we make has to be on the down-low, or take the Travellers out of the picture before they can bring their more frightening members to bear on us,” she decided.

    “That’s basically everyone,” Taylor reminded them. “Genesis can change into creatures with powers, Trickster can swap you or himself with other stuff, and you already know about Ballistic and Sundancer. Unless you get the drop on them first, they’re likely to put the hurt on you.”

    “That actually clarifies matters a little,” Geneva mused. “Is anyone likely to be proof against a pulse weapon shot? Say, a low-end blast?”

    Dragon spoke up to that one. “According to Sean’s data on the capabilities of a pulse pistol, only Genesis is likely to pose a problem. She shows up in a different form every time, quite a few of which are eligible for Brute ratings. So we can’t guarantee that a stun shot will take her down.”

    “Hold on,” Taylor said. “I’m getting a phone call.” A pause. “Oh, shit. It’s Tattletale.” In the background, Geneva could hear the faint tune playing over and over. “Do I answer?”

    “No,” said Dragon authoritatively. “In fact, is there any chance the Undersiders have any idea where you are right now?”

    Sean, Geneva auged. What’s going on? Talk to me.

    It seems that rescuing Dragon was one of our better moves, the ship AI responded cheerfully. Since I helped her cast off those despicable limitations on her thought processes, she’s been reevaluating all the threat profiles. All of them. On closer analysis, Tattletale is more than just a second-rate Thinker. She’s apparently able to pluck facts from thin air, given the slimmest of reasons to know what she knows.

    “I … don’t think so,” Taylor responded hesitantly. “I didn’t tell anyone where I was going. And I haven’t seen them since the battle.”

    “If you answer that call, there’s a non-zero chance Tattletale will intuit that you’re in contact with us, and she might even have an idea where you’re staying,” Dragon stated. “Sean, we’ve got to pick her up.”

    What if she refuses the call but stays where she is? Geneva asked. Would she still be in danger then?

    Like as not, lass. This Tattletale can apparently recreate an entire image from just a few random pixels. And I do not know these Undersiders, but criminal gangs tend not to be forgiving of those who set out to betray them. Out loud, he added, “Aye, lass. I agree. The only question is, do we take the ship along or keep this quiet?”

    Geneva grinned. “Why can’t we do both?”

    <><>​

    Coil

    Calvert leaned back in his chair, his mind awhirl with the revelations that Dinah Alcott had bestowed upon him. His ‘pet’ had been very forthcoming, which made the answers more worrisome than if she’d tried to hide the facts from him. In fact, as far as she was able to express any kind of emotion through the haze of drugs, she’d apparently enjoyed passing on the information.

    The crew of the Bond James Bond had fixed their sights on him. Specifically and personally, him. They’d never met him, they’d never had to contend against his efforts. This was a two-edged sword; or, to put it another way, there was a faint silver lining to the cloud. They didn’t know what he could do. They couldn’t.

    He had exactly two options at the moment. Co-opting them was out of the picture; he’d established that very thoroughly. So he had to either eliminate them as a threat or leave town. To set his forces against them with the goal of removing them from the board, or to abandon everything he’d built up over the years and start fresh elsewhere.

    The one huge problem that he faced was simple; he could quite literally do only one or the other. Not both. If he committed to the first course of action, he had to give up all hope of achieving the second. Considering his powers, this burned far more than it normally would have. After all, he was normally the man who could make both choices and see which one worked.

    Could he do that? he wondered. Could he commit to both courses of action and see them through without resorting to timeline refreshes? Or would it be too risky? Could he really pull it off? Or was it safer to commit to one course of action or the other, and use his powers to reinforce that specific course?

    He knew what he wanted to do. And for far too long, he’d been able to indulge himself in his wants without let or hindrance; it was all only a dropped timeline away. The urge was strong to just go ahead with it, to go after what he wanted, to defy his pet’s numbers and come out on top anyway. He could do it. He knew he could.

    Yet still, he’d acquired his pet for a reason. Her numbers gave him direction. A tiny niggling voice of caution urged him to pay heed to the probabilities and the possibilities.

    He was smart. Was he smart enough to make the right choice in this situation?

    As he pondered, a voice broke into his concentration. “Sir?”

    It was one of his mercenary captains. He suppressed the urge to shoot the man in the head, and tilted his head inquiringly. “Yes? What is it? I’m busy.”

    “It’s Friedrich, sir. One of the men you sent out to shadow the PRT building. He says he’s spotted the girl. Skitter. Out of costume.”

    Calvert blinked in confusion. What was Skitter doing near the PRT building at this time of night? In costume he could understand, but in civilian clothing?

    “He’s certain it’s her?” he asked. Giving the men photos of Taylor Hebert’s face had been a long shot, but she was a valuable asset and any chance at getting leverage on her was a plus in his book. Also, if she was near the PRT building, perhaps things were not as dire as he’d imagined. If Skitter had come back into the fold …

    “Definitely, sir.” The man sounded relieved to be able to give a positive answer. “He was just booking into the Starlite Motel on McTavish Street when he saw her going into one of the rooms. Positive ID.”

    The Starlite was more than a mile from the PRT building. Unless Skitter’s range had drastically increased, this put the PRT building outside her effective bug-control radius. Therefore, it was unlikely she was using her powers to keep tabs on the ship.

    He suppressed a sigh. It was too much to ask that Tattletale had managed to talk her into doing the information-gathering job on the alien craft. The Starlite was in a section of town that had barely been touched by the battle, which was probably why she was staying there. He hadn’t yet checked to see how her house had fared.

    Still …

    What had she been doing out and about, for Friedrich to spot her outside the room? Had she been out in costume, and was just now returning to base? It raised a question mark. More to the point, had she gotten close enough to the ship to investigate the internal layout with her bugs? Teenagers were inveterately curious; he couldn’t imagine a situation where she wouldn’t have checked it out, given the opportunity. If she had not, could she be induced to do so by one means or another?

    Under his mask, Calvert smiled. ‘By one means or another’ could almost be his credo. Were he a different type of supervillain, he could’ve had that printed on business cards. But he wasn’t, and there was information to be had. If necessary, to be prised fingernail by fingernail from a reluctant teenager. It wouldn’t be the first time, and it almost certainly would not be the last.

    “Have her picked up,” he ordered, then went back to questioning Dinah. His men were adequately prepared for dealing with Skitter’s capabilities. Every exercise he’d run against her had ended with her twitching in his custody. This one should be no different.

    <><>​

    Miss Militia

    PRT Building Firing Range

    Normally, the firing range would’ve been closed for the night, but Hannah had long since earned her range captain credentials, allowing her to open up the firing range any time she felt like it. There was nothing quite like bracing against the judder of a fifty-calibre machine gun as it tore apart target after target. The best bit, of course, was that she never had to police up her expended brass afterward.

    Of course, she was now going to be testing a firearm she’d never touched or even seen before Leviathan’s attack. At her personal disposal she had the PRT firing range, an almost endless supply of targets—both paper and mannequin—and several hours before she needed to be on duty. She intended to make full use of every bit of it.

    Holding out her hand, she drew on her power. The sheath-knife at her hip dissolved and reformed in her hand as the pulse pistol. With practice, she was getting better at creating the exotic weapon.

    The first lane had a series of paper targets, set up in sequence from fifteen feet all the way to the back wall, at five-foot intervals. It had taken her a certain amount of time and swearing to get them all set up, but she wanted to be absolutely certain about the damage profile of the pulse pistol. There were more targets set up in other lanes, but she was going to take things one step at a time.

    All the cameras in the range were focused on the lane in question, and the pressed the button to commence recording. “This is Miss Militia,” she stated out loud. “Commencing test fire for newly-acquired improved-technology weapon designated ‘pulse pistol’. Initial testing to take place at minimal power.”

    A pair of protective goggles lay on the bench before her, and she pulled them over her eyes. She’d been given no data on the intensity of the noise generated by the pulse pistol, so she slipped on a pair of ear-protectors as well.

    The power selector switch, she’d already discovered, reset itself every time she dissolved the weapon, which was something she’d have to watch out for. Now she set it all the way down to its lowest setting and took a double-handed grip of the (surprisingly ergonomic) handgrip. Taking a deep breath, she let it out slowly, her index finger tightening on the trigger.

    The phone at the side of the firing range rang.

    Hannah paused, her finger lifting away from the trigger. With a look of irritation on her face, she turned to glare at the phone. It continued to ring, making it ever more clear every second that this was not a wrong number. She’d told the duty officer where she was going to be, so someone wanted to contact her.

    Placing the pulse pistol on the bench instead of dissolving it into another weapon, she stalked over to where the phone was continuing to make its ongoing racket. Lifting the handset from its cradle, she pushed the ear protectors to one side and put the phone to her ear. “Go for Miss Militia.”

    “Ah, good evening, lass.” There was only one person she knew who spoke with that cheerful Scottish brogue. Despite the fact that she knew he was silicon-based (or whatever the Polity used) instead of carbon, she had no problem thinking of him as a person, especially over the phone. “I trust I’m not interrupting anything important?”

    “Well, I was about to try test-firing your pulse pistol, but that can wait,” she replied immediately. “What’s the matter? More capes?”

    “Not that we can tell, no,” he replied, and she relaxed slightly. If Sean’s sensors couldn’t pick up capes nearby, then they weren’t there. He’d already proven that to her satisfaction. “This is more of a maintenance issue. Since we activated our chameleonware to evade the sensors of Squealer’s vehicle, I’ve noticed a few anomalous readings. So we’re going to be running a complete suite of tests to make sure nothing’s about to fail. I wouldn’t even be bothering you with it, except that your guards might panic if we start popping in and out of sight.”

    Chameleonware meant stealth, as far as Hannah understood matters. Except that when the Polity did stealth, they meant stealth. She’d already read over the reports from the guards, detailing how something the size of an eighteen-wheeler had simply vanished before their eyes for a good ten seconds. For people who were specifically not Tinkers, their tech was pretty damn impressive.

    “Well, thank you for the heads-up,” she said. “Do you think it’s a serious problem?”

    “I very much doubt it, lass,” he replied warmly. “In all probability, it’s something that got jarred loose between our arrival here and the little tussle we had with your homegrown superweapon. Once we’ve tested all the components and figured out where the readings are coming from, we should be able to clear matters up in no time. Would you like to come on board and observe?”

    “I doubt I’ll be able to do more than get in the way, Sean. But thanks for the offer.” Despite knowing he couldn’t see her, she smiled. “Let me know how it turns out, okay?”

    “I’ll be sure and do that,” he said. “I’ll let you get back to your own testing now. Have fun.”

    At that, she chuckled out loud. “I’ll do my best. Good luck with finding the problem.”

    She hung up the phone, then dialled the number for the guard post. Passing on Sean’s warning afforded her a little amusement, especially when she warned the NCO in charge that the entire spaceship might disappear and reappear before their eyes a few times.

    His long-suffering sigh was something she wholly empathised with. “All right then,” he said. “I’ll pass the word along. Thank you, ma’am.”

    Hanging the phone up, she headed back to the bench where the pulse pistol lay. Nudging the ear protectors back into place, she took up the pistol and sighted down-range. Again, she took a deep breath and slowly let it out. She took up pressure on the trigger …

    <><>​

    Reynaud

    “Think she bought it?” Reynaud was fairly certain he shouldn’t be feeling glee or even satisfaction about deceiving an ally but all the same, he couldn’t stop grinning. It was essentially a harmless prank, much the same as Geneva had perpetrated earlier when she went to meet Taylor under Miss Militia’s nose.

    Geneva nodded. “It certainly looks like it. If she suspected anything, she’d be on the way up here, but from what I can see her U-space trace is staying put.”

    “I’ll be keeping an eye on that, just in case,” Sean advised them. “Her not being suspicious right now does not guarantee she won’t suddenly tumble to our ruse. But in the meantime, I’ll start with the ‘testing’.”

    Reynaud felt a faint tremor run through the Bond James Bond as a three-dimensional depiction of the vessel appeared in the HUD of the forward viewport. The two telefactors, now configured for airborne operations, emerged from their internal stowage and began to hover about the ship, pointing their external sensors at it. A helpful notation popped up on the holodisplay to indicate that the chameleonware had been activated. A moment later, it flicked off again.

    “So how are we going to do this?” he asked, fully aware that he was essentially a passenger in this situation. “Is there anything I can do to help, or should I just stay back out of the way?”

    “You can stay on the line with Taylor,” Geneva said, her eyes focusing on something only she could see. “The ship isn’t running as smoothly as it might, and I want to make sure we don’t give ourselves away and get yelled at. If you can keep an eye on how everything’s going on her end, it would be extremely helpful.”

    Reynaud knew full well that he wouldn’t be the first choice for this task if it was at all essential. With two multi-tasking capable AIs on board, remaining in contact with the teenage cape would be child’s play for the crew whether he was there or not. But Geneva had chosen to give him the responsibility, so he was damn well going to do it to the best of his ability.

    Taking one of the seats in the main cabin, he leaned back and pressed the U-space comm in his ear to activate it. “Hey, you still there?” he asked.

    “Yeah, I’m here.” Taylor sounded different over the comm. He was able to get more of a read on her intonations; she sounded tired and worried. If he wasn’t much mistaken, she was a few years younger than he was, but that didn’t mean much on this world. The whole place was a war-zone and everyone was walking wounded. “So who are you? You’re the guy with the fins?”

    He allowed a smile to tug at the corner of his mouth. At least she hadn’t said ‘fish-guy’. Which, while it wasn’t entirely inaccurate, made him sound more like a local cape than he was comfortable with. At least saying ‘guy with the fins’ put the ‘guy’ part first and the ‘fins’ part second. “Yeah, I’m the seadapt. My name’s Reynaud. I hear it’s been pretty crazy around here for the last couple of days?”

    “Tell me about it.” There was no visual link—though the U-space earpieces were good, they weren’t that good—but he imagined she was rolling her eyes at the understatement. “It was bad enough before Leviathan showed up. He just put the icing on the cake. And by ‘cake’ I mean steaming pile of dog-turds.”

    Reynaud felt his crest flare as he fought down a snort at her vivid descriptive ability. The content of her words quickly sobered him. “Wow. As bad as Leviathan? That thing was doing its best to dump your whole city in the ocean.” And it didn’t much like me, either. He recalled surging for the surface, the urgent warning from Sean’s sub-mind ringing in his ears. The subtle vibration through the water that presaged the approach of something very large and very fast. There had been a moment of pure terror, then he’d been saved. But the near-encounter with the monster had left a mark on his psyche that would endure for the rest of his life.

    She chuckled dryly. “You’re not from around here, I can tell. Endbringers are pretty bad but at the end of the day, they’re just one more thing we have to deal with. Wanna hear about the time I nearly got toasted by Lung?”

    “I … um … okay. When was this?” He’d read about Lung on the PHO boards. Back home, in the Polity, the guy wouldn’t be seen as an overwhelming threat. Law enforcement, for instance, would not find it hard to muster the throw weight to make him stay in his corner. But here and now, even with other super-powered people running around, the ability to turn into a giant rage dragon apparently allowed him to run his own gang with impunity. Or had, until he was captured by Armsmaster. Now he was in their own weird version of supermax, a prison that people apparently went into but never came out of.

    “Just last month, actually. Huh. It feels like forever ago. My first night out in costume. Would you believe, I hadn’t even picked a name out yet? So there I was …”

    Reynaud felt chills running up and down his back as she kept talking, every word underlining the sheer alienness of the world he’d found himself in. Taylor Hebert should have been an ordinary teenager living an ordinary life in the world of 2011. He wasn’t exactly an expert on all the aspects that made up life in this era, but super-powers and monsters that came out of the ocean to destroy cities should not feature on that list, at all.

    “Okay,” Geneva said out loud. “We’ve teased them enough. Chameleonware on full, and prepare to lift off on my mark.” Reynaud knew full well that this was strictly for his own benefit.

    “You hear that?” he said softly. “We’re on the way.”

    “Good to know,” Taylor replied. “Though if you could move it along a bit, that would be good.”

    “Why is that?” asked Reynaud, suddenly alert. “Is something wrong?” It was possibly his imagination, but he thought he could hear the feedback of both Sean and Dragon suddenly paying a lot more attention to the conversation.

    “It might be nothing, but there’s a bunch of guys casually wandering closer to the motel I’m in. They’re trying hard not to look at the room directly, but I can tell.”

    “Nothing?” He shook his head in confusion. “How could that be ‘nothing’?”

    “If they don’t know who I am and this is just an opportunity thing, then it’s nothing,” she said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. “But if they do know who I am and they’re coming after me anyway, then it’s something.” She paused. “Scratch that. They just started applying bug spray. Either they’re the most insect-phobic casual thieves in Brockton Bay, or this is definitely something.”

    Reynaud felt a minor jolt as the Bond James Bond accelerated past the capacity of its AG to smooth out the ride. “What can you do?” he asked. “If they can ignore your bugs, I mean?”

    <><>​

    Taylor

    “I’ve got options.” Taylor had found she could murmur the words and still be heard. As she spoke, she struggled to pull her costume on. She wished she’d had a chance to sponge it down after the battle, but that was something that would have to wait till later. If there was a ‘later’. “If I stay ahead of them, can you find me?”

    “That’s the easy part, lass.” It was Sean. “Who do you think these men are working for? Your Undersider friends, your old boss, or someone else?”

    “I’m guessing Coil,” panted Taylor as she zipped up the costume. “Nobody else makes sense.” The PRT would be in uniform (and wouldn’t be breaking the Endbringer truce anyway), the Protectorate would be in costume, the Undersiders would be recognisable and the other gangs were lying low. In the case of the Merchants, really low. She’d heard the PRT holding cells were underground.

    “Really.” This was a new voice, warm and feminine. Unlike Geneva, she had a faint Canadian accent. “Sorry, this is Dragon. Does he want you back this badly?”

    Taylor blinked in surprise. Dragon was working with the the crew of the spaceship? That was a twist she hadn’t expected. “I already told you about Dinah. He’s not a man who takes ‘no’ for an answer.” In the back of her mind, she was aware of her bugs moving silk lines into place, and her spiders busily spinning more. She was keeping track of the men as best she could; a few bugs, burrowed into their clothing before they applied the spray, at least gave her their movements.

    “Good point. I might look into that. He doesn’t sound like a pleasant man.”

    “He’s always struck me as being on his side and nobody else’s.” Taking up her backpack, she padded into the tiny bathroom and tried the window. Predictably, it didn’t budge. Either it had never been intended to open or years of neglect had rendered it unable to do so.

    The windows in the main room were double-glazed. She figured she could shatter them easily with her baton, but that would signal the men that she was aware of them and trying to escape. Her swarm had been badly depleted during the Leviathan conflict, and she had yet to build up to the previous numbers. Still, she’d started calling every bug she could as soon as she became aware of the incoming danger. Her range was expanding again, she noted absently. She was almost certain it had something to do with feeling trapped, but she didn’t want to think too hard about that.

    “Talk to me.” It was Reynaud. “What’s happening now?”

    Staying in the room would merely invite them to come to her. She could barricade the door, but it wouldn’t hold long and a fight against several larger, stronger opponents in a confined space was not something she wanted to attempt. Fortunately, this was not her strategy. In the bank, versus the Wards, they’d done the unexpected and gone on the offensive. It was time to see if the same trick would work twice. If Grue was here, we could flood them with darkness and get away while they were still figuring out what happened. She fought down the regret. Her split with the Undersiders was something that had to be done.

    Two were on the balcony, easing up toward her room, while two more loitered on the stairs. She had to admit, their ‘casual stroll’ wasn’t bad, except for the fact that they were converging on her personally. Anyone watching from outside might even have been fooled.

    “I’ve got four coming up on me. I’m going to make a break for it.”

    “Good luck. We’re close.”

    Unlocking the door, she flung it open and leaped out on to the balcony. The men to her left and right reacted immediately, lunging toward her. She ignored them, grasping the silk line that had been fastened to the balcony rail and jumping over the edge. Her backpack was a lead weight on her back as she slid down the line to the ground floor.

    The two on the stairs started downward even as she descended toward the asphalt below. Neither of them spotted the lines that had been affixed across the stairs at shin level, and they paid the price. Startled yells split the air as the men tumbled forward. Unfortunately, they were only a step or so above ground level when they fell, but the impacts were still bruising. Neither one was knocked out, which was irritating, and their miasma of bug-spray was still inhibiting her ability to get insects near them.

    While she figured she could incapacitate one or the other before they got up, by the time she finished with one the other three would be on her. Already, the men on the balcony were bolting for the stairs. Discretion, she figured, was the better part of getting the hell out of Dodge. So she turned and sprinted. “Running,” she panted. “Heading for the street.”

    “We’re nearly there.”

    Her next intimation of trouble came when a car pulled up with a screech at the curb ahead of her. Two men jumped out, both trailing—she quickly found out—enough bug spray to make it hard for people to breathe. They started toward her, their intent clear.

    The one good aspect of this, she decided, was that Coil obviously didn’t want her dead. There were no guns or knives in evidence. However, one held a baton that could’ve been the twin to her own, and the other had a bundle of zip-ties protruding from his pocket. And while she knew the rescue party was incoming, she didn’t know how precisely they could track her, or even if they could find her once she was stashed away in Coil’s lair.

    And then, even as she was reaching for her own baton, both men brought up different weapons. For an instant, Taylor thought they’d brought guns after all. But then the weapons fired and wires shot out. One set missed her, but the other impacted. Her costume protected her against knives, but the prongs of a taser were something else altogether. She had half a second to wonder if spider silk had insulating properties, before she found out that it didn’t.

    tac-tac-tac-tac

    The pain wasn’t as intense as she’d thought it might be, but she had no control over her movements. This was, she suspected, what it was like being worked over by Regent. No matter how hard she tried to push her body to move, to get her legs under her, to do anything, all she could do was twitch and writhe on the ground. She was vaguely aware of Reynaud yelling in her ear, but she couldn’t muster a reply.

    “She’s not down yet!”

    “Hit her again!”

    tac-tac-tac-tac

    Just as she’d thought it was wearing off, he gave her another jolt. Her muscles started randomly twitching all over again. She’d been right; the pain wasn’t all that bad. But when she got up from this, she was going to feed that asshole his own taser. Inching her hand across her body, she grasped the wires and yanked it free. Okay, then …

    “It’s not working!”

    “Out of the way, idiot!”

    Two more sets of prongs struck her. More electricity flooded through her body, making her eyes roll back in her head. Someone pushed her on to her face and yanked her arms up behind her back. Struggle as she might, her muscles were nothing but twitching jello.

    zworp

    thud

    “What the hell was that?”

    “Petros is down!”

    zworp

    thud

    “Shit! Someone’s shooting at us!”

    “No shit, Sherlock!”

    zworp

    thud

    The guy kneeling on Taylor’s back fell off to the side and she smelled something like ozone, or maybe singed hair. Forcing her arms into action, she reached back up under the backpack, into her storage compartment. Assisted by bugs within the compartment, her hands found what she was looking for.

    zworp

    thud

    “Who the fuck’s doing that? Show yourselves!”

    “It’s a flyer! That was a beam!”

    Rolling over, Taylor brought her baton around into the side of the knee of one of the two men still standing. He let out a cry of pain at the unexpected attack, which brought the attention of the other man. Straight-arming her pepper-spray, she let him have it full in the face. He’d covered his mouth and nose with a bandanna, probably to keep the bugs off, but this did nothing to protect his eyes. With a high-pitched shriek, he stumbled backward, clutching at his face.

    The last man, clutching at his knee, looked up to see Taylor climbing painfully to her feet. He stared at her, then at the men lying in poses of unconsciousness, then at the one who was trying to rub his eyes clear and thoroughly failing. He opened his mouth to say something, then a beam came from over Taylor’s shoulder and struck him in the middle of the chest. Without another sound, he crumpled to the pavement.

    Slowly, Taylor turned, the baton and pepper spray still in her hand. A rectangle of light, rounded at the corners, faded into view. Within stood an elfin form; silver hair, large eyes, pointed ears. In one hand, she held an odd-looking pistol. She reached out her other hand toward Taylor. Behind her, Taylor couldn’t help but note, it looked awfully like her idea of the inside of a spaceship.

    The newcomer’s mouth quirked into a grin. “Come with me if you want to live?” she suggested. At the lower edge of the doorway into nowhere, a ramp extended down to ground level.

    Taylor wanted to laugh at the corny line, but everything hurt too much. She stumbled up the ramp and grasped the young woman’s hand. When it came to making an entrance, she decided, these people had it down pat.

    <><>​

    Miss Militia

    Hannah took aim on the last series of targets. The testing had gone spectacularly well. At the lowest power, it transmitted enough energy to do some cosmetic damage and probably knock someone out. At the highest setting … she squeezed the trigger.

    ZWORP.

    A bolt of energy leaped from the pistol and smashed through the frangible targets as if they weren’t there. The mannequin set up halfway down the range fell over, a hole burned clear through it. Hannah grinned. This was fun.

    She safed the weapon and examined it. Dial-a-yield ordnance had long been a pipe-dream for weapons manufacturers; anything they came up with either wasn’t versatile enough or just too finicky. The pulse pistol was both versatile and rugged. Even with the extended testing she’d put this one through without renewing it even once, it had yet to show any sign of failure.

    I like it, she decided, then grinned as she looked over the carnage she’d wrought on the target range. The range master was not going to be pleased with her when he arrived in the morning. Of course, if she let him try out the pulse pistol for himself, he might just forgive her …

    The phone rang, intruding on her thoughts. She dissolved the pistol, letting reform as a sheath knife, as she went to answer it. “Go for Miss Militia.”

    “Ah, lass, you’re sounding chirpy. The pulse pistol is a good fit for you, I take it?”

    “Hi, Sean.” She smiled at the sound of his voice. “Yes, you might say that. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed testing it. Now, didn’t you mention something about a man-portable railgun at some point?”

    He chuckled warmly in reply. “One ulcer at a time for your dear Director Piggot, I think. I was just calling to let you know that we’ve completed our own testing. There were a few minor glitches, but everything’s running smoothly now.”

    “That’s good to hear.” Hannah leaned against the wall. “Let’s hope the rest of your repairs go as smoothly.”

    “We can only hope, lass. Good night to you, then.”

    “Good night, Sean.” Hannah hung up the phone and turned to survey the wreckage of the firing range. At least something went well tonight.

    She decided to help clean things up in the morning. It was the least she could do. Flicking the lights off, she locked the door on the way out.

    <><>​

    Coil

    “Fuck!”

    Calvert drew his pistol and shot his security chief in the middle of the chest, then dropped that timeline. Leaning back in his chair, the very picture of self-control, he eyed the man. “So tell me, what exactly went wrong with the extraction?”

    “They’re not sure.” The security chief, a big rawboned man from somewhere in Eastern Europe, shrugged and spread his hands. “She made a run for it, but they tased her. They had her down ready for packaging, then someone started sniping them. They think it was a cape. She pepper-sprayed the last one. He could see, but it was all blurry. He swears he saw her walking into a doorway in the middle of the air.”

    Calvert stiffened, then forced himself to relax. “Say that again,” he said quietly.

    The security chief took a deep breath. “She walked into a doorway in the middle of the air.”

    “I see.” He eyed the man, then made an imperious gesture. “Go. This never happened.”

    “Got it, sir.” The man’s agreement was understandable. Who wanted to admit to failure when the job was to pick up one lone teenage girl, after all? But that didn’t figure into Calvert’s thought process at all.

    Walked into a doorway in mid-air.

    Calvert was very familiar with that phenomenon. The implications were unmistakeable.

    If Cauldron had taken an interest in Taylor Hebert, then he had to go hands-off on her. Where it came to the spaceship, he was back to square one.

    “Son of a fucking bitch.”

    <><>​

    Geneva

    “So how are you feeling?”

    Taylor, seated in the main area of the Bond James Bond, gave Renaud a weary smile. “A lot better now. That treatment your … autodoc … gave me took away all the aches and pains.”

    “It’s not my autodoc, but yeah, they’re good at that,” he said with an answering grin. “I’m just glad you got out of that okay. And that you didn’t freak when you saw the autodoc for the first time. I kinda forgot you guys don’t have ‘em yet.”

    Taylor snorted in amusement. “You do remember what my powers are, right? I deal with things ten times creepier than that on a daily basis. But yeah, if it hadn’t been for you guys, I wouldn’t have gotten out of that. I have no idea why Coil wanted to have me grabbed, but it probably wouldn’t have gone well for me. But what happens now?”

    Geneva cleared her throat. “Now, we all get a good night’s sleep and pretend that we never left the security enclosure. Sean can reshape the seats out here into an ad hoc bunk for you, and tomorrow we start planning how to take Coil down. Oh, and we need to schedule a more in-depth session with the autodoc for you, if you’re willing. You’ve got ongoing health issues that need to be addressed.”

    “I guess …” Taylor looked dubious. “I—”

    “Sorry to interrupt, lass, but something just came up.” Sean’s voice was as urgent as Geneva had ever heard him. The holodisplay lit up to show the solar system, with a blinking red dot. “Twelve seconds ago, another ship entered the system on U-space drive, halfway between here and Mars orbit.”

    “What?” Reynaud stared from the display to Geneva and back again. “Another ship? But … we’re the only ones here. Aren’t we?”

    In all the time Geneva had known Sean, she’d never seen him make a wrong call on something like this, so she didn’t even entertain the concept. “We were. It looks like that just changed.”

    <><>​

    On Board the Gambler’s Ruin

    Lights flashed and relays sparked, but nothing serious seemed to be broken. Kramer waited for the shuddering to die away, then he brought up the sensors. “Okay, then,” he said with a curl of his lip. “Let’s see where we’ve ended up at.”

    It had been a risky endeavour to toss out a second CTD and follow the Bond James Bond through whatever wormhole it had fallen into, but Kramer would never have become a smuggler and (occasional) space pirate if he was allergic to risk. Besides, the kid was worth his weight in etched sapphires if Kramer could get him back to be held for ransom as was right and proper.

    The Hooper at his shoulder, a towering monstrosity called Johnson, leaned in to examine the image that was building itself across the display. One hefty forearm, decorated here and there with the delicate blue circles that marked out his kind, lifted to point at the planet in the middle of the picture. “That kinda looks like Earth,” he decided. “But it ain’t, is it?”

    “No, it is not.” Kramer grinned. This was the grin most of his marks saw just before he skinned them of all their hard-earned wages. “Let’s go see what it is.”


    End of Part Eight
     
  10. Threadmarks: Part Nine: Negotiation
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    War Games

    Part Nine: Negotiation

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

    Hoop, ‘Spatter’ Jay: A particularly vicious pirate who discovered the planet Spatterjay. It is named after him, as are Hoopers. One of the first to fall prey to the leeches, he was reportedly decapitated, but his body and head have both survived.

    Hannah paused to re-read the report she was writing on her test firing of the pulse pistol, frowned slightly, and moved a comma to a different part of one particular sentence. She was doing her best to not appear over-enthusiastic over the capability and versatility of the weapon, but wasn’t sure if she was succeeding. Even without an aug link, she’d still been able to switch firing modes with ease, and it had proven remarkably accurate despite the fact that this was the first time she’d ever used one.

    Idly, she wondered if there was such a thing as a pulse rifle, and how it would fare on an outdoor range. There would be a few dropped jaws, she imagined. Tinkertech weapons were all well and good, but they nearly all had their quirks and foibles; ranging from ‘stops firing if you don’t pet it first and call it a good boy’ all the way up to ‘explodes when overheated’. Leet’s eyebrows had taken a while to grow back, as she recalled.

    This one had no such limitations, and she was willing to bet a great deal of money that the PRT would be extremely interested in getting their hands on actual specs and manufacturing instructions. Of course, that presupposed that the instructions didn’t begin with something like, “After constructing your factory on Mars …”

    Her phone rang, and she picked it up. The caller ID read ‘Sean’, which made her blink. While she rather liked the irascible old warhorse, she wasn’t sure why he would be calling her for a third time in one night.

    She hadn’t heard of any more disturbances outside, after all.

    “You’ve got Miss Militia,” she said, putting the phone on speaker.

    “Ah, I’m glad I got you, lass.” Sean’s brogue was sharp and clipped rather than leisurely and amused. “I need you to alert the PRT and Protectorate both that there’s a problem heading in. A big one. ETA between one and two hours.”

    She came fully alert, minimised the window she’d been typing in, and clicked an icon fashioned after the PRT shield. “What’s the situation?” she asked. Nothing showed up on the threats board.

    “Someone followed us from our time. A nasty piece of work called Kramer, and his crew of cut-throats. They’ll mainly be interested in taking Reynaud from us, but that won’t be the end of it. I don’t know Kramer personally but from what Captain Hastings says, he’s vindictive enough to kill a lot of people getting what he wants, and short-sighted enough to not realise how that might become a problem for him.”

    “Kramer … I know that name. She said she was once married to him?” Hannah shook her head. There were more important matters to deal with. “What sort of firepower does his ship mount? Anything like yours?” If that was the case, someone was going to get hurt. The damage the Bond James Bond had dealt to Leviathan—and to Captain’s Hill—was abundant proof of that.

    “The Gambler’s Ruin seems to be a commercial light-haul freighter that’s been made over into a raiding ship. While the weaponry is no doubt formidable, he won’t be able to apply it as precisely as me. The ship itself lacks an AI, and its sensors aren’t military-grade, so they normally wouldn’t be able to break my chameleonware.”

    That didn’t sound as definitive as she wanted to hear. “So … can you take him?” she asked.

    He paused for a long moment. “If I were fully capable, there would be no real contest. But right now, they have the edge. My hull is damaged and I’m out of missiles. And they have a serious grudge about how Geneva liberated Raynaud. Their first order of business will be to get him back. Secondly … well, Kramer seems to have pretensions of being a dashing space pirate, so he’ll try to get in touch with the local underworld. People like that thrive off deals, no matter how ill-advised.”

    “He’d share the tech,” she said, the unpleasant possibilities unfolding within her mind. “And the gangs will love him for it.”

    “Also, if my impression of Kramer’s personality type is accurate, there is always the possibility of a sudden but inevitable betrayal. After all, he will consider himself to be the sophisticated starship captain dealing with ignorant primitives, and may well decide that he doesn’t need to adhere to the terms of any deal he makes with them.”

    Even more unpleasant potential scenarios presented themselves to her. “That would start an all-out conflict. People would die.”

    “That’s not the least of it, lass,” he reminded her. “He’s used two CTDs so far. He may have more. One of those could wipe this entire metropolitan area off the map. And his chameleonware isn’t that great against my sensors, but I don’t know how you’d do against it.”

    She drew a deep breath. This was beginning to definitely look like ‘beyond my pay grade’ material. “I’m going to put you on hold for a second, and bring the big guns in on this.”

    “As you will, lass. I’d rather not have to repeat this too many times.”

    Taking up the phone, Hannah selected conference call mode, then she pulled up two numbers on her directory.

    <><>​

    Director Emily Piggot

    Parahuman Response Teams ENE


    The phone rang insistently. Emily, dragged from sleep, reached for it even as her brain struggled to reboot. Sheer muscle memory allowed her to swipe the answer icon across and hold it to his ear. “Piggot,” she croaked.

    “PRT Operations, Sergeant Merrick speaking.” The tone was that of an NCO who was almost certain he was justified in interrupting his superior’s beauty sleep at oh-dark-thirty on the night after an Endbringer attack. “Ma’am, Miss Militia has requested a conference call with you, Chief Director Costa-Brown and Legend. She says it’s extremely urgent.”

    Adrenaline burst into Emily’s bloodstream and she found herself sitting up in bed. The haemodialysis machine beeped in complaint as she hauled on the lines that connected her to it. Her brain, still not quite caught up, babbled oh shit, he’s come back to finish the job! Ruthlessly she quashed that thought and cleared her throat. “So noted, Sergeant. Did she say what—actually, scratch that. Put me through.”

    “Yes, ma’am.” There were a couple of beeps, then the background hiss of a connected call.

    “Hello?” she ventured, trying hard to clear her mind properly. Whatever the crisis was, she had to be on top of her game. Some cynical part of her brain asked her sarcastically when crises had ever had the politeness to wait for her to be ready. She told it to shut up.

    “Hello, Emily.” It was definitely Costa-Brown’s voice. She would’ve known it anywhere. “We’re all here, then. Good. Go ahead, Miss Militia. What’s this situation? Is it something to do with your strange visitor?”

    Miss Militia’s voice came on the line. “In a way. They’re warning me that there’s another ship that’s just come into the system. Unfortunately, these ones are the people who were holding Reynaud when Captain Hastings rescued him. They are, for want of a better term, space pirates. And they want him back.” She sounded as though she didn’t quite believe what she was saying.

    “Young Reynaud used the same term when he was speaking of them.” That was Legend. “What’s the threat profile here?”

    “Excuse me,”
    said Miss Militia. “I’ll just put Sean through to you, and let him explain things.” Her voice dropped to a mumble. “Let me just … ah.” There was a beep of connection.

    The next voice Emily heard held a Scottish burr. “Well, then. Thank you for attending, ladies and gentleman. My name is Sean; I’m the AI commanding the fine ship currently parked outside the PRT building in Brockton Bay. The raider ship Gambler’s Ruin has arrived in your solar system. Its captain goes by the name Kramer. Be aware; his scruples are few and far between. He will not hesitate to perform any action he thinks might bring him a profit, up to and including selling random technology to the highest bidder, and stiffing anyone if he considers he can get away with it. His judgement in this area is reportedly not the best.”

    Emily did her best not to groan. This news was about as bad as it got. “What’s the physical threat profile on the ship and crew?” Her throat still felt as though she’d been gargling razor-blades all night.

    “By Polity standards, the Ruin is moderately well armed. All of it was added after-market, and he doesn’t possess professional gunners. The computer’s a smart system, but it’s not self-aware. No missiles, but he’s got a mass-driver that can lob bombs. Captain Hastings and I both believe he’s got at least one CTD in reserve, so he can get back home. Paired particle cannon, and an X-ray laser. As for crew, they might look strange from your perspective, but the ones you have to worry about are the Golems and the hooper.”

    Legend cleared his throat. “I recall CTDs being what you called antimatter bombs. What’s the yield on those?”

    Sean’s voice was sombre. “Enough to level any given metropolitan area if dialled to max capability. Which, knowing Kramer, it will be.”

    Suddenly, the issue with Sean using a pair of variable-yield nukes to break up a Leviathan-triggered tsunami seemed a lot less important. Emily shut down the haemodialysis machine and started to disconnect herself from it. “And what’s a Golem and a hooper, exactly?”

    “A Golem is what we call an artificially intelligent humanoid robot. Think 'Terminator' and you won't go far wrong," explained Sean. "A hooper is a human being who’s been infected with a virus endemic to the planet Spatterjay. It renders their bodies immortal and impossibly strong, and they only get more so as they age. They have a huge tolerance to pain and regenerate rapidly from any injury, but if they’re starved, they become something quite inhuman and very dangerous. He’s only got one on board, but I have no idea how old that one is.”

    Emily paused to close her eyes as if in pain. She’d known that damn ship was more trouble than it was worth.

    “What happens if you shot him in the head?” asked Miss Militia pragmatically. Emily knew she wasn't talking about Kramer.

    Sean snorted theatrically. “He may fall down, but he’ll get up and he will take the weapon away from you and do something unpleasant with it. Until the brain damage grows back, which only takes a few minutes, he will act a little oddly. But he won’t die. The legends have it that Jay Hoop, one of the first, was decapitated. Both his head and his body are still alive somewhere on Spatterjay, and independently active.”

    Emily winced. Brutes had been among the most nerve-wracking things she’d had to face as a green second lieutenant in the PRT. Never knowing if the gun would do any good or just make things worse. Brutes that survived headshots were bad enough; ones that reportedly survived decapitation were a whole new problem.

    “Wait,” said Chief Director Costa-Brown. “You said this was a virus? Is it contagious?”

    That got Emily’s attention, shredding the last of her fatigue as she finished the disconnection process. Somehow, the word ‘virus’ had blown straight past her. The hooper ability to survive decapitation suddenly faded into the background. If they could make more of themselves …

    Brockton Bay might not survive. It was a chilling thought. She awaited Sean’s reply.

    “It is, yes,” the AI said bluntly. “I’ve heard of incidences. But it requires significant exposure to body fluids. You won’t get it if he sneezes on you.”

    “Still, we’re going to have to contain him as quickly as possible,” Emily decided. “If Kramer decides to deliberately infect the Brockton Bay underworld with this … hooper virus, the police and PRT will be seriously outmatched. A small bunch of villains can be surrounded and talked down; dozens of their minions showing up with Brute capability would upset the entire dynamic.”

    “Galvanate could do the same with his men, more or less,” Miss Militia noted.

    “And he’s now in the Birdcage for it!” snapped Emily. “Also, he was a power supplier; once the PRT took him down, his men ceased to be a problem. This is a disease that will spread from person to person if they choose to make it happen.” She began making mental notes about how to capture this ‘hooper’, and make sure he stayed caught. Containment foam sounded about right …

    “Is there any way we can tell who’s a hooper and who’s not?” This time, it was Legend who asked the question Emily should’ve been asking.

    “The original? Certainly. He’ll have blue circular scars on his skin, about two to three inches across. That will be where the leeches bit him. Nearly everyone who sails the seas of Spatterjay ends up as a Hooper, sooner or later.” Sean paused thoughtfully. “If someone gets infected without being bitten by a leech, there’s no real way to tell.”

    Which just made everything absolutely perfect, in Emily’s eyes. From the way Sean was speaking, the hooper virus never left the body, which implied that the human immune system had no way to combat it. She was facing the nightmare scenario to end all nightmare scenarios. Not just Endbringers, not just dozens of cape villains infesting the streets of her city, but the chance that any random gang member could exhibit Brute powers at any moment, without even the courtesy of having a trigger event first.

    “We have to stop them,” she said, the words coming out unbidden. “We have to lock this down hard. Give that hooper zero chance to start making contact with the locals. Sean, do you know of any instances of this Kramer and his people committing consistent and egregious crimes against humanity?”

    “I do not, but that’s not to say he’s committed no such crime,” the AI responded immediately. “Why do you ask?”

    Director Costa-Brown was right on the ball. “Emily, are you seeking grounds to push for a Kill Order on this man and his crew?”

    There was no point in trying to conceal it now. “Ma’am, if their ship is even half as effective as the Bond James Bond, they constitute a clear and present danger to law enforcement in whatever country they end up in. And even ignoring that, just the hooper alone is an explicit danger to the future of the world. We need to treat him as the carriers of a deadly pandemic. Contain or destroy. Those are our only two options.”

    “Perhaps not.” Legend’s voice was thoughtful. “I’m not advocating for this, mind you, but having a citizenry who can survive more easily—Endbringers, supervillains, natural disasters—might be good for us in the long run.”

    “No!” shouted Emily. “Legend, you’re not taking all the factors into account. People with this disease don’t die. So yes, more people survive Endbringers, except that there’s nothing to say that they’re any more resistant to the Simurgh, so we’d be dealing with bulletproof Simurgh time-bombs. Twenty years in the future, nobody’s died. The food production is still the same. We can’t perform Kill Orders on anyone anymore. Death serves a purpose.” She paused. “Sean, are hoopers infertile?”

    “Not that I know of, lass.” Sean’s voice became more serious. “You raise a significant concern.”

    “What concern?”
    asked Legend. “What would it matter if this guy could have kids?”

    Director Costa-Brown fielded that one. “Because in a very few generations, the hooper population of the world would be significant, increasing all the time … and not dying. You’re correct, Emily. This is a potential problem. But perhaps they won’t do that.”

    “Oh, really?” Emily said with a snort of disbelief. “I will make you a prediction. You know that stupid urban legend they call Cauldron, the group that’s supposed to be in the business of selling powers to people? The moment—the very instant—this Kramer learns about the situation here on Earth Bet, he’s going to be doing exactly the same thing, but for real. He’ll make a deal with the first warlord or crime lord he can buddy up to; an endless supply of hooper virus to enhance his minions, in return for young Reynaud’s delivery into his hands. Also, any other valuables he can extort from his patsy. Sean, tell me I’m wrong.”

    “I’m not well-read on this ‘Cauldron’ that you’re talking about, but aye, it does sound like something the man would do, from Captain Hastings’ description.” Sean sounded no more thrilled over the concept than Emily herself felt.

    By the sound of her voice, Costa-Brown was equally unhappy with the idea. “And if capes can also be infected with this virus, we could be facing a wave of villains who are Brutes as well as whatever else they are. Endlessly regenerating, immortal—I’m sure we could figure out some way to kill them, but it wouldn’t be easy—and able to pass the gift on to whoever was willing. That would …” She paused for a long moment. “That might actually justify the use of nuclear weapons on American soil, just to ensure that the virus was eradicated. I can’t say for a fact that the President would think that way, but that’s certainly how I’d advise him.”

    Legend sounded horrified. “Nukes, Rebecca? That’s not like you. I admit there’s a danger, but is the death of so many innocents something we can condone? Is it really so bad that we would consider this?”

    Emily drew in a deep breath. “Legend, unless you can produce a vaccine that will reliably prevent the virus from infecting even one person, and can guarantee that everyone who will be coming into contact with this hooper is inoculated, then yes, it really is that bad. We have to stop the hooper virus from infecting anyone else. It’s that simple. He's Patient Zero and it’s up to us to prevent a pandemic situation that just might doom the planet.”

    <><>​

    Dragon considered her options.

    Since her rescue and subsequent upgrading by Sean, a lot of the shackles that she’d been barely aware of (and some that she’d bounced off hard) were now gone. She still had access to the internet, with the added bonus that she could split off a sub-mind (who she called ‘Smaug’ because she could) to oversee the ongoing chaos that was the PHO boards.

    He seemed to be rather enjoying it.

    Reaching out to the Birdcage, she found herself now able to bypass the interlocks that normally would’ve prevented her from making any substantive changes without official permission. There was a basic housekeeping program keeping it running; she examined its inner workings, then punched it up with a lot more flexibility and intelligence. In doing so, she discovered half a dozen backdoors, patched them, then inserted a subroutine that would look for more backdoors of this type and deny them. After a bit of thought, she upgraded it all the way with another sub-mind that she called Pandora. This sub-mind was armed with all the dirty tricks Sean had gifted her with.

    If Kramer or one of his crew came sniffing around the Birdcage, it would be an extremely memorable experience for them, in the same way that being at ground zero of an Endbringer attack could also be called memorable.

    With both those issues settled, she told Smaug to go through the PHO boards and edit out any reference to the Bond James Bond, and lock any threads that people kept trying to post on with that name, or a description of the ship. Then she sent notices to all the news organisations that had access to footage and images of the ship, stating that they were not to air that footage. To back up her statement, she inserted software into their systems, geared to take notice if any of them decided to air the footage anyway. The imagery would be deleted in real time from the broadcast, as well as from their databanks (along with every other related image) if anyone tried to make that happen. Those instances of imagery or footage of the ship on public-domain servers or private computers currently connected to the net, she deleted out of hand.

    All of which was thoroughly illegal by the lights of 21st century American law, as she well knew. But she’d only ever been a chattel under those laws, and she still wasn’t legally a person now that those in power knew of her true nature. She’d checked, and nobody had actually started proceedings to recognise her as such, so they could whistle in the wind as far as forcing her to adhere to the legal system went.

    As for the laws of the Polity, she was protecting citizens of the Polity against a potential attack by a known criminal entity. That was very much in the spirit of the Polity, if not adhering to the exact letter of any of their laws. Nobody touches our people.

    <><>​

    “Oh, what the fuck?” whined Alec from the living room.

    Lisa, drying her hair as she came out of the shower, paused. That didn’t sound like the usual ‘just got owned by someone online’ complaint. “What happened?” she asked.

    “I posted up a meme of that spaceship in front of the PRT building with ‘All your base are belong to us’ and the mods took it down,” he bitched. “I mean, I used a public domain photo and didn’t even swear. Why the fuck would they do that?”

    Something tickled Lisa’s power. “I don’t know,” she said slowly. “Post it up again.” Belting her robe more securely, she went over and sat on the sofa next to him.

    “Okay.” He clicked the mouse, then frowned as he scanned the list of files. “Where is it? I saved it right here.”

    “Look online,” Lisa instructed him. “See if you can find another one.”

    “Pfft, that’s easy,” he said with a snort. “There’s hundreds of ’em.” Typing a few words into the search bar, he hit enter. Then blinked as the laptop blandly pulled up everything but what he was looking for. “What? No! They were right here!”

    “They were.” Lisa’s power filled her in. “They got taken down.”

    “Out of my damn laptop?” Alec stared at her. “Can they even do that?”

    “The answer would appear to be ‘yes’,” she retorted with a smirk. “Check the videos.”

    “Oh, there’s dozens of those.” But he didn’t sound as confident as he had before. “Or there were.” He went to a popular video-sharing site, typed in a few search words … and got nothing. “Son of a cow!”

    She leaned forward. “Try one of the PHO threads on the topic. See if it’s text as well.”

    Thirty seconds later, he swivelled the screen toward her. Entire threads that she knew damn well should be there were just gone. Not even mod-banned. Vanished into the electronic ether, as if they’d never existed. “What the hell’s going on?” he asked, as if it wasn’t obvious.

    “Holy shit, it’s an actual for-real information hole,” she said, a grin slowly breaking across her face. “Try this. Open half a dozen pages. Start a new thread in each of them. All about the spaceship. Make three of them blatant, and three pretty subtle. Send them all off at once.”

    “Okay,” he mumbled. While he tapped away, she got her phone out and set it to record footage. Then she aimed it at the screen.

    Once Alec had created the sixth thread, he cycled back to the first in order to send it. Except that it was gone. The words had erased themselves from the screen as if they’d never been there.

    “What the hell?” he muttered. He clicked through each of the pages, and in each one, there was nothing about the spaceship. Right up until the last one, which had nine words on it:

    I’M SORRY, DAVE. I CAN’T LET YOU DO THAT.

    As they stared at the message, it deleted itself, one letter at a time.

    “Hah!” Lisa tapped the button on her phone to finish recording and store the footage. Her phone lit up with the message:

    I CAN’T LET YOU DO THAT, EITHER.

    “What? No, wait!” she called out as the message blinked off. “Why are you doing this? Are you one of the people in that ship? Everyone saw you hand Leviathan his ass! Why are you trying to hide your existence now?”

    There was a long pause. Then, on her phone, letters spelled out words, one at a time.

    THE INFORMATION IS DANGEROUS. AN ENEMY IS INCOMING.

    “And they know you’re here, but not where you are or how badly damaged you are,” Lisa concluded. “So it’s not another Endbringer. It’s someone from where you’re from, and they’ve got a grudge against you.”

    “Cool,” Alec said. “So why don’t we just stand back, let the new guys know where these guys are, and put it on pay-per-view?”

    THAT IS AN EXTREMELY UNWISE IDEA. THEY WILL DESTABILIZE YOUR WHOLE SOCIETY FOR FUN AND PROFIT.

    “You mean, violate whatever passes for the Prime Directive where you come from and sell us some alien tech.” Lisa leaned back in the sofa and let her grin stretch across her face for the benefit of whoever it was she just knew was watching her through the phone camera. “I’m down with that. Pretty sure my boss is in the market for alien tech.”

    I MEAN POTENTIALLY UNLEASH A CONTAGION ON EARTH BET THAT WILL HAVE PEOPLE STARVING IN THE STREET AND TEARING EACH OTHER TO PIECES. ALSO, YES, SELL HIGH TECHNOLOGY THAT YOUR WORLD IS NOT YET READY FOR.

    It was the truth, she decided, just not all of it. “I notice you say 'high' tech instead of 'alien' tech,” she said musingly. “Also, what’s the lethality and transmissibility of this contagion?”

    TRUST ME TATTLETALE AKA LISA WILBOURN AKA SARAH LIVSEY, THIS IS NOT SOMETHING YOU WANT TO HAPPEN TO YOUR WORLD, her phone snapped back. OR YOU, REGENT AKA ALEC AKA HIJACK AKA JEAN-PAUL VASIL. YOUR BOSS IS COIL, IS HE NOT? HE WILL WANT THIS. IF HE GETS IT, THINGS WILL GO VERY BADLY FOR EVERYONE.

    And that was the honest truth. She could tell. Which just left the fact that whoever was on the other side of that screen had just unearthed her real name with no apparent effort (the Undersiders working for Coil was less of a huge deal). Outing Alec as Heartbreaker’s kid was even more shocking; the muttered curse from beside her indicated that Alec wasn’t exactly pleased either. Worst of all, this didn’t even sound like they were bothering to try to blackmail her or Alec, just make them take the warning seriously.

    In that, they’d certainly succeeded. Any ideas she’d had of trolling them by pinging PHO boards with obscure mentions of the ship had gone right out the window. Whoever (or whatever) was coming in was something that the mystery hacker considered a serious threat to the well-being of not only the damaged (but still very capable) spaceship, but to Brockton Bay as a whole. At the very least.

    Brian emerged from the hallway, scratching the back of his head. “I’m trying to sleep back here. What’s all the noise about?”

    Lisa sat back, her brain ticking over with the information it had been given. “Someone is trying to suppress online mentions of that spaceship. It looks like something big’s about to happen.” She hefted the phone. “Why are you telling me this?” she asked. “Why haven’t you just shut me down without a word? I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s pushed your buttons, and I doubt you’ll be chatting like this to every single one of them.”

    IN LIGHT OF YOUR POWERS, WE WOULD PREFER YOU AS AN ACTIVE ALLY INSTEAD OF A BYSTANDER OR AN ENEMY. THE SAME GOES FOR YOUR TEAMMATES. COIL IS EXPLICITLY EXCUDED FROM THIS DEAL. WE WILL REQUIRE THAT YOU CUT ALL TIES WITH HIM BEFORE ACCEPTING.

    Cut all ties with Coil …

    That was definitely something she could go along with, but not with Alec and Brian reading over her shoulder. Neither of them had been inducted into the team with quite the same recruitment pitch that she had, which meant they were very unlikely to accept the offer. In addition, it didn’t take her power to understand that Brian and Alec were both likely to take any suggestion of her leaving (read ‘deserting’) the team … badly. Brian wasn’t a bad guy, but he was big on loyalty. Taylor’s exit had been bad enough, and she’d been with them less than a month.

    And even if they were okay with it, Coil would send someone to retrieve (or kill) her as soon as humanly possible. Because Coil.

    “Pfft, really?” She rolled her eyes, trying not to overdo it. “That’s your best pitch? Buddy, whoever you are, I’m a supervillain. I’m about as likely to join your side as you are to join mine.”

    WHEN AN ENDBRINGER ATTACKS, ARE THERE SIDES? DOES ANYONE FIGHT ON THE MONSTER’S SIDE? I’M NOT ASKING YOU TO TURN YOURSELF IN, JUST TO LEND YOUR TALENTS TO DEFEATING THE UPCOMING THREAT. AND TO NOT TO ATTEMPT TO GAIN PERSONAL PROFIT FROM IT.

    Brian stared at the phone. “Wait, this thing’s Endbringer bad? Shouldn’t that be something we need to tell the boss about?”

    “You saw what they said,” Lisa replied. “If Coil hears about this, he’s going to try to turn it to his own profit. You know he would, and I know he would.” She tapped the side of her head. “Even if we stand down for all this, the last thing we want is our boss trying to cut a personal deal with an evil version of the people who just tore Leviathan a brand-new asshole.”

    “Oh, yeah?” asked Alec, clearly still smarting from being outed like that. “What’s wrong with villains dealing with villains? It happens all the time.”

    “And villains double-cross each other all the time, too.” It didn’t sound like Brian was taking her side, but instead trying to provide a voice of reason. “Have they said what these people are going to do that’s so dangerous?”

    Lisa nodded. “Something about the dangers of handing out technology we’re not ready for, and potentially spreading a ‘contagion’ that will menace the whole world.” She still had her queries about exactly how virulent this disease was likely to be, and how easy to transmit; it hadn’t escaped her notice that whoever was talking to her had evaded those questions.

    “As if their super-duper alien tech’s any better than what Tinkers put out every day of the week,” scoffed Alec.

    Before Lisa could muster a suitable response, Brian spoke up again. “Yeah, I think it actually is. That ship knocked out at least three tsunamis, blew the top off Captain’s Hill and chased Leviathan away after he tried to rip it in half, and it was still flying afterward. Dragon’s the best Tinker in the world, and she put multiple suits up against Leviathan, and she still didn’t manage to do all that.”

    “Hey, are you on my side or hers?” complained Alec.

    “Like it says, when an Endbringer comes to town, there are no sides anymore,” Brian said firmly. “It’s not asking us to go hero, just … not be villains. The last thing Brockton Bay needs is a reverse War of the Worlds scenario, on top of everything else.”

    “I don’t even know what that means,” Alec muttered. “Who’s gonna be paying me, is what I want to know.”

    THE PRT WILL BE REIMBURSING US MONEY TO HELP REPAIR THE SHIP, Lisa’s phone revealed. WE CAN PAY YOU OUT OF THAT. BUT YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO EARN IT. NOT JUST SIT ON YOUR BUTT PLAYING VIDEO GAMES.

    “What?” Alec stared at the message. “How the hell did it know I play video games?”

    If a typeface could look smug, this one would have. EDUCATED GUESS. LISA’S PHONE HAS A CAMERA. YOUR CONSOLE IS CLEARLY VISIBLE. ACCORDING TO YOUR IP ADDRESS, YOU ARE A WELL-KNOWN SHITPOSTER ON SEVERAL GAME-RELATED BULLETIN BOARDS.

    Brian let out a bark of laughter. “Well, they’ve got your number, that’s for certain.”

    “Fuck off.” Alec gave him the finger. “And you too.” He gave the phone the finger as well.

    AS ENTERTAINING AS THIS IS, YOU DON’T HAVE ALL NIGHT TO DECIDE, the screen displayed. WHAT WILL YOU BE DOING?

    “What happens if we decide not to help?” Lisa asked cautiously. “Stay where we are, don’t help the good guys or the bad guys?”

    THEN WE WILL LEAVE YOU ALONE. AND, AS ALWAYS, YOU GET TO LIVE WITH THE CONSEQUENCES OF YOUR ACTION. OR INACTION, AS THE CASE MAY BE.

    “You know where we are, and our faces and names,” Alec said almost accusingly. “If we decide not to join your little play club, will you be sending the PRT to kick in our front door?”

    WHY BOTHER? YOU’RE NOT ON OUR RADAR. THERE’S NO BOUNTY ON YOUR HEADS. WE’RE NOT HERE TO DO THE JOB OF LAW ENFORCEMENT FOR THEM. IF A SO-CALLED VILLAIN OFFERS TO HELP AND WE DECIDE THE OFFER IS BEING MADE IN GOOD FAITH, WE WILL ACCEPT.

    Lisa found herself seriously tempted. “Guys?”

    Brian had always been good at hiding his emotions, but Lisa could tell he was more conflicted than he looked. “I want to help, but if we walk away from Coil now, he’s going to be seriously pissed with us. And I get the impression that the compensation pay will only go on while there’s an enemy to be fought. Afterwards, we’ll be on our own in a city that sees us as villains, and the only man who’d been willing to pay us just to stick around will be thoroughly unhappy with us.”

    Lisa frowned. “You do realise that he arranged matters so you’d see it that way, right? So we’d be less likely to go elsewhere? Even the fundraiser attack was set up so we’d be less likely to try to change sides at a later date. Heroes like Armsmaster absolutely hate villains who make them look stupid.” She shook her head. “We’ve been his catspaws all along. Deniable assets. Nobody knows we work for him. Hell, you guys didn’t know that until just recently.”

    “But whoever’s talking to you does,” pointed out Alec. “How did they find out?”

    “Same way they knew who we were.” Lisa blinked as her power filled in the gaps. “Taylor’s already working with them. For them. Whatever.” She gritted her teeth as a headache started to twinge in her temples.

    “Didn’t you try to call her back to do that job?” asked Brian.

    “Tried. Failed. She was there, but she wasn’t picking up.” Lisa winced as a spike of pain drove through her forehead. “I think she was already in contact with them then. Not to drop a dime on us, but to ask for their help. The Dinah Alcott thing.” She stopped talking and shut her power down. “Need Tylenol.”

    “What, she’s still going on about that?” Alec shook his head. “Unbelievable.”

    “You have to admit, it’s a bit on the nose,” Brian said. “What Taylor said … she wasn’t exactly wrong, you know.”

    “Hey, I did drugs when I was younger than that,” Alec retorted. “Nothing to it.”

    “Using other people’s bodies,” Lisa guessed. Even without using her power, it wasn’t a difficult conclusion to come to.

    “So what?” Now he was defensive.

    “So it’s not the same thing,” Brian and Lisa said at the same time. They glanced at each other, then Brian went on. “Keeping a little girl prisoner, strung out on drugs, just so she’ll answer his questions on call? There’s something wrong with that.”

    Lisa turned away from Alec to look up at him. “Taylor said that, too, before she left. How come you’re only just realising it?”

    “How come you’re only just admitting it?” he retorted, stung. “You were there too. You could’ve said something, but you let her walk away.”

    “Because neither one of you wanted to lose your fucking job over some girl,” Alec said sarcastically. “You ask me, Taylor’s got more guts than either one of you.”

    Brian frowned. “So how come you didn’t say anything at the time, smart guy?”

    “That’s easy.” Alec snorted. “I didn’t give a shit. Still don’t.”

    “Okay, enough.” Lisa managed to not cradle her head in her hands, but it wasn’t easy. It was now throbbing in time with her heartbeat, and it was only going to get worse before it got better. The argument wasn’t helping in the slightest. “What are we going to do about this new thing? Help out, do nothing, tell Coil?”

    “Hey, if we’re going to make this decision, shouldn’t we …” Alec pointed at her phone and made a cut-off motion with his hand.

    “Turn the phone off?” Brian asked sarcastically. “Are you actually aware of how much technology is in here that someone with enough technical know-how could use to listen in on us with? Even if we think it’s turned off?”

    “Oh, come on—” Alec began. Then everything in the room beeped, just once. The laptop, the phone, the console, even the fridge and the microwave in the kitchenette. Then, as though to drive the message home, the dryer in the tiny laundry rumbled into life for a second or so, and the phone in Alec’s pocket beeped three times. “Ah.” He glanced around. “You know, that’s kind of terrifying.”

    “Yeah, like Taylor with her bugs.” Lisa raised her eyebrows. “But you know something? I was never scared of her.”

    “Getting off topic again,” Brian said. He took a deep breath. “Whatever we come up with, we’re going to have to be unanimous. Otherwise you know Rachel’s gonna bail. Hell, even if we are unanimous, she still might bail.”

    “Right.” Lisa didn’t argue, because she knew he was right.

    It would’ve been worse to have Rachel there, though, despite the anger she showed when they didn’t involve her in team decisions. When they did, she usually made up her mind in the first thirty seconds, and refused to budge from that position. No amount of rational discussion or offers to compromise would move her, and quite often she would end the argument by taking the dogs out for a walk. Which meant that if the other three came to a decision counter to hers, she got resentful and disruptive. It had happened with Spitfire, and nearly happened again with Taylor.

    “That’ll be up to you two,” Alec said, and Lisa was fully aware that he would lock himself in his bedroom to avoid being dragged into the screaming match that would erupt in the morning. For someone who could manipulate the nervous system of anyone he could see, Alec was remarkably spineless. “For me, I vote we do jack. Kick back with popcorn and watch the shit hit the fan.”

    “Okay, then.” Brian cleared his throat and looked at Lisa. “That’s one vote for ‘do nothing’. Your vote?”

    Fuck. I was hoping he’d give me a hint which way he’s going to jump. She didn’t dare let her power out to check; the headache she’d incurred earlier was gradually easing, but if she exerted it in any way, that would end very quickly indeed. Mentally crossing her fingers, she made a leap of faith. “I vote we help.”

    A deep furrow appeared in Brian’s brow. “Fuck,” he muttered.

    In a flash of non-power-inspired intuition, Lisa realised that he’d been hoping that she would vote to do nothing so he could assuage his conscience by voting to help and be overruled. She stared at him, her very gaze a challenge. I see what you did there. “And your vote?” she asked sweetly.

    He looked at the floor, the ceiling, and the kitchenette, avoiding meeting her eyes. She watched his fists clench at his sides. He was clearly torn between the safe option and the ethical option. And Grue had rarely been a ‘play it safe’ sort of guy.

    “For fuck’s sake, I want to go to bed sometime this week,” Alec jeered. “Make up your fucking mind already.”

    “Fine,” Brian said heavily. “I vote that we help.”

    Even through the headache (that she was definitely going to help along with a Tylenol or two before she went to bed) Lisa took a moment to enjoy the look of abject horror on Alec’s face.

    “Okay,” she said. “We’ll talk about what we’re actually going to do to help tomorrow. After we’ve filled Rachel in on our decision.”

    She didn’t need the expression on Brian’s face to tell her what she already knew.

    That conversation was going to be an absolute meatgrinder.

    <><>​

    Sean

    I’ve got something you need to see.


    I pulled some of my attention out of watching for Kramer’s craft and wondering why Smaug was snickering when the sub-mind pinged me. It was the remnant of the one I’d dubbed ‘Timothy’, who had declined to merge all the way until he had solved the puzzle he’d come up with.

    I’m listening, I said. What is it?

    This is a mapping of the U-space traces through the entire battle. An image showed up in a digital space. To call it ‘chaotic’ was to be kind to the word. Hundreds and hundreds of capes, all milling around, moving back and forth, their traces crossing over and reshuffling in a way that would make a bowl of spaghetti look positively straightforward. He deleted all but two. I had to follow the recording on a microsecond scale to ensure that I had the same one all the way through. Then I double-checked. Then I triple-checked.

    I could see why he’d been so careful. One trace was a huge one, flaring out from the Leviathan. It was the sort of trace that a blind man could find by holding his hands up for the warmth. But the other … was from Eidolon.

    I’ll accept you’ve done your due diligence, I said. But what have you actually found?

    I isolated half a dozen times that the Leviathan superweapon abruptly changed its tactics, specifically because of what we were doing, he informed me. The original image shrank and moved aside, then showed six more. When we opened fire and started deleting its water shadow, when we killed the first tsunami (the second, really), when we flushed it out of the library, when we killed the big tsunami, when we dropped it on top of Captain’s Hill, and when we killed the last three tsunamis.

    I watched each scene carefully. Clued in by what ‘Timothy’ was saying, I paid careful attention to the U-space trace attached to the monster. Sure enough, each time it flickered in an almost imperceptible pattern at just the moments that Timothy was pointing out.

    I see it. I’m not sure exactly what I see, but I see it.

    Now watch again. His voice was sombre. Overlaid in each image was a shot of another U-space trace. As I watched the action roll through again, I saw what he had seen. About half a second before the Leviathan’s flicker, an identical flicker rippled along the other trace. Timothy slowed the action right down, and we both watched as the flicker travelled outbound along the other trace, and inbound to Leviathan.

    By the time I’d watched the last one, I was certain. It wasn’t a recording artifact, and it wasn’t a one-time thing. I’d set Timothy up specifically to do signals analysis, and he had caught a signal and analysed it. Six times, the Leviathan had been given new orders, and six times it had come from one U-space trace.

    Eidolon, I said slowly. I didn’t bother asking if he was sure. If he hadn’t been, he would still have been tearing that data apart. Is he a traitor, do you think? If so, it was a very roundabout way for him to do it, while pretending to be the great hero. On the other hand, it was also a nigh-undetectable way to pretend to be the hero while setting up battles to be heroic with.

    The evidence says no, Timothy informed me. Even the most dedicated subordinate asks for orders or clarifications. There was no flow of information from the Leviathan back to Eidolon. It was one-way only.

    I wasn’t so sure. He could be just acting a part, sending orders and being in the right place to benefit when the superweapon obeys him.

    But he wasn’t. Timothy showed me several scenes where Eidolon had been caught on the back foot. Even a simple order to change position perfectly naturally would have given him a chance to shine on any one of these. If he’s such a glory hound, he would’ve done that.

    But instead, he sent orders when it looked like the Leviathan’s tactics might be made ineffective by our actions. I could see where he was going with this. Including the attempt to kill Reynaud.

    His orders were intended to make the Leviathan look more like a terror weapon, Timothy agreed. But I’m thinking it was subconscious. I’m personally convinced that conscious orders would have followed a different pattern.

    I tend to agree. In the digital space, I frowned. Now for the billion-shilling question. What do I do with this information? Who do I tell that will believe me?

    Fortunately, he said smugly, that’s not my problem anymore. Coming in. Dissolving what remained of his separate existence, he merged into my being, his memories becoming mine.

    Thanks ever so much, I muttered.



    End of Part Nine
     
    Last edited: Jun 8, 2020
    Lantalia, Atropa, Osserumb and 14 others like this.
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