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[Archive] With This Ring (Young Justice SI) (Story Only)

Discussion in 'Story Archive' started by Mr Zoat, Jan 30, 2019.

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  1. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    8th January
    18:40 GMT


    "How..? Dare you?"

    "Hm."

    Karmang -odd name for a Martian- sprouts four spindly arms from his sides and makes a series of rapid, intricate gestures. Blue light wafts around his fingertips for a moment, then leaps for the projection. Which… Suddenly isn't a projection any longer.

    "Two degree-" Another gesture, this one involving clenched fingers and a tugging motion. "-shielding. Adequate-" The floors shifts, enveloping the Primate. "-in most-" Two arms retract and he makes a circling gesture, blue runes appearing all over the Primate's rocky prison. "-circumstances. But by now you should have realised that you were dealing with something unusual."

    The shocked Primate stills, then shudders as a section of runes flares. Karmang bows his head slightly, while the machinery fetishist next to him sort of rumbles.

    "I wrote the spells you just attempted. Even now, can you not accept that your preconceptions are wrong?"

    "You are not Karmang."

    "Ah." He turns his attention to me. "What is your name, alien?"

    "I am Grayven."

    "Do you know much of Martian history?"

    I shake my head, then realise that he's probably not familiar with humanoid body language. "Not a great deal."

    "And magic. Do you know about magic?"

    "My people's Elite have powerful innate magical abilities. Studying magic is a little less common, but we have more than a few sorcerers around the place."

    "And what brought you here?"

    "I'm living on Earth at the moment. Its arcane energy networks are remarkably strong, but severely underutilised. This was supposed to be the first step in forming a collegial research and knowledge-sharing group."

    "I heartily approve." He looks around the entry hall for a moment, taking in the frescos on the walls before returning his attention to me. "That was why I established the first monastery-."

    "You lie. You are not Karmang the Good."

    Karmang the arguably-not-good retracts his two remaining bonus arms and extends his natural right arm to point to a scene on one wall. "Yes." The scene shows a six-armed Red Martian leading a group of other Reds across a desert. "This is how they depict me now. Because it is completely unthinkable to this generation that any could learn magic who are not Red."

    The mechanical martian's left arm shapeshifts into some sort of gun-.

    "No, don't do that. I think that maintaining physical proof of their idiocy will be helpful to future generations."

    "Blasphemer!"

    "I wasn't trying to found a religion." He goes back to looking at me. "Do you know what the Guardians did to our people?"

    "Broadly. Though I can't say that I disapprove. If the Burners had ever reached Earth, my favourite planet would have-."

    He raises his right hand. "I know. And I agree. Even now, I find it difficult to recapture how thinking like that felt. The incessant drive to destroy-."

    "Wait." I frown. "You were there? Martians… Aren't immortal."

    And if they had been, I suspect that the Guardians would have edited that too, just in case.

    "There are ways to extend one's life with magic, if one has the correct frame of mind. It requires me to spend periods of time in torpor, but I believe it has been worth it."

    "And… I got the impression that the Guardians scrubbed the memories of the martians they worked on. If you retained yours, shouldn't you be an apocalyptic rage monster?"

    "It's hard, remembering what it was like back then. It was a long time ago, and I was a very different man. I'm not sure exactly what happened. I remember… Our alpha and his warriors being struck down, and… I think I remember trying to hide. Or at least trying to threaten without attacking. But they pacified me and took me aboard their ship. I remember the… Green glowing automata who served the short… Guardians."

    "How do you remember?"

    "Magic. It was a long time afterwards that I learned to systematise even a tiny fraction of what I could feel about the universe surrounding me. But a tiny… Shift, a simple protective sigil was enough to shield my memories from their machines. Not my body, and their bonds still bound certain parts of my mind, but once they left I alone remembered how things had been."

    He walks over to another image, the six-armed Red gesturing to a garden while his students listen at his feet.

    "Having had millennia to consider the issue, and to compare what we are now with what we were, I have to say that I think this is better. And while I'd rather they hadn't wrecked our planet to do it, it wasn't anything we wouldn't have eventually done ourselves."

    "I'm a little surprised to hear the leader of a terrorist-." I glance at L'atroma. "Sorry, murderist group being so calm about things."

    "With great age comes… Perspective. Some things are worth being angry about. Others aren't." He gently touches the fresco. "I took my first students from amongst Ma'aleca'andra's Red population, believing that the Guardians had altered them least."

    "I'm sorry, I thought that you said that you approved-?"

    "Of clarity of thought, yes. Not of being afraid of fire or isolation. I wanted to learn how it had been done, to see if I could learn to modify it, to alter us further. And in case you've ever thought that simply being more like our forebears was what allowed the Reds to become dominant, no. It was me." He turns away from the mural and back towards the Primate. "By teaching Reds from across the planet the most elementary principles of magic, it reinforced the instinctual fear and respect we had been programmed with. And because I took Red students from all across Ma'aleca'andra and returned them home once their studies had reached a satisfactory level, I created a worldwide network of sorcerers who knew one another and who were on good terms with one another."

    Hah! "You created their planetary government?"

    "Its predecessor, yes. And then I underwent my first torpor, and when I emerged… Colourism which put me in the underclass, and not a jot of progress toward the goal I had set them." He walks back towards the Primate. "But I was prepared to be patient. I sought volunteers from the White population, and experimented further. I've learned a great deal about the magics of Mars, but I never came close to a solution to my main problem. So many years… Only for my agents to one day hear a telepathic broadcast which explained the whole thing and demonstrated the solution."

    "I was on that mission."

    "I don't remember seeing you. And I studied that missive in extreme detail."

    "I was evacuated before the confrontation with the Burner could occur. Nitrogen narcosis and a drained power ring. Trust me, I'm in the full version." He doesn't respond. "But surely my name came up in relation to the fix?"

    "I don't recall seeing any alien faces. But as you pointed out, young M'gann wasn't broadcasting everything she experienced. I would like to meet her at some point. Could you arrange th-?"

    The rock holding the Primate explodes!
     
  2. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    8th January
    18:44 GMT


    Shattered rock turns to dust before it can hit the floor, crackling for a second before earthing itself through the machinery martian!

    "UUUUUhH!"

    He staggers, the floor shaking under his lumbering footfalls. Another flash leaps at L'atroma, who phases and allows it to pass through her. The Primate gestures again, and the rock imprisoning her subordinate similarly shatters. A moment later a green glow envelops his body and he begins to wake up.

    I take a couple of steps away from the combat zone. Allegedly ancient mage versus archmage? I think I can tell how this one will go. And even if I could tip it one way or another, I don't have the information I would need to know which side would help me more. Or help Mars more. If they're both prepared to accept my neutrality, that's the route I'm going to go.

    "Electrical discharge from an ionised cloud?" Karmang-or-not has gone back up to four arms, his hands moving rapidly between-. Ah! That's what he's doing! "Disappointing."

    The dust drops to the ground and merges with the floor, which sends a wave of razor-edged spines at both of the priests! The neophyte twists and shapeshifts, managing to get most of his bulk out of the way but taking a few shallow cuts as he does so. The Primate brings her hands together in a circle in front of her, a translucent green disk forming in front of her and completely blocking the instant stalagmites.

    Karmang is making representations of the runes corresponding to the elements of his casting with his fingers. Not really practical for humans, unless the rune is simple and being applied by brute force. But for a polymorph I imagine that it's a good deal more practical. By switching rapidly between shapes and using multiple hands, he can massively increase the speed and complexity he can use. Probably doesn't do anything for the actual peak of his abilities, but the average complexity of his combat casts would be far higher than his human equivalents. The Primate's doing it too, but she doesn't have his experience. She's only just spouting a second set of arms, while he… Isn't going back up to six.

    Circle-wiggle fingers-clenched fist from her, and a sphere of near-vacuum forms around Karmang. Open hand gesture towards L'atroma, who bounces off an invisible force field before she can eviscerate the neophyte. The clanswoman slashes at it, and I feel it as the shield fails.

    "Let me show you-"

    Ah… Open-hand-with-curled-fingers into circle into L-shape with wiggling thumb… He's got extra fingers as well, and I can't tell what the rest of his hands are doing. Presumably one is enabling him to vibrate the air outside of his vacuum.

    "-how-"

    A gust of air as the vacuum spell fails and gas from the surrounding environment is sucked back in.

    "-to-"

    "AYYYIEE!"

    The Primate's arms break, the main bones in her upper and lower arms suddenly turning L-shape with an audible snap.

    "-do-"

    L'atroma dives forward, passes through the neophyte's weak electrical discharge before stabbing him in the chest. The spell fails at once, then L'atroma brings their heads together and the sorcerer convulses for a moment before collapsing.

    "-it-"

    The Primate's eyes burst.

    "-properly."

    She falls to her knees, moaning softly.

    Karmang steps forward. "Your personal arcane defences were inadequate. Too… Rooted in the physical. Our natures are protean, and yet you made no effort to stabilise your physiology." He crouches, pulling the chin of the keening Primate up so he can stare into her face. "You really had no respect for me at all, did you? Even after seeing what I'd done with my followers."

    He stands, letting her fall face-first to the ground.

    "What a complete waste of time your kind have been. K'emra, do you still function?"

    There's an electrical whir from the insides of the large White Martian. "Yeah. Overloaded my shield. It'll be fixed in a minute."

    "Grayven. Do you intend to keep hold of S'yrra?" He turns to look at me. "She has regained consciousness."

    "I.. think it best. She clearly doesn't have the capacity to threaten you."

    "Hm. While I.. could regard that as taking a side, I suppose that she's harmless. And she can take a message to her masters for me."

    S'yrra floats herself off my shoulder, then turns to face the clan. I notice her tremble at the sight of the fallen Primate.

    "Acolyte S'yrra, do you know me?"

    "You-. You are not Karmang."

    "What would it take to prove it to you? Perhaps my memories?"

    S'yrra breathes in sharply, then stumbles to the ground.

    "Though there are rather a lot of them. Perhaps I should level this monastery and undo a dozen generations of embedded spellcraft? It would be easy enough."

    "I'm-. You are powerful. But you are not Karmang."

    Another series of gestures, and blue circles form around her wrists, ankles and neck and pull her off the ground.

    "Are you prepared to die for that belief?"

    "That.. does not appear to be up to me."

    "You appear to be quicker than some, at least. I have a message for you to relay. Can you do that for me?"

    "Yes. I can relay your demands."

    "Good. I state that I am Karmang, master of Z'onn Z'orr and founder and leader of the Hyperclan. I have long been disgusted by both the Red aristocracy and the oppression of the White. As such, though I could rightfully claim to be an earlier-"

    He shifts his shape, growing taller, thinner and spikier, his exterior surface shimmering from the same molecular destabilisation technique the Burner in the Guardian ship used.

    "-form of Martian, I choose not to."

    He shrinks and softens once more.

    "My demands are simple. All Red Martians will leave all high political offices and the Planetary Council will disband. I will be recognised as the ruler of Ma'aleca'andra. I will choose new leaders for each city, and new laws will be put in place to ensure colour equality henceforth. Once I am satisfied with the situation, I will eliminate my office and return to my studies."

    "M'arzz will never accept a murderer as its ruler, much less one who pretends to be our most respected historical leader."

    "Then the fighting will go on. Unlike the Manhunters my followers are spoiling for a fight."

    "That will change when I inform them what you have done here."

    "Good! Unlike you I'm not a colourist. But if a bunch of Greens decide that they're so committed to the status quo that they're prepared to kill for it, I'll know that I'm correct to kill them as well. And for the Reds and Greens living in the territory we hold… It's interesting; I've long wondered about the effectiveness of large scale zeitgeist programming. Using mass telepathic broadcasts to show the oppressors exactly what it's like living under them. Now that I'm moving openly there are just so many options."

    "I will tell them."

    "Thank you." He gestures and she vanishes. "Now, Grayven. I have a problem with which I hope you can help me."

    "I'm listening."

    "I lead the Hyperclan, but I don't lead this uprising. In truth, no one does. There are many leaders, and I will make the competent ones the rulers of their cities in due course. But the one named B'enn B'lanx is agitating for all out warfare. I do not believe that to be in the interests of Ma'aleca'andra, but I can't risk undermining my position or splintering the resistance by confronting him openly. Could I prevail upon you to speak with him?"
     
  3. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    8th January
    14:13 GMT -5

    "…total bollocks. How can Vercingetorix not be a notable source on Vercingetorix?"

    I nod sympathetically as Robert, Tula and I trudge through the thoroughly evacuated Harriman State Park. "To be fair, you don't have any way to know for certain that he was telling the truth."

    "Oh, because Julius Caesar is more reliable? That's basically the only other contemporary source. Is it more reliable because he wrote it down? I mean, he's been dead for two thousand years, it's not like he's got any reason to lie about it."

    We start across the Lewis Brook, Robert and Tula using magic to walk across the surface while I float just above it.

    "Except pride, possibly?" He starts to open his mouth, and I raise my right hand. "But I do see where you're coming from. People marking essays should be flexible enough to realise that there are some students who can speak with the dead."

    Tula's frowning slightly. "I thought that your abilities were focused around the manipulation of the classical elements. How are you able to speak with the dead?"

    "Oh, yeah, but it's the Celtic mythology.. thing. Connection. It takes a bit of an effort, but I can visit Otherworld if I go to the right place and do a ritual. Haven't tried going anywhere else, but since that's where Vercingetorix is I didn't need to." He shakes his head. "Apart from Great Granddad I haven't summoned anyone."

    I land as they step up onto the shore.

    "I thought that Otherworld was somewhere souls went temporarily?"

    "Ahh… Well… Pre-Christian paganism wasn't a unified religion or anything. So there's a bunch of different beliefs about what happened. You can get reincarnated from there, but that's true of Erebos, isn't it?"

    I nod. "Yes."

    "He told me that he didn't want to get reborn in case he ended up as a Roman. Now he just likes the peace."

    "I would be very interested to meet-."

    A wave of mud two metres high leaps at us! Tula uses her water armour to generate a barricade of ice, Robert raises one of rock and I generate a construct barrier.

    "Mister Hagen!"

    The mud splashes onto our barricade then hardens as Mr Hagen uses it to pull himself upwards. I realise that it's his left hand as his right turns into a granite hammer and smashes down! Robert dives out of the way while Tula's tattoos glow, a stream of ultra high pressure water blasting at his arm and severing it at the wrist! Which doesn't stop the hammer, so I send a construct up to meet it and slow its descent. The first few ablative layers give as intended, and the hammer hits my barrier without the strength to crack it even slightly.

    "How do you see-"

    The ground beneath us erupts, the earth throwing us into the air! Robert uses air magic to catch himself and hover, I fall back towards the ground and use my armour's kinetic shield to absorb my momentum and Tula controls her descent using jets of water.

    "-this helping you?"

    So Mr Hagen lunges up through the airborne soil and swallows her whole.

    Robert's eyes widen in horror, but there isn't actually much to worry about. Mr Hagen's body is only as dense as regular soil unless he exerts himself, and he doesn't have any internal organs. Unless he's developed some sort of countermagic-

    Mr Hagen pulls himself into a roughly humanoid shape beneath us and grins smugly.

    -technique, he's not doing anything to Tula that her water armour can't take.

    "Tasty. How about you both leave me alone, and I think about giv-"

    His abdomen starts to bulge.

    "-ing her…" He looks down. "Huh?"

    His torso explodes, bursts of high pressure water blasting free! Tula lands, then walks free of the mud-and-felled-tree covered blast zone with a scowl on her face.

    "Ow."

    Mr Hagen's distorted head is still more or less in one piece, and the mud which he's made part of his body is slowly oozing back towards him. I scoop him up with a construct and bring him up to my level.

    "Mister Hagen, could we have a civil conversation now?"

    There's a slight shift in the mud as he grows a neck to prop himself up slightly.

    "Or what, you shoot me with your ray gun again?"

    I sigh as Tula flicks the last of his mud from her armour.

    "Mister Hagen, you were trying to kill my friends. While I do regret the level of force I used to bring you down, you have no grounds for complaint."

    "Do you know what that felt like? My whole body going hard-. Numb. And then I couldn't hear anything or see anything but I couldn't stop thinking and imagining…"

    "And you recovered."

    "You call this recovery? I'm made of mud!"

    "It beats being dead, Mister Hagen. But I'm more interested in what you want to do going forwards."

    I take a closer look.

    "I'm not telling you-."

    "I'm afraid that Ra's al Ghul is already dead." He stills. "I don't think your employer knew while you were an active Shadow, but I can see people's desires. Ra's al Ghul is dead."

    "He gets better."

    I shake my head. "Not this time. Whoever did it made sure there wasn't a body."

    He stares at me for a moment. "You do it? Or did he finally piss off the bat-."

    "After I calcified you, I went to Infinity Island and shot him in the head. He got better from that, but while he was out of action I wrecked the island's defences. The League took care of the rest. Ra's escaped, but a little while later several groups received an anonymous tip about his location." One of them was the Russian government. It appears that having Dmitri on the League has caused them to re-evaluate how much intelligence they share. Even they're not sure exactly what happened as the Spetsnaz unit they sent at the time didn't come back, but we finally got a look at the site where the Master of Shadows died. "High end incendiaries were employed to ensure that there were no recoverable parts, and the League of Shadows has been dismantled."

    "What about Talia?"

    "Going after her won't help y-."

    "NOTHING'S GUNNA HELP ME! I'M A FUCKING LUMP OF MUD!"

    "There's always hope, Mister Hagen." I pull one of the lesser H-Dials out of a pouch and hold it out to him. This one has four buttons, and is almost certainly Wizard's work. "Please press the buttons in the order H-E-R-O."

    He stares at me for a moment, then extends his prehensile tongue and splatters it against the buttons in sequence.

    And his head and a good portion of the surrounding mud vanishes, replaced by a bearded black man in blue jeans and a yellow shirt.

    "The… Fuck..?"

    He hold up his hands and stares at them, back and front. "This isn't me."

    "Better or worse than being mud?"

    "Better. But… Why do I think my name's 'Speaky the Super Ventriloquist'?"

    "The dial can turn you into a metahuman for one hour a day. I have three."

    He looks up at me as I descend to ground level. "One hour? What good's an hour?"

    "It lets you interact with people as a human while we work on a permanent fix. Obviously, the aim is to restore your original human body. This is just to show you what can be done."

    "And what d'you want?"

    "Co-operate with the police. As long as you do that, I've worked out an agreement where you will spend your sentence in a laboratory rather than a prison. We'll work on restoring your humanity."

    "Oh, great. So you turn me back and I spend the rest of my life in Belle Reve."

    "Given what you've gone through, and the fact that you weren't considered reliable enough to be sent on assassination missions, I suspect that you would get a lesser sentence. Alternatively, as a man of clay you don't actually age. If we were able to improve how that aspect of your physiology works, you might decide to stay like-."

    "Fuck you I'm staying like that."

    "I believe that people should have the right to modify themselves however they like. If you want to go back, that's up to you."

    "If I co-operate."

    "Indeed. But do you think you're going to get a better offer?"
     
  4. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    8th January
    21:35 GMT


    Boom!

    I stride through the boom tube into one of Xan'Xie's caverns. "Hello there!"

    This cavern is designed as a sort of three dimensional park, steps cut into the side walls are covered in greenery -some of which is actually green- with trailing vines covering virtually all of the vertical surfaces. Tree-analogues block my view of the… Let's call it west side, but I can see a few brave families taking advantage of the fact that Whites are no longer prohibited from using it to engage in telekinetic ball-toss and… Other Martian family games I don't immediately recognise.

    Circe and Lord Cyprian step through after me, Circe taking a moment to bend down and touch the… Grass-moss? Whatever this is, which covers the ground.

    "Whatever fighting there was, it didn't take place here. No floramancy and no anguish."

    "Good to know." I turn to look at Cyprian as he takes in the panorama. And the staring locals. "Cyprian, are you sure that you being here is a good idea?"

    "Of the three of us, I'm the only one with an official government position. I'm also the only one of us with experience in peace negotiations."

    "I don't know, Darfur's pretty peaceful these days." I spot a squad of White Martians in appropriated Manhunter gear heading our way, the red X replaced by an orange vest with a green line running across it. "Though I'm not sure that Iname could function quite so well here."

    "That wasn't really a negotiation."

    "Negotiations are ongoing, but there have definitely been some."

    He chuckles and shakes his head. "Taking all of the weapons away is certainly an efficacious way of halting a conflict, but it would be rather more difficult to achieve in a place where the weapons are built into the bodies of the citizens."

    "No, it just takes a sharper knife." The… What am I going to call them? Hunters? That'll do. The Hunters land, adopting a skirmishing formation a short distance from us with plasma beam weapons not quite pointing at us. "Hello there. My name is Grayven-."

    One of their number strides forward. "How did you come here?"

    "It's called a 'boom tube'. My people have the technology to open portals between locations."

    "Why are you here?"

    "I'm hoping that a neutral arbitrator such as myself could act as a go-between between whoever is running Xan'Xie and the Planetary Council, with a view to reaching a peaceful settlement between belligerent parties."

    "Did the Council send you?"

    "The Council are aware that I'm involving myself, but no, they didn't send me. Karmang asked me to come here."

    "Karm-?" The squad leader's eyes glow for a moment and I feel a weak pressure against my mind. "That seems unlikely."

    "We were visiting one of those monasteries the Sorcerer Priests run when he and his clansmen attacked it. Pure coincidence as far as the timing was concerned."

    "Which clansmen?"

    Odd.. question. "L'atroma, N'Rixot and K'emra…" I turn to my companions. "Did the ones you saw give their names?"

    Circe nods. "One introduced himself as L'Sufux. The other was too focused on impaling our hosts to engage in social niceties."

    "I recognise the names." He looks at me, then at Circe and then at Cyprian. "Why do you all block your minds? I only wish to see what you saw."

    Cyprian smiles in a friendly way. "I'm afraid that our species aren't natural telepaths. We can block our minds completely, but beyond that we have no way to regulate what you can see. As such, we generally prefer to maintain a barrier. I could create an illusory image if that would suffice, or Grayven could create a hologram."

    There are a few moments of hesitation, presumably while the Hunters talk about it amongst themselves telepathically. Or… I don't know what sort of range most martians have. Perhaps they're communicating with their superiors.

    "Who are you here to speak to?"

    "Well…" I wave my right hand negligently. "Whoever the new Prelate is. Assuming that one has been appointed."

    "We're not just letting a Red Martian take control of the city again!"

    "I'm.. sorry. I… Didn't mean to imply that you should. I don’t know what title would be applied to a city ruler of another colour."

    "Oh. No, I assumed that you were referring to the normal succession arrangements."

    I wait for a moment, but he doesn't say anything else.

    "So… Who is in charge?"

    "I'm in charge of looking after the park."

    Oh. Darn. A genuinely spontaneous revolution. I didn't think those existed. I mean, there was that time in East Germany when a demonstration happened because a stoner told a journalist that he heard there was going to be a demonstration, the journalist reported it, the report got broadcast and hundreds of people turned up to a demonstration that wouldn't have occurred if he hadn't told the journalist about it… But genuinely spontaneous?

    "And… Did someone put you in charge of looking after the park, or.. did you just assume that responsibility?"

    "I flew past this park a hundred times as a child. I was never allowed in." He holds out his arms slightly. "Now every White Martian can enjoy it."

    "I'm not saying that you did anything wrong. I'm not taking any position vis-à-vis anything that's occurred. I'm just a bit stuck if there's no one to negotiate with."

    Cyprian smiles, though I'm not sure that martians understand the gesture. "Perhaps if you told us why you decided to take direct action? As you said, you flew past this park hundreds of times without doing so..?"

    "The broadcast. If finding out that we only felt… Reverence for the Reds because they look more like our monster ancestors… I just felt that all my doubts were… From that. I just came here as an act of civil disobedience to begin with, and then when the Manhunters tried to evict us B'enn B'lanx and P'torex Z'orr attacked their armoury. Then the fighting really got going."

    Oh dear. "And removing the Prelate? Who.. decided..?"

    "You mean killing her? That was pretty much a.. mob decision. This city used to be… Not equal, but not as bad as it became after she took over." He watches my face for a moment. "Wait, you're not telepathic. When I say 'mob decision', I mean that we were all of one mind. We all felt that killing her was essential."

    "And the Manhunters?"

    "We didn't kill the ones who surrendered. But they enforced Red supremacy. They needed to go."

    "And…" Cyprian looks around at the rest of the group. "The rest of you feel the same way?"

    "Yes." / "Yes." / "Yes." / "Yes." / "Yes."

    Cyprian nods. "And what plans do you have for the future?"

    "Ah… Defend the city against the Planetary Council? B'enn is organising a militia, and we're doing rotations to get training with weapons."

    "I meant, do you have any opinion on what shape the government of your city should take? How M'arzz should be governed?"

    "Whites need to be involved. The whole caste system needs to stop. Everywhere."

    Cyprian nods. "Alright. But what else? What form should the government take?"

    One of the others steps forward. "A council of representatives, comprised of representatives of each colour."

    Circe frowns. "Have none of you had the colour restrictions removed?"

    The first martian visibly starts. "No? How does that work?"

    She smiles, purple sparks flickering around her fingers. "Magic. Perhaps I may be of service?"
     
  5. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    8th January
    21:57 GMT


    "…between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary." I look around my impromptu audience, pointing to my chart. "Can anyone point out the obvious problem with this arrangement?"

    They stare at me. W-? Oh, right.

    "If you're trying to communicate with me telepathically, please remember that I'm blocking everything. If you wish to suggest an answer, please raise your right hand."

    Seven go up. I point to one.

    "You… Sir?"

    "It.. seems that such a system would make it difficult to do anything? If they.. have to check with each other?"

    "Yes, well done. In that regard it is the opposite of the system Martian cities use. A Prelate can upturn nearly the entire legal system of a city when they come to power without reference to anyone. Now, for those of you who are old enough to remember, what was the result last time that happened here?"

    Hands again, and I point to one.

    "A dramatic increase in colourism."

    "Yes. When you give one person ultimate authority, they can do literally anything with it. And that can be a problem, because whatever traditions you may have that would usually regulate that sort of thing can be brushed aside effortlessly. It's efficient, but the only interests they have to act in are their own. In the Martian context, the Reds like to think that they educate potential Prelates to be above that sort of thing. And to a degree, they're successful. Prelates don't generally act in their naked self interest. They don’t give themselves massive pay rises, require their citizens to literally sing their praises, establish harems, or… Whatever sort of things a totally decadent martian would do. But they do consider themselves obliged to uphold certain traditions, and Red privilege and White oppression are two of those traditions."

    Off to my right, Circe is using illusions to show the Guardian limiter to the curious, while using her magic to remove it from volunteers. In the corner of my eye I watch her generate a sphere of arcane fire, causing everyone except her volunteer to back up.

    "And here's where we get to the notion of empathy. The understanding that other people in our civilisation are much like ourselves, with wants and needs similar to their own. And the understanding that -while we might feel differently when it concerns us personally- at a societal level, it makes sense to assume that the pains of one are equal in significance to the pains of another."

    Off to my left, Cyprian has taken the park warden squad leader aside and is giving him a lecture on political practice. How to defend your home city when everyone around you hates you.

    "At the moment, in this city, Whites hold power. You have been oppressed for such a long time that -even within your own minds- you form a homogenous interest group. With the Manhunters assigned to this city either killed or imprisoned, you collectively control the lion's share of military power." Not a monopoly, of course. That just isn't possible when you're from a species of telepathic, shapeshifting telekines. "You could make anyone you can agree on your Prelate; a more agreeable Red, a Green or a fellow White. But whoever you select, that wouldn't eliminate the fundamental problem with tyranny: how do you make the tyrant do what you want them to do?"

    I point to the legislature box on the chart.

    "The purpose of a legislature is to allow a broadly representative group to adjudicate upon what laws are to be enacted, and to ensure that the executive is acting in the general good. Martian society only has this at the planetary level. In practice, Prelates are often advised by other Reds and provided information by Green civil servants, but that leaves Whites completely cut out of the process. Given that is the case, why would you view the decisions of such a ruler as binding upon you? Why would you consider the society which controls the planet to be your society? The answer-" I open my arms and gesture to the whole of the city surrounding us. "-is that you don't. You stopped seeing the Manhunters as enforcers of a fair set of laws and saw them as the weapons of your oppressors."

    "But, as I look around, I see no Reds or Greens here. If you restructured the city's government in such a way that you had a White Prelate with popular support, advised by knowledgeable Whites and informed by White civil servants-" Which you can't because the lack of Whites in those fields means that those skills simply don't exist amongst the White population. "-then why would the Red or Green population regard its decisions any more highly than you do now?"

    A hand rises. I nod, realise that they won't understand the gesture and point with my left hand instead.

    "Why should we care?"

    "You don't need to. I have a preference to use all of the talents within a society to further the goal of strengthening that society. To serve that end, I don't restrict groups from participating in particular fields, save when it is obviously impractical for them to do so. But, given everything you have endured, I can well understand that you have different priorities. Not losing the freedoms you have gained being chief among them. To serve that end, you have several options."

    "Unlike in more liberal cities like Mel'dilo'rn, inter-colour marriage is prohibited here. As such, you could do what the Whites in Kriglo did and exile every non-White. But that creates its own problems. It dramatically reduces the city's population, and would most likely leave holes in your civic infrastructure which you couldn't fill, at least in the short term. And of course it means that if -when- the Planetary Council decide to send in Manhunters to return the city to the control of the people they think are the rightful rulers, they have no reason to stay their hand. They would consider you to all be in rebellion, and as such valid targets. And whatever you've experienced before is nothing to what a ruling caste will do to upstarts who have successfully resisted their control."

    "Mass executions are an option, but I would not recommend it. If a people know that they will die anyway, then they will fight to the last. And in the event that such a purge was successful, the Manhunter assault would be even more vengeful. And would you really want to kill people for having the wrong colour skin?"

    Fortunately, no one raises their hands to say 'yes'.

    "If you're really interested in improving the lot of White Martians on a planetary scale, I think that the most rational thing for you to do would be to establish a superior form of government. One which protects every citizen, and grants them the same opportunities-." A hand goes up. "Yes?"

    "White Martians represent approximately two fifths of the Martian population. If the delegates to an assembly were elected, three fifths of representatives would always outvote them. Which would leave us dependent on a tyrant-Prelate."

    "When I was in university, I heard a most fascinating guide to creating a fair society. A fair society is one which would be created by a person of reasonable intelligence who did not know what position they would occupy in it. Which brings us on to-" I point to the board. "-the judiciary. States which use this model have a document called a constitution. This is a document which sets out limits to the power of other offices, defining what sorts of laws they can create and which they can't, and is the duty of the most experienced judges to strike down laws passed by either the executive or the legislature which break these. So if everything is working properly and a law which -for example- says that White Martians can't use public parks is passed, and the constitution forbade colour-based discrimination, a conviction for breaking it could be appealed on that basis and the law expunged."

    "And this is where I think that you have an opportunity. If you create an egalitarian constitutional framework and actually grant equality to the other colours, you demonstrate that you can create a superior system to anything your Red overlords did. At the very least, you prove that you are capable of being reasoned with, and at most-."

    "They still have the fleet."

    "Yes, but the Greens on the fleet aren't mindless automata. They know that Whites all over Mars are demonstrating, and some of them are finding that their own faith in the Reds is wavering. They know that if you behave in a civilised manner and they are called in to crush you anyway, Whites all over Mars will abandon their peaceful demonstrations and take up arms, at tremendous cost to the Greens and Reds around them. They don't want that, and only a tiny minority of the Planetary Council are fanatical enough to push things to that point."

    I exhale. I literally can't read a martian crowd, but I'm hopeful that I'm getting through. The only other thing I could do would be use my god speech… But I'd rather not.

    "Okay." I wave my right hand. "Lecture over. I'll be available for questions whenever I'm free, but right now I think I need to go and talk to B'enn B'lanx."

    "Yes."

    I look up to see a White Martian in a golden body suit decorated with the red circle of the Hyperclan staring down at me.

    "I think that you should."
     
  6. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    8th January
    22:02 GMT


    T'Pexor leads the way across the city, and I notice that the few Green Martians out and about make a point of ducking out of our flight path when they spot… Us. Why would I-? Oh, of course, they think I'm a Karmang-modified Hyperclan member, and they can't check because I'm blocking every mental probe.

    "You spoke to Karmang."

    "Yes."

    "Did he instruct you to give that lecture on politics?"

    "No. I decided that was necessary on my own. There are a great many opportunities for this whole situation to go horribly wrong, and I think the best way to prevent that-."

    "Is kill Reds until they get a clue."

    "No. I accept that you might find that most satisfying, but that isn't the method that will result in White equality."

    He turns to face me without altering the direction of his flight. "Why would I be interested in equality?"

    "Because that's what the majority of your new followers want."

    "It's what they'll be satisfied with. They'd probably be satisfied with less. It's pathetic."

    "I'm going to assume that Karmang didn't give you supernatural charisma."

    We fly through a tunnel, those Greens making use of it shrinking back as we pass. Most of the Whites don't exactly seem overjoyed, either. T'Pexor is either oblivious, or… He's reading the atmosphere telepathically and doesn't consider it significant.

    "Karmang improved everything about me. He wanted to demonstrate that Reds aren't an inherently superior form of life. That Greens aren't better than us. So now I'm better, we're better than them."

    "I applaud your initiative. Can I assume that you've had the Guardian programming removed?"

    "We all have. Karmang insisted. And if he hadn't, I would."

    "Any lingering resentment towards the Guardians?"

    "I'm not happy with the mess they left, but all the power in the universe is pointless if you're a mindless beast. I'll leave them alone if they keep leaving us alone."

    Yes, I'm… Sure that the potential threat will terrify them.

    "Karmang ordered me to kill this city's leaders. What did he tell you?"

    "To stop B'enn B'lanx doing anything which will make negotiations harder."

    He stops in the air, and I have to stop as well so that I don't leave him behind. "Negotiations? What?"

    "His opening demand was for everyone in a position of authority to stand down and that he be recognised as planetary overlord so that he could sort things out on his own recognisance."

    "That would actually satisfy me. Not that they will comply."

    "I don't think the Reds he left alive to pass on his demands believed that he actually is Karmang."

    "We can always drag their bleeding carcasses to Z'onn Z'orr. That should convince them."

    Karmang mentioned that, but the name doesn't mean anything to me. "What's that?"

    "Karmang's school, laboratory, fortress. The ancient memoirs the Reds use to justify their domination describe it in detail."

    "Not a bad idea." He starts flying again, and I trail along behind him. "Though not the.. 'bleeding carcasses' bit. If things go that badly wrong taking them to your base of operations wouldn't be wise."

    "That's why Karmang doesn't usually perform field operations himself. But this is it. Our minds and souls are free, the Reds' lies exposed. The only way we can fail now is if we are too weak to seize the opportunity."

    "Or alienate so many of your followers by acting like a mass-murdering psychopath that they side with the council instead of with you. That might be why Karmang is making an offer at all."

    "His offer is the only result I would accept, the only result any member of the Hyperclan would accept. There's no point engaging with them."

    "Are you ready for all-out war?"

    "The Hyperclan was created for all-out war. I was looking forward to it." He makes a quiet hissing noise. "Karmang, negotiating with… This had better be a ploy."

    He accelerates, heading towards… Hm. Looks like a series of structures made out of the same shapeshifting living matter that the bioship is made of. One big organism or a series of connected smaller ones? Sinestro, any insight?

    I will remind you that the Martians were all but extinct before I entered my version of this system for the first time.

    Yes, but you have more experience with-.

    A life form like that would need an extremely decentralised neural network to function. And at that point, the difference between it being a single being and multiple interconnected ones is a matter of semantics.

    Fair enough.

    Through transparent membranes on the structure's exterior I can see plenty of White Martians and a few harried-looking Greens. Hm.

    "Where are you keeping the Reds?"

    "In isolation in the lowest part of the city."

    "No, not the surviving governing officials, the Red population."

    "Yes. That's who I mean." He lands, and I touch down a moment later. "We killed the governing officials."

    "I… Believe that the Red population was one… Seventh of this city's total population?"

    "Something like that. We can't let any out into the city because the Greens might rally around them. We can't spread them out because we only have so many telepathy disruptors." He leads the way inside the building, the armed Whites inside giving him looks that are significantly friendlier than those from the general population. "So in they go."

    "Would you consider moving them if more telepathy blockers were provided?"

    "Someone might. So long as they're kept out of my way. He's coming."

    "Hm?"

    Ahead of us, heavily armed Hunters gesture at the Greens at their workstations, causing them to step away and file out of the room. T'Pexor strides inside, and those Greens who had been heading towards this exit immediately back up and head to one of the others. Once they're out, Hunters take positions at every doorway. And only then does the martian of the hour deign to join us.

    B'enn B'lanx is a heavily built White Martian, wearing what I recognise as the heavily armoured version of the Manhunter uniform in the orange and green of the local militia. He's also carrying a telekinetic booster staff in his right hand like a sceptre.

    "T'Pexor, is this one of your Hyperclan allies?"

    "No, B'enn. An alien. Karmang has delivered a list of demands to the Planetary Council, and he wants to make sure we don't attack anyone before they refuse them."

    "A slight delay would be useful, as long as the Manhunters don't use it to shift their forces." He looks at me. "How long?"

    "No timeline was stated. Realistically, at least a couple of days."

    "Very well! Come, alien. I want to show you what we've been doing."
     
  7. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    8th January
    22:14 GMT


    Mister B'lanx oozes self-satisfaction as the captured warship in front of me gradually changes from blue to orange.

    "We overran the naval depot before they could get most of their ships in the air."

    T'Pexor gestures to a ship sitting in a docking cradle, tubes containing some sort of food slurry connected to several damaged parts. "My colleague L'atroma was able to bypass their anti-phasing shielding and assault the crew directly. It seems that Manhunters don't train for that."

    I nod. "They are more of a law enforcement organisation than a military."

    I look over to the tunnel to the exterior where the remains of one of the ships that did is being… What, salvaged? Stripped for raw material? They're living creatures, so… Are they edible? They wouldn't be cutting it up if it were possible to restore it. The labour crew is comprised of Greens, while a handful of armed Whites act as their overseers.

    "Yes." Mister B'lanx's tone conveys his distaste. "And now we must learn from their failure before they do." He extends his right arm towards another ship. "We're increasing their weapons loadout at the cost of habitation. I don't intend to send them on patrols, and the martians Karmang has freed don't have the same dependency on the proximity of others that other martians do."

    "Who do you intend to send them against?"

    "I had assumed that I would be sending them against the force the Manhunters would send to dislodge us. But if they're dithering, then I can use them to support a White uprising in another city."

    "Wouldn't that leave you vulnerable?"

    "We have good intelligence coming from fellow Whites in every city. My force would return here before anything the Planetary Council sent could reach us." He floats over the shipyard towards an area where a White Martian wearing the Hyperclan red circle is demonstrating the use of captured weapons to a group of other Whites. "And attacking the Manhunters' ships while they are separate and in dock will be far easier than destroying a unified fleet."

    True… "Do you have enough trained personnel to crew them?"

    "I was trained as an auxiliary before the last Prelate come into power and abolished the auxilia. All the other surviving auxiliaries are teaching volunteers now. Or forcibly extracting schematic patterns from the surviving Manhunters. They're not ready yet, but they will be by the time I'm ready to push things."

    "About Karmang's attempt to negotiate with the Planetary Council…"

    "I don’t see how that's relevant to me."

    "At the moment, he's the only person formally allied to the White Martian cause who can remove the Guardian programming. And given what happened at the monastery he attacked, I doubt that there will be other volunteers. If you want your followers to be able to live in low population conditions for prolonged periods of time, you need his support."

    "Or we could move the fleet as we go, basing it in friendly White-controlled cities. The only other benefit is immunity to rötschreck, and it is impractical to use fire on the surface. T'Pexor, what do you make of this?"

    "Karmang has millennia of wisdom guiding him. Regardless of the personal debt we owe to him, I do not believe that he would abandon the cause he founded for personal advancement or… Make a traitor's peace. But personally, I prefer war."

    "Why?"

    "Karmang has not had to live under the Reds and the Greens as we have. I do not think that he appreciates the value of wide scale violence for changing the minds of the martian species."

    "You want to change the Greens' minds?"

    "We're doing this to benefit White Martians everywhere. Even in cities which were not as oppressive as this one, White Martians suffer insults and violence not just from the government but from the Green and Red populations at large. The best way to stop that, the best way to make sure that they never forget what we can do, is to destroy their armies. To march into the cities they control and publically execute their leaders. That will teach them that they will suffer the same fate if they try to go back to their old habits far better than anything else we could try. Including having the Planetary Council peacefully passing power over to Karmang."

    Mister B'lanx stops in the air as he considers the point. "You may well be right. I know this little fight has made more of an impression on me than almost anything else I've done. And I suspect that the same is true for our Reds as well."

    I shake my head. "And then what? How do you intend to reorganise the planet when three fifths of a population is even more scared of you than two fifths are scared of the Planetary Council now?"

    "Why should I care?" He rises in the air, getting above local obstructions to get a clearer view of this part of the city. T'Pexor and I follow him. "I'll keep this city. Rule it myself, in the interests of my fellow Whites. We're already integrating the Greens with essential skills into our government, and training Whites to fulfil every necessary role."

    "And the rest of the planet?"

    "I'll attack anywhere that oppresses Whites, but beyond that I don't really care."

    "Your Red prisoners?"

    "Why are you so interested?"

    "I'm trying to understand your reasoning, and to make sure that you've thought this through. These are weighty issues, and a leader needs to give it due consideration. Will they be allowed to live here-?"

    "No. No. Once the matter is decided, I will either exile them to another city or have them build a new city for themselves and leave them to their own devices."

    "I am prepared to offer them a place of exile now." The Psion Wombworld isn't much to look at, but even after the bombardment it's a more hospitable place than Mars. "If you simply want them taken off your hands. I can ensure that they will not return for the duration of the conflict."

    "No, they're useful to me where they are now. And I'm positively giddy at the idea of forcing them to do the same work they forced us to do. I certainly won't send them to a friendly land merely for the convenience of being rid of them."

    "You're not worried about an escape, or a rescue attempt?"

    "Fire might not be much use on the surface, but their prison has enough incendiaries that any attempt by them to leave would be… Immolatorially stupid."

    "I see."

    Reminds me a little of the ending of Small Gods. Vorbis dies, and Brutha takes his body to the leaders of the invading army and surrenders Omnia. He offered to pay reparations for Omnia's prior actions, to return territory they'd seized and to disarm the nation… Only for the Omnian army to form up on the edge of the beach anyway, and the invaders to form up to fight them despite the whole fight being rendered completely unnecessary. Karmang isn't Brutha, but he honestly hated those priests and he still didn't kill most of them. J'onn believed that the only reason that the Planetary Council weren't openly talking about making some fairly significant concessions was fear of the uprising, and B'enn seems set on proving their worst fears right.

    "If that's your final word, I will inform Karmang. Could I give him some idea of how long he has?"

    "If the Manhunters don't move first, I want to move on Mal'ren'ranna in ten days. The fighting there was inconclusive, but the Manhunter garrison has few ships."

    "I understand. I'll leave you to your preparations."

    "Yes. Go. It would be helpful if Karmang saw things my way. I disagree with his approach, but I have a great deal of respect for him. All White Martians who truly know him do."

    I nod politely. "I will be certain to pass that on."

    Mother Box, hush tube.

    Ping.

    8th January
    17:18 GMT -5


    I step out into the Hall of Justice, shaking my head as J'onn looks around.

    "Not good. I think I'm going to need to borrow M'gann."
     
  8. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    8th January
    22:33 GMT


    A decidedly worried M'gann is already crossing the room towards the huddle of White Martians as I step out of the hush tube. Several start backing up immediately, but one of them steps forwards and… They're having a telepathic conversation. A moment passes and everyone simultaneously turns to look at me for a second, then returns their attention to her.



    Maybe I should have brought a G-Gnome along or something. I can let one of them through my shield without letting other people through, probably due to them not really being 'people'. Or perhaps due to them being my.. employees. Or vassals.

    One of the Whites shifts into a somewhat more humanoid shape, then walks closer to M'gann. The rest of the Whites turn and walk out, except one who heads my way. He stops quite close to me and looks up at my face.



    "If you're trying to talk to me telepathically, it won't work. I block everything."

    He blinks, then his neck bulges slightly as he gives himself the ability to speak. "That sounds lonely."

    The voice is… Slightly high pitched, chirpy? I'd guess young female, but I'm working off human norms there.

    "Most species in this galaxy don't have telepathy. Most people ever born will never have their mind directly touched by another."

    "Oh. I… I can't imagine it."

    I smile. "Not a fan of Mister J'aarkn's work? He had direct contact with-" The martian in front of me cringes. "-a great many humans-."

    "I… Ah… Wasn't.. watching his work for the social commentary."

    "That's a shame. He struck me as a rather thorough man. But what did you want to talk to me about?"

    "T'ronn told us that you were the one who made M'gann into a Red Martian. Is that true?"

    "No, it-. That's a rather dramatic oversimplification. Reds are what martians look like when they don't have Guardian programming compelling them to look Green or White. I am capable of removing the programming, I just… Well, initially, I only knew two martians and only one of them was interested. Later on, when the demonstrations started in earnest I didn't want to add fuel to the fire." No, come on, be honest. "Or spend the rest of my life breaking the mental bonds imprisoning your species. I'd have to do each of you individually and frankly I've got better things to do."

    "I see." He blinks. "Ah..?"

    "You want me to do you."

    "Ah… Yes."

    I extend my left hand in benediction. "You have to really want it."

    "I do."

    "No, look." I clench my left fist and point to my ring's sigil. "This ring's powers are dependent on avarice. I wanted to help M'gann. You?" I shrug. "I'm indifferent. So you have to want it. For at least a few minutes, becoming free has to be the most important thing in your life."

    "Free..? From the Red Martians?"

    "From any impediment preventing you from coming fully into the power that is your right, be it from the Red Martians, the Guardians-" Other Whites. "-or your own fears and weaknesses. You must single-mindedly want it. Your single-minded desire must-."

    "I don't think I can.. do that?"

    I shrug and lower my left fist, raising my right in its place. "This one runs on fear. I could create a circle of fire around you, if that would be easier?"

    "Ah..?" He backs up. "No, that… Sorry I-? Bothered you." He backs up more, nearly bumping into M'gann and T'ronn on his way out.

    M'gann sighs. "Grayven, he was forty two. That wasn't necessary."

    "It was if I don't want every member of the local resistance bugging me to remove their programming. And I didn't lie-"

    "Ping."

    "-to-." Hm. "No, I don't think that would work on a martian. Might be worth considering later, though."

    T'ronn stares at Mother Box. "Why do I understand what the box meant by 'ping'?"

    "Martians use telepathic biotechnology. New Gods like myself use arcanotechnology; it speaks to the soul." I regard him carefully, but he hasn't had enough contact with humans or M'gann to have internalised the body language yet. "Do you understand the situation?"

    "B'enn B'lanx wants all out war. And you want me to prevent it... Somehow."

    "Sort of. I don't know enough about Mars or Martian society. I just need… Someone who could plausibly take a leading role. Someone who was at least known to White resistance organisers. I was going to ask M'gann to do it, but apparently you're the man of the hour."

    "I.. wouldn't go that far. It was all just-."

    "Just spontaneous, yes, I know, that's why it's so frustrating." Honestly, if Apokoliptians were this badly organised Father wouldn't have needed to bother with Grace. "But that doesn't matter. In a situation like this, where no one has legitimacy or even knows what legitimacy looks like, leaders are the ones who lead. B'enn B'lanx is leading. Karmang is leading. And I've got no idea who else -if anyone- is doing the same thing."

    "Hundreds of White organisers. I mean, what we were doing was illegal in a lot of places, so we had to be careful. But I know a lot of names and-. Well, fake names, but I could get in touch with them."

    "Could you get them together in one place?"

    "What? Now?" I nod. "No? Travel is restricted, and the organisers I know are too busy organising local groups to do anything… Wide scale."

    "I can teleport them, you, or anyone else. And to the best of my knowledge no one on Mars can track hush tubes. The White leadership needs to agree on a broadly unified position and nominate a spokesman who can deal with the Planetary Council. There doesn't need to be a leader-" Though there should be, and probably will be. "-just someone who can speak for Whites. Because if there isn't a reasonable person, all they'll hear is B'enn B'lanx."

    "Maybe they want to hear B'enn B'lanx."

    M'gann looks scandalised. "T'ronn!"

    "I've… There are a lot of angry Whites out there, M'gann. And I.. was.. speaking to them, meeting them. We got things thrown at us because Mum and Dad were different colours in Mel'dilo'rn. And our city's supposed to be liberal. I've met Martians in our position whose neighbours mindscoured them."

    M'gann gasps quietly.

    I shrug. "Do you think that things will be better if you have a worldwide civil war?"

    "No, but convincing people to calm down-."

    "I'm not saying 'calm down', I'm saying 'channel your rage productively'. Come up with a list of demands they can address, give them someone they can negotiate with. Because if you don't, B'enn B'lanx will be making the running."

    He thinks for a moment.

    "Can you teleport me to places now?"

    "Yes."

    "I'll need to talk to a lot of people to set this up. The first place we should go is probably…"
     
  9. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    9th January
    06:21 GMT


    I look out across the gathered crowd from what might generously be called the 'backstage' area. I offered to let T'ronn use Challenger Mountain -the post room is big enough- but he correctly pointed out that having a lot of White leaders suddenly disappear from the Martian mindscape wouldn't be a good idea. Kriglo was suggested, but rejected on the grounds that that would imply that the majority supported segregation. Plus, more than a few of the more moderate leaders weren't sure that they'd be safe there. And I tend to agree. I mean, if it came to it I'd grudgingly show them my memory of Karmang as proof that I'm doing his work, but if that isn't good enough for someone like T'Pexor then I've got no idea how much attention the rest would pay to it.

    In the end, one of the better connected members of the extended network actually made a formal request to their own city government, and as a result this whole thing is happening in an enclosed amphitheatre in the city of Pa'leve'ria. There's a.. certain level of Manhunter presence outside, but they're keeping a reasonable distance. Pa'leve'ria is supposed to be fairly egalitarian, though in their case it's more due to the low overall population than any actual political decision.

    I watch as the various organisers and their parties mingle. Some are speaking out loud, but the majority are communicating telepathically. I assume. For me this is like watching a film with the sound off. Even so, there's one thing I can't help but notice.

    "M'gann, is this.. really an all-White affair? Even when race relations were at their worst on Earth, there were generally a few people from the dominant groups who protested against the worst examples of poor treatment."

    "No, it's not. There are Greens taking part, at least in the peaceful demonstrations. And there were a few Reds, until…"

    I bow my head slightly. "Until the Hyperclan started targeting them to reinforce the 'us versus them' mentality."

    "In.. some places. Not everyone-. In the places where discrimination was really bad, quite a lot of Reds were against it. Just.. not a majority. But… Sometimes… The White demonstrators were really angry…"

    I nod. The IQ of a mob is the IQ of the least intelligent member, divided by the number of participants. They weren't acting in their own long term interests because none of them were thinking long term.

    "And in places like my city where it's not so bad… I guess they find it harder to get so angry about."

    I nod again. "Sure, some people attack Whites, but that's already illegal…"

    "Right." She pauses for a moment, gathering her thoughts. "My parents showed up to the early demonstrations, but… They've got jobs. My brothers and sisters come sometimes, and a lot of other Greens from mixed families. But… This has been going on for months." She shakes her head. "There were more when it started, but it's hard to keep up that level of commitment. Especially when no one knows what the Manhunters are going to do."

    "Remind me: are you actually a Manhunter?"

    "I'm… Technically an auxiliary."

    "Which means..?"

    "In Mel'dilo'rn it means I'm a Manhunter but they couldn't make it official because I was White. In other places it would mean I was.. just some girl, and they might trust me to sweep the floors. Since I became Red, no one knows what it means."

    "Can Reds become Manhunters?"

    "There's no rule against it. It would be… Unusual. And that's assuming that I even count as a proper Red."

    "So you can become a Red and not count as a Red? You're getting mis… Coloured? That's ridiculous."

    "Changing color just.. hasn't been possible for most of our history. It's sort of possible to pretend, but that only works until someone looks at your memories. Faking memories for the length of time it would take to pass any sort of detailed scan, it's…" She shakes her head. "Something that only happens in fiction. And besides, I'm not exactly a Red. As far as I know, all the Reds still have Guardian programming."

    Hm. I'm not so sure. "It would be interesting to see how many Sorcerer Priests have removed their own. They may not be Karmang, but now they know what to look for…"

    "That's…" She looks decidedly uncomfortable, then realises something. "Are you projecting?"

    "Gosh, no. I wouldn't keep something like this secret. If it was me in charge, I'd have sorcerers processing the entire population just as fast as I could. But… I admit, artificially limiting the franchise would be a perfectly Apokoliptian thing to do."

    Mother Box, other than Canis Major… Have any Lowlies made the jump? I don't mean.. all the way to the Elite, but just to full New God power?

    Ping.

    No, I suppose that you wouldn't. And on New Genesis?

    Ping.

    That's not really the same thing. They choose that life. The Lowlies of the Armagetto don't. I thought… Perhaps Father's hold isn't strong enough to guarantee they all

    Ping.

    I suppose-.

    M'gann's eyes light up. "T'ronn is about to start."

    I nod, looking out across the chamber as T'ronn appears and takes to the stage, the crowd gradually turning to look at him. "Do we need to be there?"

    "No. We'd just make things more complicated."

    I watch for a moment… And I'm not hearing anything. Of course.

    "How's he doing?"

    "Huh? Oh. It's just opening remarks at the moment. We won't know if there are any fundamental problems until… Do you know about the Assembly of Minds?"

    "No, what's that? Some sort of gestalt-telepathy?"

    "Kind of. It's the highest court of M'arzz, but people aren't.. appointed to it. Creating one requires a certain number of police, judges, government officials and probation specialists, and a case that actually requires that sort of investigation. When they work, the people involved share their knowledge and skills with each other, but it isn't.. strictly a gestalt. Everyone is still.. themselves. It's not easy to do it right; learning how to do that properly is part of the training for any of the offices that can be called upon to join in."

    I frown. "If it needs special training-?"

    "There are.. things like that which most martians can do. Letting ideas flow telepathically rather than transmitting directly or broadcasting. Unless anyone has a real objection to it that's almost certainly what they're going to do." She blinks. "Huh."

    "What?"

    "You didn't say you left people in Xan'Xie."

    "Y.. es..? Is there a problem?"

    "No. Lord Cyprian has apparently made quite an impression on the locals. And so did you."

    "I was just talking about the reason behind certain types of government structure. None of that will really be relevant at this stage." I chuckle. "Though I know that human meetings like this can get off track very easily."

    "We don't really have any experience of other forms of government. I probably know more due to my time on Earth than anyone here."

    "No offence intended, but it would probably be better if we sent some people to talk to human political theorists later, rather than relying-." Her head whips around, staring through the exterior wall. "What?"

    "The local Manhunters are backing off."

    "Is that a..? Problem?"

    "Something's not right." Her eyes fade and she flies towards the exit. "We need to find out what's going on."
     
  10. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    9th January
    06:26 GMT


    Streets… Streets are clear. Sinestro?

    An image of the local area appears in front of me. Huh. The cordon is still there, but it's a good deal further back. The surrounding buildings have been emptied out too. That might just be a security measure…

    M'gann frowns at my construct. "That's not what they agreed."

    "There might have been an alert of some kind."

    She raises her right hand to the side of her head and focuses, turning slowly in the air as she scans the Manhunter positions. "They don't know why they've been pulled back."

    I nod. "Which is bad for us, because it means that they're trying to conceal it from your telepathy, whereas if it were something legitimate they wouldn't have any cause to."

    "Can you bring in any more help?"

    "I've already got drones here. They're in stealth mode right now, but if you think a display of force in potentia would be helpful..?"

    "Not yet." She takes a small martian device off her belt. Ah, a martian long distance telepathic communicator. "Put me through to the Prelate's office now."

    Hm. I don't have a swarm of Construct Lanterns I could send out to probe the area. I could boom tube Orange Lanterns into the city, but they wouldn't know anything about the situation. Heck, I don't know exactly what's going on. I instruct one squadron to spread out to get a better feel for the area.

    "M'gann M'orzz. Why have the Manhunters around the theater pulled back?"

    She's speaking out loud for my benefit. The actual communication is transmitted from the.. brain in her hand to another like it in the government building. Routing should be automatic; the city authorities know that we're here. They're the ones who gave permission. I doubt that martians are immune to the occasional miscommunication, but this looks deliberate. Someone they believed had authority to do so gave an order.

    "Then order them back into position. The fate of our entire world depends on this meeting!"

    I'm pretty sure that she doesn't have the authority to make demands of whoever it is that she's talking to. But she's right: if a government official accepts an obligation and then welshes it renders them completely untrustworthy. You go from civil meetings in hotels to meetings in armed camps at best. Parts of the galaxy use hostage exchanges to make meetings like this happen. You'd have to be some sort of short sighted idiot to try something here. If this is a betrayal, that undermines everything I'm working to build here!

    M'gann looks around, eyes shining and jaw taut. "Then find someone who can, and get them to do it." She puts the communicator back on her belt.

    "Do we need to.. bypass the system?"

    "Not yet. Can your ring scan further out?"

    I nod. Sinestro?

    My construct glitches, then zooms outward. The city… Well, I've never been here before but nothing.. sticks out as being out of the ordinary. I dismiss the construct and increase power to my aero discs, rising higher into the air. Can't see the entire city from here… Can't see anyone. There are a few floating buoys to mark where the Manhunter cordon should be…

    I reach up and lower my goggles over my eyes. Not.. a lot different. Almost all Martians can go invisible, but since they're almost all telepathic they don't usually bother. Manhunters are over there… I take a moment to check the tunnel entry points.

    "Anything?"

    "No. No, not yet." Nothing, nothing… "You?"

    She floats up to join me. "Not yet. But it could take hours to find the right official."

    "I can open a hush tube to the officer in charge of the picket if you want to interrogate them in person."

    She shakes her head. "I'd want more evidence that something was actually wrong before assaulting my superior officer."

    "I thought J'onn was your superior officer."

    "He's my.. supervising officer while I'm on Earth. Because the Manhunters are usually more of a policing organisation than a military, the command structure is geographic. While I'm in this city, I report to this city's command structure."

    I suppose that makes sense. "S'yrra mentioned a 'Marshal'..?"

    "The Marshal's office is there to coordinate between them. Some investigations go through more than one city, someone needs to make sure that useful innovations which occur in one city are copied by the Manhunter forces in other cities. And sometimes someone in a city's government is suspected of malfeasance, they're the ones who organise the investigation."

    I look around again, becoming a little more concerned. "So there's a mechanism for bypassing local command and control?"

    "Yes? We're not immune to corruption."

    "If such an investigation were underway… What visible signs would there be?"

    "I… Don't really know." She looks around as well, her shapeshifting armour growing notably thicker and extending over her head. "But I imagine that no one in local government would know what the Manhunters were doing."

    "And what sort of forces does the Marshal -who S'yrra informed me was preparing for an imminent counterattack against the White uprising- have under their command?"

    "Anything he could requisition." She pulls her communicator off her belt. "M'gann M'orzz to City Commander R'oh K'arr."

    "Who?"

    "Uncle' J'onn's superior. Sort of." Her eyes flicker as someone on the other end picks up. "Sir, I need to know if the Marshal has requested additional forces for an internal review."

    I look around again. Sinestro, any ships incoming?

    No, Lantern Grayven. All ships are within the confines of their original patrol routes. Two are close enough to this city to support an attack, but neither appear inclined to do so.

    Did the locals jump the gun? Were they supposed to wait until the largest possible number of ships were in the area, then pull out as those ships suddenly received simultaneous new orders?

    "Sir, I'm overseeing a peace conference of White Martian community leaders. If the Marshal has sent those ships to Pa'leve'ria without a very good reason you need to call them back now."

    So where's this sodding attack coming fro-?

    I look up, and see a faint shimmer near the roof of the cavern. Sinestro?

    As far as I can tell, there's nothing there. So either your soul is playing up, or someone is using magic.

    I draw my daiklave and create a fusion cannon construct on my left arm. Now, there could be a perfectly good reason for that shimmer-.

    Another shimmering area appears right next to it.

    "M'gann, ceiling."

    I hold up my right hand and send a weak wave of energy upwards. As it reaches the shimmering area it bends and distorts-. No you don't. This could fuck up everything. SHOW ME.

    Something… Breaks, and for a moment I see the forms of four Martian patrol ships appear above us, main guns orientated on the theatre!
     
  11. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    9th January
    06:30 GMT

    GAAAAAAAGHHHH!
    A rocket pack construct appears on my back, thrusting me into the gun's arc of fire, fusion cannon construct evaporating as I lose my fear-focus. The ships vanish again, and in my mind's eye I see the gun's internals glowing as the cannons prepare to fire, the intensity of my desire to stop these fucking idiots making forming a construct shield unusually eas-.

    The guns start firing. Given what M'gann said, these are almost certainly police vessels rather than true warships, but they're policing vessels from a planet where everyone is a telepathic shapeshifting telekine. Heavy bolts of plasma ram into the shield and then detonate! And it's cracking!

    "AND YOU'RE ALL A BUNCH OF FUCKING, SELF-DEFEATING IDIOTS!"

    And the shield knits back together slightly but they're still shooting!

    "I'M TRYING TO KEEP YOUR CIVILISATION FUNCTIONING AND THIS IS NOT HELPING!"

    Another shot, and some sort of chain reaction occurs in the cloud of superheated hydrogen ions building up on the far side of my shield construct, forcing me back. No, no. You don't get to do this to me. No trigger happy prat gets to ruin my work.

    I Construct The Great Machine.

    Bright orange tron lines flare across my construct, damage erased and construct strength redoubled. And I.. feel it, feel the construct. Mother Box what's happening?

    Ping.

    Theoretically, yes. But I've never done it before.

    Ping.

    Yes, you're right, it would be.

    "M'gann!"

    "No one's answering!"

    "Make a decision, M'gann! Either you dissuade them or I kill them!"

    Someone takes a shot at her, and she ducks behind my construct shield. Wonderful, with gunnery like that this whole area is going to get levelled! Another set of guns open up-. Still invisible. Magic, great. I still don't know what the total level of force the Marshal is using is, and I don't really want to slaughter them all if there's an alternative…

    Who can I call in who doesn't need to be briefed from scratch?

    Ring, contact Lantern Komand'r.

    By your command.

    A bust of Komand'r forms over my ring. "Grayven, are you finished with those wretched Martians?"

    "No, and I'm afraid that I need your assistance. I'm opening a hush tube to your location. I need you to come here and wreck some ships for me."

    "Whose?"

    I still can't see them, but from the changes in the arcs of fire I'm guessing that the patrol ships are manoeuvring to allow more of their number to phase through the roof. Maintain the shield, maintain the shield.

    I Direct The Great Machine.

    "Martian Manhunters. Some idiot's given them an attack order."

    "So you're attacking them?"

    "Only until they stop. Then I hunt down and savagely assault the one who gave the order." I glance M'gann's way. "Any progress!?"

    "I'm trying to force them to think about fire, but something's blocking me!"

    "They're veteran Manhunters! They've probably got better shield-!"

    "No, it's not that! I am making contact, it's just not-"

    Karmang isn't the only one who studied the broadcast in detail. All of the Sorcerer Priests had the same opportunity. The fact that the one I spoke to was sniffy about the whole thing doesn't mean that the rest were. Or that they'd mind removing the restrictions from Green volunteers.

    "-doing anything."

    There's a brief delay in the shooting, and every gun fires at the same point on my barrier. Yes, nice try, constructs don't work like that.

    "Anything from R'oh K'arr?!"

    "The ships aren't responding to him!"

    Circe knows how to remove the restrictions, but I never bothered showing her how to reinstate them. I could reinstate them on a case by case basis… Probably. But that's no use in a situation like this.

    "I'm ready. Send the tube now."

    Ping.

    Komand'r's bust disappears from my ring as the woman herself appears next to me, a sort of slimmed down Okaaran-style armour construct covering her body. A second to get her bearings, then she stares in the direction of the incoming fire. "I can't see-"

    I take a pair of goggles out of subspace and hold them out to her with my left hand. Empower the Loyal Vassal.

    "-them." She takes the goggles without looking around and pulls them over her face. "I'm just getting a blur."

    "Yeah, they're good at hiding."

    "These caves are a sealed environment."

    "If they didn't want to risk holes getting shot in the walls, they shouldn’t have started a fight here. Get those ships down."

    She smiles cruelly. "Happily."

    Komand'r darts around my barrier then shoots towards them, purple-orange light billowing from her hands. Looking past her I see… Smaller.. shimmers, appearing from the far side of the larger ones.

    "M'gann, infantry!"

    I'm… Not good at splitting my attention when I use a ring. And while this shield construct is tough, it can't take an unlimited amount of damage.

    M'gann turns her helmet-covered head my way. "Grayven, I-. They're not bad people-."

    "They are today. Make a decision, M'gann."

    She stares at the oncoming fire for a moment, a few shots from infantry-carried small arms adding to the weight of it.

    "This is how you feel all the time, isn't it? You try to fix things and everyone just-."

    I sheathe my daiklave and draw my sidearm. A pifflingly weak thing compared to what I could do with a construct, but it can harm phased targets. "Epiphanise later, M'gann!"

    [​IMG]

    "But if they want Grayven-" Her body thins and elongates, a… Her outer surface shimmers. "-then they can have Grayven."

    M'gann lunges at the concealed infantry in full Burning Martian mode as Komand'r smashes into the closest patrol ship!
     
  12. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    9th January
    06:33 GMT


    I'm not sure whether I should feel proud or insulted.



    Ah, who am I trying to kid? It's pride all the way.

    Standard complement for a patrol boat is twenty. Standard rules of engagement require four to stay on board. Ships have two main guns, so there are at least six shooting at me right now.

    Main guns that have surprisingly limited arcs of fire, which is why Komand'r just tore through another without being shot.

    Another blur descends through the ceiling and starts shooting at me. Shield's fading a little. I can't take this indefinitely.

    So there are around a hundred Manhunters taking positions in an urban environment, quite possibly in constant telepathic contact with one another. Armed and trained, but probably not that experienced in actual warfare because Mars has been at peace since unification.

    And M'gann is good at what she does, and she's got more relevant experience than they do. But she isn't up to taking on a hundred of them. Frankly I'm a little surprised-.

    There's a concerted push against my mental shields. Nothing that I can't hold off. Yet, at least. J'onn specifically noted that M'gann was unusually powerful and I can hold her off. But a hundred, and at least a few of those are probably specialists. Need more help.

    **Hu-?**

    Ring, contact Circe.

    By your command.

    "Hello, Grayven. How is the peace conference?"

    "Under attack. By troops with magic defences. Are you available?"

    "I'm not really dressed for war-" There's a small explosion in the general direction of where M'gann went, and I… Think I see bodies. "-but if it's urgent..?"

    "I've got a giant shield up. You just need to counter their invisibility spells. And I know you can don your armour with a word."

    Komand'r starts to come under fire from the Martian infantry, and-. Her constructs are fading a little as she weaves through the air.

    "Komand'r, fall back."

    "I can manage."

    "… little more fragile since I returned most of my power to Hecate."

    "Komand'r, you've done enough damage and now they're focusing on you. I've got magic users and telepaths who can support you, but they're not here yet. Circe, you don't work for me, and if you're really concerned I can have the G-Trolls bring in mobile force field generators." Which I would be doing next anyway, because the Apokoliptian in me is demanding that I find the prat running this show and rearrange their face hard enough that they won't be able to shapeshift it back. Now, with Jean accompanying the children, Mortalla will be on Challenger Mountain's desk. "Mother, please arrange a group of G-Gnomes for telepathic defence work and get a pack of G-Elves to bring though a building-scale reactive shield system."

    "At once, Grayven."

    I'd wince at her instinctive obedience, but in a situation like this it really helps things along. Circe.

    "And please see if you can get hold of J'onn J'onzz, and get him to visit the Manhunter Marshal."

    "I will.. ask."

    BOOM!

    Four boom tubes open at ground level beneath me, G-Trolls lumbering through with equipment strapped to their backs and glowing faintly blue from the aura of the environmental shield emitters they're wearing. Next come the G-Elves, snatching the emitters and sensors from the backs of their larger kin and-

    Komand'r retreats back behind my barrier, blind firing behind her as she goes.

    -spreading them out facing the incoming attack, scrambling up the front of the building to get them in position.

    "Their telepathy was weak. I've endured far worse. Where are your telepaths?"

    I point down to where a G-Troll is carrying more than the standard load of G-Gnomes. "They're not physically resilient, but if you extend your construct armour around them-."

    "Fine."

    Circe precipitates out of the air next to me. "It isn't fun to tease you when you're actually focused like this. You ignore half of it."

    Komand'r frowns at her for a half-second, then dives towards the G-Gnomes.

    "You can tease me later. The spells-."

    "I'm not sure that orange Amazon would like that." Her eyes unfocus slightly. "Yes, I see. Invisibility and scry wards bound up into a spell which looks like it's supposed to-."

    "Yes, you're very clever. Can you end it?"

    "Oh please. A simple twist and the caster-"

    Three wrecked patrol ships appear, crashed into buildings across this cavern. Five more are still in the air above us, holding fire for the moment. And the Manhunters…

    "-becomes the only one befuddled by their work."

    Fire teams have formed, groups of three moving through the city with their guns trying to cover every angle while another hangs back with eyes glowing. Then I see M'gann rise up behind a support and grab him around the head.

    "KKGGGHHAAAARRR!"

    She tosses him aside and flies at his squad as they turn, bending around or phasing through their shots. One lowers his gun and a lump of debris flies at her from her right only for her to turn, grab it and push off it into the one telekinetically throwing it at her. She stabs him in the chest with her claws before phasing underground as the two remaining members of the squad try to draw a bead on her. When she doesn't reappear one starts to go to check on the optimistic telekine, only to stop and look back at the squad's other member. A moment later they both fly upward to deny her an angle of attack with cover…

    And I watch as she makes a pop out attack against another squad a city block away. She doesn't appear to be exactly going for kill-shots, but I can see where there are bodies on the ground and they're not all moving. I've got no idea what's going on telepathically… Shouldn't they be able to co-ordinate better than this?

    "Thank you, Circe."

    There's a faint hum as the shield generators go live, and I allow my construct barrier to drop. That provokes a round of focused fire, the force fields… Well, they handle it. They're not constructs, and we'll probably need to scrap most of them once this is over, but the sudden hope of our attackers has been dashed. What next? I see the Manhunter lines shift, abandoning ground level and turning to focus on M'gann's last known position.

    "G-Gnomes, project fire." Drones, fire to disable.

    A wave of small grey heads come up, focusing on the Manhunters as their horns light up. The Manhunters… Don't collapse, they're almost certainly trained to resist telepathic attack, but there's a definite unease in their ranks. Purple beams flash out from my drones, those Manhunters hit staggering and slumping.

    Komand'r returns to my level, a G-Gnome on each shoulder. "Komand'r, would you be so good as to transmute the air around their position to methane?"

    "If you insist." She holds out her left hand, orange light strobing through their ranks. Another flicker of unease, but methane is odourless. "Are we accepting their surrender?"

    "If they all surrender. We don't have the facilities for prisoners like them." That should do it. "Ignite, if you please."
     
  13. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    9th January
    06:36 GMT


    I switch from focusing on my orange ring to focusing on my yellow one as the wave of fire ripples through the centre of the Manhunter formation, expanding as more oxygen is sucked into the methane cloud. Given how tough martians are, neither the force nor the heat are all that dangerous. Rationally, I'm sure that they appreciate that. Given that they're martians and they were getting images of fire telepathically shoved into their brains just before it happened, that doesn't matter.

    "Komand'r, with me. Finish off the patrol ship."

    Mother Box.

    Ping.

    I'm not happy about it either. They forced this on me. Hush tube.

    Ping.

    The tron lines on my armour turn yellow as I step through the hush tube into the centre of their formation, a construct knockoff of Kalibak's beta club appearing in each hand. Since killing them isn't the principal aim.

    The closest Manhunters turn to face me almost immediately, guns rising and telekinetic force pushing against me. But they're still off-kilter, and my environmental shield flares as I head for the closest. He drops in the air to get away, falling backwards without a moment's hesitation, plasma bolts from his gun splashing off my environmental shield.

    Two of them, anyway. Distracted by the now dying fires and having to shift mental gears to cope with me, he can't quite fly away faster with telekinesis than I can fly closer with ring and aero discs. My right club takes him in the X of his armour, the nerve stimulation effect working just as well on his living body armour as on the martian wearing it. With a closed helmet and no mouth he can't cry out in pain, but he loses his grip on his weapon and goes from controlled downwards flight to a plummet.

    Above me Komand'r and her G-Gnome passengers fly at the highest surviving patrol ship. One of the Manhunters screening it phases as her energy pulse intersects with his chest. The one on his right isn't quite so quick and is thrown back, armour smouldering and flaking at the site of the impact. The G-Gnome's horns start glowing to protect Komand'r mind as she generates a positron beam projector construct and fires it at the patrol ship. Martian warships use telekinetic shields which might well have been able to block that, but these are simple patrol ships. The beam flicks out, a thin line in the patrol ship's side exploding as the positrons explosively neutralise the electrons in the beam's path.

    Purple beams from my drones slash across the cavern as I switch direction, flying back towards a couple of Manhunters who were trying their luck at shooting my back. The one on my left folds around my club and then falls from the air, but the one on the right… Compacts slightly, and flies away at speed. A little unsteadily I note, but… Insulated nerves? Good reactions there.

    Mother Box, boom tube them to the Planetary Council chamber.

    Ping.

    Boom!

    The tube aperture appears just in front of him. He halts almost immediately, but a wide area energy blast to the back knocks him past the threshold. Fastest way to get someone in authority to be aware of the situation. Maybe they'll even take action before I have to forcibly disable every Manhunter here.

    What a polite euphemism, Lantern Grayven.

    Yes. It is.

    While I dealt with the runner, Komand'r has attracted a great deal of fire. She tries taking a shot at another patrol ship, but she neglects to shield her gun and the construct breaks. She grimaces, turns towards the densest concentration of Manhunters and makes a flicking gesture…

    Releasing her Construct Lanterns. Citadelian infantry for the most part, those who died in their armour manifesting still wearing it.

    "Kill for Komand'r!"

    Construct manifestations of the guns and melee weapons they died carrying have appeared along with the armour, only… They don't appear to be separate, but rather merged with the hands that carried them. The guns fire, forcing the Manhunters into evasive flight patterns to avoid getting shot. Others make for the fallen ship, presumably to recover any survivors. Can't be having that.

    As Komand'r fires again I boost towards the fallen ship. Martian ships don't use volatile fuels so there isn't any risk of a secondary explosion, but those on board probably got a decent burst of gamma radiation in addition to the heat and kinetic force. If they survived, they'll require medical attention for that to continue being the case.

    The rear first responder looks around a half-second before my left club construct hits him in the neck. No clever tricks with his nervous system, just an uncontrolled tumble out of the air. His closest comrade drops his gun and shifts his arms into two masses of razor-tipped tentacles, firing them at me. I ignore them in favour of closing the distance, so-. Ow. The tips pass through my environmental shield with a faint ripple, embedding themselves in my armour. Except for the one which nearly missed and cut a thin line across my chin. Telekinetically augmented razor claws. Good effort.

    I dismiss my right club and grab a bundle, the few razors facing my palm failing to pierce my gauntlet. I yank, and the Manhunter is pulled into range-.

    He pulls his other tentacle cluster back into his body, using the extra mass to create a heavily clawed arm which he thrusts at my face! I smash my remaining club into the side of it, knocking it off course. No apparent effect from the nerve stimulation. I don't really want to start using an agony matrix, not against people who are merely ignorant

    Right hand grab new limb, pull and release as new blades form along its length, strike the helmet with the club. Down goes the Manhunter. Below us, one Manhunter tries to telekinetically lift a section of the ship-

    I shoot him in the back with an energy pulse.

    -while the other two prepare to receive my charge. One matches what his quick-thinking colleague tried and changes his limbs into whip-tendrils studded with razors, while the other focuses his eyes and-

    Uhh.

    -nearly stops me with a telekinetic hold but doesn't due to him getting an energy pulse to the face. I then use a construct shield to block one whip strike, pull myself around another before using the club's concussive force function to blast the clever dick in the helmet. Purely kinetic force, nothing clever going on, but it sends him hard into the side of the crashed patrol ship. I lunge, club meeting martian tor-.

    My hand stops in the air as the Manhunter I shot first points his right hand at my left. His hand is trembling and that's really all I need. Construct power armour appears around my arm, his fears about being unable to stop me making it impossible for him to stop me. His comrade sort of hisses in shock before going limp, then I shoot the outstretched arm with a low power energy pulse.

    "Who is in command here!?"

    He raises his other hand, only for me to shoot that as well.

    "Who is in command-!?"

    They communicate with telepathy. He probably can't hear anything outside of his helmet. Fine. I land and stalk closer, grabbing the helmet with both hands and pulling. The helmet comes apart, vital fluid from the armour leaking from the pieces and the neck of the armour. The martian inside stares at me in obvious terror.

    "Who is in command here!?"

    He stares-. Telepathy.

    "Make a mouth and speak!"

    His lower jaw shifts and he hurries to obey-. "Die inFire!"

    Right, a dedicated professional with a cause. Just being scary won't be enough to make him give me information. I slam the end of the club into his abdomen and then turn away-.

    Manhunters are rushing the theatre.
     
  14. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    9th January
    06:38 GMT


    Not.. all. I'm still drawing fire from an appreciable proportion, Komand'r and her crew are getting more and a fair few are pulling back towards the open ends of the tunnels leading into this cavern. But a sizable chunk of the force is rushing the objective on the assumption that the shields won't stop an infantry assault. And they're… Not necessarily wrong. It's a field deployment; the wrap around isn't perfect, and even if it was it wouldn't stop them phasing through the surrounding rock. And if they're all trained to use those telekinetic spikes they might be able to brute force it.

    I… Think I could outfight them. But if they just run past me….

    Mother Box.

    Ping.

    I step through-

    9th January
    01:38 GMT -5


    -the boom tube into Claire's dormitory room, the woman herself already awake with flaming hands pointed at me.

    "Grayven? What the fuck are-?!"

    I lunge, grab her and her bed sheet in my right hand and-

    Ping.

    -stick an environmental shield on her fluffy pyjama suit thing and dart through the new boom tube.

    9th January
    06:38 GMT


    "Emergency." Her eyes widen slightly as she takes in the Martian cityscape, ignoring the oxygen tanks I dump out of subspace at her feet. I point at the oncoming Manhunters. "Bad people, make fire now." Obey!

    And then I let go, fusion cannon construct reappearing on my left arm to replace my club while I draw my daiklave with my right.

    Claire's clearly not quite up to speed, but the instructions are simple enough that she complies. She twists the nozzle on the tank to the 'open' position and then raises her hands, billowing flames leaping forth!

    "I can't see-"

    I track and fire, three Manhunters evaporating under my gun's incredible heat.

    "-anyone, Grayven!"

    They're invisible, Claire doesn't have-. I take a pair of goggles out of subspace and stick them to her face. Empower the Loyal Vassal!

    Her flames dip as she grabs them with her right hand to strap them in place-

    I take another shot, hitting no one but disabling several with the heat of the near miss.

    -and then leap again as she focuses on her task. "Who are we fight-?"

    A Manhunter rises out of the ground just behind me, and I turn and slash, their body parting around my blade before they're fully cognisant of their surroundings. As far as I know it works on phased oppon-.

    "What was th-?"

    "Martians!"

    Phasing's a rare-ish ability. Phasing in blind is a stupid thing to do, but we've got telepathic screening-. "G-Gnomes, stop projecting fire and start protecting our minds!"

    There's a momentary dip in the brightness of their horns, then they light up again. Not a defence I need, but Claire is far more vulnerable.

    "Martians?"

    "I'm only killing the ones who you don’t scare off!"

    Not freaking out due to a gas explosion is one thing, but actually charging blind into a fire is a completely different matter. Professional soldiers flat out breaking and running is unusual, but inflict enough psychological shock and the quality of decision-making drops dramatically. I remember reading about a case in the American civil war, where a regiment of… Confederate, I think it was? Troops, were engaged with their enemy. Though outnumbered, they could have held on in close combat. Instead, the green soldiers were so shocked by the violence of battle that they held their position, loading and firing their guns in full view of the enemy army. As a consequence, they were shot to pieces, whereas if they had been in melee the majority of the Union army would have had to hold fire.

    If the entire Manhunter force charged, I'd have to break out the strategic weapons. As it-

    Another Manhunter sticks his head above the ground, then ducks back down as I stab at them. I thrust the sword in further, hoping-. Think I hit something, but I'm not sure what happens when phased martian gets cut. I stamp, firing a pulse of sonic energy into the ground. That'll do.

    -is, only a small proportion came this way and they clearly don't know what to do. I mean, even if they did destroy the-.

    A Manhunter rises out of the ground on the far side of the theatre frontage, bulking up his arms as he tears into one of the G-Troll carried generators! The shield bubble fades noticeably, but only a handful of shots slam into it to take advantage of its weakness. I fly into them, spearing them through the chest with the daiklave and slashing it sideways. He collapses, not dead but swiftly dying.

    A few holes appear in the shield, and a G-Troll takes a reduced strength shot to its right shoulder. A-

    Boom!

    -boom tube opens, and the G-Troll carrying the now-defunct generator lumbers back through. Still, that's not a lot of shooting. If Komand'r's managed to down all of the patrol ships and they're down to personal arms…

    I grab a G-Gnome from a nearby G-Elf, put it on my right shoulder and swallow my distaste. "Project what I'm saying."

    A slight flicker of the horns is all the acknowledgement I'm likely to get.

    "Manhunters. You have been sent here under false pretences. The building behind me houses a peaceful assembly, and the best chance your people have of avoiding the civil war spreading. Leave now and await new orders, or I will kill every single one of you."

    Claire glances my way from.. underneath the G-Troll she was sheltering under. "Why are you even here?"

    Did that work? A quick look around shows no Manhunters phased within the rock, and they don't.. appear to be heading this w-.

    "Ah!"

    I wheel-! As Claire flees from M'gann, who passes through the fiery barrier without apparent discomfort. Though to be fair, given how M'gann looks now…

    I dismiss my construct gun and sheath my sword. "That it? Are they backing off?"

    She nods, her head taking on a slightly more human appearance. "Yes. From what I could see, just as far as the entry tunnels."

    I nod in relief. "Good. I didn't want to have to carry out my threat."

    "Threat?" I point to the G-Gnome on my shoulder. "If you transmitted it telepathically, they wouldn't have heard you. After Komand'r killed their commanding officers they were supposed to retreat anyway. They're only falling back now because the local officers have seniority and they ordered them to."

    Ah. Shoot. I shake my head. No, it's dealt with, that's the main thing. "Alright, Genomorphs, pack it up. Claire-."

    "What the fuck is going on?"
     
  15. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    9th January
    06:47 GMT


    T'ronn stares at the cityscape in shock. "What..? Happened..?"

    Martian emergency vehicles have begun arriving to pick up the injured Manhunters, and since the fighting has stopped I've tasked the Genomorphs with assisting them under the watchful eyes of Komand'r and her Construct Lanterns. The nature of the fighting means that there isn't that much debris, but M'gann was attacking people inside buildings and they're not all in a condition to call for help telepathically. The Whites who were inside the theatre are not helping; given that the attackers were explicitly here to kill them I didn't think that the additional exposure was wise.

    "The Marshal appears to have decided that any White assembly is a valid target."

    "But.. that's.. insane-."

    "I know, T'ronn." No, no, come on. He's M'gann's age. Don't snap, no matter how stupidly everyone around you is behaving. "And I'll be getting answers from him in person before long. How is the conference going?"

    "We… Cut things off when we felt… What was going on out here. I.. think we're getting towards a unified negotiating position."

    "And what's it going to look like? I ask because while I don't mind protecting a peaceful gathering, if it's turning into a council of war you're on your own."

    "No! No, just… We all want the colour discrimination laws repealed, and… Some sort of government reform. The repeal thing is something we all agree on. Exactly how the government thing works out will depend on… A lot of things."

    "And who is doing the negotiating?"

    "Me. To start with, at least." He shifts position slightly as he sees a badly burned Manhunter being levitated out of a building by medics. "How many-?"

    "Don't have a full count. I killed at least eight."

    He turns his head towards me. "I've.. been arrested before, that wasn't-."

    "They weren't here for arrests. They phased through the roof and opened fire with their main guns. I'm presently being charitable and assuming that they had been told you were planning a violent uprising."

    Because otherwise I'm not sure that I'd be able to stop myself killing all of them, and that would do even more harm to my interests than this fiasco has already inflicted. Ugh. Okay, I'm unageing if not actually immortal. I know that backing the right side now is the best way of getting returns in the long run. But in the short term there's no doubt in my mind that helping the Reds put down the rebellion and make token reforms would get me access to their magic lore faster. And I doubt that Karmang would go for sharing what he knows with me.

    "Oh." T'ronn is quiet for a moment. "Thank you."

    I shake my head. "It's.. fine. I'm just.. frustrated that this even happen-."

    Boom!

    A boom tube opens in the middle of the cavern. Not one of mine. Justice League. Yes, J'onn flies through first, and I feel the mental pressure of his scan a moment later as his eyes pass over me. I raise my right hand and wave, but instead of coming down he flies back through. Oh, whatever.

    "Is M'gann okay?"

    "You might be losing brother points for taking that long to ask."

    "I thought you'd say if anything bad happened, but I can't hear her."

    "She's…" I saw her when I sent the aggrieved Claire back to her dormitory. "Alright. But this was pretty violent, and I imagine that she wants a little while to collect herself."

    Hm. I'll need to talk to her. I'm used to this sort of thing, but she most decidedly isn't. And I need to make sure that she isn't making Burning Martian a permanent look. And Claire. Not sure what to do to mend fences there. Pay her for her work, obviously, but I feel that I owe her more than that. She didn't volunteer for the costumed lunacy. Humble pie and a favour owed, I think.

    J'onn flies back through the boom tube, a.. Red Martian a little way behind him. As per usual I can't recognise them by sight alone… Sinestro?

    I'm not entirely clear how stable martian genetics are, Lantern Grayven, but I believe that to be Prelate J'emm.

    Right. They know one of theirs fucked up, so they send a moderate.

    T'ronn rises off the ground next to me, and I grab him with my right hand and push him down. "Where are you going?"

    "Oh, right, you couldn't hear. Prince J'emm just asked me to speak with him directly."

    "Right. Stay here, I'll go and get him."

    "But he's.. just…"

    I shake my head. "Domination game. His side messed up, he can come to you. I'm going to check him for weapons."

    "But-. He-."

    I rise off the ground and head towards the Prelate. He spots what I'm doing immediately, and shifts his shape until he's almost a red version of J'onn. Yes, that doesn't actually help unless you've got the facial animation to go with it.

    "Gray-."

    "Where's the Marshal?"

    "Being questioned by my peers. We did not authorise this attack."

    "Have you checked that your peers didn't?"

    "That is extremely unlik-."

    "They were warded against detection, Prelate. Magic. Magic that is only used by a tiny portion of the Red population. Bare minimum one senior sorcerer, and more likely several. If you want any progress to be made towards a peaceful resolution, you will find these people and you will try and punish them publically."

    "I will.. see to it that the matter is investigated thoroughly."

    "Good. I will be checking. Now why are you here?"

    "I wish to make it clear to the White Martians targeted by this attack that it was not authorised by the Council. I was also hoping to address them directly."

    I glance at J'onn. One bodyguard wouldn't be enough to protect him, but J'onn is probably the least racist martian in existence right now. And he's got a direct line to the Watchtower's boom tube generator. Alright. Sinestro, do a slow and very visible scan of them.

    It is at times like this, Lantern-

    The light strobes outwards, playing over the unresisting Prelate.

    -Grayven, that I am reminded of your Apokoliptian origins.

    It's a hateful place, but I'd be a fool to try to claim that it taught me nothing.

    The scan cuts out, having found nothing, and I turn aside and gesture towards T'ronn with my right hand. "All yours."

    J'emm doesn't say anything, but floats past me towards the ground. J'onn goes to follow, but halts when he reaches me. "The Manhunters who were assigned-."

    "If this is a 'just following orders' thing.-"

    "No, it isn't. I am trying to thank you for holding back so much. I am well aware that you could have killed everyone here."

    I shake my head. "It actually never crossed my mind. Slaughter is so wasteful. But perhaps a little something about questioning bullshit orders could be added to the Manhunter training curriculum?"

    "That will depend on what happens to the Marshal."

    He descends through the air, heading after J'emm. I take a moment to make sure that J'emm's initial chat with T'ronn is civil -at least as far as my knowledge of martian body language allows me to- and then…

    Sinestro, where's M'gann? I need a chat.

    He doesn't say anything, but a waypoint appears in my mind. I fly down towards one of the crashed patrol ships, and M'gann shimmers back into visibility. She's back in her usual red-skinned humanoid appearance. Usually, she instinctively uses human expression, but I'm well aware that she doesn't have to. I hope, at least, because that sort of blankness would be a very bad sign on a human f-.

    "Do you know how many of them I killed?"

    I shake my head. "No. Not yet."

    We watch each other for a moment.

    "Why did you use the form of a Burning Martian?"

    "Efficiency. I thought maybe I could use their fear-. No." She shakes her head, her face animating again, her head bowing and her eyes dipping. "I needed to destroy, and that form is.. better than all of the other forms I could have used. I needed something the Manhunters didn't know how to fight. So I did it. I took on the form of a prehistoric killing machine." She looks up. "Because that was what I needed to get the result I wanted. I stabbed and burned and killed because that was what needed to happen. I turned myself back after they retreated… And I don't feel bad."

    "If soldiers kept feeling bad about killing they wouldn't be able to function."

    "I killed people. I felt their minds go out. But every time I think about it, I remember what would have happened if I hadn't." The red X on her uniform vanishes, the material turning the same dark blue as the rest. "I used to wonder how you did it. I didn't realise it was this… Easy."

    "And?"

    "I don't think I'll be able to stay a Manhunter after this. I don't think I'd want to."

    "Hm." I think for a moment. "Two options, then. Stay on and push through reforms. Assuming that the Marshal takes the blame for this, you could end up as the first whitish full Manhunter. You'd have perspective that the new Marshal would need."

    "Assuming he leaves office." She shakes her head. "What's the other option?"

    "Have you ever wondered what it would be like, to use an orange power ring?"
     
  16. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    10th January
    17:41 GMT


    T'Pexor holds his amulet up to apparently empty space, and the ancient citadel of Z'onn Z'orr shimmers into being as the wards stop affecting us. He keeps it in his hand as we float over a… Yes, I felt the edge of the warded area. Sinestro?

    The atmospheric conditions here match what the Guardians recorded as being normal for pre-conflict Mars. Pressure and composition both.

    Man does good work.

    Though it does beg the question why he doesn't do this for the entire surface.

    Maybe his acolytes were supposed to. Even ancient wizards have their limits.

    T'Pexor stops, and turns his expressionless face-. Alright, it looks expressionless to me, to other martians it might be full of information. "This place is sacred to all Martians. Even the detestable Reds call it holy. I expect you to show respect both to it and to its master."

    I nod and smile. "But of course."

    So I don't comment on how Karmang apparently built his fastness on top of the tallest mountain on the planet, or that it's a miracle that no one has discovered it yet by accident. Presumably miracles come with the 'holy' part.

    "Has it looked like this from the beginning..?"

    "Some parts are newer. But the main tower is essentially unchanged. That's where he remakes us."

    I nod. "And exactly how angry with me are you about-?"

    "It doesn't matter." He turns away and heads towards the main tower. I follow at a slightly slower pace, taking in the whole place. "The Reds will never give away enough to satisfy us. If anything, I should thank you for casting them into disarray."

    Enough disarray that J'emm somehow managed to get a face to face meeting arranged for today. The Marshal's been suspended and former City Commander R'oh K'arr has taken over Manhunter coordination efforts. Since he's from Mel'dilo'rn too I'm working on the assumption that J'emm is making sure that no one on his end is doing anything stupid by putting people he knows in charge of things. Cronyism at its finest.

    "How's B'enn taking it?"

    "He was angry about not being included in the meeting T'ronn engineered. Glad that Manhunters died during the attack. He thinks that more Whites will come to agree with him when they hear of it."

    Ugh… Yes, possibly. But J'emm doesn't strike me as an idiot. The sensible thing for him to do is offer minor concessions immediately, either to buy the Manhunters time to reorganise or to give him time to clean house. Weirdly, Karmang might be the sorcerer he can trust most at this point. There's no way that he was the one who warded the Manhunter attack force.

    "Is he going to join us out here, or do we need to find him?"

    T'Pexor rises, heading for the top of the tower with the red ball suspended above it. I follow, and once I have a line of sight to the tower's roof I see Karmang waving his arms at the space beneath it. I'll record the shapes he's making for Circe and Sunset, but I don't feel all that much power so it's probably not an immediate concern. Karmang doesn't look around as T'Pexor lands, and continues to ignore us until he reaches what appears to be the conclusion of his ritual.

    "Grayven. You have outdone yourself." His head turns to face us, while his.. eight hands hold their position for a moment before six of them merge with his body.

    "Not unhappy with the increased prospect of a peaceful resolution?"

    "No, no. I want a peaceful resolution. I approached them. They didn't approach me, or any other White."

    "You're not exactly a White though, are you?"

    "I've lived as a White for far longer than I have any other colour-." He hesitates as he turns to fully face me. "I think, at least. I still struggle to recall exactly what my life as a Burning Martian was like. It's not impossible that I lived longer like that. Unlikely, though."

    I raise my left hand. "I meant no offence. Martian colour politics isn't something with an Apokoliptian equivalent. I don’t grok it."

    "No, I understand. But being… 'Colour free' is a new concept for so many martians, I think it best to remain like this. It will have a greater impact."

    I nod. "True." I glance at T'Pexor. "Do your followers-?"

    "I appreciate your effort at subtlety, but there's no need. I know that T'Pexor and I don't… Necessarily see eye to eye on everything. My followers are not my slaves."

    I nod and turn my head to look at the Hyperclan member. "T'Pexor, we're going to be surrounded by Red Martians, and the main representative of the White Martians wants a peaceful settlement. Are you going to behave yourself?"

    "Ye-."

    "Quietly behave yourself, and not do anything that is going to require me to kill you."

    "Yes. Karmang made his conditions for including me in this quite clear. Just do not expect me to engage them in conversation."

    Alright then. I turn back to Karmang. "If you're ready, I'll open a boom tube-."

    "Oh, no need." He raises his arms in a 'big box' pose, then swirls them around in a-. And we've moved, the Manhunters guarding the Martian government building taking a step back. Not raising their weapons, though. They're been firmly briefed. "I'm perfectly capable of teleporting us."

    T'ronn and M'gann amble towards us, both of them staring at Karmang more than either me or T'Pexor.

    "Ah, you must be M'gann." Karmang smiles as she approaches. "You're still Red, I see."

    "Ah-. Yes. When I was on Earth, I pretended to be Green. I only turned Red after an alien telepath attacked me, and I assumed that removing the Guardian restrictions made us Red."

    "Mm. Logical, if inaccurate. Hopefully after today colour restrictions will become a thing of the past."

    T'ronn makes a gesture with his hand, the rings telling me that it's a sign of polite disagreement. "This is just a first meeting. It's more about proving that we can be in the same room without trying to kill each other than about anything else."

    "It's still progress. That's the main thing."

    "Oh, and… They're going to want proof that you're actually Karmang. Prince J'emm won't refuse to meet you if you don't, but… They're pretty unhappy about-."

    "I quite understand. What's the best way-. Ah, I have it." He folds his arms across his chest for a moment, then his eyes light up. "A broadcast." All around us martians sway, a few clutching their heads. "Just a few of my most significant memories. It's been a while since I've been able to share things so freely."

    M'gann shakes her head as his eyes dim. "That was… Incredible. I… Thank you."

    "Oh, you've done far more for our people, M'gann M'orzz. This is all happening because you shared what happened on Earth with the rest of us. Our society can finally -whether by peace or by war- move beyond the stupid prejudices which have afflicted us for so long."

    M'gann nods, smiling broadly.

    "Now, young T'ronn. You are head of the delegation. Why don't you lead the way, so we can get the Council's grandstanding over with as soon as possible?"

    "Yes." He turns towards the entryway into the council chambers, and the four of us follow him inside.
     
  17. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    10th January
    17:53 GMT


    A full Council meeting. Just one of those oddities, I suppose. Once a species has communications technology more advanced than simple radio, it becomes perfectly possible to conduct all business remotely. And yet, aside from a few cerebralists like the Rannians, nowhere does. The ancient meetings of clan chiefs morph into… Well, the meetings of clan chiefs with more sophisticated weapons and wearing more expensive clothes…

    "…discovered that the claims made for centuries concerning…"

    The point is, people get comfortable with their government looking a particular way. Earth legislatures still meet in big halls, even if not everywhere takes it to quite the extent that the British do. Father still holds court, despite that being an institution introduced by Queen Heggra, who was far politically weaker than he is. Tamaran still has High Councils, where the great and good migrate to the capital for a month or so every decade to make the reigning monarch's life miserable.

    "…handed down by the very…"

    And Martians still gather in small stone amphitheatres. The ruling princes of each city, -including the new appointees who can't take their seats due to their cities being held by rebels- their seconds and the ambassadors who usually occupy these seats. A small raised dais for the coterie of first among equals who make up Mars' executive. J'emm now sits there, while the seat that was his as the ruler of a city is occupied by S'yrra.

    "…apparent by the ferocity with which White Martians with no prior…"

    Another section for the priesthood, who if they were human I'm sure would be staring down their Abraham-figure with open hostility. A few more technologically sophisticate touches are noticeable; artificial lights bring the level of illumination up to something that doesn’t strain the eyes, the stenographer is using modern Martian recording equipment rather than a stone tablet and the honour guard comprised of Red Martians have modern weapons.

    "…very least, the abolition of all laws, global or local, which place formal restrictions upon the colour of those who can occupy them." I return to the present as T'ronn winds down. "And preferably, a radical reform of the functioning of those offices from which White -and Green- Martians have long been excluded."

    "Thank you, T'ronn." J'emm is acting as Speaker, though I don't know whether that's a new thing or not. "I am however curious as to what you consider the alternative to be."

    "The alternative?"

    "Yes. What do you believe will happen if this council does not come to terms with you?"

    "I would keep working to persuade council members to change their positions, both as a body and as politicians with considerable authority over how their individual cities operate. But if this council absolutely refuses to negotiate, White Martians will begin to feel that there isn't a way for them to gain redress though peaceful means. It would.. probably push them towards joining up with people like B'enn B'lanx. It's not that the vast majority have any particular desire to.. make the civil war worse, but… There's a widespread refusal to accept the status quo."

    Status pre bellum, actually. If things stopped where they are now, then the White cause will have seen significant progress. Several cities would be under their control, and a great many Whites who want their status improved but don't want to constantly fight local authorities would probably migrate to them. That would probably do fascinating things to their economy…

    "Thank you. Grayven." I focus my attention on J'emm. "You have our gratitude for making this meeting possible." I nod. "While you have explained it to me personally, please state your interest for the record."

    "I hope to organise an exchange of knowledge and expertise between M'arzz and various other worlds, to the benefit of all. I do not believe that doing so is practical while there is a wide scale civil conflict happening, and I would very much like to offer aid in reaching a peaceful settlement. Ultimately, if this council is unwilling to negotiate, I have an uninhabited planet at my disposal upon which those Martians unwilling to accept the position Martian society offers them could settle as an alternative to warfare. Amenities would be a bit basic to begin with but no one profits from slaughter."

    Or as a place for you to exile those who refuse to adapt to the novel idea that White Martians are people too. I don't have to like people in order to have uses for them.

    "A planet which you control?"

    "It's in my gift." If only because no one wants it. "Naturally, the precise relationship would be something I would negotiate with White community leaders."

    "I will hope that it does not come to that, but you are right: it is preferable to war. And… Karmang."

    Karmang spreads his hands. "I hope that my identity is not still in doubt. If a clear view of my memories does not convince you then I am not sure what will."

    "You must be aware of the reverence which Martian society has for you. Why did you not attempt to make your displeasure known to previous generations?"

    "I did, at least twice. Let me show you the result." His eyes glow, and everyone in the chamber stills for a few moments. No, not completely. Karmang grows an extra pair of arms and makes a few gestures. Adding magical realism to the thing? No idea. Sinestro, add those gestures to the log.

    Certainly, Lantern Grayven. But aren't you concerned about that?

    No, not really. It isn't doing a thing to me, and there are… Sixteen Sorcerer Priests right there. This place is almost certainly warded-.

    Karmang's hands are still moving, and the man himself is floating in a circuit around the chamber. Hm. I put my right hand on M'gann's left shoulder with a degree of force. She shakes, blinks and then look up at me.

    "M'gann, what exactly is he showing you?"

    "The…" She blinks as she returns to the present. "First… Journey he made to a monastery. When the priests had him beaten and thrown out for claiming to be himself."

    "Hm."

    "If you wanted to see it-."

    "No, just a… Momentary flash of paranoia." One of the priests similarly shakes himself out of the trance, their arms shuddering in a way which appears to be involuntary. "What's wrong with him?"

    "He's the Primate of the monastery Karmang went to; the Hall of H'ronmeer, named after the student of Karmang who established it."



    My eyes widen, but I'm already flying towards Karmang. Might be nothing-. "Karmang, could-?"

    T'Pexor tackles me out of the air, shapeshifted spines tearing into my armour! FUCKFUCKINGFUCK! Construct blades shoot out of my environmental shield trying to rip through his body, but he just ripples, either phasing or shapeshifting around-. Gah! Some sort of energy beam from his eyes!

    "Grayven?!"

    Think you're clever, do you?!

    Yellow light leaps between the tines embedded in his flesh, disrupting what I hope is a phasing-based defence.

    "Greghhuh!"

    He's.. burning, I can see it, but-.

    At the edge of my visual field I see every spectating martian jerk in their seats, their skin shimmering-.

    "My first attempt to free us of the Guardians' influence!"

    I tear my right arm free of T'Pexor's barbed tentacle, my blood flowing freely as I grab his head and squeeze!

    "Turning the matter disruption aura on-"

    His head compresses, shapeshifting away from the area I'm compressing. I see M'gann fly at Karmang only for a spout of rock to rise out of the floor and grab her ankle!

    "-without stabilising it. I call it-"

    I try freeing my left arm, and lose all feeling in it as the blades slice me to the bone!

    "-H'ronmeer's Curse."

    A construct blast from my eyes smashes through his own energy beam and finally forces him to loosen his grip. Sinestro, contact Circe.

    "Now burn!"

    Karmang and T'Pexor vanish as the Planetary Council burst into flame!
     
  18. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    10th January
    17:57 GMT


    "AAAAAAAGH!"

    M'gann falls to the ground clutching her head. T'ronn remains upright but doubles over, arms clutching at his chest. And the rest…

    There's a shimmer around their bodies, similar to what the Burner used. But like that shit Karmang said, they're not immune. They're being affected. Their flesh is breaking down exothermically. They're being burned alive by their own bodies. Even the guards-. Their armour is evaporating off their bodies and their bodies are locked in place. For any of them who still have Guardian programming, fire is their greatest fear. And they can't get away from it.

    Mother Box, purple ray drones here now!

    Ping.

    AND SEND A FUCKING BOMB TO Z'ONN Z'ORR! ONE OF THOSE REALLY EVIL ONES I COPIED FROM DESAAD!

    Ping.

    Oh, I think it is!

    Fuck, what do I do? All of the-. No, not all: J'emm is shuddering, but something he's doing is keeping the flames at bay. Don't know how to help. Try and put one out. Sinestro, feel free to call out suggestions at any time.

    Noted. But I'm afraid, Lantern Grayven, that-

    I project yellow light over the closest guard, trying to work out whether it's possible to stabilise-

    -I don't believe that there's anything you can do.

    -their bodies. Their disruption effect simply shreds my initial probe but with all of this fear around I've got strength to spare. My next attempt takes the form of a medical sarcophagus-

    Boom!

    -and I frantically reduce the temperature and jab a neural probe into the guard's head to see if I can work out which bit of his brain is doing this! The first purple ray drones fly through the boom tube, purple beams striking burning martians to no apparent effect. Patterns of activity are all over the place, I don't know! Amateurs shouldn't attempt brain chirurgery! Suppress everything somewhat? Sure, let's try that.

    He's still burning.

    I can… Feel it as the drones start giving individual martians up as lost causes. As the grim calculus of survivability indicates to their control programming that even if they can help some they can't help these.

    By some Herculean feat of will, one of the still-burning Sorcerer Priests staggers out of his seat. Okay, scan. What's different about that guy?

    Nothing obvious, Lantern Grayven. The patterns of activity in her mind appear to be a little less erratic, but I imagine that is due to the mental exercises that she performs as part of her vocation.

    Right, replicate-.

    He's dead, Lantern.

    I exhale sharply as I dismiss the construc-. I look at M'gann. No, she's-. Scan. She looks fine, but-.

    She's a telepath who was listening to the dying thoughts of dozens of people burning to death. I'm impressed that she's even vaguely functional. Her brother is in much the same state.

    More and more… Martians are falling recumbent, probably dead. Only a handful-.

    The sorcerer falls, dragging herself towards-. She's going towards J'emm, who is just now catching fire himself. Ah, she's going to die anyway. I grab the crawling sorcerer and put her down next to J'emm. I think she.. recognises or.. something, because she immediately starts using her burning limbs to make gestures. As they.. burn down, she-. She's using mass from the rest of her body to allow her to keep casting.

    An admirable courage.

    Wait, cold guns! Those can-!

    Stabilise molecular vibrations at the cost of heat. Using enough power to stop whatever this is would freeze the martian you used it upon solid.

    J'emm staggers as the tufts of flame beginning to flare from his body suddenly go out while the sorcerer next to him… Succumbs to her wounds, the hard edges of bones…

    Bones visible as…

    I look down at my own blood as it pools on the floor.

    Oh. That, that explains…

    I sit with some force, the pain I'm in starting to seep into my awareness. Nothing… Life-threatening… I think. Mars isn't as bad for magic as the Vega Systems are. So as long as-.

    A squad of Manhunters swoop in, weapons seeking a target! I'm clearly bleeding and appear to be non-threatening, the drones are shutting down as… As those to whom they are attempting to minister finally expire. T'ronn's anguish-pose appears to be marking him as a non-threat, but M'gann is becoming alert and-.

    "Stop!" J'emm pulls himself up, using the pulpit to support himself. "It was Karmang. Karmang…" He loses his grip, but one of the Manhunters stows his weapon and flies forward to help him up.

    A couple of drones remember who made them and begin playing their healing light over me. Won't do much for the blood I've already lost, but it should accelerate the rate at which my wounds close up. M'gann looks at me but I wave her off and she goes to check on T'ronn instead. He's… Gradually coming around, though if his body language is exaggerated enough that I can spot it he must be in a bad way.

    "Why-?" M'gann looks at me. "Why did he do it? We were-. They were listening. Peace could…"

    "Hrgh." Ah, throat. Hadn't.. specifically noticed. Construct. "Hate doesn't need a reason. Just a tar…" Ugh. "Target. Karmang blamed them, or… Their forebears. Or… He might… Might genuinely believe… This was the best way."

    "He was… He was always planning on attacking them. He just… He just used us as a way in."

    I nod, once. "Probably."

    J'emm is helped to ground level, the Manhunter's right arm under his arms. "Was.. anyone else affected?"

    There's no sound for a moment. Telepathic conference, no reason for the Manhunters to speak out loud for my benefit.

    Mother Box, outcome of bomb attack on Z'onn Z'orr?

    Ping.

    I'll get Circe to check later. Where is she?

    Ping.

    Hah. Heh. Hah. Yes, I suppose she does need to sleep sometime.

    I look over to where J'emm and R'oh K'arr are looking at each other, probably having an impassioned argument about what to do next. Shit, what a mess. J'emm is now -in effect- planetary overlord and the Hyperclan might well be making attacks all over the place now. I'm not really in any condition to help-

    [​IMG]

    -but I suppose that's no reason not to try. Ugh. Support The Ally.

    Mother Box, tell Mortalla to evacuate the children at once, then keep all tubes available. This is going to be a long day.
     
  19. Threadmarks: Hoard
    Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    Hoard

    10th January
    22:03 GMT

    I cautiously sip at the purple.. gel stuff in my glass as I look around the reception hall. Not everyone who was originally invited to the conference stayed to the end. For some participants, the idea of giving someone such an expansive influence on their defence policy was simply unacceptable. And once they received an official reassurance -even if it was short of a formal non-aggression pact- the Gordanians had no reason to stay. But we got most, and Dox is confident that the rest will come around eventually.

    Assuming that the Reach doesn't consume them first. Darkstars are being assigned to prevent that immediately.

    Not Jade, of course. She's starting her training-. Well, her training placement assessments. Since the Darkstars take in people with a wide range of backgrounds and knowledge bases they have developed a system of individualised curricula. By local standards Jade's training is extremely lopsided: her actual combat skills and knowledge of tactics are highly advanced while her technical knowledge lags far behind. I know that she'll manage, but I am.. aware that her pride might take a hit when commandos from allied worlds start joining up and passing out faster than she does.

    "This went well."

    Lantern Dul has a mug of… Oh, somewhere around here makes blurb. Either that, or her desire was strong enough that she ring-fabricated it herself. The Orange Lantern Corps uniform she's wearing has been modified from the… Alright, not from the 'standard', because there really isn't one. Modified from the 'Thanagarian military field garb with Orange sigil' she was wearing before to have more dress uniform qualities.

    "Only the one major attack, a general consensus in our favour and an agreement we can work with." I nod, briefly generating wing constructs so that I can make the equivalent thanagarian gesture. "Has Dox given you a new assignment yet?"

    "A good will tour. Showing off what Orange Lanterns are capable of to the adoring masses." She look around the room-. Has she.. dyed her feathers? Several primaries are now orange rather than the pale grey-. "How was your fest-? Are you staring at my feathers?"

    "They weren't that colour when I left." I return my attention to her face. "Is that decoration, or some sort of sign of your new affiliation?"

    She fluffs her wings self consciously. "They're decorative inserts. I don't usually have much reason to wear them."

    "I assume that running my fingers along them would be inappropriate."

    She stares directly into my eyes. Which isn't quite as aggressive a gesture for a thanagarian as it is for a human. More… Confrontational. "That depends."

    "I'm curious as to what it feels like but not sexually interested in you."

    "Then yes, it's definitely inappropriate." She looks away again, eyes fixing on points of interest for a few moments before jumping to the next. "How was your festival? I heard things got a little exciting."

    "Bit of a downer, to be honest. It started out fun, then a bunch of religious fanatics declared a vendetta against me."

    "If you were thanagarian, you'd say that was a good thing. Just cause and a clear target."

    "But I'm not. It was an annoying distraction I didn't plan for. Plus I died, which completely-"

    Her wings shiver. "Ah, what?"

    "-spoiled things. I died."

    "You mean, you technically died but the doctors restarted your brain?"

    "No, no, I got.. stabbed and incinerated. Woke up in one of my species' afterlives. And not the one I was meant to go to. Frankly, the whole thing was confusing and unpleasant."

    She.. stares at me for a moment, eyes moving over my obviously non-incinerated body. "Is this a.. religious metaphor?"

    "Probably. It's also literally true. Death…" How to put this? "Earth is a high magic environment. It's entirely possible for someone who knows what they're doing -or who has help- to remain coherent after their death. Coming back is harder, but perfectly within the bounds of possibility. I assume that Dox left you here when he came to support me?"

    Her eyes are focused on my face, probably bringing everything she's learned about wingless humanoid facial expression to bear in an attempt to determine whether or not I'm being serious. "Yes. If every Lantern left it would have been taken as a sign of weakness."

    "The Lanterns Dox brought with him got into a fight with a species of… Ah… Source worshipping intermediaries? We probably had things under control, but there's no such thing as too much firepower."

    "I will be sure to read the reports."

    I nod, taking another sip of the purple stuff. The taste is alright, but if you don't swallow it almost at once it starts to gum up your mouth. "You should see if you can get authorisation to look at Katar Hol's reports on human society. It's a bit mental."

    "Do humans come back from the dead often?"

    "Oh, all the time. Usually shorn of most of their memories and in the body of an infant… Full body resurrections are more unusual but hardly unheard of. There's this one guy called Vandal Savage, tens of thousands of years old. One time he was stabbed, impaled, surrounded by wood, covered in oil and then set on fire. When the fire went out they smashed his skeleton to bits with hammers and then buried the fragments in eleven separate graves." I grin. "That kept him down for a couple of months. If I ever find him I'm going to throw him into a sun." I lean in. "Not our sun, though. The risk's too great."

    "And magic makes that possible?"

    "Magic, combined with the orange light in my case… I've got no idea how Savage's resurrection works mechanically. I've never looked into it; are thanagarians religious?"

    "There are some Source worshippers on some of the older colonies." The ones which never really adapted to the home world's post-equality plague militarism. "Otherwise we're fairly materialistic."

    "So you're promising me that I'm never going to get called to Thanagar to fight Onimar Synn? Because I will hold you to that."

    She clicks her tongue contemptuously. "A few deranged idiots do not make a religion. Besides, how would you hold me to something like that?"

    "By not going when it happens. The Thanagar Empire isn't a pre-FTL civilisation like my own. If your people want to poke things they don't understand then they've got more than enough resources to hire in people who do."

    "We're not big on hiring aliens to perform security-critical jobs."

    "Understandable. Unfortunately, the only thanagarians who know magic work for Queen Hyathis." Oh, wait. That's not true. The Halls do. How loyal to the homeworld does Sharon Parker consider herself to be? Probably enough to visit"Actually… I know someone."

    "You forgot that you know a thanagarian magician who doesn't work for Hyathis?"

    "She's not thanagarian any more. She's been reincarnated a lot of times since then. Look, I've been putting off visiting Thanagar for a while. If Dox can spare you for a few days-."

    "I wouldn't mind visiting home. And meeting your expert."
     
  20. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    11th January
    09:32 GMT

    "You want me to what?"

    Hinon huffs, putting her newly completed personal lantern down on her work bench. It's… A little better than mine.

    "I want you to come to Earth and make sure that my techniques haven't caused-."

    She turns around to glare at me. "It was a rhetorical question. I have already assured you that your teleportation does not cause any sort of 'spillage' which could affect those around you. If you are not prepared to take my word for it, why would a 'field trip' suddenly make me more authoritative?"

    "It's not just my teleportation. Larfleeze drew visitors from all across this galaxy. You've spent more time with them than I have. You know-."

    "Yes, they were drawn to Okaara by the Light Fountain. Which has never been on Earth."

    "But I connected to it to draw the Ophidian to me. She spent months inside my personal lantern. A personal lantern that wasn't in the best condition when I took possession of it." She doesn't look convinced. "And given what else is on Earth, I don't think asking you to take a couple of days to check the place over is all that unreasonable."

    "If anything, that would make it less dangerous."

    "Really? Because we've got an unusually active magic system and Dream of the Endless was literally trapped on our planet for years."

    "Hmmm."

    "And once you've checked Earth, you'll be able to say for certain that everywhere else is safe as well. Come on; how often do you get to see a location where one of the Endless was trapped against their will?"

    "Maltusians don't dream."

    "All Maltusians, or just the ones who used to be Guardians?"

    Her eyes narrow. "You know."

    "I know that Killala cheated on Dream with the embodiment of Sto-Oa, resulting in the Endless deciding against romantic relationships with mortals. I know that he used to be petty, but I hadn't realised that there was an ongoing penalty for her actions."

    "There are Maltusians who don't know about that."

    "I don't want to insult your education system, but isn't that somewhat important? Anyway, look, Dream's a lot less vengeful than he used to be. If you want to regain the ability, you might be able to talk him around."

    "Regain? I've never had it."

    "Alright, gain, then. Hinon, how often does someone your age get a genuinely novel experience?"

    She turns away, her right hand waving to send the lantern she just created… Somewhere. I note that she's still wearing John's old ring. "Is this impeding your operational effectiveness?"

    "I.. suppose? A little. An entity which may or may not have been called Boss Smiley made certain observations about my cavalier attitude to my own powers, so I've been-."

    "You've been cutting down, which is probably exactly what he wanted."

    "And I can stop doing that just as soon as you make a site visit." She picks up a device which.. looks a little like a tuning fork. "Hinon, what do you want out of this relationship?"

    She half turns back, looking a little distracted. "What?"

    "I suggested building a Corps because I thought that was what you wanted. Either.. what a Corps could do for you, or just so you could get one over on your peers. But the Guardians have an ideological attachment to the green light. I never asked if you had one to the orange light. In fact… If anything, I assume that you don't. And yet, you attached yourself to the Orange Central Power Battery."

    "Mm. Better me than someone else."

    "Is that it? You don't actually want this?"

    She puts the tuning fork down and turns back to face me. "Why are you suddenly concerned about it?"

    "This is part of what Boss Smiley was saying. I did this to you, a member of a species worshipped in significant parts of this galaxy, an individual whose juniors make new planets to resettle evacuees so often that individual instances aren't considered significant. I'm.. worried that I'm blundering through the universe… And I'd like to stop. Controller Hinon, what do you want? Because if it wasn't this-."

    "This is perfectly adequate."

    I shrug, shaking my head. "Adequate wouldn't be enough for me, and I don't think it should be for you either."

    "How very thoughtful. Are you going to keep this up until I say 'yes'?"

    "This isn't about-. Appa Ali Apsa came to Earth once. Just spent a week or so driving around with Lantern Jordan and Mister Queen."

    She frowns. "He.. did?"

    "Yes. I'm not exactly sure why. I think the official reason was to do an assessment of Earth society, given that Lantern Jordan only got recruited because Lantern Sur was dying and desperate and we didn't have FTL yet. But given what else I know about the Guardians, I can't help but wonder if he was checking up on other things as well."

    "Appa is the one Guardian I might genuinely believe would take a holiday." She frowns faintly, her eyes growing slightly distant. Then she sighs. "Very well. Since this is so important to you, I will accompany you back to Earth. And… Test things until your late onset paranoia has been ameliorated."

    "Thank you."

    "Will Mister Scott be there?"

    "Ah… As far as I know. He hasn't.. said anything about leaving Earth."

    "I should probably check him over as well."

    "You like younger men, do you?"

    "I… Beg your pardon?"

    "Well… There's nothing wrong with that. You're both single adults, and I'm sure he's a fascinating case study on the results of long term light exposure in a high magic environment."

    "Are you implying that I wish to mate with him or that I wish to study him in detail?"

    I bend my legs, leaning in slightly. "Is there a difference for a Maltusian?"

    "Yes there most certainly-." She stops, frowning more deeply. "Hm. There used to be. I admit that as I am now, a really thorough investigation would most likely represent the most intimate thing I've done since…" She looks up. "Since I checked your tattoos. Yes, that was it."

    "Abandoned for an older man." I hold out my right hand. "Do you think your robes will survive a trip through the Honden of Avarice?"

    "I suppose we'll find out."
     
  21. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    11th January
    09:39 GMT

    Since I don't have anyone at the other end, I'm forced to come fully into the Honden. My starting location is as it was last time, but now I'm certain that this is just my mind's attempt to turn what is actually here into something concrete. Like… When they showed the Q Continuum in Star Trek Voyager. Just one interpretation, though one that is completely valid so long as you remember that it isn't the only one.

    Not wrong or dishonest, just easier to deal with. Like organising a reference library by the Dewey Decimal system rather than just putting the books in a big pile.

    I'm not surprised that I'm manifesting in here as a snake rather than a humanoid, or… I don't know, a vague presence or something. And I feel my skin made of my desire for wholeness and integrity, and the blood which supports it made of the memories of early injuries and ancient, ancestral weighting given to physical states which promoted survival. If I stare deeply, I could follow those threads back to the individuals who first bore the genetic mutations which caused those behaviours.

    "If you're quite done with your navel-gazing?"

    Hinon appears as Hinon, wearing her desire for her Hinonness as her robes. I could probably look deeper, but… That would be rude. And counterproductively unnecessary. I'd like her to open up, to work with her on realising her ambitions, and I'm sure that she's still enough of a Guardian to resent a mortal stripling like me being too assertive about it.

    "I'm not sure that snakes have navels."

    I flow down a not-corridor, my tongue of ambition and curiosity flicking out. Morris Brocklesby's desires have a particular taste to them. His absolute abhorrence of death, his fear of his own decay… Yes, I know those drives well.

    I touch the Ophidian's presence for a moment, communicating as I do exactly how gosh darn much I appreciate not having to worry about things like that any longer.

    If they'd pushed us, we'd have eaten our way through the Silver City, wouldn't we?

    Yes, my Agent.

    Stupid angels. / Stupid angels.

    Ah, here we are! The taste of his desire, mixed with the desire of one of the Endless… I can't put it in other terms, but once tasted never forgotten. The only place like it I found in Sol is my toilet on the moon, which means that either one of them visited me while I was us, or they just really needed to use the facilities.

    Fawney Rig, here we come!

    I step
    out onto the grass outside of the fully restored manor. Wearing my formal robes, I note. Something about how I think of myself, probably. But… They're not really the clothes for traipsing across a National Trust property in England during the winter, even if an environmental shield means that I don't really have to worry about either the mud or the cold. I switch the robes out for something a little more appropriate: a tweed suit, waistcoat, shirt and tie, all with the orange sigil embroidered somewhere upon the material.

    Hinon returns to the corporeal universe a moment later, appearing as she did when we left. Parts of her robes glow with orange light, pulling away from her body almost like they're… Sticking to the place we just passed through. She glances at them, a faint hint of nervousness in her eyes as they fall into place.

    "Hmpf. Not the most comfortable way to travel."

    "I can only suggest complaining to the Ophidian. Or to the entirety of Creation, given whose desires make up that place."

    "And don't you think that I won't." She looks around, seeing the manor for the first time. "Hm."

    "Would you like a guided tour, or do you want to just wander around on your own for a bit?"

    "Hm."

    "I'm sorry, Controller Hinon, my ring's translator appear to have broken. Would you-?"

    "How in the Triarch's name did that even work?" She looks up at me. "Do you have any concept of the effort my people put into studying the Endless?"

    "No? Was it… A lot?"

    "Humans." She shakes her head. "A bizarre combination of ambition, brilliance and shocking superficiality."

    "You know full well whose fault that is."

    She stares up at me, her expression hardening. "Yees."

    "Though I am working on the superficiality. Also… While there's no one around…" Though this is a national trust property, this isn't exactly peak tourist season. "Could you possibly check-?"

    "Oh, for-. Uhr." She raises her hands, orange mists flowing around us for a moment. "Nothing. No detectable overflow, or 'weakening of the veil' or whatever else you've convinced yourself is happening."

    "Thank you."

    "Hm. Well, while we're here-."

    I frown at her. "Is this what you're actually like? Or is the whole crotchety grandmother thing a mask? I've been wondering for a while."

    "Is the impudent grandson façade what you're really like, or."

    "Yes-." She stopped talking before I could interrupt. I smile.

    She doesn't. Instead, she walks towards the wrought iron gates and passes through them without disrupting the ironwork at all.

    "Ah, excuse me?! Ah, you can't-!"

    I jog towards the ticket office, giving the woman inside a friendly smile. "Don't mind her. I'm paying."

    "Oh-" She turns my way with a smile. "-right. Yes, but… There are rules about magic-. People being allowed on the site. We had an.. incident a while ago…"

    I look at Hinon's departing back. "What..? Do you think she is?"

    Her eyes widen, her right hand covering her mouth in horror. "Oh God, is she just-? I thought-."

    "No, she's an alien. I just wondered how much training you get on a job like this."

    She reaches down and pulls up a laminated sheet from below her desk. Simple drawing of the sorts of thing that might turn up, clear labels for each one and a green-yellow-red danger rating. Fae, demons and John Constantine.

    "Is that booth warded?"

    "I think so?"

    I bow my head. "I'll get it upgraded tomorrow. Are you supposed to report things like this?"

    "Actually…" She frowns. "I don't think we have to report aliens. Um."

    I shake my head and I take the… Hm. Hinon should qualify as an OAP, shouldn't she? Take the fifteen pounds and eighty pence out of subspace and slide it under the window. "Feel free to report it. Our visit isn't a secret."

    "Okay. Um, are you..? Orange Lantern?"

    "One of them, yes. Was it the ring or the glowing orange eyes which gave me away?"

    "Oh. Um, the manor's not about to explode or anything, is it?"

    I bow my head. "Not to the best of my knowledge, no. But I better go and keep an eye on Hinon just in case. Do you have a guidebook?"
     
  22. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    11th January
    09:48 GMT

    Hinon taps the transparent hemisphere. "Plastic."

    "The original was glass."

    "An imitation. And not even an accurate one."

    "You… Want them to put an accurate replica of a device that can trap one of the Endless on display to the public?"

    "Don't be absurd. It wouldn't trap one of the Endless unless they walked into it. The magic bound to it is the dangerous part." She turns away from the inverted plastic goldfish bowl. "What does the pamphlet say?"

    "They're going with the 'allegedly' angle. Most of this is about what happened to the people involved, and the pre-Order of Ancient Mysteries history of the building."

    "'Order of Ancient-'… Do you mean to tell me that they were classicists?"

    "On Earth, original magic research is pretty much the provenance of the Atlanteans."

    Hinon squeezes her eyes closed and shakes her head. Not as a 'no', but as if to clear her head of the sheer lunacy of it. "So they read a ritual someone else already wrote?"

    "Probably." Ah…

    "Someone on this planet already knew how to bind the Endless? I… Don't.. Believe…"

    "Has one of the Endless gone missing?"

    "Delight. And Destruction vanished a while ago."

    "And… When they die... Someone else gets the job."

    Daniel. Son of Hector and Hippolyta Hall. I haven't met him, but I saw a picture when I visited his parents' house. Not the new Dream yet. Perhaps never. Or… I don't know. I only read Sandman because Eastbourne library had it, and I doubt that I read all of it. Other things are different to the various comics I've read over the years, why should I assume that Sandman would come through untouched?

    "So in theory the last use might have resulted in the death of the one-."

    "Stop."

    Hinon floats upwards until our faces are level, her right hand coming down hard on my left shoulder. Her eyes are glowing. And… The patterns of orange light inside her are… Shifting, changing in how they relate to one another. I think this is significant, but I don't have a reference framework. Am I seeing her underlying character, bereft of the grandmotherly dust sheet? Or have I just pissed her off this much?

    "Explain how you know any of that."

    I meet her stare. "Either justify that request or say 'please'."

    "I came here because you asked me here."

    "I asked you to come to Earth to check I wasn't leaking. I brought you here because I thought you might find it interesting, and everyone in America won't be up and about for another four hours."

    "Do you know what happens when one of the Endless dies? The sheer.. devastation it wreaks across the universe. I'm old enough to remember when the last Despair died... Hateful.. monster." Her eyes widen slightly as she continues to stare me down. "And I find that this planet has ways to make that happen. And they know it. My species was rendered incapable of dreaming due to a broken love affair, and I can only guess at what the ongoing side effects of that are."

    I frown mildly. "I seem to remember something about him being a dick to his ex-girlfriends."

    "To my species. How our inability has altered the way we think. And no, rather than give me the information I need in order to patch yet another hole in the functioning of this misbegotten universe… You're taking the opportunity to play a game. To remind me that I don't control you as the Guardians control the Green Lanterns."

    "So that's what you want?"

    "Yes. Because every time wiser heads have relinquished control, some idiot brings everything crashing down. I. Want. Control. Not because I wish to control people as an exercise in egotism, but because I want to prevent things like…" She finally released my shoulder, turning away and gesturing to the plastic enclosure with both hands. "Like this. Have you any idea how many people across the galaxy were comatosed, or rendered incapable of sleeping bereft as they are of the exotic protections my own people can use, or simply driven insane by nightmarish visions conjured from the newly ungoverned Dreaming? How many times those nightmares became real, breaking into the material universe to wreak havoc?"

    "Weren't you in a coma yourself-?"

    "I reviewed my laboratory's recordings while we had our first conversation. And I've been going over them ever since. I haven't wanted to push this point since we appeared to be heading in the same direction, but seeing this lunacy has rather pushed me over the edge."

    "I read it in a comic book in my home parallel. Also, 'please' would have been faster."

    "A.. comic..?" Her eyes dim, and her soul structure is once more becalmed. "Why?"

    "You'd have to ask Neil Gaiman's editor. It was written as a work of fiction." I shrug. "My misspent youth as a reader of low-grade wish fulfilment fantasy means that when I actually started interacting with-."

    "We're a work of fiction where you're from? That's what you're saying?"

    "You didn’t appear as a named character. But yes. That's how I know about a lot of things."

    "The Anti-Monitor, what do you know of the Anti-Monitor?"

    "DC wanted a way to merge the superheroic setting of the golden age comics of the thirties with the setting of the silver age comics of the fifties. They wrote a storyline where a being empowered by eliminating parallel universes attacked all of their settings, destroying everything and leaving a single universe that was an amalgamation of what had gone before. The Anti-Monitor. Historical events and personal timelines were altered and individuals' memories were rewritten, except that some things didn't quite fit. For some unfortunates, their history changed as they lived it as the universe tried to accommodate irreconcilable events. And some remembered the whole thing, immune to the event which reformed the universe."

    "I take it that's not actually what happened?"

    She takes a deep breath. "A child's fairy story of it. Any number of beings with more knowledge than sense might be allowing corrupted records to slip into your home parallel."

    "So?"

    "So… What do you know about this?"

    "Not a lot. The man who headed the ritual wanted to stop dying and so tried to bind Death. He got Dream, stole his mask, powder and gem and left him here. Dream eventually got out, tracked down his equipment and went back to the Dreaming. Things had fallen apart since he left…" I shake my head. "I know he ended up dying and being replaced by someone called Daniel. I don't think that's happened yet. Might not happen at all."

    "I can only hope. And the ritual itself?"

    "I don't remember it. Everyone who took part is dead now, have been for years. If it was written down as they performed it, then it might still be around somewhere. If they were using a variation on a pre-existing ritual instead then I rather imagine that it's gone."

    "Very well." She raises her hands, orange light strobing around the room. "I will continue to study the site. Go and make yourself useful elsewhere. I'll tell you when I need you."

    I perform a sweeping and not at all sarcastic bow. "Of course, Controller Hinon."
     
  23. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    11th January
    12:10 GMT -5


    I awkwardly approach Claire… And a group of people I presume to be her friends. Walking across the university… Ugh, Americans. College campus, I've received more than a few stares. None hostile that I noticed, some friendly, mostly just astonished. Not sure whether they were astonished that I was there, or astonished that I was walking.

    Claire's friends are the same, which is a little odd. She would have mentioned me, surely? It's not like the fact that she and I know each other is a secret, any more than Ms Lane and Superman knowing each other is. Or perhaps they just didn't believe her? Unlike the others, she regards me with barely concealed frustration.

    "Grayven, hi."

    I come to a halt a short distance from their table, arms hanging loose at my sides. "Claire. Do you.. have a moment..?"

    A thin young man with entirely too much gel in his hair blows out his cheeks and averts his eyes. "Yeah… Ah…" He gets up and backs away. "Catch you later, Claire."

    And that seems to be a general signal for the group to break up, students making their apologies or just leaving as Claire squeezes her eyes shut and huffs in my direction.

    Huh. Maybe I could have… Timed that bet-.

    "What?"

    "I'm sorry. For.. that, and for the-."

    "You couldn't get a flamethrower, so you needed to wake me up?"

    I nod. "Do you mind if I sit down?"

    "You didn't ask my permission two nights ago."

    "Yes, and I… I realise that wasn't really ideal, taking you like that. Our.. arrangement-. You were quite clear that it didn't involve that sort of.. thing. I just couldn't think of anyone else who could handle-."

    "I'm pretty sure Jean could handle a flamethrower."

    "Jean was looking after the children. And she doesn't have your capacity or control." I gesture to the seating opposite her with my right hand.

    "Don't crush it. My scholarship isn't that much."

    I generate a construct chair next to it and lower myself onto the construct cushion. "As I said, I apologise. I realise that there were far better ways of handling the situation, but there was an emergency and you were the first person I thought of who could handle that part of dealing with it."

    She takes a breath to steady herself. "You said you were protecting a peace conference. Don't Martians have police or something?"

    "Those were police."

    "Whu-?" She blinks in surprise, before huffing again. "Oh, great, now I'm wanted by the Martian government."

    "No. When the police commit crimes, they're still crimes. Especially when that crime is murder." I nod my head to the right. "Probably shouldn't expect a medal, but there won't be any hostile action on their part."

    Or J'emm and I will have words. Not that I think it will come to that. With the government decapitated during a period of severe civil unrest he's far too busy. J'onn got recalled to help with the Manhunters and I'm a government advisor. No follow up from the Hyperclan as yet. Their agents are still in place, but neither Karmang or T'Pexor have put in an appearance. Maybe the phase-state annihilator that vaporised the top half of Olympus Mons got them? There's a happy thought.

    "Why were the Martian police attacking a peace conference?"

    "Mars operates a caste society based on skin colour. Reds rule, Greens form the middle class and Whites are the underclass."

    "Martians can.. shapeshift…"

    "And they're telepathic. They always know." I shake my head. "Basically, their prehistoric ancestors were so deadly and aggressive that the people who run the Green Lantern Corps changed them into what they are now as an alternative to wiping them out. Not completely sure how they ended up in their current rank order." I shrug. "They recently found this out, and that was the trigger for the Whites to publically demonstrate their displeasure at the state of affairs."

    "Yeah, I'll bet."

    "Rebels have taken control of some cities. The peace conference was to enable the peaceful parts of the White rights movement to coalesce around a unified position. The head of the Martian police force… I still don't know if he knew what was happening there or if he genuinely believed it to be a meeting of rebel militants. But.. since martians are afraid of fire… That was my best chance to make them rethink without slaughtering them."

    Her eyes narrow slightly and flick to the side. "Okay. I don't.. hate having been a part of that. But I'm still mad at you for dragging me-"

    I lean forward and pass an envelope to her.

    "-out of bed…" She frowns, taking it. "What's this?"

    "You did work for me, therefore I pay you. Eight hours combat pay, plus unsociable hours."

    She runs her right forefinger along the top of the envelope, carefully burning through the fold without igniting the surrounding paper. She then pulls out the cheque, notes the amount without outwardly reacting, then returns it to the envelope, folds the envelope and slips it into the front right pocket of her trousers.

    "It's a start."

    "It's part of what I owe you-."

    "I still wanna know why you didn't just grab a flamethrower."

    "It's… I think it's an Apokoloptian thing. Elite Apokoliptians are far more powerful than weapons. And regardless of the particularities of our relationship, I think of you as being… One of mine. On my side. So I was… Thinking about what I could do to pay you back…" I shrug. "Came up a bit short. So if there's anything an alien warrior god can do for you, let me know."

    She hesitates for a moment, then shrugs, shaking her head. "Fine. Okay."

    "But that aside, there was something I wanted to offer you anyway."

    "I suppose I could use a summer job…"

    "No, I… I thought 'fire' and I thought 'you'. What I-."

    "The awakening thing?" She looks away for a moment. "I don't know, Grayven."

    "Enhanced everything and no more periods. There is literally no downside. Yours for the asking."

    She sits back, sighing. "I suppose if you're going to come grab me anyway…"

    "Awesome, but that wasn't what I was working up to offering." This could go badly wrong, but it needs to be said. "I think of you as one of mine. My… Household. Apokoliptian social custom isn't entirely without redeeming features. I realise that.. at your age, this offer is far less appealing than it would have been when you were younger, but I'd still like to offer-."

    Her eyebrows shoot up. "What, seriously? Adopting-?" I nod and she grimaces, shifting awkwardly in her seat. "No, Grayven, that's… What?" She shakes her head with surprising vehemence. "No."

    "Okay. Fine. I mean, ow, but fine."

    She's still fidgeting, clearly extremely uncomfortable with the idea. "If I was… Twelve or something, but I'm not. I-." She actually shudders.

    I raise my right hand. "Okay. Offer's there. Challenger Mountain's doors are always open to you." I rise, dismissing the chair construct as I do so. "I'm afraid that I'm going to be busy on Mars for a little while, but you can talk to Sunset or Barda if you want reassurance about the Awakening."

    Mother Box, hush tube to T'ronn's current location.

    Ping.
     
  24. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    11th January
    13:23 GMT

    "I read your report, but seeing it directly adds to the ridiculousness of the artefact."

    Hinon and I stand on the moon, staring at my toilet.

    "Do you even go to the toilet?"

    "Not that one. You haven't plumbed it in."

    "I'd have to give the moon an atmosphere." I look around the largely desolate lunar surface. "And while I could, I didn't think the time and effort involved were worthwhile."

    "At least you retained some semblance of sense."

    "No. No. No, not really. I mean, this is where I shut down my environmental shield while in a near-vacuum." And hid the Star Sapphire. Actually… "That reminds me, were you able to smooth things over with the Zamarons?"

    "No, I was not." She sighs. "I've no idea what happened to them. They used to be such reasonable women. Only Nadia would speak to me at all, and she made it pretty clear that she was doing it on sufferance. Such a disappointment."

    "Because all of the colours working together is more effective than any one of them?"

    That earns me a glare. "No, because they were my friends and colleagues, you oafish ape-man. They were supposed to be researchers, then I lie down for a few centuries and when I wake up Aga'po is calling herself 'Queen' and they've gone from researching the violet light to researching.. breeding with mortals."

    "Not it."

    "What? No, I wasn't volunteering you. They've still got some taste."

    "Yeah, and so have I. I've seen Zamarons. Also, I'm in a happy, long term, monogamous relationship."

    "Yes, that must be why she has just moved to the other side of the galaxy from your homeworld."

    "That's professional development. She has a career."

    "I remember having sexual urges. They're supposed to be at their most intense during the early stages of the relationship. An evolutionary development to compel developmental stability for infants in species using the K reproductive strategy."

    "It'll be a few years before we reproduce, Hinon."

    "That's not the point. The point is the instinctive way horny animals respond to one another-."

    "Hinon, I'm an enlightened empath. Quite aside from the fact that I know exactly how much my own sex drive influences my thinking, I know exactly how interested in me she is." I frown. "Do you.. have children yourself?"

    "Hm? Oh, yes. It was a while ago, though."

    "Huh."

    "Yes." She frowns faintly as she stretches her memory back to however long ago it was. "At the time, the consensus was that reproducing to replacement values was a reasonable course of action. I seem to remember that the process was satisfactory."

    Satisfactory..? "What.. reproductive strategy did the ancient Maltusians use again?"

    "Technically, 'K', but by the time I became an adult we'd been more or less as we are today for longer than we'd been anything else, so it was all rather irrelevant. Desire."

    "I'm sorry? Desire was irrelevant?"

    "The one who spoke to you here. Desire. The Endless." She looks at me with mild frustration. "Do try to remember why we're here."

    Desire. The only thing I remember about Desire from Sandman was that… They are a hermaphrodite, or.. something, they.. helped that iron age tribeswoman marry the chief's son and probably had something to do with him getting killed the next day, and failed to tempt Emperor Norton to do… Something. The plot was rather Dream-focused.

    "Is that a problem?"

    "Think about it for a moment. You may well exist in perfect equilibrium with your desires now, but how would you characterise how you felt when you came here?"

    I nod. "We were a confused mess."

    "And this was when and where Desire chose to visit you. Not before, when you were struggling with your ring. Not afterwards, when you were at peace with it. When you were at your lowest ebb."

    "At my most entertaining."

    Guess Desire is a bitchhole, then. At least I appear to have become boring enough that they haven't put in another appearance.

    "Just report any future contact and you should be alright."

    "Really?"

    "No. But it can't-" My ring blinks. "-hurt. Much."

    I hold out my left hand. "Orange Lantern."

    Alan's face appears. "Good morning, Paul. Good to see you back."

    "It was just a couple of days, Alan."

    "Last time you went there you got into a fight with a Qwardian living weapon." I shrug. In this line of work... He nods, smiling. "Yeah, I guess. Just part of the job. So, you just calling to shoot the breeze?"

    "No. I was concerned about the possible effects of prolonged orange light exposure, so I talked Controller Hinon into visiting. Would it be possible for her to meet with you today?"

    "Ah… Sure…"

    "Problem?"

    "I'm spending the day on the Watchtower. I'm sure she's.. trustworthy, but there're protocols…"

    "Alan, she could build the Watchtower." Hm. "Actually, she could probably bring it back to full working order if you asked nicely."

    "What d'you call what it is now?"

    "'Approved for export' mode. You know the Green Lanterns only got the sensors turned back on when Salaak confirmed that we'd had Star Conquerors around."

    He nods. "You've got a point. I'll.. run it by Diana and Batman, see what they say. Call you back when we've talked it through."

    "Rightoh. Talk to you later."

    His face vanishes-.

    "Did you just volunteer me for manual labour?"
     
  25. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    11th January
    09:31 GMT -5


    "Recognised, Orange Lantern, B zero six. Identity confirmed."

    School day today, so Kon will have already-.

    "Good morning, Paul!" Amon beams as he sees me, flying across the room and landing just in front of me.

    "Good morning, Amon. I didn't know that you were starting with us quite yet."

    "Adom has been discussing it with Captain Marvel and the Batman for some time. My.. public profile makes some things a little difficult." I nod. "It was a matter of finding an appropriate investigation."

    "Which of the sites the angels visited did they send you to?"

    "Ethiopia. Their government were polite to me, as they are hoping that my sister will help them with their farming."

    "Find anything interesting?"

    He shakes his head. "The Orthodox Patriarch was insensible and the church was empty. It was supposed to house a Jewish holy artefact called 'The Ark of the Covenant', but if it did then it is not there any longer. Miss Zatara checked with her magic, and there did not appear to be any lingering effects, other than the consecration of the church itself."

    "Miss Zatara?"

    "She is my…" He frowns for a moment. "Personal development coach? I am.. still not sure why I need a mentor other than Adom…"

    "Several plausible reasons. First, while I have the greatest respect for Adom, he isn't a 'superhero' in the modern sense. And he knows it. He has instincts which were right for the era of his birth, and he is still not always sure what the correct way to act is. And while he has people advising him and teaching him, he knows that learning… Basic things like that on the job isn't ideal when that job is running a country."

    Amon nods. "So I am to learn the correct way from the start, while I am not running a country. That is wise, but Miss Zatara is not older than me."

    "She grew up as the daughter of a superhero. She knows the attitude and comportment which the role requires, and while many of our other more experienced team mates have school her schedule is flexible enough to fit in with you. And.. it.. sometimes helps to have someone to go to who isn't your main mentor."

    "Because I am a teenager, and therefore must be argumentative and disruptive." He shakes his head. "If that habit was ever in me, then it was beaten out of me."

    "Everyone has bad days, Amon. Sometimes it helps to get things out of your system with someone else, so that you can talk to the person with whom you have a disagreement with a clearer head. And I'm not sure that Zehuti can really serve in that role."

    "Ah…" He looks away. "No."

    "Problem?"

    "Adom… He says he hears the gods literally speaking with him. But Captain Marvel does not."

    "As I understand it, Jebediah used different versions of the empowerment spell on them."

    "I do not hear them as Adom does. I have.. tried.. setting the power aside, and I am wiser with it than without it, but I do not hear a voice."

    "You see? This is the sort of thing you could talk to Zatanna about."

    "Ah…" He glances back over his shoulder, towards the corridor he flew out from. "O.. kay?"

    "But since you're asking me… The augmentation clearly works. Adom shares his power with you because he loves and respects you. If he wanted to talk to Zehuti he'd just do it himself; he doesn't need you to do it for him." He nods. "Now, Adom worshipped Zehuti for decades before Jebediah put them in direct contact. You’ve-. Sorry, I realise that I don't know whether you actually worship them or not."

    "I don't know. 'God' was just something the older prisoners talked about when the guards weren't listening. I pray as Adom does, but I haven't.. really…"

    "Couple of options, then. We could perform a ritual to put you in direct contact with them, or we could visit Jebediah and ask him what's going on."

    "Captain Marvel said that the wizard does not wish to see Adom. But I suppose that he has not said anything-"

    "Hey Paul!"

    "-about me."

    We both turn as Zatanna strolls into the training area, Staff of Love in hand, violet smoke wafting around her.

    "Good morning, 'Miss Zatara'."

    She blinks, then rolls her eyes and shakes her head. "Amon, stop calling me that."

    I wave as Leonid and Kaldur walk in behind her. "Anything official to do today?"

    Kaldur nods. "Rocket Red has informed us of a marked increase in petty thefts in western Russia, and Batman has confirmed that countries in central and eastern Europe are experiencing a similar crime wave."

    I nod. "Canis, Tula, Garth?"

    "Canis found the idea that someone would steal precious metal from a museum to be most profoundly offensive."

    I nod. "Unless they were stealing to order, unique pieces would only be useful for the value of the metal."

    "Garth is… Visiting his family. Tula is accompanying him."

    "Relatives who.. didn't have anything to do with him getting exiled for having purple-?"

    "No." Kaldur bows his head. "It is a… Delicate time for him."

    Pshfffffffff. If it was me, I wouldn't bother. I mean, sure, King Orin can't pretend his home city doesn't exist, but after what they did to him I'm astonished that Garth's giving them the time of day. But, of course, up to him.

    "Alright. Where to first?"

    Zatanna smiles. "Bucharest. Have you ever visited it?"

    "Yes, I went to see quite a few places when I was getting used to flying around with my ring. I actually visited the Museum of Art Collections in twenty ten."

    "Maybe if we get time you could show me around?"

    "Ah… Sure, though the tour guides would probably be better." I turn to Kaldur. "So… Boom tube to Ankara, or is Canis actually answering his radio this time?"

    Zatanna shakes her head. "No need. I've finally gotten the hang of group teleports. Everyone ready?"

    Amon and Leonid nod, Kaldur puts his right hand up to stop her. "I need to speak with Orange Lantern for a moment. Please, continue on."

    She frowns for a second, then shrugs, lifting the staff with her right hand and pressing her left down on the Star Sapphire itself. There's a swirl of mist and then she, Amon and Leonid are gone.

    No backwards chanting?

    "What is it?"

    He looks.. mildly uncomfortable for a moment. "I need to ask you to tell me whether or not you are in secret discussions with the government of Venturia."
     
    Last edited: Mar 23, 2020
  26. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    11th January
    09:35 GMT -5

    "No."

    He stares at me levelly for a moment. I put my right hand over my heart.

    "I have not been in secret discussions with the government-."

    "Have you perhaps been in some other sort of discussion?"

    I smile. "Yes! See, I was overloading Sephtian with research projects, so I thought: I need this researched, who do I know who can do it who isn't linked into Sephtian's brain drain supply chain?"

    Kaldur nods. "The government of Venturia."

    "They have as little to do with Poseidonis as possible, but use basically the same thaumaturgical notation. Everything I'd already learned could be shared without having to explain it."

    He exhales slowly, bowing his head slightly and closing his eyes for a moment. "What is the nature of the research you are having them perform?"

    "I'm trying to study the relationship between the material universe and the Dream. I'm leaving exactly how they do it up to their researchers, because..." I shrug. "I would just be guessing. Is… There a problem?"

    "How much progress have they made?"

    "They haven't even finished setting up their forges yet." I shake my head. "I don't honestly see them achieving much within the lifetimes of the current generation of archmages. It's probably going to turn out to be one of those near-pointless resource sinks like the Large Hadron Collider, but… I've got the resources to spare, and I can afford to be optimistic." I frown in puzzlement. "Is there a problem?"

    "Venturia is preventing Queen Ptra from returning to her home city to take her throne."

    "I'm.. pretty sure that she already rules Aurania..?"

    "No. Venturia."

    "Um." I frown. "It was a while ago Diana told me about it, but… Didn't Ptra grow up in Aurania?"

    "She split her time between Aurania and Poseidonis."

    "Has she..? Ever been to Venturia?"

    Kaldur doesn't immediately respond. Okay, what's happening? Queen Clea allied with the Nazis during World War Two. She agreed to raid Allied shipping in exchange for them recognising her claims to nearby islands. Diana fought her and.. sort of lost until Queen Cora -King Orin's grandmother- took command of the situation. Venturia broke their alliance, and the Allies agreed to abandon Atlantean territory once the war ended. Then… Something about Venturia and Aurania making a marriage alliance… Diana seemed a bit unclear on the details, but I know that something went wrong and Venturia has been isolationist ever since.

    "Kaldur, whatever political problems are occurring in Atlantis… I'm not involving myself."

    "Other than by sharing the greatest arcane tool produced by the arcanotechnological revolution with a city which is now refusing to recognise King Orin's authority."

    "Yes, other than that. The design isn't a secret, Kaldur. Sephtian's been showing everyone." Wait. "Is this about the message I delivered for Lord Cyprian? I only did that because it was quicker than the normal Atlantean postal service."

    "In part, yes. Lord Cyprian has crowned himself King of Venturia, and has announced his intention to secede from Atlantis."

    "Okay?"

    "I am hoping that you will agree to cease dealing with them until the dispute has been resolved."

    "Kaldur…" I shake my head. "I'm not going to involve myself in Atlantean internal politics. Unless he commits an actual atrocity or.. Queen Hippolyta tells me otherwise, I'm not going to change my current stance."

    "Under Queen Clea, Venturia was turned into a police state. Lord Cyprian was her Prime Minister for decades, and will continue with the same policies."

    "And Garth was nearly murdered in the cradle for being born with the wrong colour eyes. And the Nanauvians eat each other to settle civil disputes. Let's not pretend that Atlantis is a bastion of liberal democracy."

    "King Orin has made it the purpose of his reign to make it one."

    "Kaldur, the Orange Lantern Corps may not operate on the same non-interference policy as the Green Lantern Corps, but we do have a policy-."

    "A policy which you have the authority to overrule."

    "Yes, but on what grounds, Kaldur? Has King Cyprian committed an atrocity? Do you want me to go back over sixty years, or… The entire history of Atlantis since the sinking? Because as an outsider I'd need to do that to decide who was in the right, and to what degree. Do you want me to get into the habit of overruling national leaders, not because they're evil but because they don't do what my allies want?"

    "Then will you at least share with us what you learn from your research?"

    "Of course. The whole reason why I'm doing this is to improve the world's understanding of magic. Though as I said, I don't think it's going to amount to much anytime soon."

    His face hardens slightly. "The ability to manipulate the connection between the material world and the Dream could give the Venturians the ability to prevent the use of magic throughout Atlantis."

    "Or release a plague of nightmares in their own research centre or really tick off one of the Endless." I shake my head. "Kaldur, I'm an empath. I met King Cyprian. You know what I saw?"

    "I do not."

    "A man who genuinely believes that it's his job to improve the lives of his people as much as he can. I didn't know that he was planning on declaring independence, but I don't think he's the sort of man who you have to worry about signing off on a doomsday weapon."

    "Unless he has a way to confuse your senses."

    "Hmm. Possible, but I was wearing a spell eater, and I was getting the usual degree of complexity from him. Most defences just block me. Look, other than having his independence recognised, has he made any demands..?"

    "Not to my knowledge."

    "And they've only had… Extremely limited contact with the rest of Atlantis for sixty years?"

    "Yes."

    "So all he wants is what he's already got. Between that and what I saw, I don't think it's unreasonable to conclude that he isn't a threat to the rest of Atlantis."

    "And if he became one?"

    "The same thing I'd do if King Orin became a threat to Venturia. Or when anywhere became a threat to anywhere else without a darn good reason. Kaldur, I don't think that thinking about this in purely adversarial terms is particularly sensible."

    "I will convey that to my king. Will you be willing to deliver to Lord Cyprian any messages he wished to relay privately?"

    So much for not getting involved. "Of course."

    "Then we should not keep Zatanna waiting any longer."
     
  27. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    11th January
    16:44 GMT +2

    Kaldur leads the way through the museum, talking quietly to the detective who met us at the entrance. Amon is following just behind them while Leonid has gone to look for Canis. Zatanna is walking with me while-.

    Zatanna is walking arm in arm with me, apparently, while I run scans of the building. No oddities I can detect. The break in was near-flawless. No damage I can see to any part of the building, including the security systems. Museum records indicate that camera and sensor coverage went uninterrupted throughout the period when the theft is believed to have taken place, and I can't detect any signs of technology-based teleportation. I do see why Canis is worried about this being the work of Philistines, though: the thief or thieves made a perfect entry to a museum filled with valuable paintings, furniture and rugs, but for some reason all they took was precious metal. That suggests someone only interested in the value of the materials, rather than the market value or artistic significance of the piece.

    "What did Kaldur want to talk to you about?"

    "One of the Atlantean city states I've had dealings with wants to leave Atlantis."

    She frowns. "Can they do that?"

    "Can Texas leave the Union?"

    "Not according to General Grant. Is it actually going to come to that?"

    "I don't know. It's unprecedented in recent times." Hm. "Texas was in the Union for fifteen years before the civil war, right?"

    "Mm-hm."

    "Do you think it would have come to war if they'd just decided to leave, but the Confederacy wasn't forming at the same time?"

    "Probably. The Confederacy happened for a bunch of reasons, but the divide between slave states and free states had been there for a while. The federal government wouldn't want to set the precedent that states could leave."

    "True, I suppose. But Atlantis… For most of its history, individual city states paid tribute to the ruler of Poseidonis as pre-eminent, but from the sinking to… Relatively recently, they have in effect been independent in most regards. Cities have gone to war with each other before, including Poseidonis. Or remained neutral while other cities did. Under Queen Clea, Venturia bitterly resisted any move towards a federal system, and they weren't the only city that felt that way."

    "And now they've decided to leave the country, because they don't want to give up their independence."

    "Something like that. Queen Atlanna wanted her heir to be raised on the surface so that he could bring Atlantis back into contact with the rest of the world." I shrug. "Unfortunately, that upbringing appears to have left King Orin with American assumptions that just aren't true about Atlantis. His attempt to force cities to select their senators by popular ballot was voted down pretty heavily."

    "How are they selected, then?"

    "It varies from city to city. Aside from Poseidonis, there are..? Two..? Other cities which make the selection by popular vote. Usually it's an appointment by the city's governing body or ruler, which was how Venturia was handling it. Now I.. suppose they'll either recall them or leave them as ambassadors."

    "Are you and Kaldur okay?"

    "I don't think he's happy about it. I wouldn't be if Scotland voted itself independent-."

    Zatanna smiles. "I thought you were Themysciran."

    "Themyscira's not big enough to have a breakaway region. If it broke away, it would be Themyscira. Also, Themyscira's been united for about three thousand years. It's only been about three hundred years since Atlantis's last big internal bust up."

    "Only three hundred years, huh?"

    I roll my eyes. "Pff, colonial." She chuckles politely as we approach the crime scene, Kaldur and the detective moving to speak with the museum director. "Are you picking up anything?"

    She releases my arm, moving the Staff of Love in an arc while her eyes glow violet. "Yes. It's.. subtle, but…" She holds the staff up, violet light radiating away from the Star Sapphire at the head. Markings show up on the display cabinets, up the nearby walls and across the ceiling.

    I watch as one of the police starts taking photographs of the marks. "What happened to talking backwards?"

    "I started learning real magic, without inherited cheating. The power I get from the Star Sapphire makes it much easier."

    Kaldur turns in our direction. "Can you tell what it was that made those marks?"

    Zatanna takes a few steps closer, eyes still glowing. "Doesn't feel Atlantean… Not demonic, obviously…" She blinks, her eyes returning to normal. "I don't recognise the spell." She turns to the museum director. "Do you know where I could find a local witch?"

    "Ah… The gypsies?"

    Zatanna… Doesn't look enthusiastic. And I know where's she's coming from. For every 'traditional magic' practitioner who actually practises magic, there are about a hundred who either think they do but don't or are flat out frauds. I learned that when Ted and I tried recruiting people.

    "Ah, sir?" One of the police on guard duty gestures to the detective. "If they need to talk to a witch..?"

    The detective thinks for a moment, then looks at Kaldur. "Please come this way?"

    The four of us follow him down a corridor and into a nearby unoccupied room, and he takes a moment to check that no one is standing behind the exits before turning back to us.

    "There is… A person… Who may be able to help you. If the problem is magic."

    Zatanna sets the butt of the staff on the floor. "The problem is theft. I just need someone who knows what sort of magic gets used around here."

    The detective looks decidedly uncomfortable. "We can… Arrange that."

    Kaldur looks at him impassively. "Is there a problem?"

    "The person… Has contacts which make going to her… Awkward. Not all of her connections are good ones for police officers to have, but…" He shrugs. "We have few superheroes in this country. Sometimes it is necessary to… Have arrangements…"

    Kaldur and I nod.

    I'm sure that Dracula exists in the DC universe, but I don't really remember him being a focus as he was in Marvel. All of the vampires I've met had been Americans, grateful recipients of KordTech's vitalised cloned blood. Still, I'm mindful of the country I'm in.

    "Is the individual in question… Not trying to play to stereotypes or anything-."

    "Not a vampire, no." He reaches into his shirt and pulls out an Orthodox Christian crucifix. "She just laughs at it. And after she found out I was wearing it, she… Ate some garlic in front of me."

    I suppose that if she knows what a crucifix is well enough to laugh, then she knows well enough to be affected by vampire theophobia. The garlic thing is a bit dodgier. Traditionally, it was sweet smelling flowers that warded off 'evil spirits', which included vampires. There is some evidence that allicin is at least somewhat toxic to vampires, but a vampire who knew what they were doing would be able to work through it for at least long enough to purge themselves.

    Zatanna nods. "She sounds like the sort of person I need to speak to."

    He looks at Kaldur. "All of you would be too many."

    Kaldur nods. "Zatanna, Orange Lantern, go with Inspector Gherea. I will have Canis transport us to the site of another theft."

    Zatanna pulls a small stone out of one of her pockets, violet runes glowing on its surface for a moment. "This will let you know whether the magic there is the same as the magic here."

    Kaldur takes it, then Zatanna and I follow Inspector Gherea out of the building.
     
  28. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    11th January
    17:22 GMT +2

    The police car pulls up in front of what looks like a Soviet-era block of flats, and Zatanna and I get out. The building is a little showier than its neighbours, but possessed of the standard issue smears of rust and lichen down the concrete exterior. The same eroded paint job.

    I wonder if I could trade her expertise for an exterior tune-u-? No, too late, orange light is already running through the ground and up the walls, purging lichen and moss and removing bird droppings, making minor repairs and redoing the paintwork. Fortunately it's only working on the exterior, so there shouldn't be any repetition of the Gotham Police headquarters incident.

    "I phoned ahead. This way."

    Inspector Gherea is either ignoring the faint orange light, or he's blaming his contact. Zatanna on the other hand is regarding me with a degree of amusement.

    "So enlightenment doesn't cure anal-retentiveness?"

    "No, not even slightly." This time she doesn't take my arm, preferring to have both hands available to grip her staff. I glow briefly as I shift to a slightly heavier armour and check my spell eater. "But it does stop me being conflicted about it."

    We follow the Inspector up to the front door, where rather than buzzing on the intercom he dials a number on his mobile.

    "Anything thaumically interesting?"

    She smiles at me as her eyes flash again. "One or two things. Nothing very powerful."

    The Inspector pushes open the door, and we proceed inside. It's… Tidy? The paint on the walls is in good repair and the floor has been mopped recently. The Inspector's eyes go to the stairwell, but with a small shake of his head he leads us over to the lifts. He reaches out to press the 'Call Lift' button, but the door opens before his hand reaches it.

    "Pressure panels under the floor, or was someone watching the security cameras?"

    "No, basic synchronicity magic. John showed me how it works. It's an easy and subtle way of making things happen the way you want them to."

    The Inspector steps inside, and I hold out my hand to indicate that Zatanna can get inside first. Not only is it polite, but she's better able than me to detect and identify magic. She enters without incident, and I step in after her.

    "Inspector, the first time you came here-" The doors close and the lift begins its ascent. "-did the lights go out when you were part way up?"

    "Yes. It was… Unsettling."

    "And there were a bunch of weird sounds just loud enough to hear, and you felt something on the back of your neck?"

    He looks a little taken aback by her grin. "Yes. How did you know?"

    "Basic street magician intimidation. Paul, could you check the wiring?"

    Ring? Heh.

    "Simple ink diagram."

    Zatanna nods while Inspector Gherea just looks puzzled. "I don't understand."

    "When you're dealing with people who don't know anything about magic, you can get a psychological advantage by making yourself seem more powerful than you are. She put a small spell on the wiring of the light so that she could disrupt it. And the rest probably just came from magnifying your own fears, maybe with a small spell to make it seem more real than it actually was."

    "So I wasn't in danger?"

    "John said that most people who set things like this up usually have someone with a gun standing outside the elevator. If whoever was in charge wanted to kill you, they wouldn't need to do it with magic."

    "I see." He pulls himself slightly more upright. "I will remember that."

    "Or vampires."

    "Vampires are not especially common in Romania. The purges were quite thorough. And I have my cross."

    "Can you get it out of your shirt faster than a vampire could punch you?" He promptly takes his crucifix out and lets it hang down his chest. "Or shoot you; vampires can use guns."

    "I do not think that she means to attack us. But I will be a little more confident-" The lift stops and the doors open. "-in future."

    He steps out, fixing the man who was waiting for the lift with a gaze so piercing and confrontational that he takes a step backwards and spreads his hands in surrender. The Inspector continues to glare at him for a moment, then stalks away down the corridor, Zatanna and I following on behind him. Ring? No, the man isn't armed, and isn't anything to do with the woman we're here to see. Though he does take the opportunity to stare at the two superheroes as we go. Wonder if he actually recognises us?

    The Inspector walks up to a heavily reinforced door, quite obviously different in style from the others we've walked past. Scan, and, yes, the wall has been reinforced too. There's a small bundle of dead flowers pushed through a wrought iron ring at head height, and the mechanism… Yes, another minor bond to allow the owner to operate it without a key. While the Inspector buzzes for entrance I take out my rune stone. A minor magic presence at most. Nothing like what someone in Doctor Mist's league would use, but street magicians keep their ears to the ground. I idly turn, looking out of a nearby external wind…

    Ring, what floor are we on?

    The top floor, floor fourteen.

    Hah! Someone's using the Ward of Stolen Light. Just trying to unsettle people, or is that a serious attempt to disguise her precise location? If that door was anything to go by she doesn't have the power for teleportation

    There's a quiet clank, then the door swings outwards on very strong-looking hinges. No secondary door inside, but the exterior door is designed to prevent hostile entry. A safety measure rather than a trap.

    "Are you going to stand there all day?"

    Inspector Gherea strides in, making a point of showing that he isn't cowed. This time. Zatanna steps through primly and as I follow I shake my head.

    "No 'enter freely of your own will'?"

    The woman sitting on the settee looks at me with disdain. "I am a witch, not a vampire."

    And scan. Ah, she's telling the truth. How novel.

    The woman herself is quite striking, in an artificial sort of way. A pale complexion rendered paler by an excess of makeup, black lipstick, heavy mascara and jet black hair… Yes, dyed. She's wearing leather trousers, topped by a loose white blouse and a black leather bodice thing. All looks a bit Goth, really, but given our location I suppose it might be authentic. Behind her, a tall window gives a lovely view of… Madrid, I think.

    Zatanna walks towards her. "Zatanna Zatara."

    "Dala Vadim. You have questions for me?"

    Zatanna sits down opposite, leaving the Staff of Love to float upright beside her. "Something stole some silverware from the Museum of Art Collections. I don't think it was human, but I don't know enough about local fae creatures to know what it was. I was hoping that you could help me."

    Ms Vadim shrugs. "Gnomes sometimes steal small items. But they are opportunists, not good at sneaking into places. I would guess a bound imp-."

    Zatanns shakes her head. "It wasn't a demon."

    "A ghost, perhaps? The bound spirit of some thief?"

    Zatanna frowns. "It could be. But why would a ghost need to walk on-?"

    The window explodes inwards!
     
  29. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    11th January
    17:31 GMT +2

    I extend a construct barrier across the seating area and scan for targets. Glass patters harmlessly off it as… No, not seeing anything. No projectile, no body-. Ring, calculate point of impact and extrapolate-.

    A thin bolt of fire leaps at me from inside the barrier, briefly illuminating-. Something, not sure what it was. I generate construct armour, but the fire flows through that, and through my-.

    I take a step back as the worst of it is turned aside by my body armour, drawing my sidearm and pointing it at the apparent source of the fire. There's a bang as the slug fires, and the fire cuts out. Construct bypass. Marvellous.

    I switch to power armour, rising off the floor slightly as I do so. Slowly-. Ah, I'm accelerating my mind. Zatanna has only just grabbed the Staff of Love and is hopefully working on a dispel for the invisibility. The one I shot still hasn't reappeared, which suggests that it isn't a cast on self spell. And the iron round actually hit, which means this isn't a ghost.

    Another burst of fire, this one aimed at Ms Vadim. She throws herself aside as I fly through the air, hitting… Something, my kinetic barrier definitely triggered-.

    There's a pulse of violet light through the room and I get a look at who I hit as they slam into a bookcase. Looks like… A really skinny midget someone stuck a crocodile head on. Nothing I remember from any of Clarice's bestiaries, though 'vulnerable to iron' and 'disguised with magic' do suggest some sort of fae creature. Not carrying any iron chains, constructs don't work

    I grab its right arm and take a magic suppression binding out of subspace, clamping it in place in a way which I hope will bind the creature. Didn't really design them with skinny midgets in mind. It turns its head my way and exhales at my helmet. Nothing visible, nothing on scans or armour sensors. The fire blasts were visible, whatever that was-. Irrelevant. I generate a taser construct and strike the creature in the chest, causing it to shudder and go limp.

    Swivelling around, I watch as another one of the creatures spits a cone of fire at Zatanna, only for the fire to turn in mid-air and fly back at its source. The creature takes the hit unflinchingly, then exhales-.

    Inspector Gherea shoots it with his own gun, causing it to wince and fall back slightly. Ms Vadim has grabbed a sword from somewhere and is using it to strike at another. Civilians in danger, effective permission from relevant civil authorities received. I generate a small railgun construct, load iron rounds and shoot the left leg of the one fighting Ms Vadim. It falls, the leg hanging on only by the thickness of its skin, and she takes advantage of the opportunity to stab it through the right eye.

    Another leaps at her from somewhere, and I traverse the railgun and shoot it in the chest. It tumbles, the force of the impact slamming it into the floor and causing it to slide to the far wall as she pulls her sword free and assumes a guard position. It seems that unlike John, she actually knows how to fight. Another bang as Inspector Gherea fires again, but this time his target is moving too erratically for him to hit. Zatanna swings her staff and bashes one of the creatures over the head, then points the staff's head at another and fires off a slightly arrow-shaped pulse of energy. The creature ducks behind Ms Vadim's desk but the energy bolt punches straight through and pins it to the wall next to the broken window.

    I check for further attackers. Not seeing anything. Though since they can become invisible… I fly directly for the broken window, filaments grabbing the broken shards of glass, forcing them back into place and making the window whole again. Behind me, Zatanna is already putting out the fires which the creatures caused as I check the balcony and the streets beyond. Nothing obviously relevant going on. Not that I'd necessarily see the reinforcements if there were.

    "Anyone hurt?"

    Zatanna shakes her head, a wave of her staff causing glowing violet circles to appear around the wrists and ankles of our assailants. They then float through the air to be lined against the empty wall to my right, probably dripping blood all the way. I'll have to clean the place up before we go.

    "What the fuck was that?"

    Inspector Gherea appears reasonably calm, considering the situation, but his gun is still in hand and he's-.

    I turn around to face him.

    "Inspector, you're injured."

    "What?" He checks himself over, not daring move his eyes from his immediate surroundings for longer than he absolutely has to, and does a small double take when he sees the damp slashes in his right sleeve. "Ah, shit. Must have.. been the glass."

    "Please remove your jacket."

    I float closer as he reluctantly returns his weapon to its holster and undoes his buttons. As he takes it off the jacket sticks slightly to his wound, causing the sleeve to turn inside out. The red is a lot more evident against the white of his shirt.

    Ring, scan?

    A few embedded slivers of glass, no significant nerve damage and no damaged arteries. Good. Construct filaments remove the glass as I deploy my armour's purple healing ray, the beam playing over the site of the injury. He looks a little uncertain, and uses his left hand to pull open the largest tear to get a better look.

    "Huh. Useful."

    "Ms Vadim-?"

    Zatanna shakes her head as Ms Vadim grabs a book off the floor by the ruined book case and lays it on her desk, flicking through it with her left hand while keeping hold of her sword with her right. I scan her, but she doesn't appear to be injured.

    "I've seen creatures like that before. They were in here…"

    Best leave her to it. I drift over to our prisoners-.

    "Inspector, what protections does Romanian law offer non-humans?"

    He withdraws the fingers probing his wound and looks at me-. Well, my armoured shoulder. "Depends. In theory, the same as everyone else, but… Quaestors and judges understand that it is not always practical." He moves his eyes to the creatures. "Are they alive?"

    Direct scans aren't working and the aura Zatanna has put around them isn't precise enough for me to make a full assessment… The one who was stabbed through the eye clearly isn't breathing, and its muscles are totally relaxed. Dead. The rest…

    Zatanna leans against the armour of my left arm. "What should I do with them?"

    "Can you completely nullify-?"

    She raises her staff in her left hand, beams of violet light striking the closest creature in the head, peeling back the invisibility magic from that area. Ah, I was wrong. Its head is shaped more like that of a bird, with the beak being a bizarre reptilian continuation of its face. Sharp, predatory teeth, recessed eyes, pointed ears… The skin is pale brown where it isn't… Scaled? There are spines projecting from the forearms and the scales are thick enough to form natural armour across the shoulders and back. The wound-. This is the one I shot in the stomach, and the round penetrated its intestines. I create a construct clamp and pull my projectile free before playing the purple healing ray over the wound.

    "Ugh, my.. floor!"

    Ms Vadim looks around the room as Zatanna continues to nullify invisibility spells. Each time the creature is fully revealed, its blood trail swiftly follows. Ring, track which belongs to each one.

    Compliance.

    "Ms Vadim, have you been able to identify these creatures? Are they intelligent?"

    I watch as she gives up on the carpet and puts her sword down on her desk before walking over to me, book in both hands. "Yes, though I'm surprised that they exist. This was copied from a sketch made in the eleventh century."

    Inspector Gherea walks over and we all look at the image. It's clearly simplified and the degree of menace is visibly greater, but it's the same creature.

    "What is it?"

    Ms Vadim frowns thoughtfully. "It is supposed to be a gnome." What? "But gnomes do not look like this, and they are petty thieves at worst."

    The Inspector nods. "I need to call this in. Please try to keep them alive."

    I nod inside my armour and turn to the next, the one I shot first.

    "Certainly."
     
  30. Mr Zoat

    Mr Zoat Dedicated ragequitter

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    11th January
    17:34 GMT +2

    Seven attackers, four of which survived their injuries and one of whom is conscious. Also worth noting that Zatanna is now strong enough to swing the Staff of Love hard enough to mash someone's skull. And not realise that she's done that until she tried neutralising their invisibility and the target body area was missing. Exercise, or arcane enhancement? I'll ask after the mission is over.

    And she's still on my arm for some reason, Ms Vadim's book floating in front of her. "Do you have any contact with the local gnome warren?"

    Ms Vadim shakes her head. "I don't even know where it is."

    Inspector Gherea sighs the long-suffering sigh of a police officer who knows he's in danger of falling down the rabbit hole but whose sense of duty won't let him break off. I've noticed that I've heard quite a few of those since becoming a superhero. "What is a gnome warren?"

    Zatanna floats the book towards him, and he nearly steps back before taking it. He looks it over quickly, then shakes his head. "As informative as the pictures are, I can't read Latin."

    Ms Vadim takes it from him. "Gnomes mostly live in large underground structures called 'warrens'. Some are thousands of years old, built of stone long before humans settled those parts of Europe. Others are more recent. Gnomes seldom live on their own. They can use their magic to prevent humans finding them."

    "And it could be anywhere?"

    "They prefer to live away from towns and cities. Their magic isn't strong enough to force thousands of people to ignore them." Her eyes narrow as she looks at our prisoners. "Usually. These are something new. Or possibly something old."

    "I don't know." Zatanna appears unconvinced. "It's just one picture. Didn't Anton Arcane-" Ms Vadim actually shudders, and her right hand makes a very small horns gesture. "-used to live in this country? If he'd gotten hold of a gnome, he might have turned them into something like this."

    I shake my head. "I've scanned unman biological material before. While I can't categorically say this wasn't him, it doesn't have any sign of the usual biological agents he used. And he seldom repeated himself."

    Inspector Gherea frowns. "Who is Anton Arcane?"

    "Romanian Nazi and biomancer. He's dead now, but his work still sticks around."

    "'Nazi' as in 'far right', or-?"

    "No, a proper Second World War, used to work in death camps Nazi. Hang on, I'll send Cranius a picture."

    Ring, scan. Message: Dear Doctor Cranius, recently encountered physiological abnormalities in Romania. Do not believe them to be Arcanian but would appreciate your confirmation. Yours, Orange Lantern.

    Message sent.

    The Inspector frowns, glancing at the maybe-gnomes. "Can they understand us?"

    "My scan of the one Ms Vadim stabbed suggests that they have the neural complexity to understand complex speech. As such, my rings ensure that they can understand me-" I make eye contact with the one I electrocuted, and his eyes widen slightly. Yes, not as cunning as you thought. "-but I don't know whether they speak English or Romanian or something else. Ms Vadim, can you think of any reason why mutant gnomes would be targeting you?"

    "The only reason I can think of is that I have heard of them, where most people-" She glances at the Inspector. "-are ignorant."

    "The Inspector mentioned that you had certain.. unusual contacts. I would normally respect your privacy, but if there's some sort of proxy conflict-."

    "No."

    "The thefts are happening over all of Eastern Europe. We were assuming that they were stealing for the value of the metal, but the other possibility is that they're looking for a particular artefact and only have an approximate description to work from. The United States has a deal with Atlantis for checking artefacts for magic before putting them in museums, but most places don't. If they're prepared to come after you in your place of business-."

    "Then I will contact people who can protect me."

    "Give them this." I take a bag of cloned, purple healing rayed blood out of subspace.

    "Why are you assuming they're vampires?"

    "The bite marks."

    Her right hand goes to her neck. "What.. bite marks?"

    I raise my eyebrows. "You really want me to say out loud?" Her eyes widen. "I used to work with John Constantine, and I'm still alive. When I'm invited to meet a dodgy street magician I do scan them first." I shake my head. Which she can't-. I switch back to my lighter armour and shake my head again. "Look, it's not a big deal for me. We sell this stuff to vampires in America, it's in the KordTech catalogue. I met.. seventeen? Back when we were testing it. They're all still… Animate, if not exactly alive."

    She nods a little nervously, and takes it. "That… Thank you. And I will ask, but I do not believe that my contacts are doing anything which would threaten gnomes."

    I turn to Zatanna. "Anything about the odd-looking gnomes in there?"

    "No, not really. The author says that the work they took the picture from said that these creatures served as foot soldiers for dragons, but… They don't seem to have been convinced that the older source was authentic. They met gnomes, and none looked like that or acted aggressively. Gnomes don't make good soldiers."

    "Dragons."

    "The last semi-reliable sighting of a dragon in Europe was in the twelfth century. I think if there was a giant fire-breathing lizard around then someone would have spotted it."

    "Inspector, does Bucharest do emergency evacuation drills?"

    "We have.. civil contingency plans for fires and terrorist attacks, but-. Are we going to be attacked by a dragon?"

    "If one hasn't attacked in the last nine hundred years, I'd guess not. If one was hibernating or something… I can't think of anything that's changed in the last few months that would have woken it up. Heck, we don't even know that the other thefts were conducted by these things." I frown. "Zatanna, these are the same creatures as-?"

    "It's the same magic, and they're roughly the right size and have the climbing ability. I don't know if it was these ones personally…" She frowns. "Hm." She releases my arm and walks over to where the blood splattered from the brain she crushed and kneels down, right hand on the staff and left hand touching the blood. Threads of violet light worm their way down from the star sapphire, along her right arm and down her left, flowing into the blood. A small violet model monster gnome appears floating just over it, and Zatanna's eyes unfocus slightly.

    "Zatanna?"

    "No. They came right here. They smelled her magic." She stands, the mini-monster fading and the blood on her fingers evaporating.

    I nod. "Would you please update Kaldur?" I turn back to my electrocutee and put my power armour back on. "I need to ask this one some questions."
     
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