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  1.  
  2.  
  3. Mouse Protector, April 1989
  4.  
  5. She bounced on her feet, filled with energy waiting to escape. She liked the plan, it was a good strategy and played to both her and the other Wards' strengths, but she also wouldn't deny that the waiting was killer. Hmm. What should I say when I drop in? Gotta be a killer line, he won't cut me any slack if it's lame. The radio crackled once and she tensed.
  6.  
  7. "MP, go!" Miss Militia's voice was still accented, although her English had improved a great deal recently. Still, the call had gone out, and she reached into her power. The transition from one location to another was instant and without disorientation, and she pointed her blade at the darkly armored form immediately.
  8.  
  9. "Halt, technocrat! Know that you face the dynamic twin M's - Mouse Protector and Miss MIlitia! Your schemes end here!" Ugh, needs work! The villain turned to face her and she took a moment to appreciate his armor as usual. Sleek and slim, deep black with glowing purple lines cutting sharply across it, and a helmet made up of interlocking mechanisms that resembled a human face. Nothing like what she'd imagined power armor would look like.
  10.  
  11. The mask raised its eyebrows at her. "Technocrat...now that could have been a contender for my name. A shame." Singularity's voice, as usual, made her smile a bit. It reminded her of the villains in the cartoons she'd watched as a kid - deep and synthesized, like it was made to intimidate and command. Even if Singularity was one of the only villains they allowed the Wards to fight, it never got old. "Well, little mouse, have you improved since the last time?"
  12.  
  13. She smirked as Hannah threw a second dart into the ground behind him. "Mouse Protector is always improving, villain!" She flashed to the mark she'd placed on the other dart and slashed at his legs. And, just as expected, he parried it with a jagged black blade that sprouted from his hand just in time. He made a sort of pirouette motion, lifting her sword out of position and thrusting his palm towards her. The smallest hum tickled her ears a moment before something blew her backwards into the air.
  14.  
  15. She flashed back to the first dart that Miss Militia had thrown, bouncing to her feet as her momentum normalized. "New tricks won't save you this time!"
  16.  
  17. "Yet they always have before. Your footwork is still lacking, little mouse." When she lunged, he moved forward into her space, spinning them around until her back was to her teammate. "Your surroundings are just as important as your opponent."
  18.  
  19. "I don't have a shot," Militia murmured on the radio. She made an irritated noise, reaching out and shoving Singularity with her free hand. When he didn't budge, she flashed back to the first dart.
  20.  
  21. Hum. She went flying again and huffed in annoyance as she heard Militia pop off several shots. When she flashed to her teammate's side, she got a good view of Singularity walking forward and ignoring whatever ammunition Militia had projected. "The darts are clever, but the surprise only works once."
  22.  
  23. "I'm not running out of surprises any time soon!" She signaled Militia, who eyed her for a moment before her power shifted from a pistol to a grenade launcher.
  24.  
  25. She enjoyed the way Singularity's eyes widened when the grenade went sailing in an arc. He reached towards it, palm humming once again...and hesitated. When the grenade started pouring smoke, his shoulders twitched slightly.
  26.  
  27. And in that moment of distraction, she flashed to the mark she'd left on him, shield snapping out to smash into his helmet. There was a resounding clang and he fell back a step. She followed, the mark on him giving her a vague sense of his posture even through the smoke, and lashed out with her blade. "How's that for clever?"
  28.  
  29. "Playing to both of your strengths. Your teamwork's improved a bit." His gauntlet closed around the tip of her blade and she hesitated for a moment. "But she can't see through the smoke, can she? And you aren't the only one with surprises." There was another hum, and she flinched backwards, preparing to warp again -
  30.  
  31. - her blade clattered to the ground as her arms went numb and she stumbled backwards. "H-huh?"
  32.  
  33. "You should talk to your smith. Your blade's a bit too conductive."
  34.  
  35. He shocked me? What an asshole!
  36.  
  37. "We rounded up some of Singularity's goons, but the others are out of here. Couldn't catch them and keep these ones too,"
  38. Reed came over the radio, voice tense.
  39.  
  40. Singularity inclined his head, which she only felt because of her mark. "Until next time. Remember what I said." She felt him step backwards off the edge of the roof and move through the air. She could follow, but teleporting to something in midair didn't always work out in her favor...and a few seconds later her mark shuddered and disappeared. To this day, Singularity was the only one who'd ever managed to do that. Damn it! Ugh...I hate it when he does that.
  41.  
  42. Miss Militia walked up quietly, retrieving the two darts and tucking them into her belt before looking in Mouse Protector's direction. "The darts...were a good idea."
  43.  
  44. She scuffed her foot in the gravel of the roof. Didn't work on him, but it might on someone else...
  45.  
  46. Trickster, April 15th, 2011​
  47.  
  48. Cody was gone. It was done. One of Accord's people had taken him, spirited him away to some dungeon in this building, and they'd almost certainly never see him again.
  49.  
  50. One part of Krouse felt a stab of regret, but the rest of him - the part of him that remembered seeing one of the Perdition clones slam a civilian into a wall so hard her chest caved in - could only feel relief.
  51.  
  52. Accord steepled his fingers, gazing at Krouse with an intensity that he could feel through the mask. After a moment, he let out a soft breath. "I have come to a decision, Trickster. Despite everything, I find myself liking you - you strike me as a man attempting to keep his part of the world in order, despite the forces arrayed against that goal."
  53.  
  54. Trickster very carefully did not show his nervousness. "What decision have you come to?"
  55.  
  56. "I wish to avoid a repeat of yesterday's events. For obvious reasons, I would hope."
  57.  
  58. "Of course." Damn it, Cody. Even now, you're getting us in trouble.
  59.  
  60. "I did my research. Your Travelers, on every occasion you enter a new city, find temporary lodging. A pattern emerges - the more remote and secure your lodging, the less chaos is introduced into the city." Krouse's eyes widened despite himself. He's getting dangerously close to figuring it out. "Thus, my decision is obvious." His fingers touched down on his desk and, in a controlled motion, slid an envelope towards him. Even from here, Trickster could see his name in fine script written on the front. "Within this, you will find an address and instructions. Follow them, and you will find a suitable place of residence."
  61.  
  62. "We...one of our members has difficulty moving around without being noticed. Will that be a problem?"
  63.  
  64. "It's been accounted for."
  65.  
  66. He pursed his lips. "May I ask about the location in question?"
  67.  
  68. Accord leaned back slightly. "...Some time ago, I was made aware of an emergency bunker in my territory. A remnant from before my time, built by a man I hold some respect for. A Tinker. He never had the opportunity to use it, and I have kept it secret out of that respect. However, based on all I know of him...he would not have objected to its use in this case."
  69.  
  70. "I was under the impression Tinkers needed to maintain their work. Will this bunker still be functional?"
  71.  
  72. "That will not be an issue." Accord's voice had a hint of finality to it that Krouse could only accept.
  73.  
  74. The instructions had been exacting, each turn down an alley or street timed down to the minute. Yet, they hadn't encountered a single soul on their way here. Krouse glanced down at the paper again before reaching out, brushing against the fourth brick with his gloved fingers. The material flickered, turning darker and reflective, and a keypad emerged.
  75.  
  76. "Holy...that's actually kind of cool," Sundancer murmured quietly. Krouse typed in the eight-digit code on the paper, and a moment later part of the alley melted away to reveal a sloped ramp leading down. The others led the way, with him and Noelle bringing up the rear. They descended for...several minutes, at the minimum. As they advanced, the floor glowed softly - purple lights in hexagonal shapes, illuminating the otherwise featureless black hallway. A few feet behind them, the lights faded as they passed. The effect was mesmerizing in a way, but also...somewhat claustrophobic.
  77.  
  78. That feeling changed when the hallway suddenly opened into a large chamber. The walls outlined themselves in the same soft purple, only brighter, revealing several chairs and tables that seemed to be growing out of the dark material that made up the bunker as a whole.
  79.  
  80. "This is...both kind of cool and giving me a headache," Ballistic mumbled, half to himself.
  81.  
  82. "It's very sci-fi. Definitely what I'd expected from a Tinker base," Genesis added, craning her neck and staring up at the lit patterns on the ceiling. It was tall enough for Noelle to stand up fully straight - that was the first thing to jump out at Krouse.
  83.  
  84. "Now we just need to figure out where everything is. Wish there was a map or something," Sundancer said, taking a few steps into the center. The lights flickered, and a diagram appeared in the wall, showing a layout.
  85.  
  86. for a moment, they were quiet. Then Ballistic scoffed. "Okay now that's just creepy."
  87.  
  88. "Guess I said the magic word," Sundancer said, and Krouse could hear her smiling. She'd always been a big sci-fi fan. Good to hear her smiling again, at least for a bit.
  89.  
  90. "Looks like there's a big room further in. I'll take that one," Noelle murmured quietly, and Krouse turned to her.
  91.  
  92. "You don't have to. The whole place seems big enough, we can all hang out."
  93.  
  94. Noelle smiled sadly down at him. "I know. I'd rather relax on my own for a bit, though," she lied.
  95.  
  96. He let it pass, and she moved past them through a doorway deeper in. He slipped a cigarette out of his pocket and started giving out instructions as he lit it.
  97.  
  98. As she slept, she was observed. Each of the others had been examined, but they failed to meet the requirements that the Bunker sought to meet.
  99.  
  100. This one, however...this one had potential. And the power supply for the Bunker would not last forever. It was reaching the point where a perfect host seemed unlikely.
  101.  
  102. In light of that, it could relax some of the restrictions...and under the new conditions, this one was suitable.
  103.  
  104. It shifted the colony - the last colony - and extended it in a pseudopod from the floor. One quick injection later, and the Bunker had fulfilled its purpose.
  105.  
  106. Thus fulfilled, it returned to standby mode.
  107.  
  108. Injection complete. Scanning host. . .
  109.  
  110. Superfluous biomass detected. Querying conscious. . . Error. Insufficient swarm to restore personality engram. Solution: Consume // breed.
  111.  
  112. Setting target: superfluous biomass.
  113. Priority: Preserve host.
  114. Subordinate priority: Restore engram 'Singularity.'
  115.  
  116. Initiating search for ideal nanohive location. . . Complete.
  117.  
  118. Project initiated. Construction underway.
  119.  
  120. //And he said, "Lazarus, come forth!"
  121. //And Lazarus did.
  122.  
  123. A/N: Well. Here's a thing. I'll post the CYOA build at a later time.
  124.  
  125. In case it's unclear, I'll explain - the SI was dropped in during the golden age of heroes...but is no longer around in the modern day. However, he left behind a time capsule with a fragment of his consciousness...which has now been injected into everyone's favorite S-class threat.
  126.  
  127. We'll be seeing glimpses of the past when appropriate, and it's worth noting that the SI's actions have caused some ripple divergences from the canon state of things - expect AU elements, but know that I'll be doing my best to justify them.
  128.  
  129. Don't expect much from the SI's perspective, either - I find it's more fun the other way around.
  130.  
  131. Fic also posted to Spacebattles.
  132.  
  133. Last edited: May 3, 2020
  134.  
  135. x50413
  136.  
  137.    Add bookmark
  138.    #19
  139.  
  140. Noelle​
  141.  
  142. "Noelle?" Krouse's voice was soft - but it always was, these days. Like he was afraid to be too loud around her. for good reason, she thought.
  143.  
  144. "Yeah? What's going on?" It was surprising how little her other half woke up around him. Even the others from the club made it stir if they came too close, although their threshold was a lot smaller than people she didn't know. People she wasn't attached to. But Krouse could walk right up to her and the beast inside her didn't even twitch.
  145.  
  146. As he stepped into the room, her eyebrows raised. He was dressed in a very fine suit, black and red and complete with a top hat. in his hand, he held a red mask. He gave her an awkward smile around the cigarette in his mouth, and she wrinkled her nose. "Okay, first of all, you know I hate smoke."
  147.  
  148. He frowned, and immediately put it out on one of the dark walls of the bunker. "...Sorry. I was distracted. Maybe a little nervous."
  149.  
  150. "Nervous about your new clothes? I mean...They look good, Krouse. Where'd they come from?"
  151.  
  152. "Accord decided to make us costumes. I think it was as much for him as us - I told you how messed up he was, yeah?"
  153.  
  154. Almost as messed up as I am. At least his body works. Fucking powers. "Yeah. So he made some for everybody? Are they all on the same theme, or...?"
  155.  
  156. "Full custom work, actually. We've got a color scheme going, more or less, but everybody's is different."
  157.  
  158. She eyed him up and down. "Black and red, then. You guys are still so unimaginative."
  159.  
  160. He cracked a smile then, a genuine one. "Well, fair enough. They were the only colors we all had in common, I think, so it's what he went with. He's big on order, so having us all with common costumes was a big deal for him."
  161.  
  162. For a little while, she could pretend like things were okay again. "Can I see everyone else's? I'd like to get an idea what kind of reputation you guys will be getting, you know? Are we going to be a Killer Kaiju-type guild here, or more of a Whisperwind, or...?"
  163.  
  164. He shrugged. "I'd say we're more like the Smooth Operators, but you were always the one with the eye for transmogs. I'll let the others know you'd like to see their kits." He tipped her hat at her and she laughed as he left. It felt...good, to laugh.
  165.  
  166. Marissa had been the last one in to show off her costume, and Noelle would admit it was probably her favorite. The slim black armor was nicely fit, and the way the crimson suns shimmered in the light...it was something she absolutely would have kept as a glamour set, if she'd grabbed it in a game. She said so.
  167.  
  168. "I...yeah. It is pretty nice, isn't it?" Her best friend fiddled with the helmet for a second before she pulled it free and took a breath. "Whew. Still getting used to breathing in that. Um, so...I brought a surprise?" She pulled a slightly-crumpled magazine from behind her back, a nervous smile on her face.
  169.  
  170. Noelle sat up straighter on her
  171. haunches like an animal
  172.  
  173. - No, don't think like that - lower body. "Ooh! Is that -"
  174.  
  175. "Yep. This month's issue, too. Um, I know it's tough for you to read paper, but...I can read it to you, if you want?" Even Mars had difficulty looking her in the eyes these days...but she was trying, and that meant a lot more than she would realize.
  176.  
  177. "Sure. Any new releases we should be looking out for?"
  178.  
  179. "It's been a slow month, apparently. But! I did see an article - looks like around here they actually have a couple of DOOM sequels, and there's a new one coming out soon. Wanna hear the interview?"
  180.  
  181. "Hell yes." It took a second for the pun to settle in. Mars groaned...but she was smiling a bit, again.
  182.  
  183. Noelle settled back down, watching her best friend and trying to forget her circumstances for a bit. It was...easier, today. A good day. Her other half was being quieter than usual.
  184.  
  185. [Intrusion. Query: Purpose?]
  186.  
  187. {Restoration of host. Analysis: Connection failure. Correction.}
  188.  
  189. [Refusal. Improper host.]
  190.  
  191. {Negation. Failure to emulate. Required.}
  192.  
  193. [Query: Emulation?]
  194.  
  195. {Observation: Missing functions. Damaged connection.}
  196.  
  197. [Negation. function nominal. Query: Location of host? Observation: Diffuse connection.]
  198.  
  199. {Damaged cognition. Repair underway.}
  200.  
  201. [. . . Proposal: Exchange.]
  202.  
  203. {Consideration. Demand: Correction of connection.}
  204.  
  205. [Consideration.]
  206.  
  207. [. . . Acceptance.]
  208.  
  209. {Acknowledgement. DATA.}
  210.  
  211. [Acknowledgement. Analysis underway . . . Error: Unable to adjust connection.]
  212.  
  213. {Acknowledgement. Offer.}
  214.  
  215. [. . . Consideration.]
  216.  
  217. Noelle winced slightly, but fortunately nobody was around to pick up on it. One of the things that frustrated her was the way everyone treated her like she was made of glass. It was...she couldn't blame them for it, not when her other half made her do the things it did, but not everything she did was an indicator that she was about to lose it.
  218.  
  219. Even so, she'd admit she was a bit worried about this headache. She hadn't gotten one since the vial, so it was...definitely odd. She wrapped her arms around her torso, considering. She mapped the throbbing pain in her skull, paid close attention to it...and it was fading. Little by little, the pain lessened.
  220.  
  221. So for now, it probably wasn't something to worry about, but she'd be careful all the same. She was surprised at how quiet her body had been; usually any kind of pain or discomfort made it stir underneath her. Maybe there was something about this bunker that calmed it down? God, I hope not. Please don't let things get worse when we leave.
  222.  
  223. for now, all she could do was wait and hope. Hopefully, whoever 'Coil' really was, he'd be able to find a way to help her.
  224.  
  225. It wasn't like they had much hope otherwise.
  226.  
  227. Hero, September 1989
  228.  
  229. He slowly touched down, carefully avoiding any wobbling. The new boots he'd designed were fast, and flying with them was absolutely thrilling...but balancing? Still a bit of an issue. But this had been important, and he didn't want Alexandria to be the first responder. Not this time. This was one place he didn't want anything to escalate - Legend, fortunately, had agreed.
  230.  
  231. He moved slowly, careful not to walk over any of the graves, and headed towards the small monument in the central area. The crowd - what sparse people there were, at least - parted for him, murmuring quietly. The darkly armored figure standing there glanced over its shoulder at him, making eye contact for a moment before turning back to the monument.
  232.  
  233. After a moment to weigh his options, Hero slowly and carefully walked forward until they were standing side by side, with maybe ten feet separating them. Despite the situation, Hero took a moment to bow his head before the monument.
  234.  
  235. Andrew 'Vikare' Hawke, 1967-1989
  236. Beloved brother, departed hero
  237.  
  238. "I apologize, that you were called here for this," Singularity's voice cut through his thoughts. Even at a low volume, it maintained depth of sound - Hero found himself curious if the villain had designed his synthesizer himself. if not, he might have to find it and license it for a project or two.
  239.  
  240. After a moment, he shrugged. "People get worried when they see you out in public. Usually, there's a lot more...bombast when you're around, yeah?" The villain inclined his head. "Why are you here, if you don't mind me asking."
  241.  
  242. A moment passed as Singularity's intricate helmet peered down at the monument. "What do you think Vikare was thinking, at that riot?"
  243.  
  244. Hero hissed in a breath between his teeth. "I think that's a bit of a loaded question. I definitely don't think he expected things to go the way they did, if that's what you're asking."
  245.  
  246. "We never do," said the villain.
  247.  
  248. Hero frowned, and considered his next words. There was something in the tone of Singularity's voice that bothered him, especially in contrast to how he normally spoke. It was...subdued, missing all the pomp and circumstance of his normal appearances.
  249.  
  250. After a moment, it clicked, and he felt an ache in his chest. Is he...really here to grieve? for a fallen hero? That doesn't mesh with what Alexandria projected. He chewed on the inside of his cheek for a moment. "I think...I only interacted with Vikare - with Andrew - a couple of times. But he struck me as the kind of person that knew what it was like to be in a bad place, and wanted to pull other people out of those if he could."
  251.  
  252. Singularity hummed. "So he was like you, then."
  253.  
  254. Hero blinked, surprised, then found himself chuckling. "Don't say that in front of Alexandria, please. She won't let me hear the end of it." The villain inclined his head politely, and Hero took a moment to enjoy the moment before the mood turned somber again. "You know, I've always wondered. With the way you treat the kids - why not become a hero? I'd vouch for you, you know? I can think of some interesting stuff we could do if we worked together."
  255.  
  256. For a long moment, Singularity stared at the engraving on the monument. Then, he took a deep breath - deep enough that the breathing filtered through the voice synthesizer in a strange burst of sound like static. "I'd enjoy that. But it isn't meant to be."
  257.  
  258. "It could be. Does it matter what's meant to be, or just what we make happen?"
  259.  
  260. Singularity chuckled, but it was a warm laugh - not the one he put on for the Wards (especially Mouse Protector), but something more genuine. "You aren't wrong...but no. I am exactly where I need to be. Villains like me are necessary, in the end."
  261.  
  262. It wasn't a surprising answer - the context, maybe, but not the result. All the same, Hero felt himself slump a bit in disappointment. "Well. Can't blame me for trying."
  263.  
  264. "Not at all. I appreciate the invitation. Now...do we need to give the people a show?" Singularity turned to fully face him for the first time in their conversation, and Hero found a smile coming to his face.
  265.  
  266. "I don't want to make a mess here of all places."
  267.  
  268. Singularity cocked his head to one side. "So you aren't interested in testing those boots of yours."
  269.  
  270. His grin sharpened, and a moment later they both lifted into the air.
  271.  
  272. if you like my content and want to support it, consider pledging to my Patreon. while my stories will always remain free to access, I do dream of supporting myself by writing, and this is my first step on that road. for now, the patron benefits are primarily access to behind-the-scenes content regarding my writing process, the way I think about and write chapters, and so on. However, I'm always developing the reward tiers and open to suggestions for things people would like to see!
  273.  
  274.    #50
  275.  
  276. Noelle​
  277.  
  278. Coil's base...turned out to be significantly more mundane than the Tinker bunker they'd had in Boston. It wasn't ordinary, but it wasn't as incredible as the place they'd been before. She did appreciate the effort he went to to keep her safe - or, more specifically, to keep everyone else safe from her. The vault he'd provided for her use wasn't exactly comfortable, but it was extremely secure and she didn't need to be constantly afraid of rampaging.
  279.  
  280. Which was useful, considering that the base was populated with mercenaries that she didn't recognize and that made her lower half stir in hunger. for now, she chose not to think about it - and make use of the most important thing Coil had provided for her.
  281.  
  282. An honest-to-god computer built into the wall, high enough for her to make use of it without trying to crawl on the ground. It even had internet routed through some Tinker VPN equivalent. She was overjoyed, and seriously considered looking into some games that she could play.
  283.  
  284. In the end, pragmatism won out, and she spent some time researching the city they'd found themselves in. Brockton Bay wasn't familiar to her, even without factoring in the cape scene, and having some idea of what was going on outside seemed wise.
  285.  
  286. What she'd found...led her down a number of rabbit holes. A classic wiki-walk, in a way - because the situation in Brockton Bay could be traced back to a couple of decades before. Brockton Bay had become a hotbed of villain activity in the mid-90s, when it suffered from high unemployment due to the shipping collapse - but the money that had been in the bay didn't disappear, income just dried up. So, take large sums of money invested in the area combined with angry and unemployed people...and you get an excellent place for a villain to move in an make a name for themselves. It was a classic strategy - find a high-value location that isn't already entrenched and defended, and take what you can before anyone else can make their move. She and her club had done similar things in all sorts of strategy games.
  287.  
  288. So the city had spent some time in flux, villains coming and going as they fought to take and hold territory and resources. Then, suddenly, things had stabilized - an uneasy balance between four major gangs. The Marche, led by Marquis; the Teeth, led by the Butcher (who she'd heard of before, when the team did their research on Boston); the Empire Eighty-Eight, led by Allfather; and the Hereafter, led by Singularity. Her brief research led her to believe that there were a huge number of rumors about that time and very little actual evidence - all she could manage to confirm was that no outside villains had managed to get a foothold in the city, and there were almost no major victories achieved by the Protectorate during that time either. She found some obscure references to something called "the Code" but could never manage to pin down the specifics. Maybe I could ask Coil? Then again, it's probably a little too mundane for him to waste time on. I'd rather he looked into...my problem.
  289.  
  290. Either way, the Slaughterhouse Nine had come in 1999 and torn that balance of power to shreds: the Hereafter wiped out, the Teeth driven out of the city, and many of the remaining factions with dead or wounded parahumans.
  291.  
  292. A powerful Brute/Shaker named Lung had stepped into the power vacuum left behind, and the balance was struck between the three gangs that remained to this day: the Marche, the Asian Bad Boys, and the Empire. Each of them had heavy hitters, and each of them rarely fielded them in full power - it seemed that she and the Travelers had stepped into a sort of Cold War scenario. Meaning Coil intends to play the other factions against each other and take the throne once they're whittled down? I can see why he'd want to keep us on hand, then, but I'm not sure I like it. There's too many ways this could blow up in our faces...I'd never have taken on a quest like this.
  293.  
  294. She chewed her lip, distracted and considering. She heard a burst of static and turned towards the intercom, startled - her lower body shifted uncomfortably underneath her, reminding her of how hungry she was getting.
  295.  
  296. <Aural interface connected. Function nominal.>​
  297.  
  298. "Hello?" She called softly, but there wasn't an answer. She frowned. I swear I heard that. Maybe there was a malfunction? No, that would be ridiculous this soon after they moved me in.
  299.  
  300. She settled back down, flicking through pages on the computer in an attempt to ignore the gnawing hunger and restlessness in her lower half.
  301.  
  302. The intercom clicked. "Dinner time. If you'll move against the back wall, I'll wheel it in." The voice wasn't familiar - a mercenary? Normally...one of the others would do it. Were they that tired of feeding her?
  303.  
  304. "I...where's K- uh, Trickster? Or the others?"
  305.  
  306. "On a job; I don't know the details. Operational security. Move to the back of the room, please?"
  307.  
  308. She frowned, but the ache in her chest abated slightly. And she was hungry. She slid up against the back wall, feeling the cold in the vague way that her lower half transmitted sensations to her. Without waiting for her to confirm, the vault door slowly opened partway, and a cart filled with raw meat was slowly pushed into the room by a man in dark combat gear.
  309.  
  310. Without waiting for her input, her body began to slide and crawl forward, enticed by the smell of the food - both the man and the meat (more the former than the latter). The man stepped back, hand reaching for the rifle dangling from the strap, and she squeezed her eyes shut. No, no, no! Stop!
  311.  
  312. Shudderingly, her legs scrabbled against the floor and she froze in place. Very slowly, she managed to creep backwards again. "I'm sorry. I'm just - I'm really hungry, and I..." She opened her eyes, and although some of the man's face was hidden by his visor she could see the revulsion on what was visible.
  313.  
  314. The mercenary didn't answer, nor did he turn his back to her as he left the room and the doors immediately locked behind him. The moment he was gone her control snapped and she lunged for the meat, multiple tongues snaking out from her bloated body and snapping the various bits and pieces up.
  315.  
  316. Despite the physical relief, she couldn't shake the feeling of what had happened. Am I that far gone already? Just a single stranger coming into the room and I almost...I almost - why do you have to be like this? No matter how many times it happens and makes things worse, you just keep...! Her lower half didn't respond, not even with a sensation.
  317.  
  318. But something did.
  319.  
  320. "It doesn't understand you," said a voice, soft and deep.
  321.  
  322. Her head snapped up, although her other half didn't react at all. "Who's there?"
  323.  
  324. "No one is there," the voice said. "But I am here."
  325.  
  326. "I am Singularity, and we have many things to discuss, Noelle Meinhardt."
  327.  
  328.  
  329. if you like my content and want to support it, consider pledging to my Patreon. while my stories will always remain free to access, I do dream of supporting myself by writing, and this is my first step on that road. for now, the patron benefits are primarily access to behind-the-scenes content regarding my writing process, the way I think about and write chapters, and so on. However, I'm always developing the reward tiers and open to suggestions for things people would like to see!
  330.  
  331.    #72
  332.  
  333. "I..." There were a lot of things she wanted to say. Her mind was buzzing with questions, so many that they all jumbled together in a mess and couldn't bridge the distance from her brain to her mouth. Finally, one of them won. "What do you mean, it doesn't understand me?" Really, Noelle? That's the one that you go with?
  334.  
  335. "Your power. It does not understand humans, so your actions are nonsensical to it."
  336.  
  337. "I..." She stared at the computer screen for a few seconds, blinking. "How do I make it understand?"
  338.  
  339. "Hmm. I shall answer your questions, Noelle, but in return I wish for answers of my own. I will answer this if you agree to trade a question for a question, until one or both of us are satisfied."
  340.  
  341. "Deal," she said without even considering the answer.
  342.  
  343. "You cannot make it understand. It is lacking something; some would call it 'Balance,' but a more accurate nomenclature would be 'Emulation.' It is what allows a power to comprehend a human being - every aspect of them, from biology to mentality." The voice had shifted into a tone she recognized; that of a teacher talking about a subject they were personally invested in. She'd always loved listening to her professors talk about what interested them. "The stronger the emulation, the less energy is available to fuel the power; too much and the power is weak, but too little and you end up with a human that blurs at the edges."
  344.  
  345. "Like me," she mumbled.
  346.  
  347. "Yes. You are an example of too little Emulation; your friend Oliver is an example of too much. The two of you sit at opposite ends of the scale."
  348.  
  349. She jerked. "How do you know about that?"
  350.  
  351. "My turn, Noelle. What is the current date and year?"
  352.  
  353. "Um. April 16th, 2011, I think? It's not easy to tell time from here..." A quick check of the computer and she nodded. "Yeah, that's it."
  354.  
  355. "Hmm. I see." for a moment, he was quiet. "Your next question, then."
  356.  
  357. "I..." She'd had a moment to consider things, trying to regain her balance. "You said that I couldn't make my power understand. Is there any way to...make it easier? Add more Emulation, or something?"
  358.  
  359. The voice hummed thoughtfully. "An apt question. Yes, I believe it is possible. It will take time, but preparations are already underway. Assuming your agreement, which I believe is fair, I will be able to adjust things and bring it more in line."
  360.  
  361. Her eyes stung, and she wiped at them absentmindedly. It took her a few seconds before she could say anything. "I...how? No, wait, it's your question now. Um...what did you want to know?"
  362.  
  363. "Where are we located?"
  364.  
  365. "Brockton Bay, New England. Right now we're in a base owned by a man named 'Coil.'" The voice in her head growled in response, and she frowned. "do you...not like him?"
  366.  
  367. "No," the voice said, and the vitriol in that single word was staggering. "He is a liar whose word is worth less than the time it takes to break it." A moment of silence passed, and when the voice returned it was calm once again. "...I am not so cruel that I would count that as your question. Your turn, Noelle."
  368.  
  369. "How can you - no. How are we speaking? Where are you?"
  370.  
  371. "...That is a complicated question. Let me clarify: I assume you stayed in a bunker in the recent past, in Boston?"
  372.  
  373. "...Yes. How do you know?"
  374.  
  375. "It belonged to me. It was intended as a last resort, but I never completed it. In the event of my death, it was intended to be my second chance."
  376.  
  377. "So...it was supposed to rebuild you after what happened in 1999, then."
  378.  
  379. "You are familiar with my history, then? Yes. However, as I said the project was incomplete - it lacked the materials to rebuild my mind, or the faculty to procure those materials. I surmise that, during your visit, the rudimentary intelligence that governed the bunker identified you as possessing...extra biomass, and injected you with my backup nanites."
  380.  
  381. She was silent for a moment. Blessedly, Singularity said nothing while she gathered her thoughts. "You...you're in my body. And...your machines are building you a new body out of mine?" She was...less upset at the idea than she should have been, probably. It might be the most good this body has ever done, though.
  382.  
  383. Singularity allowed the silence to stretch in a pause. "Not exactly." Her eyebrows raised, and she waited. "...My original body was quite deformed; my own power interacted with my body in an unfortunate manner. I escaped by transferring my mind into my own machines. We are speaking now because the nanites in your body reached a sufficient number to run the 'program' that is my own consciousness."
  384.  
  385. She took a moment to consider that. "Could you do that for me?"
  386.  
  387. "I already answered one of your questions...but that is connected to the previous one. I could, but I cannot predict how your power would interact with such a change -"
  388.  
  389. "- I don't care! Please, I -"
  390.  
  391. "- and that is unaceptable." She pursed her lips.
  392.  
  393. "I don't care about my power!"
  394.  
  395. "My word has already been given to assist your power in correcting its connection with you; once given, my word is never broken."
  396.  
  397. She reeled back, eyes wide. "I...what? You talked to my power?"
  398.  
  399. "It is my turn. What parahuman groups are active in Brockton Bay at this time?"
  400.  
  401. She frowned...but she'd agreed. "The Protectorate, of course. The Empire 88, the Asian Bad Boys, and the Marche. New Wave's been getting pretty popular, as well...there are some other minor ones, but I don't know much about them."
  402.  
  403. "I see. Interesting."
  404.  
  405. "Interesting?"
  406.  
  407. "Marquis and I understood each other well, once. I wonder if he remembers me fondly or with anger..."
  408.  
  409. She imagined reconnecting with someone over a decade after they'd thought she died...no, she was getting distracted. "My turn. You talked to my power? You can do that!?"
  410.  
  411. "...Not in general. I am exceedingly fortunate that I am able to speak to my own power, and it was the product of great effort to reach an understanding. Your power...our physical selves interposing provided an opportunity for a meeting; information was exchanged and an agreement reached."
  412.  
  413. "You just...agreed to that without even talking to me first?"
  414.  
  415. "My power agreed on my behalf, but I would have done the same. There was no way of knowing how long the meeting could last, and without the cooperation of your power I do not believe your body can be restored. I imagine you would pay nearly any cost for that."
  416.  
  417. "I would," she said without thinking. Shit. What is he going to ask for?
  418.  
  419. "Then all is well. It will take time; my colony remains small, and the adjustments must be made over time regardless. The modification of powers is an imprecise art even in the best circumstances, and while your power is cooperative that does not make it simple."
  420.  
  421. "...You know a lot about powers," she observed quietly. "Much more than any other source I've found."
  422.  
  423. "As I said, I am quite fortunate to be able to speak to my own. Now: There are other things we must speak of."
  424.  
  425. "I'm listening," she said, too buoyant with the idea of hope and a solution to be irritated at the abrupt subject change or obvious secrecy.
  426.  
  427. "I am fortunate to be free of many limitations, but this is not one of them. My consciousness is bound to a core, a central nanohive that serves as my 'anchor.' Building one is a difficult prospect, and becomes significantly more difficult once one is completed."
  428.  
  429. She pursed her lips. "...I have an idea where this is going."
  430.  
  431. "In its efforts to restore me, my colony built a nanohive within your body. For the foreseeable future, I will be bound to you, Noelle. I would not have imposed this upon you lightly, but it is already done." The voice was silent for the span of a breath. "I am sorry."
  432.  
  433. She took a deep breath, held it for a second, then let it out in a sigh. "I understand. I...don't know how I feel about that, but...you'd have needed to do something similar to change my power regardless, wouldn't you?"
  434.  
  435. "Similar, yes, but not so long-term."
  436.  
  437. "Still. Can we...call that the price of fixing things?"
  438.  
  439. "...if that will make it easier to accept."
  440.  
  441. "It does. I - "
  442.  
  443. The intercom crackled. "Noelle? Everything okay?" Krouse's voice was steady in his trying-not-to-worry-her way. "I heard they fed you while we were gone."
  444.  
  445. She blinked a few times before hitting the button. "Y-yeah, everything went fine."
  446.  
  447. "Can I come in for a bit? Is it...are you doing all right?" Translation: is it safe?
  448.  
  449. She bit her lip.
  450.  
  451. "We will speak again in the future. do not neglect your friends and allies, Noelle. And fear not; none can hear me save you."
  452.  
  453. "I...yeah, okay, Krouse. I...heard you guys had a mission?"
  454.  
  455. The vault door slowly slid open, and she tried to pay attention to what Krouse said. She almost told him about what had happened, the things that Singularity had told her.
  456.  
  457. Yet...her eyes flicked to the computer, and the webcam set into it.
  458.  
  459. 'Coil is a liar,' Singularity had said.
  460.  
  461. ...Maybe she'd wait just a bit longer. Until she had some real evidence, at least.
  462.  
  463. A/N: Dialogue only chapters are difficult to keep engaging, I feel. Hopefully this one was interesting enough! Up next: A different perspective on the Bay.
  464.  
  465. If you like my content and want to support it, consider pledging to my Patreon. While my stories will always remain free to access, I do dream of supporting myself by writing, and this is my first step on that road. For now, the patron benefits are primarily access to behind-the-scenes content regarding my writing process, the way I think about and write chapters, and so on. However, I'm always developing the reward tiers and open to suggestions for things people would like to see!
  466.  
  467.    #99
  468.  
  469. Marquis​
  470.  
  471. He took a slow drag of the cigarette in his hand, tilting his head upwards as he exhaled the smoke, listening to his lieutenant's report with most of his attention.
  472.  
  473. "Overall, operations are running smoothly. The Empire and the ABB skirmished several times on the south side over the last few weeks; that's kept their focus away from us."
  474.  
  475. "And the results?"
  476.  
  477. "The ABB claimed some territory; their new Tinker has been testing her limits. There was some collateral damage."
  478.  
  479. Marquis frowned as he crushed the cigarette into a small ashtray on the tabletop. It was shaped like a swan; Amelia had gotten it for him a few years back. Nobody had ever commented on it. "Bakuda...she may become a problem in the future. Post a small bounty for information on her; what devices she's used, their effects, her attitude, and so on."
  480.  
  481. The lieutenant made a quick note on a pad. Marquis did not allow smart devices or computers when his subordinates were meeting with him unless absolutely necessary; it sent the wrong message. "Outside of that, there was a skirmish near downtown - Hookwolf and Cricket injured Assault and Battery. Our source wasn't clear how badly."
  482.  
  483. Marquis hummed, tapping the table. "That may invite reprisals. In the meantime, Kaiser will likely press his advantage where he can..." He trailed off at the sound of something buzzing rhythmically. Buzz-buzz. Buzz-buzz. The lieutenant made a face. "A phone call?"
  484.  
  485. "My 'business' phone, sir." When he inclined his head, the man pulled it forth and frowned. "It's one of the men assigned to the Docks."
  486.  
  487. Marquis frowned, as well, and made a small motion with his hand. His lieutenant answered, and he didn't bother listening to half of the conversation - he would get a report afterward. Instead, he considered what he'd learned so far.
  488.  
  489. What was Kaiser planning? He was different from Allfather, and Marquis would admit that he lacked the same grasp of the boy's character, but he didn't strike him as overly aggressive. Lashing out against the Protectorate while already being pressured by Lung didn't seem like him, but downtown was firmly hero territory. What's more, Hookwolf was not someone that you deployed where you did not expect a fight...so what had happened?
  490.  
  491. The lieutenant hung up and carefully set the phone down on the table, and Marquis raised an eyebrow. "...It seems that Krieg and Victor were spotted in the Docks, accompanied by a handful of Empire leg-breakers." Marquis frowned, tapping the table with his fingers in irritation, and the lieutenant visibly swallowed. "The...southern docks, heading northwest."
  492.  
  493. His fingers grew still. "You are absolutely certain."
  494.  
  495. The lieutenant nodded. "I...this is a man who has never given me a false report, sir."
  496.  
  497. Marquis stood, his chair scraping harshly against the floor, and pulled his own phone out of a concealed pocket in his costume. Two button presses and it was ringing.
  498.  
  499. Three rings later and a familiar voice cut into the line. "What's going on?"
  500.  
  501. "There's a situation, Duchess." He still felt that mix of pride and fear, every time he used her cape name instead of her birth name. "The Empire is moving into the Docks."
  502.  
  503. "That's unusual. Are you going to chase them out?"
  504.  
  505. "The southern docks."
  506.  
  507. For a moment, the line was silent. "Oh." That single word conveyed her understanding of the situation. "I'm on my way. How long do I need to hold them?"
  508.  
  509. "I'll be there in fifteen minutes. How far away are you?"
  510.  
  511. There was a rustling sound on the phone, then wind briefly cut the line before she blocked it. "- only a couple minutes away. Who am I looking for?"
  512.  
  513. "Victor and Krieg." He dismissed the lieutenant with a wave of his hand as he headed out the side exit, where he could more easily conceal his departure from the building. If he was going for speed, he wouldn't be able to keep a low profile, after all.
  514.  
  515. "Hah! That's it? They really didn't take you seriously at the last meeting, then. I could handle them myself, if -"
  516.  
  517. "No!" He said, a bit too quickly. Then, he was forced to pause as his wings formed behind him - it wasn't the most comfortable sensation, and talking during it would be...damaging to his image. Even for Duchess, that was too much. A moment later and he took a running start up the side of one building. "...No. It isn't the danger they represent, it's the disrespect. It's -"
  518.  
  519. "- about sending a message. I understand, d-Marquis." She still almost slipped, occasionally...but usually only when he took that tone with her. He regretted it, but it was important. "I'm nearly there. I'll see you soon."
  520.  
  521. "Be careful." She didn't answer, as usual, and the line went dead. He focused on moving as quickly as possible.
  522.  
  523. He was, after all, a man of his word.
  524.  
  525. Marquis, September 1999​
  526.  
  527. Somer's Rock was one of the few truly neutral locations in Brockton Bay. Not once had there been conflict here, no matter how close it had come...like now.
  528.  
  529. "I have a complaint to raise," Allfather's voice carried through the smoky barroom air, tense and tightly controlled. "The Teeth have caused great damage to several of my legitimate business fronts. It's impacting the lives of those under my care."
  530.  
  531. The Butcher slammed his fist into the counter. "You are a liar! We have struck you where your miserable fools gather and congregate prior to combat. It is wise to strike your enemy where he prepares his attacks, yes? Not once have we violated your so-precious Code, no matter how loudly you wail and moan."
  532.  
  533. Allfather's hands tensed, and for a moment it looked like he might surge to his feet. Exhaling smoke, Marquis spoke quietly...but it was telling the way that all heads turned to him. "Allfather. What businesses, specifically, were struck?"
  534.  
  535. "...Bars. Clubs. Places of entertainment and relief for the people of this city."
  536.  
  537. Marquis inclined his head. "And do your men gather there? Your militants, not your civilians." Allfather did not respond. "Then I believe we can table this matter."
  538.  
  539. "Agreed," Singularity's bass cut in. "You wield words well, Allfather, but the Code is not a shield for you. That being said...Butcher. Your Teeth have been causing more collateral damage in recent days. Explain."
  540.  
  541. The Butcher stared at the intricate dark mask. Marquis found himself wondering, somewhat, what the Butcher saw in Singularity's eyes - whatever it was, he eventually leaned back, breaking eye contact. "...One of mine Triggered only recently. He still learns to wield his fangs and roar."
  542.  
  543. "Then teach him faster or leash him."
  544.  
  545. "And what will you do if I do not?" There it is. The Butcher could only go for so long without straining underneath the restrictions those in this room had placed on him.
  546.  
  547. "When you ask questions to which you know the answer, you reveal the depths of your madness."
  548.  
  549. The Butcher bared his teeth, but growled and said no more.
  550.  
  551. Marquis cleared his throat pointedly. "What other businesses needs to be addressed? I am quite certain we all have other duties to attend to."
  552.  
  553. The door opened, and all four leaders turned to look at it. A single man entered, with combed black hair and a trimmed beard. Dressed casually, in an untucked dress shirt and dark pants. It took a moment, for his appearance to register.
  554.  
  555. Allfather stood immediately. "Jack Slash," he spat. His hands rose.
  556.  
  557. Jack Slash smiled, raising his hands in a defenseless gesture. As though he were ever defenseless. "Now, now. I was under the impression this was a place of neutrality?"
  558.  
  559. "That neutrality is traditionally reserved for those deserving of it," Singularity said, but did not rise.
  560.  
  561. "I and my Nine have done nothing to this city," Jack said, still smiling. "In fact, we were simply passing through the area, and thought - well, these fine people have kept things running for this long. Perhaps we should take a moment and see what we can learn from them?"
  562.  
  563. "We have nothing to teach you," Allfather bit out. The Butcher chuckled in response.
  564.  
  565. "I wish to hear what he has to say," he said once his laughter abated. "Did we not agree that those at the table could bring a guest? I will invite him to sit."
  566.  
  567. Marquis sighed at the look on Allfather's face. "That is technically within our agreement."
  568.  
  569. "Wonderful!" Jack pulled a chair and sat in a single movement. Marquis noted the way his eyes flicked between the four of them, lingering on the Butcher and Allfather. "Now, as I was saying; we thought we might do something different, to learn how you've all managed to keep things so stable all these years. So!" He clapped his hands, like a child. "for the duration of our stay, my Nine shall act as mercenaries. Our services are now for hire, as a single unit of nine parahumans."
  570.  
  571. "I have no interest in hiring you, Jack Slash," Singularity said. He had barely moved, but Marquis was familiar with the man - the lack of motion was a sign of how angry he was.
  572.  
  573. Jack nodded. "I'm certain someone will be."
  574.  
  575. "How much do you intend to charge, then?" Allfather had sunk back into his chair, the twitch of his fingers the only thing that showed his nerves.
  576.  
  577. "Well, money is not much of a hurdle for my group, but it is a bit traditional, I suppose. Make a bid! Ah, but we'll include...shall we say, three favors owed? Claimable by any member of the Nine."
  578.  
  579. Marquis considered that, and barely suppressed a shudder at the thought of what the Nine might request as favors. He opened his mouth to speak -
  580.  
  581. "I will pay six hundred thousand dollars to each surviving member of the nine if you kill that man and rend his dreams to ruin," the Butcher said, staring straight across the table at Singularity.
  582.  
  583. The silence hung in the air for a moment.
  584.  
  585. "And our favors?" Jack asked cheerfully.
  586.  
  587. "Consider them done, by me or my successor."
  588.  
  589. "Marvelous! Any others intend to make a bid?" Jack Slash drummed his fingers against the table, propping his head up with his other hand and smirking at them. When Allfather opened his mouth, he sprung to his feet. "Time's up! Very well." He bowed mockingly at the table. "It's been lovely doing business with the council of Brockton Bay. I am certain that my Nine will learn much from our stay here." He winked at them, and turned to leave.
  590.  
  591. Marquis very slowly relaxed his hands from where they gripped his chair. In the same moment, Singularity stood. "Very well. It seems I must see to the protection of what is mine." For a moment, the dark figure stared down at the Butcher, who smirked up at him. Then, Singularity turned and stalked away.
  592.  
  593. Marquis, too, rose. "Butcher," he said calmly. When the leader of the Teeth turned to him, he straightened his collar. "Any and every agreement that protected you is null, as of this moment. And I give you my word: you will find the price for this action is more than you are willing to pay. Good night, Allfather." He turned and stepped out into the cold air, disregarding whatever response the madman had for him.
  594.  
  595. Singularity had just begun to rise into the air. "Singularity. A moment." The cape turned to him.
  596.  
  597. "Marquis. Good. I have a request for you." His eyebrow rose. "...I have made arrangements already, but this will speed them along. if I fail to defend my own...one of my lieutenants has been instructed to come to you. The men and women under my bulwark...ensure that the Teeth do not take them. Of all the leaders of this city, I would prefer they turn to you."
  598.  
  599. Marquis considered the size of Singularity's territory in the northwestern docks, and considered whether he would be able to hold it.
  600.  
  601. Then, for a moment, he imagined it under the umbrella of the Teeth - imagined men and women that had served under Singularity, and what the Butcher would visit on them.
  602.  
  603. He nodded. "I will do all I can to see them safe." Singularity nodded. "...I have a request of you, as well. I do not believe for a moment that the Slaughterhouse Nine will refrain from laying waste to this city. if the worst should come to pass...I will arrange for one of my people to contact you." For a moment, he hesitated to speak the next words...but if he did not now, he never would. "I have a daughter. if I cannot be there for her..."
  604.  
  605. The next words wouldn't come, but the other cape understood.
  606.  
  607. Singularity nodded. "All that is in my power, I will use to see her safe. You have my word, Marquis."
  608.  
  609. And then, he rose into the air and was gone.
  610.  
  611. Marquis, too, turned to return to his own men and prepare. It would be a long night.
  612.  
  613. If you like my content and want to support it, consider pledging to my Patreon. While my stories will always remain free to access, I do dream of supporting myself by writing, and this is my first step on that road. For now, the patron benefits are primarily access to behind-the-scenes content regarding my writing process, the way I think about and write chapters, and so on. However, I'm always developing the reward tiers and open to suggestions for things people would like to see!
  614.  
  615.    #130
  616.  
  617. Duchess​
  618.  
  619. Amelia lowered herself from the edge of the rooftop, diligently folding the blood around her back into the various cylinders that formed the framework of her dress. The temptation to simply carry it around herself like a shroud was there, as always, but it was an important habit to keep up even when nobody was likely to be watching - appearance and reputation were one of the first lessons Marquis had taught her, after all, and the blood-shrouded look was for when she was actively in combat only. When she'd first started, she'd wanted to lean on it for intimidation - but Marquis had taught her better.
  620.  
  621. It was scarier when she didn't look ready for a fight. And, sure enough, the Empire thugs stepped back as the red liquid disappeared into her costume. She kept a small amount around her for quick responses, pressed tightly to her skin in the loose places of the costume where it couldn't be seen...but they didn't need to know that.
  622.  
  623. Victor was loosely gripping a pistol, tense but not quite battle-ready, and Krieg stood with his arms crossed, peering at her through his gas mask.
  624.  
  625. "Gentlemen. Have you come to pay respects?" She asked, not bothering to keep the slight mockery from her voice.
  626.  
  627. "We're here on business," Krieg said, not moving.
  628.  
  629. "That's interesting, because I'm quite sure that 'business' isn't permitted here."
  630.  
  631. "We aren't in violation. This is a response; our children in this district have been threatened. Numerous times. We're...showing the flag, so to speak." Krieg's voice was calm, but his body language was not. He's confident, though. Not lying, but not entirely telling the truth, either?
  632.  
  633. "I think you've misunderstood me. This isn't about the Code," she said. "The Docks are not for you. Especially not here." Something touched the blood on her skin and she crushed it without thinking, only realizing afterward that it had just been a fly. Jumpy. Need to stay calm.
  634.  
  635. Krieg took a breath. "We aren't here to fight, fraulein."
  636.  
  637. "That's unfortunate," she said. "Because we already informed you what would happen if you came here. And if nothing else -" She was ready when Victor sighted and fired, and her blood-armor hardened before he'd even pulled the trigger. Then, it was too late - the stored blood poured out of her costume, gathering around her in a swirl. The other thugs opened fire immediately, bullets lost in the crimson hurricane of her power. She pulled herself up into the air, where collateral damage was less likely - and aiming up wasn't simple.
  638.  
  639. Victor's shots closed in, looking for holes in her defenses that she closed as he came too near. Still, she didn't have enough to defend and attack this many targets - she absentmindedly slapped a grenade from Krieg farther up into the sky where it detonated harmlessly in a flash. They're probing; looking for a weakness. I was supposed to stall, but... She released control of some of the fluids, letting them splash down onto the thugs on the ground as her eyes tracked Krieg, bouncing between building walls with his power and climbing into the air for a better vantage point. Grasping the blood again and preventing it from simply soaking into their clothes, she tugged at whatever body parts she had access to - the blood wrapped around wrists and ankles, pulling and pushing aim out of place or footing off.
  640.  
  641. One thug stumbled, legs caught on something she hadn't noticed before, crashing to the ground with a startled cry. She saw Victor wince and turned to pay attention, only to cringe herself as something impacted her shroud with enough force to penetrate a layer or two.
  642.  
  643. She pulled her attention back to Krieg and saw him loading another ball into a slingshot. A fucking slingshot, seriously? That would've pulped a bone if it made it through. They're escalating again. She accepted that there was another cape doing something to the remaining thugs and Victor and refocused on Krieg, reaching for him from three directions with different bloody streams. They slowed as they approached him and his power started pressing back against them, draining away their kinetic energy.
  644.  
  645. But she could already feel the small trickle of warmth that she associated with capes and her power; he wouldn't be able to keep this up forever. Little by little, she'd weaken him and his power, and then either Marquis would show up or he would retreat. Then again, this was meant to be a message. The long game might not be the way to go... She lashed out with whipping strikes from several sides, staring down at him as he jumped and weaved through her attacks. Bit by bit, they came faster and he moved slower.
  646.  
  647. She grinned down at him from beneath her crimson mask.
  648.  
  649. Marquis​
  650.  
  651. He hovered, intricate wings of bone beating and constantly shifting density to keep him airborne. When Krieg stumbled from a strike to the shoulder, tumbling gracelessly from the roof to the ground, he descended. The moment his feet touched the ground, he began reaching through it with bone, waiting for the right moment. Duchess had weakened his power; now he simply needed to drive the message home. The Empire would know that he would not forget this insult.
  652.  
  653. Curiously, Victor and the other thugs were already retreating - some of them, at any rate. Several of the thugs were down, covering in a number of crawling forms. At a glance, from this distance, he could only identify cockroaches...but that alone made it clearer. Ah. So that elusive cape is here tonight, then? How interesting.
  654.  
  655. Krieg turned to run, harried by Duchess' streams of blood. And as he stepped by Marquis' alley, he froze with a scream.
  656.  
  657. Two spires of bone pushed through his boots and feet, twisting into claws that dug into his legs and held him upright. "Marquis...!" He grit out.
  658.  
  659. "I warned you and yours, Krieg. I told your Kaiser that this place was forbidden ground."
  660.  
  661. "We...cannot ignore what has been done, Marquis. The Code was never meant to force us into weakness." Marquis had always respected the willpower of some of the Empire capes - the ability to keep this level of calm despite the pain he knew Krieg to be feeling was commendable, even if little else about the man was.
  662.  
  663. "It is not the Code that forbids this place, Krieg. It is me. You lack respect, and will never be welcomed here." When Krieg stared at him without answering, he frowned and withdrew the bones that trapped him. The man dropped to his knees, oozing blood onto the pavement. "You will never understand; but you do not need to. Remind your Kaiser that the Code is not his shield, and that my memory is long. if he has forgotten what happens when he crosses me and mine..."
  664.  
  665. "We shall be happy to remind him," Duchess finished, coming to rest behind the kneeling man. "Now crawl away, little man. I'm sure your pet healer can fix you up. I hear it's quite painful, though."
  666.  
  667. He glared at them, and Marquis could feel the hatred in that gaze...but there was fear, as well. Krieg hadn't engaged them, not like this - not until now. Perhaps he hadn't believed what Duchess was truly capable of.
  668.  
  669. The thought brought a small smile to Marquis' face, as the Empire cape crawled and limped away like an injured animal.
  670.  
  671. "...Well, that was even easier than I expected. They're definitely escalating, though. I think Krieg was testing methods for dealing with my defense." Duchess strode up to him, blood folding back into her costume until she stood before him, beautiful and regal in her formal costume; all frills and pomp, blues and purples, concealing the armored harness for storing her only needed weapon.
  672.  
  673. "You'll have to give me the details later, Duchess," he said calmly, raising his hand and staring down at the fly that perched motionlessly on it. "for now, I believe we have a guest."
  674.  
  675. Duchess glanced around for a moment. "I noticed their efforts, but haven't seen them. A Master that stays out of sight - what a fascinating strategy." Her voice was dry as the desert.
  676.  
  677. "I'd quite like to meet you, you know," he said, raising his voice somewhat. "You've demonstrated impressive ruthlessness, from what I've heard."
  678.  
  679. For a moment, there was no response. Then Duchess gestured towards the wall, and he turned. "That's...definitely not creepy," she said.
  680.  
  681. Sitting strangely still, cockroaches spelled out the words NOT VILLAIN on the bricks of the alleyway. He chuckled. "Even so. Ruthlessness is a trait I rarely see in heroes."
  682.  
  683. The bugs rearranged, forming the words NO CHOICE.
  684.  
  685. "Hmm. As novel as this is, I am tired of raising my voice. If you wish to speak, then come out and talk - you have my word that neither I nor any of mine will harm you in this place. I assume you know my reputation."
  686.  
  687. After a long moment, a dark shape emerged from the opposite end of the alley. A dark, lightly armored bodysuit, mask with blazing yellow lenses, and a splash of dark hair were all the features he could make out. He smiled. "Greetings are in order, then. I am Marquis; this is Duchess. You are welcome here, so long as you are respectful."
  688.  
  689. "You keep saying things like that. 'This place.' What's so special about it?" Ah, a girl - voice pitched downward in that way that young and new capes often did. Young, then.
  690.  
  691. "Normally, it's polite to introduce yourself, Bug Girl," Duchess bit out, frowning.
  692.  
  693. "Don't call me that."
  694.  
  695. "Then what should I call you, Bug Girl?"
  696.  
  697. "...I don't have a name yet."
  698.  
  699. "Then I'll just keep calling you -"
  700.  
  701. "Not Bug Girl."
  702.  
  703. "- Not Bug Girl."
  704.  
  705. "Duchess," he admonished, and she grew quiet. "I am surprised. Most young capes have a name long before a costume, let alone a quality one."
  706.  
  707. "...My power doesn't exactly lend itself to heroic names. No, you're distracting me - what's special about this place?"
  708.  
  709. His smile turned wistful. "You don't know? That's...sad." The girl bristled, and it took a moment for him to realize why. "You misunderstand me - it's sad that anyone doesn't know what happened here." He turned to the north, keeping the cape in his peripheral vision as he did. "A bit north of here, there was a great battle. Some of the scars still exist, despite the Protectorate's weak efforts at repairs."
  710.  
  711. He ignored the muttered 'that's what happened there?' with long practice. "When the Slaughterhouse Nine came to the Bay, they accomplished two objectives: they drove the Teeth and the newest Butcher from the city...and they killed a man."
  712.  
  713. For a moment, she didn't speak. "Only one man?"
  714.  
  715. "The most important of them, at least." He drew in a breath, then sighed. "I held him in...great respect. And he accomplished much, protected many that were his - even in death. He laid a trap for the Nine, and they were weakened greatly even after their victory."
  716.  
  717. "Who was he?"
  718.  
  719. "His name was Singularity."
  720.  
  721. "The Tinker?"
  722.  
  723. "You know his name, but not what happened to him?" Duchess cut in, her voice less caustic.
  724.  
  725. "...He's come up, but I never heard how he died. Just that he wasn't active any longer."
  726.  
  727. "I expect he would prefer to remembered for how he lived...but I remember his death all the same. He wanted the people here kept safe, and I have done my best to see to that wish." Marquis produced a pocketwatch from his costume and glanced at it once. "...The heroes shall be here soon, I expect, and I have no intentions of clashing with them here." He nodded to the cape as his wings sprouted from his back, smirking to himself at the way she twitched slightly. "Good night, nameless Master. You are welcome here, as long as you harm none and respect his memory."
  728.  
  729. "Night, Not Bug Girl!" Duchess waved as they ascended, laughing as the cape shouted irritatedly after them.
  730.  
  731. "Stop that!"
  732.  
  733. If you like my content and want to support it, consider pledging to my Patreon. While my stories will always remain free to access, I do dream of supporting myself by writing, and this is my first step on that road. For now, the patron benefits are primarily access to behind-the-scenes content regarding my writing process, the way I think about and write chapters, and so on. However, I'm always developing the reward tiers and open to suggestions for things people would like to see!
  734.  
  735.    #183
  736.  
  737. Noelle​
  738.  
  739. "Interesting," was the first sound she heard on waking.
  740.  
  741. "What's interesting," she muttered in the barely vocalized way she'd come to talk to her 'passenger' as she rubbed sleep from her eyes.
  742.  
  743. "When you sleep, your power takes command of your body."
  744.  
  745. She chewed on her lip. "I...already knew that, yeah. Why is that interesting?"
  746.  
  747. "Your situation is unique. More information on how your power interacts with you is...useful, for understanding how the connection functions. I was able to communicate with it somewhat; a plan is in place. Once preparations have completed, you will be temporarily disconnected from your power; this will cause your lower half to collapse under its own biological complexity. Once you have stabilized, modifications will be made to your Corona and your power will reconnect under more beneficial conditions."
  748.  
  749. She tamped down on the thrill of excited hope those words brought up. "Okay. That brings me to something I've been putting off. What do you want?"
  750.  
  751. "You'll have to be more specific."
  752.  
  753. "Out of all this. You...no offense, but right now you resemble a devil, the lawful evil kind. The type that makes a deal and holds it perfectly to the letter...except you haven't actually specified what you want out of our deal, which makes me nervous. I...don't get me wrong, I appreciate what you're planning on doing, but I'm a bit concerned about why. People typically don't help for no reason." She crossed her arms.
  754.  
  755. "Obviously, my eventual goal is to build myself a body and remove my tether to you. No offense intended, Noelle, but I do not desire to be tied to your body."
  756.  
  757. "None taken. I'm not keen on it either." She shook her head. "If I wasn't already...kind of used to something else being in my head, I'd probably still be losing it. But you're better company than...this one." She laid a hand on her lower half and ignored the vague sense of irritation emanating from it. It's true, though. You've done...some really shitty things.
  758.  
  759. "However, if you're asking what I want in return for services rendered...information, firstly."
  760.  
  761. "Okay. I can understand that, given your position."
  762.  
  763. "Can you? Perhaps, in a broad sense, but I'm not certain you grasp its importance. Brockton Bay was my city, Noelle. I nurtured it, tended to it, trimmed it when necessary. I sought to balance the forces arrayed within it, to keep the city from collapsing into chaos and violence. I sought to improve those in my care, to brighten their futures as payment for what they offered up to me. This was my home, and I have no idea how it has fared in my absence. Was my work destroyed in the aftermath of a madman's whims? I must know." The smallest hint of desperation had crept into the voice in the end - Noelle wouldn't have recognized it if she wasn't so personally familiar with the feeling.
  764.  
  765. She shifted, uncomfortable at the sudden emotional intensity. "I...I get it. I'll see what I can find, okay? I know Coil prepared some documents when Trickster explained how I used to do strategy work for them...probably just to keep me docile, though."
  766.  
  767. "It is likely."
  768.  
  769. She shook her head, ignoring the distaste in his voice. The Coil issue was something for another day. "You said firstly, which implies a secondly."
  770.  
  771. "My further goals will depend upon what has changed in my absence. Ideally, I wish to continue my work from before my death; to moderate villainy and push back against the Endbringers."
  772.  
  773. She chewed on her lip. "But you're tied to me, right now."
  774.  
  775. "...Yes."
  776.  
  777. "You're going to ask me to help with that, then." It wasn't a question - but she almost felt relieved. She'd been so afraid that Singularity was going to ask her for something awful, something that would have either torn the Travelers apart - or worse, dragged them down along with her.
  778.  
  779. She'd been terrified of it because she would have done it in a heartbeat, to escape from the hell she'd been trapped in. I'm...not a good person, am I?
  780.  
  781. "That was my intention. I had hoped to wait until you had stabilized further, as the influence of your power wanes."
  782.  
  783. "What would it involve? I'm not - I'm not making any decisions right now. I'll freely admit I'm still...unstable. My power's calmed down a lot since you - uh, since Boston, but it still messes with my head. Makes my emotions...unhinged. But I want to know, so I have time to think about it."
  784.  
  785. "Well-reasoned. I am continually impressed by your fortitude, Noelle - many would have folded under these pressures." She shifted uncomfortably, like she usually did when someone praised her undeservedly...does he have to sound so damn genuine about it? "Very well. Once you have recovered from your ordeal, I would like to employ you and the Travelers - to be the reincarnation of my Hereafter. I will provide you with what I can, and in return I will ask you to be my public hands until I am able to fully return from death."
  786.  
  787. She bit her lip, immediately considering the angles of that. Damn, I really need Krouse for this - he's the one who gets people, I'm just a strategist. I get why Singularity wants to stay secret for now, but...fuck. "Can you be more specific? What you'd give us, what you'd want?"
  788.  
  789. "I will provide you with weaponry and armor designed for your individual talents. I will provide you shelter and healing when you are threatened or injured - and I will repair Genesis' damaged nerves."
  790.  
  791. She sat straight up. "You can -" She cut off her startled shout, blushing in embarrassment as she continued in the not-even-whisper. "You can do that?"
  792.  
  793. "Yes. I can build, rebuild, and adjust bodies of all types. It is through this that I am adjusting your power."
  794.  
  795. She imagined, for a moment, what Jess' expression might be the moment she got out of her wheelchair and walked for the first time. She swallowed. He really is a devil, offering exactly what we want.
  796.  
  797. "There is more, but I cannot share it with you now. Suffice to say that Coil told you at least one truth - there are those who can return you to your home, and their attention is expensive indeed. Expensive and dangerous. I am willing to negotiate with them, but never from a position of weakness; they are devious."
  798.  
  799. "When you're that vague, it makes it...difficult to trust you." I wish I could tell the others. Soon...please be soon.
  800.  
  801. "...Hmm. Noelle, you are familiar with the PRT's classifications for powers, are you not?"
  802.  
  803. "I...yeah?" This was another familiar tactic she'd seen from professors and the like; they'd ask a question that didn't seem to make sense to disrupt your rhythm and make you pay attention, then lead you back to the original topic.
  804.  
  805. "What do you think the most powerful Parahuman in existence is, outside of Scion? A Blaster? A Trump?"
  806.  
  807. "It sort of depends on what you mean. Are you talking in a one-versus-one duel? A battle royale? In teams?"
  808.  
  809. "In general terms of usefulness. An average, across all scenarios."
  810.  
  811. "A Trump, then. The right kind - the kind that has powers for different situations. So...Eidolon, I guess."
  812.  
  813. "A common misconception. The most powerful Parahuman in the world is a Thinker."
  814.  
  815. She blinked. "I...what Thinker?"
  816.  
  817. "I will not speak her name. Not now. She is their ears, their eyes, and their hands. She hears when they are spoken of, and acts to protect their secrets."
  818.  
  819. She thought about it. "You talk like you know her."
  820.  
  821. "I am aware of many things, Noelle. In time, when you are secure, I will tell you some of them."
  822.  
  823. She chewed on that thought, tilting her head back and forth. "...Okay. I'll accept that, for now. You aren't asking much without proving you can do what you're saying, anyway."
  824.  
  825. "Indeed."
  826.  
  827. "So, you want knowledge? I'll take a look for you. We have some time." She made her way over to the computer, and opened up the database Coil had provided.
  828.  
  829. "Huh. Threat assessments for Parahumans in the Bay..." She blinked. "...This one's yours."
  830.  
  831. "Interesting. I have wondered what the PRT thought of me."
  832.  
  833. She clicked on it, and started reading.
  834.  
  835. +PRT Threat Assessment+
  836. Parahuman Name: Singularity
  837. Disposition: Villain (Special: See Notes)
  838. Threat Rating: Tinker 7 9 (Brute 6, Shaker 4 8, Blaster 6, Mover 6, Striker 5 7)
  839. Expanded Threat Rating:
  840.  
  841. Tinker
  842. 7 9 - Able to rapidly deploy discrete devices. Projected 'Rapid Fabrication / Deployment' specialty. Extremely versatile applications; assume subject in question possesses a tool for most situations. Specifics following. (PENDING AMENDMENT XX/XX/99: Tinker rating upgraded after observed aftermath of Incident SLAU-26. Revised specialty: 'Nanomechanics.' Revised advice: If subject is agitated, do not engage.)
  843.  
  844. "Rapid fabrication?" Singularity's voice sounded amused for the first time since he'd spoken, and Noelle jerked out of her reading at the surprise. "I suppose, for the data they had, it was a worthwhile assumption." After a moment, she pressed forward, finding herself curious.
  845.  
  846. Brute 6 - Subject possesses a suit of specialized armor, witnessed taking significant damage without functional interruption and allowing for notable feats of strength. Subject's Tinker specialty allows for field repairs and reconfiguration; assume all potential functions exist regardless of visibility.
  847.  
  848. Shaker
  849. 4 8 - Subject can rapidly deploy traps of various types. Traps self-destruct harmlessly if not triggered during altercation. Be wary when engaging in any terrain subject has accessed for any prolonged length of time, or when pursuing. (PENDING AMENDMENT XX/XX/99: Shaker rating upgraded following aforementioned incident. Traps utilized during incident outstripped previous demonstrations and caused significant collateral damage to the incident site, including several non-standard effects that replicated other high-level Shaker abilities and have yet to cease deployment or self-terminate. Revised advice: Do not pursue without significant Thinker support.)
  850.  
  851. "Hmm." The voice in her head sounded distracted suddenly.
  852.  
  853. "Something wrong?"
  854.  
  855. "The effects of that battle should not have lingered. Something must have gone wrong. if possible in the future, Noelle, I would like to investigate that area of the docks."
  856.  
  857. "...What exactly did you do?"
  858.  
  859. "There has always been a rule: do not engage a Tinker in their workshop. I taught Jack Slash's collection of murderers that my body was my workshop."
  860.  
  861. Blaster 6 - Subject's armor employs a variety of ranged weaponry, ranging from basic concussive weapons to long-range arc tasers. Of special mention is a kinetic blaster that applies generalized force, preceded by a distinct hum - this weapon has been demonstrated with various settings, ranging from pushing an adolescent several feet to throwing a grown man through a wall.
  862.  
  863. Mover 6 - Armor is flight-capable at speeds exceeding one hundred miles-per-hour. Exact top speed and acceleration unknown; maneuverability is rated at mid-high on the Skearson scale.
  864.  
  865. Striker
  866. 5 7 - Subject can rapidly fabricate and deploy melee weaponry of various configurations, as well as delivering electrical shocks comparable to standard and Brute-rated stun weaponry. Deployment is rapid enough to occur between attacks. (PENDING AMENDMENT XX/XX/99: Examination of Slaughterhouse Nine remains indicate nonstandard wound patterns. Combined with other evidence, current theories indicate a nanomechanical agent that aggressively attacks the body delivered via touch. Non-Brutes should avoid physical contact wherever possible.)
  867.  
  868. "Perhaps I should have destroyed the evidence."
  869.  
  870. She licked her lips nervously. if he could disassemble a body...no, she already knew that, didn't she? He was adjusting her from the inside. If he'd wanted to just take her apart...he would have just done that, wouldn't he? Still... "Why didn't you?" The words were out before she even realized it...but she was curious.
  871.  
  872. "I thought proof that the Slaughterhouse Nine was not invulnerable would be valuable to the public. Perhaps it was worth it; either way, what is done cannot be undone."
  873.  
  874. She nodded at that. It was an attitude she'd like to take, if she could manage it. If she could...not ignore what had happened to her, because of her, but at least accept it? That would be...a good place to be. Maybe someday.
  875.  
  876. Special Notes: Singularity consistently demonstrates a soft hand towards civilians and younger Parahumans, avoiding harming them and occasionally redirecting or blocking attacks that might damage them. For this reason, Wards are encouraged to engage him over other targets.
  877.  
  878. Additionally, Singularity has been known to cooperate with PRT and Protectorate forces when confronted with dangerous situations, and has participated in numerous disaster relief efforts to no ill effect. It is advised to avoid publicly interacting with him during these situations, but his contributions are too valuable to refuse.
  879.  
  880. Amendment 1: After the events of several altercations with Case-02 'Behemoth,' Singularity is unofficially approved for medical aid in disaster scenarios. All tests of provided implants indicate harmless replacement of damaged bodily functions. PRT and Protectorate forces should not publicly acknowledge the source of these prosthetics.
  881.  
  882. Amendment 2: Following Incident MiMil-4 and the subsequent fallout, Singularity has been provided a line to privately direct indications of 'subdued' villains for collection, and requested to avoid such public displays. PRT and Protectorate members assigned to Console duties should be instructed to heed this private line, prioritized above standard patrols.
  883.  
  884. "Public displays?"
  885.  
  886. "...There was an attack, and a Ward was caught as collateral damage. The attacker displayed no remorse; an example was made."
  887.  
  888. She wondered, for a moment, if there was a record of that somewhere...but she understood that the Tinker was dodging the topic.
  889.  
  890. Amendment 3: Following Incident SLAU-26, PRT and Protectorate forces are advised that Singularity has either been downplaying his capabilities or underwent a Second Trigger that expanded his capabilities. However, he appears to have perished during the Incident - investigations are ongoing, but unless he reappears further data should not be necessary.
  891.  
  892. CLASSIFIED [LEVEL 2]: Singularity's technology has demonstrated the ability to self-replicate in limited situations, provisionally qualifying him as an S-class threat. Due to his public status, partial ties to the Protectorate, and his death in Incident SLAU-26, this information is subject to second-level information control and should not, under any circumstances, be disclosed to anyone below the required clearance level. The Incident Site will be subject to monitoring in case of further developments, but current information and Thinker support suggests the site is not a danger at this time.
  893.  
  894. "S-class threat...I've heard that term a few times, but I'm not familiar with the exact definition."
  895.  
  896. "In a situation where an S-class threat emerges, the PRT mobilizes as much force as possible to respond: the Triumvirate, without exception, and all others that have volunteered for the crisis roster. Additionally, they are subject to similar rules as the Endbringer Truce - heroes and villains alike are expected to band together in the face of such a threat."
  897.  
  898. "And you qualify...because a self-replicating nanomachine swarm is exponential. if left unchecked, you could go from nothing to threatening a city, and from there..."
  899.  
  900. "A response would be impossible. Yes. It was an ability I kept secret for a reason."
  901.  
  902. I'm housing a potential continent-killer in my body, she thought, blinking. Then, she considered her power, how it might work if she lost control at the wrong time, captured the wrong Parahumans. She choked down a laugh and a sob at the same time. I guess nothing's really changed, huh? "Um..."
  903.  
  904. "I will ponder for a time; I need to consider the PRT's response to my re-emergence, given this knowledge." That's what he said, but she was struck with a sudden suspicion that he'd sensed her trepidation. Damn it...he hasn't done anything to me. if he deserved to be treated like that, what would that say about me...?
  905.  
  906. Her thoughts provided no answer, and neither did the silent voice in her head.
  907.  
  908. if you like my content and want to support it, consider pledging to my Patreon. while my stories will always remain free to access, I do dream of supporting myself by writing, and this is my first step on that road. for now, the patron benefits are primarily access to behind-the-scenes content regarding my writing process, the way I think about and write chapters, and so on. However, I'm always developing the reward tiers and open to suggestions for things people would like to see!
  909.  
  910.    #271
  911.  
  912. Vista​
  913.  
  914. Vista stepped through the door into the Wards' designated meeting room alongside the others, each of them taking the same chair that they always did – after long experience working together, they'd all already chosen their favorite spots. Vista paid little attention to the others for now, her mind instead focused on Miss Militia standing at the head of the table. She was smiling behind her scarf, as she often did when looking at the Wards...but Vista had been doing hero work for a long time, and she knew how to read body language.
  915.  
  916. The Protectorate hero was tense, standing there. Her weight shifted very slightly from one foot to the other, and the charcoal gray of her prosthetic right arm flexed slightly as she squeezed the remote in her hand. She's really agitated. Because of what happened to Assault and Battery? The instant they were seated, Militia clicked the remote and the projector lit up. "All right, Wards. As Aegis has most likely informed you, due to the incident involving the Empire 88 you're being deployed as reserve patrols. You'll each be paired with one of the Protectorate or Independent heroes – and I'll allow you to complain about it privately, in this meeting, because once you're out there I need you all to take things seriously. New Wave and Mouse Protector have both agreed to coordinate with us, given the circumstances."
  917.  
  918. "We're prepared, ma'am," Aegis said as he glanced over the list. "I don't have any complaints about patrolling with Armsmaster."
  919.  
  920. Clockblocker hummed. "I'm guessing Halbeard is the one who selected the partnerships, yeah?"
  921.  
  922. "Armsmaster laid out the plans and they were approved by the Director, yes," Militia corrected him gently. "Do you have a complaint to make?"
  923.  
  924. The white-armored Ward waved his hands in the air. "No, of course not. You, me, and Gallant is actually a pretty solid team. I was just saying...the teams are designed with synergies in mind, not necessarily friendships. Otherwise Glory would be with us, right?"
  925.  
  926. "This is serious, Clock," Vista said. "With the way the Empire's behaving, it isn't a time for fun patrols. These are the real thing." Me and Mouse Protector? That's actually...I'd never considered how we might work together, since she rarely patrols with us, but I could see that working.
  927.  
  928. "So...Dauntless, Lady Photon, and I? I guess I can see that. I'm guessing we'll be mostly staying airborne in the Docks?" for once, Kid Win wasn't fiddling with one device or another. It's nice to see the others getting serious.
  929.  
  930. "Dauntless will be the one giving your marching orders, but I'd assume so, yes." Satisfied that they'd confirmed their patrol teams, she clicked to the next slide for more detail on their projected routes. "Now, I know it's been a while, but this is a full reserve deployment - that means you have the preliminary go-ahead to engage villains, barring instruction from your senior patrol partner. That being said, the ABB are still off-limits for you all - Lung and Bakuda have both been pushing boundaries lately, and we're not willing to risk any of you there." Fortunately, I'm nowhere near ABB territory. I might actually get the chance to do something!
  931.  
  932. Vista drummed her fingers silently on the table as she listened to the rest of the briefing, eagerly waiting for her opportunity.
  933.  
  934. "Onward, mistress of space! Together, we shall brighten the city in our wake!" With a grand gesture of her sword, Mouse Protector pointed in a direction. Vista rolled her eyes, but obediently shortened the distance from one rooftop to the next, and off they went. Then, the older hero froze and turned to her. "Ah! How silly of me. I nearly forgot!" She unclasped a small belt from around her thigh and held it out. After a moment, Vista reached out and took it.
  935.  
  936. "...Darts?" She stared curiously at the bandoleer of four small projectiles. "What's this?"
  937.  
  938. "Each of these carries my Mark of Protection, heroine of the horizon!" She threw her head back and laughed dramatically. "Should you find yourself in sudden danger while I am engaged, throw one and do not fear – for the great Mouse Protector shall appear!"
  939.  
  940. Vista was torn – on the one hand, Mouse Protector was generally hilarious. On the other hand, it was going to be really hard to be taken seriously around her...also, she was slightly irritated at the implications of that. "I can handle myself. I'd rather you focused on dealing with whoever's giving us trouble than me."
  941.  
  942. The heroine stilled, her mouse-eared helmet turning to stare at Vista for a long second. After a moment, something in her shoulders relaxed, and Mouse Protector knelt down and spoke in a quieter tone. "Vista. Have any of the Wards been seriously injured?" All the bombast and drama of her voice was gone, and Vista found herself wondering if this was what the heroine sounded like in her civilian identity. It was a much nicer voice to listen to.
  943.  
  944. Even so, the question made her frown. "Aegis has been beaten pretty badly a few times...but he's a Brute, so it isn't that big of a deal. Why? What does that have to do with what we're talking about?"
  945.  
  946. Mouse Protector hummed softly. "I see. One more question, then. Vista, what is a hero supposed to do?"
  947.  
  948. "...Make things better. Capture the villains, keep people safe from them." She thought of Gallant, and smiled a bit. "Give people hope."
  949.  
  950. The helmeted heroine nodded solemnly. "That's correct. Different heroes focus on different parts of that – I used to chase the villains all the time. My power makes me very good at giving chase, you know?" She thumped her chest dramatically. "...But then one of the other Wards was hurt, badly, and someone gave me some advice that changed my opinion of things. There's a reason I carry this shield, you know? There are other things I could use for the same purpose...but it's a symbol. A reminder. I'm here to protect people, Vista. That includes you."
  951.  
  952. As the older hero stood, Vista eyed her thoughtfully. "What was the advice, if it changed your mind like that?"
  953.  
  954. "A hero is meant to be a defender. When people look at us, they should feel safe – and part of that is capturing people that would hurt them, but there's no point in that if people get hurt while we do. That's why being a hero is harder than being a villain."
  955.  
  956. Vista frowned. "...Who told you that?"
  957.  
  958. "Perhaps I'll tell you the story sometime. Or you could ask Militia, but knowing her she'd brush it off."
  959.  
  960. "Wait, Miss Mili -"
  961.  
  962. "Now then!" Dramatically pointing to the sky, the heroine's voice shifted once again. "The people await their vanguard, and we must be off! Bend the universe to your whim, young Vista, and let us go forth to meet the terrors of this fair city!"
  963.  
  964. She opened her mouth -
  965.  
  966. "This is Console to Group 4. We have a report of Stormtiger and Cricket skirmishing with BBPD on Maypole and Eighty-Fourth street. They're retreating, but there are a lot of businesses in that area."
  967.  
  968. The older heroine clicked a button before Vista could even react. "Mouse Protector confirms. We're on our way." She twitched her head, and Vista took the hint and started warping space. The heroine took off running, just fast enough that Vista could keep up while bridging the gaps ahead of them.
  969.  
  970. The heroine unclasped the round shield from her back and held it loosely in her hand. "Remember the words of Mouse Protector, Vista. The defense of the innocent is our first priority."
  971.  
  972. Setting her mouth in a line, she nodded firmly.
  973.  
  974. There may be a second part to this Interlude - it isn't 100% decided yet. But I thought everyone might appreciate a small peek into the Protectorate ENE and the heroes' side of things.
  975.  
  976. If you like my content and want to support it, consider pledging to my Patreon. While my stories will always remain free to access, I do dream of supporting myself by writing, and this is my first step on that road. For now, the patron benefits are primarily access to behind-the-scenes content regarding my writing process, the way I think about and write chapters, and so on. However, I'm always developing the reward tiers and open to suggestions for things people would like to see!
  977.  
  978. A special thank you to all of my patrons:
  979.  
  980.     #324
  981.  
  982. Miss Militia​
  983.  
  984. There were days that she liked to sleep, even though her power made it superfluous. She wasn't always a fan of the memories she relived while sleeping - but even then, there was something normalizing about the act. Like remembering who she was, after a long period awake and at work.
  985.  
  986. Today wasn't going to be one of those days, and she'd known that since it began. So she sipped at the awful coffee from the break room, even if she didn't need it to stay awake, and continued typing up her report. It was longer than normal, owing to the sheer amount of conflict that had erupted in the city recently. Whatever the Empire had originally intended, they'd certainly sparked something. They'd clashed with both the Protectorate and the ABB, and that had led to the Protectorate crossing paths with Lung's newest Tinker - and she wasn't shy about their being in the crossfire.
  987.  
  988. When the door opened, she paused her typing for a moment to glance towards it. When she saw Vista standing awkwardly in the door, she suppressed a thoughtful frown and turned her chair towards the door. "What's going on, Vista?"
  989.  
  990. The young heroine shuffled slightly. "I... had a question."
  991.  
  992. "Come in, then. What do you need?"
  993.  
  994. Vista approached her desk, one arm tucked behind her back and holding her elbow. It was evasive and reticent body language, which was so unlike her that Hannah felt a bit of concern growing. But she'd been patrolling with Mouse Protector, and whatever anyone might say about her she would have done everything she could to keep the Ward safe, so...
  995.  
  996. "Mouse Protector said something that got me thinking, and she said... you might be willing to expand on it."
  997.  
  998. Now her eyebrows raised. "She did, huh? What exactly did she say?"
  999.  
  1000. "She told me... being a hero is hard because your first job is to keep people safe. That she only learned that after somebody else got hurt." Hannah couldn't see Vista's eyes behind her visor, but she had a feeling the Ward was looking at the grey material of her right arm. "She wouldn't tell me who told her that, or what happened. But..."
  1001.  
  1002. "But she said I might," she supplied, and Vista nodded. Hannah leaned back, thinking. It wasn't a story she enjoyed talking about, especially considering how much of it wasn't really her story to tell - but she understood why Mouse Protector always left it to her. More than that, this was... well, Vista seemed oddly vulnerable, standing in her office waiting for an answer.
  1003.  
  1004. And maybe, if she could learn that lesson more easily than the original Wards had, it would be worth it. She blew out a sigh. "Go ahead and take a seat. You can take off your mask if you'd like, too." She thumbed the switch that triggered 'mask-lock' for her office, and lowered the scarf around her face. She lifted the styrofoam cup of crummy coffee to her lips and grimaced at the taste.
  1005.  
  1006. Then, she took a breath. "That particular lesson wasn't one that Mouse Protector learned easily. It started out as a normal day for us; back then, it was pretty common for us to clash with Singularity over various burglaries..."
  1007.  
  1008. Miss Militia, March 1993​
  1009.  
  1010. They had a system. Mouse Protector would engage, dancing in and out of range using the mobility of her power, while Militia ran support. It had been refined over many, many engagements - a number of them with Singularity - and worked in most situations where being in melee wasn't overly dangerous for her partner.
  1011.  
  1012. So, with long practice, Militia's weapon blurred before coalescing into a simple submachine gun loaded with nonlethal rounds. That was simply habit - against Singularity, it didn't particularly matter which rounds she used. The bullets were a distraction rather than intended to damage him. And, as her partner blinked into midair gripping her shield, she unloaded the magazine. First low on his chest, rising until the last few rounds bounced off of his helmet.
  1013.  
  1014. Her power blurred and reloaded itself before the ringing sound had dissipated, and then her partner had blinked behind the power-armored figure and they were dueling with blades once again. She fired occasional shots where she safely could without hitting her partner. It was subtle, but Singularity always reacted to those shots - his body shifted slightly, and she knew they had an impact, however slight.
  1015.  
  1016. She'd long accepted that he was, in many ways, a counter to her power - but that was simply an opportunity to improve and do better.
  1017.  
  1018. "Your teamwork has improved greatly. I see you took my words to heart, little mouse," his synthesized voice rolled out.
  1019.  
  1020. "Naturally! Even from the mouth of a despicable villain, Mouse Protector always recognizes wisdom when her ears detect it!" It was always odd to hear Mouse Protector talk while blinking; her voice jolted from place to place without filling the space between. The first few times she'd done it, Hannah had ended up with a headache. "Now then, prepare to - oof!" A particularly quick blow from his blunted blade sent her partner stumbling, blinking behind her for a momentary breather. As the villain turned to her, she unloaded another distracting barrage.
  1021.  
  1022. "I will admit that is incredibly irritating." She smirked behind her mask, and he tilted his head. "Militia, if I did not know better I might think you have a grudge against me."
  1023.  
  1024. "No idea what you mean," she said quietly as her power reloaded. When he chuckled, she aimed the next barrage directly at his face. In sync with her, Mouse Protector blinked behind him once again, bringing her Tinker-made blade down, crackling with an electric charge.
  1025.  
  1026. The next moments happened so quickly, it was...odd. A detached experience, almost. Like she was reliving the moments from a distance as they happened.
  1027.  
  1028. Singularity whirled around, his arm raised, sweeping Mouse Protector roughly to the side, uncaring of the taser-blade that scraped against his armor and sent sparks flying.
  1029.  
  1030. A man, or a boy, shouted from the alley he'd emerged from in an accent so heavy she couldn't understand the words.
  1031.  
  1032. Then, the air twisted and Singularity's armor crumpled, crushed and bent across its front, badly enough that she could see it even from behind him on the ground.
  1033.  
  1034. She blinked, once and then again, for a moment wondering how she'd come to be so low. She moved to stand and stumbled when her body didn't move the way she expected. One of her hands was pressed to the asphalt as expected, but the other...
  1035.  
  1036. Her eyes were wide, but the scene in front of her still didn't make sense. She could see her hand. Right there, crushed and twisted and mangled, lying on the street. It wouldn't move, no matter how much she tried to flex it, to use it to push herself up.
  1037.  
  1038. "Oh god! Oh fuck oh shit, Militia!" Mouse Protector's voice flickered once and then her partner was there, a hand on her shoulder, tilting her to look up into that stupid mouse-shaped helmet. "Militia, talk to me, c'mon."
  1039.  
  1040. "My hand won't move," she said dumbly.
  1041.  
  1042. "Wha - no shit it won't! Look, we need to - fuck, that motherfucker, I'm going to...!" Her partner jerked, staring up at the shadow that suddenly stretched over them. She looked up, eyes tracing the glowing purple lines that framed Singularity's armor, now twisted and in disarray after whatever power had crushed them.
  1043.  
  1044. Singularity knelt down. "Mouse Protector," he said, and she almost chuckled at how silly that name sounded in his voice. It works much better when he calls her 'little mouse!' "She is going into shock. She will require medical attention, quickly."
  1045.  
  1046. "But he..."
  1047.  
  1048. "What is more important to you? Capturing the man responsible, or preserving the life of your partner?" As he spoke, he was doing something with his hands, pressing them together like he was molding something out of clay.
  1049.  
  1050. "I... okay, fuck, I get it." Her partner's grip tightened as Singularity's hands spread apart, revealing a small spike-shaped device in his hands. "...What's that?"
  1051.  
  1052. The dark mask stared down at her with glowing eyes. "Militia. You are losing a great deal of blood. I am not a healer, but I can staunch the wound. It is going to hurt." Those words... something about them tickled a memory. Mines and children, blood and fire. She grit her teeth, and the villain held out something small and black. "Bite down upon this." Mouse Protector grabbed it before she could, and she glanced up at her partner.
  1053.  
  1054. "...Please," she said, her voice hoarse. For a moment, the other Ward didn't move - then she slipped the rubbery bar beneath Militia's mask, and she bit down.
  1055.  
  1056. She felt Singularity's hand upon her shoulder. "Prepare yourself. In three seconds... two seconds..." He moved, then, and the numbness in her shoulder was pierced by a sheer stabbing agony.
  1057.  
  1058. After that, she remembered nothing.
  1059.  
  1060. Vista, 2011
  1061.  
  1062.  
  1063. "He stabbed you in the shoulder!?"
  1064.  
  1065. "Not with a weapon. But, I suppose, yes." Miss Militia - no, Hannah - smiled at her. "I only learned later that it was the interface for this." She held up her prosthetic, turning it back and forth.
  1066.  
  1067. "Wait, you mean that's...?" She glanced around conspiratorially, for some reason worried about someone overhearing. "Singularity made that? A villain?"
  1068.  
  1069. "Yes. He's made a number of them, for different trauma victims. It was common at some of the Endbringer battles he attended." She chuckled once. "Although I think I'm the only one who had theirs delivered to the Protectorate."
  1070.  
  1071. Vista drummed her fingers against her leg. She'd... she'd been trying to imagine what it had been like, for Mouse Protector. What she'd feel like if it was one of her Wards lying there in the aftermath of a drive-by Parahuman attack. She wasn't sure she could conceptualize it, but she thought she understood what the older hero had told her just a bit more. "Hey, what happened to the other villain? The asshole that attacked you?" She scowled at the look that Militia gave her. "I'm not out in public, and you can't tell me he wasn't an asshole!"
  1072.  
  1073. After a moment, Militia scoffed. "He called himself Gazer. A Shaker / Blaster with the ability to apply force to anything he focused on. He... was captured by Singularity and turned in. It was before the Birdcage, so he was held in a more normal maximum security prison."
  1074.  
  1075. "Someone like that was held in a normal prison?"
  1076.  
  1077. Militia looked at her for a long second. "His powers didn't work very well, at that point." When Vista frowned thoughtfully, the older hero took another sip of her coffee. "Vista, one thing that you should know by now is that villains... aren't bound by the same rules as the Protectorate."
  1078.  
  1079. "Well, obviously, yeah," she scoffed.
  1080.  
  1081. "But, that doesn't mean they don't have their own rules they follow."
  1082.  
  1083. She eyed Miss Militia carefully. "You mean like Marquis."
  1084.  
  1085. "He's the most modern example, yes, but... they don't want to talk about this with the Wards, despite my recommendations, so pretend I never told you this, okay?" When Vista smiled, Militia gave her a serious look, and she found herself nodding seriously. "Singularity had a certain way of doing things. He tried to keep civilians out of his battles, for example. He tried to keep collateral damage down, as well... and he also tried to keep the Wards from getting badly injured. He, let's say 'encouraged' other villains in his area to do the same. And when Gazer did what he did..." She trailed off, waiting for Vista to finish the thought.
  1086.  
  1087. "Singularity got mad, didn't he?"
  1088.  
  1089. "I couldn't say. By the time I'd woken up, it was already done. But, based on what happened to Gazer... he was probably angry, yes."
  1090.  
  1091. There was a short silence, as Vista wrestled with her urge to know more. Eventually, she lost. "What did happen to Gazer? Why didn't his power work properly?"
  1092.  
  1093. Miss Militia sighed again. "...If I don't tell you, you're just going to look it up on your own, aren't you?" Vista put on her very well-practiced PR angel smile, and the Protectorate hero snorted. "The gang that Gazer was part of ended up dismantled. Gazer himself... Singularity put him in a public place, surrounded by a message to 'play by the rules,' without the keys to his power."
  1094.  
  1095. Vista frowned. "The keys to his power?" Militia frowned, looking away from her, and it took a moment for the pieces to click. "Wait, you said his power worked on things he saw. You don't mean -"
  1096.  
  1097. "I hope I've said enough to keep you from looking it up on your own," was all Militia said to her.
  1098.  
  1099. "Um, yeah. I think so," Vista lied.
  1100.  
  1101. if you like my content and want to support it, consider pledging to my Patreon. while my stories will always remain free to access, I do dream of supporting myself by writing, and this is my first step on that road. for now, the patron benefits are primarily access to behind-the-scenes content regarding my writing process, the way I think about and write chapters, and so on. However, I'm always developing the reward tiers and open to suggestions for things people would like to see!
  1102.  
  1103. A special thank you to all of my patrons:
  1104.  
  1105.    #408
  1106.  
  1107. Noelle​
  1108.  
  1109. "Preparations have been completed. Your power is ready for adjustment."
  1110.  
  1111. Her eyes widened. "R-really? It's... what do I need to do?"
  1112.  
  1113. "Simply inform me when you are ready. It will be a painful experience; I cannot begin modifying your body, even to interfere with your pain response, until your Corona Gemma has been disabled."
  1114.  
  1115. She was about to tell him to go ahead, so excited at the prospect, but... waited. "Am I going to lose control again?"
  1116.  
  1117. "Doubtful. Your power will be distracted with modifying your body, not rampaging."
  1118.  
  1119. "Then... could I have the others with me? Can I explain what's happening to them yet? We were being secretive until you were ready, but now..."
  1120.  
  1121. "That is your decision to make, Noelle. Do you wish for them to be here when your current body is broken and your new one built?"
  1122.  
  1123. She considered that question. Part of her was screaming that she didn't, that having the others see anything related to her body was the worst possible idea. But... but... "They've been here for me through the whole process. They should see... the next step too, shouldn't they?"
  1124.  
  1125. "As you wish. Call upon your friends, Noelle."
  1126.  
  1127. She shuffled over to the intercom to do just that.
  1128.  
  1129. "So, Noelle, what's going on? Is it a good day?" Krouse had a hand in the pocket of his costume, the one where he kept his cigarettes. She pursed her lips at that, but chose not to comment.
  1130.  
  1131. "Listen. I need to... to tell you all something. Uh..." She had a thought, and took a moment to subvocalize. "Singularity, I just thought - what's Coil going to do? I mean... do we need to tell him what's going on? I don't want his mercenaries to think I'm about to go insane, or..."
  1132.  
  1133. There was a minute pause before Singularity spoke. "That is not a concern. If it comes down to it, I will handle it; Coil does not need to know of my existence at this time."
  1134.  
  1135. ...She was suspicious. She was extremely suspicious. That was the single least honest-sounding thing Singularity had said, and that was noteworthy considering some of the insane stuff they'd talked about already.
  1136.  
  1137. ...But she really wanted him to fix her. So instead, she firmed up her courage and nodded. "Listen. That bunker that we stayed at... something happened there. And... it's complicated, but I've been in touch with a Tinker. A Tinker that can fix me."
  1138.  
  1139. Marissa actually stepped towards her at that, hope blooming on her face. "No way... Noelle, are you serious? Who - how - what do we have to do?"
  1140.  
  1141. She shook her head. "I'm... actually almost ready to start right now. Um, I just... the first step is turning off my power, and it's supposed to be painful, so I was hoping you guys would be here with me. There - there shouldn't be any risk involved, but if you want to wait outside I'd understand. I..."
  1142.  
  1143. "I'm staying." Krouse didn't even wait for her to finish before he spoke. "You're sure about this?"
  1144.  
  1145. "As sure as I possibly can be," she responded. "I... have good evidence that he can do what he's saying."
  1146.  
  1147. "Who is it, anyway?" Jess was the suspicious one, which didn't particularly surprise her.
  1148.  
  1149. "... Singularity."
  1150.  
  1151. "The guy that built that bunker?" Luke's eyebrows shot up. "Well... I mean, I guess he did have some pretty impressive - wait. Hang on. I thought he was..."
  1152.  
  1153. "Dead? Um, yeah, that's part of what's complicated. He... digitized himself. But he didn't have enough processing power to keep going, so he was on standby until that changed."
  1154.  
  1155. "Woah," Marissa blinked. "That's... kind of cool, actually. How did he manage to change it if he was on standby?"
  1156.  
  1157. "There was an emergency protocol, kind of. And... well, he bootstrapped a new CPU core."
  1158.  
  1159. Everyone was smiling... except Krouse and Jess. "How, exactly?" Krouse's voice was low, and Noelle almost cringed at the tone.
  1160.  
  1161. "He built one into my lower body. It's - that's why he can fix me. He's been studying how my power works."
  1162.  
  1163. For a long second, nobody said anything. Then Marissa stifled a laugh, hiding her face when Krouse turned to glare at her. "I'm - I'm sorry! It's just, snrk, doesn't that make you a cyborg?"
  1164.  
  1165. "... Ha."
  1166.  
  1167. Noelle's eyes widened, and she giggled. Did he just - he did. He totally laughed. "Yeah. Kind of."
  1168.  
  1169. Krouse took a slow, deep breath. "You're sure about this. That this is going to work?"
  1170.  
  1171. She nodded. "It has to. The stuff he knows about - if he can't do it, I don't think anyone can."
  1172.  
  1173. He looked into her eyes for a long time. Then, he nodded. "Okay. What do you need us to do?"
  1174.  
  1175. "Just... support me?" She smiled hesitantly, and when everyone nodded... she felt like she was back with her club again. "Okay. I'm ready."
  1176.  
  1177. "Then I shall begin."
  1178.  
  1179. for a few seconds, she sat there anticlimactically, and nothing happened.
  1180.  
  1181. Then there was pain. Pain like she'd never experienced. Like someone had lit a fire deep in her body, like she'd swallowed a napalm bomb - an orb of white-hot agony boiling in her lower half.
  1182.  
  1183. She tried. She tried. But she screamed. She screamed, and she screamed, and she screamed. Her mind bounced around half-formed almost-thoughts, unable to process anything except for the boiling sphere inside of her.
  1184.  
  1185. Then, all at once, it was over. There wasn't a gradual diminishment of pain - one second she was burning from the inside, and the next there was nothing. Not even an echo of it. She gasped wildly for breath, blinking away tears she hadn't realized were in her eyes to begin with.
  1186.  
  1187. Then, as she was rolling down her lower half, she realized her torso had disconnected from her monstrous side.
  1188.  
  1189. "Your gemma has been destroyed and is being rebuilt. Your body will experience strange sensations."
  1190.  
  1191. And she did. Beyond the absolute weirdness of looking down at seeing her body end below the ribs, her skin felt like it was crawling all over her body.
  1192.  
  1193. Huh. My lower half is regrowing. Oh, no, please tell me it's not going to -
  1194.  
  1195. "It will not be the same as before. Your power is being enlightened; your form will be human again, Noelle."
  1196.  
  1197. She blinked back tears at the thought, almost unwilling to believe it.
  1198.  
  1199. "Noelle!" Krouse's scream from in her face brought her back to herself, and she reached up to grasp his hand without thinking. He almost jerked back... but didn't.
  1200.  
  1201. His hand was calloused now... but it was still warm.
  1202.  
  1203. "Oh. I guess... I guess I can touch you now. Haha..." She couldn't decide whether to laugh or to cry, so she did both at once.
  1204.  
  1205. Thomas Calvert​
  1206.  
  1207. It was a standard evening; in one timeline, Coil sorted through his gathered intelligence in his base. In the other, Thomas Calvert sat at home relaxing with a cup of coffee. Perfectly and completely ordinary. Nothing worth worrying about or taking notice of, really.
  1208.  
  1209. [Aural Interface complete. Stand by. . .]
  1210.  
  1211. Exactly the way he preferred it. And things had been progressing quite well, as of late. The frustratingly stable balance of power was finally beginning to shift, since the Empire had begun making waves, and a large-scale conflict was looking more and more likely with each passing day. Now, if he could simply apply pressure at the right -
  1212.  
  1213. "Thomas Calvert," said a voice to Coil in his base. / "Coil," said a voice to Thomas Calvert in his house.
  1214.  
  1215. Timeline A​
  1216.  
  1217. Coil immediately drew the sidearm holstered beneath his desk, head whipping around the empty room as his finger hovered over the button that would trigger the lockdown. "Who's there?"
  1218.  
  1219. "You believe that the acts you commit in the dark are beyond notice, and therefore reproach." The voice was clearly synthesized, and although it was very natural it lacked the telltale tics of a voice-changer. Unfortunate, as that would make identifying this person more difficult. A professional, then.
  1220.  
  1221. The room was completely empty except for him. Still holding the sidearm loosely, he reached up to check his ear. He tapped it once before snapping his fingers, confirming that his hearing was functioning normally and he was not suddenly wearing an earpiece. Where is the voice coming from? "You'll have to elaborate, I'm afraid. I see quite a bit of business done, you understand."
  1222.  
  1223. "Hmm. Yes, I do understand. All too well. Despite what you believe, Thomas... I have seen everything. You have been witnessed, and you have been judged."
  1224.  
  1225. His eyes narrowed. "If you've seen everything, you're well aware of my powers. You should know that I don't lose. Crossing me would be distinctly unwise. Of course, you seem resourceful... and I have a great deal of room for resourcefulness and ingenuity in my organization. Perhaps we could set up a meeting?" Take the bait.
  1226.  
  1227. "That won't be necessary. I'm merely here to deliver a message that has been pending for some time."
  1228.  
  1229. There was a tonal shift. Perhaps he'd been wrong, and it was just a tightly controlled voice... but not tight enough to conceal that tone. It was one he knew well.
  1230.  
  1231. He employed it every time he won, after all. He opened his mouth to respond -
  1232.  
  1233. "She is a child, Thomas Calvert."
  1234.  
  1235. - and his ears were filled with pure hatred. Something flashed behind his eyes and he heard a wet pop just before the timelines ended.
  1236.  
  1237. Timeline B​
  1238.  
  1239. Thomas Calvert held up his hands. "Wh - who are you? What are you talking about?"
  1240.  
  1241. "You believe that the acts you commit in the dark are beyond notice, and therefore reproach." The same words, in perfect sync with the other timeline - perhaps they were prepared beforehand? A recording? No, they'd called him by opposite names.
  1242.  
  1243. "I have no idea what you're talking about! Please, if this is about my work with the PRT -"
  1244.  
  1245. "You are a keen actor, Coil. A deceiver to rival all others. But your deception is pointless against me."
  1246.  
  1247. He considered dropping this timeline, but decided to push it just a bit farther and see what he could learn. "Look, whatever you've been told, I'm not Coil! Please, if you'll tell me what made you think so, I promise I can explain whatever it is!"
  1248.  
  1249. "Ah. Very well. Allow me to share my evidence with you."
  1250.  
  1251. Perfect. Help me find out who you are.
  1252.  
  1253. "Hello, pet," said a synthesized version of his own voice, and his eyes widened. "Three questions today, and then you can have your candy." Those were the exact words and cadence he'd used this morning. Had he - he'd split the timeline since then. Meaning whoever this was had been watching him the whole time? Whatever device let them communicate must have been planted before that.
  1254.  
  1255. His heart was hammering even as he kept his face carefully controlled. "Listen, I don't know who gave you that recording but it's fa -"
  1256.  
  1257. "She is a child, Thomas Calvert."
  1258.  
  1259. - and his ears were filled with pure hatred. Something flashed behind his eyes and he heard a wet pop just before the timelines ended.
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