wonder_city: (Default)
Jubilee

It was my first time running the android avatar that Larentia Canis had built me in a crowd, but I was going to by damn be AT Ruth's birthday party, not just watch it on a camera.

She was somewhat awkward to handle at first, no matter how much practice I'd had running her in my home. I called her Metro because Larentia, in a fit of whimsy, had recreated the android from Fritz Lang's Metropolis, with the feminine body and helmet-shaped head and deco styling, only with a dark copper finish. I was sititng in my long distance chair, wearing the control coronet. I was also drugged to the gills. Metro also had all sorts of electronic filters that affected mental powers, but the meds brought me down to a level actually manageable by those filters. I had full physical sensation, just as if I were there, without the mental onslaught of the people around me. I was just me, walking around on the hot sand beach of the remote island where everyone had gathered.

I spent a little time enjoying the feel of the sun warming the metal of my skin and the smell of the ocean and hot sand.

Of all the (few) people who knew me, Suzanne Feldstein found me first. "Renata? Renata Scott?" she said, a brown-haired, middle-aged white woman peering into Metro's eyes inquiringly.

"That's me," I said through Metro's speakers, and offered a hand. "Glad to meet you in the flesh, Suzanne. Well, flesh and metal."

Suzanne shook my hand vigorously. She was dressed in a yellow-floral-print sundress, and the sun was already starting to redden her shoulders. "I'm so glad you could come. C'mere, let me introduce you around some."

And so I met Simon, and he was just as fine in person as he was on camera, and if possible, sweeter. "Ms. Scott!" he said, shaking my hand. He was wearing a blue muscle shirt with "TEAM SIMON" on it in block letters and loose black shorts. His hair and Van Dyke were sharply trimmed. "I'm glad to meet you! Oh, I'm glad Mom did such a good job on that android body; it's really gorgeous."

How could I blush at a compliment meant for his mother's handiwork? Don't ask me. "Your mother has been very generous and kind to me over the years. This is only one example."

"She's like that," Simon said, then he stepped back and gestured to someone. "And here's someone who's been wanting to meet you too. Ira, this is Ms. Scott."

"Please," I said, shaking the old man's hand, "both of you, please call me Renata."

Ira beamed at me. He was wearing a big straw hat, a yellow polo shirt, and khaki shorts that showed his pale knobbly knees. He was a little thin and stooped, but otherwise looked younger than his 83 years. "I'm honored to meet you, Renata. You did such a bangup job that night, though I can't imagine it was easy."

"You did a pretty good job yourself, sir," I said.

"Ira," he corrected me.

"Ira," I said, wishing Metro's smile wasn't so very... scary, and that Larentia's attempt at the overlay projection (a la Maria's duplicate) hadn't failed so spectacularly. Someday, I'd be able to smile at people too.

Suzanne, I realized from her movements and her half-empty drink, was already more than a bit tipsy. She reached out and snagged the arm of a mousy, bespectacled white woman in jeans and a t-shirt. "Watson, Watson, come meet Renata."

So there was an orgy of introductions conducted by Suzanne, who was adding every moment to her "sheets to the wind" quotient. I met Watson Holmes, Megan Amazon, Ivy and Malik Canis (each holding a squirming puppy they introduced as belonging to their sister Jasmine -- I wasn't entirely sure what they meant by "belonging", given that the puppies were exclaiming my name delightedly), Ana Hernandez, Flo and Ebb Starr, the Silver Guardian (who was an old friend of Suzanne's apparently), and Sekhmet of the Gold Stars, and... a lot of other people whose names I'd heard but who I'd never met "live" before.

I was glad to be drugged to the gills, honestly. It was the largest crowd I'd been in for over 20 years.

Simon finally, kindly, as the afternoon advanced alarmingly toward evening, led Suzanne off to the buffet tables, saying, "We'll catch you later, Renata," over his shoulder. He winked at me, the little devil.

Left to my own devices, I made my way from the beach, where I'd been trapped by the introduction nexus after arriving there via the teleport link, up toward the line of umbrellas and beach chairs where I spotted Gloria Revelle's lean, solemn face peering around periodically. I figured that wherever Gloria was, Ruth was likely to be.

I was right. Ruth was ensconced in a thronelike wooden beach chair with some colorfully umbrella'd adult beverage in an enormous glass in one hand, grinning like a fool up at me. "You did make a gorgeous thing there, Larentia," she said, glancing up at Larentia, who was standing nearby. Ruth carefully balanced the glass on the arm of the chair, and got up to hug me. I saw Sophie reach out and steady the glass behind her, just as Ruth got me in a careful bear hug.

I leaned Metro's chin on her shoulder and enjoyed the various sensations of a solid, muscular, warm human body in my arms. I loved Ruth for many reasons, not least because for her, hugging one of her friends manifested in an android body was hardly the oddest thing she'd done in the past five minutes. "You look so much better than you did last I saw you, Ruth," I said.

"I feel so much better, Rennie," she murmured, not letting me go yet. "You helped give me back my baby. I won't forget that."

"Hell, Ruth, you gave me my life," I said, not willing to let go, feeling like I'd been in the desert for 20 years and was just getting a small sip of water. It had been so long since I'd touched a human being, and I can't actually remember when I last hugged someone without immediately being inside her or his head. "I'm glad to give something back. I mean, what do you get the most powerful para on Earth for her birthday anyway?"

We laughed, and finally stepped back a little, but our arms lingered around each other's waists. Ruth gestured around, saying, "You know Gloria, of course."

I shook hands with Gloria, and was amazed to actually see the woman smile. She had a little lopsided smile, with a mostly closed mouth, and I noticed that she had a bit of an overbite -- I suspected that might be why she doesn't smile more often. "Gloria, thank you for everything you've been doing lately with the chef roster. The variety has been really wonderful."

"I thought we could use some new blood in the kitchen," she said in her deep voice and blunt MidAtlantic accents. "You're my lab rat, you know. These are all chefs I try out on you before using them for catering and events."

"Glad to be of service," I said. "Delicious service."

"Here's Olivia," Ruth said, drawing the Fat Lady into the circle. The Fat Lady was wearing a remarkable gauzy white dress that drifted dramatically on the breeze and looked just right with her complexion, and her sleek black hair was caught up under an extravagant white sun hat.

"Renata, I've heard so many good things about you," Olivia said, turning her famous dimples and dazzling smile on me.

I confess to feeling just a little overwhelmed and, well, fangirlish, so I think I managed to mutter something polite and possibly gushed about loving her work before Ruth sicced Sophie on me.

The girl had some of the most intense dark eyes I've ever seen, and even though I technically shouldn't have been able to sense a damned thing about her, I could feel the wheels of her mind turning and turning. It was almost like I could see and feel the clockwork moving through those remarkable eyes. That's what you get from the intimate connection of stuffing someone back into her head, I suppose. There we were, caught in mid-handshake, staring into each other's minds, I think, for what felt like a piece of eternity, before we both shook ourselves and she said, "I've been wanting to thank you for everything you did."

I shrugged. "There were lots of folks who did more than I did."

"Yes, well," Sophie said, flashing a grin. She reached behind her and dragged another white girl her age foward. This one was brown-haired and utterly average in terms of looks and overt charm, but I recognized her.

"Pacifica," I said, shaking her hand. "Glad to meet you outside your head."

She smiled shyly, pressed her lips together and hunched her shoulders a bit. "I'm flattered you remember me, Ms. Scott."

"Renata," I said, thinking, Girl, how could I possibly forget you? Aloud, I added, "Your arm seems to've healed up nicely."

"It's still stiff," she said, "but Sophie makes good healing accelerators. Even if I did have to spend time in tank full of blue goo. Why was it blue, anyway?" she added, turning to Sophie.

"I didn't want anyone eating it," Sophie said.

"No one would eat that, it smelled too bad," Nereid said.

Sophie grinned. "You'd be surprised..."

There was a loud crack of lightning overhead, and everyone tensed. Ruth looked up quickly, then rolled her eyes and said to Sophie, "Didn't you give that child an invitation?"

Sophie shrugged. "I did," she said, "but she always prefers to crash." I thought I picked up just a bit of mischief there, as if, perhaps, she'd had some idea in advance.

High above us was a flying stage, limned in neon and flashing lights against the twilit sky. It slowly lowered until it was hovering just above the ocean, with the spectacular painted clouds of sunset sprawling out behind it. Myriad small, hovering robots levitated from the stage and sprang into formation in the air, turning colored spotlights onto the platform. A backdrop of enormous metal struts extruded from the back of the stage, arching up into Gothic points and then blooming into weirdly delicate curlicues that suggested tentacles, or possibly fruit.

"What the hell is that?" Sister Power said, as though she knew exactly what the hell it was but was a bit afraid of the answer. She crinkled a smile at me, her dark brown face highlighted by a glorious mane of silver hair. I'd forgotten how old she was; she'd gotten her start in the 1970s, so she must be in her 60s by now.

Ruth massaged the bridge of her nose. "It's Sophie's little friend. You remember her, Imara. The one who started a band in college. Calls herself Gogo."

Sophie snorted at this description.

An enormous grinding noise silenced us all and a pillar rose up from the middle of the stage. It appeared to be girdled with a bank of steampunk consoles and quite a lot of flashing lights. The grinding noise stopped, and then, in a burst of music, it flew open, revealing a young white woman whose top was dressed in a silver jumpsuit, and whose lower half was a kickline of seven sets of robot legs. A drum line started. She leapt down to the stage with surprising agility for someone with fourteen legs, and subtle instrumentals started up. She started to declaim in a deep voice that was projected to several points around us.

People keep saying it's the end days,
Skynet's won, we've run the maze.
In the center is Room 101:
Can we boldly go when all is done?
All the things I tried to save
Are just putting flowers on a mouse's grave.
Game over, man, and everybody dies
And there's nothing to eat but lies, lies, lies.


"I do believe," Gloria said, "we are about to have a concert."

"Oh, god help me," Ruth said, taking the umbrella out of her drink so she could swallow it faster.

A robot guitarist, keyboardist, bassist, and drummer emerged from the surface of the stage, apparently fused to their instruments. I noticed the drummer had long hair so it could swing it back and forth. All of them were silver-skinned, like Gogo's jumpsuit and legs, but with gold accents. Gogo strutted down to the front of the stage (there's a lot of strut in seven sets of robot legs), seized a microphone that was dropped from above by one of her ubiquitous flying drones, and burst into song with a crash of music.

I won't be just a worker in the heart machine
I'm going to see the light of day.
I'm going to crack the world's shell is what I mean
Put on my wings and fly away.

Everyone asks me am I bad witch or good
Or one of the genetic elite
But I am telling you I'm Lilith's Brood
And we have never known defeat!

We're from Ultima Thule
And we include me and you.
She's the hero we need
Cause she makes us heroes too!


"Oh, no," Ruth groaned, and finished her drink.

Sophie looked contrite. But only a little. Nereid was watching Gogo with her mouth hanging open. An attractive androgynous Asian person appeared over Nereid's shoulder and raised inquisitive eyebrows at Sophie, who said defensively, "It's not my fault!"

Just living day to day
Learn to rise up and say
She's the hero we need
To sing Hero of Heroes today!

She's the Ultimate test!
In her Prometheus rests,
She's the hero we need
Because we give her our best!


I was pretty amazed at the dancing you could do with fourteen legs in perfect unison. At the end of the first chorus, backup dancers also melted out of the stage. I felt distinctly upstaged when I realized that they all looked just like my android body, except in silver. Talk about embarrassment for wearing the same outfit to the party.

"Hey," Larentia said faintly. She patted my shoulder apologetically.

Gogo spoke into her microphone again.

At Yoshiwara's we'll dance and fight
Always alone in the night,
But reaching out, touch hand to hand,
Galadriel or Servalan.
Is the Slayer really born this way?
Or Sleepless walk both night and day?
Or maybe we'll stand up and see:
You have no power over me.


Sister Power said, "None of this makes any sense. What the hell is a servalan?"

Sophie started laughing helplessly into her hands.

The music kicked up again.

For some reason, Gogo threw her microphone into the audience. Then, with a satisfied little smile, she leaned back and another one sprouted, or seemed to sprout, out of her chest. She grabbed that one and kept singing.

I noticed a middle-aged black woman, oddly wearing a suit on the beach, making her way through the crowd with purpose in her eyes. She didn't even flinch at the volume of the music. I nudged Ruth.

Ruth looked over. "Marilyn, heeeey, girl!" she said, waving her hand. I wondered idly how many of those giant glasses of booze Ruth had already consumed.

The woman, who I now recognized as Marilyn Henderson, lawyer to paras, arrived in front of Ruth with a grim little smile on her face. "Interesting entertainment."

"It's not what I would've chosen, true," Ruth said. "But the girl's got a good heart."

"And is showing a great deal of leg," Marilyn said with a glance upward.

"What're you doing, wearing that penguin suit here on the beach?" Ruth said. "Take that jacket off and set a while."

Marilyn straightened her shoulders in an ominous way that made both Gloria and I tense up. "Ruth Thomas, I am here to give you some important paperwork."

Ruth laced her fingers together and placed them under her chin. "At my birthday party." She didn't make it a question.

"Yes," Marilyn said. She whipped a folder out from under her arm and extended it to Ruth. "It couldn't wait."

Gloria's thin form had risen up and arched in a predatory fashion, inclining very slightly toward Marilyn.

Ruth sighed and took the folder.
We'll come down like angels on Tokyo

And we don't need roads where we're going.

At the end of the world can you tell me where

And in what way the time is flowing?


I can build my friends but I can't build you

A place for opossums to call their own.

But don't look back, don't blink I'm telling you

It's dhoom again but we are flown!


A hero right through

Like flying snow in bamboo

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us heroes too!


Take my ansible call

'Cause it's for one and all

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us stand tall!


She won't be suppressed

Or sent into the West

She's the hero we need

Because we give her our best!


Gogo chose that moment to distract us all with another spoken piece.

We need a hero that's worth our while
Whether Wonder Woman or Trio-style
So put on your clothes, or dye your hair
And sing electric grandmother
From Alderaan to Whileaway
The winning move is not to play.
They tell us we're beyond the pale
Bionic-made or automail,
Whether you are you or me
Virtual or karakuri
Rise up and greet Red Dawn today
Like Nauscicaa we'll fly away;
To Iskandar we'll fly away;
On ships that sing we'll fly away.


And she then started singing again.

Ruth looked back down at the folder in her hands, heaved another sigh, and flipped it open.

I have never before seen Ruth stunned. I'm not sure anyone has. Her whole body jerked and her eyes went wide and she stared fixedly at the papers. Then her hands began to tremble, and Gloria snatched the folder away before those tiny muscular tremors could reduce what she was holding to paper pulp.

Sophie had moved to stand at Ruth's shoulder, and I noticed her giving Marilyn what I sensed was a conspiratorial and questioning look. Marilyn's smile widened incrementally.

The thing about Ruth is that she is the most powerful para in the world. And so the fact that none of us saw her move is just not that surprising. The look on Sophie's face changed to triumphant delight as Ruth threw her arms around her, though.

"You two!" Ruth roared, only locally drowning out Gogo's band. "You two!" she said again, apparently at a loss for other words.

"What's going on?" asked Imara, peering curiously over Gloria's shoulder.

Gloria said, mock-grumpily, "That girl finally pulled her head out of her ass is what's going on."

Sophie said, breathless with embarrassment and her mother's embrace, "My adoption papers. I signed them."
She's returned from the blue

And Zaha'dum too--

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us heroes too!


Dark Lords big and small

We will spit on them all

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us stand tall!


Stand tall, stand tall, stand tall

Stand tall, stand tall, stand tall

Stand tall, stand tall, stand tall...


Gogo's army of tiny flying robots, which looked, I noticed, like dragonflies, chose that moment to shower us with her new album.

Larentia caught one and so did I. The cover was a brown-skinned woman's arm, reaching up as if to pluck a fruit from a tree, but the fruit was a giant oval containing a twisty, maze-like structure. To give Ruth and Sophie a moment of pseudo-privacy, Larentia began to read from the cover. "'Mitochondrial Eve,'" she said. "I like the title."

I overheard some people passing nearby. One of them said, "I liked her second album the best, 'Amazon Women and the Space-Time Continuum'."

The other said, "Oh, I haven't heard of that one."

"It was back when she was Gogo and the Gadgettes," the first said, and they drifted out of hearing.

"'My Mother's Positronic Brain,'" Larentia read from the track list bemusedly. "'Dear Mr. Heisenberg.' 'Cyborg Manifesto'?"

I skimmed down the list myself. "'Bad Chemistry,' 'Soylent Blue,' 'Love Me and Despair'."

Gloria said, with a roll of the eyes, "Anyone else get the feeling that child is trying too hard?"

Nereid, who I had forgotten, said wistfully, "She looks like she's having fun."

On stage, Gogo had swung into her well-known song, "A Robot of One's Own."

The well-tailored Asian person to whom I really needed an introduction said, "There's a dance floor over there, Pacifica. Would you care to join me?"

Later, around the time that Sophie was finishing up her guitar-playing on-stage with Gogo (oh, yes, she'd just happened to have her guitar with her), I overheard Suzanne saying to Watson, "Is this your work? Remind me never to piss you off!"

I looked over and saw Suzanne showing Watson her StarPhone. Watson frowned down at it, clearly puzzled. "No," she said after a moment, "that's not my work."

Suzanne noticed Metro looking her way, so she turned the display toward me. "'Aloysius MacCready, legally 93 years old,'" I read aloud, "'has been arrested on a charge of second-degree murder and multiple charges of armed robbery, among other offenses. MacCready was processed for a temporal displacement grant upon his return to this dimension, and had disappeared from his stated address. More in-depth analysis of historical records found that in 1932, he participated in an armed robbery of a bank for African-Americans during which he pistol-whipped a bank teller. The teller, 26-year-old Norman Jefferson, later died of the head trauma.'"

"I know the statute of limitations doesn't expire for murder," Suzanne said. "And the temporal displacement laws extend the limitation for the armed robbery charges. But the witnesses must all be dead, so how can they prosecute?"

Watson skimmed more of the article. "They had eyewitnesses who knew MacCready by name and appearance, and who gave depositions identifying him. So with that in hand, they could use the Stefanopolous Laws."

Ana had looked over from her conversation when I started to read, and now she spoke up with, "I think I've heard of the Stefanopolous Laws, but I've never been sure what they're about."

Suzanne said, breezily, "Watson'll have to explain. I'm too drunk. But they involved a vampire."

Watson quirked a smile. "Andrei Stefanopolous was a vampire who was a repeat spree killer. He was notorious in Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and then he moved to New York City. They caught him after a rampage through an Italian and Greek neighborhood in the 1880s, but of course, there weren't para-ready prisons then, and he escaped to go underground again. He resurfaced in the same neighborhood 1952, and the grandchildren of the original people victimized went to the police with the photos from the 1800s and their own photos of him in the neighborhood, begging police to pick him up. They didn't -- all the original witnesses were dead and it seemed like too much trouble and besides, there weren't many people who actually believed in vampires at that point. So then he went on a much wider-spread killing spree."

"Oh, yes, the Vampire Murders," Ana said. "That's all in the college para history books."

"Yep," Watson said. "And after they caught him and the Gold Stars imprisoned him, the story broke that the police had refused to pick him up and why. So the Stefanopolous Laws were passed in a hurry to cope with immortal or temporally displaced violent offenders."

"Technically," a sleek, black-haired, white -- very white -- man said, sliding easily into the conversation and gently twirling his black parasol, "it is for the long of life, not the immortal. Because no one is truly immortal, yes?" He had an eastern European accent and what had to be a hand-tailored white linen suit. He was also the only person I'd ever seen wearing a Panama hat on whom it looked stylish.

Watson nodded and waved a hand of acknowledgement. "You're the authority there, Zoltan."

"Zoltan," Suzanne said in that floppy-headed drunk way some white women have, "it's night time. Why are you carrying that parasol?"

"Ah, dear lady," he said, "to protect against the bites of sharks."

"Oh," Suzanne said, blinking.

"Not to mention robots," he added, "and other undesirable things that fall from the sky."

"So what will happen to this MacCready anyway?" Ana pursued, having produced a StarPhone of her own and apparently searching for the article.

"He's being held in prison," Watson said. "Apparently some anonymous person provided the police with both his DNA and a single-use scanner to locate it, because he has para powers that enable him to avoid direct detection." She looked up and past the dance floor and nearest buffet table toward a line of well-occupied comfortable chairs.

I glanced in that direction and saw Sophie sitting there, with Nereid on her lap, chatting with Simon and Ivy.

"Who could've supplied a device like that?" Ana pondered, frowning at her phone.

Watson and I looked at each other, then back at Sophie. Sophie noticed our regard and gave us a smile and a little finger wave, as if she knew exactly what we were thinking.

---

Note from the Author:

Apologies if the table format didn't work well for you -- I optimized for what I thought would be a usual sort of view.

Gogo's song was written as a winter holiday present for me by my multiply-gifted, brilliant, beautiful, magnificent wife. I had been banging my head against how to do it, and then she volunteered. I don't think I've ever seen quite so many SF&F references packed into one place so effectively, and I think it also works beautifully as a pop song. (And yes, Lady Gaga DOES exist in the Wonder City universe, so Gogo IS in fact purposefully referencing her.) See this document (PDF) for most of the references.

Also, in case you're interested, the full track list for Gogo's new album, "Mitochondrial Eve", contains:
My Mother's Positronic Brain
Mitochondrial Eve
Dear Mr. Heisenberg
Cyborg Manifesto
Les Guérillères
Bad Chemistry
Soylent Blue
To Milton, Love, the Monster
Ultima
Love Me and Despair
The Doom Song
I Can't Be Having With This
Bonus Track: Schoolhouse Rock Mashup (feat. "Sufferin' for Suffrage")

---

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wonder_city: (simoneyes)
Abiit, Excessit, Evasit, Erupit

Suzanne hurried out of the kitchen of the Stars 'n' Garters on Simon's heels. Simon, for his part, bolted out the cafe door after Nereid, speedy even on two legs. The Equestrian and Lady Justice were standing, looking after him.

"That sounded like a suboptimal result," Suzanne said, grimacing.

"Damn noisy kids!" the Damned Yankee exclaimed from behind his newspaper. "All on drugs, the lot of 'em!"

"I found out what I needed to find out," the Equestrian said, sighing and sitting down. "He arranged it all. I can check that little monster hunt off my to-do list."

"And you picked out some of the holes in the rest of his story," Lady Justice said, edging around the Equestrian to put an arm around Flo's shoulders.

"If he shows his face anywhere near me," Flo said through gritted teeth, "I will damn well shatter his bones and crush him to paste and wash the rest away into the sewers."

"I know, dear," Lady J said, her hand pat-patting Flo's very tense shoulder.

Suzanne poked her head back through the kitchen door curiously. Ebb was sitting on his stool next to the prep table, crumpling his little white cook's hat in his hands. He looked up at her bleakly. "Will she be all right?" he whispered.

She took a leaf from Lady J and patted him on the shoulder awkwardly. "Teenagers are very resilient," she said. "And she has her friends."

"I know Molly said it had to be done," he said, still in a low voice, "but I wish... I wish we could've warned her or something. It was just so brutal."

Suzanne hugged the man in a spontaneous rush of affection. He was a soft, round teddy bear of a man who smelled of fried food. "I really do think it will be all right, Ebb."

By silent agreement, everyone settled in to waiting for Simon, at least, to return. The Equestrian and Lady J fell to playing chess. Suzanne took over Madame Destiny's table with her laptop and wrote. Flo and Ebb went about the business of their cafe, dealing with a number of takeout customers as the dinner hour drew close. Damned Yankee cursed kids and drugs and the war several times. The Tinkerer never looked up, but continued to, as far as Suzanne could tell, disassemble and reassemble a pocket watch.

Molly got antsier and antsier as the hours drew on. She stood up and moved around restlessly, muttering to no one in particular that it was her responsibility to see this all the way through, and returning to her game.

It was dark by the time that Simon reappeared in the diner. "I caught up with her," he said, flopping down in the chair opposite Lady J. Suzanne got up and hugged him from behind. He gave her a tired smile over a sagging shoulder.

"Well?" the Equestrian said irritably.

"She was upset," he said, pausing to smile and thank Flo for the soda she brought him. "Obviously. He'd just vanished when he left -- I couldn't even track his scent."

"He learned a little something over there, then," Molly said. "Something for covering his tracks. Probably some other glamour too."

"Well, he did it pretty well," Simon said. "I got her to sit down and stop running around calling him and things. And then she cried a lot. But..." He stopped and looked perplexed while taking a long drink. "She didn't... like... leak at all. Usually she's so, um, soggy, you know?" He looked at the Equestrian and Flo, clearly baffled.

Lady Justice laughed without any trace of humor. "She's been learning control. Because she has to. Because she's killed someone."

"My poor girl," Ebb said from the doorway.

"She did what she had to do," Flo said, in his general direction, "and I'm proud of her for it."

Simon sighed. "She... felt different while we were talking. Anyway, she cried for a long while, and she was really angry with you guys. I don't think she'll be talking to you for at least a couple of days," he added with a twisted smile.

Lady J mirrored his smile, but Molly was on her feet again, pacing. "So what happened next? Did he show up?"

"No," Simon said. "I finally walked her back to her flat at the Cosmics. And... he'd tossed it. The whole place. Anything that wasn't nailed down and was reasonably portable, he took. Cash she had in a nightstand drawer, her laptop, her StarSeed, some jewelry -- that made her laugh in a way I'd never heard from her before -- even her clock-radio. Anything that looked like it might be expensive or pawnable, I guess, to him."

"Little bastard," Flo, Molly, and Suzanne all said simultaneously.

"Anyway, she cried some more, and I think she would've sat there on the floor in the mess, crying, if I hadn't started cleaning up." Simon finished his drink. "That was what really took so long. He made a thorough -- spiteful -- mess of the place."

"I wish she'd gotten a chance to throw him out," Lady J said. "It would've felt much better for her."

"How do we find him now?" Flo said.

"We don't," the Equestrian said, finally standing still. "It's over, except for the crying and other things. He's got Faerie magic to help him hide out, and some money. It'll be very difficult to track him."

"But surely...!" Flo said, turning to her angrily. After a short, silent staring match, Flo dropped her gaze. "He doesn't deserve to be able to do that to my daughter," she said, hunching her shoulders a bit. "Not and get away with it."

"I promise that if I encounter him," the Equestrian said, "I will deal with him accordingly."

"Flo, I understand," Lady J said, "but we all have better things to do than go on a manhunt for this... Aloysius."

"There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it," Suzanne quoted thoughtfully.

Simon let out a short bark of a laugh. "Well, in terms of people who do matter, I left Pacifica in an apartment that was much cleaner than she left it this afternoon, I daresay, with an impossibly cheerful android for company."

"You're a good man, Simon," Flo said with a sigh, stroking his cheek. "Thank you for taking care of her."

"Any time," Simon said, standing.

The gathering had started to become awkward, so Suzanne snatched up her purse and laptop and they departed in a flurry of farewells.

In the car, Simon closed his eyes and laid his head back against the headrest. "Jasmine could have handled all that better," he said wearily.

Suzanne started the car and looked over at him. "You handled it as it should be handled," she said. "You did the needful things. That's all anyone can do."

He opened his eyes and smiled at her. "You're the expert on that, love."

---

Note from the Author:

Here is the final episode for 2011. I expect it's just made y'all angrier at Aloysius, because he's a right little asshat. Still, Simon's getting a bit overworked in terms of helping resolve crap, poor guy.

See y'all in 2012!

Please remember to vote for WCS!









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That Name Does Not Belong To Me

Author's Note: A little experiment, playing with typography. This contains the entirety of the episode below. Please be aware that there is language above and beyond my occasional-f-bomb variety, so it is probably NSFW. There is, however, no sound to the video, so there's that.

ETA: If you can't see the video, try this link and let me know if it works.





Cut for language above and beyond anything I usually use. )
---

Note from the Author:

I hope my little experimental holiday present is something you all enjoyed. I apologize for any timing issues you encounter; it's my first attempt at such a thing.

There will be one more episode next week for the year, though I suspect it will be February before this story arc wraps (since today's ep is #78, you may notice that this novel is running longer than the first one!).

In the meantime, I hope the holidays (or the long weekend, if you don't celebrate these particular holidays) treat you extremely well and you get some relaxation time somewhere in there.

Please remember to vote for WCS!









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Stormcrows and Sympathy

As Suzanne was driving them through the evening sleet storm, Ira said, "By the way, hon, I found a new one in the archives."

Suzanne had been thinking about Simon and how she would get to see him next week and whether or not to try the little boutique hotel in town, or if they should run down to a B&B in New Hope for the overnight, so her entire romantic steam engine of thought had to come to a halt before she could switch over to the more prosaic Amtrak train. "New one?" she said to cover the hiccough in her usually-swift mental processing.

"Another murder," Ira said. "A guy named the Jellyfish was killed last December, not too long before... you know, everything. His body was shoved under one of the Staybird docks, instead of up in the park around the main town dock area like the rest of them. Little tiny back page item."

"Between the location and the timing, it's no wonder he was a back page item," Suzanne said, frowning. "No one likes to hear about violence in Staybird. It's supposed to be our quaint little Victorian town within the city or something, according to the tourism board."

"Despite the fact that it's always been one of the poorest areas," Ira said, looking out the window. "Anyway. I thought you'd want to know. I pulled the clipping out of the stack for you."

"Thank you, Ira," Suzanne said, pulling up at the curb. "Do you know anything about the Jellyfish?"

Ira shrugged. "He was a middle-aged thug, though he started out trying to be a hero twenty-odd years ago. Poor kid. You should probably check with your police friends to see if he was strangled too."

Suzanne nodded, stuffing her keys into her purse. "I'll do that." She thought of Ira, painstakingly poring over the clippings in that stack while she was at work, peering through his cataracts and a magnifying glass to find just one more clue, and finding it. She added, "That was great work, Ira."

Ira gave her his dazzling smile. "Glad to do it."

They got out of the car and Suzanne dropped a few quarters into the meter in front of the Stars 'n' Garters, squinting against the driving tiny stinging shards of ice. The blue door was a little kooky and inviting, though the sign hanging lopsidedly and the cracked windows were somewhat less attractive. The windows were steamed up, and Suzanne could only see a few shadowy figures moving ominously inside.

Then Ira opened the door, and the cheery little bell dissolved the threatening illusion. The inside was brightly lit and warm and comfortable, if a little shabby around the edges. The melamine tables were occupied by, mostly, Ira's contemporaries, several of whom she'd last seen at Josh's funeral. She smiled at Madame Destiny, who gave her a little wave. She nodded at the Damned Yankee, who blinked at her in confusion, apparently not recognizing her as the cute young thing whose posterior he had smacked with such vigor at his centennial birthday party. The Tinkerer, swathed in coats and sweaters and scarves and goggles and a hat, didn't even react to the door. Lady Justice rose to greet them, her straggling grey hair more or less captured by a rubber band at the nape of her neck. A slight, short-haired Hispanic woman in her twenties rose with her and grinned madly at Suzanne.

Ira shook hands with Lady J and said, "Lady, you remember my daughter-in-law Suzanne, right?"

"Of course," Lady Justice said in her husky voice. "You know, don't you, dear?"

"That one of your powers is to cause people around you to tell the truth?" Suzanne said. "Yes, ma'am." She laughed inwardly at herself -- she hadn't called anyone "ma'am" in quite that tone of respect in a long time. Simon was rubbing off on her. "If I hadn't known it before, reading Ms. Hernandez's excellent article would have told me." She extended her hand to the younger woman. "Ana Hernandez, I presume."

"Suzanne Feldstein, of course," Ana said, shaking her hand with enthusiasm. "You've been one of my journalistic idols since I was in school. We read your classic 'Masks In Silence' piece on sexual harassment on para teams. It was brilliant! It's such an honor to meet you."

Suzanne managed to keep her face from showing too much; she wasn't certain how she liked being a "classic." "You're very kind," she said, one of her standard platitudes dug up for the occasion. "And this is Ira Feldstein, my --" she quickly discarded her temptation to call him her "trusty sidekick" and just said "-- father-in-law."

"Mister Metropolitan!" Ana said, shaking Ira's hand. "I feel like I'm meeting so many legends because of meeting Lady Justice. It's all so amazing."

Lady J patted her on the shoulder. "You're seeing that we're all just human after all." She gave Ira a wry smile and shot an ironical glance toward the Damned Yankee. "Just one more word of warning," she added to Suzanne. "If you don't want to be forced to tell the truth, don't try to say anything at all."

"That's interesting," Suzanne said.

"No one's ever figured out if she just stops up the part of the brain that lets you spin tales," Ira said. "Didn't have the science to find out back in the 40s."

"And now no one seems very interested," Lady J said, mock-sadly. "Ah, well."

Tthey all settled down at their table. Flo, her orange beehive hairdo resplendent and her traditional waitress uniform crisp, emerged a few seconds later with a single menu that she handed to Suzanne. "Everyone else want your usuals?" she asked, snapping her gum.

"Yes, thank you," Lady J said, and there were affirmative murmurs from Ira and Ana.

"Just a cheeseburger and a diet cola for me, please," Suzanne said, returning the menu.

Flo nodded. "Flo," Lady J added as the woman turned to go. "Still no word?"

Flo gave the table a tight smile. "Not since the message from the Equestrian, no." She hurried into the back.

Suzanne and Ira gave Lady J quizzical looks. She said in a low voice, "Her daughter went off with the Equestrian -- some quest for the Young Cosmics, after one of their friends that got lost. Molly sent word back that Pacifica got separated from the group and they were looking for her."

"Lost in Faerie?" Suzanne said, voice low but appalled. "That's awful. Poor Flo."

Lady J nodded and Ana made a sympathetic noise. "Anyway, she's been waiting for any more news, but you know... Faerie." Lady J grimaced. "I just hope the poor kid doesn't have an experience like mine; it's hard to come back to a world that's run past you. At least now she's not likely to be declared dead while she's missing."

Ira patted Lady Justice's hand awkwardly. "She'll be fine. Molly'll find her, and everything I've heard about Pacifica tells me she'll find her way all right. She's got that true-of-heart thing going for her."

Lady J gave him a twisted smile. "So did I," she said.

They all fell silent at that, until Ana pounced on Suzanne in a frenzy of trying to overcome the mood. "So! You're taking up blogging! I've been reading your coverage of the murders, and I have to say, your evidence is pretty convincing. I can't understand why the police won't acknowledge it."

"I think I've shamed them with Yanaye Smallwood's story," Suzanne said, thinking back to the funeral, where she hadn't approached the family, but one of their friends came over to earnestly shake her hand and thank her. It was only after a short frenzy of conversation that she found out the woman was the sister of Renata Scott, her contact. Theresa Price was a dignified, matronly black woman of fifty-something, with only a few silver hairs in her perfect coiffure that weren't concealed by her hat, wearing a black dress that fit her perfectly, who had made Suzanne feel both welcome and awkward, as well as terrifically underdressed. She sighed inwardly and chalked it up, again, to a learning experience. "One of my contacts says that they're reexamining all the evidence, and they've contacted the Pittsburgh PD."

"I'm glad, though I doubt the impetus came from within," Ana said, with a cynical twitch of her eyebrows. "I'm betting you have a reader in high places who made a few phone calls."

"Oh, you're probably right," Suzanne said with a sigh. "I like hoping that maybe my golden prose will make a difference in and of itself."

"It probably did, dear," Lady J said. "Just not the way you hoped."

"As long as they're starting to take the serial killer proposal seriously," Ana said. "Maybe you can prevent any more deaths."

Suzanne pursed her lips doubtfully. "I expect we're going to get a few more bodies before the police manage to spot anything useful. Or maybe the killer will just move away, wait a little while, and change his victim profile again."

"They usually don't," Ira said.

"But he might, since he's done it once already," Suzanne said. "Or maybe we really are dealing with two separate killers and the Pittsburgh killer just moved to town to join in the fun."

"You'd think that in a town full of people who can see through walls and jump tall buildings in a single bound," Lady J groused, "we wouldn't have issues like this."

"What if it's one of the rooftop-dwellers, though?" Suzanne said. "What if it's someone all these noble protectors trust? Or are just used to seeing out there every night, and suppose him to be fighting the good fight?"

That silenced the group again, long enough for Flo to deliver their food and drinks.

Suzanne cleared her throat. "So. Anyway. Yes, I'm blogging. And I saw your call for fellow feminist journalists to work together on a group blog. If you don't mind an old fogey joining up, that is," she added with a lopsided grin.

Ana's jaw dropped open and her eyes shone. Suzanne kept her grin on her face, but was aware of Ira and Lady J at the edge of her vision, both trying desperately not to laugh. "Oh, Mrs. Feldstein, we'd be SO honored to have you on the team!"

"On one condition," Suzanne said.

"Anything!"

"Do me a favor and never call me 'Mrs. Feldstein' again," she said, and swatted at Ira, who was giggling into his hand.

---

From the Author:
If you don't remember Ana Hernandez, you may want to read the Wonder City Interlude, "Truth, Lady Justice, and the American Way" as a refresher.

Have you seen the cleaned-up sketch [personal profile] meeks did of the faerie wedding? Go! Gaze upon its awesomeness! If you can tip, do tip, or at least leave a comment. You know artists and writers LOVE comments. It always makes my day to see my readers' reactions.

Speaking of which, through May, I'm running the commenting incentive again, because reading your comments is the most fun on the Internet I have all day. So if I get 50 total comments in May, I will post twice weekly through June. As before, if you all post 75 comments, I'll post twice weekly through July too. Get up to 100 comments, the twice-weekly postings continue through August.

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction. Noooooooo we iz fallin down the list into oblivion! (Apparently, my writing goes all LOLcat sometimes.)







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---

So Wet Have My Sleeves Become

Nereid held up roofs with pillars of water, halted the flight of chunks of pavement, stopped water mains from gushing into the combat zone, and lifted debris according to the direction of rescue workers, all with Sophie either over her shoulders in a fireman's carry or at her feet where she could protect her. She never had a free moment to turn her over to those rescue workers.

Pavement was disrupted for a block or two around the combat site, and that meant that buildings and their foundations were likely disrupted. Within about 3 blocks of the fight, most of the buildings were badly damaged, and windows were broken out to about 6 blocks. Small, flingable objects like cars and motorcycles had been thrown around by the vibrations and pavement disruption. Santa Ana was keeping the gas mains in check, while Nereid alone was keeping the water mains from bleeding out into a downtown-coating glacier.

The sun had long since set when the Ultimate landed next to her.

Nereid was too tired to be startled, but she did make an effort to focus on the superwoman. The Ultimate was shorter than she was, middle-aged, round, and had dark brown skin. She kept her hair in a close-clipped natural, like Simon's mom kept hers, though a little more squared-off on the sides. There were threads of silver laced through the black hair, though, unlike Professor Canis, and worn lines around the Ultimate's dark eyes. She was wearing a black and grey spandex outfit that covered all of her from the chin down.

The Ultimate cast a sharp gaze over her. "Nereid, right? One of Brainchild's teammates?"

Nereid nodded and scraped her straggling hair out of her face with one stiff, numb hand. She suddenly realized that she was freezing. She was soaking wet and shivering hard. Her brain -- which, she thought, was never sharp at the best of times -- felt like it was attempting to ford a river. "She used something to stop his winds, and then he looked at her and she just fell over. I tried to wake her, but it didn't work, so I kept her with me. Was that all right, even though it's cold? She was wearing her insulated uniform."

The Ultimate's grim face softened a little. "Just right." She bent and picked up Sophie effortlessly with one arm and extended the other to Nereid. "Let's get both of you to the hospital."

"I'm not hurt," Nereid said through teeth that started to chatter uncontrollably. "They might need me."

"They'll do all right without you now." The Ultimate carefully put an arm around her waist, and Nereid held on as they lifted into the air. "You did pretty well, Pacifica."

"Thanks," Nereid said, laying her head on the Ultimate's shoulder.

She must have slept some, because the next thing she knew, she was warm and dry and lying in a hospital bed. There was an IV in her arm.

Wire was sitting in a chair next to her, reading a book. Nereid squinted a little and saw that it was the Fat Lady's autobiography, On a Massive Scale.

When she moved her hands, she realized that a few of her fingers were bandaged. She stared at them, not comprehending.

"Frostbite," Wire said, lowering the book but leaving her thumb in it to mark her page. "Just a touch. You'll be all right in a day or so, they say."

"Oh," Nereid said, blinking at Wire. Then her brain engaged. "How is Soph-- Brainchild?"

Wire grimaced a little. "They're... not really sure what happened to her. She hasn't regained consciousness, and they can't find anything else wrong. Her EEG is... not normal. They won't tell me more than that."

The more Nereid woke up, the more wretched she felt: achy, hungry, and miserable. This news just added more misery, and she burst into tears.

"Hey," Wire said, looking concerned and leaning forward to take her hand. "Hey, don't cry. You'll get your bandages wet, and the nurses will have to change everything."

"Oh, like you care," Nereid said, not bothering to rein in the bitter edge, but not pulling her hand away either. Her muscles hurt too much. She tried to stop herself from leaking, though.

Wire put her book down, and said, "I deserve that."

Nereid looked at her, feeling a little wild-eyed. Had she ended up in some alternate reality? Her mom and dad had once; Dad didn't like to talk about what happened to him, but Mom had ended up a queen or something.

"Look," Wire said, staring down at Nereid's hand, "you did really good out there yesterday. It's all over the news. Your mom and dad have been just about fit to bust with pride." She looked up. "They're getting something to eat, by the way. I just stepped in so they could go out."

"Thanks," Nereid said. "Really?" Yesterday? How long had she slept?

"Really," Wire said. "Between you and Santa Ana, you stopped a much bigger disaster from happening. You kept the shelters from flooding in downtown, too."

"Oh," Nereid said. It had only made sense at the time to stop the water mains.

"The Ultimate said that maybe the Gold Stars need to update their files on you," Wire said. "She thinks your power is bigger than the review a year ago rated it."

Nereid blinked at that. Her rating had been a modest class 3, like her father's.

"Anyway," Wire said, "the team met, and we'd like you to stay as a permanent member." She squeezed Nereid's hand gently and released it.

The cynical part of Nereid's brain was apparently awake, because she wondered how much this reconsideration had to do with a combination of the news coverage and the Ultimate's comment. "So I'm useful now?" she said before thinking about it.

Wire had the grace to wince and blush. "I'm sorry about that."

Nereid made an effort to shrug casually and lie. "No biggie."

A silence stretched between them. Then the door opened, and Flo and Ebb came into the room.

Flo's face was wreathed in smiles as soon as she saw Nereid awake. "Sweetie!"

Ebb, as usual, was so moderate in his response as to be nearly unconscious. "Hon."

Wire got up hurriedly. "Well, I'll leave you all alone. Nereid, think about it, okay?" She flashed her charismatic smile around at the three of them and fled basely.

Flo descended upon Nereid with hugs and kisses, and eventually Ebb rubbed her shoulder affectionately. Nereid made an effort to focus on them and not think about the Ultimate, the Young Cosmics, or Sophie, and almost succeeded.

---

From Jude:

I think I've concluded my ChipIn experiment for now, and I want to thank everyone who donated for bonus episodes! If you feel like tossing some cash my way so I can buy a chai latte periodically, I certainly won't object. :) Please also keep commenting -- that's one of my biggest motivators! -- and clicking to vote for Wonder City Stories on Top Web Fiction, and recommending the stories, and everything else you all have been kind enough to do. WCS will continue to post every Monday as we continue the denouement of Volume 1.









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---

Short Circuits of History

Ira was disappointed to find that the Equestrian was not already at the Stars n' Garters when he arrived. He was more disappointed when Flo gave him an apologetic smile and said, "Molly told me you'd be by today. She'n the horseboy had to go off to deal with something back where he's from."

"The Far Green Country," Ira said. "Oh, well. I guess this wasn't that important anyway." Still, he wondered what, exactly, she'd meant to tell him.

"She told me to make sure you ate anyway," Flo said, "so what'll you have?"

Ira ordered, and Flo went back to the kitchen. He looked around. Madame Destiny wasn't in today, nor was Lady Justice. The Tinkerer was crouched over his table, as usual. Then Ira was surprised by making rare eye contact with the Damned Yankee.

The Yankee, a wizened little shadow of the man Ira had known for years, held out the newspaper he'd been examining with his magnifying glass. "We're at war again!" he said.

Ira looked at the headline. Mayor's Council Apologizes For State of City Schools. He looked back at the Yankee's face, bit his lip, and said, "That we are."

He watched the Yankee's complicated facial topography experience earthquakes that rearranged and intensified the wrinkles. "We all need to get out there and take care of those Ratzis. What about your boy?"

Ira swallowed. "My boy turned 44 last year. Too old for the draft."

"He should still enlist!" the Yankee said, shaking the newspaper for emphasis. "Us bulletproofs all need to get out there, save the boys doing the real work. Hell, I'll go!"

The Yankee, Ira recalled, was one of the first to enlist in Woodrow Wilson's Gold Star Company, the first all-para group in the US Army. It was made up of "bulletproofs" who generally engaged in frontal assaults to draw enemy resources and fire.

"He's got to do his service to his country!" the Yankee was saying.

Flo emerged and scowled at the Yankee. "Henry, you know his boy was shot down in the last war. Shame on you."

The Yankee was immediately chastened and set his paper down on the table. He mumbled, "Sorry, fella. Got too hot under the collar there."

Ira shrugged and nodded. Flo set a plate on Ira's table and said, "Henry here has been getting hot under the collar a lot lately."

"It's this damned newspaper!" the Yankee said. "It's all over war, war, war."

Ira glanced over at the page exposed now. The Steel Man Found Dead.

"Wasn't the Steel Man a Guardians villain?" Ira said, addressing Flo.

The Yankee looked at him and something about his face changed. "Yep," he said in a completely different tone of voice. "And his daddy before him. Pains in the rear. But he wasn't as good as his father, strictly minor league."

"Huh," Ira said, taking a bite of the bacon and cheddar quiche that was one of Ebb's specialties. He tried to focus on the flavor, tried to ignore the Yankee and hope he went back to his newspaper.

"How's that wife of yours?" the Yankee said.

Ira blinked. He had a sudden, vivid flash of walking in on the Yankee shouting at Lizzie in the Gold Stars conference room, Why would you marry that little Jew when you could have any real American here? And Lizzie whirling around on him, hair and eyes crackling gold with energy, upper lip curled in a snarl...

Then Ira realized that the Yankee probably meant a wife from this timeline and said, "Which one?"

The Yankee snorted. "Violet, of course. You dumped Andrea ages ago."

"Violet divorced me twelve years ago," Ira said, suddenly tired.

"But she came to my birthday party," the Yankee said, confused.

Ira glanced at Flo, and Flo said, "The Centennial, Henry? That was in '95. Violet and Ira got divorced in '97. It's the new century now."

"Oh," the Yankee said. He stared at his lumpy blue-veined hands, which began to shake after a few moments.

Flo went over to him and set a hand on his shoulder. The Yankee looked up at her. "That means Mother's been gone how many years now?"

"About ninety, Henry," Flo said gently.

The Yankee began to cry, tears trickling down along the valleys of his face. "I couldn't be there when she went," he sniffled.

Flo patted him. "I know, dear. It's all right. You were doing important work."

Ira looked back at his plate and concentrated on eating. If he recalled correctly, the Yankee's mother died of Spanish flu while the Yankee was in the trenches in Europe.

The Yankee blew his nose into a blue tarpaulin of a handkerchief and Flo said, "I'll just get you some tea. Now you sit quiet till I get back."

Ira relished the silence, but still ate as fast as he could. By the time Flo returned with the tea for the Yankee, Ira had finished and risen to his feet.

As Flo set the tea in front of the Yankee and restored his newspaper and magnifying glass, Ira watched and wondered when, exactly, the Yankee's brains had turned to Malt-o-Meal. Five years? Ten years? Twenty? Truth be told, Ira hadn't had a good opinion of the Yankee's brains since their falling-out in 1948. Maybe he'd always been like this, but with a little more continuity.

Flo put a hand on Ira's arm as he turned toward the door. "Sorry about that, Mister Metro," she said.

Ira smiled wryly and shrugged. "There but for the grace of..." He gestured upward, then tapped his own skull. "Or maybe I'm already there. Who knows? Not me." He went out into the bright noontime sunlight and headed for the Y and his busy, clattering shift.



Vote for us at Top Web Fiction!
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---

Human Nature is a Mother

Megan caught herself humming again while unloading three pallets of food at Mother Necessity's Kitchen. She grinned at herself and stopped humming -- music apparently irritated Captain Zip. He claimed it interfered with his power and gave him a headache.

When she walked around the side of the truck to let him know she was done, he wasn't sitting in the driver's seat. He was standing out on the sidewalk, talking with someone. Zip's voice was raised just enough to sound angry, but not enough to be audible. The other man, tall and slender, stood languidly, his face impassive below his dark glasses. Megan lingered uncertainly at the corner of the truck until Zip spotted her and dismissed the man with a sharp gesture. He turned and stalked toward her.

"Is everything all right?" she asked him in a low voice.

"Fine, fine," Zip muttered. "Are we done? Then get in. Let's get the hell out of here."

The man strolled down the sidewalk, but he turned to watch the truck go by.

"Is he --" she began.

Zip held up an admonitory hand. "Don't ask. The less you know, the better off you are."

She nodded and went back to looking out the window.

Zip didn't talk much the rest of the afternoon. He was restless and irritable with everyone and everything, and Megan started to catch his mood, much to her annoyance.

"Go home," he said when they got back to the garage. "We'll clean up in the morning."

She didn't argue, just grabbed her backpack and departed.

Since she was early for her evening appointment, she stopped in at the Stars n' Garters for supper. Flo gave her a big smile. "How're things, darlin'?"

"Oh, doing all right, I suppose," Megan said, accepting a cup of coffee. "The work's steady, at least."

"That's always important," Flo said. "What'll you have?"

"Two cheeseburgers and the sweet potato fries, please," Megan said. "And a chocolate shake. Is it all right if I use my laptop here?"

"Sure thing," Flo said.

Megan pulled out her laptop and let it boot up. She heard the low growl as it connected with the city TeslaNet, and was once more grateful for her mother's gift of a battery- and Tesla-compatible laptop before coming here.

"Shake," Flo said, setting it on the table. She hovered a moment, and Megan looked up inquiringly. "I... well, I was wondering if you were getting on with the captain all right."

"Sure," Megan said. "He's cranky, but at least he's consistent." She grinned.

"I just wanted to be sure..." Flo plucked at her apron. "I've been hearing things about him lately. Got me worried."

Megan frowned. "What sorts of things?"

Flo shrugged. "Oh, it's probably nothing. I just heard his business wasn't doing too well."

"We're busy from 5 am to whenever he sends me home," Megan said. "It seems to be going all right."

Flo nodded.

Megan said, "Well, let me know if you hear anything else, would you?"

"Sure thing," Flo said, flashing a quick smile, and turning to one of the regulars with a greeting as he came in the door. "Carolus, it's been ages!"

Megan found her mother online, so instead of the email she'd planned, she paged her for chat.

Her mother opened with, So you ARE alive.

Yes, Megan typed. I HAVE emailed you, you know.

I DID provide you with a cell phone before you left, you know.

And you know that I hate talking on phones in public. Which I'd have to do because there's no cell reception at the Y.

Oh, little fish goddesses, haven't you got out of the Y yet?

I have an appointment to talk to a friend's landlord in an hour and a half.

You didn't like any of my suggestions?

With all due respect, Mother mine, I've had just about enough of people shrieking, "Are you the Amazon's kid then?"

Hahahahahahaha.

It's funny to YOU.

Yes, it is. So what friend is this whose landlord you're talking to?

The son of your old pal, Prof. Canis.

Huh. One of the Puppy Patrol, eh?

... Please tell me you're kidding.

No, I'm not. They were very proud of the name. And the costumes. Which converted beautifully when they changed shape.

OH GOD. I'll never be able to look at him again.


Flo dealt her food in front of her. Megan looked up and gave her a smile.

I'm eating in the Stars n' Garters.

What's that?

Cafe run by Ebb and Flo?

Oh, those two. I liked Flo, but it's hard to like Ebb.

Flo got me my job.

The delivery job? Who's that with, anyway?

Captain Zip.

...

What?

When you get settled in your new apartment, do me a giant-sized favor and find a new job?

What's wrong with the captain?

He's always been in trouble. Always. And the people around him get sucked in like water down a toilet.

Oh, lovely.

So try, okay? It'd make me sleep better.

Okay.

Thank you.

I have to go, Mom. I have to finish dinner and get over to the apartment.

All right. Good luck.

Thanks.


Megan took a bite of her first cheeseburger thoughtfully. Sometimes, it wasn't too much of a pain to have a mother who knows people.
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---

The Arithmetic of Memory

Ira felt unsettled all night after talking to Andrea. She had that effect on many people. He was sufficiently uneasy that he stopped in at the Stars n' Garters after his shift ended, which he almost never did.

"Ira, honey, it's been forever!" Flo said when he walked through the door. All heads inevitably turned to him.

There was the Tinkerer, crouching over his table like he'd done every day for the past decade, putting things together and taking them apart, and drinking cup after cup of decaf coffee. There was Damned Yankee, who read the newspaper with the same type of magnifying glass Ira used, for much the same reasons. There was Madame Destiny, reading her cards and sipping one of those flavored Italian sodas the SnG got in just for her. And there was...

"Hey there, Mr. Metro," said Lady Justice with a smile, combing her thinning, straggling white hair out of her face. "Long time, no see. Whyn't you sit with me?"

He let Flo herd him to the Lady's table and give him coffee. "Thanks, darlin'," he said with a drawl. "How's things?"

"Same old," Lady Justice said. "How's Suzanne doing?"

"Overworked," he said. "Poor kid. I keep asking her if she wants to take some time for herself in the evenings, but she always come right home."

"Sounds depressed," she said. "Not surprising. Josh the same as always?"

"Yep," Ira said, smiling gratefully at Flo as she dealt his favorite breakfast -- two eggs over easy, hash browns, and scrapple -- onto the table. "New girl's doing his PT."

"Anything happening at the Y?" Lady Justice took a sip of coffee. "Big girl came in here the other day, had the look of the Y."

"Oh, her," Ira said. "She's Maggie Tottenham's daughter! Pretty girl, isn't she?"

"The Amazon's kid?" Lady Justice said. "Thought she looked familiar. Darker, of course. Wonder if she's the new spandex in town."

"New spandex?" Ira asked through a mouthful of hash browns.

"Can't be," Madame Destiny said, waving a card in their general direction. "Didn't you see the photo of the new girl in the paper? Doesn't look a thing like her."

"Oh," Lady Justice said. "I haven't been reading lately. Nice girl, Ira. You talk to her much?"

"Nope," he said. "She comes in and goes out and..." He paused, frowning. "And, well, she didn't come in at all last night."

"Kids," Lady Justice said with a careless gesture.

"She's fine, Ira," Madame Destiny said. "She was with friends. See? Two of Cups. Well," she added, peering at the card, "she was with a friend at least."

"Hah," Lady Justice said. "Don't fret about her, Ira."

"I won't," he said, drinking his coffee. "How's your kids, Lady?"

"Two just went into spandex and two came out," she said, finishing her cup and holding it out for a refill. "Mike's up in New York, Janna's in Orlando. Bob's got a second kid in the chute, so he tells me that he's giving up the Justice mask to Mike. And Tony's finally got his business off the ground, so he doesn't have time."

"You still go out at all?" he asked.

"Oh, god, no, Ira," she said. "I told you that last time. I've been off the rooftops for five years now. Should've been off five years before that."

He felt his ears burn. How could he have forgotten that they were so old? It was just like old times, though, and that kind of forgetting was happening to him more and more often.

Their conversation became even more innocuous after this, and he finished up and paid. He walked the ten blocks home as quickly as he could.

Suzanne was waiting at the door. "Sorry, hon," Ira said as she passed him, running for the car.

"Don't worry about it," she said, and she was gone.

He trudged inside, dropped his nametag, keys, and wallet in the dish by the door, and stood staring down the hall for a long moment. Then, with a heavy sigh, he walked into Josh's room.

"Hey, boy," he said, picking up Josh's angular body with care. "Met up with Lady Justice this morning." He carried him into the bathroom. "I'm gettin' old, boy. I wish I could remember regular conversations like I remember your mother."

He usually tried to talk more as he cleaned Josh up, but that morning, chatter just didn't come to him. He was turning over spandex, and Andrea, and Lizzie, and Lady Justice, and even the damned Tinkerer over in his head. He thought about Damned Yankee, whose conversation lasted about five minutes before repeating these days, and wondered how long it would be before his own brains turned to that sort of paranormal porridge. How much help would he be to Suzanne then? Had it already happened and no one was paying attention?

He tucked Josh in and turned away to stare at the box with the temporal locks on it, wondering if he felt like reading his memories of Lizzie today.

Behind him, a rusty voice said, "Dad?"
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---

Going With the Flow

The Stars n' Garters Diner had a battered china-blue door, a cracked plate glass window, and a sign hanging by a single rusty bracket. It came recommended by Mr. Metropolitan's morning replacement. Megan ducked as she passed through the door. Four stainless steel pedestal tables were ranged around the walls, each with four blue plastic chairs. Each table was occupied by a single elderly individual: a bald, bespectacled man reading a newspaper with a magnifying glass, a straggle-haired woman staring into her coffee mug, a well-wrapped person of indeterminate gender tinkering with a pile of gizmos, and a woman in a yellow flower-patterned muu-muu reading Tarot cards.

The first woman set her coffee mug down and turned to inspect Megan. Then she stood up, her knees cracking loudly, and limped toward the door. "You take my table, sweetie," she said, patting Megan on the arm as she went past.

"Uh, thanks!" Megan said belatedly. She sat down carefully, listening for tell-tale noises. The flimsy chair held. A middle-aged waitress, dressed in a pink short-sleeved dress, white apron, and white tennis shoes, emerged from the kitchen.

"What'll ya have, honey?" the waitress said, snapping her gum and producing pad of paper.

Megan was briefly mesmerized by the red beehive hairdo and the "Flo" nametag, then said, "May I please have coffee and 3 eggs, over easy?"

"Toast with that? How about sausage?" Flo said, scribbling busily.

"Rye, if you have it, and no, thanks."

"Got it," Flo said, clearing the table. She made her way to the kitchen door and bellowed, "Sonic Yenta, over easy!"

There was an explosion outside as Flo poured the coffee. Another crack arced through the window. Flo sighed and walked toward the door.

Megan tackled her, also knocking down the man with newspaper. The door blew open, splintering around the edges, as a piece of a car crashed into it.

"I knew this was going to happen," the woman in the muu-muu said, hurriedly gathering up her cards. The tinkerer ignored it all.

"That's IT!" Flo said, picking herself up.

Megan opened her mouth to say something, but Flo stepped into the open doorway, sturdy legs braced.

"YOU KIDS! GET OFFA MY STREET!" and a firehose spout of water erupted from her hands. Megan heard yelps and curses outside.

After a few long seconds, Flo dropped her hands and wiped them on her apron.

Megan picked up the elderly man and fetched his magnifier, with apologies, then hoisted the grey fender and headlight array from where it had lodged in the counter. "Er, where should I put this?"

"Thanks, honey, just put it out on the curb." Flo adjusted her hair and squelched to the kitchen door. "Ebb? Get out here and mop up, would you, hon?"

Megan sat back down and drained her coffee. Holding out her cup to Flo for a refill, Megan said, "Know anywhere I can get a job?"

"You got good reflexes," Flo said, pouring the coffee thoughtfully. "Lemme make a couple calls." She dealt Megan's plate onto the table. "Eat up. Big girl like you needs her strength."

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