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Happy sixth anniversary to us! More things to be said tomorrow; for now, please enjoy this finale for Volume 3, with its special surprise just for you all.






Everything Dies

Angelica was changing into her new dress in Madame's bedroom—carefully, carefully, so as not to muss either hair or makeup, done professionally less than an hour earlier—when she heard the commotion out in front of the house. X knocked on the door a few moments later and said, "Our chariot is here."

"Come give me a hand?" Angelica said, after struggling with her dress halfheartedly and deciding she'd rather have a handsome helper. She deserved it for dealing with today.

X came into the room. Sie was wearing an exquisitely tailored black three-piece suit and a snow-white dress shirt with French cuffs and onyx rose cufflinks. The tie was deep blue silk with a pattern of pale grey gingko leaves, and was restrained by an onyx rose tie clip that matched the links. Angelica gave a low whistle.

"You're too kind," X said with a small smile. "What can I do?"
Read more... )


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Homecoming

Of course I knew what had happened.

Jane had tried her best to cut all the mental ties between us, but she and I were well intertwined. She managed to break most of them, and I managed to break more when I realized what was happening.

But I still woke up on the floor of my "office" with Flori worriedly pressing her cold, wet nose to my cheek and neck. As I painfully pushed myself up to a sitting position, I broke, just fucking broke, crumpled back down onto the floor weeping.

"Rennie," Ruth said, kneeling down at arm's length from me. "Rennie, what can I do?"

I dragged myself to her and clung to her, like I did that day she took me out of the hospital, clutching at her black spandex and just wailing. A piece of me had died, had just stopped being, and it was like someone had cut me open and tore my liver out while I was conscious.

I really can't explain more than that.

Ruth held me, and Flori pressed herself against my back, whining, and life went on around me as the Gold Stars presumably took possession of the ship and did whatever the fuck it is superheroes did when they weren't dying in my head.

I could feel them all, despite the weird protective thing the aliens gave me, and was of course tangled up in Ruth's mind, but she had practice with me doing that. She rubbed my back, and rubbed Flori's ears, and generally just tried to get us both calmed down. I think Sekhmet came to talk to her over my head once—I could feel Sekhmet close by, and I knew she was telling Ruth about Jane. Ruth had, I think, figured it out already from things running through my head. She didn't really react, she just kept projecting her stolid facade at me.

Eventually, I did calm down. I don't know how long it took. I just finally subsided into hiccoughs and shudders.

Ruth said, "What do you need, Rennie?"

I took a deep breath and tried to talk like a grownup, but it still came out pathetic. "I want to go home."

"Okay, baby," Ruth said. "Okay, I'm gonna take you home."

They rustled up an air-secure escape pod or something and put me and Flori in it, and Ruth flew us home. Flori snaked out of her restraints to huddle in my arms the whole trip down.

And then we were on Terra Firma.

Ruth cracked open the pod on the lawn of the house under which my bunker resided. I had pulled most of my shit together on the trip down, and the alien artifact around my neck kept the worst of the city's psychic explosion away from me. While Ruth moved the pod back to the Gold Stars compound, I took my dog for a walk in the well-trimmed grass and through the less-maintained back yard. There were trees, and birds, and a breeze, and just me and Flori (and a crowd of minds, held at a slight distance) walking in the twilight.

It had been years since I felt free air. My bunker had never—well, okay, rarely—felt like a prison to me the way the spaceship had. This was… therapeutic.

Ruth came back, carrying my mama, and that made me cry again. I hadn't touched my mother in thirty years, I think, and here I was, able to hug her because of those fucking aliens.

At least one good thing came from it.

At least one.
good.
thing.

"I've gotta go, Rennie," Ruth said. "There's cleanup to do."

"I know," I said around my mother's embrace. "I know. You'll come back, though? Coffee?"

"You know it, baby," Ruth said. She hesitated, and I reached out for her. She kissed me on the cheek and gave me a quick squeeze before she took off.

"That Ruth," Mama said, and Mama was looking so much older than I remembered the last time we'd talked on video phone—ages ago, more than six months, I know. There was grey in her hair now, and I could swear there wasn't before. "That Ruth," she said again, shaking her greying head.

"I know," I said. "Would you like to come down and have something?" I added, inviting my mother into my house for the first time.

"Are you sure it will be all right?" she said, peering into my face worriedly.

"Please, Mama," I said, stroking my dog's head. "I don't want to be alone right now."

"All right," she said, gathering herself up like she was visiting her sister's house. "Just for a bit, then."






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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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The Grave of Your Deserving

The Wonderful House boards were crazy with the news.

Somehow, it didn't surprise me, though. We'd never heard about Brandon's family on the show. They'd talked about Professor Canis, we had the memorable visit from Lizzie's father, Tom's aunt and uncle had come up from time to time, and Jeshri's family was always in her conversation. But not Brandon's. It seemed somehow fitting, karmically, that even his family abandoned him in the end.

Of course, it didn't seem fair that the people who had the most reason to dislike him were forced into the position of taking care of him. And of course they had to, especially after their closing video laying claim to him as "their jerk." They would have been ripped to shreds if it had come out that Brandon's body had been surrendered to the government for dissection.

I popped to a different screen and signed a half dozen petitions to do away with the Gold Stars research law. I knew that Ruth -- or someone -- would take care of me when I died, because god knows no one wants the government to dissect a Class 10 telepath. But didn't all the other paras, all the regular paras, all the homeless paras, anyone at all who wasn't quite the ideal human being, have a right to be buried with their secrets? Patriotic duty, my left asscheek.

It also didn't surprise me that the show's producers had abandoned any responsibility for Brandon along with their responsibility for payout or, you know, the safety of their "contestants". I did notice, however, that the producers tried to jump on the funeral bandwagon once it got rolling. In an interview with Simon:

WonderBlog: So will the funeral be televised?

Simon: We'll be livestreaming it for the fans.

WonderBlog: But no TV?

Simon: We couldn't reach an amicable compromise with the show's producers, who are in the best position to produce a televised version. They were interested in the funeral, but not interested in meeting any conditions, and we weren't interested in being screwed over again.

WonderBlog: Speaking of screwed over, who's paying for the funeral?

Simon: Fortunately, not us. There's a fund established by the Guardians and Gold Stars for the funerals of paras without families who die in a supervillain action.


Oh, good, I thought, at least the kids weren't going to have to cough up for the ridiculous costs of a funeral.

The livestreamed funeral was fascinating. I tuned in late (after taking practically every drug in my pharmacopeia that suppressed my powers without just knocking me out), just in time to see hundreds of fans packing into the largest room of the Weinstein Funeral Home. The camera view switched to Simon, in a tailored black suit, and Jeshri, in a somber brown skirt suit, walking out to meet Tom, who was pulling on a tweed sportcoat over a black polo shirt and khakis as he crossed the parking lot.

"You made it!" Simon said, shaking his hand.

"I couldn't let you guys face this without me," Tom said, next hugging Jeshri. "No luck with his dad though."

"What happened?" Jeshri said, and they all turned and started walking toward the funeral home.

"I stopped at the address you gave me, just outside Pittsburg," Tom said. "Parking the rig was a bitch and the neighbors all came out to stare. Upscale but older neighborhood, almost all white."

"Surprise," Simon muttered.

"Anyway," Tom said with a shrug, "I rang the doorbell. The lights were on and the TV was going, so I kept at it till he opened the door. And guys, the fumes just about knocked me the fuck over."

"Drunk?" Jeshri said.

"As a skunk," Tom said. "He was in his wifebeater and a pair of sweatpants and had about a week's worth of stubble. Looked just like Brandon would have after twenty years of partying and smoking."

"Yugh," Jeshri said.

"I'll spare you more gory details," Tom said as they neared the door. "Let's leave it at him telling me he wouldn't attend anything associated with his wife's filthy para crotch-dropping, in those words, even if it was the funeral for every backstabbing bastard para in the world at the same time. And then he mock-apologized that his wife was on the other side of the world, probably screwing someone who looked like me, when she could have been here, comforting me for the loss of my buddy, if only all paras weren't also great big homos."

"I think I'm going to be sick," Jeshri said, looking the part.

"Guess we know more about why Brandon was such a jackass now," Simon said.

"It's no excuse," Lizzie said, emerging from the doorway. "I mean, look at my dad."

"Must I?" Simon said.

"He's at least as big a jerk as Brandon's dad," Lizzie said, "and I, at least, try to be decent to other people." She was wearing a white blouse and pair of dark blue slacks.

Tom nodded. "You've got a point."

They hesitated outside the door, and then group-hugged.

"Time to butch up," Simon said, breathing deeply.

"Let's get this over with," Lizzie said, breaking away from the others and opening the door.

The camera switched back to the interior of the packed room. My computer system was blurring out faces except those I knew personally, so I noticed Ira and Suzanne Feldstein sitting in the front row, Ira in a crisp, bright Mister Metropolitan uniform and Suzanne in a dark burgundy suit. I saw Ruth, Olivia, and Larentia sitting together a couple of rows back, noticeably not in their more recognizable Ultimate, Fat Lady, and Professor Canis personas. The Steel Guardian was there with Sekhmet, representing for their particular teams. Brainchild, looking pale and wan, all nose and glasses, in a shirt, vest, and many-pocketed trousers, sat next to Wire, whose weirdly floaty blue forelock only briefly distracted me from the shining metal hand she flexed idly in her lap. And just as people were settling in and a man was stepping to the podium, the Equestrian and her horse (in his human form) strode up the aisle to sit with Ira and Suzanne.

The camera view then shifted to the plain black coffin with chrome trim and rails, against which leaned a small easel holding a photograph of a slightly younger, pleasantly-smiling Brandon -- probably a school photo of some sort. I could see any number of floral offerings around the coffin, including an ostentatious bunch of white lilies from the "It's a Wonderful House" producers.

The man at the podium was pastor of a local church who knew Tom (we were not vouchsafed an explanation for that). He was an uninspiring speaker -- I wished for the preacher from Mama's church, whose eloquence she always spoke of in glowing tones -- but white preachers have never particularly impressed me. I tuned out everything he said and concentrated on the images: the camera pans over the crowd (mostly young white people, I noticed), the expressions on the faces of the Wonderful House cast and crew (my system recognized Eartha the camerawoman in that group, and from her face I guessed she shared my assessment of the speaker), and the repeated switches back to the coffin.

He spoke for only about five minutes, which was a blessing, and no one else apparently cared to speak, so Olivia got up and sang "Ave Maria" in her most restrained voice, accompanied by a pianist I didn't know (and so couldn't see). When she was done, the pianist swung into something slow and somber, and Simon, Lizzie, Jeshri, Tom, Eartha, and another crew member I didn't know went forward, lifted the coffin, and carried it out on their shoulders. The crowd began to pour out the doors after them.

I walked away from the livestream while they drove to the cemetery. My computer system was excellent, but with the speed the cars were moving, it would inevitably miss blocking some people, and I just didn't need the headache. My family phone rang while I was pouring myself a glass of tea.

"Hey, Mama," I said.

"Are you watching the funeral?" she said.

"Of course," I said.

"You made yourself so sick over all that," she said, sucking her teeth in annoyance. "I can't imagine why you want to watch that horrible boy's funeral now."

"Because he's the end of the story," I said, adding three teaspoons of sugar to my iced tea. "It's about closure, Mama. He was that man's last victim."

"Well," she said, somewhat mollified. "When you put it that way. I suppose. Is that woman there?"

"Suzanne Feldstein? Yes, she was in the front row with her father-in-law," I said, sipping the tea and going through a door into one of my little parks, where I kept promising myself to start an aviary so I could have birdsong, another one of those things I miss.

"She wrote a very nice memorial to Yenaye and the other women, I thought," Mama said.

"Yes, I thought it was good too," I said, sitting on one of the wooden benches. The tone of her voice was detached, and I could tell there was a pressure of something she wanted to tell me. I waited.

"Rennie, I called you to tell you something," Mama said finally.

"What's up?" I said.

"Well, first thing, your cousin Benjamin asked me to ask you if you were serious about wanting a puppy, because he knows one that needs a home," she said. Mama doesn't like dogs, and that dislike dripped off her voice.

"Tell Ben that I absolutely want a new puppy, and he should send me photos," I said, feeling really excited for the first time in a while.

"You know him and his foolery with dogs," Mama said. "Of course he'd find you a dog. It'll have fleas, you know."

"There's medicine for that, Mama," I said, tamping down the excitement. "What else did you want to tell me?"

She fell silent. "I had one of my seeing dreams, Rennie," she said, her tone uncharacteristically hesitant.

"And?" I knew better than to say anything else at all, because she'd take it as disbelief and never tell me.

She cleared her throat uncomfortably. "I saw you alone with your dog. All alone, mind you, and not in your house." She always called the bunker my "house". I guess it made it sound less like I was locked away. "Looking out a great big window over the city." Throat-clearing again. "That's all. But I knew it was a seeing."

"Thank you, Mama," I said, feeling chilled. "I don't know what it means, but I'll remember it."

"You do that," she said, but I could tell she was gratified. I was the only one of her children who believed in her seeing dreams. I had reason to. "All right, I'd best be getting on. You take care now, Rennie."

"I will. You too, Mama," I said. "I love you."

"And I love you, girl," she said, and hung up.

When I got back to the screen with my half-glass of tea, they'd gotten to the cemetery and were lowering the coffin into the raw hole in the green earth. As I watched fans and acquaintances pass by the grave to throw flowers into it, I raised my glass. May it be sweeter for him next time around.

---

Note from the Author:

Renata's not the only one grateful for closure here!

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Resolving Powers

The wind was screaming. Simon leapt between Sator and Brainchild, teeth flashing. The Equestrian and Maelstrom banished the spell that entrapped them.

For one hollow second, the right side of Sator's face darkened and his eyes opened wide, mouth frozen mid-incantation. A pink mist coalesced in the air to the right of Sator. Then Sator dropped to the floor, his flesh crumbling stickily around his bones. The mist rained down and was lost in the general oversupply of gore.

The wind blew itself apart and the gears stopped cold.

There was silence.

"Well," said the Equestrian, staring at the remains of Sator. "That's a thing."

Holy shit, Simon said. Did she...?

My god, Ira said, she killed him. Took all the water... or blood... or something right out of his body.

It was the only thing to do, Suzanne said firmly, but I could feel her reeling with nausea.

We'll deal with that later, Watson said grimly. Start cleaning up, we're on our way.

Be careful, Maelstrom said. Magicians generally leave nasty surprises for posthumous applications.

So a few minutes later, a handful of Gold Stars bounced through the portal and found the Equestrian exclaiming, "I found your hand, Wire. I... think it got in the way when Nereid did her thing, though." She looked up from the object on the floor and said to Sekhmet, "Oh, hello. About bloody time you got here."

"My gods!" Sekhmet said, staring around the blood-spattered room in horror. "Who...? How...?"

The Equestrian snapped, "Later. Look, we've got a massive injury over there--" pointing to Wire "--and another couple of people down. Could you, perhaps, lend a hand?" She looked back at the floor. "I mean, help out?"

Simon was gently nudging Nereid with his cold nose, and Nereid was waking up slowly. I noticed he wasn't trying to, say, lick her face. She was blood, head to toe. (Of course, so was everyone else.)

Sekhmet and her compatriots (I recognized the Blue Eagle costume, but knew it had to be a new one -- or maybe not, if he'd somehow come back to life, which wasn't unusual for the spandex teams -- and the Green Hood) spread out, inspecting Megan and Nereid and Wire from a distance and looking up at the ceiling, where the hole was slowly closing up.

Watson and G went through the portal together and straight to Megan, who was still out cold (because I do my work right). They struggled a little -- she's a big girl -- but between them (and their minor superstrength) they backboarded her (why wasn't I surprised that Watson knew how to do that correctly?) and got her onto the giant-sized stretcher they'd brought.

Professor Fortune, in his cape and with his wacky Einstein hair looking especially Einsteinian, strode into the room like he owned it. "Ah, Molly," he said, smiling benignly at the Equestrian. He looked around quickly, and his gaze lingered on the funnel. "Oh, good," he said softly. "Nice to see the thing with the machine worked out."

Watson and G were slowly walking Megan out, and paused at the door while Watson gave the professor a strange, unreadable look. Her mind was shuttered completely from me. G shook her head at the solicitous Eagle and Hood, and gestured to Watson with her chin. Watson nodded and moved forward; they carried Megan out into Sator's shop, and the Eagle and the Hood followed them.

Sekhmet knelt next to Wire, producing a thick band of leather from some part of her costume to tourniquet the girl's arm.

"Bugger off, you useless toad," the Equestrian said to Professor Fortune. "This is my gig, not yours."

"Molly, my dear," Professor Fortune said, beaming at her, "I'm just here to help out with an analysis of the situation. The Gold Stars called me in."

"Analyze this, Harvey," the Equestrian said, flipping the bird at him (she did it both ways, in case he was too dim to figure out the British way). "Get out of here before Her Nibs notices that the self-styled Grand High Poobah of Earth is standing on her turf, from which, I note, he has been banned for more than four decades. I won't be responsible if she shows up."

The pool of blood on the floor rose up and coalesced gracefully into a replica of Nereid. It wasn't an exact twin: the replica was wearing a long gown streaked with all the shades of red and brown found in blood. Her face kept shifting and it took me a moment to figure out why: I was seeing her through the eyes of several people, and I guessed that her face altered according to the viewer's ideals of beauty. It was like looking at a very peculiar animation, especially since it was still recognizably Nereid's face.

I didn't even try to get near that mind. I'm stupid, not suicidal.

She turned and stared at Professor Fortune with the mad, cold expression of a bird of prey. He tried to smile urbanely and failed. She said in a voice that resonated in several registers, "You know the penalty, of course. I need not insult you by repeating it."

The Equestrian radiated an unholy glee as Professor Fortune backpedaled toward the door. I felt unadulterated terror from Tam Lane, who was trying to shrink behind a bit of debris.

"No offense meant, of course, Your Majesty," he said, pausing at the threshold and producing a handkerchief to mop his suddenly gleaming brow. "We had no idea that the door led to..."

The woman stared at him, motionless. Her dress rippled toward him liquidly where it met the floor.

He caught his cloak in both hands and bounded hastily through the door.

The Equestrian and Maelstrom both executed handsome bows to the creature that had manifested from the blood. "Your Majesty," the Equestrian said. "My apologies for not detecting this mess sooner."

She lifted a hand and gazed incuriously around the room. "You have stopped it, according to your bargain."

"I think we've a good bit more to do," Maelstrom muttered ruefully. The Queen ignored him as she swept into a walk so inhumanly graceful that it reminded me of a jellyfish.

Tam actually ducked his head beneath his arms as she glanced in his direction; I wasn't sure, but I thought I caught the traces of a smile on her face through the Equestrian's eyes.

The Queen paused and looked down at Nereid. Simon, who had turned human in order to lift Nereid's face out of a puddle of blood, looked nervously up at the Queen and I could sense from him that she didn't smell right -- not like blood, not like anything he'd ever smelled. "It is impolite to tamper with the lifeblood of another's realm, yet sufficient unto the day is the repayment thereof." She turned her head towards the Equestrian. "I forget the words," she said sweetly, with an undertone of malice so clear it was like metal. "How is it I should curse her?"

Nereid, who only just recovered real consciousness, looked up into that face and began leaking blood incontinently: I could see it dripping from her fingertips and it streaked her face like tears. I could feel her sheer, bone-draining terror: the closest I can describe it is that of an acrophobic being pressed to the edge of a sheer precipice.

The Equestrian blinked. Then her expression hardened, and she answered, "Your Majesty, I believe it is him you usually threaten, at least in the songs I am familiar with."

Tam came out from under his arms for long enough to shoot the Equestrian a hateful look.

The Queen raised a hand with impossibly graceful fingers -- and possibly too many of them -- to her lips. "Ah, now I remember. I cannot call shame upon her face, because after all, I am using it. Such shame as her ill-favored face may have is only that which she herself shall bring upon it. Let it be so."

She smiled at the Equestrian, as though she had just won a round of a game, and said, "Be off with you all, I want no more of you." With that, the figure collapsed to the floor in a viscous splash, the blood spreading once more into a shining pool.

"Can we get out of here now?" Simon asked the Equestrian. "Before someone changes her mind?"

Maelstrom strode over, nudged Sekhmet aside, and, with an interesting impulse of protectiveness I didn't poke at, picked up Wire, who looked grey and chalky. "Let's."

Sekhmet acquiesced to Maelstrom's preference and walked over to Simon. "May I? At least if I carry her, I can feel like I did something here."

"Please," Simon said. "Feels like she's broken her right arm and maybe some other things." He turned wolf again.

Sekhmet moved around to Nereid's left and carefully picked her up. Nereid's eyes closed.

Tam looked cautiously out from his hiding place, then rushed out to Nereid's side. He reached out for her hand, paused and grimaced. It was coated and shining with blood. Overcoming his squeamishness, he gripped her hand and looked into her face, murmuring, "Ah, my dear, my dearest." He trotted alongside as Sekhmet carried her out.

"Don't move her arm, you git," the Equestrian called after them. "It's broken!"

Nereid's eyelashes didn't so much as flutter. I couldn't parse the terror and anxiety I could sense from Tam, so I didn't try. Then they were through the door to Earth.

You look a mess, Suzanne said as she envisioned throwing her arms around Simon gratefully, and I let that go through, just to Simon.

He gave a wolfish grin and bounded out through the door.

The Equestrian took a last look around after the others had left. This is going to be a long night, she said.

Surely you're done? I said.

Not a chance, the Equestrian said, and let me have a little of her Faerie sight. I could see gaping holes ground into the dimensional wall as far as I could see. This is all over the realm. All over the Earth. We've got to gather up the escapees.

"Speaking of escapees," she added aloud, spinning one of her green balls of fire into a net. Her gaze moved to Brainchild, whose spirit was standing, looking around her with a horrified expression, in the corner of the room furthest from where the machine used to be.

Damn, girl, you have a rough job, I said.

"Yep," she said, flicking the net over Brainchild, who shrank down inside it into a green ball of light. The Equestrian strode over to pick her up, absently tucking Wire's mummified hand into her belt as she bent to receive the ball of light with both hands. She sighed.

Beer first, she said to me. Then onward. She strode through the door.

---

Note from the Author:

Okay! The cliffhangers are over, and the denouement has begun. What loose ends are you most looking forward to seeing tied up?

(Also, much gratitude to Akycha for helping me with the Queen's characterization.)

Remember to vote for WCS!









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---

Of Blessed Memory

Suzanne stood between Andrea and Ira, looking down at the plain wooden coffin with its Guardians flag drape. Ira held her hand tightly, his fingers cold in the frigid air. The forest green pavilion was all that stood between them and the sleet that was resolutely and appropriately falling on the company.

Attendees were a little sparse for the death of a superhero, even if he had turned villain in the end. The full set of Guardians, even the Golden Guardian, who was almost never seen any more, stood in the precipitation, tiny, sharp ice droplets hissing off their armor, black bands with a bronze metal stripe conspicuously present on everyone's arm (though there was no clarification as to which Bronze Guardian it applied). A smattering of Gold Stars -- Midnight Mask, the Ultimate, and Sekhmet -- stood in a cluster near them; the Ultimate and Sekhmet were out of costume in black suits and long black wool coats, but Mask was in his dark blue (and hopefully insulated) spandex. Behind Suzanne and the rest of the family, huddled under the inadequate roof, were some of Ira's friends from the old days: Lady Justice, Carolus Lew, Harry Dash, Atomica, and a wizened, bent old man with a walker that she suspected might be Nox the Night-stalker. Madame Destiny stood to the side of Ira, resplendently plump in a long black gown that had a rather daring neckline for a woman of her years, arrayed in her best mystical jewelry, including a vast gold pendant set with a dozen or more different cabochon stones that reclined luxuriously against her cleavage. Mother Necessity's three granddaughters stood near Andrea, who had been a good friend of their mother's, as well as being their honorary aunt.

From the corner of her good eye, she noticed Simon, sharply dressed in a tailored black suit but still on crutches, accompanied by the Hispanic-looking giantess she now knew was Megan Amazon, in a less well-fitted black suit. Megan held a golf umbrella over both their heads. They kept a respectful distance from the proceedings, not coming within conventional earshot, though Suzanne guessed that Simon could hear everything anyway.

She herself wasn't really hearing what the rabbi was saying. She stared at the coffin, felt Ira's fingers squeezing her hand painfully. He'd watched Josh's body stop breathing, the Outsider had said, weeping the whole time, and had let himself be led away and put to bed after it was over. He'd barely said a word since and didn't seem to be sleeping much, though he'd eaten when someone had put food in front of him. She was going to have to discuss the situation with Andrea, who was already fairly harrowed by events and the media. But Andrea at least had David, who worshipped the ground she walked on and took meticulous care of her.

And Suzanne had Simon.

Ira had no one but some hired companions. Would the Guardians stop footing the bill for those now?

She glanced aside at the old man, and felt both oppressed by the responsibility he represented and desperately sad for and protective of him. She loved Ira, as troublesome as he could be. Her own parents were gone -- dead, possibly, but she'd never bothered to find out. They'd given her far too much insanity over the years for her to care.

The coffin was pale wood with brass fittings. There were no flowers.

Suzanne had always known that Josh was a bit of a bastard, but hadn't known that he was a killer. Wasn't that always the way, though? Hardly anyone really expects her or his husband to come home from work one day, having decided on committing mayhem. Not really. Really? She'd always known it was possible -- hell, she'd specialized in stories like this when she was a reporter. Well, at the end of her career, anyway. Maybe she should've paid attention to the things that were catching her attention then, after being married to Josh for several years.

She tried to summon back a memory of loving him and failed. All she could remember was Mitch -- the sweet, unkempt, desperately poor Southern boy who sent nearly all his money home to his mother and the siblings living with her. He was a tall and thin and dark-haired, with a farmer's tan and a tendency to have five o'clock shadow at eleven in the morning. He worked as the Guardians' receptionist and administrative assistant when he wasn't in his Guardian armor, and they paid for him to take his GED and start college. They'd made him have extensive dental work done on his teeth, which were brown and chipped and full of cavities, since he'd grown up without fluoridated water or even a single dentist appointment. She'd first met him -- out of armor -- when he'd come back to the Guardians headquarters, face full of novocaine and giddy from three hours in the chair. Josh had been busy, so she took Mitch out for drinks. He slurred out his life story to her in a desperate attempt to avoid thinking about what had just been done to him.

She thought that, perhaps, she'd fallen for him then.

The rabbi was wrapping up his speech, whatever it was he'd said, and she found herself weeping. She covered her mouth with her handkerchief and choked a sob. Poor Mitch. Poor idealistic superheroic Mitch. He'd just been doing the right thing, like he always had. And Josh...

And Josh...

Andrea put an arm around her waist and patted her shoulder. Ira turned his watery gaze to her and tightened his lips in something close to a smile.

The coffin was lowered into the grave. She took her turn with the spade, and bit her lower lip to keep herself from grinning vindictively as the clods of earth echoed on the wood.

Then it was finished. The rabbi was shaking her hand, and Ira's, and Andrea's.

Netted between Josh's parents, Suzanne turned away from the grave and started into the sleet. Various black-suited undertakers with golf umbrellas materialized to escort them to the limousine.

She looked up from the ground once, and squarely met Simon's gaze. He hadn't replaced his shattered glasses yet, and the wolf's eyes probably disturbed other people. But not her, not now, not any more. She wanted to throw herself into those eyes and not have to think for a while.

He mouthed three words to her. She stared at him for a moment, stricken, and opened her mouth to respond, but was gently pushed into the limo by Andrea.

The door closed, and she indulged in a savage torrent of weeping, though she couldn't have explained why.

---

From Jude:

And here is a bonus episode because I couldn't think of a better way to thank my latest donor! I hope you all enjoy it. :)









Vote for us at Top Web Fiction!
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---

Three Legs Good, One Leg Bad

Megan carried Simon to an ambulance gently and lowered his wolfy frame onto the stretcher. The bright yellow-orange sarong that the Fat Lady had produced from her purse let the cold breeze into surprising places, but at least the inevitable photos would not be obscene. She allowed the EMT to persuade her into the same ambulance, so she squeezed in and sat next to Simon, holding one of his front paws, and avoided looking at the way his one back leg bent the wrong way.

"So how did god ass taste?" she asked him while they waited for the EMT to come back and the ambulance to get moving.

Simon dangled his bloodied tongue out one side of his mouth and rolled his eyes in an expression Megan took for disgust.

"Looks like you may've lost some teeth in that blast," she said, peering closer at his mouth.

A shrug, she decided, was distinctly odd on a wolf.

"You have got to get better at this shit," Megan said. "You were the black man out there on the field, and you were the first one to go down. Do you have any idea how cliched that is?"

Simon narrowed his eyes and somehow made his long nose seem even longer, a sarcastic and long-suffering expression.

"Just thought I should point it out, man," she said.

Simon attempted to yawn extravagantly at her, but was interrupted by a wince. He pawed at his face with his free paw.

"They'll get you the good stuff at the hospital," Megan said as the EMT climbed back into the ambulance.

The ride to the hospital was longer than it should have been, which said something for the state of downtown. Then again, Megan thought, they weren't exactly critical patients. She expected that other ambulances were getting help from the Ultimate and the Guardians and whatnot.

Once they reached the hospital and Simon's stretcher was wheeled inside, his head went up. He sniffed the air through a swollen nose, then looked around and let out a thin whine. He tried to get up, and was too strong for the EMT to hold down. The EMT gave Megan a pleading look.

Megan laid a heavy hand on Simon's neckruff. "Back down, big guy. I'll go find out about her, okay?"

Simon gave her the big, sad puppydog eyes and settled down. Megan sighed and went in search of a nurse who looked not entirely run off her feet.

This proved to be more difficult than she thought, but then she spotted a white woman in a white nun's habit with a large red crusader cross on the back. "Sister Peacebringer," she said, pitching her voice a little over the noise of the ER.

The nun -- one of the many Mystikai who populated Wonder City -- turned her wizened face toward Megan and smiled. "Megan Amazon," she said fondly, reaching for Megan's hand.

Megan felt the serenity of the old woman's smile seep through that contact and into her own bones. Her neck muscles relaxed, all her various pains seemed to lessen, and even the little ache where she had been chewing at herself about G felt like it was wrapped in cotton wool. It was a pretty awesome power, if one didn't think about it too hard. She sighed, and returned the nun's smile. "I was wondering if you'd seen if they brought Suzanne Feldstein in."

Sister Peacebringer's eyes grew sad. "Yes, poor woman, she's quite traumatized, but not badly hurt. In shock, I think. They've moved her to a private room on the third floor, and the Gold Stars have someone guarding the door."

"Oh, thank you," Megan said. "I just came in with a friend of hers -- the one who was there when it all started -- and he was worried about her."

"That would be Simon?" the nun said. "She was asking for him. You should go talk to... I think Sekhmet is on guard duty. I'm sure she'd be glad to bring her news."

Megan thanked the good sister, and made her way up to the third floor, mostly by hunting down the cargo elevator and going up the back way. It took a while. Still, she spotted Sekhmet immediately, standing erect in golden armor just past the nurse's station.

"Hey," Megan said, approaching cautiously.

Sekhmet raised one elegant eyebrow. She was somewhat darker than Megan, but lighter than Simon, with dramatic cheekbones and a long, arched nose. Her helmet hid any other details. The right side of her face was swollen and bruised, and her right eye was closed by the swelling. Her lower lip was split. The armor had seen better days, full of dents and particles of asphalt, and some of the leather straps were torn and hanging loose.

"I just wanted to let Suzanne know that Simon was just brought in. He's okay, got a broken leg and missing some teeth, but he'd like to see her."

Sekhmet smiled crookedly. "She has been very concerned about him, and asking us to find out what happened to him. I will tell her. Thank you, Ms. Amazon."

Megan nodded and didn't even grimace at being recognized.

She found Simon again in a bed in the ER. Someone had convinced him to turn human, and had cleaned up his face and splinted his leg. He lay there, bruised and puffy and pathetic, plucking irritably at the flowered hospital johnny with the hand that didn't have an IV in the back of it. He brightened and sat forward immediately upon seeing Megan.

"The Gold Stars have a guard on her room," Megan said, "but I passed on the message that you were all right and wanted to see her."

Simon settled back on the bed. "Thanks," he said with a lisp from the swelling in and around his mouth. "I'm glad... thanks for letting her know." Megan was amazed to be able to watch his body seem to collapse in on itself as his adrenaline crashed. She noticed that his eyes were glassy, and assumed the good stuff was in that IV line. "I wanted to call my mom, but I left my clothes out there with my cell phone and stuff."

Megan gestured to her sarong. "My cell phone is slag, man. Along with my jeans and shirt and my leather jacket and boots..."

"No!" Simon said. "Not the jacket!"

Megan nodded sadly. "I thought for a minute that I'd have to use the scraps to improvise a loincloth."

"Megan Amazon, savage pinup model," Simon said dreamily.

"Fuck you," Megan said, smiling. "You're high as a kite, aren't you?"

"Yeah," Simon said. "They got me the good stuff. Could you call my mom?"

"Sure," Megan said. "I don't know if I can get through to her, though. She's probably busy."

"It's only," Simon said, slurring the syllables, "that they're saying that the leg is too bad to repair, and they think they might have to take it off."

"What?" Megan said, horrified.

"Yeah," Simon said, looking sadly down at his leg, which was, now that Megan had a chance to look more closely, splendid in colors that it oughtn't to have been. "And that would suck."

Megan stood up. "I'll find someone who can get through to your mother."

"She's got this thing she made," Simon said vaguely, "that does stuff to speed up healing and... stuff for the family."

"I'll find her," Megan said, turning toward the door.

"Megan?" Simon said quietly.

She turned back and was taken aback by the tears trickling down Simon's face. "What?" she asked.

"Some dickhead put me down as 'female' on my chart," Simon said, scrubbing at his face like a little kid.

"I'll take care of that too," Megan said. "Get some sleep, man."

"Thanks," Simon said, and he fell asleep.

---

From Jude:

Today's post wasn't triggered by donations, but by outrage. Many of you have probably seen this article, but for those of you who haven't, a summary: Erin Vaught went to an Indiana ER because she was coughing up blood. She was mocked, disrespected, abused, and finally refused treatment because she is a transwoman. This isn't uncommon. This is appallingly common, in fact. Common enough that I wrote this episode before I saw this news break.

What can you do? There's a petition to demand that Ball Memorial Hospital stop discriminating against LGBT patients. There's a Ball Memorial Hospital Facebook page where you can tell them what you think of them (warning: you have to "like" the page to be able to comment). You can write letters (which are often more effective than e-protests) to the administrative offices of Clarian Health and the hospital (snail mail addresses and phone numbers here).

And you can remember that this isn't an isolated incident, but something that happens every day, everywhere, and you can speak out against transphobia and homophobia and racism and sexism.

New Feature: Simon Says
Likely starting in the next week or two, I'm going to start posting signal-boosts of stories and LGBT/anti-racism/anti-sexism/anti-ableism activism. I'll do my best not to spam you, and will probably experiment with some different formats to minimize disruption. I know you're here for the story, after all!



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---

Don't Seem the Same Since Cosmic Light

The Great Bird Restaurant was a pile of rubble, though the copper thunderbird somehow continued to perch atop the remains. Megan had watched Meteor scoop up people as they ran out the back door. Nereid had briefly attacked Josh, then paused to hold up the roof of the restaurant with pillars of water as the last people evacuated. Then she'd extracted her unconscious teammate and retreated out of sight. Probably to help Meteor.

Megan's brain kept coming to a screeching halt when she thought of Meteor, so she distracted herself. She had a lot of material to work with.

The Gold Stars had arrived. After Midnight Mask attempted to negotiate with Josh and gotten the ground blown out from under his feet, the heroes began to circle cautiously, trying different attacks but trying not to hit Suzanne. The attacks were shearing off some sort of field, something that was converting the incoming force and energy to outgoing force and energy, and somewhat enhancing it, making for more damage.

Josh was still gripping Suzanne by the hair and back of her neck. He kept her at arm's length now, since she had managed to tear herself loose once (losing a handful of hair), after he'd killed the new Bronze Guardian, and nailed him in the crotch with a hell of a good kick. It had just made him more angry and he'd blacked her eye with astonishing restraint. He hadn't been distracted enough to drop his shields.

Megan still cradled Simon's body. She'd summoned up the presence of mind to check him and he was breathing, just unconscious and somewhat broken. She couldn't think very clearly, which was unusual and irritated her. Some distant part of her brain suggested that she should think about first aid for Simon.

She was entirely distracted by her boss arriving on the scene. The Ultimate dropped down out of the sky like a dark comet, carrying the Fat Lady in her arms. She landed, released the Fat Lady -- who arrived gracefully on the broken pavement, despite her high heels -- and aimed a blow for Josh's head. He spun and blocked the blow with his free arm. The thunderous blast blew the front wall of the building Megan sat in flat. Fortunately, the window was already shattered and the wall dropped harmlessly around her and Simon. She could hear the roof and other walls crumbling behind her.

When she looked again, she was expecting Josh to be holding a bloody paste in lieu of Suzanne, but he must have shielded her. He dropped her, and she lay, dazed, at his feet. Most of the other heroes had been knocked away from the pair, though somehow the Fat Lady had held her ground, apparently unscathed.

The Ultimate, Steel Justice, Olympic, and Sekhmet closed in again. The Green Hood -- one of the broad-jawed white guys without powers who was always a media darling -- was trying to get closer, ducking under stray blows and blasts, though what he thought he would do with his trick arrows and pointy wit, Megan didn't know.

Josh was still standing, laughing sometimes, and otherwise unmarked.

Megan winced as he caught Steel Justice a surprise blow that knocked the man away in a high arc.

"Amazon!"

Megan's head snapped around to look at the pale-faced white girl with brown pigtails behind her. "You shouldn't be here..." she began to say.

The girl closed the distance between them. "Amazon, you have to get me in there. I can end this."

"I'm not the Amazon," Megan said. Then she recognized the girl. "And you work with Simon."

The girl --Lizzie -- nodded. Megan saw that her eyes were glowing yellow-white, and Megan had to restrain an urge to scoot backward.

"I'm vulnerable like this," Lizzie said, gesturing at herself in a frustrated way. "But I need to touch him to end this. You're the only one who can help me." She gestured at the other paras. "They're too busy."

Megan could recognize the inevitable force of Destiny when she had to. Cursing her mother silently, she gently set Simon down. "Stay right behind me," she told the girl, who nodded. Then she headed into the fray, Lizzie's hand gripping the waist of her jeans from behind.


---

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This story arc has been published as a novel!

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Buy the ebook at Kindle | Kobo | Apple Store | Scribd | Inktera

---

So Little, So Late

Ira gave thorough instructions to the next-door neighbor's daughter, who had agreed to sit with Josh while he was gone. "And if he wakes up, make sure you press Record on the tape player," he concluded.

Her brow wrinkled. "Don't you have a StarSeed for that? It's digital and has tons of memory." She displayed her shiny gold plastic egg-shaped device. "You wouldn't have to worry about running out of tape."

"We don't have a StarSeed," he said. "I have to go."

"Don't worry, Mr. Feldstein," she said. "We'll be fine."

Ira hurried to the front door, taking his keys and wallet from the bowl but leaving the nametag. He glanced in the mirror, then looked down at himself. His best uniform was still in crisp lines, even if it hung on him. He couldn't help the fact that he'd lost some muscle in the past few years.

The bus trip into the French Hills was longer than he remembered. More stops, more people. Most of the old storefronts were gone, and as they were frequently replaced by townhouses in a variety of beige tones. Still, he saw some buildings he recognized: a few big stone churches that predated the big building boom of the 1920s, the massive apartment house he and Lizzie lived in when they were first married, and the original Guardians Aerie, now a museum.

When he stepped off the bus, he didn't have to look around for long to spot the massive, sprawling Gold Stars compound. The stately brick walls surrounding it were pure decoration over the real fortifications, constructed of force fields and cyberium steel.

The guard in the kiosk at the gate used one of the new genetic scanners on him, and Ira watched his records pop onto the guard's screen. Ira remembered a time when the hero team used ID cards. But that was before the Shapechanger Army, he supposed.

"Your passkey, Mr. Metropolitan," the guard said politely, attaching the slender, metallic sticker to the back of Ira's left hand. "According to the schedule, the Gold Star on duty is Sekhmet, and she'll meet you in the parlor. Have a nice day, sir."

"Thanks," Ira said, studying his passkey for a moment and then proceeding to the front door.

Doors opened obligingly for him, buiding him inside and into the parlor. A kindly feminine computer voice suggested that perhaps he would like coffee or tea, which was in the cabinet in the corner of the room.

He didn't wait very long, sitting in the deceptive blue chair that looked like an overstuffed armchair but was really as hard and uncomfortable as the benches at the Y. The door in the back of the parlor opened, and a tall, dark-skinned woman in a neat pinstriped suit stepped through. Her hair was quite short, lying in tight curls against her scalp, and she was striking, with high cheekbones and a long, patrician nose. "Mr. Metropolitan?" she said, her slight accent injecting a small roll at the 'r'. "I am Sekhmet."

He nodded, swallowing hard and summoning a smile. "Thank you for seeing me on such short notice."

"We try to make time for those who have served before us," she said. "Why don't you come into the office?"

He tried to keep his back as straight as hers as he followed her. She gestured him into a chair and sat in a chair opposite him. The small coffee table between them was set with a silver tea service. She poured out the tea.

He fidgeted slightly, but waited for his teacup. He preferred to have something to occupy his hands for this, otherwise, he suspected, his hands would wander around aimlessly, twitching like an old man's.

She handed over his cup. "How can I help you?"

"Well," he said, peering down into the dark tea. "I expect you know about my son, Josh. He was the Bronze Guardian, before the present one, I mean."

She nodded. "Yes. He stopped Skywraith when he absorbed the Godstuff, as I recall. I wasn't active at the time, but I remember the stories."

He nodded too. "Well, yes, he's been in a coma ever since the Iron... I mean, Skywraith, and we -- his wife and I -- have been taking care of him. Well, to make a long story short, he woke up the other day, and..."

"He woke up?" Sekhmet said, half-starting from her chair. "Why hasn't anyone been notified? I always assumed we'd hear..."

"Well, heh heh, he fell back into a coma almost immediately," Ira said uncomfortably. The china rattled in his hands, and he set the teacup down quickly. "He woke up, spoke to me, and then he was gone again."

Sekhmet settled back into her chair, frowning. "I see."

Ira caught himself starting to wring his hands. "You see, he told me that the reason he's been comatose is that he's helping to fight an enemy called the Mind Marauders. They're getting closer to Earth, and he wanted me to warn people."

"I see," she said again. "Did he give you any details?"

"He said they were psychic vampires," Ira said. "That there was an army of them moving through what Josh called Psychespace, which is a dimension that... that rides along with ours. Like, you know, the Positive and Negative Planes."

"Hmm," Sekhmet said, pulling a palmtop out of the inner pocket of her suitcoat and making some notes. "And does your son have allies?"

Ira nodded. "He said there were warriors of many worlds there with him who had been recruited by some... some... oh, damn, I can't remember the name." He clutched at his forehead, brow furrowed. "Damn this brain of mine."

"That's all right, Mr. Metropolitan," Sekhmet said. "I can contact the known telepathic and astral-traveling heroes and see if any of them have encountered Psychespace. Did he tell you anything else?"

"No," Ira said, shaking his head. "He went away again before I could ask any questions."

Sekhmet was sympathetic. "Well, you've done just what he asked, Mr. Metropolitan. Thank you. You can leave it in our hands now."

They stood up and shook hands, and Sekhmet showed him out, one hand warm on his shoulder. She patted his back as they parted.

As Ira passed through the gate, the guard nodded and the shiny sticker dissolved into water. Ira shook it off his hand and smiled at the street as he made his way to the bus stop on the other side of the street.

His eyes stung a little as he stared at the Gold Star compound. It had been a long, long time since he'd been back in the game. He hadn't realized how much he missed it: the bright colors and strong bodies and sleek technology. Beautiful women and handsome men, standing between evil and good, and exciting adventures for all.

But he was just a spectator this time.

It hadn't lasted long enough.

It would probably be the last time.

Well, until Josh woke up to give him more news.

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