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The Art of Losing

"The thing is," Madeline Fukuda told us, "I've regenerated the parts of the brain that were damaged by the bullet. Also the bone and skin, both lungs, her liver, and the damage to her leg and hand. Fortunately, there was no intestinal perforation, but she'll still need to be on antibiotics for a while. But she's going to have to reeducate the portion of the brain that was damaged."

Ruth sat in her chair there in the basement of the Gold Stars facility, radiating rage like a dark star, her forehead contracted in a frown. "Can you guess at what kind of therapy she'll need?"
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#BLACKLIVESMATTER
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Goodness, these are getting long.





Deny Everything

Absolutely the only reason I agreed to meet with Sara West (her request, and also the government's) was because Ruth needed an excuse to get into orbit—to dispose of Jane Liberty's body before too many questions started getting asked. So Ruth boosted me and my little lifepod (the one she'd brought me home in) up to New Alcatraz. I was wearing my alien technology that let me leave the house and retain my sanity, but I left my dog in the bunker. Orbit just doesn't agree with her, poor thing.
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This episode was hard to write to start with, and given recent events it became exponentially harder to write (something you will likely understand as you read).


Best Intentions Going Down for the Third Time

"Sophie," Ruth said at the door of Sophie's apartment in the Young Cosmics Building, "we need to have a talk."

Sophie held the door and mutely gestured her mother inside.

Nereid wanted to stand up and go, but Sophie pinned her in her seat with a fleeting, desperate glance. She sat still. She could understand why anyone, even Sophie, would fear a confrontation with the Ultimate.

Ruth glanced at Nereid, then Sophie, and nodded.

Sophie cleared her throat and said, while heading for the kitchenette, "Would you like something to drink, Mom? Pacifica?"

Nereid shook her head, and Ruth said, "I'll take another of whatever you're having."

Nereid could see Sophie pause to contemplate her liquor cabinet, then turn away to pour two glasses of iced tea.

After they were all sitting down, Ruth turned a look on Sophie. "So, Larentia Canis has been disassembling some things."

Sophie nodded, and sipped from her glass.

"She says that some of the technology uses components she knows you built."

Sophie nodded again, setting her glass aside.

Ruth's voice continued calm and measured. "Do you know how that technology came to be in the hands of the aliens?"

Sophie looked at her hands, spread on her knees, for a long moment, then swallowed, looked Ruth in the eye, and said, "I built it for them."

Ruth and Sophie remained locked in their poses, staring at each other. Nereid had a nearly uncontrollable urge to turn to water and sink through the floor just from the reflected pressure of those looks.

Ruth finally said, choking slightly over the word, "Why?"

Sophie's gaze dropped at last, and after fighting to get words out for a few seconds, she covered her face with her hands. She scrubbed her eyes hard for a moment, took a deep breath, and said, "Because they had you."

Nereid had a fleeting glimpse of something she never wanted to see again: unbridled rage in the Ultimate's eyes. Ruth clamped it down, looking away from both of them. After a moment, she said, "I can't say that I'm comfortable with being party—even passively—to that."

"There is nothing about what I chose to do that implicates you in the least," Sophie said through her teeth. "Don't you dare try to ladle on more guilt here. I know I made a wrong choice."

Ruth's head snapped back around to face Sophie. "You're damned right you did."

Nereid thought about speaking up, about what she saw as ameliorating circumstances—that the empath, or even a telepath, was probably fucking with Sophie during that entire conversation she was having with the aliens, that there was no way Sophie could have known that the equipment would be used to broadcast the empathic powers of someone with abhorrent political views, that Sophie had helped save the world... yeah, she kept her mouth shut.

"What you did was beyond irresponsible," Ruth said, her voice clipped and hard. "It was selfish, and it was stupid, and both are high crimes for someone who has an unclassifiably high-Class para brain."

"I know, already," Sophie said, control slipping off like a leash ducked by a terrier next to a busy street. "I'm selfish for putting family first over the rest of the fucking world, I'm stupid for not miraculously foreseeing who they were going to put behind that, and that I was so irresponsible by actually doing shit to stop it…"

"You close your mouth for just a moment," Ruth snapped. "First, you're famous for thinking ahead for consequences. You're going to tell me that you didn't even suspect how this was going to go wrong?"

Sophie's shoulders sagged. "Of course I did," she said, but there was almost no attitude to it.

Ruth rubbed her forehead with her fingertips. "Also, do not give me the line about putting family first. I invented that line. For para shit, anyway."

"Oh, bullshit," Sophie said.

"What did you just say?" Ruth turned a slow stare on Sophie.

Nereid didn't think they'd notice if she just seeped really slowly through the floor. Except she knew she couldn't seep through these floors, because Ultimate Construction built superhero bases too well. Every suite was a separate, contained entity with layers of armor around it.

Sophie lifted her chin. "Bull. Shit. I don't think I've ever seen you put family first. How many goddamn times did you leave me with Gloria, or Olivia, or with some other babysitter, while you kited off-planet to fight an alien menace? Or the way you stuffed Renata into a bunker and left her there alone? Or the way you've never said what happened to any of your own actual family? And then there was Fort Starr, Colorado."

"You do not know shit about that," Ruth said, "and I am not here to listen to you talk shit about..."

"Fort Starr was hit by a fucking tac nuke," Sophie said, back straightening. "A few thousand people died. Where the fuck were you at the time?"

Ruth looked away again, but Nereid saw her lips and jaw tighten. Nereid wished she'd gotten up and walked out despite Sophie's appealing look.

"All the history books, even the private Gold Star records, claim there was warning from Techmeister, the supervillain behind it," Sophie said, throwing herself headlong into what Nereid could already see was a defensive attack going horribly awry. "So where were you when your sister was killed?"

Ruth sat back in her chair and folded her hands across her belly with a snort of laughter. "How long have you been holding onto that? Damn, girl, you work for your derailing arguments, don't you?"

Sophie opened her mouth to continue, but Ruth leaned forward suddenly, one hand spread on the coffee table, and said, "Let's get this all out on the table, shall we?" Sophie's mouth shut with a snap.

"I started avoiding my family after I met Sister Power," Ruth said in a low, even voice. "Who warned me that just by being a para woman, I was putting them in danger. A year in, my parents, sister, and brothers were all in the witness protection program, moved far from anyone they knew or loved, because some supervillain had tried to kill them. I stayed away from them to keep their covers, I offered, and they asked me to. My sister was para too, only a little, really, and she kept that under wraps as much as possible, but whereas I kept refusing the draft, she joined up. The government did not love the fact that I wouldn't let them draft me into the Gold Stars, but what were they gonna do?"

Nereid knew her own eyes had gone wide with all this, and was so focused on Ruth that she didn't think to look at Sophie.

"I'll tell you what they did," Ruth said. She paused, swallowed, continued: "They finally warned me that there would be 'consequences' if I didn't join up, if I didn't stop my 'activities' — which consisted of little things like stopping wars, interfering in police actions, taking medical supplies and food directly to refugees. I was young and stupid and surprisingly idealistic for a black girl, and didn't think they could do anything to me. Except they had a para on tap whose codename, amusingly enough, was Tac Nuke."

Nereid covered her mouth reflexively.

"They took out one of their own facilities to punish me. Six thousand seven hundred and seventy-three souls killed by a para whose only power was making big atomic explosions with himself at ground zero. When I blew into that general's office, he said, 'We know where your parents and brothers live too.' And that's when I joined the Gold Stars." Ruth leaned across the table until her face was within inches of Sophie's blankly horrified face. "Never, ever tell me I don't put family first, Sophia Jean. Never pull Fort Starr, my sister, my parents, or my brothers on me. Never tell me I didn't put you, or Renata, or any of the rest of my people before myself, before everything else. You used to ask me when you were little why I didn't just take over the world. The answer is: because I'm just one woman, and they would kill everyone I held dear while I slept."

Ruth held Sophie's gaze for a few more seconds, until Sophie said, in the tiniest, hoarsest voice Nereid had ever heard, "I'm sorry."

Ruth nodded once, and stood up. Despite Ruth being such a short woman, it felt to Nereid like she was towering over them both. "You're right, you made your own choices, and you know they were wrong. And I'm disappointed that you made them. You're trying to do whatever it takes to make it right. I'm proud of the fact that you're trying your best, because if I didn't teach you anything else, at least I taught you to clean up after yourself." She walked to the door. "I'd better see both of you Sunday night for dinner." She opened the door and went out.

Nereid and Sophie sat in stunned silence in the aftermath.

Finally, Sophie said, "You'd think that after all these years, I'd know better than to try to pull that kind of shit on her."

Nereid nearly laughed at the rueful tone, and said, "Sweetie, I've only known her for two or three years, and I know better than that."

Sophie quirked the corner of her mouth. "Yeah, but you're the one with common sense in this relationship."

Nereid reached out and touched her cheek. "Yeah. Don't hold that against me though."




10 Ways to Help the People of Ferguson, Missouri

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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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All Water Has a Perfect Memory

"I'm really not sure about this," Nereid said, hanging back under the maple tree at the edge of the street. The day was hot and humid, and a sun-drunk bumblebee swam lazily through the thick air, narrowly avoiding Sophie's head.

"Ruth must be sure, or she wouldn't have invited you," Sophie said, tugging on Nereid's hand. "Come on, we'll be late."

They were both very firmly out of costume, in shorts and sandals and t-shirts. Sophie was even wearing a normal pair of glasses. They'd driven over in Sophie's deceptively rattletrap decade-old compact car. Nereid didn't know what customizations Sophie had added to the car; she just knew that any car that had a full keyboard integrated into the steering wheel couldn't be normal.

The Ultimate's house was a small, neat surburban box of a ranch house with a large green lawn and several copses of trees. There was brick trim and a two-car garage, and everything looked so very normal. Sophie had parked on the street because the driveway was full of vehicles that also, surprisingly, looked normal.

It was a quiet party, once they got inside, but Nereid was so nervous, her later memories of it were spotty. She remembered things in chunks:

1.
The Fat Lady took a glass of lemonade with a sprig of mint in it from the Ultimate. "So glad you could make it, Pacifica," she said in her beautiful voice. "Have you met Madeline Fukuda?" She gestured to the young Asian woman sitting beside her on the beige sofa.

Nereid felt a shock of recognition at the name. "You... you're...," she said, shaking hands with the woman.

"Yes, you've probably read about me," Madeline said with a sad smile. "It's all right. I get that a lot."

"Speaking of history," the Fat Lady said, "what's going on with that documentary?"

"Ah, well," Madeline said, shrugging slightly, "it's going forward, but slowly. There's very little funding, and, as you can imagine, the government and military are not pleased with the idea of it being made. People have almost forgotten World War II now, and they'd like to keep it that way."

"How are the girls doing?" Renata Scott said, carefully seating her dark copper android body on a nearby easy chair.

"Well, Annie died last year," Madeline said, and Nereid realized that she was talking about one of the clone bodies that had been grown from parts of her by the Army during the war.

"I'd heard," Renata said, and Nereid could hear the sympathy that the android face couldn't express. "I'm so sorry."

"Well, they've none of them had what you could call a good quality of life ever, though lord knows I've tried my best," Madeline said, shaking her head. "They weren't raised, like us, they just became. Barbara still has nightmares and violent episodes -- she's physically the strongest of them still, and earlier this year, the group home said they couldn't handle her any more, so she's in an institution. Georgina had a stroke a few months ago and has been paralyzed ever since; she refuses to do the physical therapy, and they've moved her out of the general home area into the hospital ward. Zeta has become even less verbal than she ever was. And, of course, Dorothy and Edith have been gone for years. Sandra, Theresa, and Iris are still living in the group home, and are doing all right, I suppose. Certainly the other people living there are doing better than they might otherwise." She grimaced a little.

"Are they... it sounds like they aren't all still young like you," Nereid said hesitantly.

"They're not," Madeline said, gently and sadly. "We don't know why I stayed young and they didn't. It's like they got a... a limited supply of my power, and the Army used it up. It's just as well, really. Like I said, they've always been... limited. In other ways." She pressed her fist flat against the center of her chest. "It still hurts when they go, though. Like I'm losing children."

"I hope the documentary happens," Nereid said, clenching her own hands angrily. "What they did to you, that should be more than a note in a textbook."

Madeline smiled. "Mine was just a small story in a much bigger story. Have you heard about the musical that George Takei man is putting together about the Japanese-American internment camps?"


2.
"How. are you. doing. Jennifer?" Avis Wysocki said, via her curiously stilted and old-fashioned computer voice, to the young olive-skinned woman seated on the floor.

Jennifer Lombardi looked vaguely in the direction of the middle-aged woman with the speaker on her shoulder and the keyboard on her lap. "I'm okay," she said in a faint, fading sort of voice. "I'm trying not to watch something really horrible right now, so I'm looking at about three dozen preschools."

Avis looked at Nereid and typed. "Jennifer. sees. everywhere. at the same. time." Nereid noticed that the computer voice had a faintly... Swedish?... intonation.

"That sounds hard to manage," Nereid said, unable to think of anything else. All those days working the tables at the diner and listening to people talk about their lives had helped after all.

"No, not difficult," said Jennifer in a distant tone. "More... distracting. I tend to walk into doors. And get lost. Of course, I do have to remember to keep an eye on certain things."

"Speaking of which," the Ultimate said as she passed through with a plate of hors d'ouerves, "are the G-men still bugging you?"

"Oh, yes," Jennifer said, with a few signs of animation. "They never seem to get tired of it. I just make sure I'm never home when they call."

"Does that mean the G-men are responsible for the time I had to fly to Venezuela to get you?" Sophie said from her perch on a tall chair at the breakfast bar.

"I don't remember," said Jennifer.

"Did you at least like Venezuela?" Nereid said.

"Oh, yes," Jennifer said, handing a bright tropical flower to Nereid, apparently from nowhere. "Of course, I don't have to be there to like it."


3.
Oum Veha, a plump, dark-skinned Asian man, sat in a carved wooden chair surrounded by a lovely confectionary wall of filigreed copper wires. When he hiccoughed briefly, there was a flash of blue-white light, a sizzling noise, and a loud, startling pop. After a moment, he said, sadly, "Ruth, I'm sorry, but I seem to have shattered another glass."

The Ultimate snorted something like laughter and went into the Faraday cage with a couple of dishtowels. The two of them muttered to each other, and Veha laughed at one point, accompanied by the tinkling of the pieces of glass.

"They have crushes on each other," Sophie whispered, handing Nereid a can of soda.

"Really?" Nereid said, trying not to stare at the round brown woman with the threads of silver in her corkscrew curls and the younger man, both stooping to the floor of the protective cage, their heads close together.

"Totally," Sophie said, popping open her own can. "She won't admit it, though he does, cheerfully. They see each other every week. It's adorkable."

Veha's hand brushed the Ultimate's as they both reached for the same shard of glass, and their gazes met for a moment before the Ultimate snatched the glass up, crushing it in her hurry. "You're being klutzier than usual, Veha," she said audibly, standing. "How many glasses are you gonna break today?"

Veha straightened up as well and smiled as she slid out of the cage. "Oh, as many as it takes."


4.
"I. like. your new. outfit," Avis said as Renata sat down next to her.

"Thanks! Larentia made it for me," Renata said, running a hand over the shining copper thigh of the android body.

"She. made. my. set. up. too," Avis said, gesturing at her keyboard and speaker.

"Really?" Renata leaned back a bit and the android head shifted obviously to bring the cameras to bear on the rig. "Why didn't she give you a smoother voice?"

"I have. gotten. used. to. this one," Avis replied. "I can not. imagine. my voice. being. any. different." She shoved light brown curls out of her eyes.

"Um, can I ask?" Nereid said.

"We told you," Renata said, the unnerving android eyes looking at her, "no questions are off-limits. If you ask something hurtful, we'll tell you. But we would like for you to feel like you really can ask us anything."

"Thanks," Nereid said, ducking her head a bit. "I was wondering, um, Avis, why you have to use the computer voice?"

"My. power. is. command. voice," Avis said. "If I say. something. imperative. most. people. have to. do it."

"Oh," Nereid said. "Oh. Wow."

"Yes," Avis said, looking skyward and shrugging. "It. was. awkward."

"And you can't control it?" Nereid said.

"I. could. for a while. as. a teenager," Avis said. "But. you. know. teenagers." She shrugged again.

Nereid looked faintly embarrassed. "You could, but you didn't. And then you couldn't at all?"

"No," Avis said, shaking her head, for emphasis it seemed.

Nereid started to say something, then paused to bite the inside of her cheek hard, which was one of her best techniques for stopping tears. "It's really hard... when you do something you didn't intend to."

Avis and Renata exchanged glances. "Yes," Avis said after a moment. "I remember. telling. a boy. who was. picking. on. me. to just. go. away. And his. parents. could not. find. him. again. I still. do not. know. what happened. to him."

Nereid clapped a hand to her mouth. "Oh god, I'm so sorry."

Avis grimaced and said, "Most. of us. should think. before. we speak. but I. need. to think. a lot. more."


5.
Nereid thought how strange it was to see the Ultimate laughing. She'd seen her laughing at the birthday party, but that had been so big and glittering and unreal that her laughter seemed so too.

"Veha, you are such a tease," the Ultimate said, sliding her hand along the doorframe of the Faraday cage.

"I have to make the most of my qualities," he replied, sipping his drink.

Madeline leaned closer to Nereid and said, "You're quiet."

Nereid blushed. "I'm just... everyone is so... famous."

"Famous people are just people," the Fat Lady said, twirling the fan in her hand skyward. "Even Sophie is famous, in her way."

"Yeah," said Nereid, glancing at Sophie, "but I met her before I knew she was famous."

Sophie flopped down at Nereid's feet and tilted her head back into her lap to say, "I can't believe you didn't know I was famous."

The Ultimate quirked a smile at them. "Not everyone's into cypherpunk or fanfiction like you are, kiddo."

Sophie looked at her mother, eyebrows high. "Hey, I've done quite a lot more than just that stuff."

"Being responsible for Gogo and the Gadgettes is important," Madeline allowed.

"I swear, I didn't tell her to crash the party!" Sophie said for the fourth or fifth time that afternoon, letting her head fall backward again. "And she's just Gogo now anyway."

Nereid gave in to the urge to stroke Sophie's hair, and blushed when she saw the Fat Lady wink at her over the top of the fan.

"I liked the album," Jennifer said while staring at a corner of the ceiling. "It goes well with all kinds of music."

Avis said, "Of course. Jennifer. someone. like. you. has to. listen to. a lot of. music. at. once."

Jennifer replied, wistfully, "People like us need a lot of music, don't you think? So you don't have to listen to the scary parts."

The Fat Lady said, "That's why I often sing in harmony with myself. More complexity, more concentration."

"'Swhy I play guitar," Sophie said, waving a hand. "Inside my head is pretty scary sometimes."

"Interesting," Veha said. "I started taking lessons on the khim a few months ago. It's a kind of hammered dulcimer," he added as explanation. When the Ultimate gave him a startled look, he ducked his head. "I didn't want to tell you, Ruth, until I got, you know, better. You sing so beautifully."

Nereid gave the Ultimate a startled look and tried to imagine the woman singing.

"Sometime, we ought to all have a family singalong around the piano," Madeline said with a dreamy little smile. "My parents did that, you know. It was so American. Could we, Ruth? Next time?"

Avis grinned. "I even. know. how to. play. I will. have to. practice."

"And I'll hafta get a piano," the Ultimate said, frowning around the room, hands on hips. Her gaze fell on the Fat Lady. "You're gonna insist on a grand, aren't you?"

"What's the point of anything less?" the Fat Lady said, fluttering the fan below her chin.

"Seriously, Ruth," Renata said. "Since when do you settle for the upright when you can get a grand?"

"You know better, Rennie: I don't settle," the Ultimate said, smiling around the room. "And neither should any of you. All right, there'll be a grand piano here next time. You gonna be here, Pacifica?"

Nereid blinked, looking around at the expectant faces, then smiled hesitantly and said, "I wouldn't miss it for the world."

She was pretty sure she meant it too.



END of Volume 2: Deep Freeze

---

Note from the Author:

Welcome to the finale of volume 2! Thank you for sticking with Wonder City through TWO novels! I'm kind of amazed that I've managed to write this much, and that we'll be hitting Wonder City's third anniversary this coming May.

This isn't the end of Wonder City, of course! In March, we begin the Zoltan miniseries. Being Zoltan, he couldn't just settle for a short story. At some point in March, I also plan to do a one-card draw event in collaboration with Madame Destiny and her Wonder City World War II Tarot Deck.

And then in April (or possibly May, depending on when Zoltan's story finishes up), we begin Volume 3 of Wonder City Stories. We will jump from summer 2010, which is when this episode occurs, to 2012, and so there will be some off-screen development, and there will be a new POV character added to the mix.

Thank you, everyone, for all your support and kindness and enthusiasm over the past two volumes. Please keep sticking with Wonder City Stories! There's lots of fun and drama on the way!

Best,
Jude

---

Wonder City has been nominated for the Rose & Bay Crowdfunding Award! Thank you! Now, y'all should go check out all the nominees for fiction, webcomics, art, poetry, patron, and other projects. And VOTE!

And remember to vote for WCS at Top Webfiction!









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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")

---

Wonder City has been nominated for the Rose & Bay Crowdfunding Award! Thank you! Now, y'all should go check out all the nominees for fiction, webcomics, art, poetry, patron, and other projects. And VOTE!

And remember to vote for WCS at Top Webfiction!









wonder_city: (Default)
Asking No Questions, Passing No Criticisms

"So you said you had something to tell me, Ruth," I said from my seat on the floor. Floribunda, my newly-acquired Pit Bull rescue puppy, cocked her bowling-ball head at me. She was mostly white, with brown ears and a set of adorable worry lines on her forehead above her big brown eyes.

"I thought you'd like to hear the latest from the Wonderful House," Ruth's voice said from the speakers. Flori wobbled over -- she was only 8 weeks old -- and sat in front of the nearest speaker, looking for all the world like a tiny version of Nipper in the "His Master's Voice" painting.

"Oh, god, there's more?" I said, tossing a squeaky toy toward Flori. She pounced on it in that floppy-puppy way, her legs stiff and jaunty.

"Better believe it," Ruth said, and I could tell she felt immensely pleased with herself. "One of the producers apparently was a plant from another network. He'd been sabotaging the whole production since before it started to air."

"Really?" I said, not really surprised. I reached out for the toy, and Flori nipped my finger accidentally. I told her Careful. She sat down in surprise and looked around, apparently puzzled as to the source of the voice. It would take her a while to figure it out. "Was Brandon his brainchild too?"

"Oh, no, that was the director," Ruth said. "The director actually wanted the show to succeed, and everyone, apparently, loves assholes."

"Ah," I said, nudging Flori's butt with my toe and sending her into a frenzied sprint around the room with her butt tucked under. "So what sort of sabotage was he engaging in?"

"Oh, things not getting edited," Ruth said. "Equipment going missing or breaking. Permits and licenses for things not being processed on time. But that's not the best part."

"Quit holdin' out on me, girl," I said, watching my puppy carom crazily off chairs and tables.

"Someone got a wild hair up his ass," Ruth said, "and thought that maybe if this guy was sabotaging the production, he had hired that guy to kill Brandon. So now the mole is singing like a bird to get out from under the conspiracy to murder charges."

"That would explain why they wanted my 'inside information,'" I mused. Flori trotted over and flopped into my lap, where she almost immediately went to sleep.

"Exactly," Ruth said. "I was wondering why they were harassing you like that. It took a few days for my lawyers to dig up this dirt."

"That is fascinating," I said. "But not altogether unexpected. I figured something hinky was going on. I'm glad the kids are out of it, though. The producers are settling out of court, I heard?"

"Yeah," Ruth said, and I could hear her typing in the background. "For a pittance compared to what they were supposed to win, but it cuts all ties and makes for a nice deal if the company decides to release it on DVD or something."

I watched Flori breathing, her eyes tight shut. "I'm glad," I said again. "How's Sophie?"

"Much better," Ruth said, and I heard her stop typing and felt her giving me her full attention. "Though the kid's up to something. I'm not sure what."

"Maybe it's to do with your birthday party," I said, and Flori rolled onto her back in my lap, all four paws in the air.

"I guess I'll find out soon enough, right?" Ruth said, though she didn't sound too displeased. "How's the dog?"

"She's perfect," I said, grinning like a loon as Flori's too-large paws twitched in some vague puppy dream. Her mind radiated pure uncomplicated contentment. "Just perfect."

---

Note from the Author:

Because we don't have enough crazy dog ladies in Wonder City yet.

The Rose & Bay Crowdfunding Award nominations are open, and I would love it if someone were to nominate Wonder City Stories. Take a look at the other categories, just in case there's something else you want to nominate for voting! Nominations are a little low compared to last year, so please go nominate!

And remember to vote for WCS!









wonder_city: (Default)
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!

Please remember to vote for WCS!









wonder_city: (Default)
Full of Evil Clowns

I'd finally conquered my headache after drugging myself unconscious for about twenty hours, and I'd rescheduled all my clients for the next two weeks.  I felt better -- sore all around the edges, but better -- and I'd been swimming a lot.

Ruth called and I managed to keep the call short.  "Have you talked to Nereid and Wire?" I said after the initial greetings and stream of gratitude.

"Yes," Ruth said.  "Well, I've talked to Wire.  She said the whole thing was Nereid's idea, so I've been trying to get in touch with Pacifica.  She hasn't returned my calls yet."

"She's shy," I said, but I frowned and made a mental note to talk to the Equestrian.  "And probably exhausted."

"That's what Wire suggested," Ruth said.  "Anyway, thank you, Rennie, for everything.  I know what you did with those kids wasn't easy at all for you."

"They needed me," I said.  "And I wanted to be part of bringing that bastard down.  He killed a friend of my family."

"Damn, girl, you didn't tell me that," Ruth said.  

"Sorry," I said.  "I just... well, you were busy."

She sighed.  "All right.  Well, I'm glad you could be part of the resolution, at least."

"Me too," I said.  "Hey, Ruth, you know I love talking to you but..."

"You're still fried, I know.  Take care of yourself, boo," Ruth said.  "You're still coming to the party, right?"

Until that moment, I'd completely forgotten about Ruth's upcoming 50th birthday party.  "Oh, hell, yes," I said.  "I wouldn't miss it."

"I'll tell Sophie," she said.  "Love you."

"Love you too," I said, and we hung up.

I was grateful that I'd managed things so well, because I had a chance for a swim before the last episode of Wonderful House.

The speculation on what this final episode would be like had run wild on the Internet.  A memorial to Brandon?  The other housemates talking in detail about that night, since very little of the real story had come out?  Lizzie reconciling with her father?  (I vehemently hoped not.)  Simon and any of the other housemates confessing their undying love for each other?  (The biggest part of the fandom I frequented was pro-Simon/Lizzie, but a not-insubstantial proportion was pro-Simon/Jeshri.  There were lesser contingents for all the other combinations, including triads and even all four together, and even smaller groups that 'shipped non-Simon pairings.)  (I don't go to the parts of fandom that like Brandon.)

I think that no one, not even me, expected what we got: an hour of retrospective, talking heads analyzing the interactions and relationships, and a lot of voiceover on the scenes of the housemates packing their rooms.  Not a single line of current dialog from the housemates.  The only time any anger at all was allowed to show was when all of them were sitting in the producer's office, glowering at the PARABI executive who was, reportedly, letting them know that Brandon's death violated the agreement and there would be no payout.

I could almost hear the "OH HELL NO" in all their minds as I watched that scene, even though the voiceover was attempting to spin their glares as anger about Brandon.  I wondered what the fan response would be, so when the episode ended, off I went to the forums.

Many people were baffled.  "Wait, why isn't anyone being allowed to talk?"  More were angry: "The deal was no damage to the house! How does getting killed in a freak accident off the property count as violating the deal?"  Others were paranoid: "Brandon was killed by one of his housemates, probably Lizzie!  The lawyers have a gag order on everyone!"

The forums exploded for about half an hour, and then the link appeared.

A few of us were half-waiting for it, and pounced on it.

SuperTube's dynamic hit counter started running up while I was waiting for the video clip to load.  And then the video started to run.

The usual Wonderful House logo appeared, then "It's" was crossed out and replaced by "It Was Never", and the theme music slowed and morphed into something more sinister.

Simon was sitting in a leather chair by a roaring fireplace, dressed in an impeccably tailored black suit with a red silk pocket square and matching tie.  He looked squarely into the camera and said, in a voice more mellow and trained than he'd previously demonstrated (why, yes, he had attended acting classes in college after all, thanks, Parapedia), "After learning what the final episode of 'It's a Wonderful House' was to show, the cast and crew met in secret to discuss what to do.  All of us felt that the episode was a copout, cheating the fans who stuck with us all this time.  Today, we would like to present you, our fans, with our best gift, the only gift we can give you: the truth."

The usual opening, sans music, played, and Simon's voiceover said, "We thought we were participating in a perfectly normal, every day reality show.  What we didn't know was that the deck had been stacked -- both knowingly and unknowingly -- against us by the powers that be for the show."

"Knowingly," he went on, and the view zoomed in on one of the all-too-common images of Brandon, leerly vaguely and drunkenly at Lizzie and Jeshri in the living room, "because there is now documented evidence--" the view switched to a file folder in Brandon's disaster of a room, opened to a contract clearly branded with the IaWH logo "--that the producers paid Brandon a considerable sum to appear on the show to act as a prod to induce conflict."  The key clause of the contract was circled in red, and a clickable link to the document appeared.  I let the video continue to play.

We were then treated to a montage of images of Brandon getting shoved aside by one or another housemate, of Tom only just stopping himself from throwing a punch at Brandon's grinning face, of Jeshri electrocuting Brandon (leaving him rolling on the floor, his shorts showing a wet patch in front -- I note that this had never appeared on the show, of course), of Simon going semi-lupine in the face and snapping at Brandon with his flashing teeth, and finally of Lizzie throwing the boiling water on him, hitting him up the backside of the head with a sizzling frying pan, nailing him in the balls with his own baseball bat, and throwing the dishes at him so that he fell backwards down the stairs.

"Unknowingly," Simon said, "because they failed to carry out background checks on any of the crew, though they checked the cast out very thoroughly, even down to checking our credit ratings."

Watson appeared onscreen, with an identifying caption ("Watson Holmes, Consulting Detective").  She was dressed up only slightly, having added a tweed blazer to her usual buttondown shirt.  "It took me all of fifteen minutes to run superficial background checks on the entire camera, sound, and light crew, as it would for any professional.  I found that there is a member of the sound crew who likes to drive very fast, a member of the light crew who had recently divorced with allegations of abuse on both sides, a member of the production staff with a history of stalking, and a member of the camera crew with a history of domestic violence, sexual assault, and even a rape arrest that did not end in a conviction, due to technicalities rather than a failure to prove guilt."

"We got our first indication that something might be amiss," Simon said, returning to the screen, "when a member of the cast received a tip from a para fan that she had picked up a detail during a live broadcast that suggested we had a murderer in our midst.  That cast member shared this information with the rest of the cast, other than Brandon, because we had some indication that Brandon might be violent himself."

We then saw the clip of Brandon bragging about raping the drunk woman from the frat party, and the clip of Brandon talking to his cameraman about Simon and making vague threats. Then there was a scene in the dark of him coming in drunk late one night and wandering into random bedrooms until there was a wild scuffle that ended with Simon walking him up to the third floor, twisting Brandon's arm up behind his back and holding onto a handful of his hair.

"Then someone tried to blackmail Jeshri," Simon said, "by threatening to release personal photos of her to the Internet at large. The condition for not releasing them was meeting the blackmailer at a nearby park in Staybird in the middle of the night."

The camerawork was uninspired, but showed the housemates walking through the park. "Of course, we weren't about to let her go alone," he said in voiceover. They came around a curve and there was Brandon, clearly visible in the streetlight.

They played a bit of film that showed Brandon confessing to being involved in the blackmail, and then events dissolved into the chaos of the fight. The picture froze on Brandon's confused face. "Yes, Brandon was party to the blackmail, and was part of setting up the meeting, but we believe he didn't know about the murderous aspect of his partner in crime. Our best evidence is the casual manner in which the true criminal cast him aside." The video played forward, and even played through the killer hitting his scrambler device, so the bug cams were certainly hardened. We got a slo-mo image of the killer slamming Brandon in the chest, played from several angles.

"This blow, unbeknownst to us, ruptured Brandon's aorta," Simon said, and the picture returned to his cozy parlor. "Several of us went after the killer, while others called the ambulance. Tom rode to the hospital with Brandon, who was declared dead shortly after reaching the emergency room."

The view switched to Tom, who appeared to be sitting in a cafe. "He never woke up," Tom said in an uncharacteristically rough voice. "He said, 'I thought he was my bro,' and passed out and never fucking woke up again. I mean, what kind of fucking epitaph is that? He thought everyone was his bro, even people he insulted. He was like some kind of malevolent golden retriever. But goddammit, he might've gotten better some day."

Then Simon was sitting at that table, wearing casual clothing and looking angry. "I'm told I shouldn't feel bad about not staying to check on him," he said in a subdued voice. "I'm told he was a dead man, sitting there, and there was nothing I could have done. I'm told it was better that I went after the killer to try to keep him from hurting anyone else. But, you know, it's hard to believe that."

Jeshri was looking up at the ceiling and saying, "It pisses me off that every time I think about him, sitting there on the ground trying to breathe, I start tearing up. I don't want to cry for him. I thought he was an asshole and worse. But I can't get it out of my head: that look on his face when he couldn't understand why he couldn't stand up, why he couldn't breathe, why the one person who he thought was his friend had just hurt him so badly, and..." She wiped her face savagely with her sleeve. "Fuck, fuck, fuck."

Lizzie was sitting there now, being filmed from the same angle, and she was slowly tearing a cardboard cup sleeve into thin strips as she spoke. "When I started giving him mouth-to-mouth there in the park," she said, not looking at the camera, "all I could think was that when he woke up, he was never going to let me live that down. There would be all the stupid comments about missing out on kissing me and everything, and I would kick myself every time he said anything. I hated every second of taking that stupid moral high ground of trying to save his life. And then the shit died. And I felt so goddamn guilty about thinking bad stuff about him I could barely breathe. I still feel guilty. I feel guilty for being relieved that I never have to face him again." She crumpled the mass of cardboard in her hands and gritted her teeth, saying, "When someone you love dies, you cry and scream about it. What the hell do you do when someone you hate dies?"

Back in the parlor, Simon stood up gracefully and posed with an elbow on the mantelpiece. "Was this tragedy avoidable? The cast and crew of 'It's a Wonderful House' thinks so. Was this tragedy the fault of the producers? Certainly in part, since the killer was one of their camera crew -- one that a simple background check would have revealed." A clickable link to a file appeared on the screen. "Does a tragedy in which the producers were partly complicit, even by omission, void the contract of the cast? Our lawyer doesn't think so."

A black woman a bit older than me appeared on the screen; her caption said she was Marilyn Henderson, Wonder City attorney. "I have reviewed the contracts of all surviving cast members and I find nothing in it that would suggest that the manner or fact of Mr. deJong's death would void the agreement, as the producers of the show have claimed."

Back to Simon. "The cast and crew have discussed the matter, and, given our own limited resources and the comparatively limitless resources of PARABI and the producers of 'It's a Wonderful House', we feel a lawsuit would be worth less than the energy we would have to put into it. Our fans are the only good thing to come out of this experience, and so we decided that it would be most productive to give this information to you. If we manage to instill a little shame in the producers while we're at it, good." He shrugged and smiled, and Jeshri, Tom, and Lizzie came in from the wings (Tom in a suit, Jeshri in a little black dress, and Lizzie in a white blouse and black slacks). "Thanks for sticking with us. I, for one, will be glad to get back to the coffee shop."

"Me too," Lizzie said.

"I'm looking forward to my own apartment and my own truck," Tom said. "And about a month's worth of sleep."

"I love you guys, but I want my own roommates and my life back," Jeshri said, and they all nodded.

"And maybe some of us will go on to do stuff in the spotlight," Simon said. "Or maybe not."

"I'll still be on Twitter," Lizzie said.

"Me too," Jeshri said. "I've met some awesome people that way."

"I was thinking about writing a book about all this," Tom said thoughtfully.

"You better change my name," Lizzie said, punching him playfully in the arm.

"Mine too," Jeshri said. "And no wild imaginings about our 'alone time'."

The camera pulled back and back, the audio fading into an instrumental song that was nothing like the theme song, the former housemates moving into a group hug as they faded from view.

Credits rolled. At the end of the credits, on a black screen, the words, "In memory of Brandon deJong," appeared, and after a second, under that line, in fake typewriter script, "He was a jerk, but he was our jerk."

I sat back from the screen. "Hoooooo," I exhaled. "I hope they've got Ms. Henderson on retainer."

---

Note from the Author:

Sorry, y'all. I spent all day yesterday in a car, and just didn't have the brain juice left to post anything. I keep hoping things will get back to "normal" again after Thanksgiving, but I just know I'm kidding myself. :)

We've been falling down the list, so please remember to vote for WCS!









wonder_city: (Default)
Wider Than the Sky

"She's tucked in and sleeping," I told the Equestrian on the phone. "How's your end of things?"

The Equestrian sighed. "I'm not an expert in stuffing souls back into bodies, but Maelstrom agrees with me that she's pretty well anchored in there."

"Got all the spiritual band-aids applied?" I said.

She laughed, more than a little ruefully. "Think of it more like a splint. I'm going to see if I can find someone who can apply the legitimate dressings. Though I suspect Brainchild is always going to have a bit of a habit of walking out of her body. I need to find someone to teach her how to find her way back."

"So you don't have to go hunting again?" I said.

"God, yes," she said. "Thanks for all the help, by the bye."

"Not a problem," I lied, clutching the icepack to my head.

"Hah," she said, clearly not believing me at all. "Are you going to be able to reach Ruth?"

"I'm going to do my damnedest," I said.

"I have to go," she said. "Give Ruth -- and Brainchild -- my best. I have a dimension to go patch up. I'm better at that than I am with souls, fortunately."

"Good luck," I said, and we hung up.

I leaned back in my seat with a moan, closing my eyes and trying to wish the migraine away. The original link had taken a little more than half an hour -- when I'd opened my eyes at the end of the fight, the clock had read 12:34. Helping the Equestrian get Brainchild back into her body had brought us up to 2 am.

"Your medications, Renata," Eliot said, wheeling up next to my chair.

"Thank you, Eliot," I said and fumbled for the container on his tray without opening my eyes. My hand closed around the plastic case and I sighed. "I have one more thing to do before I take my meds, though."

"You should at least take your pain medication," Eliot said. "You have recorded notes saying that we should remind you that you make poor decisions when you're in pain, which go badly with your magnitude of telepathy."

I sighed again. "Thanks." I opened my eyes and cracked open the medication case. I picked out the blue capsules and washed them down with the glass of water Eliot also carried. "I have to attempt a long-distance contact."

Eliot said, "Will you be moving to the astronomical console?"

"Yes," I said. The remote rerouting doesn't work as well -- it has a lot of lag sometimes, depending on what other functions are going on in the household. And lag could kill me in the sub-time tunnels.

"Do you require assistance in walking there?" Eliot said.

"I'll... see," I said, steeling myself for becoming upright. After a moment of deep breathing, I slowly stood up out of my long-haul chair. I was pleased to find that my knees were steady and my head didn't hurt any worse. "No, I think I'm all right."

Eliot scurried out of my way as I made for the bathroom, but he was waiting for me -- with a refilled glass of water, my favorite protein bar, and the rest of my pills -- when I entered the small, plain room with the astronomical console and a chair in a clear sphere.

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy... that was this one, actually... there was a highly psychic alien race, as far as we can tell. And after they achieved interstellar travel, they started construction on an extratemporal space where only mental emanations could travel. Only one or two other people knew about this -- Jane Liberty had discovered it in the writings of a para German agent whose powers she'd absorbed, and she'd done a little exploration. The problem is that this space, or plane, or whatever it was, wasn't something that our undeveloped little monkey brains were really prepared to handle. Jane had so many other powers, her telepathy was the least of her interests, and so had passed the information to a Class 7 telepath named Sarah Benson. Sarah Benson was a friend of Sister Power's. When Ruth told Sister Power about this crazy-powerful telepath she'd rescued, Sister Power saw an opportunity. So I got the information and a brief guided tour of the nearest entryway -- a point I have named the Lilith Gate, because I can, which is near one of the Trojan points in Earth's orbit -- from Sarah a few months before she died.

I didn't really do much exploration, since I was mostly concentrating on how to control my power. But then fate -- and Ruth -- dropped something else in my hands: a piece of alien technology that, when tied into a high-powered computer system, could render the data I was receiving from the sub-time space into comprehensible visual imagery that would allow me to navigate through them and have real-time telepathic contact over astronomical distances. Professor Canis got it all set up for me, and periodically improves the function, so now when I use the astronomical console, it's this virtual reality environment that I "fly" myself through.

The pain meds were starting to hit, fortunately, as I strapped myself into yet another comfortable chair and put on the headset.

"We are monitoring," Eliot said.

"Thanks," I said. "Activate sub-time navigation system."

The room disappeared, replaced by the imagery projection of a dark starfield on the walls of the sphere. Joysticks popped out of the arms of the chair. I spent a little time reacquainting myself with the system -- it had been more than a year since I'd last sat there -- and then told the system, "Beginning ascent to Lilith Gate," and threw my mind out into space.

It always takes me a little time to find the gate, feeling around blindly in the approximate area I knew it to be, trying not to accidentally hook myself into whoever is on duty in the Guardians' satellite or on the All-Africa Starwatch space station.

Just to let you know: space is big.

I finally found it, a tiny anomaly with mental echoes drifting out through its pinhole in spacetime. I took hold of the joysticks and the starfield turned around me as I dove straight through the Lilith Gate.

The starfield was replaced by my preferred imagery, a brightly sunlit hedge maze. It's kind of Escher-esque, of course, because the maze and the hedges were three dimensional. It always takes me a few moments to orient myself, fiddling with the turns and twists.

So then came the hard part.

Here's the thing: my power is officially Class 10+. I'm off the charts. My mind can theoretically reach anywhere in the known universe, but whatever telepathic emanations are, they can't defy the laws of physics. In the sub-time tunnels, though, my subconscious mind can get ahead of me. It runs merrily off in multiple directions at once, while I'm consciously attempting to navigate through this twist or this turn or this broken-down area (because there are a lot of broken-down areas in there, being that the place was built a long, long time ago and there's been no maintenance staff). My subconscious pokes out through exits into real space, seeking the person who is my target.

One of the things that makes my power so damnably powerful: megamultitasking, I can do it.

This means that my subconscious will guide me through the tunnels to the person I'm seeking, but like any normal human being, I'm taught to consciously question all my subconscious's messages -- what most people call "hunches". So I have to disengage my critical faculties, which is much harder than you think, and try to fly by the seat of my pants. "Captain Kirk" it, as Larentia said while she was fine-tuning the navigation system.

So there I was, "flying" myself through the hedge maze, twisting, turning, spinning, all while trying very hard not to think about what I was doing. It can be fun when I'm doing it fresh; when I'm exhausted and hurting (despite the pain meds), all it does is nauseate the fuck out of me. I second-guess myself worse when I'm tired, so I made a lot of wrong turns, bouncing off overgrown passages, shying away from an area that was thick with psionic activity, hacking my way through strange vine-like overgrowth with a mental machete.

By the time I found Ruth (in a system, of course, where most of the sub-time gateways were crumbling, so I had to use one quite far out, then stretch in to the planet she was on), I had no idea where I was and no interest in knowing.

Ruth! I said into her head without any of my usual preamble.

She was startled -- mid-flight, I think -- and I responded to her flurry of bewildered cursing with tired apologies.

What's up, Rennie? she said.

Sophie's back, I said.

A cautious upsurgence of joy. She's back?

Yes. Nereid got the Equestrian to take her into Faerie, and they found Sophie's... mind or spirit, I guess, imprisoned there. They brought her out, and Molly and I stuck her back into her body.

I'd never been in mental contact with Ruth when she broke down in tears before; she is not a woman who weeps often, or gracefully. The flood of relief and gratitude was almost painful. I let it wash over and past me, trying not to hear her chaotic thoughts.

Ruth, I have to go, but I needed to tell you to come home, I said.

She pulled herself together and said, Rennie, are you all right?

It's been a long night, big sister, I said, feeling just absolutely done with everything. I'll tell you all about it when you get home, but I have got to go knock my ass out now.

I should be able to find jumps to get me home in a day or so, she said. I'll call.

Go see your girl first, I said. I think she should be awake by then.

I could feel her thanks, and then did something I rarely do on these astronomical reaches: I just stopped. Usually, I navigate back; it helps me cope with "reentry" after a lengthy stretch of my powers. But I just didn't have the wherewithal to do it, and I just stopped transmitting. There's no snap back into the body or anything -- I never left my body -- but there is a fair amount of disorientation.

I yanked the headset off, fumbled the harness off, and staggered out of my chair. "Eliot," I croaked.

"Here," Eliot said, rolling up next to me.

With his help, I got to the bathroom to vomit, then choked down my half dozen rough pills and fell headlong into bed.

---

Note from the Author:

My apologies for failing with the rerun post yesterday. I hope that actually getting a new episode up this week will make up for it.

Remember to vote for WCS!









wonder_city: (Default)
Dividing By Zero

I could feel Ruth arriving long before the proximity alerts sounded. It was partly that she's one of my friends, so I can frequently pick her up at a distance when I'm not even thinking about her. It was mostly that she was mired in a mental cumulonimbus of worry that bore down on my haven like a stampede and dropped a few funnel clouds of chaos into my brain. I had to flee to the lowest regions of the complex, four levels below the residential area, to save myself.

While she laid Brainchild on the table up in the work room, I did my best to distract myself with the ancient detritus of the supervillain whose lair this had once been. The lowest level was where most of the abandoned items that weren't clearly trash were stored. Machines were encased in cages, blocks of lucite, and titanium boxes. It was a little like walking through the imaginary warehouse where some magic item was stored at the end of some movie I half-remembered from my life BI -- before institution. Except, of course, most of the things down here were probably intended for mass destruction. If any of the people up in the city who objected to my continued existence "so nearby" knew I had access to these things, it wouldn't matter to them that I had no idea how to make them work. They'd take up their torches and pitchforks and try to find the entrance to my "hideout."

When Ruth left, my sinuses popped with relief. I massaged my temples and my face for a few minutes, and then headed back up to my office.

My office is a smallish space with a large flatscreen monitor, a camera I almost never turn on, a wireless keyboard, a big curvy walnut desk, a built-in sound system, and the most comfortable rolling desk chair available. The floor is covered with thick faux-Persian rugs, the walls are a soothing garnet tone, and the lighting is provided by several large, brushed-brass floor and desk lamps. There's even an overstuffed full-length dark-blue couch laden with pillows of various jewel tones. Everything designed to be dark and thus soothing to me, particularly if I develop a migraine.

I settled into the most comfortable chair available and turned on the screen.

Sophie was stretched out on the bed I'd had put in the work room earlier. She was covered with a very fuzzy blue blanket, and appeared to be wearing plain dark red pajamas underneath. Her short, dark hair showed signs of recent brushing and yet it was inevitably tousled despite Ruth's care. I was pleased to note, on a purely aesthetic level, that she had finally grown into her nose. That feature had spectacularly dominated all her childhood photos and vividly populated Ruth's description of her first impressions of young Sophie. What had been overwhelming in a child was now nearly aquiline in the young woman. I could imagine Sophie's face, lively as in her graduation photos, really making the look of that nose. She'd never be beautiful by any mainstream standard, but she didn't need to be.

Right now, though, her face was still and thin and strangely delicate. There were blue bruised-looking circles under her eyes, and her pale skin looked translucent. White folks always do look worst, I think, when they're sick. Nothing goes faster than rosy cheeks, you know?

I took a deep breath and reached out a thin tendril of my mind.

I exhaled, frowned, tried again.

After about fifteen minutes, I called up my robot controls and had the upstairs crew move the bed over to the elevator (which is outside the work room and concealed to boot). Once she was loaded aboard, I started the elevator's descent. It stopped three levels up, as usual. My hand hovered over the controls and I thought about it for another minute, then hit the overrides and brought the elevator down to my floor.

I got up from my desk and walked down the hall to the elevator. Wincingly, I touched the button to open the door.

The door slid open. Sophie was there, on the bed. I could see the rise and fall of her chest under the blanket. But nothing, no one, assaulted my mind.

The robots rolled her out of the elevator, and I stepped up to her. For the first time in... longer than I can remember, I reached out and touched another human being. I brushed one of the curled locks of dark hair off her forehead and sighed. "Oh, girl. What am I gonna tell your mama?"

---

From the Author:
Wow! This one was hard to title. Thanks to my ever-brilliant spouse for brainstorming with me.

Again: I'm posting twice weekly during the month of December as a [fill in holiday here] gift for you all. If you like getting WCS twice weekly, then please comment on anything. :) If I get 50 comments over the course of December, I will post twice weekly all through January as well. If I get 75 comments, I'll post twice weekly through February. If, by some amazing work of you wonderful folks, I get more comments than that, I will come up with some even better reward.

Tally so far: 33 comments! More than halfway to twice-weekly WCS during January!


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The Suffering of Ambivalence

I pushed away from the computer and went downstairs, farther from Wonder City, farther from the telephone and the videoscreen and the Internet. Farther from my patient, who was still in the extended process of departure. Down to the big heated swimming pool, where I stripped off my hot pink blouse and black slacks -- working clothes, family clothes -- and everything under them, tossed them on the chaise lounge I never used, and dived into the water. Being naked in the pool didn't matter -- no other human being had been down here in at least four years.

I swam along the bottom of the pool, my fingers finding enough purchase on the tiles to keep me there despite the buoyancy of my belly and behind and thighs. I let the water wash over me and carry off the flavor of my patient's chaotic thoughts and sensations. I loved my work, I loved working with the young people who needed better tools for coping with the world around them, but young energies are sticky and difficult to pry out of my head.

When I surfaced, I heard the hum of the tracks of the cleaning robot who had come to collect my discarded clothing, and glanced over at its squat, charcoal grey shape. "Hey, there, Eliot," I said.

It paused and rotated its visual turret toward me. "Good afternoon, Renata," it said in its tinny tenor voice. "Would you like me to put these in the laundry?"

"No, thanks, Eliot. Could you just put them back in my room?"

"Of course, Renata. Dario tells me that dinner is nearly ready. Should it be held until you're out of the pool?"

"Please. I'll be up in about fifteen minutes, I think."

"Of course. I'll tell Dario." Eliot rumbled off with my clothes in its little central hamper.

I swam for another ten minutes, grateful to let my mind wander across and through the water, letting go of what I could. Then I hauled myself out and, dripping, walked through the full-body warm-air blower to get the majority of the water off my skin. I watched the water pool around the drain for a moment, then grabbed a towel to turban around my head. I keep my hair very short and natural because I swim so much, and it's easier to dry when it's short. Mama keeps asking me why I don't do more with my hair -- she's been straightening her hair since I was a child, and my sister Reesy has too -- and I always ask her why I would bother. My patients don't care what I look like; their parents may, but I stopped doing video calls with the parents years ago. I don't go to parties, I don't go into an office, and very few people get video calls from me. Mostly, my family sees me, and really, there are so many other things for my family to object to about me that if they want to raise a fuss about my hair being boring, let 'em.

It took me my remaining five minutes to find what I wanted to wear for dinner -- a quilted violet silk smoking jacket Mama found for me and matching pajama trousers Lashawna sent -- and get up to the main living level.

Dario is my robot chef, designed for me by Professor Canis. He's programmed daily by one of a team of actual human chefs in Wonder City. The team works in weekly rotation, so I get a nice variety of foods. Ruth's factotum, Gloria, arranges it all. This week was, apparently, Middle Eastern food, and so I sat down to a sumptuous feast of meze dishes.

"Bendenjal mechoui," Dario said, using one of his pair of smaller, more dexterous arms to point at dishes, "which is a smoky eggplant dip. Olives with za'atar. Mergeza lamb sausage. Basturma and muhammara. The pita is warm, madame, and there is more waiting in the oven. Your beverage is a rose sherbat. There is dessert, if you should care for it."

"Thank you, Dario," I said, caught for a moment of indecision about which plate to reach for first. "I'll have to see how full I am!" I settled on reaching for the pita first -- hot and soft and fresh -- and then started putting things on my plate. It made for a colorful array, and every bite was an explosion of flavor. The muhammara and the sausage caught me by surprise by being pretty fiery, and they accounted for at least half of my sherbat intake.

I was idly mopping up muhammara with the last of the pita on the table when Dario smoothly rolled in from the kitchen. "Madame," he said in his lovely Jamaican accent, "there is a call for you. Dr. Thomas. She's asking for a video call."

Ruth never asks for a video call. Never. I got up immediately and patted myself all over, checking the arrangement of my jacket, making sure I didn't have food all down the front or on my chin or anything like that. "Thank you, Dario, please have the house put her through to my work panel." I turned for the door, then looked back. "And, Dario, my compliments to the chef -- both you and the person up in the city. Who was it?"

People tell me I anthropomorphize the robots too much, but I'm fairly certain that Dario straightened up and nearly preened. "It was Jumanah Banoub, madame. I will transmit your compliments."

I said, "Thank you, Dario," and ran for my office.

"Ruth," I said when she appeared on the screen. I'm always startled by how much older she looks whenever I talk to her on video, since such conversations happen maybe once every three years. Her short hair was threaded through with silver now, and the lines around her eyes and between her eyebrows were carved more deeply. Her smile lines were thinner and shallower than the other lines. There were bags under her eyes -- I realized, with the kind of surface connection I get immediately when I see someone without a time delay, that she had not been sleeping well.

"Renata," she said, and her voice was heavy with exhaustion. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have video-called, but I'm so damn tired, I'm not sure I can tell you the story right."

"That's all right," I said, a little alarmed and starting to get a thin thread of information already. "This is about Sophie."

"Yes," Ruth said. "I'm getting desperate, Rennie."

The images flickered through: the big fight with Josh Feldstein, the leveling of part of downtown, the Fat Lady, Megan Amazon, the end in a supernatural burst of light, and then the inevitable cleanup, cleanup, cleanup. And finally, spotting a young woman named Nereid, who was carrying a familiar figure over her shoulder. I got a little dizzy from Ruth's flight perspective and intense worry as she descended and landed next to Nereid, took Sophie from her, then flew both girls to the hospital.

"She was comatose when I got there," Ruth said through her teeth, and I realized she'd been speaking the whole time I was getting the memories. "The doctors say there's nothing physically wrong with her. I've had her all over the damn world for tests and brain images and everything else."

I was the first para child Ruth ever rescued. She paid through the nose to bribe me out of the mental institution where I'd been held and drugged into some sort of submission. I'd been involuntarily committed the day I first terrified the teachers and principal at my middle school by reading their minds and telling their worst secrets out loud in adolescent revenge for... something. Mama hadn't been able to get me out, because I kept doing things to terrify the doctors and psychologists and nurses at the institution, and they kept claiming I was wildly psychotic, a danger to self and others. For years, I soaked up the crazy in the institution, and probably did my own part to exacerbate it all. I don't remember much of it until Ruth came and checked me out and took me far away from people -- I think we were in Tibet for a while, in a headquarters she had dug out under one of the Himalayan mountains. It took the drug poisons six months to cycle out of me completely, and then I could see my mother again.

Ruth had made several rescues of that sort over the years: para children who were too ethnic or too poor to be identified as para, and so were called insane or dangerous and were chemically and sometimes physically restrained for long periods of time. Most of us had family who did care about us, though, so she became more of a big sister to us after restoring us to sanity and our families.

Sophie was different -- desperately poor and abused, with no family who wanted to care for her at all. Ruth tried her with a variety of foster families, but the child had imprinted mightily on Ruth and acted out whenever she didn't see Ruth for more than a few days at a time. And her acting out really could be dangerous to herself and others, since she was given to technological pranks that none of her foster families could perceive or defend against. Ruth finally just took her in herself and weathered her parenting experience with a bitterly sarcastic para supergenius child. After all, Sophie really couldn't physically hurt Ruth, and Ruth was the only one who could get through to Sophie. I suspected it was good for both of them. Ruth had long since come to the conclusion that she'd never have a child of her own. After all, who could guarantee that the child would be invulnerable enough to survive being birthed by those amazing muscles when no Caesarian section was possible? If her adoptive parenting experience was difficult, Ruth took it in stride with all her other difficult experiences. If having the Ultimate as a parent was a difficult experience, Sophie certainly took it in stride herself.

Being unable to adopt Sophie -- the biological mother signed the papers but the father wouldn't -- was a frustration Ruth had endured with cynical tolerance. However, when Sophie turned 18 and could have signed her own adoption papers, the girl refused, claiming that she was already too much of a social burden for Ruth, and she wouldn't legally burden her as well. Ruth had called me on the phone then, and I could hear how devastated and wounded she was by the refusal. Was Sophie telling the truth about her reasons? Or did it all come down to racism in the end, and Sophie just didn't want a black mother? I'd never spoken to Sophie, and I couldn't tell Ruth anything about her thoughts, wouldn't have told her even if I did know. I don't think Ruth really wanted me to, at least consciously. She just didn't have many other people to talk to about this kind of thing.

"This sounds a lot like what happened to Josh Feldstein himself," I said. I'd been called into that case too. There had been nothing at all like a thought in his skull, nothing for me to trace or find. (A thread of my mother's cynicism leaked through, thinking, There never is, in those types.) I'd gotten way too much information from the wife, though, and was glad when they'd left.

"Don't say that," Ruth growled. "Rennie, please, I'm out of options."

"Of course I'll help however I can, Ruth," I said, afraid of the world-sized despair I could feel oozing over the connection. "Just... look, bring her into the work room upstairs tomorrow around noontime. Then, you know, you'll have to leave."

"I've got a meeting in Japan," Ruth said hollowly. "Will that be far enough?"

"That's fine," I said. "That's just fine. Leave her with me for a couple of hours. I'll do whatever I can."

"Thank you, Rennie," she said, with a gusty sigh. "Thank you so much."

"Girl," I said, "you never have to thank me for anything. You're family, Ruth."

"I'm a bitch of a big sister, though," she said with a grim little smile.

"You are," I said, falling into our little ritual, "but I like you better than my other big sisters."

"Love you, little sister," Ruth said.

"Love you too, Ruth," I said, and she closed the connection.

---

From the Author:
More arm motion every day, pretty much, and I've started physical therapy with a physical therapist who is an SF/F/manga/anime/comics fan. (Hi, Sancho, if you're reading!) Ibuprofen is still my best friend (aside from my wife, who still does more than her share around the house). But the world is a more pleasant place.

So pleasant that I'm going to steal a page from Cecilia Tan (and her mega-awesome serial, Daron's Guitar Chronicles -- are you reading it? If not, why not?): I will post twice weekly during the month of December as a [fill in holiday here] gift for you all! If you like getting WCS twice weekly, then please comment! If I get 50 comments over the course of December, I will post twice weekly all through January as well. If I get 75 comments, I'll post twice weekly through February. If, by some amazing work of you wonderful folks, I get more comments than that, I will come up with some even better reward. :)

All this is, of course, contingent on my not breaking myself again or acquiring some horrible pathogen. If something bad happens to derail me, I will figure out how to extend the gift.


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This story arc has been published as a novel!

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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. :)









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This story arc has been published as a novel!

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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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This story arc has been published as a novel!

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

---

Rescued from the Pool of Time

Josh's concentration visibly shattered and the Ultimate's fist drove him six inches into the remains of the street. "You stay put, now," she said to his crumpled shape.

Lizzie lunged forward, hands stretched toward him, and a transcendental burst of light and noise blew Megan flat on her back.

When her eyes became less dazzled and her hearing returned, she could see Lizzie holding Josh up by his toga-front, and Josh was struggling dazedly and shrieking, "You aren't my mother! You aren't my mother!"

The girl smiled sadly at him. "Perhaps I never was anything at all. But I'm here right now, and you need my help."

"I don't need your help!"

"You do," she said. "You've destroyed yourself, and tried to destroy everything else. You've killed people today. You killed someone before. Is this what your parents raised you to do?"

Josh looked around for a moment at the destruction. They were in the midst of a crater, so they couldn't see the full extent of the destruction, but there were bodies littered up the sides of the crater. Megan recognized Olympic, bloodied but still breathing, a few feet away. Megan wondered vaguely where Simon was. The only visible people on their feet were the Fat Lady, whose dress and coiffure were much worse for the wear by now, the Ultimate, who was breathing a little hard and looking like she very much wanted to hit Josh again, and Lizzie, who was holding up Josh. He started to squirm, trying to loose her grip from his robe.

"No, Josh," she said. "You're coming with me."

The Ultimate said, "Where're you taking him?"

Lizzie looked over her shoulder and smiled sweetly at the Ultimate. "It's hard to explain."

The Ultimate failed to be impressed with either smile or vagueness. "Huh."

"He won't be a trouble again," Lizzie said.

"Huh," the Ultimate said again. "And can you guarantee that?"

"That's my job," Lizzie said.

The Fat Lady put a hand on the Ultimate's arm. "He's been dead a long time, and ghosts are notoriously crazy, Ruth. Let her take him. I think she's telling the truth."

The Ultimate looked at the Fat Lady. They stared at each other for a long moment, then the Ultimate nodded. The tension in the atmosphere let up a little.

Lizzie looked at Megan. "Thanks," she said.

Megan nodded.

Lizzie paused thoughtfully. "Tell Mister Metro... tell Ira that I'm sorry. And tell him, 'Thanks for thinking of me.'"

Megan gave her a perplexed look but nodded again.

"Come on now, Josh," Lizzie said, and a strange light-being separated from the girl's body.

The Ultimate caught up the unconscious girl as the light-being dragged Josh aside. Then Josh faded into light himself. The pair of bright figures lingered for a moment, then vanished.

The Fat Lady said, "Well, then."

Simon, from behind a pile of debris, said, weakly, "Woof?"

The Ultimate said, bitterly, "Why is it that I can smash comets with my bare hands and run corporate megagiants, and I am still cleaning up after white people like my mama did?"

The Fat Lady patted her on the shoulder. "Let's head home, then, and put our feet up. Let's let the white people do the grunt work this time, hey?"

The Ultimate snorted and looked down at Lizzie -- or whatever her name really was. "Let me hand this girl off to someone first."

Megan looked down at herself and said, "Er, does anyone have some pants I could borrow?"

---

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---

Keep On Trying Till You Run Out of Cake

The shockwaves of the blows being traded forced Megan to kick into the frozen asphalt for footing. Within a few steps, she was barefoot, because her favorite shoes were not designed to cope with that sort of abuse.

She pressed against the wind, the energy blasts, and the shocks. She felt her good jeans start to fray and burn, and smelled the smoldering leather of her beloved jacket. She shielded her face reflexively against the heat of Josh's radiation. Periodically a blast would force her backward, her feet dragging through the road surface. She finally reached back and dragged Lizzie along by the shoulder, not trusting her jeans or the girl's grip.

Megan could see that the Ultimate and the Fat Lady were the only people left facing Josh. Other heroes were littering the landscape in various levels of consciousness. She had to step around the bloodied body of someone she thought might be the Blue Eagle, and nearly lost her lunch and nerve simultaneously.

Josh was holding off the Fat Lady's sonic assault and the Ultimate's more physical attacks with effort. He was sweating. He was standing in a deep crater of pulverized pavement. Suzanne was gone, and there were no suspicious remains; Megan dared to hope that she'd gotten away. This close, the blasts were like walking into a hurricane. Even so, she noticed that the Ultimate and the Fat Lady were clearly pulling their punches. It confused her for a moment, then realized that they were trying to take him out without leveling all of downtown.

She took a fraction of a second to be grateful.

Megan dragged Lizzie around under her, then crawled forward on hands and knees, the smaller woman mirroring her. Megan decided it was humiliating, yes, but better than many alternatives.

She reached a point where she couldn't press on any more. She'd reached the force field and she couldn't push through it. She stared at Josh's face and watched him twitch and strain.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw something moving: an enormous golden-gray wolf, face smeared with blood, bellycrawling through the rubble on three legs, one back leg dragging uselessly behind.

Megan clenched her jaw and started to pound on the field with one fist. It garnered her an annoyed look from the red-haired godling, but he was immediately distracted by the Ultimate's punch, which stopped short of his face by only six inches.

The wolf was getting closer, and Megan saw it squeeze nose-first through a weak place in the field near the ground of the crater, eyes and ears stretching crazily against the pressure. Apparently, Josh didn't think in three dimensions. She redoubled her attacks and tried to time her punches with those of the Ultimate. Lizzie periodically put her hands flat against the mostly-invisible field, then withdrew them as if it burnt her -- which it probably did, Megan thought. But it was useful for Megan, since she could see the field shrinking back toward Josh. They shuffled forward.

The Fat Lady paused to draw breath. The Ultimate resettled her footing. Megan put her shoulder to the boundary. Lizzie braced her feet against a divot in the asphalt.

The Fat Lady hit a tight, high note. The Ultimate, Megan, and Lizzie lunged forward together. Josh held them all off, face screwed up and red with strain.

Then Megan saw Simon's fangs sink into Joshua Feldstein's perfect toga-clad ass.

---

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---

Slings and Arrows

Suzanne had one instinct left after being battered by her husband's winds and energy and scorn: to get away.

The arrival of the Ultimate and the Fat Lady was her only chance. She knew that if she stayed, at this point, there would come a moment when Josh would fail to shield her, and then she would die.

She was happy for the first time in a decade, goddammit. She was not. going. to. die.

When Josh dropped her, she began to push herself along the ground, cutting and abrading herself on the shattered pavement. She didn't dare pull herself with her hands -- she was afraid that Josh would notice that movement. But pushing with her feet? Acceptably subfusc.

Then she glimpsed the Green Hood through her one unswollen eye. He was weaving and jinking. His bow was snapped in half, dangling carelessly from its string where he'd tossed it over his shoulder. He was holding an arrow in his hand. What was he going to do with that? She pushed herself along a little faster, toward the edge of Josh's crater.

The Green Hood slunk along, peering into the blasts, throwing himself flat when the energy backlash spilled off Josh's force field in his direction.

She felt the resistance when she pressed herself out through Josh's field. On the other side, she started to feel more of the spent energy, wafting off as a hard breeze. As long as the attacks kept coming from the front, she thought she might be safe. She didn't have the energy to pray, really, nor an idea of who to pray to, so she didn't. And she ignored it when the energy spill from the field blew her skirt up around her hips.

When she thought she was out of Josh's peripheral vision, she gestured to the archer.

He stared at her, apparently baffled.

Come here, you moron, she thought, gritting her teeth and finally reaching out to pull herself away from her battling husband. She'd never liked this man. Too macho. Too thick between the ears. I'm in a great big hole and I need a hand out.

The Hood finally seemed to Get It and dramatically dodged closer. He did a thoroughly unnecessary shoulder roll.

Suzanne managed to get a grip on some broken pavement and hauled herself to the steep three-foot-high crater wall that was between her and escape. She got to her knees and scrabbled for something to grip at the edge. The Green Hood peered down at her curiously.

She waved her hand at him emphatically.

A gust of force and wind blew her forward and upward so that she landed on the edge of the crater right about chest level. All the breath whooshed out of her, unheard over the din.

She flailed. Her hand connected with something fabric-covered. A knee, she thought. She grabbed hold and heaved.

The Green Hood finally helped her up, since she was essentially climbing him. He hauled her to her feet one-handed, arrow still clutched in his other hand. He put his arm around her waist. Posing, she thought, for the cameras that were inevitably somewhere here.

"Thank you," she snapped, not very sincerely, then shoved off him and staggered away, feeling the blood from her scalp trickle freely down her back now that she was vertical.

As she went, there were more blasts and gusts from behind her. One sent her sprawling. She caught herself on hands and knees and scrambled back to her feet.

When she reached something like shelter, she looked back. The Green Hood was crouched down behind an impromptu boulder, bleeding from a scrape on his forehead and staring sadly at his arrow, which was broken as surely as his bow.

---

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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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---

Out of the Frying Pan

Megan sat nervously in the large straight-backed wooden chair that was set in front of the imposing Mission-style walnut desk that belonged to Ultimate Construction's CEO.

"I see here you have a bachelor's in psychology from Berkeley," said the Ultimate, otherwise known as Ruth Thomas, PhD. "Why're you slumming around in delivery trucking and construction?"

Megan inhaled slowly, then said, "Because I need to pay the rent and I'm really not fit for anything else."

"Why aren't you working for your mother's security company?" Dr. Thomas said.

Admittedly, Megan had not experienced many job interviews in her life, but she was pretty certain that this question was skirting the edge of legality, if not merrily chucking itself off the cliff of "way too much information." Clearly, the second-in-command of Ultimate Construction was feeling this way too.

Gloria Revelle, a towering whipcord of a black woman with high cheekbones sharp enough to cut yourself on and cafe-au-lait skin, bowed toward the Ultimate like a willow tree in a strong wind and said something in a low voice. Ruth Thomas, the class 10 paranormal who ran her own construction company, computer hardware firm, engineering consulting agency, and various philanthropic organizations, looked askance at her right-hand-woman. Thomas was a much darker-skinned woman, somewhere around burnt caramel on the spectrum, and she was as short and round as Revelle was tall and slender. Thomas, however, projected a massivity of personality.

Like a neutron star, Megan thought. Tiny, but with her own gravitational field.

"So, you've got no skills except toting bales and writing school papers," Dr. Thomas went on, waving aside her earlier question. "Anything in particular you want to learn on a construction site?"

"I would like to learn anything anyone is willing to teach me," Megan said, speaking precisely and trying not to fidget with the corner of her black blazer. "I'm partial to carpentry and masonry, but I understand those require apprenticeships. In the meantime, I'm strong and I'm tough and I'm willing to get my hands dirty."

"Not too dirty, I hope?" Ms. Revelle said. "Given your time working for Captain Zip, you understand that I have to ask this question."

Megan laughed. It came out harsh and nervous-shrill, and she cut it off as soon as she heard it. "No, you see, this is why I need a new job, ma'am."

Ms. Revelle nodded, the tightness around her mouth relaxing a little.

Dr. Thomas made a few notes on Megan's resume. The scrawl was probably nearly illegible rightside-up, so Megan had no hope of reading it upside-down. There was a silence.

Megan fought the terrible urge to break the silence by blurting something out. Her mother had told her about this tactic a long time ago, and she would be damned if she was going to... "I really need a new job, Dr. Thomas, and I want something where I can learn useful skills." Oh, dammit. Stop, stop, stop. "I'll do anything that's needed."

Dr. Thomas looked up at her and tapped her chin with her pen. Ms. Revelle regarded Megan gravely.

"We always need reliable help on-site," Dr. Thomas said, steepling her fingers before her face and looking at Megan around them.

Megan restrained an urge to giggle inappropriately as a discussion about the dominance of steepling and phallic symbology came rushing back to her.

"And, as it happens, we need some help this Monday on an off-site project," Dr. Thomas continued.

Megan tried to look eager and hopeful, and suspected she looked rather like someone's overgrown Alsatian.

Dr. Thomas and Ms. Revelle exchanged a glance. Then Dr. Thomas leaned forward, smiled engagingly, and said, "You did say 'anything', right?"

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