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






Everything Dies

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

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

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

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


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Wow, I never thought I'd still be writing Wonder City into 2015—I just had to update the dates on my sticky posts to 2020. Thank you all for continuing to read my work!

This episode addresses something I had little conscious awareness of until I made the mistake of doing a fundraiser a few years ago: transphobia in the feminist community. It is not, by any means, present in all feminists, but there are some who are very damaging, like the woman for whom I did the fundraiser. I ran the fundraiser on very little information—except glowing reports from people who were her friends—and not knowing her history.

I was reminded of two key life lessons: always do the research and always stay aware of the privilege of your informants, as well as your own privilege. I think I've apologized here before for the mistake, but I just want to reiterate it: I'm sorry, and I'll continue to try to do better.






Nothing Important Happened Today

Nereid smiled and waved at the owner of the newly reopened Sufferin' Sappho Cafe, a sweet-faced not-quite-elderly butch dyke named "Two-W" who used to occasionally slip Nereid "samples" of new pastries she was experimenting with in the kitchen. Two-W grinned at her while cashing out a trio of college-aged women with buzzcuts and tattoos, and gestured with her head back toward the corner.

X was there, sipping a cup of coffee. Sie was dressed in a black wool suit, a black silk shirt, and a red brocade tie patterned with dragons. There was a distracted smile for Nereid as she dropped into the chair opposite, feeling inevitably underdressed.

"How's it going?" X said.

Nereid sighed and opened the menu (all new and shiny—it had been almost a year since the cafe had been closed for "sanitation" issues that everyone knew had to do with Two-W and the screaming match with the Mod Squad out on the sidewalk). "Sophie's not coming out of her lab pretty much at all, and she's not taking care of herself. I'm feeling a little fried."

X studied zir cup. "The problem with mad scientists is that there's this culture of immersing themselves in their work. Breakup? Build a new robot. Problems with your parents? Invent a superweapon. Nearly destroy the world? That requires an even bigger project."

Nereid smiled up at the server, who was a college-aged queer she'd never seen before, as she dealt a cup of coffee onto the table. "Yeah. Mom says the men are even worse. She says they get all Frankensteiny and start trying to build children for themselves."

"Ugh." X finished zir coffee and sighed. "You shouldn't be doing all this work, you know. Sophie's an adult. She can feed and bathe herself without being cozened into it. She did something really fucking stupid and she needs to learn to live with it. Or not. But you shouldn't be part of that equation if she doesn't."

"I… guess I've thought about breaking up with her," Nereid admitted. "Sometimes. But it hurts to think about."

"Because you love her," X said kindly. "But this kind of thing is one reason she and Wire had such a tempestuous relationship. She would get depressed and Wire—who is, in case you haven't noticed, a control freak—would burn out on managing her, and then there would be a big blowup. Sophie would drag herself out of it by sheer force of will, get back on an even keel, and they'd end up back together. It was a stupid cycle."

"She stuck with me when I was down," Nereid said, voicing the thing that had been running through her mind repeatedly for the last week. "I feel like I can't abandon her."

"You were constantly dragging yourself out of it," X pointed out. "You figured out what had happened, you were sad about it, and then you just kept going. You never decomped into no eating, no drinking, no talking. You're not depressive like Sophie is."

Nereid said, "Huh," because it had certainly felt like she'd needed someone to lead her around by the hand for at least a year after the whole Tam incident. She drank her coffee to buy herself some thinking time, and finally said, "I don't want to abandon her. I know she did something stupid and horrible. But I get why she felt like she had to, and I get why she feels guilty. I just wish she'd stop hurting herself all the time."

"Then you need to talk to her about it," X said, with a grimace. "She's running roughshod over you with all this. You have shit to deal with too, and you're not because you're taking care of her. Your whole team is fucked up at this point. Are you taking care of all of them too right now?"

Nereid ducked her head a little and thought of taking Vector out and giving her time to vent, and the couple of times she'd let Gemini drunkenly cry on her shoulder for a few hours. "But, you know, I didn't go through that horrible thing with them."

"No, you saved them from it," X said. "Just talk to her, okay? That's all I'm saying."

"I'll try," Nereid said.

They studied their menus in silence for a few moments. X sighed and closed zir menu, looking away at the art on the wall.

"Are you doing okay?" Nereid said, spotting a sandwich that looked interesting and closing her menu.

X shrugged. Nereid reflected on the fact that everything X did was ridiculously graceful and beautiful to watch, and was once again sorry that X wasn't interested in a relationship with her. But X was a terrific friend, and the crush was mostly under control.

"What's going on?" Nereid said, and then they had to pause and order their food.

When the server left, X said, "Madame is incredibly sweet and I mostly find her much easier to get along with than before the Oracle 'moved in' with me. Except she's like a teenager with this new relationship. Which would be charming, except Juniper is a bitch to me."

"Oh, no," Nereid said, having little flashbacks to her early interactions with Wire. "Do you think she's jealous of all the time Madame spends with you?"

"No, I think she's a fucking TERF," X said, expression more angry than Nereid could remember seeing zir. X immediately lost that look when the server came to pour more coffee for both of them, and smiled. If it were possible, Nereid thought, X would sparkle while smiling.

"Remind me?" Nereid said after the server was gone, feeling ignorant.

"Trans-exclusionary radical feminist," X translated. "And, yeah, I'm not trans, but TERFs don't like anyone who's nonbinary, really. And I've heard her giving Madame shit for calling herself bisexual."

Nereid bristled on both their behalf. "Why is Madame putting up with that? She hasn't had a relationship in how many years and her first lover is doing that?"

"Madame's feeling old and unloved," X said, with a depressed grimace and shrug. "She and Juniper have been friends for years and years. I didn't think it was a good idea anyway, with Juniper having been her martial arts teacher, but Madame said that was so long ago, et cetera, et cetera. Madame's really good at excusing everything."

"Even Juniper being bitchy to you?" Nereid said, outraged.

X shrugged again. "Juniper only does it when Madame isn't around, like when she's waiting for Madame to get home from something, or in email to me."

"In email," Nereid said flatly. Even she knew not to say things in email that could be forwarded to other people or otherwise tracked.

"Oh, yeah, I have these long emails about how confused I am and how sad it is that Madame has had to deal with me all this time, and that my being around must be why Madame is not dealing with her own sexuality."

"You need to say something to Madame."

"And pop her cloud of joy?" X said, leaning zir chin on zir hand. "I can't bear to do that to her. She's so happy, Pacifica. You just can't imagine. I've been living with her since I was 19—5 years now. She got me through college, through coming out, through everything. I've watched her fight depression and just the weight of the Oracle on her practically every fucking day of her life just to get out of bed and put one foot in front of the other." X rubbed zir face. "You know, I heard her singing the other day. I've never heard her sing before. She's not bad! It's like she's getting a chance to open up finally as a sixty-something. I can't destroy that."

Nereid put her head to one side. "I don't think you'd destroy that. I don't think her being happy is all about getting laid, X. That's kind of shallow, and Madame is anything but shallow."

X was about to respond, but the server returned with their lunch just then, and they fell silent.

After the server was gone, Nereid added, "You're like the child she never had, X. You're her kid and her protégé and her student and her friend, and I think she would be devastated to find out that her lover was being horrible to you and you never told her."

The surprised look on X's face was very rewarding, Nereid thought. For once in her life, Nereid was getting to be the voice of reason. I can't believe I'm giving effective advice! Go me!

"I… do you really think she thinks of me that way?" X said.

"Yes," Nereid said without a second's hesitation. "Madame loves you. You love Madame, though you always deny it. You guys are family. Juniper can't be making her as happy as you say if Juniper is already talking over her self-identification."

X stared down at zir plate and started assembling the falafel and other items into a pita sandwich. "I hate talking about emotional things with Madame."

"I hate talking about emotional things with anyone," Nereid said.

"I'll talk to Madame if you talk to Sophie," X said.

"All right," Nereid said, nearly losing her appetite with the stomach-clenching that went with that agreement. "Deal."



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Sorry for the late-in-the-week posting, but this one was a hard episode to write for various reasons. (Jane's death was hard to write, but it was one of the first episodes I wrote when I started this volume, continuously editing and revising as I got closer to it.) Hope you enjoy the longest ep we've had in a few weeks.


This Neighborhood Has Gone to the Dogs

Tinkermel and Tizemt brought a levitating gurney up from the lab and a blanket, and helped Lady Justice and Madame Destiny arrange Jane's body on it.

Angelica looked up at one point during this process, after the brief and lovely taking-down of Pastor Al. Apparently living things are just really fucking around with themselves constantly, because she kept getting dizzy on her new vision/sense/whatever the hell it was Jane had thrust upon her. The gravel was restful by comparison—still teeming with tiny life, but not as… busy as human bodies.

"I brought a stasis field too," Tizemt said. "Since we don't know how long it will be before we can get her, um, somewhere appropriate."

"She's going nowhere," Lady Justice said with a grim vehemence that startled Angelica into looking up again.

Angelica and Tinkermel traded glances (she was grateful she could see his face through the haze of !!LIFE!!). Tizemt nodded. "Why don't we go into the house?" she said.

A sudden panic seized her. She was heartbroken and devastated, and felt like she should help comfort Jane's oldest friend. But every time she looked at people, the rage at what Jane had done to her welled up. Jane had been really fucking vehement about her not telling anyone until she knew what she was doing. If she went into that house, it would all come out, will she or nil she.

Her brain flailed around for something else to do, and Angelica suddenly realized there were riots in her neighborhood, and her grandmother was right in the middle of it all.

"Watson?" she said, when Watson had stuffed her cell phone into her pocket. "Can you take me to my neighborhood?"

Watson and X stared at her for a moment, blankly, then glanced after the little trail of people going into the house.

X said, "We can turn Aloysius over to the cops."

Watson said, "If we can find any that are actual cops, as opposed to paramilitary troops."

X grimaced. "That's what I like about you, Watson: your unstoppable optimism."

Angelica summoned a smile, still looking at them despite the dizzying constant shift of their bodies, and said, "Guys? I just want to see my grandmother."

Watson and X swung into the Divine Sarah, and Angelica joined them. She spent a lot of time staring at the garnet-carpeted floor or walls. The Divine Sarah might have a personality all her own, and be older than either Angelica or X, but she wasn't ALIVE in the way Angelica's new power recognized.

It was a long, brutal drive across town as the sun set and darkness slid in over the city. Some areas were clearly without power, as people sat out on stoops with flashlights and candles and maybe weapons in complete darkness. Something was burning off to the east, possibly down by the river. Masses of people surged across streets from time to time, causing Watson to jam on the brakes (and Angelica always regretted looking up at those moments—LIFE!!!111!!!). Men in black ran pell-mell away from baseball-bat-wielding middle-aged white women. (Okay, she didn't regret looking up for that one.) A group of super-types in full colorful spandex ("Supervillains. They're called The Bloggers," Watson said. "You're shittin' me," Angelica said. "I wish I were," Watson replied.) strolled slowly down the street after a panicking trio of men in black, and Watson chose another street to take.

The drive that was normally 30 minutes took three teeth-grinding, stop-starting, nerve-frazzling hours.

(Somewhere in there, they did, in fact, manage to find actual real Wonder City police and offloaded the swollen-faced Aloysius to them. Watson suggested that they fingerprint and book him while he was unconscious, as he was Faerie-touched, which made them just get on the horn with an urgent request for the Equestrian. As Watson drove the Divine Sarah away, she was smiling grimly.)

The power was out in Angelica's neighborhood, but little knots of people were standing around on street corners with 55-gallon drums that held fires, like it was the dead of winter instead of midsummer. Her stomach clenched when she saw that the groups around these fires were not her friends and neighbors, but little masses of armed white men with appalling emblems tattooed on various parts of them (like their shaved heads). One group pushed off from their "guardpost" and swaggered toward the Divine Sarah, assault rifles lazily resting on their arms.

Watson slowed to a drift as one of them walked in front of the van, and shook her head at the gestured command to roll her window down. Angelica felt unspeakably relieved that Watson's "soft butch" persona did not include so much macha as to try to talk her way past a bunch of armed racist fuckheads.

Angelica noticed that one of the guys with a gun in front of the van had something going on inside him that looked like what happened to Jane, only much smaller and less terrifyingly active. She allowed herself a tiny vindictive grimace and tried not to think about it too much right now.

The guns erected into full assault mode, and one of the men shouted, "Roll the fuckin' window down."

Watson, already humming like a struck guitar string, ran her gaze along the line. Her hands tensed on the wheel, her right thigh tightened slightly. Angelica started to slide down to the floor.

Just then two men were taken down by huge golden streaks from the darkness. The blurs of motion slowed enough for Angelica to see the glinting yellow eyes of Simon's wolf form, and to guess that the other was Ivy. The men yelled, the men around them yelled, guns slewed around wildly…

… And then a tsunami of yelping, growling golden-brown bodies poured into the scene. Half the men went down with bloodcurdling shrieks, and the other half turned and ran. The tide of lean, brown, hungry canines followed them. The men who went under weren't there when the canine-line retreated.

A few beats later, absurdly, a tiny brown dog ran through the headlights after the horde, yipping excitedly.

The three of them sat there, staring, for a long moment, before X said, "What the fuck?"

The two wolves flashed into their human forms, and Angelica clapped a hand over her mouth in a moment of terrifying vertigo. The act of transformation changed everything about their bodies in a few seconds.

After getting control of her stomach back, Angelica had to stifle her slightly hysterical laughter at Simon wearing nothing but tiny black briefs, and Ivy wearing a pair of black shorts and a bikini top. Simon walked to the driver's door, and Watson cranked down the window.

"They're all over," he said, and it wasn't clear whether he was talking about the supremacists or the dog tidal wave. "It's been a long night."

"Yeah," the three in the van said in unison.

"You keep going, we'll run an escort," Simon said.

Angelica looked away in time to avoid seeing the pair's switch, and just watched the shadows in the alleyways out the side window, trying not to dig her nails into her legs or arms in anxiety. What the hell had happened to bring a fucking militia into her home? What had happened to her grandmother, her grandmother's house? Was her mother all right? What about Kit? Her other friends? The bodega? Her apartment?

They made painfully slow progress, especially since the militia had dumped debris and other barricade-like things in the streets, when they didn't park cars across them. Watson, X, and Angelica occasionally had to stop and duck because men with guns were being taken down by wolves (and at least one more iteration of the mass of little yellow-brown dogs), and there were some shots fired. (Angelica hoped the guy who owned the van — Watson's landlord? — would be okay with a few new decorations.)

Just when she thought she was going to explode, she realized Watson had taken them around a twisting way through a part of the neighborhood she hadn't seen in a few years, and the alley they had crawled along had dumped them out right in front of her grandmother's house.

Sitting on the front steps, near the street, was the lean, lanky, familiar form of Kit Castaneda. He was cleaning his nails, from the motions of his almost-silhouette in the city glow.

They pulled up in front and Angelica leaped out of the van. Kit flashed a grin and threw his arms around her.

A second later, she was sobbing into his shoulder and saying in a low voice, "Jane. She… it was awful, IS awful. Oh my god, Kit? ¿Está bien?"

He murmured, "Está bien, she's fine, honest, I've been here the whole time."

Angelica hugged him hard, and pulled away to look up at the front door. She didn't remember pulling away from him or running up the steps, but the next thing she knew, she and her grandmother were hugging and crying and hugging some more.

After Angelica calmed down—much later, it felt like—she was suddenly terrified by the idea of looking at her grandmother, actually seeing her with the new eyes Jane had foisted upon her. Was she some sort of horrible Valkyrie now who could see Death coming for someone? She kept her eyes screwed shut for a few moments, then decided she had to find out.

In the dim light of Abuelita's glassed candles—she saw various saints represented on the candle labels—she looked at her grandmother.

Abuelita was tiny, under five feet, brown-skinned with wavy iron-gray hair cut in a bob. She was wearing one of her good dresses for Sunday Mass, a short-sleeved floral print, and none of her jewelry, not even earrings. Angelica guessed that she was preparing for someone to break in and kill her — wearing her Sunday best and having hidden her jewelry under that floorboard she'd shown Angelica a few years earlier.

Most importantly, while there was a haze of life over and around her, there was no horrible knot of mutation present.

"Your young man, he is very kind," Abuelita said, mopping her eyes with one of the tissues she always seemed to have in her dress pocket. "He brought over a couple grocery bags of food from your place, and something he'd cooked before the power went out. We had a nice dinner. He's a good cook, a very good cook. For a man."

Angelica laughed, partly from the relief and partly from the image of Kit and her grandmother, calmly having dinner while the world went to hell. She went to the door to invite everyone in.

Just then, the horde of little brown dogs ran, yelping and howling, up the street. Watson and X bounded up the steps as the wave came toward them. Kit, however, calmly watched them approaching.

Angelica raised the light level without thinking so she could see what was happening. She almost shouted to Kit, but then the dogs started merging together as they got closer to him and confused her. They went from a mass of little brown dogs to a pack of lean, sandy, pointy-faced dogs that looked like skinny, grinning wolves.

The pack leapt for Kit so fast no one had time to react.

As they arched toward Kit, in the split second before impact, they shrank. Several leapt for his arms, a dozen or more for his lean torso, two for his feet or knees, and one directly at his crotch. They all vanished as they touched him, looking like they were pulled inside him. The echoes of the yelping faded away.

Then Angelica realized something about Kit: he didn't register on her new vision. There was no cloud of changing life there, no haze, no glow.

She felt like she'd been punched in the gut.

Kit turned toward them with a lopsided smile. He seemed different somehow. Bigger. Leaner. Hungrier. Happier. Sadder.

Her grandmother crossed herself and said, "Madre de Dios," just as Angelica said it herself.

Kit's smile got more lopsided and uncertain, and he gave them a rueful little wave. "Heh," he said.

The silence was very awkward.

Then Simon cleared his throat and said, "Well, I guess we know who let the dogs out."






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The Flim-Flam Artist

Angelica heard crunching gravel, and looked up from where she and Madame were holding Lady Justice just in time to see a white man scrambling away from the Divine Sarah. Watson and X outran him easily and flanked him. He crouched, at bay, a smear of dried blood under his nose and across his mouth.

"Behave, Aloysius MacCready," Watson said in a low voice. "Someone worth a thousand of you just died."

A strange expression crossed X's face—Angelica might have called it rage—and sie suddenly spun into a beautiful, flawless roundhouse kick that caught him in the back of the head and planted him face-first into the Canis family's rocky driveway.

Watson raised an eyebrow at X, then knelt and clicked handcuffs around the man's wrists behind his back.

X stared down at him for a long moment, and said, distantly, "Not everyone gets to kick the guy who raped their best friend in the head." Then sie helped Watson throw him back into the back of the van.







Thought I'd forgotten Pastor Al, didn't you? Michelle Yeoh is here to help you envision this little moment.
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Life, Jane Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Jane Liberty landed a few feet from Angelica in the Canis front yard, and wavered on her feet. Angelica stepped forward hurriedly to take the fragile-seeming arm of the old woman, to steady her.

"You're a good girl," Jane said huskily, looking up at her with dark eyes that were a little too bright. "I'm sorry, but it's got to go on."

"What do you mean...?" Angelica said.

Then she had to stop herself from staggering backward. Suddenly, she was perceiving things. Strange things. Everywhere. Every. Where. Things she couldn't really understand. Worse, there were things happening inside Jane Liberty, terrible, awful things.

"It's a gift," Jane was saying, "a gift to the world. To let it go out, to let it die with me, that would be... I know it would be... wrong."

"What have you done?" Angelica said, her eyes wide, half about whatever she was seeing and half about whatever was going on inside Jane's body. She couldn't see Jane's face or figure, there was too much happening there, like a cloud obscuring everything.

"I'm sorry, it's a hard gift," Jane said, patting her hand absently. "Don't tell anyone about it, not till you figure it out."

"Oh, god," Angelica said, finally letting go of Jane's arm to press both hands over her eyes. She could still sense the things, new things, everywhere. "Oh, god, what have you done?"

Jane gripped one of her arms tightly, hard enough to bruise. "Listen to me, before anyone comes," she said. "What you're seeing inside me, that's cancer, super-accelerated by the powers I've been using. You're a scientist, maybe someday you'll be able to cure it because you'll understand it. I never could, I couldn't save... I couldn't save anyone." Her voice broke. She cleared her throat. "Don't tell anyone about the power until you know what you'll do with it. I trust you, you're a good, good girl with a good brain. You won't hurt people with it if you can help it."

Angelica lowered her hands and stared at Jane. "You've... this is your power?"

Jane nodded once, tensely. Squinting through the fog of… whatever... Angelica could just see the shine of perspiration on the old woman's skin. She'd heard of people being gray with pain, but hadn't really believed it till now. Jane Liberty's face was pale pasty gray. "Don't... don't disappoint me, Angelica."

Angelica felt hot tears dripping off her own chin. "I won't, I promise." Her head was pounding. What the hell? What the hell?

She caught Jane as the woman's legs buckled and gently lowered her to the ground. She had a moment's ridiculous fear for her nylons, then gave them up for lost.

The Divine Sarah skidded to a stop in the driveway and the doors burst open.

"Jane!" Lady Justice shouted, running toward them. She fell to her knees and took Jane from Angelica. One of her hands rested on Jane's abdomen, and she recoiled from something she felt there. "Jane! Janey, turn it off! Stop using Maddy's powers!"

Jane Liberty opened her eyes and she smiled beatifically up at Lady J. "Oh, Dottie, what for?" she said. "It won't hurt for much longer."

"Janey," Lady J said softly. "Oh, Janey, don't leave me alone."

"Dottie, honey, I did that a long time ago," Jane said, reaching up to touch Lady J's cheek.

Angelica swept a glance around as the others caught up. Madame Destiny was holding herself tightly, the heel of one hand pressed against her mouth and tears running freely. X and Watson were standing behind her, eyes wide and faces horrified.

"Look at it this way, Dottie," Jane said, her breath coming in quick, pained gasps, "I'm going out with a hell of a bang."

"That you are, Janey," Lady J said, looking older than Angelica had thought she could, her face crumpled with grief.

There was a long pause, punctuated only by a sob escaping from Madame and Jane's harsh breathing. The two old friends on the ground just looked at each other.

"Oh, Dottie," Jane said, looking past Lady J at last at the blazing orange and red sunset, "that sky is so beautiful. How long has it been since I really looked at something like that?"

And then Jane Liberty died, watching the skies.





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Welcome to the Wonder City Stories Fifth Anniversary Week! It's not exactly an extravaganza, but there will be a second episode on Thursday, and on Friday, I'll post download links for the set of short stories I'll be posting for you -- the collections will be functionally identical, but one will include the NSFW episode and one won't, so you don't have to have the NSFW ep if you don't want it.

Some of you have stuck with Wonder City Stories for five whole years, while some of you only started reading over the past several months, and I just want to thank you ALL for your support. I couldn't keep doing this without you.




Come With Me If You Want To Live

Suzanne burst through the doors of Westside General and snapped, "We need some help out here!"

She felt extraordinarily focused, even though there was a mess in the back of her head. Something about one's father figure at death's door perhaps? A woman responded to the tone of her voice, grabbing a wheelchair. Beyond, the emergency room was crowded with people, some shouting, some ashen and still -- the nearest had a bloody rag held to his head. A group, some of whom were holding someone upright, was standing in front of the desk where the receptionist, headset slightly askew, was speaking and gesturing for them to go to the waiting area. There was a loud rumble of talk, beeping machines, and the PA system crackled, "Doctor Armstrong, Doctor Rock, Doctor Steel, to main lobby stat."

She stepped back through the sliding glass doors with her wheelchair-pushing compatriot and found Lady Justice carrying Ira toward the emergency room, Madeline hurrying beside her, speaking to Ira. Ira's face was gray and his eyes were fluttering as he tried to speak.

The woman with the wheelchair (a nurse?) said, "Sorry, we're shortstaffed. It may be a while before we can see him."

"He's having a heart attack," Suzanne said helplessly. It hurt to say it out loud. She hadn't even had a chance to apologize.

Lady J set Ira in the wheelchair and Madeline kept pace with the wheelchair as the woman moved it inside. The rest of the crew was trailing behind, and Andrea caught Suzanne's elbow and hurried her forward through the doors after the wheelchair.

Inside, Madeline paused, looked around the room. "No one in charge?" she asked the nurse. The nurse pointed at a young man, probably a resident, who was staring around, then back at his clipboard, then around again. He pulled out a handkerchief and mopped his face, then shoved it back in his trouser pocket.

Madeline snapped out, loudly, "I need vital signs and intake assessments on everyone. Alert the cath suite for an acute anterior ST-elevation MI in need of possible angioplasty and stenting." As the people in scrubs responded to the authority in her voice, she snagged a gurney-pushing orderly, and helped lift Ira onto the gurney, asking, "Does the cath suite have Class 5 equipment?"

A passing white-coated woman said, "No, we only go up to Class 4. You need Wonder City Hospital for Class 5."

"We can't get to Wonder City Hospital because of the riots!" Andrea exclaimed, gesturing around at the crowd.

Madeline passed her gaze over the room again as directed motion started to happen. She reached out a hand to touch the bleeding arm of a toddler as her mother was carrying her past, and the wound closed, ejecting a small shower of tiny bloody glass shards as it did so. The mother stared. Madeline smiled briefly and said, "I don't see any other damage, but why don't you have a seat so someone can check her over when we have a chance?"

Madame Destiny stepped forward to Ira's side. She looked at him from the top of his head to his feet, a strange, distant look in her eyes. Suzanne wondered what the hell she could do without the Oracle. Reading Tarot cards was not going to save Ira.

Madame reached out and plucked a Sharpie out of the pocket of a passing person in a white coat. One of the nurses had already wrenched open Ira's outer shirt, cut his Mister Metropolitan t-shirt from neck to waist and cut on down through his belt (his favorite belt! Suzanne thought pointlessly) and trousers. While the nurse was applying EKG electrodes to Ira's chest, Madame grabbed Madeline's shoulder. Madeline slewed around to look at her.

"Cut right here," Madame said, drawing an X on the inside of Ira's thigh. "His invulnerability is weakest right there. I think Class 4 will work."

Madeline nodded and murmured, "Bless you, I'd forgotten." One of the orderlies started pushing Ira's gurney down the hall, through the crowd, and she moved after it, answering questions as she went, calling, "I'll be back in a moment to help with triage," to the resident.

"Forgot what?" Suzanne said vaguely.

"That Madame's original para power was to see weaknesses," Watson said beside her.

Suzanne was about to ask how she knew, but remembered Ira. As Andrea, Suzanne, and Lady J started after the gurney, though, a crackle and light change made them turn. X's eyes were crackling with blue lightning. There were some screams in the waiting room as the light spread over the room with its terrible revelation of, well, everything.

"LADY JUSTICE, YOU MUST RETURN TO THE DEN OF WOLVES," intoned the Oracle.

Lady J stared and said, "I was going to…"

"IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT YOU RETURN TO THE DEN OF WOLVES," the Oracle said, and X collapsed to zir knees, released from the terrible light of possession. Madame hurried over and helped zir to stand.

Lady J turned pale, swallowed, and said, "All right, then."

"We'll call and let you know how it goes," Andrea promised and she and Suzanne started after Ira.

"Right," Lady J said. She looked at Watson.

Watson said, "Let's go then," and the last Suzanne saw, before she moved into the noisy chaos of the cardiac care bays, was Madame Destiny, X, Watson, and Lady Justice pushing through the crowd and out the door, heading for the Divine Sarah.




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Want another episode this Friday? Let me know you're reading! Can we get 10 comments?

Like Dust, We'll Rise

Lady Justice looked up at Ira as they watched the Young Cosmics' announcement of the alien invasion and mind control on her StarSeed. "She's got some screen presence, all right. Good choice."

"Better than Mercury, I think," Ira said. "He's too jittery and fidgety, like his old man. Look at him in the back there, just kinda vibrating."

They turned to the others. Andrea was standing on her left leg with her right leg propped on a nearby bike rack and was carefully stretching forward. She was wearing a tight black running suit with racing stripes. Madeline was watching passerby from behind her sunglasses, lounging against the back of the park bench Watson Holmes was sitting on, staring at her computer screen. X was listening to the cell phone updates from Tizemt. Madame Destiny was in jeans, which Ira didn't think he'd seen her in for twenty years, and was carrying, Ira knew, a small telescoping staff in the inside pocket of her jacket. He couldn't remember who had taught her to fight back in the early 70s—he suspected maybe Karate Jo or Women's Libra—but he hoped she'd kept up on the training.

And there was… another… person.

She was tall and willowy, with long white hair. Her clothing seemed to consist entirely of black leather. And Ira had not yet seen her move, except to blink. She crouched on a low wall about fifty feet away. X had introduced her as Washington and assured them that she was there to help.

X tucked the cell phone into a pocket of the short, military-style jacket zie was wearing. "Tizemt says levels are optimal. It's time to go in and shut the backup transmitters down. Jane is on standby once we know the lay of the land."

Everyone looked at Watson, who said, "Judging from these aerial photos I got from Hel, I'm guessing the transmitter is right in the middle of the camp, probably right under Pastor Al's feet when he's speechifying. So it really doesn't matter whether you go in the front gate, through the audience, or the back gate, through the staff, except you're more likely to get armed resistance from the staff." She smiled wanly.

Washington stood abruptly and walked forward to where they were gathered around Watson. "Then let's go in the front gate. Closer, faster, better for you old humans to get through."

They all stared at her for a moment, until Watson said, "Tactless, but I concur."

"Good, let's go," Washington said, striding past toward the front gate of the revival camp across the park.

"'Old humans'?" Ira said to X.

X smiled. "Reptilian-American."

There was a small chorus of "Oooooohhhhh!" from them all.

"Right, let's get this show on the road," Andrea said, linking arms with Ira and almost dragging him after Washington.

"You sure you're okay with this?" Ira said.

"Jane gave me back my invulnerability and tuned up my strength," Andrea said. "I should be fine. How about you?"

"I'm good," he said, pulling open his buttondown shirt a bit to reveal a Mister Metropolitan t-shirt underneath.

"You old fool," she said fondly.

Ira glanced back and saw Lady Justice, Madame, and Madeline following in a little knot. Watson and X were to wait outside, watching, prepared to call Jane in if needed.

"We should have a team name," Ira muttered.

"Well, we're technically Gold Stars for this," Andrea said.

"But we're not, you know that," Ira said. He knew he sounded silly, and maybe a little petulant. The Gold Stars had never wanted him.

Madame apparently overheard and said, "Well, Ira, we can be the League of Forgotten Heroes, because the only reason we can do this is everyone forgot us."

"And 'The Underestimated' is too long for a team name," Madeline said.

Ira looked at Andrea and they both laughed a little. He said, "I like it."

They reached the front gate of the camp where Washington waited for them irritably. There was something going on inside—Ira couldn't make out the words from the speakers, but it definitely sounded like Pastor Al was going at it. The metal mesh gate was shut tight, but there were no guards posted that they could see.

"Everyone set?" Lady Justice said. When everyone nodded (or, in Washington's case, grunted and tapped her foot), Lady J said, "All right, then, let's move out!"

Washington snapped, "Finally," and ripped open the gate with her bare hands.




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Weaponizable

"No," Jane said tiredly. "It can't be me."

"Why not?" Lady Justice asked. "You can be psionic. You have been plenty in the past."

"Because no one should trust me with a power that could dement the whole city," Jane said, covering her eyes with a hand. "Because I may look like I'm holding it together and am like I was ten or fifteen years ago, but I'm not."

Ira rubbed his face and looked around at the group of dissidents, awkwardly dreading the possibility of Jane Liberty crying and just wanting to say anything to turn attention away from her. "All right, Lady J, Jane knows best on this point. The question is, if not Jane, then who?"

"I wish we had some idea of what the deadline is," Madeline said, stopping herself from playing with the beaded fringe of the scarf on the couch arm.

"I'm sure our sources feel the same way," Pearl said, steepling her fingers thoughtfully. "I can say that I don't know anyone who qualifies as a 'powerful psi' though. Not among my acquaintances, nor among my clients."

Lady J sat back in her chair and pressed the heels of her hands to her forehead. "Ideas, Madame?"

Madame glanced at X, and they both shook their heads. "The Oracle doesn't qualify as 'psi' and wouldn't consent to be used that way anyway. And I can't think of anyone else. It's so frustrating that Renata is up on that spaceship."

Andrea fiddled with her teacup. "Tinkermel says he's ready. Everyone else has said they're set. We have to move quickly, given Renata's warning. What about…" She drifted off, staring toward the kitchen, where the younger people were putting together a snack for the group. "What about Kendis? Is her power psionic? If it is, is she powerful enough to work through Tinkermel's device?"

Everyone turned to stare at Andrea for a long moment.

"Well?" she snapped irritably. "Can't you imagine how much it would help people to have their minds cleared or boosted or whatever it is she does after all this mess?" She waved a hand around, generally indicating the city.

Ira nodded at Andrea, grinning and giving her arm a little friendly squeeze that made her smile. Damn, that was a nice smile.

Lady J said, "Jane, what do you think? You're the power expert here."

Jane gave her a weary nod. "I think she projects in the psi spectrum, and I know she's powerful. Convincing her, though, is going to be a chore."

Lady Justice pushed herself to her feet and said, "You leave that part to me," with a wry little grimace. "I'm good at being persuasive, remember?" She strode toward the kitchen.

"Oh, I remember," Jane murmured, resting her head against the wing of the chair and shutting her eyes.


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Revolution By Committee

"All right, folks," Lady Justice said, self-consciously smoothing her strangely stylish iron gray hair (Ira couldn't remember the last time it was that neatly done) and mock-cracking her knobbly knuckles. "I certainly have some news, and I get the impression some of you do too."

Madame Destiny, looking better and younger than Ira had seen her in a long time (even before he lost his sight), dimpled in Ira's direction, then sobered and said, "Well, I think most of you know the big news here." She gestured over at X, who, while still immaculately pressed and dressed, looked haggard around the edges. X's cheekbones and jawline were just a little more pronounced than Ira thought they had been, and there was the hint of dark circles under the terribly perceptive eyes. "X has taken on the burden of the Oracle."

Pearl reached for X's hand and squeezed it gently. X turned a wan smile on her and returned the caress.

"How is it going?" Madeline asked. "I remember when we first found you, Madame, back in '62 or '63. Things were rather out of hand."

"Madame has been extremely helpful," X said smoothly.

"One of my issues," Madame said with a smile, "was that the previous 'vessel' had died and I'd had absolutely no introduction or guidance. The Oracle came into me out of the blue, and I'm very lucky to have kept my sanity."

Madeline nodded. "It was touch and go."

"It was," Madame admitted. "But that was a long time ago, and besides, the wench is fine now." She smiled. "The other bit of information is that we have some Mystikai support. Financial support from two of the local Reptilian-Americans, safe houses offered by the Family -- you may not know, but their homes are heavily shielded from emotional emanations by magic -- and an offer of physical participation in any actual combat from the youngest of the Reptilian-Americans."

"Well, that's something," Madeline said, eyebrows high. "I can't recall a dragon getting involved in our doings since the War."

"They're a standoffish bunch," Jane Liberty said from the depths of one of Madame's overstuffed chairs. "And the safe houses are good. Any limitations on who can take them up on it?"

"Not that Zoltan mentioned," Madame said, "but I expect that he'll be the gatekeeper." She gestured to Ira. "Go on, Ira, you're bursting."

"Oh, well," he said, feeling a little abashed. He knew he'd been grinning like a loon through the whole proceedings. "Everyone's probably guessed it. Jane, Madeline, and Lady J took me off and got my silly old eyes fixed the other day."

There were exclamations of delight all around, a clap on the shoulder and a handshake from the burly black man Ira guessed was Tinkermel, applause from the handicapped thirtyish black woman he figured was Kendis, a hug from Pearl, a radiant grin from X, and even a lightly-perfumed kiss on the cheek from the tall, beautiful Hispanic woman who had to be Angelica.

When everyone had settled back down, Andrea patted his hand and smiled at him. It had been a long time since he'd seen her smile at him. Really, had she ever? Since he couldn't remember their married life at all, it was pretty much a new experience to him. She was an angular old lady now, but that smile led him to believe she must have been quite a looker once.

"Well!" Lady J exclaimed. "That was the sort of thing we need in these meetings more often."

"Definitely lifts the energy," Angelica said. "What have you got, Lady J?"

"I've had a messenger from Hel," Lady J said. In response to the very odd looks that came over the faces of Kendis, Angelica, and Tinkermel, she laughed and said, "Doctor Hel Blau, the Sentient Airship."

This only slightly cleared Kendis and Angelica's faces. Tinkermel's face broke into a broad smile, and he said to the two women, "I'll explain later why that's just so awesome." Ira wasn't sure how a man that big could squeak like that.

"In any case," Lady J continued, "she was able to do a high pass over Wonder City and environs with her cameras going -- she doesn't normally come near the place these days, but did it as a favor to us -- and her messenger brought me not only the photos but Hel's analysis of them." Lady J held up a rolled poster and said, "She's overlaid a map of the city on this set of photos, and marked where they've hidden the major receiving and transmitting station. She also detected that they've got backup transmitters -- she spotted the generators and antennae -- in the tent revival camp."

"Which is horrible, but not much of a surprise," Angelica said. "The Shining Brethren are behind the God Squads roaming my neighborhood and other areas of the city."

X nodded. "One of my friends refers to the God Squads also as Mod Squads. She says she's pretty sure there's at least one telepath in each group, and they're altering the minds of troublemakers."

Ira wondered what friend that was who had that kind of insight.

Angelica briefly closed her eyes and laid two manicured fingers on the gold cross at her throat. "More reason to avoid them," she said.

"Yes, indeed," Lady J said. "The key here is that we'll need to somehow take out the main transmitter, I think. But I'm not sure what to do beyond that. I mean, they could just replace it."

"We need a coordinated attack," Pearl said. "Not just superheroic action, but information warfare. We need to explain to people what's happening."

The group collectively frowned into silence.

Hesitantly, Tinkermel said, "Well, I think I've got something that might help."

Every head turned to him.

He fished in one of the inner pockets of his biker jacket (it was lined in purple silk, Ira noticed, bemused) and extracted a small plastic ball, about the size of the tip of his thumb. It was strung on a piece of black rat-tail. Inside the ball was a constant swirl of pink glitter. "This," he began.

"Is fabulous," Kendis said, staring at the swirl. "How have you got it doing that?"

"If you hush, girl, I will tell you," Tinkermel said with a disapproving glower.

Angelica nudged Kendis with her elbow. "Give him his big reveal."

"Thank you," he said, then turned his attention back to the ball dangling from his fingers. "This is my Omni-directional Personal Venus Nega Charm. It gives off similar emanations to what's transmitted through those rings, but in a way that interferes with the waveforms. So it significantly reduces the effects of the transmitters on anyone wearing it." He smiled at Kendis. "And the generator vibrates very slightly at the center of the globe, moving the glitter, so you always know if it's working or not."

"That's amazing," Madeline breathed. "You've tested it?"

"You bet," he said, beaming proudly. "I developed a detection device for the emanations, and when I'm wearing the Venus Nega Charm, the quantity of emanations that reach me are reduced by almost 75%."

"Oh!" Angelica exclaimed, her eyes lighting up. "Oh, I know someone who could really use that."

"So do I," Ira said, thinking of Simon's sad whine.

"That's terrific work!" Lady J said, rising and coming over to shake Tinkermel's hand, which seemed to daze him. "Just terrific."

"Say," Andrea piped up suddenly, "do you think you could do something like that on a larger scale? Because that might just could help the sort of thing Pearl was talking about, freeing some minds so they'll be receptive to a little knowledge about what's going on."

Tinkermel's massive brow settled into a frown. "I'd need the materials, and a bigger space to build."

"Well, we have offers of financial help," Lady J said. "Think about what you'd need, while the rest of us think about how to get that for you."

"I'll do that," Tinkermel said. "Meanwhile, I've brought Nega Charms for everyone." He pulled out a handful of them, all in different glitter colors, and handed them around with a grin. "You all tell me right away if you have any strange effects from wearing them. I didn't notice any, but I don't have the powers some of you do."

X picked up a silver Nega Charm, examined it for a moment, then handed it to Madame Destiny with a smile and a little shake of the head. Madame nodded and took it for herself.

Ira took a rainbow glitter one and slung it around his neck. He did feel better.

"Well, this has definitely been productive and no mistake," Lady J said. "Anyone have anything else?"

Jane stirred in her chair. "I was wondering if anyone had room to put me up for a little while," she said.

Lady J gave her a sympathetic grimace, while everyone else looked startled.

"Dottie and I are great friends," Jane said, "and I'd like us to stay that way. Her place is really only big enough for one, and I'm not the easiest person to live with. So, anyone willing to give an old girl a break?"

"No room," Kendis said briefly, and Ira was startled by the undercurrent of hostility in her voice. He glanced aside at Jane, who smiled, just a little, very oddly.

"We don't have a viable guest room right now," Pearl said. "My partner is coping with all this--" she waved over her head "--by renovating everything."

Ira could practically feel Andrea gathering herself to make an offer -- she'd told him that she and Jane disliked each other from something that happened long ago, but she liked Lady J a great deal -- when Angelica said, "I have room!" with the biggest, most starstruck smile Ira had seen in a long time.

Kendis looked aside at Angelica as if she'd grown a second head.

Jane smiled gratefully at Angelica across the room, and that settled that, then and there.











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This week has been weird and surreal -- I live in central Massachusetts, and work in Cambridge -- and today has been particularly strange, with the refreshing the browser and checking Twitter and such. I have successfully distracted written the lion's share of this episode today, however, and I hope you will forgive any little gaffes as being products of my distraction.


Torschlusspanik

"Ah, Mr. Frost," Zoltan said at the door of the enormous luxury board room, his eastern European accent rolling softly over the name. "And Nereid. So pleased you could make it to our little discussion group."

Nereid stared at Zoltan. For a man who never aged, the very fine lines around his eyes and mouth seemed much more pronounced than they'd been last time she'd seen him, at least a year before. He was dressed very finely in a pale grey three-piece suit, a white shirt, and a pale blue tie. She noticed his cufflinks, though, as they shook hands -- tiny gold bats -- and it was all she could do not to giggle.

"I was pleased to be invited," Michael Frost said, staring beyond Zoltan's head at the far side of the room.

"Ah, yes, you see that Baroness Von Drachenberg has arrived before you," Zoltan said, stepping aside gracefully and gesturing them into the room. "We still await Ms. Washington, from your folk. My folk are represented, as are most of the other Mystikai."

Nereid stared around the echoing room and was gratified by the presence of Madame Destiny and X, and also the Equestrian and her steed (in tall, lean, redheaded human form) Maelstrom. She didn't know any of the many others, and noticed that a certain amount of space was left between every knot of beings as they stood around and drank coffee. Sophie would probably snark about it if she were here. Which she wasn't. And Nereid wasn't sure why she wasn't, but the absence made her anxious.

The Baroness was a short, round, cheerful woman who appeared to be middle-aged, accompanied by a couple of stocky, balding men in tweed suits. She gave Mr. Frost a little finger wave that he ignored. Nereid smiled nervously in the woman's direction.

A moment later, a ridiculously tall, willowy woman with long white hair, wearing a strangely familiar long, flowing black leather coat (with large spiky shoulder pads) and pants, strode past Zoltan into the room without a word. Under the coat, she seemed to be largely wearing straps, which accented her... prominent cleavage. She paused to regard Mr. Frost, then the Baroness with a sneer, and made her way to the center-back of the room, throwing herself into the chair at the foot of the ridiculously long table. She put her booted feet up on the table with heavy clunks.

"And with the arrival of Ms. Washington," Zoltan said, nodding to the t-shirted bar bouncer-types in the hall and shutting the door, "our numbers are complete. I am, as most of you know, Zoltan Farkas, and I speak for the Grand Matriarch of the East today, though her granddaughter --" he bowed to an African American woman who was taking a seat near the middle of the table "-- is here to correct me if I step wrongly. Speaking for the Grand Matriarch of the West is Doña Juana Salazar. Between us, we speak for the Family here in North America."

He nodded, and the Equestrian stood, looking very out of place as a young blonde teen dressed for a horse show in a velvet coat of bottle-green, breeches, and tall leather boots. "All of you know who I am," she said in her British accent. "I'm here for the Good Neighbors, specifically the one known as Lady Daphne, my sometimes-patron."

A broad-shouldered, tanned man in a black suit, surrounded by several individuals in similar suits, introduced himself as the elected speaker for the shapechanger Mystikai. Several more people introduced themselves as chosen or appointed speakers for various schools of magic. There was a fascinatingly tiny woman who was the representative of the Appalachian Gnome Queendom. A pair of thin, pale women who were clearly twins said they were there on behalf of the Wonder City vampires. A perfectly normal middle-aged middle-class woman in jeans and a sweatshirt that sported a picture of a kitten, with the glittery legend, "Hang in there!" arcing over it, introduced herself as the Outsider.

Madame stood and bowed. She was dressed elegantly in a long black dress and a black turban, a silvery-grey wrap draped around her shoulders. She was made up extravagantly, with dramatic swooshes of shadow above her eyes. "I am Madame Destiny, the current vessel for the Mystikai known as the Oracle, and I have been asked here by my friend Zoltan in case we need to consult the Oracle's wisdom." She gestured to X, who was conservatively done up in a black suit and garnet-colored cravat. "This is my apprentice, X." And she resumed her seat.

Nereid became aware, as silence fell, that Mr. Frost and the Baroness were staring at each other across the room. After a long, tense moment, Miss Washington drawled, without standing, "I'm Washington. I'm a dragon."

Both Mr. Frost and the Baroness looked at her at the same moment, a fleeting glimpse of disgust crossing both their faces. They looked at each other again, and the Baroness shrugged, and said, "I am the Baroness Von Drachenberg, and I am a Reptilian-American." She glowered in Washington's direction, then gestured grandly to Mr. Frost.

He inclined his head briefly and said, "I am Michael Frost, also Reptilian-American, and I am the patron of the superhero team, the Young Cosmics." He dropped a hand on Nereid's shoulder. "This is my team's Class 10 elemental, Nereid, who kindly agreed to accompany me."

Zoltan seated himself at the head of the table and folded his hands. "Thank you all for coming. I think we can agree that the situation in the United States, and in Wonder City in particular, is growing intolerable and is threatening everything each of us has worked for. Several of us wanted to bring the community together to discuss possible options for information-gathering and action."

One of the myriad magic-using people -- one of the few dressed in what Nereid thought of as normal clothes -- raised her hand. Zoltan nodded, and she said, "I think it would be helpful if we pooled our intelligence as to the nature of the troubles and possible sources."

"Agreed," Zoltan said, nodding cheerfully all around the table. "So let us do so. I confess that the Family has very little information on the nature or source of the troubles, only a fairly close analysis of the results. So who has more information?"

Several of the magic-using people spoke up about scrying and analytical magic and things that immediately and pedantically went over Nereid's head -- another reason to regret Brainchild's absence, she thought, was her inability to ask Sophie later what something had meant. Nereid was also distracted by Washington's openly bored posture with her head tilted back, staring ostentatiously at the ceiling.

"So what you're telling us," Zoltan said, smoothly interrupting one of the interminable lectures, "is that the main threat appears to be in orbit, and radiating something down at us that is affecting human behavior?"

"Uh," said the man in burgundy robes. "Yes. Essentially."

"Thank you," Zoltan said, and he even sounded like he meant it. "Have any other Mystikai ascertained any details?"

Nereid glanced aside at Mr. Frost's pleasantly-smiling face, expecting him to say something. Instead, Madame Destiny said, "Yes, we have."

All heads turned her way. X met Nereid's look with briefly raised eyebrows.

"Our group of... friends," Madame said with a self-deprecating air, "have determined that the ships in orbit are, in fact, of alien origin, and that the nature of the projection is a technological enhancement of a para with empathic abilities."

And then the meeting exploded into discussion, debate, and questions. Nereid watched it all, bewildered, and also watched the three drago--- Reptilian-Americans, she corrected herself. The Baroness beamed delightedly as her two tweedy companions leapt into a debate with a trio of mages and one shapeshifter. Mr. Frost watched the proceedings with a small smile. Washington continued to stare at the ceiling. The only other person who appeared so disconnected was the Equestrian, who slumped in her chair and frowned at the tabletop.

During a brief lull in the conversation, Washington burst out with, "Tell me why I should care."

Everyone froze. Nereid heard Michael Frost inhale, but whatever he was going to say was preempted by the Baroness Von Drachenberg saying, sweetly, "I would explain, but I think that you are too young to understand."

Washington leapt to her feet and glared at the Baroness. Nereid felt obscurely that she ought to have a large magical sword in one hand, then realized that as a drago-- Reptilian-American, she didn't need a weapon of any sort: she was one.

After a long moment, Washington said, in tones not nearly as sweet as the Baroness', "Try me, old woman."

Nereid noticed one of the tweed-clad men next to the Baroness discreetly scribbling notes in a battered leather-bound notebook, while the other was sliding an old pocket dictation recorder onto the table and looking around surreptitiously. Some of the mages and a few of the shapeshifters were subtly fading back from the table. Nereid herself was feeling more and more nervous sitting next to Mr. Frost.

The Baroness folded her hands on the table and, still smiling, said, "As someone without much experience in the markets of the world, you perhaps do not know how very destabilizing these sorts of events can be. You may think that such disquiet would make your particular objets du dèsir easier to obtain -- whenever you decide to obtain them -- but it is not so." She paused, reached down without looking, and clicked the tape recorder off. "At least, not in the long run."

Washington was pale with a cold rage that Nereid could feel from across the room. She leaned forward to place her hands flat onto the table, her white hair starting to blow behind her in a breeze that seemed to affect nothing else. Before she could say anything, though, Michael Frost began to laugh.

The look Washington turned on him was very little altered from what she had just been aiming elsewhere, but the gaze the Baroness turned on him was cynical, withering, and underneath it all, so sharp that Nereid had to repress the urge to run out of the room. The mages and shapeshifters took the opportunity to slide entirely back from the table toward the outer walls.

"Do forgive me, Baroness," Michael Frost said, in his suavest voice, "but it seems to me that if we are here, we have already agreed to act. There is no need for this attention-seeking posturing."

The Baroness was no longer, at all, a pleasant-looking little woman. Nereid saw the representative of the Gnome Queendom retreating behind a heavy credenza and felt an urge to join her. As if reading her mind, Michael Frost chose that moment to lay his hand over hers on the table, and action that made Nereid unbearably uncomfortable for too many reasons to list.

Nereid attempted to comfort herself with her ability to dissolve into mist at the first sign of actual violence.

At the head of the table, Zoltan looked as if he might be comforting himself similarly. He was exchanging looks with the other representatives of his Family -- whatever that was, Nereid thought, wondering if it he was a member of some kind of vampire mafia -- and both women were giving him cheerful sorts of "I wouldn't be you for a million dollars" encouraging smiles.

Washington was staring at Michael Frost, and Nereid noticed that she was becoming visibly more irritated when he refused to stare back. Her long, slender fingers gripped the edge of the table, and Nereid had an unpleasant image of her flipping it. But the moment passed, and she sat down in a kind of anticlimax.

The Baroness and Michael Frost, however, continued to match gazes, and Nereid thought that perhaps there was some sort of battle going on that she was too human to perceive except on the most uncomfortably lowest levels of her lizard brain. Like the so-called brown note, she thought.

"Oh, for fuck's sake," the Equestrian exclaimed, slamming her small hands on the table with moment-shattering slaps. "The rest of us don't have time for your--" she paused over word choice for a moment, then continued sourly "--politicking."

The two dragons snapped their heads around to look at her and the Equestrian pursed her lips and tilted her head slightly in the direction of Maelstrom, who appeared to be dozing in his chair. Mr. Frost and the Baroness each glanced back at each other, then exhaled, and the tension oozed out of the room.

Zoltan shuffled some papers. The mages and shapeshifters glided back to the table. The Gnome Queendom representative returned to her chair.

"I think," said Doña Juana Salazar, smiling thinly around the table, "that perhaps we should take advantage of the presence of the Oracle to ascertain what level of action would work best for the Mystikai as a whole."

"Yes," the Baroness said, her good humor apparently restored, though Nereid was unsure if that was true. "It is so very easy to overreact and do more harm than good."

Michael Frost said, "Yes, let's." He yawned elaborately.

Washington just waved a hand irritably.

"Perhaps it would be best to determine what the maximum level of involvement we would be willing to pursue should be," piped the tiny representative of the Gnome Queendom.

This led to another bewildering half hour of conversations, cross-conversations, and sub-conversations that Nereid could not parse at all. None of the dragons involved themselves in these discussions; they just watched.

Zoltan tapped a glass (where did he get the glass?) with a spoon (likewise?), and the sound rang out over the room, bringing conversation to a faltering halt. He said, "If we are going to make use of the Oracle, then I think we should do it quickly. We are unlikely to come to a consensus on this issue, nor do I think it is necessary. We simply need to remember to ask yes or no questions for optimal accuracy."

"And minimal cryptic ramblings," the Equestrian muttered, getting a short laugh out of Madame and X, at least.

Madame got up and moved her chair well back from the table, then resumed her seat. X moved to stand facing her, a little to the side. Everyone at the table turned to watch Madame with great interest -- even the dragons.

Nereid had seen Madame do this many times before, and all went as usual. Madame composed herself in her chair and closed her eyes for a few moments. X watched her fixedly. Then the light in the room changed to the harsh, focused, bluish tinge it always took.

Madame's face in that light startled Nereid, like she was seeing straight through the makeup. Madame looked old. Really old. And sick, and strained. Tears began leaking from the corners of her eyes. Then her eyes popped open and blue light crackled there, making everyone blink and look away for a moment.

"SPEAK, CHILDREN OF MAGIC," the Oracle said with Madame's mouth.

X turned to Zoltan and nodded.

But then the Oracle said, "STOP."

Nereid could see Madame's head and hands vibrating as if she had a palsy. The tears were coursing down her face and dripping off her chin. Her face looked grey in the blue light.

Madame gasped, in her own voice, "No!"

The light changed again -- instead of seemingly radiating from Madame's whole body, it shifted to solely from her head. And then blue lightning stabbed out from Madame into X, who echoed Madame with a more gutteral, wrenching, "No!"

Nereid ran to Madame as the older woman toppled from her chair, pulling her up from the floor and cradling her head against her shoulder. For a long moment, Nereid gazed down into her exhausted, drawn, tear-streaked face, and irrelevantly remembered the same woman, five years earlier, patiently helping her with her math homework. She remembered that Madame had been studying to be a mathematician, that she was really good at it, until the Oracle took up residence in her body.

X was suspended in mid-air in the middle of the room, blue light and lightning leaking out spasmodically. Most of the people in the room were at least standing, if not moving cautiously toward X.

Madame's eyes opened and she tried to sit up, but couldn't, then relaxed back into Nereid's arms. She croaked urgently, "Don't touch X!" into the tense silence, and everyone moving stopped.

"If you touch X," Madame said more calmly, "it could distract zir from what focus zie could gather. If that happens on the first possession, we might never get X back." She closed her eyes again.

Nereid was chilled to the bone by the idea of the Oracle being permanently "on" in X's body. She looked at the disheveled figure dangling like a marionette in mid-air.

"NOW YOU MAY SPEAK," said the Oracle with X's mouth.

"Oh, god," Madame groaned.

"It's all right," Nereid whispered to her.

"I thought I could hold on," Madame said, tears trickling out of her eyes again. "I thought I could keep going. Anything so X wouldn't have to..."

"X knew this would happen eventually," Nereid said in low tones, vaguely registering that questions were being asked and answered with a staccato precision elsewhere in the room. "X was prepared for it."

"You're never prepared for it," Madame said faintly. "Never. I knew for years, and I never expected what happened."

"Is it so bad?" Nereid said.

"It's like a seizure," Madame said opaquely. "Oh, god, I should get up, I should spot X, keep people from asking too many questions." She began to struggle to sit up, at least.

Nereid helped her sit up when it became clear that she was too agitated to rest. X was still held off the floor, but was no longer quite so high in the air. Madame took one look at X's face, which was lined with strain, and made a throat-cut motion to Zoltan, who nodded and stepped between a ponderous mage and X.

"Thank you for your generous assistance, oh, Oracle," Zoltan said with a graceful bow. "Your vessel needs rest, and we have our answers."

"VERY WELL, TRAVELLER," the Oracle said in its booming voice. "CARE FOR THE EMPTIED VESSEL AS WELL AS THE NEW VESSEL."

With that, X was released into Zoltan's waiting arms. Maelstrom took X from Zoltan and the Equestrian peremptorily gestured Zoltan back into the scrum of loudly-discussing Mystikai.

Madame reached out as Maelstrom knelt to set X next to her. She stroked X's sweat-beaded forehead maternally and whispered, over and over, "I'm so sorry."

Nereid stayed on the ground with the two of them, an arm around each, content to be a literal support. X was moving slowly, blinking dazed eyes up at the ceiling. Madame was still murmuring what sounded like apologies. As an afterthought, Nereid dried their clothes and faces and hair -- sweat and tears and whatever else would leave a bit of a crust, but at least they wouldn't feel damp.

"You have my promise," Michael Frost was saying, coming to stand near Nereid and Madame and X, "that I will match the Baroness' contributions financially, and that I will permit limited involvement of my Cosmics in a decisive para action."

Washington strode almost up to him, then past, saying, "And you have my promise that I will participate in the para action myself... if it seems fun." She kicked the door open and walked out of the board room.

"I am going to take Madame and X home," Michael Frost said, reaching down to effortlessly lift Madame in his arms. Nereid helped X to stand, and stayed under the strong arm that she remembered so vividly holding her up at one time. "The rest of you may go on discussing whatever you like. Zoltan, if anything significant comes up, I trust you will notify us via the usual channels."

"Of course," Zoltan said, catching Nereid's eye with a questioning raise of his eyebrows. Nereid smiled, she hoped, reassuringly, and turned to help X follow Mr. Frost out of the room.











wonder_city: (Default)
Sorry about my post-fail last week. It's been a little rough weather here. But so is it rough weather in Wonder City.


Partying the Hard Way

Tam Lane was pressing her up against a cold metal wall, bending over her, his long auburn hair shading their faces. "Come on, baby," he was whispering, pulling her hand against the bulge in his jeans. "Do it."

Before Nereid could say anything past her horror, Tam was dragged away from her and thrown to the ground. Sophie brought a baseball bat down on the man's pretty face. There was a crunch, and a wail, and Nereid turned away.

A warm hand pressed against her back. "It's okay, Pacifica," Lucid's sympathetic voice said. "It's just a dream."

Nereid turned back to look at her, slowly rising into lucidity through her paralysis and confusion. "Really?"

Lucid smiled at her. "Yes, really. I should know, right?"

Nereid looked toward Sophie, who was still plying her baseball bat, even though most of the dream was fading away around them. Lucid said, "Sophie, time to go."

Sophie dropped the baseball bat with a little grimace and nodded, pushing some of her hair out of her face.

They walked silently away from the disintegrating scene, Lucid keeping an arm around Nereid's shoulders. Shortly, they came to a train station and mounted the steps into one of the waiting silver cars. They sat down along the side of the subway car, and the train started into motion, the rubber loops swinging silently with the motion of the car.

Nereid blinked, and took deep breaths, and looked down at herself. She was wearing her uniform, the swirling blues and greens in close-fitting spandex. She ran her hands over the fabric and forced herself to feel the texture, still breathing deeply. She'd done this a number of times, visiting Lucid's Dream Party, but it had been a while since their last trip.

"Just a baseball bat this time?" Lucid was saying curiously to Sophie as the train slanted downward into a dark tunnel.

"I've got a lot of anger issues right now," Sophie said.

"Apparently," Lucid said. "How've you been doing, Pacifica?"

Nereid blinked hard and smiled. "All right, I suppose, Leah. Wonder City is just kind of... hard."

Lucid nodded. "Seattle's no bed of roses but at least we're not having a modern-day Les Mis, like in California."

Nereid looked at her and said, "Les Mis?"

Lucid smiled briefly and bitterly. "Food riots. Water riots. Police declaring martial law and killing people left and right. It isn't just the LAPD, but that's where it started."

Something flickered in the window opposite Nereid. It was one of those advertisements consisting of a series of stills posted on the subway tunnel wall that become a little animated movie when the train rushes past them. This one only had a man's face in the center of a bright starburst. He was a handsome thirty-something with short, sleek ash-blond hair and bright, earnest blue eyes. He was speaking in the image, enunciating carefully so, Nereid supposed, someone could lip-read what he was saying.

Almost against her will, she was drawn to stare at his mouth, trying to puzzle out the words.

Lucid got up, walked across the car, and yanked down a window blind that Nereid hadn't seen there before, breaking the spell. "I am so very tired of that fucker."

"Who is he?" Nereid said, rubbing her eyes.

"Pastor Al," Sophie growled. "Tent revival boy. Is he appearing in the dream world a lot?"

"All the fucking time," Lucid said. She sat down heavily. "He's always trying to say something to the dreamers. It's not like he's actually here -- believe me, I've looked. I think that he's just a really potent symbol."

Suddenly, his face reappeared in every window of the car, and each face was saying something different, smiling a slightly different way.

Lucid's eyes narrowed and she stamped on the floor. Blinds snapped down over every window.

"We'll be there soon," she said after a moment.

"Good," Sophie said. Then, more softly, "Thanks."

Lucid squeezed Sophie's knee and patted Nereid's shoulder. "I couldn't let down some of my favorite people."

The Dream Party was less populated than Nereid had ever seen it before. The buffet was still busy. There was still a small jam session in the corner, consisting of variously-dressed people playing guitars, Vulcan harps, and drums. But there were definitely fewer beings chatting in little groups, and they spoke in lower voices.

Nereid noticed a woman sitting nearby, calmly watching roses grow from her left arm. Green sprouts burst through her skin, grew and extended, and eventually exploded into blood-red blooms. When one bloomed, she carefully snipped it off at the base with a pair of scissors, and slid the rose into a nearby glass vase that was overflowing with flowers. The water in the vase was red.

A small blue dragon alighted on the table, arranged its feathers carefully, and watched this ritual for a few moments before asking, "Does that hurt?"

The woman said, "Like a bitch. But it's the only way I know to get rid of them."

"Your friend is waiting in the private room," a second Lucid said, gesturing over her shoulder toward a door. The two Lucids nodded to each other and stepped together into a single Lucid. "Let me know if you want anything."

Sophie cast a longing glance at the buffet, but said, "Thanks," and, taking Nereid's hand, went through the indicated door.

X was seated on a straight chair with long legs crossed in the very masculine way Nereid had noticed before when X was angry. The outfit for this Dream Party outing consisted of a dark blue velvet cutaway coat over tailored black trousers and waistcoat. X was also wearing sunglasses.

X looked in their direction but didn't get up or say anything, though there was a nod to Nereid.

Sophie shut the door and said, without any introduction, "This is why I asked you both to come here." And then there was a sound like wrenching metal. Sophie let out a little gasp and staggered to one side, while another woman staggered away from her in the other direction.

The other woman was a stocky, dark brown African-American woman of medium height. Her dark hair was shaped into a short afro. There were deep lines around her eyes and mouth, lines that made her look a great deal older than Nereid would have guessed from the rest of her body. She was wearing a t-shirt and old jeans. After she caught her breath, she straightened up and put her hands on her hips.

"This is damned weird," she said, looking around at the three of them.

Sophie coughed and slid into a chair. "X, Pacifica, meet Renata Scott."

"Oh!" Nereid said, then covered her mouth with both her hands. Renata, the telepath who'd been in her head when she'd killed Sator. Right.

X rose, swept off the sunglasses, and crossed the room, extending one elegant hand. "So pleased to meet you."

Renata looked at X, grinned, and -- somewhat gingerly -- shook hands. "Hah!" she said. "This is damned weird. I'm glad to meet you finally, X. I saw you at Ruth's birthday party and didn't get introduced." She looked at her hand, then Sophie. "You must be filtering me big time."

"Well, me and your prison, I think," Sophie said, then waved a hand. "Tell them what you told me."

Renata shook hands with Nereid. Nereid gave her an embarrassed, somewhat hopeles little smile.

Then Renata threw herself into an overstuffed chair and said, "Sit yourselves down, and I'll tell you about the aliens."

X sat obediently, eyes fixed on Renata. Nereid sat down more slowly, glancing over at Sophie, who was leaning her forehead on her hands.

"They've been trying to get me to work for them," Renata said. "They won't say outright what it is they want me to do. But I suspect."

"They're projecting some sort of psionic energy via mechanisms Brainchild built," X said, and Nereid was a little startled by hearing X use Sophie's spandex name.

Renata nodded. "I know," she said, and glanced aside at Sophie, who hadn't raised her head. "And I know whose psionic energy it is."

X sat forward in the chair, perching on the very edge. Nereid blinked at Renata.

"Look," Renata said, looking at them, but running her fingers over the tooled leather of the chair she'd ended up in, "I'm imprisoned on the spaceship until I either work for them or they decide what else to do with me. They've given me a very comfortable apartment, and I'm heavily shielded from psionics there. The only reason I can project to Earth, in fact, is because I stuffed Sophie back into her head a few years ago, and so I know her better than any other human on the planet and could probably find her anywhere. The aliens have captured and imprisoned Ruth and the rest of the Gold Stars in an interdimensional prison, and they've got some jackass as their 'human liaison' whose wife is an empath. Somehow, they amped her up and she's projecting her own emotional dogma down at the U.S. of A."

X slumped back in the chair, exhaling, "Shiiiiiittttt."

Nereid looked over at Sophie again, but Sophie wasn't moving. So Nereid said, "Does she know about the new church and stuff down here?"

"Probably," Renata said with a shrug. "What little I got during my brief interviews with them was some serious right-wing religion."

X said, "That's probably what's doing it, then."

"Doing what?" Renata said.

X sat forward again, counting off on slender fingers. "Here it is: resource riots, little teams of men in black roaming the streets, martial law, nationwide mental health crisis, tripled suicide rate."

Renata stared.

"I can't get hold of Simon any more," Nereid said slowly. "Every time I call, his friend Megan answers, and she doesn't seem to know that... that Simon's human. I don't think he can be human any more. He told me he was feeling horrible about himself about and... you know he's trans, right? He was even thinking about... going back to living as a girl, just to try to make it easier to be human."

"I think the men in black may be minor telepaths," X said. "I think they may be altering potential troublemakers. A therapist I know told me that people who say they've met up with a group are often... never quite right afterward."

"I met some," Nereid said with a shudder, and started remembering like a nightmare. "For a little while afterward, I felt better. Or I thought I did. Everything was so clear. They gave me a ring. Every time I met them, they gave me a ring, and Sophie took it away from me. But after a couple of days, things weren't so clear any more, and my brain was like thick soup, and I'd feel even stupider than I used to in high school."

X reached over and put an arm around her shoulders. Nereid could feel herself shaking in the circle of that arm, but was so grateful for X's familiar warmth.

Renata's face had grown stern. She looked like an old woman, Nereid realized, though her body was young. "I can't play any more," she said. "I can't hide in my room. I didn't... I wouldn't face what was going on, but I've got to do what I can to... make it less horrible." She stood up, and her hands were clenched into fists.

"We're doing what we can," X said, also standing. "Or we'll try. I have friends who're trying."

Renata nodded sharply. "Once I know more, I'll get Sophie to bring us together again. Perhaps Lucid will be willing to bring in some of your friends, X."

"Will you come if we need to talk to you?" X asked.

"Tell Sophie," Renata said. "She knows how to get in touch."

Renata walked over to Sophie and laid a hand on the younger woman's shoulder. "Quit beating yourself up," she said quietly. "You can't help anyone that way." And then she vanished.

X sighed and said, "She's right, you know. We all need to work together in any way we can."

"Easy for her --" Sophie said, gesturing over her shoulder and upward violently "-- to say. She's not party to mass murder."

"You made an outstandingly shitty choice," X said, going to stand over Sophie, hands on hips. "I'm certainly not going to argue that you didn't. But you've got to find a way to try to make up for it now. It isn't like you're the first para to accidentally almost destroy the world."

Sophie snorted. "I could at least have done it more cleanly if I'd done it myself."

Nereid walked over to the two of them. "Yes, we all know how much better you'd be as a supervillain. You tell us all the time." She crouched down in front of Sophie and butted her forehead against her girlfriend's, looking up cross-eyed into Sophie's glasses. "But you're not, and I won't let you be, all right?"

Sophie almost smiled as she pulled back, shaking her head. "Puppydog eyes don't work at that range, dammit."

X smirked. "They do, though. From Pacifica, at least."

"That's her other damn superpower," Sophie said, standing and pulling Nereid up too. "Class 10 puppydog eyes. Let's eat, for fuck's sake."











wonder_city: (Default)
Why, yes, X DID figure something out last episode.


Ringed Round

Nereid walked into Sophie's lab, noting idly that the locks were engaged, but her special permissions got her through.

She pretty much immediately regretted having special permissions.

X was rampaging around the lab, yanking drawers out of the lab benches and stacking them on the benchtops, opening cabinets and rifling through them, pulling every closet door ajar and peering in. Sophie was standing very still in the midst of the chaos, head down.

Nereid had never seen or heard X so angry before.

Sophie said, quietly, "Please stop."

X whirled around, face red and contorted with fury. "If you won't tell me the truth, then I'll fucking well find the truth."

Sophie said, not raising her head, "Do you even know what you're looking for?"

X snarled, "Yes," and, after shoving a sliding door aside, added, "This."

X turned around, holding a plastic bin. Beyond, in the small closet, Nereid could see a small, sleek machine that hummed gently, and then spat something metallic out onto the floor.

The bin held what looked like hundreds of silver metal promise rings.

X plunged a hand into the bin and shook a handful of the things under Sophie's nose. "What. Is. THIS?"

Nereid said, finally, "What's going on?"

Both Sophie and X looked at her. X's jaw set. An expression of agony passed over Sophie's face.

After a silence, X said, "Your girlfriend is working for the alien invaders." X's hand opened and all the rings clattered onto the floor, ringing flatly and bouncing away from Sophie's boots.

Nereid's jaw worked but no voice came out.

"Please," Sophie said, covering her face with one hand, knocking her glasses off and onto the concrete floor, where the main lenses cracked and the frames broke in half at the nosepiece.

Nereid reflexively stepped forward and knelt to pick up the glasses. She stopped, her hand inches from the frames, but also from the scattered rings, and looked up at Sophie.

A tear dropped from between Sophie's fingers onto Nereid's hand. Nereid stared at it, feeling panicked. Sophie got sarcastic. Sophie got snarky. Sophie got angry. Sophie. Never. Cried.

X looked back at Sophie and in a voice whose anger had been replaced with pain, said, "Why?"

Sophie looked at X finally, her face red, eyes swollen, and said in a ragged voice, "Why else? They have Ruth."

X sighed and ran a hand through the perfect, sleek, black hair, tousling it perfectly. "Ruth wouldn't want this."

Sophie curled her lip and said, in what was clearly to Nereid a desperate attempt to regain some poise, "I have not my mother's scruples."

Nereid reached up and gripped Sophie's shirt hem in an attempt to hold onto that moment of sarcasm. She would have done anything for her own parents in the same situation, instantly and without a thought. Flo would yell at her later, but at least Flo would be there to yell.

"They said that if I didn't do it, they had others who would, and who might do it in return for Ruth's -- or someone else's -- death," Sophie said bitterly. "They have all the Gold Stars."

"How do you know?" X said. "How do you know they didn't lie?"

"Because I saw them," Sophie said. "The aliens met me in the middle of the desert -- at Area 51, as a matter of fact!" she added, her voice going high and strained, "and showed them all to me, let me run whatever tests I wanted to make sure I believed they were real. I couldn't wake her up, though I tried."

"They could've been messing with your head!" X said.

"Don't you think I thought of that?" Sophie shouted, gesturing vehemently. "I have been over and over this. I can't find Ruth anywhere in the known universe by any method I've tried except that one moment. I even tried calling Renata Scott to get her to telepathically hunt for her, but Renata is missing too! The aliens claim they're holding the Gold Stars in a dimensional pocket they control, and that's the only logical answer." Sophie's long, thin fingers tangled into her hair and pulled hard.

Nereid stood and put her arms around Sophie, pinning the anguished hands against her lover's skull with her own grip. "All right, we know now," Nereid said in the same tone she'd once used to soothe her panicked pet dog. "We know. Do we know everything?" She glanced at X. X gestured disgustedly and turned away.

Sophie pressed her face into Nereid's shoulder and let her hands fall to her sides. "I made the broadcast technology for them. They knew it was possible, they have a tech like it for themselves, but it wouldn't work with humans. The rings are the only thing I'm still making for them. They produce everything else. Main system. Transmitters. Repeaters, I'm guessing."

"What does it broadcast?" X said, back still turned.

Sophie exhaled, her breath hot on Nereid's neck, and Nereid held her tight. "They have a mentalist of some sort. I think it's an empath, but I don't know for sure. They wanted something that would transmit human psionic powers."

"And you built defenses on the Cosmics' compound and put everyone under house arrest here to protect them," X said, shoulders hunched.

"Yes," Sophie said, voice muffled in the fabric of Nereid's shirt. "It was the only concession I could get from them."

"You know what they're doing to people, don't you?" X said, turning to look at them.

Sophie just nodded, her nose rubbing against Nereid's collarbone.

X faced them and said in a resolute voice, "We're going to stop them. It. Everything."

Sophie said, "I can't help. They'll kill her."

Nereid said, meeting X's gaze, "But I can."

Sophie put her arms around Nereid finally and clung as if she would drown otherwise.

"I'll talk to Mr. Frost," Nereid said. "I'll explain. Get permission. Whatever I can do to help, X."

X nodded and went to the door.

Sophie looked up and said, "Who is going to stop them? They've got the Gold Stars, and the Guardians and all the other major teams are under the influence."

X looked back, handsome and sad and tragic, and said, "Some people they forgot about," and went out.











wonder_city: (Default)
Here's a little movement and action in Wonder City for the new year!



The Inevitable Law of Revelation

The sight of the massive leather-clad bulk of TinkerMel seated on Madame Destiny's floral sofa, sipping tea from a tiny china teacup, very nearly reduced Angelica to helpless giggles.

"I'm very glad to meet you, Angelica," Lady Justice said, shaking her hand firmly. The old woman was less unkempt than that old newspaper article had implied: her hair was recently cut and washed, so that it was an iron-grey, wavy mass a little shy of her shoulders, and her clothes were old, but certainly clean and there was a neatly mended tear in one knee of the woman's jeans. "Now, Pearl has briefed you, right?" Lady Justice had the keenest, bluest eyes Angelica had ever seen.

"Yes, ma'am," Angelica said, using the honorific automatically. "And I'm fine with your power."

"You can just call me Lady J, or whatever you like, dear," Lady Justice said with a grin.

"You need to get used to being 'ma'am'ed again, Lady J," said a balding elderly man sitting in a straight chair next to the chair Lady J had risen from. He looked mostly in their direction, but his gaze was vague. His smile, however, was utterly charming. "You're the bosslady here."

Everyone settled down and Pearl made introductions to which Angelica attended carefully. The old man next to Lady J was Ira Feldstein, formerly the hero Mister Metropolitan. Madame Destiny was their elderly hostess, and she looked both sick and exhausted. X, Madame's apprentice, was a dashing spark of light in the room, genderqueer as hell and dressed to the nines. And the young, plain Asian woman with the terribly old eyes was Madeline Fukuda, the biggest single-person U.S. scandal of the Second World War. Ah.

No wonder Pearl was recruiting younger people. Poor X.

"All right," Lady J said, limping back to her chair and settling into it. "Let's summarize for our new folks, Angelica and Mel."

"Alien invasion," X said, with a gesture upward.

"A little too succinct, dear," Madame said, sipping her tea.

"Noooo," Angelica said. "That makes sense, actually. I'm guessing they've infiltrated the government and that's where we're getting the little mobs of men in black?"

"Your guess is as good as ours," Madeline said with a little shrug. "We know it's aliens from questioning in the Oracle. How they're controlling things so invisibly and making everything so wrong is still a mystery to us."

"I think I can help with that," Mel rumbled, carefully setting the teacup down on the table and reaching into one of his many inner jacket pockets. He set one of the rings he'd confiscated down on the table, and then held up a little plexiglass display case with another one of the rings taken apart and exploded like a display skull, each miniscule piece attached to a slender pin.

The group leaned in close, but couldn't really make anything of the rings out, though Pearl said, "Wait, isn't that one of those promise rings that the men in black have been handing out? Some of my patients have been wearing them."

"Yes," Mel said. "They're not transmitters, which is what I thought they were originally. I've dissected a dozen of them in various ways. They're similar to the TeslaNet receiver-transformers, absorbing some sort of ambient energy and then transmitting it to the wearer in concentrated form. I can't tell you what the energy is, though." Angelica knew how hard that last sentence had been for him -- Mel prided himself on being able to figure out any device.

The group stared at Mel for a moment. Then, Angelica, thinking of Simon, said, "Could there also be... larger versions of the rings that don't need to be touching someone?"

Ira turned his head toward her, his face lighting up. "Like a speaker system? To focus it on somewhere in particular? Watson said something about the Marigold Lane house being worse for whatever-it-is than elsewhere. And it felt worse."

Mel chewed his lower lip, scowling down at the exploded ring. "Yes, I think so. A repeater type of technology."

"Technologically-enhanced mind control?" Pearl said. When everyone looked at her, appalled, she said, "Well, that's what we're all thinking, isn't it?"

Mel nodded heavily. "I can also tell you this: whoever made this is either human or well-versed in human technology. I've seen some alien tech, and this is totally down-home."

Lady J sighed. "That means the involvement of someone who's made a special study of paranormal powers and 'improbable physics', like Professor Canis."

"Who is missing," Madame noted. "So not her."

"That would explain why I couldn't figure out the energies," Mel mumbled to himself, looking a little pleased. He tucked his show-and-tell items back into his coat. "But Professor Canis has written extensively about her work. I'll do some research, see what I can find."

X had turned very pale, Angelica noticed, but wasn't saying anything.

"If the aliens are projecting something down at us," Madeline said quietly, "then we really do need to get to their ship or ships. Or into orbit at least. And we don't have anyone who can do that."

Madame nodded. "That was the thing we were bringing to the table: we either couldn't contact the superhero teams we know, or they couldn't help us for some reason."

Madeline said, "There are a couple of small, young teams, but all of them are street-focused vigilante types. We don't have any cosmic heroes willing, able, or available."

"Speaking of cosmics," X said, "the Young Cosmics have been forbidden to engage in any major actions by their backer. So no help there. Though..." X's lips compressed into a line and the word cut off. "No, no help there."

Ira said sadly, "Watson Holmes said she didn't want to draw attention to us, since she felt there was attention being paid to her household. I... saw some very disturbing things. That poor boy, Simon... so reduced..."

Feldstein! Angelica didn't quite snap her fingers with realization. Of course! Ira was Suzanne's father-in-law.

She was so distracted by her epiphany that she nearly missed Lady Justice raising her head and saying, distinctly, "We have one last hope, ladies and gentlemen, and it's a damnable long shot."

This managed to rivet everyone's attention.

Lady J turned to Pearl and Angelica. "Do either of you know anyone who's got a knack for focusing other people's minds?"

The two women looked at each other quizzically. Angelica pursed her lips and said, "What do you think about Kendis?"

Pearl made a surprised noise and said, "What is she registered as?"

"I have no idea," Angelica said, "but she once said that if she ever took a superhero name it would be 'Ginkgo Biloba.' Students hire her to sit in the next room when they take exams and shi... stuff like that."

"She works at that para nursing home," Pearl said, rubbing one of her thumb joints thoughtfully.

Angelica looked at Lady J, and she had to admit that there was something thrilling about being the focus of that woman's intense gaze, being the person appealed to for expertise. Yeah, okay, Lady Justice was awesome. "I think so. I don't know how much control of it she's got, though."

"It's worth a try," Lady J said. "All right, I need you, Angelica, to bring that friend of yours to the Stars 'n' Garters Cafe Saturday morning. And I'll need you too, Madeline."

"What are you going to do?" Madame said, a little worried.

Lady J smiled grimly, cracking her knobby knuckles. "A little jailbreaking."











wonder_city: (Default)
My schedule has just gone to heck, but here I am, giving you another Wonder City just under the November wire. I hope you enjoy it!


Enter the Dragon

Nereid was surprised and pleased to open the front door of the Young Cosmics' headquarters to find X leaning indolently against the stair rail. X was wearing a hip-length double-breasted black wool coat against the spring chill, and also neatly creased grey trousers over long, slender black-and-white patent leather oxfords. X's hair was a little shorter these days than it had been when X and Nereid were first introduced by Brainchild, with a little more masculinity and a little less androgyny. Still, X was striking, handsome and beautiful at the same time, and always made Nereid's heart do a little pit-a-pat. Just a little.

"Hey," X said in a smoky tenor. "How's it going?"

Nereid smiled and stepped back from the door. "Not bad," she said, lying through her teeth because she was really feeling pretty stir-crazy, trapped in the headquarters.

X strolled into the headquarters and Nereid saw the line of tension across those admirable shoulders relax. There was something, Nereid had noticed, about their headquarters. It was palpably more comfortable, like someone turning off a white noise machine you didn't realize was running. It didn't stop her from hating being cooped up there -- the headquarters was not designed to be some sort of self-contained habitation. Sophie often described it as being built in "Soviet Brutal" style, a bizarre, ill-lit convolution in concrete and other materials designed to resist explosions and similar supervillain assaults.

"So," Nereid said, shutting the door and turning to lead X toward the flat she shared with Sophie, "what brings you to this part of town?"

"I came to ask you all for a favor," X began, but they turned the corner and ran smack into a knot of Cosmics.

Wire, Mercury, and Vector were clustered around a tall, tanned man with longish white hair that sported a heavy lock hanging dramatically over one eye, wearing an exquisitely tailored pale grey suit. Nereid had only seen the man that her team leaders called "Mr. Moneybags" a few times in her tenure with the Cosmics, but she knew him on sight anyway -- who could miss him, really?

"Ah, Nereid," he said in a low, faintly British drawl. "How are you, my jewel?"

Wire shot Nereid a frustrated glance that Nereid knew to interpret as, You have derailed him just when I thought we were getting somewhere, and then Wire exhaled hard enough to make her floaty blue forelock flip back across her otherwise closely-shorn head. Nereid smiled quickly and nodded. "Fine, sir," she said quickly, trying to sidle past them. Mercury, resplendently muscular in his tight black spandex outfit, at least, made way for her, and she thought, for a bare second, that she could get away.

"Mr. Moneybags" managed to intercept her, twining his way between Vector and Wire, who half-reached for his sleeve, but wisely withdrew her hand. He leaned against the wall in her path in a slightly predatory way and looked down at her from his always startling height. "Are you really well, though?" he pursued. "You looked a touch pale, my dear."

"I'm fine, sir," she repeated, then said, "Have you met X, sir? X, this is Michael Frost, the Cosmics' backer. Mr. Frost, this is X."

"Ah, yes, I recall you," Mr. Frost said, raising one pale eyebrow. "You have some interesting potential, you know."

"I know," X said with a tight smile. "It's a pleasure meeting you again."

Mr. Frost's attention was not long held by X, though. His icy blue gaze was turned back to Nereid before she could think of another distraction. "I don't want you becoming ill," he said.

"Sir--" Nereid clamped down on a moment of rage, bit down on a demand to be let out of confinement, and swallowed her unhappiness, giving herself quite a stomachache. She was saved from answering by her usual rescuer.

"Hello, Michael," Sophie said, somehow appearing at Nereid's elbow. "I was wondering when you'd turn up."

Mr. Frost straightened up to loom from his full height and turned to face Sophie. His expression didn't change much at all, something that had always creeped Nereid out about him. "Brainchild," he said. "Thank you for pulling them out of an untenable situation. Again." His gaze darted to Mercury in particular, and Nereid had the rare pleasure of seeing their boisterous, cocky leader wilt.

"That's my job," Sophie said, taking Nereid's arm. "Isn't it?"

"I wish you had managed the press as well," he said.

"The press isn't amenable to my style of prediction right now," she said, also taking X's arm. "Logic doesn't work very well in the current climate."

His lips compressed. Sophie's face was her most indestructable mask of cool cynicism, and the extra lenses of her glasses were fanned down over one side of her face, which Nereid always found unsettling.

Mr. Frost turned on Mercury, Wire, and Vector with cool precision. "I will make myself clear now," he said in a low, penetrating voice. "My team will not become involved in any long-term situations that will bring the gaze of the government or media down on it. These short-term emergency actions are quite enough, and I understand that it would be... irresponsible for any hero group to fail to respond to such emergencies. But there will be no pursuit of nemeses, no trips to space, nothing of the sort, and you will always respond to even small emergencies with a full team, unless waiting would endanger lives, you understand?"

Wire and Mercury said, reflexively, "Yes, sir," at the same moment.

Sophie chose this moment to silently draw Nereid and X down the hall and around the next corner into the flat.

They all exhaled simultaneously when the door of the flat was shut.

"That was about the university thing, wasn't it?" X said.

"Yeah," Sophie said, pushing off from the door and moving into the kitchen. "And more, probably, but it's hard to tell with him."

"I can never tell anything with him," Nereid said.

Sophie shrugged and said, "Humans find it hard to read Reptilian-Americans. Want a drink, X?"

"Sure," X said, sitting on an arm of the sofa.

Nereid stopped and stared at Sophie. "He's a Reptilian-American? Why didn't you tell me?"

Sophie gave her a slightly disbelieving look, and Nereid knew instantly she'd said something stupid, and could almost say, word for word, what came out of Sophie's mouth next. "Would it have made a difference in how you interacted with him?"

Nereid sighed explosively and moved around the room, turning on more lights. "No," she said, then added, in a brighter tone to X, "You said you came to ask us a favor?"

X grimaced and glanced toward the door. "I was," X sighed, "but I think that point is moot."

"Oh, was it something Mr. Frost just forbade us to do?" Nereid said, and she could feel a whole vista of hope of getting out of the building opening up before her.

"Probably," X said with an air of gloom.

Sophie brought X a tumbler of tawny liquid and said, "No."

X nodded and sipped the drink.

"You don't even know what it is yet!" Nereid protested.

"I'm not going to buck Michael on anything he just said," Sophie said, handing Nereid a similar glass of alcohol, "because he's right. Completely. Fucking. Right. This team mostly needs its nuts pulled out of the fire, and mostly by thee and me, sweetheart."

"There's something really wrong out there and I'm sick of doing nothing," Nereid started.

"Nereid, it's fine," X said mildly. "Sophie knows her stuff here."

Nereid caught some sort of look between X and Sophie, something sharp from X and something almost... guilty? from Sophie. Looking back and forth between them, she said, "What?"

X looked at her, one elegant eyebrow raised. "She knows something she isn't telling us, isn't she?"

Nereid blinked. She'd thought it was all in her own head, but if X had seen it too... "I've... thought so," Nereid said slowly.

Sophie raised her chin in a defiant look.

X considered her gravely, then shrugged. "I know you too well to try to press you. You'd rather make something up than tell us if we do."

Nereid looked down into her glass, then looked back up and said, "I trust you, Sophie."

The defiant look shattered with sudden violence and a cry that sent Sophie fleeing to the bathroom. Nereid looked at X, alarmed.

X nodded and shrugged. "She'll tell us when she can." One corner of X's rather perfect mouth curled up in a wry smile. "Or when we can squeeze it out of her."










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Am I Invisible? Am I Inaudible?

The group reconvened a few days later in Madame's living room, after X had called them all to let them know that Madame had recovered from the session with the Oracle.

"The question of the day is," Madeline said, "now that we know, what do we do about the alien invasion?"

Ira sipped his tea. He couldn't stop himself from squinting to see his companions' faces and being frustrated, as always, by his blindness. Finally, he said, "Well, who can we contact who can take on an alien... is it an armada? Or one ship? I mean, if they're somehow... controlling things, do they need an armada?"

"Unfortunately, the Oracle is never precise," Madame said.

"And always obscure," X muttered.

"Does it really matter?" Pearl said. "Either it's one ship or many. Either they're in orbit or hidden somewhere on Earth. The facts are that they are, I think, meddling with people's minds, and I'll tell you this as mental health professional: if someone doesn't stop it soon, there will, in fact, be irreparable damage done to thousands, if not millions, of people."

There was a silence, and Lady Justice said, "Is what you're seeing that bad, Pearl?"

Pearl cleared her throat. "I have clients coming to me, week after week, who just don't remember what they said the week before. It's like they're all being reset to be maximally screwed up." Ira could tell from the waver in her voice that she was upset. "Some of them stop coming to me because they've forgotten I exist. And... I've been talking to other therapists in town, and we all agree that the rate of attempted suicides has at least tripled."

"Oh," Lady J said, and they all sat in silence again.

"I tried calling the Gold Stars," Madeline said. "They're still 'on a mission in space'. I tried calling Ruth, too, but there's no answer at home and there's... someone else in charge of her company right now. And it's not Ms. Revelle."

"They've been on that mission for at least 6 months," X said. "Sophie mentioned that Ruth had gone with them. I tried the Guardians. They're currently unavailable and, uh, I think they're compromised."

Madame snorted mirthlessly. "I think that's safe to say, given that their voicemail message is full of Biblical verses, and while I think most of the Guardians are, in fact, Christian, none of them have ever been so... forward about it."

Ira grappled at something in the back of his mind for a moment and finally said, "Mental!" out loud. Then he was sure everyone was looking at him, and felt his face heat up. "I... was just thinking. If it's a mental thing, why don't we ask a telepath?"

"Do you know any these days?" Lady J said.

"Yes!" Ira said. "At least, I've worked with one. Two years ago, that killer, remember? We had someone I was told was the Class 10 telepath networking us."

"Renata Scott!" Madeline said. "Of course! Do you have a way to get in touch with her? Because... well, I know her but Ruth always handled the contact."

"I don't," Ira said, slumping in defeat. Then he straightened up. "But I know someone who does! I can't count on Suzanne right now, but I bet Watson Holmes knows how to get hold of her."

"Okay," Lady J said, sounding businesslike and leaderly, "we have one person to contact. Ira, that's your job. Who else?"

Ira was noticing a lot of silence in this meeting.

"Well, let's list some of the other groups we have contacts with," Lady J said patiently. "For me, there's the Lightning Family, the Solarians, the Animal Kings, the Regulars..."

"The Regulars are just a neighborhood group," Madeline said.

"They might be under the radar of whatever is going on," Pearl said.

"They're not going to be able to fight an alien invasion," Madeline pursued.

"We're just brainstorming," Pearl said, "so let's not pooh-pooh anything right now."

Madeline said, "All right. Well, then, while we're at it, let's talk not only Wonder City and environs, but beyond. I know the Blazers in New York, and the Patriots in Philadelphia."

"The Minutemen and the Stormriders in Boston," Ira said. "I know the Minutemen's founder."

"What about that group you know in Britain, Madame?" Lady J said. "The Next Generation?"

"Have you seen the things people are saying about the UK right now?" X said. "People are saying that the cities in the UK make them believe in a zombie apocalypse. Except, you know, without all the parts falling off."

"I hadn't heard," Ira said, and there was a general murmur of agreement.

"There's nothing in the news, but there's a lot of talk online," X said. "People in the rural areas are avoiding the cities and warning other people to avoid them too, because everyone in the big cities is acting really... robot-like. No thought, no conversation... no crime, but I'm not sure about the trade-off there."

"Hmm," Madame said. "The Next Gen was based in London last I heard, too."

"What is it with London anyway?" Lady J said. "They're as bad as Tokyo with apocalypses."

X said, slowly, "There's also the Young Cosmics." Ira thought X must have looked around the room before saying, hurriedly, "I know they're not very... together. But I know they're not totally under control AND they have a Class 10 elemental, an unclassable intellect, a speedster, and a android with a range of Class 6 powers. If they can't search space, they can at least canvass Earth for the aliens, right?"

Lady J exhaled. "All right, X, you contact the Young Cosmics. Madeline, are there any other folks in the Tens who might be helpful?"

Madeline paused in a way Ira suspected was thoughtful. "Jennifer Lombardi might be helpful. Her power is, ah, being able to see everywhere at once. I can't think of a better person to have a look around. Though she's a little... random sometimes."

Lady J made a noise of agreement. "That sounds good. Also, I've been thinking that maybe we need some more people who're... under the radar like us. I mean, no one pays special attention to us. But we're... some of us are old and not very mobile. It would be good to get some more young folks in so X doesn't end up doing our footwork all the time."

X laughed, Ira thought, just a little bitterly.

"I think I can help with that," Pearl said. "And I can do it without even violating patient privacy. I know a woman who's a receptionist at Queer Energy. It's a sort of community center and low-income clinic for paras -- mostly queer people, but some not. I bet she knows some folks, but I think she'd also be good for adding to our little cadre."

"Oh, are you thinking of Angelica?" Madeline said. Presumably Pearl nodded, because Madeline went on with, "She's a smart cookie -- a good ideas person."

"Okay," Lady J said, clapping her hands together lightly, "I think we have the start of a plan. If X will give me a hand with Parapedia, Madame and I will put our heads together to see what other groups we can call, and make some of those calls."

Ira nodded, smiling. "It's good to be working with you again, Lady Justice," he said, giving her shadow a sloppy salute.

She leaned over and squeezed his shoulder. "And it's good to have something to do, isn't it?"

Ira nodded, thinking that perhaps he'd just go actually visit Watson Holmes. After all, didn't she live in the same building with Simon? Maybe he could kill two birds with one stone -- or two conundrums with one bus fare, at least.

---

Trying very hard to remember that Ira is blind while I write. Please let me know if you notice any slips.








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The Truth Is Out There

Ira was both prepared and relieved when the light of the Oracle permeated the room. As that time more than two years earlier, the strange, harsh, bluish light returned his vision in youthful clarity. He was able to see the other people who had all gathered of their own accord in Madame Destiny's workroom: Madame's androgynous Asian assistant, X, who was wearing a plain blue buttondown shirt and tailored black trousers; Lady Justice, whose unkempt grey hair was roughly tidied back with bobby pins and whose face looked like a topographic map of some mountainous place in the unflattering light; Madeline Fukuda, who still looked as young and lovely as she had the first time Ira had met her in the 1950s, though, perhaps, the lines around her eyes were more pronounced with worry and sadness; and the woman to whom he'd just been introduced, Pearl Wong, X's grandmother, who did, in fact, look a great deal like X except very definitely a woman in her mid-60s, with all the wrinkles and grey hair to go with it.

Madame was sitting in her accustomed chair, her back ramrod straight, her eyes wide and glowing with Oracle-light. Ira saw that she'd aged shockingly since the last time he'd been able to see her; she looked exhausted. There was a long pause after the light came up, and Ira could see that her shoulders and head were trembling very slightly. Finally, with almost a little sigh, the Oracle said, "SPEAK."

X stepped into Madame's line of sight and said, "Oracle, those gathered in this room have observed strange happenings in the world. We would like to ask you about the source of these happenings."

"EACH OF YOU MAY SPEAK A SINGLE QUESTION."

X had briefed them before the session, while Madame was preparing alone in the room: the Oracle only took yes/no questions right now, especially from a large group, because Madame's endurance was not what it used to be, and one should assume that the Oracle will know the circumstances around one's question, because delay for lengthy explanations would only tax Madame more. X glanced around the room to make sure everyone was ready, then gestured to Ira, who had drawn the straw to ask the first question.

Ira briefly reflected on the fact that X apparently knew about the Oracle's ability to clear the vision of the blind, given the gesture, then shook himself and said, "Has there been a major reorganization of the timeline in the past two years that is causing the odd behaviors I've observed?"

The Oracle turned Madame's head slowly to consider him. "NO, IRA FELDSTEIN."

Ira said, "Thank you," and looked at Lady Justice.

Lady J chewed her lower lip for a moment, then said, "Is there a single person responsible for the behavior changes?"

The Oracle again turned Madame's head, and Ira fancied the hesitation was a little longer. "NO, DOROTHY SANDERSON."

She nodded briefly and said, "Thanks."

X looked at Madeline, who drew a long breath and said, "Is the government at the root of the new behaviors?"

The Oracle said, without hesitating, "NO, MADELINE FUKUDA."

After Madeline had muttered her thanks, everyone looked at Pearl. She looked around at the rest of them, and said, "Does it come from the skies?"

Everyone stared at Pearl. Ira recalled her mentioning something her therapy clients had been saying lately.

The Oracle snapped Madame's head around to look at her, and said, "YES, PEARL WONG."

Now they all stared at the Oracle. Ira noticed that Madame's tremors were worse, and there were tears tracking down her face. X apparently noticed as well, moving forward to put a hand over Madame's wrist and a finger on her pulse.

Madame's face turned up to X and the Oracle said, "YOU HAVE NOT ASKED, EMPTY VESSEL."

X stared into Madame's possessed face, and glanced at Pearl. "Have we been invaded?"

Again, no delay. "YES, EMPTY VESSEL."

X nodded, then said, "You should go."

Ira saw the Oracle sweep an unreadable gaze over the group. Then the light went out and Ira's vision returned to its usual blurry glow. He heard a scuffle and X let out a pained exhalation.

"A little help here?" X said with an audible effort to sound calm.

"Let me," Madeline said, and Ira could see her move rapidly across the room, trailed by someone he assumed was Pearl. Certainly, he knew, Lady J hadn't moved that fast or well since the stroke. "Get her a glass of water," Madeline added. He heard X jog out of the room.

"What's wrong?" Ira said, keeping his seat with difficulty.

"Madame collapsed," Lady J murmured. "Let the kids handle it, Ira. We'd just be in the way."

Ira reached out toward her, and Lady J took his hand. They gripped each other's hands tightly, their ancient superstrength and invulnerability keeping them safe from one another. "It's another invasion," Ira said in a low voice, tuning out the quiet hustle around Madame.

"It seems like we get them about once a decade, doesn't it?" Lady J said. "I mean the really big ones."

"They're changing the world this time. It's just... just..." Ira stopped.

"It's kind of like the Great Gulf, without the time manipulation, isn't it?" Lady J said, giving his hand a squeeze.

"Yeah," Ira said, wiping at his eyes where they were watering. "But without the time manipulation, it won't be as bad. It can't."

---

Author's Note:

Being the vessel of a cosmic entity is hard work.

Don't forget to vote for Wonder City Stories at Top Webfiction!








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All Alone in the Night

Ira Feldstein watched his daughter-in-law fussing with her hair in the front hall mirror. Suzanne glanced aside at him. "You sure you don't want to come to church with me, Ira?"

Ira frowned. His vision had been getting worse lately, and now Suzanne was little more than a cloudy shape to him -- brown hair, brown jacket, brown skirt, brown shoes. Still, he focused on her as best he could. "Suzanne, you're an atheist and I'm a Jew. What's all this about church?"

"Can't a girl change her mind?" Suzanne said, pulling on a dark blue overcoat and settling a matching hat on her head.

"Is this about some investigation you're doing?" Ira said hopefully. "To expand that article you wrote a couple weeks ago?"

"No, Ira, it's not." Her tone was kind and a little condescending. She could get that way sometimes, but Ira had only rarely heard it turned toward him. "This is about me making a positive change in my life."

Ira watched her silently for a few moments longer, then turned and carefully made his way back to the living room. Something was wrong. Something had been wrong for months now, ever since Simon Canis had stopped coming over, since Suzanne had stopped talking about him. She'd been edgy and sad, and Ira had thought perhaps she and Simon had had an argument, but when he had asked about it, she acted as though she didn't know who Simon was, which was horrible given that they'd been seeing each other for over a year, almost two years. Simon had made her happier than Ira had ever known her to be, even back before her marriage to his son had gone sour.

He sat in his chair and listened for Suzanne to say she was going out, but she never did -- he only heard the front door open and shut.

Ira felt a chill.

Was it a timeline thing? Years ago, after the Great Gulf had taken his wife, Tin Lizzie, and the first Golden Guardian, a few people had suggested that perhaps one of his powers was being invulnerable to timeline shifts. He was the only one who could remember the two women, and he supposed that positing a strange invulnerability was preferable to everyone simply calling him crazy.

Had the timeline taken Simon Canis?

After a few moments of pondering, he reached for the telephone with the big number buttons that sat next to his chair. He carefully dialed a number from memory, since he could no longer read his address book, then listened to it ring.

"Hello?" said a cautious, measured voice on the other end.

"X, hello, this is Ira Feldstein."

"Oh, hey, Mister Metro," X said, androgynous voice warming. "What can I do for you?"

"I was wondering if Madame had some time for me," Ira said, quashing the quaver in his voice and the unworthy conviction in the back of his head that Suzanne certainly didn't any more.

"Always, Mister Metro," X said. "Do you have a ride?"

"I'll catch the bus," he said, and felt on the side table for the folding white cane that was his outdoor companion now. "I'll be fine."

"You call if you need to," X said. "I'd be glad to come pick you up."

"No, no, I'll manage, thanks," Ira said, being stubborn while trying not to sound it. "When would be best?"

"She doesn't have any appointments today," X said. "Any time you can come would be fine. I'll make tea."

"I'll leave now," Ira said, feeling urgent about being out before Suzanne came home. "I'll catch the next bus."

"Be careful, Mister Metro, and remember that the buses are slow on Sundays," X said. "We'll be glad to see you."

"Thank you, X," he said. "See you soon."

"See you soon," X said, and they hung up.

Ira made sure he had his cell phone -- he had several numbers on speed dial, like Suzanne and his ex-wife Andrea -- and his cane, and made his way into the front hall. He didn't bother going for his old uniform; he'd mostly given up wearing it after the heart attack last fall. No point goading some random supervillain who thinks beating up an old man will help him feel more secure, you know?

There was no companion today, no one he had to check in with, but he scrawled a quick note for Suzanne: "Gone to Madame's." He pulled on his coat against the early spring chill, pocketed his wallet and keys, and headed out, unfurling his cane with a flip of his wrist.

He was going to get to the bottom of this, or his name wasn't Mister Metropolitan.

---

Queer fic recommendation: Some years ago, Melissa Scott and her partner, Lisa Barnett, wrote two marvelous books called Point of Hopes and Point of Dreams. They are mysteries set in a deliciously detailed fantasy world that is matriarchal, full of complex astrological magic, and chockablock with completely normal queer relationships.

Sadly, Lisa passed away in 2006, but now Melissa has given us a NEW Points story that fits between these two books,
Point of Knives, coming out in July, and Lethe Press is rereleasing the first two books (Point of Hopes is available now, and Point of Dreams will be out in the fall).

If you haven't tried the Points books, I highly recommend them to you. If you get
Point of Hopes now, you'll be done in just in time to pick up Point of Knives. ;)


Remember to vote for Wonder City Stories at Top Webfiction!








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His Faded Idol

12.

The festivities went on well into the daytime hours, and Erszebet was intrigued by the shift in the type of people she saw walking the halls. Of course, the vermin had to leave before sunrise, and they were replaced by vastly more people in colorful costumes than she had seen previously.

Everyone is happy to attend a celebration. Not quite so many are so happy to attend a funeral, even for someone who was, essentially, a kind of head of state.

She retired to what she'd begun to think of as "the Garnet Parlor", a sprawling room done up in lavish Victoriana, full of comfortable chairs, gas fireplaces, cozy conversation nooks, and sound-deadening wall-hangings and rugs. There was also something that flattened out emotional noise, so that it was very peaceful and quiet in all ways. In a dimly-lit corner, in a wingback chair, she closed her eyes and sighed with relief.

"Ah, Ms. Farkas," said a vaguely familiar woman's voice. "How does the last day of the event find you?"

Erszebet opened her eyes and found a cheerful almost-elderly woman smiling at her from another wingback chair; the woman was wearing a black turban with a peacock plume attached to it, and a long black dress, set off by a metallic wine-colored wrap, and a magnificent garnet parure. When the young, beautifully-dressed Asian man appeared in a morning coat and trousers, carrying a tray with a china teapot and cup, she recognized Madame Destiny. "I am extremely tired," Erszebet admitted. "But it has been an... unforgettable experience."

"I expect so," Madame said, taking the teacup offered. "You've had quite a week. And more experiences upcoming soon."

Erszebet looked sharply at the woman. "How do you know these things?"

Madame smiled and sipped her tea. "I've been a fortuneteller for almost fifty years."

Erszebet glanced at the young man, who smiled briefly and nodded. "She's a very good fortuneteller."

"Thank you, X, dear," Madame said. "Oh, would you take this, dear?" She handed the teacup back to the young man and turned a serious look on Erszebet. "I'm sorry, this will probably be somewhat unpleasant, but..."

There was an alarming change in the room -- the light shifted, became sharp and harsh and unforgiving, laying bare not only all the age lines in Madame's face, but the imperfections in the wall hangings, the upholstery, and the hem of Erszebet's dress. Madame, for her part, sat up very straight with her eyes glowing blue.

"ERSZEBET FARKAS," Madame said in an unearthly, sepulchral voice, "YOU ARE A CHILD OF DESTINY."

Erszebet just stared.

Madame went on: "YOUR TRAVELS WILL NOT END, YOUR WORDS FENCES TO MEND, YOUR NAME MANY WILL CALL FRIEND. GO WITH PEACE FOR NOW, THOUGH CONTENTION BE YOUR ETERNAL PARTNER." And with that, Madame slumped back in her chair and the light returned to normal.

Erszebet looked from Madame to X and back, alarmed.

X bent and set a gentle hand on Madame's shoulder. Madame took a startled breath and opened her eyes. She awkwardly nudged the turban on her head and smiled, a little vacantly, at Erszebet. "Well, dear, did that help?"

Erszebet found her voice, and decided to be very polite. "No, I'm afraid it only confused me."

Madame smiled more widely and managed to focus on her at last. "I'm sorry, dear, the Oracle is sometimes like that. It's usually so cryptic that its meaning isn't obvious until much later."

Erszebet was very glad when shortly after, Juana Zalazar came to abduct her. "You look rather pale," Juana said when they were out of the parlor. "Are you well?"

"I... just had a rather remarkable experience with one of the paras, I think," Erszebet said. "I can't quite make out whether it was a prophecy or a curse."

Juana patted her shoulder kindly. "Sometimes, it is impossible to tell the difference. Speaking of that, I'm taking you to see my mother."

Erszebet gave her a wild, alarmed look at this particular segue.

"Not to worry," Juana said, smiling. "My mother has asked to speak to you privately, and Dame Geneviève would like to be introduced to you."

Erszebet's look did not diminish in alarm at all. Both Grand Matriarchs wanted to speak to her? Specially? Had she spoken out of turn? Had Isolde mentioned her embarrassing assumptions earlier in the week? Was she to be sent home now instead of taken on a grand tour of the country?

The two Grand Matriarchs were ensconced, side by side, in comfortable-looking high-backed wooden chairs that looked as much like thrones as they could without actually being thrones. There was no dais, no added jewelry, no ermine or gold, nothing that really indicated that these two ancient women were actually queens who had just peaceably split a kingdom between them. The Zalazar had gone from "plump and cheerful" to "massive and imposing", the tall Spanish comb set with brilliants in her hair only adding more height. The de León's deepset eyes and hooked nose lent a grim and forbidding aspect to her mien.

Zoltan stood quietly to one side, a bland but pleasant smile on his face, his hands clasped behind his back. The smile widened a little at the sight of her, but there was nothing either warning or excessive in the expression.

Everyone in the room -- with the certain exception of Erszebet -- was locked down, emotionally, tight as a drum.

"Erszebet Farkas," Magna Mater Consuela said with a smile.

Erszebet sank into the deepest curtsy she could manage, trying desperately to remember the little "just in case you're presented to the new Grand Matriarch" tutorial her aunt Csilla had given her while also wondering why everyone was using her full name today. Her reward for the curtsy -- and staying down -- was a tight note of approval from Zoltan.

"Rise," Magna Mater Geneviève intoned. "So you are the girl."

Erszebet tried not to show or leak panic as she drew herself back up to her feet.

"She is," Magna Mater Consuela said complacently. "We wish to thank you, Erszebet."

Erszebet tried not to show or leak confusion. She didn't succeed.

"I had planned to challenge Griselda no matter what," Magna Mater Consuela continued. "As had my counterpart here."

"The historical information you passed on to the St. Michels," Magna Mater Geneviève said, "was promptly spread far and wide throughout the American Family, which inspired all the Ancients to challenge."

"It may be an unprecedented event, even in the old country," Magna Mater Consuela said, "this great challenge. You should check with your aunt and let us know." She smiled, and Erszebet took it as reassurance.

"I am grateful to have been of service, my Mothers," Erszebet said, curtsying again.

"I look forward to your company on our travels to my realm," Magna Mater Consuela said, beaming upon her. "And perhaps more discussions of history."

Erszebet dipped to the floor again.

Magna Mater Geneviève turned a moment of crushing, laserlike focus upon her, and Erszebet narrowly managed to avoid cringing. "I understand you are acquainted with my granddaughter," she said after a moment.

"Yes, Mother," Erszebet said, locking down her embarrassment as hard as she could.

"Well, then," Magna Mater Geneviève said, "when Magna Mater Consuela releases you back into the wild, I will charge my granddaughter Isolde with bringing you to my Household for a time."

Yet another curtsy. "You honor me greatly, Mother."

"Shall I send her back to you, Zoltan?" Magna Mater Consuela inquired. "And you can facilitate her reunion with Isolde."

He bowed so that his long hair brushed the floor. "I should be glad of hosting my cousin again, Mother."

"It is settled, then," Magna Mater Geneviève said, thumping the arm of her chair. "Leave us now. We still have many people to see today."

Erszebet escaped the room gracefully, with Juana's assistance. In the hallway, she carefully mopped her forehead and face with her linen handkerchief as she said to Juana, "As if one Grand Matriarch is not terrifying enough..."

Juana laughed. "Yes, indeed. Well done. Come, we will get you a drink. You deserve one."

---

Author's Note:

Portents! Portents and omens! And terror! Yes, terror!








wonder_city: (Default)
His Faded Idol

3.

"Madame Griselda," Zoltan said with a graceful bow, "I am Zoltan Farkas. Will you allow me to present to you my cousin, Erszebet Farkas?"

Erszebet dropped a perfect curtsy, which had taken a great deal of practice (and drilling from her aunts) to learn, and rose from it almost as gracefully as Zoltan had bowed.

Griselda looked more ancient than the body of the Grand Matriarch had appeared, her thick coil of hair gone pure white and her little dark eyes peering out of a mass of pallid wrinkles. She was seated in a wingback chair in a parlor that had been conjured in one of the rooms in the convention center. Some corner of Erszebet, possibly the one that had listened to her mother and aunts talk about other families for decades, was strangely satisfied by this. It seemed good and appropriate that the deceased (Hungarian) Grand Matriarch had lived longer and looked finer than the (British) Grand Matriarch presumptive.

"Who are you, boy?" she demanded in a harsh voice not at all softened by her accent.

A very neatly buttoned-down woman in a dark skirt-suit bent her pale blonde head toward the old woman. "Grandmother, he is the favorite of the late Grand Matriarch."

The obsidian gaze narrowed. "Oh, you're Klotild's pet nelly, are you?"

The blonde woman winced visibly and offered Zoltan and Erszebet an apologetic look over her grandmother's head. Zoltan beamed at the ancient and said, "Yes, that would be me. I did earn my keep, as you may have heard."

"Yes," Madame Griselda said, looking him over. Then her gaze flicked to Erszebet. "You're too young to have a Household. Just larking about here in the New World then?"

"I am my family's representative to the funeral," Erszebet said, bowing -- trying desperately to look willowy as she did so. "My elders send their deepest regrets, but Budapest is somewhat... difficult at the moment."

The elderly woman waved a dismissive hand. "Budapest has been difficult since it was founded, my dear. No surprise they couldn't leave. Get out while you can." She looked back at Zoltan. "The daughters won't sell us the manor, you know."

He bowed. Erszebet suspected his bow was better than her own. "Klotild and her sisters built the manor, you understand; it holds great sentimental value for Magdolna and her sisters."

"Sentiment doesn't enter into it, you little pouf," Griselda snapped. "It's the center of the empire, and you know it."

Zoltan's smile didn't falter. The granddaughter looked ready to faint. "Ah, Madame Griselda," he said, "you have grown ever more charming as you have aged." He put a slight, barely-detectable emphasis on the last word. "Pardon me, but I see that Klotild's chief husband would like to speak to me."

Erszebet curtsied as Zoltan bowed, and then she followed her cousin. Griselda flushed brick-red, but held her tongue, glaring at Zoltan's back.

"Was that wise?" Erszebet said in an undertone. He was reckless, suicidal, and a pervert. What was her mother thinking, sending her here?

Zoltan shrugged. "Either they will use my services or they will not. Here, let me introduce you to Harald."

They caught up with the craggy, aquiline man who had caught Zoltan's eye. His hair was short, shaped carefully, and blindingly white. His bushy eyebrows rose upon Erszebet's introduction. "Delighted, my dear, absolutely delighted," he said, bowing over her hand. His homey accent was comforting after the encounter with Griselda.

"Getting used to being courted, my friend?" Zoltan said, shaking the man's hand warmly.

"No," Harald said mournfully. "Nor is anyone else, truly. So many enticing offers -- do you know, that egregiously arrogant woman, Juana Zalazar..."

"From New Mexico?" Zoltan said.

"The very one. Well, she has been most astonishingly kind about everything." Harald smiled sadly. "She even managed to head off that bi... harridan Griselda the second time she came around to 'sympathize with' the lot of us."

"Juana Zalazar must want as many of you as she can get very badly," Zoltan said, tapping his chin thoughtfully. "How old is her mother again?"

"Certainly old enough to be in the running after Griselda," Harald said. The old man smiled at Erszebet. "Oh, my dear, it must all seem so very dull to you."

"Not dull at all, sir," Erszebet said. "Only, why are you being courted?"

The two men exchanged a glance and smiled. She flushed and said, "You must understand, I have been to so few funerals in my short life, and they are not spoken of at home."

Harald nodded and said, "Well, the tradition is that the Household established by Klotild and her sisters is to be broken up now they are all dead. That means that the men of her generation and her companions are free to do as they will, go where they want."

"It is considered rude in the extreme to offer to take on the companions as donors, of course," Zoltan said. "But companions of the Grand Matriarch are in great demand among politically powerful households in an advisory capacity."

"Often, the companions will have far more information than the men," Harald said, smiling thoughtfully. "Though I think that is not so true in our Household."

"Other Households will therefore offer the companions a place to come to die of old age," Zoltan said, "and the men someplace new to live where they will not be inconveniencing the daughters and their Household men."

"So they court us, mostly," Harald said. "Though Griselda seems to think that she inherits us by default."

"Griselda thinks she owns many things by default," Zoltan said. "She had the cheek to complain to me that Magdolna and her sisters were not going to sell the manor."

"Will Madame Griselda come to Wonder City then?" Erszebet said. She could not imagine that shriveled shape surviving through the hardships of moving. Then again, she could barely conceive of the woman traveling, but she must have.

Zoltan put his head to one side and glanced at Harald, one eyebrow raised. Harald shrugged. "No, I think she will not," Zoltan said after a moment. "Moving is so much worse than traveling. No, I think she will make some of her daughters move here, and try to run her 'empire' from Chicago."

"Her daughters will not love her for that, I think," Erszebet said slowly.

Zoltan smiled. "No one loves Griselda, my dear. Excuse me, both of you, Julianna is trying to catch my eye." He nodded to them and strode off into the crowd.

Erszebet turned back to Harald with a smile. "Shall I squire you in your cousin's stead, my dear?" he said, offering his arm.

She took it, murmuring polite thanks. She felt oddly secure and insecure at the same time. Without Zoltan, she felt the tension in the air more keenly, and despite Harald's age and obvious influence, she felt undefended.

"Was the trip across very difficult?" Harald asked as they began to slowly move through the crowded, noisy hallway outside the parlor.

"Oh, no," she said, astonished by the array of formalwear they met with, from staid gowns and tuxedoes to costumes more suited to Carnival. "It was quite pleasant."

"I wish I could travel more," Harald said, bowing and nodding to people as they passed. "The airplane feels so strange, and leaves me so enervated these days. I thought I could get used to it, like automobiles, but it just never happened."

"My mother Rozsa thinks it has something to do with not having your feet on the ground," Erszebet said.

"How is Rozsa?" Harald said. "I haven't seen her since she traveled here in... oh, 1935 or so. The War trapped the families over there for so long after, and we heard little news for many years."

"My mother came here?" Erszebet said. Her mother had, in fact, never mentioned it.

"Oh, yes," Harald said. "She was the family representative when Kathalin died. A much smaller affair than this, of course; just the Magyar families and some other friends."

Erszebet chewed on that for a while, as she and Harald circulated through the hall. He dutifully introduced her to the people who stopped to speak to him, and Erszebet could only concentrate on polite greetings, though she occasionally wondered, when she clasped a particularly cold hand, if the individual was vermin. She could never tell.

They ended up back in the room with the coffin. People were milling around on the floor, drinking and speaking in subdued tones. The werewolf security guards were relatively unobtrusive, but Erszebet could sense their barely-bridled tension and the general disquiet they caused among the majority of her folk in the room.

A human, on the edge of elderly, a black turban concealing most of her greying hair and her matronly form adorned in a somewhat-too-young black gown, drifted near on the arm of a young Asian man so well-dressed as to be foppish. Harald paused to bow to her. "Madame Destiny, so glad you could attend."

Madame bowed in return and extended a gloved hand. "Harald, of course, I couldn't miss a chance to pay my respects. Klotild was very encouraging when I was young; I only regret I could not repay her adequately."

He took her hand and kissed it in an extremely courtly fashion, and Erszebet was struck by how outdated the manners of her people seemed to her after spending time in college.

"This is our friend Zoltan's young cousin Erszebet," Harald said, and Madame took Erszebet's hand.

"Well," Madame said, blinking, "you certainly have a time ahead of you this week, Ms. Farkas."

"Um," Erszebet said, caught by surprise by the human. "Thank you?"

"You'll be fine," Madame said, squeezing her hand and releasing her. "Just think it all through logically."

Madame's young escort steered her away and gave Erszebet a sympathetic smile. "It won't make sense till later," he said in a surprisingly light voice.

Harald and Erszebet watched them disappear into the crowd. Erszebet said, "Huh."

---

Author's Note:

I apologize for being slow with the last two readings. I'm working on them!









wonder_city: (Default)
Jubilee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Ira," he corrected me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sophie snorted at this description.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Gogo spoke into her microphone again.

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


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

Sophie started laughing helplessly into her hands.

The music kicked up again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the end of the world can you tell me where

And in what way the time is flowing?


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

A place for opossums to call their own.

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

It's dhoom again but we are flown!


A hero right through

Like flying snow in bamboo

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us heroes too!


Take my ansible call

'Cause it's for one and all

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us stand tall!


She won't be suppressed

Or sent into the West

She's the hero we need

Because we give her our best!


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

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


And she then started singing again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Zaha'dum too--

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us heroes too!


Dark Lords big and small

We will spit on them all

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us stand tall!


Stand tall, stand tall, stand tall

Stand tall, stand tall, stand tall

Stand tall, stand tall, stand tall...


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh," Suzanne said, blinking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

Note from the Author:

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

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

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

---

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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