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Last episode of 2015! Thank you for all your continued support, and the kind reviews I've been seeing around the web! I hope 2016 is kinder to you than 2015, whether you had a great 2015 or a terrible one (or an okay one, like I did).

Print and ebook versions of
Wonder City Stories available! Find links to sites where you can buy them at judemclaughlin.com!

A Man Does What He Can; A Woman Does What a Man Cannot

"Guys," Nereid said into the general hubbub of the Young Cosmics meeting room. The loud conversations—particularly from Mercury holding court—continued unabated. "Guys?" she said again.

Sophie looked over at her and raised her eyebrows. Mercury was playing his boyfriends Gemini and Deflector off against each other in some sort of flex-off. Gemini had just done his power trick, making his two muscular brown arms into four, and Deflector was peeling his shirt off to reveal his pale but muscular chest. Vector was egging them on, to the annoyance of her girlfriend Meridian, who had not just turned away, but turned her entire wheelchair toward a conversation with Tin Lizzie, giving the gayboy display the cut direct. Wildstar, their featureless mask off for a change, revealing their androgynous tan face and short black hair, was chatting with Citizen Pain. Pay was giving Nereid side glances of attentiveness, but was also trying to be polite to Wildstar, their newest member. Wire was leaning back in her chair, arms crossed, one foot braced against the edge of the table, scowling at her boot, with her blue forelock drifting distractingly across her face.

Irritation bloomed and spread inside Nereid, making her feel like her skin was stretched taut with fury. Why did they elect me commander if they had no goddamn intention of paying attention to me? She fumed in silence for a few more moments, until Deflector was reaching for his belt, apparently to drop trou, and the anger exploded into her vision. She came to her feet, slammed both hands on the tabletop, and bellowed, "This meeting of the Young Cosmics will come to order."
Read more... )

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Spare Parts

"Sophie!" Nereid bellowed at her girlfriend in a panic. "Please tell me you didn't do this! You can't still be mad about the noodles!"

From the bedroom, Sophie sleepily said, "I thought we weren't going to discuss the noodle incident again. And do you have a frog in your throat or something, sweetie?"
Read more... )
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Next ep will be a little lighter, I promise.

Believe to Understand

Nereid took a deep breath and walked into Sophie's lab.

Sophie, sitting amidst a circle of junk and parts, barely looked up at her. "Hey," she said.

Nereid walked around the bench and took hold of Sophie by her heavy leather belt with its many hooks and compartments. "Come with me."

"I'm working," Sophie said.

Nereid pulled her backward on her rolling stool, drawing a squawk out of Sophie as she did so. "No, you're coming with me right now."

"What the actual fuck, Pacifica?" Sophie said, trying to stand up, pull away, and turn around at the same time.

Nereid kept her grip, bracing herself to catch Sophie when the stool inevitably tottered over and Sophie fell. "I am removing you from your laboratory because we have to talk."

"We can fucking talk here," Sophie said, stumbling over the stool and barely managing to keep her feet under her as Nereid towed her toward the door.

"No, we can't," Nereid said. "I've tried. I talk, you don't listen, lather, rinse, fucking repeat." Her voice broke and she gave up trying to keep from crying. "You're coming with me right the fuck now and we are going to talk somewhere that it's harder for you to ignore me."

"What?" Sophie said, stumbling again, since she was trying to walk backwards. Nereid caught her with her free hand, lifted her, and bodily carried her out of the room. Fortunately, the doors were Star Trek slidy doors and Nereid didn't need to manage that somehow.

"Put me DOWN!" Sophie bellowed, struggling.

Nereid noticed that Sophie neither used a single move that would have hurt her, nor any of the nearly failproof escapes of which she was capable. Nereid kept walking, tightening her grip.

Sophie finally stopped struggling when Nereid deposited her on the sofa in her own apartment. Nereid snapped, "Sit there. Don't move," and went into the kitchen for two glasses of soda. She mopped her hands off on the dishtowel before carrying the glasses back to the sofa.

"What is it you want to talk about?" Sophie said sullenly, taking the glass but not drinking.

Nereid set her jaw. "Us. You. Whether you're still interested in a relationship with me."

Sophie blinked. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that you've spent the last month and a half in your lab," Nereid said. "The only reason you've eaten, as far as I can tell, is because I've brought you food. The only reason you've showered is because I reminded you to. You've been sleeping in there for three weeks. You haven't come out at all for more than a week. I only see you if I come to the lab and beg you to talk to me. We only sleep together if I beg you to."

Sophie looked away, flushing. "Working," she muttered.

"No, you're not," Nereid said. "You're punishing yourself."

Sophie's lower jaw jutted out stubbornly, even though she still wouldn't look at Nereid.

"You're not only punishing yourself," Nereid said, "but you're punishing me. You're punishing all your friends. You're punishing your mother. You feel guilty, and you're pissed at all of us for existing so you have to feel guilty."

"When the fuck did you become an armchair shrink?" Sophie snarled.

"The moment I realized that I hadn't done a damn thing to deserve being punished," Nereid snarled back.

Sophie's head snapped around, her mouth open.

"I'm not buying this 'working' excuse any more," Nereid said, and cursed herself for the tears that started, that she couldn't stop. "Either you are in a relationship with me and you start figuring out how to live with yourself, or I have to assume that you're purposely doing this to manipulate me, and that this relationship has gone to fucking hell."

Nereid had to admit to herself, despite how angry and upset she was, that she enjoyed seeing Sophie speechless.

Still, she had to steel herself for the words she'd promised herself that she'd say. "You need to give me one good reason not to walk out the door right now. And if you don't, I'm not only leaving you, I'm leaving the Cosmics, because I can't be here with you like this. I won't sit and watch you destroy yourself, and I won't let myself be pulled further into your spiral of making the world around you shittier. I'm at the end of my rope. I keep giving but there's nothing coming back."

Sophie's mouth worked for a moment, her eyes wide, and then Nereid watched her face change as she mentally played through everything Nereid had just said again. Her jaw closed with a clack of teeth.

They watched each other in silence. Nereid prepared herself to wait through the silence, as her therapist had suggested.

Sophie was good at waiting too, but apparently Nereid had pushed some buttons.

"Look, I nearly destroyed the goddamn WORLD," Sophie said, bouncing to her feet. "I need to help put it back TOGETHER."

Nereid set her glass down. "Okay then," she said. She gritted her teeth and stood up.

Sophie had clearly been about to continue, but stopped and stared. "Okay… what?"

"You gave me your answer," Nereid said. The damn tears just kept coming, and the pain in her chest didn't help it.

"Wait, what? No I didn't…"

"Yes, you did," Nereid said, working just to keep her voice steady. "Your guilt is more important than me. Okay. I understand. But I'm not going to stick around to watch."

"You didn't let me finish!" Sophie looked completely off-balance at this point, and Nereid felt sorry for her.

"Look," Nereid said, unable to keep her voice from squeaking, "your first reaction when I basically said that you needed to figure your shit out or I have to assume that you're purposely driving me away and we're over was to tell me that the world needs you."

"I… what? Wha…?" Sophie reeled back onto the couch.

"Sophie," Nereid said sadly, "this whole cycle is abusive. To both of us. I want you to break out of it and come back to me. But you have to want to, and if you don't want to, there's nothing I can do to make you. If you're depressed, then tell me. If you just can't cope with life, then tell me. But also try to do something about it, because I can't save you this time around."

Sophie stared at her, then tried to say something, but her voice failed.

Nereid felt like she'd lost the thread of her argument. It didn't feel like it was coming out right, or anything like how she'd rehearsed it with her therapist. It had gotten all mushy. "Two years ago," Nereid said, "you sat me down and told me you loved me." She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and said, "I need to know if that has changed."

Sophie took her glasses off and scrubbed at her eyes. She said, "No."

"Then will you try to get out of this?" Nereid said. "Will you find someone to talk to if you need them to help?"

"Will you leave if I don't?" Sophie said.

"Yes," Nereid said, choking on the word. "I would have to. I can't live like this."

Sophie put her glasses back on and looked up at Nereid. "Please don't go."

Nereid knelt in front of Sophie, taking her hands. "Then please come back."

Sophie swallowed hard. "I'll try."

Nereid pulled her into her arms, which were regrettably damp with emotion, but Sophie slid off the sofa onto her knees with her.

Nereid said, "Thank you," into Sophie's neck.

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We're at about 10 more episodes to the end of volume 3! (Don't hold me to that exact count—the episodes keep changing under my feet.)

Are you folks who asked for alternate delivery forms able to better use the EPUB and/or PDF for reading? How are they working out?

Journey to the Sky

"Affirmative, Houston, lifting to orbit on my mark," Sophie said into her headset. For the people in the cockpit and passenger area of the Cosmic Orbiter, she tapped the large digital countdown clock above her head.

Nereid helped Lady Justice arrange her launch restraints and settled into her own couch next to Vector.

"Hey, your armband's slipping," Vector said, and reached over to slide the star-spangled black armband up to Nereid's bicep.

"Thanks," Nereid said, clicking her restraints into place. "The new costume material is really slippery."

"Still, it converts with you more easily, right?" Vector said.

"Yeah," Nereid said, running a hand over the knee of the blue-and-green washed material. "I don't have to think about it as much. Less nudity on the battlefield is good, right?"

Vector grimaced, and Nereid was immediately consumed with guilt for saying something typically stupid, having her own flashback to the horrible day a few months before when she, Sophie, and Pay had to rescue the team from an alien-enhanced pheromone-producing sociopath. She said, "Sorry."

Vector patted her hand. "No, it's okay. I… it just sneaks up on me sometimes. But if I can get to joking about it, that's good, right?"

"It's not something to joke about," Nereid said, squeezing her hand. "And it was thoughtless of me. I'm sorry."

Vector sighed. "It's not like it was a battle or anything anyway."

"Mark!" said Sophie. "Lifting now."

The engines revved up and the white noise flooded through the cabin. Nereid leaned over to say to Vector, grateful for the noise, "The therapist didn't work out?"

Vector shook her head. "He didn't… really understand. Not para. Or, um, queer."

"I know someone really good," Nereid said. "If she can't take you, she can recommend someone as good."

"Really?" Vector gave her a bleak look. "It… would be nice to talk to someone."

Nereid knew the feeling, and regretted that she hadn't really been talking to her teammates lately. She'd been focused almost entirely on keeping Sophie going day-to-day, making sure she ate and slept at a minimum, and dragging her out of the lab when she could. She wasn't feeling like she had a girlfriend so much these days as someone she had to keep boosting back up onto a tightrope of functioning. She understood why Sophie was so depressed, she knew why Sophie kept punishing herself by working obsessively, but… it was taking everything Nereid had to keep doing it. And she couldn't just walk away. And… yeah. Time for therapy again for herself, at least.

Nereid gave Vector as much of an affectionate headbump on the shoulder as she could, given they were pinned in their seats by the acceleration. "Let's go out after this," she said. "You pick where. We both need it."

Vector looked so grateful that Nereid felt nearly sick with guilt. They hadn't gotten off on the right foot when she joined this team, but then again, Nereid hadn't gotten off on the right foot with anyone on the team except Pay, and she'd very nearly fucked that up too. But she had been quietly admiring Vector for a long time for the fact that she was maturing out of her stupid little mean girl phase into someone Nereid actually liked. It sucked that it had taken that horrible day to really make Nereid admit to herself that she liked Vector.

The acceleration abated and Sophie announced, "We're in orbit. We'll have some more accelerations when we need to alter our course, but for now, you all can unlatch. I'll let you know when you need to strap down again."

Nereid was very impressed by Lady Justice's familiarity with zero gravity. She knew she shouldn't have been; Lady J had been with the Gold Stars for so many years and they'd had so many outer space missions, after all. But it was startling and beautiful to go from watching Lady J limping awkwardly in Earth gravity to seeing Lady J navigating around the cabin gracefully, with just a few touches here and there. Without gravity to pull on the wrinkles in the veteran's face, too, Nereid could imagine what Lady J looked like as a young woman (live—she'd seen all the photos, of course).

Sophie gestured for Nereid to follow Lady J into the Orbiter's cargo bay, and turned away to discuss something with Mercury.

Nereid found moving in zero gravity easier to cope with if she thought of it as swimming. In fact, she'd floundered hopelessly until she figured out how to think of it that way. She just had to remember that she was not helped by friction here. She didn't move nearly as effortlessly as Lady Justice, but she did manage to follow her down the center tunnel of the ship and into the rear bay.

Lady J was hovering next to the cylinder that held Jane's body, one hand resting on its surface. When the door cycled shut, she looked up and smiled at Nereid.

"Thank you ki… all for helping with this," she said, the smile returning the wrinkles to their proper places.

"Sophie and I, at least, totally understand why you want to do this," Nereid said. "I hope someone will do it for me when I go."

Lady J's smile stuttered a little at the corners of her mouth. "I hope that's a long way off, Pacifica."

Nereid laid a hand on Lady J's shoulder. "Me too. I just… I think someone should do it for all the Class 10s. So no one tries to dig us up and, I dunno, clone us."

"A lot of people who aren't Class 10s have had that done, you know," Lady J said, looking back to the cylinder. "I'm mostly worried about keeping her out of the government's hands. Any government's hands."

"Yeah, she was a one of a kind," Nereid said. "Power-wise, I mean. I know she was as a person."

Lady J nodded, her face sad. "It's hard, not having her to see any more. Even when she wasn't all there, you know, at least I saw her, could talk to her—even if she didn't understand all the time, even if all she talked about was whether the lights stayed on all night, or what the weather looked like out her fake window. Everyone else is gone now. It's just me."

"You're not alone," Nereid said, thinking of Ira and Andrea, and all the other Forgotten Heroes, and still knowing that she was saying something for the sake of saying it, because she couldn't understand right now.

Lady J smiled. "I know, honey. Thank you."

They stayed there for a long time, it seemed, hanging in middle of the chilly cargo bay, Nereid holding Lady J's shoulder, and Lady J touching Jane's high-tech coffin.

Sophie's voice crackled over the speakers, "Please make sure the satellite is prepared for deployment. We'll be starting maneuvers to station-keeping position in half an hour." Code for them to get on with their secret mission. Nereid silently cursed the cockpit recording devices mandated for all para spacecraft.

Lady J reached up and squeezed Nereid's hand with the hand that had grown chilly against the metal cylinder. "I guess that's our cue to load her up, right?"

"Yes," Nereid said, "and Pay should be along in a moment to help."

He came through the door at just that moment, smiling broadly and beautifully as usual. "Indeed, here I am!"

The three of them unstrapped the coffin and gently angled it across the bay to the new satellite that the Cosmics had gotten permission to put into orbit. Pay opened the hatch to the main body of the satellite and pulled out the modular transmission equipment. Lady J and Nereid slid the coffin into place, and it fit neatly, just as Sophie had calculated.

Lady Justice lingered for a second, touching the end of the coffin, then pushed herself backward. Pay shut the hatch as gently as he could, spun the fastenings into place, and activated the hidden alarm that Sophie had fitted to this compartment.

As the three of them floated toward the door, Pay said, "I still do not understand why Doctor Thomas could not simply fly her up herself."

"Ruth is under a great deal of government scrutiny all the time," Lady J said. "As Jane was herself. If they saw her leaving planet with a body-sized item, they could put two and two together, and there might be repercussions for Ruth personally."

"The government really wants Jane's body," Nereid said with a shrug. "Everyone does."

"You have explained it before, Nereid, you and Brainchild," he said, "and I still do not understand why these people are so interested in violating common American death taboos. I mean, I do indeed understand that they do it, but I do not understand why. It is difficult to understand these motivations."

"You have never spoken a truer word," Lady J said, patting him on the back.

Back in the cockpit, Sophie was playing one of the songs her friend Gogo had released on the underground online communities during what was now being called the Psychepirate Occupation (oh, the way the media picks up someone's Twitter contents and runs away with it with no citation—apparently Sophie knew the woman who started calling it that). This was one Nereid hadn't heard more than once or twice, with the chorus, "Arrest, Retry, Fail," running through the background.

Mercury and Gemini were chatting with Sophie, while Vector worked the navigation console, probably running the last calculations for maneuvers. Wire had her back pressed to a support pillar, staring out at the starfield moodily. She was fiddling with the black starry armband with her flesh hand; her metal hand—the beautiful shining prosthetic Sophie built for her—was tapping out the rhythm of the song on the plastic of the pillar.

Lady Justice settled back in her seat, and Pay went to see if he could help Vector (he'd been coaching her on translating her innate understanding of motion to numbers), so Nereid drifted over to Wire.

Wire glanced up at her from under her weird floating blue forelock (Nereid could never figure out how she did that) and grimaced in greeting.

Nereid leaned against the wall nearby and said, "Long time, no chat."

Wire shrugged and looked away. "All this paperwork with Mr. Moneybags… hell, I mean Michael… to retroactively get us government-approved to be Gold Stars deputies and whatnot has been eating my schedule."

"The government is still kicking up a fuss about that?" Nereid said. "I thought—" she dropped her voice just under the crashing chorus of the song "—Lady J was legally allowed to do the deputizing."

"She is, but one of the government nitpickers who doesn't like paras has discovered that Gemini is technically a minor," Wire said, rolling her eyes ceilingward. "Apparently, some parts of the government are still refusing to acknowledge that time travel happens."

"This is what you get when people who failed high school science run the technology committees," Nereid grunted.

Wire shrugged again, a little too vehemently, as the motion propelled her away from her pillar. She grabbed onto it with the metal hand and pulled herself back against it. "So, anyway, Michael's lawyers are working on getting Gemini declared an emancipated adult with alternate-dimensional standing, and we're working with the Gold Stars to get certified. Whichever happens first will get us off the hook, because the Gold Stars can just declare military necessity for Gemini."

"Wait, they can use minors as long as there's military necessity?" Nereid said, outraged.

"Only for para minors with Class 4 powers and above," Wire said.

Nereid gave her a dubious look and Wire said, "Yeah, I know. One of the Jane Liberty Laws from World War 2. Passed to retroactively make Jane's enlistment good."

"Oh, I didn't think of that," Nereid said. "Still, it's kind of… terrifying."

"Legal ways to make a para child army?" Wire said. "Oh, yeah. It only got used once that way, I'm told, to make the 'Liberty Girls', this little pack of underage bulletproofs who were all supposed to be Jane's sidekicks."

"Maneuvers in five minutes," Sophie announced, killing the music.

Everyone assumed their seats and strapped in, and there wasn't much talking as they waited for the final approach. Sophie concentrated intently on her controls. Vector was seated at her console, hands at her sides, sweat beading on her forehead as she used her powers to make microscopic changes in their kinetic energy and direction.

Finally, Sophie locked down her console with a loud click and said, "All right, opening cargo bay. Satellite deployment shortly."

People unstrapped again, and Lady J went to the window overlooking the cargo bay doors. Everyone but Sophie ended up drifting over there with her.

The robot arms of the cargo bay lifted the satellite out—almost reverently, Nereid imagined. The solar panels opened like flower petals, blooming from the skeletal supports and sprawling into an array that dwarfed the orbiter. A tiny (relative to the solar array) American flag deployed beneath the array, on their side of the satellite.

Lady Justice came to attention and saluted, and the rest of them watched in silence as Jane's penultimate resting place glowed to life as they turned the curve of the Earth and came into line with the sun's rays.

None of them would see the final disposal of Jane's body. The Ultimate would come here on her next space jaunt, first angling out to get away from the monitoring devices that usually followed her, then removing the coffin from the satellite and… taking it somewhere. Nereid guessed that she was going to toss it into the sun, or somewhere else it would certainly be destroyed and wouldn't contaminate anything.

The cargo bay doors shut and the orbiter rolled slowly away from the satellite, acceleration so gentle that Nereid hadn't even noticed it. Lady Justice wiped her eyes with a handkerchief, and Wire was blinking suspiciously hard. No one said anything, just returned to their seats.

There was really nothing to say, Nereid thought. Things could be said at the memorial in a few weeks.

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This episode was hard to write to start with, and given recent events it became exponentially harder to write (something you will likely understand as you read).

Best Intentions Going Down for the Third Time

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

Sophie held the door and mutely gestured her mother inside.

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

Ruth glanced at Nereid, then Sophie, and nodded.

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

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

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

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

Sophie nodded, and sipped from her glass.

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

Sophie nodded again, setting her glass aside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh, bullshit," Sophie said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nereid covered her mouth reflexively.

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

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

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

Nereid and Sophie sat in stunned silence in the aftermath.

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

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

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

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

10 Ways to Help the People of Ferguson, Missouri

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There will be a second short episode on Thursday.

All She Wrote

Sophie's whole body shook like she'd just fallen from a great height. Nereid started up to her knees and found Sophie's eyes open and staring.

"We did it," she croaked, clutching Nereid's hands like a lifeline. "We did it."

Nereid threw her arms around Sophie's neck and tried hard not to cry. When she heard Sophie sob, though, it was all over and they were crying together, clinging to each other. She didn't care if the other Cosmics came and found them like that.

"We did it," Sophie said again, hiccoughing. "She did it."

"Who?" Nereid said, though she guessed.

"Jane Liberty," Sophie whispered. "Defender of Earth."

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Made it! Thank you so much!

I Am Nobody's Friend

"That's the last one we need to hit," Sophie said. "The whole system is destabilized, but we need to take out the projector now. Come on up, Jane."

I felt the G-force rip at my consciousness as she changed directions to fly upward. How did she manage this kind of flying without passing out or puking? I was carefully not looking not looking out through her eyes unless I had to, because I was afraid of agoraphobia or acrophobia or everything-phobia.

Oh my god, how was space going to feel?

"Hal, you shithead," I whispered over the coffin. He'd been fucking around with some of the other women on the team ever since I just couldn't do that to Dottie any more. We hadn't spoken since. Now he'd keeled over and we would never...

The chill went straight through us and snapped me out of being swamped.

"I'm turning off Blinken's power now," Jane said. "I think that will help."

"Thanks," I said. I didn't actually think it would.

My body was shivering, I could feel it, even though it was physically warm and snugged up against Floribunda. Sophie was cursing with my mouth, trying desperately to type.

PSA: Space is fucking cold.

The headline—Lady Justice Declared Dead—shredded between my shaking fingers. They'd never let me go look for her, never let me try to find the body, and when I'd finally worked up the courage to disobey them, I couldn't find the original base to search, someone had obliterated it.

Never again. Never fucking again. I would damn well do what I knew was right.

"Right there!" Sophie said, mentally drawing a circle with an arrow pointing at the center on a mental schematic of the spaceship for Jane. "Hit it right there!"

"Trying to find that," Jane said. "Fucking assholes parked in the shadow, of course, and I can't fucking remember who had see-in-the-dark vision."

Sophie scrambled for an exterior view of the ship, but failed. I held onto Jane's mind and let Sophie look out her eyes.

Jesus, every time Jane blinked, she shattered the ice over her eyeballs. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.

"There!" Sophie said, spotting it, and I steered Jane.

The acceleration dropped my stomach into my toes, even though it wasn't in that body. The impact of both Jane's fists reverberated through my arms. Something exploded around us. Something rocked the ship.

"She's not killing us all here, right?" I asked Sophie.

"No, she just took the projector offline," Sophie said with a mental sigh of relief. "It's over."

Jane snapped, "Where are the ones responsible?"

The tone chilled me more than space did.

"The aliens?" Sophie asked.

"The humans," Jane snarled.

Sophie gave her a mental map of the ship, drawn from the computer files.

I swung through the corridors with Jane, hanging on for dear life. I heard someone scream as she tore his power out of him, then another, then another.

She was taking the powers of the telepaths.

I had to look out her eyes to keep from getting sick this time.

The Liberty Girls was a stupid, stupid, STUPID marketing ploy from the fucking Gold Stars Corporation. It was stupidest when I held one girl—16 years old, bulletproof, could fly a little—in my arms as she fucking bled to death after one of the Gladiators put a spear through her throat. An accident, he claimed, just before I shattered every bone in his body…

Jane hovered at a stop, having torn through the ten foot thick bulkhead into the West's quarters.

Mark West looked up from his desk, where he'd been sitting with his head in his hands.

Sara West stared at her a long moment, surprised with a toddler in her arms. She stood up, handing the toddler to a girlchild of about 8, then pushed as many of her children behind her as she could.

I think that saved her life, honestly.

"I am Jane Liberty, Defender of Earth," Jane intoned, floating a foot above the floor, looming.

"Oh my god, she did the line," Sophie squeed to me.

"Fangirl in your own head," I snapped.

I felt Jane's upper lip curl into a sneer. "You disgust me. I've spent my life walking a goddamn tightrope, trying to make life better for the most people I could. And you just spent a year of your life doing the opposite, on a huge scale. At least when I killed people I hated, I did it honestly." I felt her power reach out. "I'm shutting you down, you pathetic little girl."

Sara's eyes got big and what little color she had in her face drained out. She wrapped her arms around herself, tried to keep her feet, but collapsed in a heap. She didn't make a sound as she went down.

Mark was standing, but just stared at the crumpled shape of his wife.

Jane looked at him and said, "She'll live. I'd like to end you, but there are children here. I'll leave your punishment to someone else."

She looked back at the little knot of kids—5 of them, I think?—and thought to Sophie and me, "All of them inherited it. Especially the baby. Take care of that. I don't have time now."

Sophie said, "Jane, I need you to come here, if you're done."

Bernie was really invested in it being Hal's, so I let her think that, though I knew it was hers all along, from some time when she'd been a boy with me. Because it was hers, I wanted it. I wanted it so much. But I just wasn't made to be a mother—War is a terrible, awful, abusive mother—and my body knew it. It never happened again after that one ended.

We were there so fast I felt like my eyes were the spinning things in a one-armed bandit. It was really fucking weird, looking at myself: I recognized my own long-chinned, dark brown face and my big boobs and hips, my muscular forearms and hands, the comfortable clothes I'd put on that morning. But I didn't recognize that manic grin, or the wide eager eyes, on my face. No wonder Floribunda was so freaked out. I was freaking out.

In my body's voice, Sophie's brusque, syncopated words came out: "I need you to put some extra power into that conduit right there." My finger, pointing at the corner.

My perception swung around—the cognitive dissonance was too much and I reverted to my own body for vision—and watched frail, birdlike Jane Liberty float over to the corner. I could see her face was pale, that she was panting a little, that there was a fine sheen of sweat over her whole face. She was really fucking good at clamping down on some things, I guess, despite the dementia. She put her hand on the indicated spot and dumped a huge quantity of electricity into it.

"Now, Renata, you need to find the opening!" Sophie said to me.

"Opening?" I said—I had not been privy to this part of Sophie's thought process.

"My mother," she said with a surge of raw anguish. I reached out to that psychic space I'd been exploring for years—to which Jane had first introduced me, I remembered.

The opening had been nearby all along, right in the damn ship, right here and all it needed was some extra juice to the magic psychic generator become obvious.

I ripped that fucker open, projecting into it as hard as I could: RUTH.

Jane caught them, somehow, despite how shitty she looked, as the Gold Stars all tumbled out of the dimensional pocket. She did let Ruth hit the ground, but I understood—she was more likely to hurt the metal floor than herself.

"Okay," Jane said through gritted teeth. "Okay, they can handle it now." She looked into my eyes. "Renata, I need you to get me back to Larentia's house."

Sophie's control slipped and I said, with my own mouth, "Jane, you look like hell, let's get Ruth to get you to—"

Inside our shared head, Jane said, "RENATA. NOW." In the reverberating aftermath, she added a sheepish and pathetic, "Please."

Sophie pointed us out the nearest airlock, where Jane waited impatiently for the atmosphere to cycle before rocketing into Earth's atmosphere. Where I'd been too cold before, I was cooking now, like the world's worst hot flash. We fireballed downward on a direct course for Professor Canis' house.

"Oh, Mama," I sobbed, holding her hand gently, so, so gently.

"Be good, Jane," she whispered on the thin stream of air that would move in and out of her lungs. I couldn't see her face any more, all I could see was the thing, that horrible thing the doctors couldn't take from her, that I couldn't cure, that she wouldn't let me try to cure. "Always. Just. Be good."

I wasn't, Mama. I'm sorry.

The house had just come into view when Jane said, "I'm all right now, Renata."

"Jane, let me help yo—"

Then I was back in my body on the ship, thrown in with the force of someone who could move planets, her voice shouting, "GET OUT, YOU FOOL."

"Jesus," I said to Ruth as she clambered to her feet nearby. "Oh, Jesus."

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This just gets harder and harder to write...

Only Got Four Minutes To Save The World

I'm pretty sure I was getting seasick, even though I'd never been on a damn boat in my life. Poor old Flori wasn't sure what to make of me—my scent had changed, I think, with Sophie driving, and all my body language was different. Poor baby kept trying to crawl into my lap to make things better, and when Sophie wouldn't let her, she settled for crawling to the chair behind me.

Allow me to remind you that Floribunda is not a small dog.

So there's my gloriously fatass body with a brainiac twenty-something running it, teetering on the edge of my seat with a giant coward of a pit bull squished in behind it.

And there's me, mashed into Jane Liberty's tempestuous head, going down for the fifth or sixth or hundredth time.

... I looked at the President and said, "Sir, it's time."

He blinked at me. "For what?"

"For the bunker at Fort Wilson," I said, looking as grave as I could manage.

"But if I..." he said. He ran his hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. "Can't you just wait another few months, until after the election…?"

"No, sir," I said. "I can feel myself slipping away, day by day. How long will it be before I slip in a way that kills people? No, sir, I would feel much safer if you gave the order." And maybe this would kill his party's chance in the next election…

I couldn't afford to be curious, because I'd get pulled in, but this woman kept a fuckton of shit in her head.

In the present: she'd destroyed six of 25 generators. "How many before you can bring her up here?" I asked Sophie.

"Another six or seven generators, I think," Sophie said, mentally gritting her teeth at me. "Hang…"

I could see the thing growing in Mama, I could see it growing, but I couldn't figure it out, I couldn't fix it. "Go to the doctor, Mama," I pleaded.

"There is no money," Mama always said.

"... I think the reason you're getting swamped so much is the power she's using," Sophie was saying. "There's a temporal element…"

I handed Mama a wad of cash and said, "Now you can go to the doctor."

She looked at me so gravely. "Where did you get this money, Jane?"

I looked at her, seeing the thing inside her staring back at me, and said, "Does it matter? You can go to the doctor!"

She exclaimed something I'd never heard her say in Spanish before and threw the money in my face. "It matters. If you don't think it matters, then you are not my daughter."

"... can feel it fucking with the telepathic link, can't you?" Sophie was saying.

"I can, but there ain't shit I can do about it," I said.

Dottie understood, Dottie always understood. I was legally too young—I'd told her that when she asked me, though I hadn't intended to—but she could see the potential. She brought me into the Gold Stars and gave me the advance on my pay I'd asked for.

I handed Mama my check, my check with its shiny gold foil star in the corner, and said, "Now will you go to the doctor?"

Mama gave me her most beautiful smile, the smile I knew had won my father's heart, and said, "Yes, now I will go."

"Get her back on course!" Sophie snapped.

I gently wrenched Jane's mind back on topic, and our stomach clenched painfully with shame, and stayed that way, agonizing, though I tried to soothe her embarrassment. I felt her punch through the next one in Africa.

"That's perfect, Jane," Sophie said. "Now I need you to cut across the south Atlantic…"

I made myself look at Bernie at the end, even though all I could see at that point was the thing that had taken her body from me. I could just see, through the thing, that she was smiling at me as I gently, so gently, held her hand. "It's okay, Jay," she growled in the voice the thing had given her, "it's really okay. I'm ready."

"You're leaving me alone, Bern," I said, and I couldn't stop the tears then.

"I know, I'm sorry," she whispered. "But you've got Hal now. He's kind of a shithead, though," she admitted.

"And he's not you. None of them are," I said. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry I couldn't do anything."

"Jay, even you can't work miracles," Bernie said.

I managed to stop Jane from overshooting her destination in south Chile, and she came around in a sharp turn that made our stomach lurch. Jesus, had she always flown like this?

"Got it," Sophie said. "There are three more in the mountains up the coast, just run up the coastline, just like that…"

"Mama, please let me try to fix it," I said quietly.

"No, Jane," she said, just as quietly but firmly. "God put it there, and if He wills, He will help the doctors take it away."

"Mama, please," I tried again, wishing God would just fuck right on off.

"No, Jane," she said. "Healing is not your gift. You know that, I know that. The doctors will help me."

We were navigating the complicated coastal mountains of South and Central America all together, so that kept me from going under for a while.

"Why are you using this blinking ability?" I asked her at one point.

"Because I can't use Blitzkreig's full speed in atmosphere," Jane said. "Using Blinken's power lets me move nearly as fast without the atmospheric disruption. I'll drop it when I head to space." After a moment, she said, "I'm sorry it's making it harder for you."

"It's all right," I said, though we both knew it wasn't. Jane had been my first teacher in reining in my telepathy, and she knew what riding another's mind was like. She knew, possibly better than anyone else, what my history was with that.

I stripped Blitzkreig's powers from her as she ran past me. She had just killed the first American Dream, an earnest young man with beautiful blue eyes and a big voice who now had a hole where his chest used to be. (I'd copied his eyes whenever the Army wanted me blonde and blue-eyed for photos.) I tried not to hear her screams as she shattered her feet, but at least they didn't last long once she started sliding across the ground at just sub-sonic speed…

"All's fair for War," I said, not quite to Sophie, feeling a little glazed.

Floribunda's tail thumped against the arm of the chair, and we felt her shove her cold, wet nose against the skin of my back where my shirt had ridden up.

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I'll be at WisCon this coming weekend! I'd love to meet any of my readers who are going to be there. Let me know to look for you, if you like.

It Is Hard to Shake Hands With Her

"Okay, Jane," said Sophie, telepathically, in my head, "the first generator is here." Sophie presented Jane with a mental map of Europe, marked with a big red circle.

"Acknowledged," Jane replied tersely, sounding and feeling like she was talking on a walkie-talkie instead of mind-to-mind. "Please monitor my progress and… and… I need you two to be my brain. Just fuckin' steer me, girls."

I watched my hands dance over the keyboard, lines racing by on the screen. I said, privately, to Sophie, "I told you this was a bad idea."

Sophie snapped, "And who else was gonna do this? We don't have another spaceworthy flier with my mother locked up. Jane Liberty just handed us the second biggest gun in our corner of the universe. We just have to point it at the right things." She paused. "I… need you to be the one riding in the back of her head. I'm sorry. I need most of my concentration to hack this damn spaceship. I don't read their language."

I shuddered, which made Sophie mistype, so we had a little confab of apology. Then I said, "Fuck. All right." I had already violated one of the things I'd sworn never to do that day: letting someone else into my head to run by body. Now for my second stupid trick of the day, I would ride herd on someone with dementia.

Let me explain: I think of a neurotypical person's mind as being a familiar ocean. I can sit on the surface without problems—think of me as a telepathic duck, I guess—and float there, watching the waves and tides, the winds and upwellings. There are currents and rough seas, and of course there are the rogue tides that can swamp me-the-duck, but I mostly understand and can predict the physics of the place. Mostly.

The kids I work with, the ones on the autism spectrum, are unfamiliar seas, even the ones I work with all the time. I've grown to know the particular shifts and gravities and weather of the minds of the individual kids I work with all the time so I can read something of what's going on for them without diving in. But I avoid even doing my duck thing with those kids if I can help it: I prefer to let them communicate for themselves in whatever media they prefer. (It's my job to help their families learn to understand them, not to try to "fix" their minds, as some parents fail to understand.)

And then there's dementia.

I settled as lightly as possible on the surface of Jane's mind. It all seemed very understandable, as calm a surface as I could ever ask for.

Then the gravity shifted and turned everything at not-right-angles to itself and the water was blown into my face as I was falling down and sideways and the surface under me lurched and swept over me…

... Hal—The Flag—turned the corner toward the locker rooms and nearly ran into me where I was leaning against the wall. We both knew I'd been waiting for him—waiting for an hour at least for that damned meeting to end—and he wasn't surprised when I grabbed the front of his shirt and the front of his jodphurs—a handful of Old Glory, I used to call it back when we were actually together, and dragged him into the empty locker room behind me, kissing him hard. He was taller than me—taller than most everyone—but being able to levitate makes things easy, you know. Even when he was kissing me back, the bastard making my head spin like always, though, I kept praying that Dottie would never ask either of us what we did in the evenings these days...

Usually I'd pull up out of the water completely when something like that happened, but I couldn't leave Jane's mind at this point; all I could do was hang on and try to point her in the right direction. I clamped down a little to keep some portion of her mind on her job, paying attention to Sophie's instructional monologue. Damn that girl could talk.

"Right, you've hit it, that was perfect, Jane," Sophie said. "Now we've got a building in the middle of Kazakhstan…"

Ah fuck bigass wave.

... the Great Gulf was chewing away at the fabric of the world under my feet. Someone I couldn't see—two people? three?—threw themselves into that maw and for a moment, the pull on me let up. I tore away from that ravenous gravity and lunged for Dark Universal, who'd been laughing at us, calling us fleas and mites and insignificant just seconds before. I rammed my fist into his open mouth, crunching through constructed teeth and bone, and out the back of his cosmic skull, and then I dumped all the energy I'd sucked up from Sun Master's overload death down his measureless throat, shattering his empyrean construct...

"Head for north Africa," Sophie was saying. "Right here, see? I'm trying to plot a course that's reasonable…"

"You've got me jumping all over the globe like a frog," Jane groused.

"... but I'm getting my information piecemeal, I was going to say," Sophie snarled. All of us were tense. "I'm doing my best to run you over wilderness too, so you don't cause speed damage."

"You're doing fine," I said, trying to keep the peace in my poor skull while also trying not to be sick. "Both of you."

Then. There was. A goddamn. Tsunami.

... Bernie breathed my name into my mouth and shuddered under me, and damned if I didn't come too. It didn't matter if she was herself or someone else when we were fucking, just knowing it was her made the whole thing hot as hell. She changed then, changed her smooth arms, her round hips and legs, into knotty muscle and bone, and under my hand the softness and slickness surged into something else, and she grinned at me with Midnight Mask's broad jaw and slightly crooked teeth…

Jesus Christ, I didn't want to see these things. I didn't want to know these things. Who the fuck was Bernie? No, goddammit, this was too personal, too in-person, all these dead people and loosey-goosey time slipping back and forward, running me down. Go, go, Jane Liberty, and smash the thing in Sudan.

"How many more?" I asked Sophie, feeling like I was losing myself so, so fast.

"There's two dozen," Sophie said, like she was gritting her teeth. "I think we can get away with only destroying some of them, but I have to figure that out. And then I need her to go to the ship you're on and smash all their damn weapons."

"And we need to get Ruth and the rest out of limbo," I said. "Don't forget."

"I'm not forgetting," Sophie said, and I worried briefly about her snapping.

All the air went out of me.

... I was holding the heart of the man I'd just killed in my hand. It was hot and still pulsing, the steaming blood all over my hand. I held half a tank in the other hand. He'd been a butcher of a man, experimenting on para children in Italy, stealing away their parents to see if he could make more to serve the Axis. This was War, right? I was War. I am War. Someone else is Death, but I am War. I will always BE War...

"Jesus God, hurry up!" I shrieked in my own head.

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Second episode of anniversary week!

When It Rains, It Pours

Out of the corner of her eye, Nereid saw Sophie turn and bolt for the Cosmic Flyer. So she stopped looking like she was making it rain (appearances were everything in the superhero game), kept making it rain, and followed, soggily, into the Flyer.

When she got inside, she heard Sophie yelling: "You have the biggest goddamn processing center available right now with full surround-sound imaging coverage of the planet. Let me in!"

Nereid ran and caught herself on the doorjamb of the cockpit. Sophie was sitting in the pilot's seat, staring upward, looking distraught. She wasn't on the communicator, the speakerphone lights weren't on, she was just shouting at the sky.

"Jesus Harriet Christ, Renata, we need to know where the goddamn ground-based generators are. You've got all the locations in that system in front of you. Yeah, you could probably look for them, but do you know how long it will take them to power up?"

Renata. She was talking to Renata Scott in her head. Nereid stared—she couldn't remember a time she'd seen Sophie look or act this rattled. Sophie had never spoken aloud to Renata, though she'd told Nereid when she was talking to her.

"I know, Jesus fuck, I know," Sophie said, her voice breaking over tears. "Please, please, I can do this, just let me do something that's good."

There was a moment's pause, and then Sophie's body fell forward over the controls. Nereid stepped forward and pulled her away from the controls so if she had any random twitches, the Cosmic Flyer wouldn't suddenly take off. She knelt next to Sophie and held her hands, half of her mind still concentrating on the rain outside, trying not to feel a little jealous of Renata. Both Sophie and Renata were such intensely private people; the level of trust—or desperation—between them to do this was astonishing.

She reached up and gently wiped the tears off Sophie's face with her thumb. Appearances were everything in the superhero business.

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We alllllmost made it to 10 comments, so I'm posting early in the week. If we can actually get 10 comments by Friday, I'll post a second episode. Let me know you're reading!

The Rabble Are Roused

"Oh, my god," Sophie said, staring at her screen. "The fucking Internet is going crazy."

Ivy opened her laptop and flipped through several windows. "My Twitter feed is nuts. People are talking about the broadcast, things that have been happening, the mod squads. Damn, Sophie, you streamed it into the BBC broadcasts too?"

"They're not very secure," Sophie said. Nereid squeezed her shoulders and Sophie looked up at her with a faint smile.

"I'm seeing it on Chinese and Japanese news outlets too," Ivy said.

"Al-Jazeera's got it," Simon said from behind his laptop.

"Okay, okay, we're stars," said Mercury impatiently. "Can we go do something now?"

Vector turned from the local troublespotting monitors with wide eyes. "Um, yeah, I think so."

"What's up?" Wire said, walking over.

"Riot in the business district," Vector said. "Assaults on men in black in the college district. Guys, I'm getting trouble lights all over the city."

"Let's split up and cover more ground," Mercury said, pacing.

"Michael forbade us to split up," Wire said tiredly.

"What's he going to do if we save more lives this way?" Mercury demanded.

"Cut us off without a penny," Wire said. "He'll do it, too."

Sophie said, rising and putting on her glasses, "I've got Cosmic Flyer 1 warming up now. I suggest we head for the riot first. Biggest casualty risk. Well," she said with a twisted smile, "biggest casualties we care about. Men in black? What men in black?"

Citizen Pain walked to the elevator door and said, "I am going out. Indeed, I will go without you if you continue to argue, Mercury. I do not care for your attitude when people are being injured."

Nereid and Sophie walked over to join him. After a moment, so did Vector, saying, "Mercury, you and Gemini can stay here and watch the monitor."

"But Ivy and Simon…" Mercury said, in between gaping at them.

"Aren't members of the Young Cosmics," said Wire, following the rest onto the elevator. "Or we can patch it into the transport. Your choice, Merc."

In the end, of course, the whole team left together, though Mercury didn't shut up with his bitching. Nereid had to wonder what Ivy and Simon were doing. Hopefully having a beer and a pizza.

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Things are starting to move along...

99 Red Balloons Go By

Sophie's eyes lit up suddenly and she pulled the microphone up from where it was draped over her shoulder. "Roger, wilco," she said, then jerked her head toward the door while looking at Nereid.

Nereid bounced up and hurried into the next room, where the rest of the Young Cosmics were sitting around nervously. Mercury's leg was jiggling so fast his knee was a blur. Vector was glaring at him in between reading something on her StarSeed. Wire was pacing, repeatedly flexing the metal hand that Sophie had built to replace the one she'd lost a few years before. Citizen Pain and Gemini were playing a game of chess.

"Showtime," Nereid said.

Mercury leapt to his feet, grinning. "Right!"

They all moved to the corner of the room, where Simon and Ivy were fussing around a small television studio they'd set up. Simon looked more normal than Nereid had seen him in a long time, with a fresh fade haircut, neatly trimmed Van Dyke, and wearing tight black jeans. Both Mercury and Gemini kept running their gazes over him with extreme interest. Both Simon and Ivy were wearing their "Puppy Patrol" t-shirts, and both were wearing necklaces with sparkling globes strung on black rattail.

"Okay, on your marks," Simon said, pointing them all onto the clean white platform he and Ivy had set up. "No one lean back against the backdrop, or it will fall over."

"Pull together," Ivy said, looking at her screen. "Pay, move a little to your right. Wire, you need to take one step forward. Gemini, close ranks behind her."

Simon flicked on the glaring white lights and moved from one to another, tweaking the positioning, then ducked forward to dot Mercury's nose with a dusting of powder. "There, okay, we just don't want you glowing like Rudolph, there, dude."

Mercury's face twisted as he tried not to sneeze. "Right!" he said again, mastering the sneeze, then crossing his arms to strike a belligerent pose.

Everyone followed suit except Wire, who fidgeted in front, rearranging the collar of her uniform to make the microphone cord more comfortable. Nereid felt silly with her arms crossed, but it took less room than putting their hands on their hips, which was the other acceptable superhero pose.

Ivy leapt up and stuck her head through the door to Sophie. "We're set here, Brainchild."

Nereid could hear Sophie telling Tizemt at Headquarters that they were ready to broadcast. Then Sophie walked into the room and stood with her screen projection flickering a few feet in front of her. She watched the screen for a moment, listening to her headset, her hand moving in the air to manipulate her screen. Then she nodded to Ivy.

"All right," Simon said. "Wire, you're on in 10, 9, 8, 7, 6…" He raised his hand and finished the countdown on fingers. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Then he pointed at Wire.

Nereid reflected that he'd learned a lot about television production during his time on the Wonderful House reality show.

They all looked into the camera Ivy had told them to look into and then Wire said, "Hello, Wonder City. Hello, World, for that matter. We are the Young Cosmics, and we are duly deputized substitutes for the missing Gold Stars. And we have something very important to tell you."

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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)
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."

wonder_city: (Default)
Storm Warning

"No, no, no, no, no, no, no," Sophie said, clutching her head. "They didn't wait for me?"

"No," Nereid said, watching her girlfriend worriedly. "It was a big thing. Lots of people involved. All the police who'd gone in went silent, and no one knew exactly what was happening."

"But you could plainly see it was Phil the Pheromoaner," Sophie said, gesturing angrily to the big screen that showed an aerial still photo of a dirty-blond man in his thirties, sitting partly unclothed on the front steps of the Wonder City University library, surrounded by mostly-unclothed college women. She scowled. "And it looks like he found a power booster somewhere."

Nereid blinked. "I don't know this guy."

Sophie sighed and rubbed her face. "That's because he's been in jail. He's a serial rapist. The worst sort of rapist: the sort where circumstances convince juries that his victims are consenting. His para power is producing roofie-like pheromones. His victims lose most of their inhibitions and willpower."

Nereid's eyes got big. She clenched her jaw and firmly put aside a sick memory of her very bad relationship of two years before, focusing on the screen. "So how many people can he usually do that to?"

Sophie grimaced. "That's the thing: he's a Class 2 or 3 at best, only able to really affect a single person at any given time. He's got something bigger going on here. I wish there weren't so damn many trees in the quad so we could see just how many people there are. Who did you say went in?"

"Mercury, Wire, Vector, and Mercury's new boyfriend, that guy Gemini? The one who can multiply his extremities or something?"

Nereid glanced at Sophie's face, and the half-appalled, half-intrigued look she saw there brought images to mind that made her blush furiously.

Sophie coughed, then said, "You mean they didn't even call in Citizen Pain? The one person who is likely to be immune to this?"

"They signaled him, just like they signaled you," Nereid said.

Just then, as if summoned, Citizen Pain burst into the room, his long white hair romantically windblown, beautifully sculpted face distressed. Nereid regretted, for just a second, that he "wasn't attracted to biological lifeforms." "Indeed, I have only just received the signal!" he exclaimed. "What is the matter, Brainchild?"

Sophie heaved a massive sigh. "Oh, the team just went in without either of their two heavy hitters OR their brain."

"I'm not allowed out, you told them," Nereid said in a small voice. "And they didn't think it would be that difficult."

"I know, I know," Sophie said, rubbing the bridge of her prominent nose. "But that's because Mercury really takes this whole 'hotheaded impulsive leader' schtick too seriously."

"I do indeed agree with you there, Brainchild," Citizen Pain said, resettling his white-and-black uniform tunic on his shoulders. "I wish that he would step down from his position and allow someone else to try leading for a change. Indeed I do."

"Like you, Pay?" Sophie said with a grin. "I can't help but think you'd be better at it than he is."

"I was thinking of you, in fact, Brainchild," he said seriously.

"Thanks, that's very flattering, Pay," Sophie said, and Nereid could see that had flustered her a bit. "Let's talk about it later. While we talk, our teammates are most likely getting naked."

"Oh! You don't really think so, do you?" Nereid said, chewing her lower lip. "Mercury thought he could run fast enough to get to him and stop him."

"Mercury still has to breathe while he runs," Sophie said, turning to the screen and trying to request another aerial shot from the police flyer. "What Mercury actually thinks is that Phil's roofies only work on women. And he would be wrong." An error message rolled across the screen, asserting that the flyer was busy at this time. She cursed.

Nereid said, "Should we go then?"

"Yes," Sophie said, turning to her two eager minions and stalking past them into the elevator. They followed her. "Nereid, you'll need to stay in water form until I tell you it's safe to turn back. Pay, I'll need you to patch into Cosmic Flyer 2 and give me flyover visuals."

"I will indeed be pleased to do so," Pay said, and when the elevator disgorged them onto the flight deck, he immediately went to the flyer's external computer port and pushed his fingers into the custom dock Sophie had built for him. The secondary flyer's engines came online immediately and Nereid could see the systems inside beginning their diagnostics, screens flickering information faster than anyone but Pay or Brainchild could process.

"Wait here while I get my containment suit," Sophie said, and she trotted into her armory.

Nereid said to Pay, "Where were you when they signaled? They got a message that your receiver was out of range."

"I was not out of range," Pay said, removing his hand from the port and sliding the port cover into place. He turned tragic blue eyes toward her. "Indeed, I was only in a place that does not get good reception. I was seeking to speak to my boyfriend."

"Oh, Pay," Nereid said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "But he broke up with you months ago!"

"I know," Pay said, and his lower lip quivered. "But I found that I desired nothing more than to hear him call me a 'toy boy' again." He rubbed at his eyes, which were, human-like, producing some tears. "I found, indeed, that Mr. Hammer seems to have forgotten who I am."

Nereid thought about that, and then thought about the fact that when she called Megan and asked to talk to Simon a month ago, Megan had chided her, reminding her that Simon "didn't do that any more," and yesterday had spoken as though Simon were no more than her pet dog. Sophie was right that something really bizarre was going on out there. "Oh, Pay," she said again, hugging him. "I'm sure he hasn't forgotten you."

Sophie emerged from the armory at that point, dressed in her sleek humanoid-mecha-armor, which was stylishly painted in dark blue and gold. Her apparently-blank faceplate was still open, revealing her face. "Come on, you two, let's move along. Nereid, what did I tell you?"

"Oh, right," Nereid said, and shifted into her water form. It was still a weird experience, this new trick of hers, but she tried very hard not to wonder how she continued to think if her brain had turned to water.

The roof opened and Pay rose up into the sky. Sophie took the pilot's seat while Nereid carefully squished into a passenger seat.

"Cosmic 2, you have clearance for your flight plan," a bored woman's voice said from the speaker. "Please to not deviate more than 10% from your plot except for evasive maneuvers without clearance."

"Affirmative, Flight Control," Sophie said into the microphone. She switched to internal mic and said, "Thanks for filing the plan, Pay."

Since he was wirelessly patched into the flyer's systems, he responded, via speaker, "I am glad indeed to be of service."

The flyer, under Sophie's expert guidance, rose up smoothly, pivoted to face the Wonder City University campus, and, clearing the top of the nearest skyscraper, moved forward.

"What is the plan, Brainchild?" Pay said, easily keeping pace with the flyer.

Sophie pursed her lips in thought for a moment, then said, "You're gonna fly over and give us aerial visuals. Then Nereid is going to bring in a full-on monsoon for the quad and anywhere else we see activity."

"That's going to mess up weather patterns for weeks," Nereid said, trying to facepalm and forgetting that she was in water form. There was a splash as her "hand" passed through her "forehead" and out the back of her "head". GOD that was WEIRD.

"Tough shit," Sophie said. "That's what paras do: mess stuff up." There was a strange, strained, bitter tone to her voice, but Nereid only noted it and didn't pursue it. "While she's washing people down and knocking as much pheromone out of the air as possible, Pay, you're going to go in and deck the sucker. Try not to hurt anyone else in doing it; I'm hoping the rain will break up some of the scrum so he won't have anyone to hide behind. I'll come in with a containment unit for him."

"Visuals commencing," Pay said, and Sophie put the screen up.

The entire quad was full of naked or mostly-naked humans engaging in acts not normally seen in public. Nereid immediately looked away, feeling sick, and was sure she'd be blushing if she currently had blood or skin. Sophie's face turned red with something other than embarrassment as she stared at the screen.

"A lot of people worked hard for almost four years to put that waste of flesh behind bars," Sophie said in a low voice. "It took a shitload of work to get a jury that would agree to put him away. And now someone has let him out and taken off his power repressor. In fact, someone may have given him a power enhancer of some sort." She stared a moment longer, then said, "I may need to invent something that will cut his dick off from the inside out."

"You shouldn't joke about that," Nereid said.

"Who's joking?" Sophie said, cocking her head to the side as she watched the visuals updating. "Besides, I have to either laugh or explode from homicidal rage at this point. Castration jokes are the least of it." She snorted. "Though I guess guys wouldn't agree with me."

"I find castration jokes somewhat uncomfortable," Pay said over the loudspeaker, "even though my apparatus is technically detachable."

"Pay!" Nereid said, clapping her hands over her ears with a useless sploosh. "I didn't want to know that!"

"Why not?" Pay said, and Nereid suspected that he was only playing innocent this time. It had taken her a while to discover that her android friend actually could have a wicked sense of humor. "Indeed, I think it is a distinct perk of my design. I have, in fact, had my apparatus remodeled several times for the pleasure of my partners..." And he was obviously going along with Sophie's laugh-or-cry idea.

"PLEASE tell me that you weren't involved in the design," Nereid exclaimed, letting her hands dissolve and turning to Sophie.

"Of course I was," said Sophie, adjusting the visual display. "Do you think Pay would trust anyone else with his apparatus?"

Nereid said plaintively, "I don't know whether to count that as you cheating on me or not."

Sophie snorted. "Honey, there are people who do that for a living."

"There are?" Nereid said, trying to imagine a market for redesigning... apparatus.

"They're either called 'surgeons'," Sophie said, giving her a sly glance, "or 'toy designers'."

"Indeed," Pay said, "I count myself extremely fortunate that I can modify my apparatus in ways not normally available to biological lifeforms."

"Nooooooo lalalalalalala!" Nereid bellowed.

"All right, y'all," Sophie said, absently patting at Nereid's watery knee, "I think I've got a grasp on the scope of this thing." She picked up an electronic stylus and drew several quick lines on the screen map of the university and environs. "Nereid, start bringing in the water over this space."

"I need radar," Nereid said.

"Right," Sophie said, flipping the appropriate switch. "Pay, are you experiencing any abnormalities in your biomechanical systems that could be Phil's roofies?"

"Negative, Brainchild," Pay said. "Indeed, I am fully functional."

"Yes, you are, indeed," Sophie muttered under her breath.

Nereid concentrated on the radar screen, the map, and the environment beyond. She could certainly feel everything that was going on in the atmosphere -- she could sense where their own flight disturbed water vapor, and she could even sense approximately where Pay was, but she had only a vague connection between what she could feel and actual geography if she wasn't in the middle of things.

And she really didn't want to be in the middle of those things.

"Oh, there's Vector," Sophie said.

Nereid glanced at the screen without thinking, and her attention was arrested. "Wait, is that a girl she's with?" she said.

"Oh, yeah," Sophie said dismissively. "I know she says she's our 'token straight' but she so isn't. We don't have a token straight."

Nereid blinked at the screen and said, "Huh," deciding to think about it later. She went back to cloudgathering.

"I don't see Mercury," Sophie said. "I can only hope he's found someone invulnerable."

Nereid tried to do a mental "lalalala" to stop thinking, but she gave in and said, "Do you think Gemini can really multiply his... his..."

"Apparatus?" Sophie said with a wicked grin. "I don't know, why don't you ask him?"

Nereid would have blushed again, she was sure, and turned back to the radar. The water vapor began to show as blue on the radar, then green, and Nereid knew that it would begin raining soon on most of the university campus. Now she redoubled her efforts to pull together water vapor, trying not to carelessly evaporate reservoirs and ponds as she had sometimes done when pressed for time.

The radar slowly, slowly turned yellow and orange, and finally Sophie said from behind her faceplate, "That's enough, Pacifica."

Nereid looked out the windscreen at the dense downpour that had engulfed the campus. Apparently, the flyer had landed while she was working. She couldn't actually see through the rain (though then she was left wondering how she was "seeing" at all since everything was water, etc).

Pay's voice came over the loudspeaker. "I have obtained my target, Brainchild." He paused. "I am afraid I may have damaged him a little."

"I'll be there in a moment with the containment unit," Sophie said. "Do I need a backboard?"

Pay made a thoughtful noise. "Perhaps. I believe his jaw is broken, so that may be a wise precaution, indeed."

"On my way," Sophie said. "Nereid, stay in here, no matter what. And is there anything you can do about the temperature? It only just occurred to me that having a lot of wet, naked people in the springtime is kind of a prescription for hypothermia."

Nereid gave Sophie's faceplate a pained look. "I'll... try. But heating is mostly transfer from the sun or an air mass."

"Try, that's all I ask. And stay here," Sophie said, before departing with the required emergency equipment.

Nereid stared at the rain, feeling the water bouncing off Sophie's suit, sensing all the people in the quad near them starting to stand and move around. She didn't want to see them, the people who had been violated during this... thing that had happened to them. She didn't want to think about them too much, but couldn't help it. Could the university's counseling program cope with this? Did they even have a plan for dealing with a supervillain attack like this one? How many of them had considered themselves virgins? Would any of them have to deal with family repercussions because of it? How many of them had been raped before and would have nightmares for weeks or months? What about pregnancy?

She shook her head in a vain attempt to clear it, as the last thoughts were too close to home, and turned her powers toward trying to warm the area.

Sophie and Pay came in, dripping water, and carrying a transparent capsule between them. The semiconscious man inside was strapped to a backboard with his neck efficiently immobilized. The left side of his face was starting to swell and a bruise over one eye was darkening rapidly. He was one of those men who ooze unattractiveness, skinny and pallid and mean-looking.

"Keep up the rain for a bit longer," Sophie said, lifting her faceplate. "There's still going to be some around where he was holding court."

"Brainchild, you said to look for anything odd. In addition to that," Pay said, nodding to a black collar with a canister attached to it that Sophie was idly bouncing in her hand, "he was wearing this ring." Pay said, holding up something that looked very much like the ring Nereid had been given the week before. "Indeed, this looks familiar."

"Crap," Sophie said, taking it from him and shoving it into one of her many armor compartments.

"Sophie, was that...?" Nereid began, but Sophie cut her off with a gesture.

"We'll talk about it later," Sophie said.

Phil the Pheromoaner made a face at them and paid for it in pain, his yelp resounding out of the containment unit. Sophie raised an eyebrow and said, "Pay, please take him to Fort Wilson. They have holding cells for his type there."

"Indeed, Brainchild," Pay said, taking a firmer grip on the man's container. "What will you do?"

"I'm going to go back out and find our teammates," Sophie said with a sigh, flipping her faceplate back down and tucking the collar into another armor compartment. "And their costumes."


Author's Note:

In case you're wondering, yes, I do have issues with characters who use pheromones to convince people to have sex, a la Marvel's Starfox, the Purple Man, and the Mandrill, as well as other characters. And while the whole sexual assault thing is sometimes explored (as with Starfox), mostly it's passed off as being just another power effect. What if one has to actually deal with the aftermath?

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

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They Tell Me That I'll Move Forward for the Good of Us All

Nereid crept guiltily into Sophie's laboratory at the heart of the Young Cosmics' headquarters. She knew Sophie was going to be upset. She knew she shouldn't have done it. She knew, she knew, she knew.

"Hey, you," Sophie said, glancing up from the tiny mechanism she was working on today. Then she paused and flipped the microscopic-view lens out from in front of her glasses so she could see Nereid more clearly. "What's wrong, Pacifica?"

"Nothing," Nereid lied. She knew she lied badly, especially to Sophie.

"You went out," Sophie said, her voice flattening and her face locking down over any expression.

"I just needed a new hairbrush," Nereid said defensively. She wilted under Sophie's silent scrutiny after only a few seconds. "I'm going stir-crazy in here, all day every day, Sophie!"

Sophie sighed and put her tools down. After a moment of staring at the desktop, she rose and put her arms around Nereid. "I'm sorry. I know you're going stir-crazy. Everyone is, but particularly you."

"Because you let them go out," Nereid said, the sulkiness slipping out before she could stop it. She saw that she'd hit Sophie where it hurt and immediately regretted it. "I'm sorry, I know you've said that it's extra dangerous for me, but I just don't understand. I mean, I'm a Class 10 para..."

"Class 10 paras can be taken by surprise and clubbed down," Sophie said. "But it's not that kind of danger I'm worried about though."

"The riot last month really shook you up," Nereid said, frowning. "That's when you said I couldn't go out at all."

"Yeah," Sophie said in a tone that Nereid knew meant she wasn't going to explain. Sophie leaned her forehead against Nereid's and closed her eyes.

"I wish you would tell me why," Nereid said, and it came out more pathetic than she'd meant.

"It's a feeling," Sophie said, as she had before. "I don't have any data to back it up."

Nereid didn't believe her -- there was something a little too polished about the lines. Sophie was too good at lying sometimes. But she didn't say that, just bit her lip.

Sophie said, after a moment, "Did the Men in Black find you again?"

Nereid gave her a worried look and said, "You shouldn't call them that, it's disrespectful."

"You didn't like my other nickname for them either." Sophie sighed and opened her eyes. "What did they give you?"

"They didn't...!" Nereid clenched her hand to try to hide the pretty little steel promise ring. "They just... talked. And read to me."

Sophie stepped back after feeling around Nereid's neck for a chain, and gently took each of her hands. Nereid relented and let her take the ring, though she felt a sharp pang of regret as it left her finger.

Sophie didn't even examine it, she just threw it into what Nereid knew was a small disposal unit. Nereid winced at the sound of something grinding up the metal of the ring.

"Come on," Sophie said, her eyes terribly sad in a way that made Nereid want to apologize repeatedly. "Come on, it's late, let's go to bed." She took Nereid's hand and drew her out of the laboratory.

A terrible stab of guilt flashed through Nereid, but she didn’t say anything.


Author's Note:

Oh, Nereid. Oh, Sophie.

Thanks for the linking and such to Madame's readings offer! I've got a full reading and 5-card reading to do up for folks. :)

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

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All Water Has a Perfect Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I don't remember," said Jennifer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Um, can I ask?" Nereid said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was pretty sure she meant it too.

END of Volume 2: Deep Freeze


Note from the Author:

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

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

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

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



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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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
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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Shaking Space Easily From Her Wings

"You've been avoiding me," Sophie said.

Nereid looked up from her computer, ready denials leaping to her lips. The words stopped when she actually saw Sophie's face: determined and sad. She dropped her gaze to her own hands. "I... things haven't been good."

"I know," Sophie said. "I may seem callous and oblivious, but I actually notice these things."

Nereid held herself very still as Sophie sat down next to her in the corner of the Cosmics' "parlor," the one room that was consistently empty during the day.

"You haven't given me a chance to thank you," Sophie said.

"You don't have to," Nereid said, horrified by the turn of the conversation. "Really. Honestly. I'm glad we managed to find you and bring you home and you really don't have to thank me at all. Wire did so much more than I did."

"That's not what she says," Sophie said. "Wire says that the trip was your idea, that you managed to find information about my whereabouts, and you contacted the Equestrian and everything."

"X got the information," Nereid said, still not looking up. "She couldn't go. So I did."

"Why won't you take any credit?" Sophie said, her tone frustrated. "Why do you keep deflecting me like this?"

Nereid kept her eyes locked on her tightly-clasped hands. "I don't deserve any credit."

"Pacifica," Sophie said, turning to her and abducting her hands from her view. "You deserve it all. You went to a different, terrifying world to find me. The right world at the right time with the right companions. It doesn't matter that X found information or Wire went with you; you were the one who made the trip happen."

Nereid trembled like a terrified horse at Sophie's touch. "I also... all sorts of things went wrong because of me. I'm stupid and incompetent and I don't deserve these powers because I can't use them right and..."

"Stop," Sophie said with uncharacteristic gentleness. "I want to say something to you. Look at me?"

With a heroic effort, Nereid raised her gaze to Sophie's face. Sophie's beautifully angular face and her dark eyes and her silly glasses.

"Wire lost her hand," Sophie said, "and I'm going to replace it, with a cyberpart for now, but I'll find another solution soon. It's all right. That's the sort of relationship she and I have. But the thing is, Pacifica, you lost all sorts of things because of this trip, the sorts of things I can't help with or replace." A single tear escaped and raced down her cheek to drip off her chin. She wiped her face irritably on the shoulder of her shirt without letting go Nereid's hands. "I had a lot of time in that damn bell jar to think, and I did think, no matter what the Equestrian says about my state of mind. There are a lot of things I needed to reevaluated. And I realized... I don't want that sort of... of... scorekeeping relationship with you. I want to be able to give you things you can't pay back, like you've already given me. Because I... no matter what's happened, and whether you want to tell me about it or not, no matter what you think of yourself... I love you, Pacifica."

Nereid stared at her, unable to think about anything she said except those last four words that rang in her mind, temporarily banishing other thoughts. She could feel her body shaking hard, and her hands closed tightly on Sophie's. The hard, heavy knot in her belly unloosed and blossomed into something else. She managed to say, thickly through the torrent of tears she was repressing, "I love you too."

Sophie, with more propriety than she had previously evinced, took Nereid off to her apartment, where crying would be both more and less appropriate.


Note from the Author:

Posted a little early this week because some of my readers are having rough times and I thought they could use something sweet.

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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