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

Everything Dies

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

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

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

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

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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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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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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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Home From the Hill

The nurses were entirely charmed by Tam, particularly by his devotion in staying at Nereid's bedside the entire time she was in the hospital. Well, not the entire time, Nereid reflected as he pushed her wheelchair out to the waiting Young Cosmics limousine. He had always been tactfully absent -- getting food that he cadged out of the rather silly middle-aged woman who ran the hospital cafeteria -- when her parents visited. Her mother had asked about him a couple of times, but Nereid begged off talking about him or anything else. She really was exhausted and didn't feel like telling the story yet. Besides, as Tam said, she was not required to relive the whole nightmarish ordeal of Faerie for the entertainment of a bunch of voyeurs who wanted to hear about her pain.

At the car, she stood, holding his arm, and an orderly swept the wheelchair back into the hospital. Tam smiled. "At least they didn't send some old jalopy to take you home. Glad to see my girl getting the respect she deserves."

Nereid gave him a faint smile. She let him hand her into the car, where she slid gratefully onto the new-smelling leather seats. Apparently, Mr. Moneybags had coughed up for the replacement Mercury had wanted.

Tam eeled in next to her, pulling the door shut behind him. He grinned like a kid at the lush, silent interior, the little refrigerator, the tiny bar, and ran his hands over the seats and doors. "Now this is the way to travel."

Nereid put her head back against the seat and shut her eyes, feeling the car pull smoothly away from the curb. Her doze was punctuated by Tam's exclamations about this or that landmark, store, or anything else that caught his eye. She tried very hard not to be annoyed with him, remembering that he had left Earth in the 1880s, and everything must be very strange and possibly terrifying to him.

Tam nudged her awake and she realized the car wasn't moving any more. "There's people waiting," he said, and slid out of the car.

She emerged, blinking, holding onto Tam's arm, and she was immediately embraced. "Oh, Pacifica, I am indeed very happy to see you again!" Citizen Pain murmured in her ear.

Nereid hugged him back, blinking tears away. "Pay, I'm so glad to see you too."

Tam a-hemmed next to her and she recalled herself. "Citizen Pain, this is Tam Lane. He helped me find my way back after I got lost in Faerie."

Pay grinned his chiseled, impossibly beautiful grin, and a lock of his white hair fell into his eyes. He shook Tam's hand enthusiastically. "Indeed! You are welcome, Mr. Lane. We are so relieved to have Nereid back. Indeed we are."

"Well, I'm glad to have played a part in that," Tam said stiffly, glancing beyond Pay at the rest of the Cosmics.

Mercury posed with what Nereid knew to be a faux welcoming smile, his green humanoid boyfriend Tilt lurking, half-visible, behind him. Nereid noticed that Vector was growing out her blonde pixie cut, and even so, Vector still looked like a model. Wire stood to one side, her left arm in a sling, the stump neatly bandaged.

"Welcome home, Pacifica!" Mercury said. "We're awfully glad you made it back and that you're feeling well enough to get let out of the hospital."

"Thanks, guys," Nereid said, hoping the Special Moment would be over soon and she could go to bed. "Is Sophie back yet?"

Wire shook her head. "It'll be another couple of days. She was in her 'coma'--" Wire could only do scare quotes with her right hand now "--for four months, after all. She's pretty wobbly, and the Ultimate isn't taking any chances."

Nereid nodded, her one hope of the day deflated. She didn't know why she hadn't gone to see Sophie before getting discharged. She really should have. But every time she wanted to go, Tam had to go get something to eat, or sing in the lounge, or something, and she didn't really have the energy to wheel herself there.

Everyone stood there for a moment, smiling at each other.

Vector finally said, "Well, this is really awkward, so I'm going back inside."

The other Cosmics followed her promptly, except for Pay, who lingered.

Nereid inhaled and pulled herself together. "It's awesome to see you, Pay, but I'm still really beat."

"Of course!" Citizen Pain said. "We just wanted you to see that we are indeed glad you are back. Can I help you to your apartment?"

"I'll handle that, friend," Tam said, clasping Nereid's hand to his arm possessively.

Pay didn't notice any undercurrents; he just smiled and said, "Oh, indeed! I will see you later, Pacifica!"

In her rooms, Tam glanced around approvingly. "Nice place. Simple, but nice."

"The Cosmics furnished it," Nereid said. "I just, you know, live here." Her gaze fell on the stack of schoolbooks she'd bought for spring semester, still piled neatly on the edge of the kitchenette and she said, suddenly, "I hope the Cosmics got me a dispensation for missing the whole semester. I mean, I think finals are this week."

"Oh, you're in school?" Tam said, looking up from investigating her entertainment center.

'Yeah," Nereid said, biting down on the inside of her cheek to stop herself from tearing up. After a second, she added, more steadily, "This would've been my second semester. Oh, I really hope they thought to handle that. I guess they'd have to do it for Wire at least, so maybe they remembered me too."

"I'm sure it will be fine," Tam said, coming to take her hands. "You're home now."

"Yeah," she said again, forcing a smile. "And I think I need a nap." She squeezed his hands, and let him put an arm around her waist as they walked to the bedroom. "I'm sorry, Tam. Feel free to watch TV or... oh, god, you probably don't know how to turn it on. I can..." She turned to go back out.

He held her still. "It's all right, love. There's plenty of time for me to learn to do that." He started unbuttoning her shirt. "We've got all the time in the world, right?"

She let him undress her, because it felt nice to be taken care of. She let him get into bed with her, too, because it felt nice to be held and kissed. She let him do other things too, because she figured it wouldn't take too long and she didn't have the energy to argue anyway.


Note from the Author:

Between the events of last week, our upcoming November marathon of Things Taking Up Our Weekends, the stupid Snowtober storm, and the fact that we're on Hour 59 with no power at my house (*whinnnnne*), things have been hectic and stressful and I've been forgetful. I apologize for the lack of rerun posts, and I will try to get back with the program soon, but at least I can get new episodes up.

Remember to vote for WCS!

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Boardinghouse Reach

"Oh, hey," Megan said, peering closer at the newspaper. "They identified that body they found down at the docks. It was a two-bit villain called the Merlin. He tried to mug me on my first night in the city!"

Simon stared despairingly at the shirts he had spread over his bed, then paced around in a circle, clutching his head. "Uh-huh," he said distractedly. He was wearing only a towel at his waist, and his muscled shoulders and back were damp.

Megan looked over at him and folded the newpaper. "What is up with you? Are you usually this squirrelly before a date?"

Simon said, "Uh-huh," again and held a green checked oxford shirt under his chin and stared into the mirror.

"Shall I go away while you stress?" Megan said.

"Um, what?" Simon looked at her, wild-eyed with alarm. "No! Don't go! Keep me company!"

Megan sighed and glanced at the clock. "If you don't decide what shirt to wear in the next five minutes, you'll be late meeting Suzanne."

"Auuuugh!" Simon said, throwing his hands in the air and running around the room. "Which one should I wear?" he said when he paused to grab his towel, which had come untucked.

"I think that you could wear nothing but your work apron and she'd be delighted," Megan said, smirking. "Look, she asked you on this date, so she MUST like you already. Wear what you feel most comfortable in."

"I caaaaaaaan't!" Simon said. "I feel most comfortable in flannel and jeans!"

Megan got up and inspected his closet. "Look, this is a brand new flannel. And your black jeans. There. Et voilà. You are dressed."

"Which underwear should I wear?" Simon asked meekly.

Megan gave him a sarcastic glower. "The gold lame briefs."

Simon covered his face. "How did you know about those?"

"Zoltan told me he'd given them to you for Christmas last year." Megan grinned and clapped him on the back. "You'll be fine. Just wear your usual tighty-whities, and get into your shirt and jeans and get out of here."

"Right." Simon looked despondently at his closet, then yanked the new flannel out and pulled his black jeans off their hanger.

"I'm gonna go out and see if Mr. Hammer is around," Megan said, turning to the door. "I'll see you as you're leaving, right?"


Megan closed the door softly. She paused a moment outside the door that led to G's apartment, listening to the silence within, then sighed and trotted downstairs. She opened the heavy wooden front door with its leaded glass and ornate Victorian trim, passed through the vestibule and outer door, and stepped out onto the porch. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a plain, 30-something, brown-haired, bespectacled white woman sitting on a bench in the gardens beside the house, tipping her cigarette ash into a concrete urn full of flowers. She nodded to Megan, who returned it. Megan then turned right, toward the carriage house.

She knocked on the yellow front door of the carriage house and, as she waited, studied the small, squared-off boxwoods planted on either side of the walkway. There were heavy, thudding footsteps inside, and the door was opened by Jack Hammer, dressed only in jeans. His surprisingly mobile eyebrows registered surprise.

"I'm sorry, are you busy?" Megan asked.

"Nope, not yet," Hammer said, managing to inflect his electronic voice with something like impatience. "What's up?"

"Zoltan told me you're a foreman with a para construction company," Megan said, opting to go straight to the point. "I really need a new job."

"Whatcha doin' now?"

"Deliveries," Megan said, "hauling thereof."

"You're the one working with Captain Zip, right?" he said.

Megan nodded.

"The grapevine grows like kudzu here on Marigold Lane," Hammer said with a tinny chuckle. "You want to move into construction?"

"I want to move into a job where the mob isn't hip-deep into my boss."

Hammer nodded slowly, then glanced over Megan's shoulder. "Whyn't you come over tomorrow, around 6 or 7, and we'll talk more, huh?"

Megan blinked, caught the sound of approaching footsteps, then nodded vigorously. "Sure! Thanks!" she said, then turned and hurried back toward the front of the house.

She passed a pretty young white man in jeans and t-shirt who looked like he came straight from the sculptor's workroom, all muscles and cheekbones and brilliant blue eyes. He gave her a bright smile.

Behind her, she heard Hammer growl, "Yer late."

The young man said, "Indeed, Mister Hammer, I do apologize. I am indeed very sorry for my delay. I was quite eager to be here with you, but my team..."

Hammer interrupted. "Get in here."

Megan heard a brief scuffling sound, then the door shut heavily. Blushing, she sped her steps around the turn of the house.

G was lounging on the grass at the feet of the woman on the bench, and both were smoking. G spotted her and waved, so Megan strolled over, glancing around for Simon.

"Hey," G said lazily. "Pull up some turf."

Megan folded down to the ground, still a little tender around the ribcage. She smiled up at the woman on the bench. "Hey."

G gestured with her cigarette. "This is Megan Amazon, who has taken up with us by moving into the parlor rooms. Megan, this is Watson Holmes, one of our third-floor residents."

Megan's eyebrows went up, and Watson leaned forward to shake her hand. "My father was a mad fan," she said with a grin. "Everyone asks. I do have a first name, but I hate it more than the other two." Watson had a firm handshake, but no evidence of superstrength. Megan guessed she was on the other side of 40, given the tiny lines around her hazel eyes and the touches of grey sprinkled through her mouse-colored hair. She was wearing gold-rimmed glasses, a t-shirt and jeans, tattered red sneakers, and a cell phone in a belt clip.

There was the usual exchange of pleasantries, then G said, "Visiting Jack?" to Megan.

"Yeah," she said.

"Can I be nosy?"

Megan shrugged. "I need a new job. My boss is mixed up with the mob, plus I think he's going to be a bastard to me when I get back. I stuck my nose in where it wasn't wanted."

"So you're looking at construction?" G said, sounding vaguely surprised.

Megan shrugged again. "I'm hauling deliveries now. Just about anything's a step up."

G said, "Well, the company Jack works for is a pretty decent place. Union, though."

"That's what Zoltan said," Megan said.

Simon emerged from the front of the house and looked around. Megan waved and he hurried over. "Do I look all right?" he said breathlessly.

Megan eyed him. He was wearing the black jeans that fit him like a glove and had put on a black t-shirt under the flannel. "You look good," she said.

"Hot date?" G asked.

Simon nodded.

Watson said, "Is she or he cute?"

G snorted. "Come on, does he date anyone who isn't?"

Simon said, "You know I don't date boys."

Megan said, "You don't?"

"No." Simon looked sheepish. "I flirt with 'em, but don't date 'em."

"Tease," Watson said, grinning.

"Hey!" Simon said, then caught sight of his wristwatch. "Augh! I'm going to be late!" He turned, sprang over a shrubbery, and sprinted for the bicycle rack.

"Good luck!" Megan said.

"We want full details!" Watson called.

Simon waved as he tore off into the street on his bike.

"She is cute," G said, inhaling from her cigarette. "She was the older woman at the party last night, I think."

Megan nodded. "Suzanne."

"Hah," Watson said. "How'd you know, G?"

"Elementary," G said, and laughed when Watson punched her in the shoulder. "He was drooling over her like a poleaxed puppy."

"Well," Watson said, stubbing out her cigarette butt, "it's nice that someone has something to do on a Saturday night."

"How 'bout you, Megan?" G said. "Hot date?"

Megan grimaced. "I've been in town 3 weeks. I don't really have a wide acquaintance. Though," she said thoughtfully, "I guess I have gone on a date. With Simon."

"Jesus," G said, "and then you moved into the same house with him? You got the lesbian indoctrination from your mom, eh?"

Watson choked as she lit a new cigarette and Megan felt her own smile go a little snarly.

G smiled grimly. "Sorry, I have a lousy sense of humor."

Megan let the snarl settle and shrugged. "No problem. A little touchy about the lesbian stereotypes."

"Even from a lesbian?" G said.

"Yep." Megan plucked a blade of grass and folded and refolded it.

There was a slightly awkward silence.

Watson nudged G with a foot.

G cleared her throat. "Well, as an apology, the least I can do is take the new woman out and show her the town. You free tomorrow?"

Megan looked up. "Well... yeah, I am. That'd be nice. All I've seen is the Trylon and Perisphere."

"Can't have that," G said, extinguishing her stub and tossing it into the urn. "Well, I'm gonna go do some work so I'll be free. I'll come by around 10 tomorrow morning, is that all right?"

"Sure," Megan said, blinking.

G got up, dusted off her jeans, smiled, and headed inside. Watson and Megan watched her go.

"She's a strange cookie," Watson said, exhaling smoke. "Want to grab some dinner up the street? Merciful Minerva isn't too much further beyond the pizza joint, and they've got an author reading tonight. Bechdel is touring for her new book."
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Beyond the Uncanny Valley of the Doll's House

Nereid sat on the edge of the table, leaning forward to watch Brainchild as she worked on Citizen Pain's face. Pay wasn't turned off, as he had been when the internal wiring and programming work was being done. He had a couple of wires run into the back of his head, neutralizing the sensation and motor circuits in his face.

"What is that you're using?" Nereid said, fascinated.

Brainchild paused in carefully running the silver rod down the center line of Pay's face and looked over her glasses at Nereid. "It's a molecular fuser, and I told you before that you need to shut up while I'm working."

"Ah," Nereid said, hunching her shoulders. "Sorry."

Pay's gaze flicked to Nereid, then away. It disconcerted her to see his face so devoid of expression while his eyes were open and moving.

Brainchild lifted the rod off Pay's chin and stood back to examine her work. She touched up a spot on his upper lip, then another spot behind his jaw. "Just a few more minutes, Pay, and you'll have an ear again on this side."

He nodded slightly.

Brainchild lifted the second piece of synthetic flesh from its nutrient bath, shook it gently, and then mopped the pink, fleshy, complicated inner side with a piece of gauze. She pressed it into place, shifted it around, then said, "Hold this, please."

Pay held it firmly while Brainchild used the molecular fuser to seal the edges in place. Then she batted his fingers away and continued to run the fuser over the rest of the surface, presumably to fix it to the surface underneath.

Finally, Brainchild sat back and inspected her work. "It looks and feels pretty secure to me. Want me to turn on your sensors now?"

Pay nodded again, and Brainchild leaned over to a device on her right. Pay began running his face through a rapid, jerky series of expressions, from scowling to smiling to horror to laughing.

Nereid watched the diagnostics with a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach. It felt, to her, more like staring over a cliff and imagining the fall than the revulsion that some smart guy thought would be the result of watching artificial humans move.

Pay finally said, "Thank you, Brainchild. All seems to be adequately sealed to the infrastructure. Indeed, I am certain that my self-healing mechanisms will take care of the rest."

"Good," Brainchild said. She reached for the wires at the back of his head, then hesitated. "You still want your hair to come in white? I can change that, you know."

He smiled, perfectly natural, and Nereid felt her stomach do something else, a pleasant little flip-flop. "Indeed, I enjoy the contrast to the cliche of the white-haired villain."

Brainchild shrugged and tugged the wires out. "Okay, but if you start getting a strange compulsion to wield a giant sword, let me know."

"Did you run all your latest anime fanfic into my database as you threatened?" Pay said, laughing.

"I'm not that desperate for feedback," Brainchild said, standing and tucking her equipment in her pocket. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a few episodes downloaded that I need to watch."

Pay laughed again, and Nereid laughed hesitantly too. Brainchild turned a strange look on her, unreadable and... something else, then quirked a corner of her mouth in something like a smile before departing.

Pay's big, brilliant smile turned on Nereid, and it was like being caught in headlights. Dazzled, Nereid just sat and admired his features, complete for the first time in months.

"How do I look?" he asked, opening his arms in an expansive way.

"Gorgeous," she said, then bit her lip. She took a deep breath, clenched her fists. Now or never!

She lunged forward suddenly, off the table and against his broad chest, and stretched up to kiss him square on his beautiful mouth.

He was surprised, she could tell.

She broke the kiss by rocking back down on her heels, then dared to look up at him.

His smile was charmingly crooked. "Nereid," he said. "Indeed, I had no idea."

His blue eyes filled with tears and he pulled her into a powerful hug.

She sighed contentedly into his shoulder.
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Nereid knocked hesitantly on Citizen Pain's door. It was a little late, but she hoped he'd still be awake. That is, if he even slept.

The door was opened by Brainchild, who was wearing a stained lab coat over a t-shirt that read "I LOVE THE WORLD MACHINE" and jeans worn thin and pale at the knees. She had several lenses dialed down in front of her left eye, which didn't improve the scowl she aimed at Nereid. "What do you want?"

Nereid took a step backward. "I... just wanted to talk to Pay."

The scowl lightened infinitesimally. "He's not really in any shape to talk right now." She jerked her head to the left and back, and Nereid, standing on tiptoe, could see Pay lying on the bed behind her. He was wearing a tank top and a pair of shorts and was lying very still. The left half of his head was open, with various small wires and thin, straight pieces of metal protruding from the opening. A thick ochre substance oozed from several sites along the edge of the artificial flesh of his face onto stained rolls of gauze.

"Oh," Nereid said in a very small voice. She felt a little queasy.

Brainchild looked at her for a moment, then sighed. "I'm about to finish up for the night," she said. "If you want to come in and wait for him to come back online, you can. Sit in that chair and be quiet." She pointed to a chair on the far side of the room.

Nereid said, "I won't distract you?"

"Not if you shut up," Brainchild said, turning back to her work.

Nereid tiptoed into the room, shutting the door very softly, and crept to the indicated chair.

Brainchild spun lenses in front of her right eye and bent over Pay. She worked with quick, precise movements of the miniscule tools she held, and frequently consulted a palmtop that appeared to be wired into Pay's head.

Nereid watched her work, then realized that her gaze had drifted to the cleavage visible down Brainchild's shirt. She yanked her gaze away to the bare, blue-gray walls of Pay's room.

"Done," Brainchild said after a while. Nereid looked at her just in time for the heaving of Brainchild's bosom as she stretched backward, her back making tiny popping noises. Alarmed, Nereid looked at Pay. The bandages were restored to the left side of his face. "It'll take him some time to wake up," Brainchild said. "Startup is always slow, but he likes to have someone with him while he does it. Since you're here, I can go get some sleep."

"Oh," Nereid said, caught off-balance. "Um, thanks," she added, feeling obscurely like she needed to say something else.

Brainchild snorted and rolled up her very shiny metal tools in a strip of leather with pockets in it. She tucked the roll in the pocket of her lab coat. "Did you try to kill yourself today?" she said. "I haven't heard an explosion from either of our fearless leaders today."

"I'm not..." Nereid began heatedly, but stopped. "No," she said.

"Three whole days without a fine," Brainchild said, turning to the door. "Keep this up and, who knows? In a year or so, you might even get an official invite." She went out before Nereid could say anything.

Nereid bit her lip and looked at the floor.

"Buh-buh-buray," Pay said several minutes later. "Buh-ray-en-child?"

Nereid hopped to her feet and stood awkwardly at Pay's bedside. "She's, um, she's gone to bed. I'm here, though."

His visible eye flicked open and scanned as if reading something written on the ceiling. He inhaled deeply and carefully, then exhaled. Then his eye moved to look at Nereid. "I am guh-glad t-t-to s-see you."

"She said that your startup takes a while, but you like to have someone here, and I came to... to talk to you, so she left me here." Nereid tried to shove her hands into her pockets, forgetting that her new costume lacked pockets. She needed to fix that.

"Wuh-was she n-n-nice t-to you?" he said, scowling a bit over the stuttering.

Nereid shrugged. "As nice as Brainchild ever is. She let me in. I didn't expect that."

"I d-d-don't un-der-stand why they c-cannot b-be nice to you," he said. He was getting more motion in his lower face, and he managed to tilt his head slightly to look at her squarely.

She shrugged again. "I'm new, and my parents aren't as rich as theirs. And, I guess, I'm kind of stupid."

"N-no!" Pay's shoulders shifted as if he were trying to push himself up. "Not stu-stupid. J-just..." He paused, his eye visibly scanning his memory for a word. "Mis-un-der-stood." He smiled with the half of his mouth she could see.

"Hah!" she said, smiling back.

"Y-you are no more stupid than I am," he said, carefully enunciating. "Ind-deed, I worked for a villain. I did things they c-could call stupid."

"But he was like your father or something," she said. "He made you, then told you to do things, and you did them."

"I n-n-nearly killed the Midnight Mask," he said, "b-because I wanted t-to impress my creator. Not because he t-told me to."

"Weren't you controlled or something?" she said.

"No," he said emphatically. "I w-was an experiment in free will."

"And brainwashing?" she said.

"I suppose," he said, twitching his right arm. "But I am a member of the team, and they h-have never said things to me like they have to you."

"You didn't get public disturbance fines for the team," she said, looking away.

"Better," he said, "I destroyed part of the Government District."

She looked back at him. "Really?"

"Yes," he said, finally managing to haul himself up onto his elbows. "Indeed, I caused months of construction traffic jams."

She smiled ruefully at him. "Thanks, Pay."

"I do not like how the others treat you," he said, frowning. "Indeed, I do not like it. I will speak to them about it."

"You don't have to do that," she said. "Every team needs a... a scapegoat. Someone no one really likes. That's what my dad says, anyway. And he'd know."

"I do not admire that sentiment," Pay said. "Your parents were members of the Liberators for less than a year. They did not stay to be abused. If no one speaks for you here, you will leave. And I would not like that." His left leg thumped the bed.

"Thank you, Pay," she said. "I... thanks."

Pay smiled and turned the conversation to her schoolwork. Nereid chattered about her classes and professors, and he seemed honestly interested, even when she became self-conscious of how much she was complaining about her "Great American Literature" class. Their conversation was punctuated for the next hour by his muscle twitches as the various nerve fibers came back online.

"I am nearly fully functional again," he said at last. "If you want to go now, you can. I am grateful that you stayed with me."

"I... I... sure," Nereid said. "Let me know next time she works on you, I can come then too," she added diffidently.

"Indeed, I will," he said. He walked her to the door and squeezed her shoulder as she went out.

Once safely back in her room, she flung herself onto the bed and went over the entire conversation again. She smiled herself to sleep.
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Life on the Dream Team

Nereid turned the corner on her way to the Young Cosmics rec room and nearly ran down Wire, who was making out with Brainchild.

She flung herself backward to avoid an actual collision, and part of her mind reminded her wryly, You have the shittiest reflexes.

"Oh, hey, Paci-- Nereid," Wire said, stepping back and looking around, shoving her long blue forelock aside with a hand. "Sorry about that."

"Uh-huh," Nereid said, at a loss for anything better. "Is... that, you know, allowed?"

Brainchild pulled her rather complicated glasses off and polished the main lenses on her shirt. "In what sense, exactly?"

Wire focused on Nereid more intently. "Yes, please clarify that question."

Nereid cleared her throat and tried to drag her eyes away from Brainchild's cleavage. "I... I just mean, you're the vice-commander of the team, Wire. Fraternization..." She waved her hand vaguely.

"Technically not fraternization," Brainchild noted, perching her glasses on the prominent bridge of her aquiline nose.

"Sophie," Wire said out of the corner of her mouth. Then to Nereid, "There's no rule in the bylaws against it. Besides, we were together long before I became vice-commander."

"Technically," Brainchild said, "we also stopped being together before you became vice-commander. And then started again. And stopped. And..." She fastened her jacket.

"Sooophieee," Wire said slowly and clearly through her gritted teeth. "Not helping."

"Sorry," Brainchild said unrepentantly.

"Uh," Nereid said. "Sorry." She pushed past Wire and hurried toward the rec room.

Behind her, Wire said in a lowered voice, "This is why we have to be more careful, Sophie. We just freaked the newbie."

"You mean the provisional member who's cost us a few hundred -- or is it in the thousands now? -- in fines and coffee?" Brainchild said, without lowering her voice.

Nereid opened the door and fled inside.

The television screen was blaring, but no one was watching it. A couple of other Young Cosmics -- Mercury and Jet -- were sitting around, talking. In one corner, one of the boys was working out on a weight machine. She couldn't see much of him among the weights and cables.

"Heeeey, Nereid," Mercury said. He was sprawled in his chair, wearing a cropped t-shirt and denim shorts. "How's it goin'?"

"Uh, ah, just fine," she said. His shorts were very tight. "How 'bout with you?"

"Doin' okay," he said. "I heard you had to take someone else for coffee."

"It's cool," Nereid said, dragging her eyes toward the window. The nice, safe window. "She was nice about it."

"Really nice?" Jet asked. He was wearing a full t-shirt and baggy sweatpants. He didn't flex all the time the way Mercury did. "We just got notice that the last person you said that about -- you know, the bus driver? -- is suing us."

She clapped both hands over her mouth. "Oh, shit!"

Mercury waved his hand lazily. "No sweat, kiddo. Mr. Moneybags is taking care of it. Just... you know, maybe you should stop tryin' to kill yourself? It always upsets other people."

"I'm not trying to kill myself," Nereid said.

"That's not how it looks to everyone watching," Jet said.

Nereid rolled her eyes. "Well, if I could think of another way to learn how to use this stupid power..."

"I have thought of a way!" said a voice from the corner.

The young man who had been working out stood up, smiling with the right half of his face. The other half of his face was covered with bandages. He had carefully sculpted cheekbones, a crisp jawline, and a bright blue eye. The rest of his body seemed like it had been carved out of a bodybuilding magazine, and he wore a tank top and shorts that showed it all off. The skin on the left half of his body was oddly pink and shiny compared to the skin on the right half.

"Oh, hey, Citizen Pain," Nereid said. "You have?"

"Yes, indeed!" he said, making his way to her carefully. His left leg dragged a bit, and he seemed somewhat off-balance. But his smile didn't fail. "If your power teleports you away from harm, perhaps you can catch yourself in a semi-perpetual loop by jumping off a high place. Your power might continue to teleport you higher."

"Wouldn't she reach terminal velocity if she did it long enough?" Jet said, frowning.

"Yes, indeed!" Citizen Pain said, the smile never failing. "It would indeed be an excellent way to use her power if we possessed a team member who harnessed kinetic energy!"

"Er, yeah, Pay," Mercury said. "But we don't."

"Then she would indeed require a spotter who could fly and extract her from the loop eventually," Citizen Pain said. "Regrettably, I am not fully functional at this time, or I would offer to help you, Nereid."

"Thank you, Pay," she said. She thought about the nice, safe window again, rather than thinking about being carried in his arms. "You're a sweetie."

"Am I? I am indeed pleased to hear it."

"How are you feeling, anyway?" she asked.

"I am feeling well, especially since Brainchild deactivated the relevant portions of my nociceptor network." He poked himself in the left arm. "No pain at all."

"Oh," Nereid said. "Well, that's good anyhow. A real advantage to being an android. Any idea when you'll be back in action?"

"Indeed, none of us know. My self-regenerating capability has never been so challenged before." Pay shrugged with his right shoulder. "Regrowing half my body has been difficult and resource-consuming."

"I bet," Nereid said, adding eagerly, "Let me know if there's anything I can do to help."

Mercury snorted a laugh into his hand. A blush roared up Nereid's face.

"You have my gratitude, Nereid," Pay said, thankfully oblivious. "I should get back to my room now. It is time for my nutrient bath. I will see you all later." He smiled again and departed.

Before Mercury could say anything, Nereid ran out the door to the pool.


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