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Remember to check the latest on the availability of the Wonder City Stories novel at judemclaughlin.com! We have eBooks up, but the Kindle version is still to come!

All the Secrets and the Mysteries You've Been Selfishly Withholding

Ira sat in the Guardians' waiting room with his coat folded on his lap. Andrea sat on one side of him, slowly and deliberately texting one of her friends with her Starphone. Suzanne sat on his other side, also texting, probably her beau Simon. Ira couldn't help but notice how Suzanne's hands had aged as she'd lost weight on the chemo. Only Andrea's knobby knuckles and age spots differentiated the two women, if he only looked at their hands.

He studied the watercolor landscape prints on the beige wall of the waiting room, and felt very much like he was in a doctor's waiting room. Possibly this had something to do with how often he was in doctors' waiting rooms these days.

The door opened, and a tall man in his 50s with short dark hair showing silver streaks at the temples emerged, wearing a grey pinstriped suit and metallic copper tie. He smiled and said, "Ah, Mr. Feldstein and Mrs. Morgenstern." His smile froze as he added, "Mrs. Feldstein."

Suzanne looked up from her phone and gave him a slow smile that did not reach her eyes. "Hello, Terry. Ira, Andrea, you might remember Terry Fillmore, the Copper Guardian."
Read more... )

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Cover reveal AND BOOK LAUNCH!

Buy in print at my Createspace store!
(I hope they can get it -- I'm on expanded distribution.)

Just LOOK at that beautiful cover art by Alex Heberling! (OMG IRA'S GRIN! I've had this image as my desktop for a couple of months now and his grin makes me smile EVERY TIME I SEE IT.) And the amazing cover and interior design by C Victoria Root!


The eBook is coming -- we're having a few technical difficulties with it -- but it will come soon!
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Defying Gravity

Suzanne Feldstein was just putting her book and StarLeaf into her bag on top of her blue cotton blanket and green cardigan when her StarPhone buzzed in her pocket.

Hey you, texted Simon, bringing, as always, a smile to her face.

Hi yourself, she replied.
Read more... )

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These characters did NOT want to behave. Finally overcame more than a month of writer's block. Perhaps the thaw helped.

I Want to Believe

"Thank you for agreeing to meet me," Suzanne said, determined to keep her poise no matter how much she wanted to grovel. She'd worn her favorite suit, the one that made her feel best, a navy blue number with slacks that actually looked good on her and the mandarin-collared jacket that fit perfectly over her chest. It made her feel a decade younger. She needed that right now.

Simon had a fresh clipper cut and had clearly neatened his Van Dyke, plus he was wearing a sportscoat and dress shirt over black jeans, so Suzanne guessed he was feeling as unhappy about this meeting as she was. He unfolded the napkin into his lap and said, "I… no problem."

Suzanne fiddled with the silverware. She'd asked him to meet her at a restaurant she found written down in last year's daily planner as one they wanted to try together. Now they were there, all she could think was, What was I thinking? He's young enough to be my son!

The server arrived to distribute water into their glasses and ask if they had any questions about the menu. This prompted them both to actually pick up their menus and study them.

The next awkward moment was when they both had put their menus back down and were waiting for the server to return for their order. Suzanne was just thinking, This was a terrible mistake, when Simon said, straightening his tinted glasses on his nose, "I'm sorry, I really don't know what to say right now."

Suzanne twisted the corner of her napkin. "Neither do I. I mean, I thought of a lot of things I could say." She took a deep breath and looked at him. "The most important one is: I'm sorry."

He smiled at her, sadly and sweetly, and her stomach fluttered at a happy rushing memory that bypassed whatever blocks were inside her head. He said, "Women keep apologizing to me these days. I don't know what that says about me."

She laughed a little. "More than just me? The aliens must've really had it in for you."

He shrugged. "I don't know what I ever did to them. I understand their encounter suits look like old upright Hoovers, though. Maybe it was because I always hated vacuuming."

When Suzanne smiled at that, he smiled back, and that smile warmed her in ways she didn't think she could be warm. That gave her a little courage to say, by way of explanation, "I have to tell you that my memory is really… spotty. It's like someone tried to scratch you out of my head."

"That sounds painful," Simon said.

"It is sometimes," she said. "Like right now."

He looked away and was about to say something when the damned server came back for their orders. Suzanne ordered something and immediately failed to remember what she'd ordered. At least dinner would be a surprise. Nothing else about how awkward and horrible this was becoming was a surprise.

When the server was gone, Simon said, looking down at his hands, "I have to tell you that… I'm still really angry. I understand that it wasn't your fault. I know it wasn't your fault. I don't know why I can forgive one of my closest friends for forgetting I was human, but I can't stop being angry at you for forgetting I existed at all."

Suzanne wanted to ask about the friend and what happened there, but she knew the rest of it was the important bit, no matter how hard it was to hear. "I'm sorry."

He grimaced. "It's my issue, really, honestly. I have to figure out how to work through it. Because I do… I think… still love you."

That made her want to cry, reached right back into her lizard brain and dragged tears stinging into her eyes. She looked away, blinking hard, trying to get the stinging to stop. "I think I still love you, too, but other parts of me feel like I hardly know you."

"I know," he said sadly, and he reached across the table for her hand.

They sat like that for a while, his warm hand enclosing hers.

"Ira said," she began when she thought she had mastered the tears that were trying to choke her, "that he'd never seen me happier than when I was with you."

Simon nearly beamed. "I'm glad he felt that way. I… I was really happy with you too. I was… I'd started to think about maybe asking you to marry me."

She couldn't stop the tears this time, and they just spilled over, fast and big, dripping off her chin onto the dark skin of his hand. With her free hand, she caught up her napkin and covered her face. He didn't let go of her hand, but gripped her even tighter.

He had to let go when their dinners arrived, and she had managed to pull herself together by then, though she suspected her nose was bright red. Dinner was a perfectly workmanlike General Tso's Chicken, though the vegetables were markedly tasty. There was a bottle of white wine with dinner that was probably Simon's idea. She wasn't sure she should be drinking—one of the teetotaller ideas that had been packed into her head alongside the horrible anti-sex stuff—but maybe it would make things easier.

Eventually, she said, as casually as she could, "Maybe we could… start this over? Try to get to know each other again? Because I… I expect I've changed from… how you remember me."

There was a long terrifying silence as he ate and drank thoughtfully. Finally, he said, "We can try, but I, um… I kind of have someone now. She was the person who was there for me when everyone else got mindfucked. She was the one who took care of me when the mindfucking was getting to me. I love her and I'm not going to dump her because things might work out again with you."

Suzanne's stomach crashed into the ground, destroying her appetite entirely. That was not something she'd expected him to say. Of course he wasn't waiting around for an old lady like you! she thought.

He reached over and took her hand again, despite the plates and other impediments. He took his glasses off with his other hand and looked at her with his compelling yellow eyes. "This doesn't mean I don't want to try. I'm not involved in an exclusive relationship with her. She's had another lover for the last several months. What I'm saying is that if you can accept that we're not monogamous, I'm willing to try again with you."

Suzanne stared at him, distracted by his gaze, by barely surfacing memories of looking into his eyes in more intimate moments than this, and didn't understand what he'd said for a few minutes. Then she realized what he'd just said.

"I… I don't know whether I can do that," she said. "I guess I don't understand how that would work."

He squeezed her hand and released her, both with his gaze and his grip, returning to finishing his dinner. "Once upon a time, a long time ago," he said, "there was a lady who wasn't sure she could deal with her boyfriend telling her he was trans." He looked up, and this time, he was the one with tears in his eyes. "But she went away and did research and came back and apologized and wanted to try. And it worked. I really want to try again with you, Suzanne. But I need you to want to try."

She stared at him for a long moment and said, "I want to try too, Simon."

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I have the most magnificent surprise for the end of this story arc, and I can barely contain myself over it, I have to just start cranking out the rest of the episodes for volume 3, right?

Apology Is Policy

Suzanne steered as gently as possible over the speed bumps in the hospital driveway so as not to jar Ira. He said he was having a lot less pain in his chest, but she didn't actually believe him.

"Who the hell puts in speed bumps at a hospital?" Andrea groused from the back seat. "Stupidest planning ever. When I had the breast lump out, I would've screamed over every goddamn one, even with that bandeau thing they had me strapped up in. Can't even imagine people with abdominal surgery dealing."

Ira embraced his red, sort-of-heart-shaped-but-mostly-oblong pillow to his chest over the next speed bump, confirming Suzanne's suspicions. (He'd been given the pillow to clutch and brace his sternum against when he had to cough.) "Sadists," he muttered grimly.

He dozed after they got onto the regular streets, waking up only if she accidentally hit a pothole (she managed to dodge most of them, but clearly the Wonder City road crews hadn't yet gotten to the area around the hospital). She and Andrea exchanged occasional looks in the mirror, but didn't say anything. What was there to discuss, after all?

Ira leaned on her arm as they walked into Andrea's house. Andrea held the doors and Ira puttered in slowly, Suzanne behind him in case he stumbled.

He stopped and stared into the living room. Andrea and Suzanne gave each other tight little smiles as they waited for his reaction. The two of them had rearranged it to ease his navigation from living room to kitchen and bathroom, and Suzanne had brought over his favorite recliner from her house.

"Oh, girls," he said, his voice shaky. "My chair. And everything. Oh, girls." He reached up and rubbed at the corners of his eyes.

"Well, I have some experience with you guys with your heart surgery," Andrea said, referring to her late husband David and his long saga of heart issues. "We got in a hospital bed as well, so you can prop up until you feel better."

"So much trouble," he mumbled. "You really shouldn't have. I could have managed."

Suzanne said, "It wasn't much work at all, Ira. And you deserve to be comfortable. After all," she added with a wry grin, "you did help save the world."

"Ha!" he said, turning to hug Andrea, then Suzanne. "Yeah, I guess I did. One more time," he said, winking at Andrea, "for old time's sake, right?"

Andrea visibly restrained herself from shaking his shoulder. "I'm just glad you made it through, you blasted old goat."

"Me too, me too," he said, shuffling over to his chair and slowly lowering himself into it. "I think I'll be well enough to go to that memorial for Jane."

"Don't push yourself," Suzanne said.

Andrea snorted. "He'll be fine. They're still planning it. It'll be weeks before it happens, you know. They have to get the President in and all."

"She never got to meet this one, did she?" Ira said with a faint smile. "She was always so proud of meeting every president since FDR."

"I think we can put it down as a posthumous meeting," Suzanne said.

Andrea waved a hand dismissively. "I'm going to make some lunch. You keep him company, Suzanne."

Ira appeared to doze off immediately, leaving Suzanne to sit on the couch and check her email on her StarPhone. She was considering an email from an ex-coworker asking for a recommendation with some dismay when Ira said, "Have you called him yet?"

Suzanne looked up, slightly alarmed and distracted. "Who?"

Ira opened his eyes. "Simon."

She dropped her gaze back to the tiny screen. "Oh… no."

"Why not?" he said.

Why did he have to ask her hard questions now? He was supposed to be recovering from major surgery! "I… I just haven't."

"But you remember him now," Ira said, one of his hands rubbing lightly over the well-worn tweedy fabric of the chair arm.

Suzanne looked away from the screen, away from Ira, face burning with shame. "Yes. Yes, Renata helped me with… with that."

"Things aren't going to get any less awkward by avoiding the phone call," Ira said gently.

"I know but… he's probably got a whole new life now, a new…" She swallowed the word "girlfriend" and let the sentence trail off.

"I'll tell you something," Ira began, but he grabbed his pillow and coughed several times. After he was done, he fished a handkerchief out of his pocket and dabbed at his eyes, where the pain had sprung tears. "Okay, now I'll tell you something," he said with a weak smile. "I'll tell you that boy made you happier than I've ever seen you, and I've known you at least thirty years now. You glowed when you came home from seeing him. I don't care what garbage that flim-flam artist filled your mind with about Simon and other… dammit, why don't I have a brain? … other people like him, but you know it's garbage and I know it's garbage, and you need to do your best to put that garbage out on the curb. You're not going to do that by sitting around feeling bad."

"Oh, Ira," she said, biting her lip and trying not to cry. "I don't know what to say to him."

Ira laughed a little, hugged his pillow and coughed. "Oh, sweetheart, just call him and say you're sorry, and ask him how he is."

She did cry then, and said, "Maybe it's just better to let it go entirely. It's… it's been almost a year since I knew who he was."

He reached over to her and gripped her hand. "Life is too damned short, Suzanne. You've lost a year you could've had with him — it was taken from you by those damned assholes on that spaceship. Yes, it may be over, but you need to know whether it's over or not so you can move on. And it may not be over. You won't know until you call him."

Suzanne folded over his hand and wept harder than she had since she thought Ira was going to die. At some point, Andrea pushed a box of tissues into her other hand and sat on the couch with her arm around her shoulders. And at some later point, she promised both of them that she'd call Simon.

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I know at least a couple of my readers have been wanting this episode for a while.

Even Though You Broke My Heart and Killed Me

Madeline's face: "I've got him."


"Charge to 360 joules."

"Still in VTach, doctor."

"Blood pressure dropping."

"Crank it up. They said he was Class 5."


"Get me a second stent."

"Deploying second stent."


Madeline's eyes, drawn and tired above the surgical mask: "Damn you, Ira Feldstein, I'm not going to let you do this."


It was a very long, very echo-ey, dimly-lit metallic hallway that curved gently to the right. He could hear his footsteps very clearly as he walked. Oh, you have to be kidding me, he thought. Really? Superheroes always see a damn satellite base when they die in the movies.

A tearing pressure in his chest lifted him out of the hallway. Madeline, gloved and gowned arms red nearly to the shoulder, was bending over him. He thought he could hear her singing softly as she rummaged in his chest, "... has only got one ball. Goering has two but very small…"

Ira wanted to protest that this song wasn't really appropriate for the time and place, but every time he tried to open his mouth, she tugged on something inside his chest that made everything snap shut. He felt a bit like the action figure of himself that came out in the 1970s, all held together with elastics.

Ira walked past a door. It slid soundlessly open, and he could hear many voices, and music, and the clink of glasses inside, though the light in there was too bright to see in. It sounded like one of the old Christmas parties! He could swear he heard Jane Liberty bellowing a carol with Bernie and June.

He was on his back again, staring up at a giant, blinding light. He felt something land on the sheet over his belly. He heard the voice of his old nemesis, Dr. Noontime, from one side of the gurney say, "Two kings."

"Oh, my dear sir," another man said, and Ira had to scrape around in his memory for the name—Professor Fortune! that murdering scumbag. "You can hardly hope to win his body with just two kings."

Body? Whose body? MY body? Ira thought and wished he could move. He felt an overwhelming urge to shout, "It's only a flesh wound!" Was that a quote from somewhere?

"Shut up and play, Fortune," Dr. Noontime growled.

A hand took Ira by the shoulder and squeezed gently as he peered in the door at the party. "No, Ira, not yet."

He spun around in time to see a familiar smile and brilliant blue eyes. "Lizzie?" he nearly shouted.

She winked, still young. Well, middle-aged. "You're still needed, you…"


Andrea, leaning over him: "... stubborn old goat."


Lizzie, at the side of the bed, looked up at him from a battered copy of The Fellowship of the Ring, and smiled.


Suzanne, leaning on the edge of the bed, covering her face: "I'm so sorry, Ira. I'm so, so sorry."


A nurse: "Just checking your drain, Ira."


Andrea, again: "You're a silly old man and you need to wake up soon." She leaned back in her chair and stretched. "These hospital chairs will be the death of me."

Ira tried to say something but it came out a mumble because his mouth was so dry that things were sticking together in there.

She came to attention. "Ira? Suzanne, he's awake!" Andrea reached to the side and produced a familiar little sponge on a stick. "Can I wet your whistle, mister?"

Ira nodded feebly, and she gently (and expertly—he remembered that her husband David had spent a lot of time in hospitals) wetted his lips.

Suzanne appeared on the other side of the bed and squeezed his hand. "I'm so glad."

He realized he was in a hospital bed, cranked up till he was nearly sitting upright, and had tubes in his arm and other tubes running places he wasn't sure of. "What happened?" he croaked. His chest hurt like hell, and he didn't like breathing too deeply.

"You tried to keel over on us," Andrea said.

"You had another heart attack," Suzanne said. "Worse than that little one you had."

"They tried stenting you," Andrea added. "That kept you stable-ish until the riots settled down enough that we could transfer you to Wonder City General."

Riots? Ira wondered, but didn't ask. All things in good time. He looked around surreptitiously for a deck of cards.

"Well, that and Madeline practically growing you a new heart," Suzanne said.

"Anyway, you've had open-heart surgery," Andrea said. "Four bypasses."

"How did they get in?" Ira asked, guessing and dreading the answer.

Andrea shrugged. "I called Carolus, like we did for getting Josh's feeding tube in."

Ira could feel himself blanch. He was glad he hadn't woken up for that part. Carolus Lew, the Master of Wonderland, had access to the Vorpal Sword, which could pierce pretty much anything. If you knew him and were friendly with him, he could often be persuaded to use the Sword to help medical procedures on invulnerable paras. Word was that he actually had trained as a surgeon before he became the Master, though Ira really didn't know when that had been. Possibly before anesthetic became a thing.

Snicker-snack, indeed.

"You've been really slow to come out of anesthesia," Suzanne said.

"Probably because you're old as dirt," Andrea said.

"Anyway, we were getting worried," Suzanne said with a small roll of the eyes at Andrea.

Ira smiled. A wave of exhaustion washed over him just then. "I'm gonna sleep I think," he mumbled. And he let himself slip off to sleep, with his family holding his hands.

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Yes, this is terribly short! Help me decide whether to be merciful and post the next section this week: can we bump Wonder City up higher on Top Web Fiction? Click the link at the bottom of the episode and get us up to 20 votes, then I'll post the next episode!

Let Go the Jumble of Worn Words

A nurse in scrubs sprinted out of the cath suite toward the emergency room. Suzanne looked at Andrea, and their gazes met and held.

The nurse returned just a minute later, with Madeline running behind her. There was a streak of something across the white coat Madeline was stripping off as she went by. The pair went through the doors without glancing at the two women across the waiting room.

Andrea reached over and took Suzanne's hand. They sat in the renewed silence, hanging on for dear life.

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Apologies for the late-in-the-week posting -- I have been on the road back from Wiscon for the past couple of days!

Eyes Met and Unmeeting

It surprised Suzanne that she wasn't weeping, sitting in the horrible little waiting room near the catheterization room. She'd been such a waterworks for the past several weeks, no matter what she did to stop it, no matter how many times Pastor Al told her she needed to stop crying because it was damaging other people.

They hadn't had any news since Madeline walked out of the room, saying, "They're in," and hurried back to the emergency room, pulling on someone else's white coat as she went.

Andrea was sitting next to her with the calm air of someone who'd done this before. That nonchalance enraged Suzanne unreasonably.

Finally, Suzanne managed to say, "It was really inappropriate for you to slap me."

Andrea looked at her, opened her mouth, then closed it. After a moment, she said, "I'm sorry."

Suzanne was stunned back into silence. She couldn't remember another time that she'd heard Andrea apologize without also justifying what she'd done.

Maybe Andrea was more shaken than she thought.

A few minutes later, Andrea said, "He's been living with me, you know."

Suzanne looked at her, but Andrea was looking at the floor. "I didn't know," she said.

"You didn't even try to find out where he'd gone after you threw him out," Andrea said, her voice a deadly even non-question that made Suzanne wince.

"I… didn't have time," Suzanne said, looking away at a dull landscape print on the wall. "I was… they kept me busy."

"I see," Andrea said. After a moment, she said, "He's a good man."

"I know," Suzanne said. "He's the best."

"I hope I haven't realized it too late," Andrea said. Her voice was oddly thick.

Suzanne had to swallow the lump in her throat before she could say, "Me too."

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

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

Come With Me If You Want To Live

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Forgot what?" Suzanne said vaguely.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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And we have 5 new additions to the TVTropes page! Thank you so much! (I would've posted earlier, but by computer apparently reloaded a cached version of the page when I checked earlier. Sigh.)

You Have to Learn to Pace Yourself

Ira clutched at his chest and gasped for breath. He was pretty sure Dr. Noontime's Giant Foot was invisibly pressing on his chest, somehow. It was hard to inhale completely, and something hurt. But I'm invulnerable, the Foot shouldn't be able to break my ribs, he thought vaguely.

"Dammit, where's his nitro?" Andrea was saying somewhere far off.

"He keeps it in this pocket!" Suzanne said, and Ira could feel her going into the correct pants pocket.

"Watson, go! Drive! Go go go!" Lady J said somewhere else in the car. The van lurched into motion.

"I've got him," Madeline said in a low, even voice. "Ira. Open your eyes, Ira."

The pain eased some and he pried his eyes open—he hadn't even been aware they were closed—and Madeline was kneeling on the floor of the van in front of him, one hand resting lightly on his chest.

"We need you to take your nitro, Ira," Madeline said.

Such a pretty girl, he thought. Always so sweet and thoughtful, such a shame she never married.

Suzanne pressed a tablet to his lips, and he opened his mouth and let it fall under his tongue. The pressure let up a bit, though it was still hard to breathe and his brain was fuzzy and his arm and back were aching. Maybe too much punching?

Everyone grabbed at him and the seat as Watson guided the Divine Sarah around a corner at speed, practically tipping up on two wheels.

"Given what's on your laptop," Madame said calmly, "we won't be able to get to Wonder City Hospital, Watson."

"But…" Watson said, then she glanced at Madame and nodded. "Right, you're right. West Side General is probably clear, and it's on our way." She took the next right.

"Don't close your eyes, Ira," Madeline said a moment later. "Keep looking at us. Does it still hurt?"

Ira pried his eyes open again, nodded, and obediently took another nitro tablet.

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Ten comments by Friday again?

Purity Control

"They have come to persecute us, my brothers and sisters!" Pastor Al bellowed through the speaker system. "And they have struck down Brother Michael and Brother Damian without provocation!"

Ira rolled his eyes and continued to walk with the others as they rounded the corner of the Welcome Pavilion that Washington had just brought down on the heads of the two burly uniformed security guards who had drawn guns on her. When Lady J had given her a Look, Washington just said, "They're alive," and kept walking. Dragons.

"The time I warned you about is upon us!" Pastor Al continued. "It is time to defend your right to peaceful assembly!"

Ira wondered how close they had to get for Lady J's power of truth to kick in. He was kind of looking forward to hearing Pastor Al's ranting turn to confessions.

It was standing room only in the fenced and covered field, with approximately 500 hopefully normal humans between them and the transmitter that was presumably under Pastor Al's feet. Ira heard Lady J say, "Washington, can you fly?"

Washington snorted and said, "Yes, but I would crush everyone here if I did."

"Damn," Madame said mildly, watching people stand and pick up baseball bats and other similar items that were kept apparently at the ready.

Another voice—deep but somewhat panicked—cracked over the speakers. "Get the ones without weapons! Get them!"

The crowd surged toward them in terrifying almost-silence. Washington crashed into part of the tide, arms spread, crumpling the front line and eliciting gasps, grunts, and cries from her opponents.

Madame immediately deployed her own weapon, the little rod telescoping out into a staff her own height with a flick of her wrist. Apparently, this took her off the radar temporarily, and people ignored her to swing their weapons at Lady J, Ira, and Andrea, who made up the other three of the four-person wedge that would drive toward the transmitter at the same time as Washington—hopefully the wedge or the dragon would reach it and destroy it, and it didn't matter who was first.

It had been quite some time since Ira had to make the snap judgements of whether, where, and how hard to punch, but it came back to him pretty easily. He overestimated his strength a few times, but he compensated on the next punch, or throw, or whatever he was doing. Rusty, but fairly competent. And old, of course.

A couple of people got in good shots, of course. One big fellow's bat connected squarely with the side of Ira's head, and then the guy stared, appalled, at the bat in his hands. As far as he could tell, he'd just tried to crush the skull of a little old man. Ira drove an elbow into his gut and left him wheezing in their wake.

He caught glimpses of the others in between combatants. Lady Justice, of course, was her usual competent self, if a little weak on the stroke side. Andrea was sloppy, but able, and surprisingly athletic.

It was Madame Destiny who would have had his jaw dropping if he'd had time—she moved smoothly and fast, for all her apparent chunkiness, kicking high, punching hard, throwing people effortlessly, taking stubborn foes down with a sweep of her staff, never once pausing, never once getting snagged by any reaching hands, never once breaking her intense look of concentration.

Ira guessed she had kept up the training and was a helluva high level blackbelt at this point. Who knew?

It was going as well as could be expected. Ira couldn't see the dais, and the crowd was roaring now, drowning out the speakers. All he could see was another person in front of him, all he could feel was another impact of his fist or his elbow or his knee on some other human being. He followed Lady J's lead and assumed they were making progress. Most of their opponents were people who weren't used to being hit and hurt, and so they tended to stay down or run away once they were hit, unlike most hardened supervillain mooks.

That was when he noticed that the mob was turning on its own—anyone who hadn't picked up a weapon, or who'd dropped theirs, became a target. He glimpsed a few but couldn't get to them, but then…

"Oh, god, Suzanne!" he shouted, and shoved through the two people in front of him, ignoring Lady Justice's restraining yell. He leapt over the heads of the next little wave of people, and landed just in time for someone to break a plastic folding chair across his back instead of over Suzanne's head.

She looked at him with wide, unrecognizing eyes. He grabbed her against him just in time to shield her from another wild swing from one of her compatriots.

Then, of course, she kneed him in the groin. Hard and extremely competently.

Invulnerable or not, those parts were still delicate.

It also threw him off-balance as he tried not to flinch, but dammit, he'd lost his really good cup somewhere over the years, and the two of them fell—Ira onto hands and knees to continue to shield her—under a rain of bats, clubs, and chairs. Suzanne was also fighting him from underneath, and he saw stars when her forehead connected with his nose.

He wasn't sure how long they were like that before he heard, "You idiot!" from Andrea and Lady J shouting, "Ira! Ira, are you all right?" as the dogpile was dispersed by force.

Lady J dragged him to his feet, and he saw Madame shrug a pair of football player types over her hip and shoulder. Andrea got Suzanne up and after staring into her eyes a moment, slapped her. "We don't have time for this!" she bellowed.

Suzanne blinked, putting a hand to her reddening cheek. "Andrea?" she said faintly.

"Ira, get her out of here!" Andrea said, shoving her toward him.

"Ira?" Suzanne said, staring at him as he put an arm around her. He smiled reassuringly at her, though he was feeling quite out of breath and sore.

"No time," Lady J said. "We're almost there, look!"

The platform was all of twenty feet away, Ira saw through a lull in the crowd. Off to their right, a small geyser of people erupted and Washington emerged from the center. She was grinning in a way that made something in the back of Ira's head cringe.

Madame Destiny led the charge, but she wasn't heading for Pastor Al. She ran at a sweaty, pasty-faced middle-aged man who was clutching a thick book and a microphone. Before he could say anything else into the mike, Madame's fist crunched into his nose, and he slid down the pole next to him into a heap. "Mind control is a nasty power," Madame said primly, compressing her staff and tucking it into her pocket.

Lady J grabbed up the book and tore it open, revealing all the tiny transmitter parts inside, then smashed it back together with enough force that Ira saw parts fly off in all directions. Then she turned toward Pastor Al.

Pastor Al, for all his apparent terror, had perfect, unruffled hair and a suit without a crease. Ira imagined, though, that there was quite a set of sweatstains on the crisp white shirt.

The fellow tried to run for it, but Andrea was too quick for him and laid him out flat. When she dragged his unconscious form upright by the front of his coat, though, Ira had to blink several times. She was holding a different man entirely. This one was handsome enough, but not nearly the perfect televangelist face. And his suit was rumpled. And his hair wasn't nearly so flawless. In fact, Ira could swear he'd seen him somewhere before.

There was a loud rending noise, and when Andrea and Ira turned, Lady J had ripped open the platform and was lifting out two handfuls of wires and plastic shreds.

Madeline, who had been picking her way across the field, healing people as she put them to sleep—Ira didn't know where she learned that trick, but was damned glad for it—caught up with them at last. "Is that it?" she said to Lady J.

Lady Justice nodded, flinging the transmitter bits aside.

"Good," Madeline said, "because Watson says we need to run for it. Riots are breaking out across the city… across the country. We've got to get out of town now!"

Lady J nodded again. "All right, folks, let's go." She looked over at the little cluster of armed security guards who had closed with Washington. "I think she'll cover our retreat."

"Are you all right?" Ira said to Suzanne.

Suzanne rubbed the side of her face and stared at Pastor Al for a moment, then said, shakily, "As right as I can be. Let's get out of here."

Andrea threw Pastor Al over her shoulder in a fireman's carry. To Ira's inquiring look, she said, "He might have useful information about the aliens."

They all started running across the field, heading for their rendezvous at Zoltan's van, the Divine Sarah.

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My apologies for falling down on the posting last week. It's been an interesting couple of weeks, with very little time or brainspace for writing, but I'm attempting to put coping mechanisms in place. While we wait to see if they work, here's your next episode!

Resistance Is Futile

Ira was listening to the television when Suzanne said, suddenly, "Ira, will you please come to church with me tonight?"

He hadn't heard her come into the living room, her steps on the carpeting drowned out by the news coverage of some sort of atrocity in the Midwest, another house firebombing, the third that week. His surprise addled his wits for a moment. "What?"

"I need you to come to church with me," Suzanne said, and there was something strange in her voice, something half-desperation and half-tears.

"Suzanne, sweetie," Ira said gently, "I've told you before that I don't like churches. I'm a nonobservant Jew, and I'm happy that way."

"Please," she said.

He thought about it. What cost to him if he went with her? But she'd changed so radically after starting there, and he was worried about what sort of technological mental broadcasting was happening at those gatherings. He certainly wasn't one of those people who couldn't be affected telepathically -- his encounters with Master Mind in the 60s were proof of that. And what if he started talking about the sedition happening in Madame Destiny's living room? No, the potential costs were too high. And besides, he really didn't like churches. "I'm sorry, sweetie," he said.

After a long moment, she choked on a sob. "Oh, Ira," she said, and hurried from the room.

He puzzled over that as he listened to an interview with an "expert on superherodom" discussing the apparent absence of the Gold Stars. "We're better off without them," the expert said. "They're a danger to every American, both morally and physically, particularly heroes that style themselves as ultimate humans." He put an emphasis on the word "ultimate," of course. "They're just the sorts to put themselves above the laws of man and God."

He heard Suzanne come in this time. Her voice was subdued as she said, "I'm sorry, Ira, but I have to ask you to... to leave." She hiccuped.

Ira went cold from his scalp all down his back. He didn't have to ask her to clarify; he understood perfectly. It was, in fact, the sentence he'd thought he'd hear three years ago, after Josh died. His stomach tying itself into knots of panic, he kept his voice as steady as he could when he said, "When?"

Suzanne gasped around another sob, swallowed, and said, "Before Sunday."

Sunday. Sunday. What had she been saying yesterday about Sunday? That the tent revival was coming back to town. He tried to force his brain to focus on the conversation at hand. "All right," he said, feeling an unnatural calm settle over him, and he knew it for shock and welcomed it. "I see." Well, he didn't, but he wasn't going to go there.

"I'm sorry," she said again, miserably. He could imagine her wringing her hands.

"It's all right, sweetie," he said, and the endearment drew another sob from her. He fumbled for the remote and shut the television off. "I guess I'm making things difficult for you."

"I have to go," she said, voice thick with weeping vibrato. "To church. Tonight."

"You go ahead," he said, nodding slowly. "Just go on."

He heard the front door slam shut a few moments later, and sat in the silent house, waiting for the reverberations to die away.

Slowly, his brain started to turn over the possibilities of why this was happening, but he quashed that. No use speculating now. There were more important things to think about -- specifically, where to go, and when.

Madame's was right out -- the second bedroom was X's, and the guest room had been turned into holding space for Madame's extensive wardrobe. Jane was staying in Lady J's tiny house with her. Maybe Ebb and Flo could put him up for a bit. There might be other folks he wasn't thinking of. And then there was always his old friend, the YPCA.

As to when... staying after tonight was out of the question, he suddenly decided. He couldn't stand the idea of Suzanne drooping and sniffling around him until Saturday -- he couldn't stand it for even one night.

He stood up and fumbled his way to what used to be his bedroom.

Suzanne had thoughtfully organized the room so he could always find things by touch, folding and hanging his clothes in the same places week after week. He opened his closet and reached into the back to find his battered old leather suitcase. He set it on the bed, opened it by old instinct -- he'd once used it a great deal, when he was subbing for different hero teams week after week -- and started to pack. Underwear and undershirts first, then his two best dress shirts and a half dozen lesser shirts, and two pair of his khaki trousers. His one suit. His sneakers, his loafers, and his dress shoes. He packed his precious little box of mementos of Tin Lizzie, his wife-who-never-was, and his lockbox of papers last, padding around them with socks and his shaving kit. He closed the case and snapped the catches into place.

He sat on the bed for so long he lost track of time, thinking about the years of living there, caring for his comatose son, and existing in the same space with Suzanne. He'd long since come to think of Suzanne as his child, and he knew he was going to be devastated in a day or two. Better to get this over with now. Rip off the bandaid, Ira.

Ira stood and picked up his suitcase, carrying it easily to the front door. There he set it down and started to populate his pockets with his wallet and everything else, but stopped when he got to his keys. With fingers that trembled a little too much, he tore the metal that held the housekey to his keyring and dropped the key into the bowl with a dull clink, the only evidence of his reaction. He took up a pen and the pad of paper that was always there, flipped to the second page, and shakily wrote his best sightless version of, "Will send for the rest when I have a place."

He put on his overcoat and hat, took up his suitcase, and extended his white cane with a flip of the wrist. He went out the door and pulled it shut behind him very softly but firmly, and then made his way to the bus stop.

Upon entering the Y, he immediately collided with the new chairs that hadn't been there last time he could see. He stifled a curse and made his way toward where his desk had been.

"Ira!" a familiar voice exclaimed from down the hall.

He turned that way, feeling utterly betrayed by his deity and the universe at large. He heard the hurried footsteps on the tiles and tried to force a smile. "Andrea," he said, and his voice sounded dead in his ears.

"Ira," his first ex-wife in this timeline said angrily -- she said almost everything angrily -- "what the hell are you doing with that suitcase?"

He glanced downward at the suitcase in his hand as if he could see it. "Carrying it," he said.

"That's your old suitcase," Andrea said. Then, more softly, "I thought I'd thrown that damned thing away years ago."

"Yep," he said. He felt something trickle down his cheek and drip off his chin, and nearly died of embarrassment on the spot as he realized he was weeping old man tears.

"Ira," Andrea said almost softly, laying a hand on his arm. She smelled of talcum powder and a faint lilac perfume. "Ira, sweetie, what's wrong?"

"She's... she asked me to leave, Andrea," he said, and bit his lip in mortification as more tears made their awkward way down his lined cheeks. "Something with her church, I think. I didn't ask."

Andrea started to say something several times and stopped each time, until she finally said, "So you were just going to come break your back on these springloaded cots, rather than call any of your friends. Just like you, you proud old beast."

"Just until I could think of someone to call," he said plaintively.

"You're coming with me," Andrea said firmly.


"With me," she said. "You can stay in David's room." She added, uncharacteristically apologetic, "I... I haven't gotten around to clearing it out..."

He was about to try to refuse, recalling that her husband had only died six months earlier, but she'd already taken his suitcase from him, tucked his arm in her free elbow, and started towing him down the hall toward the parking lot door. "Thank you, Andrea," he said in a low voice.

Andrea sniffed as they emerged into the open air. "I'm not about to leave an old blind man to stay alone in the goddamn Y, even if he is my ex-husband."

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All Alone in the Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ira felt a chill.

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

Had the timeline taken Simon Canis?

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

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

"X, hello, this is Ira Feldstein."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Remember to vote for Wonder City Stories at Top Webfiction!

wonder_city: (Default)

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!

wonder_city: (Default)
For the People Who Are Still Alive

Suzanne glanced back and forth between the two men in her life and continued to be boggled that they were all sitting at the same table, in her house, eating a meal together.

Ira, who hadn't stopped smiling since Simon came in the door, swallowed his bite of pasta salad and said, "It sounds like you need this vacation, son."

Simon grinned a little awkwardly and glanced at Suzanne. "Telling tales out of school?" he said to her with raised eyebrows.

Before she could answer, Ira said, "No, no, Flo's been singing your praises, actually."

Simon blushed and ducked his head. "Oh. Well. She really doesn't have to."

"She's grateful, Simon," Suzanne said, rubbing his back affectionately. "You just have to deal with the fact that people will sometimes be grateful for your thoughtfulness."

"She says great things about you being good to Pacifica," Ira pursued, apparently enjoying Simon's discomfiture. "That and dealing with that unfortunate young idiot's funeral... really, you deserve a vacation."

"Fortunately, we're taking one," Suzanne said.

"We just have to be back in time for the Ultimate's birthday party," Simon said. "You're going, right, Ira?"

"Wouldn't miss it for the world," Ira said, finishing his lunch. "Well, I better toddle off to the Y. I'm not on today, but they need some help stuffing envelopes." He stood up and leaned across the table, offering his hand to Simon. "I hope you'll be around a lot, son."

Simon stood and shook the old man's hand. "I hope so too, Ira."

After Ira deposited his plate in the kitchen, exchanged a word with the companion in there, and went out the front door, Simon looked up hesitantly at Suzanne. "Did I pass?" he said.

Suzanne burst out laughing. "What test?"

"The 'girlfriend's dad' test, of course," Simon said indignantly.

This reduced Suzanne to hysterics for no good reason she could explain. She hid her face in her hands on the tabletop and giggled madly for a good five minutes.

"Feeling stressed?" Simon asked finally, handing her a tissue from the box near the dining room table.

"Just a bit, I guess," Suzanne said, mopping her streaming eyes.

"Is your bag packed then?" Simon said.

"Yes," Suzanne said, rising.

Simon took her plate from her and trotted into the kitchen with all the dirty plates balanced neatly. She heard him chatting with the companion, who was not, for a change, the Outsider, and then he reemerged. "All right," he said. "Let's get on the road."

Driving up into the Poconos had always been a dull and annoying trip before. Josh didn't like to drive, so Suzanne had always driven them up to the little vacation house that Ira and Andrea had bought back in the 1960s, and Josh hated to talk on drives, so it was always a long, silent slog. Vacations there had usually been pretty cheerless as well.

This time, Simon insisted on half the driving, he chattered about inconsequentials nearly endlessly (and thus Suzanne learned much more about his coworkers' sex lives than she'd ever wanted to know), and he had also brought his StarSeed, packed full of boppy, energetic music.

And Ira, blessed old Ira, had sold that damned house five years ago, split the profits with Andrea (in a move that had surprised both Suzanne and Andrea), and hadn't once mentioned it when Suzanne told him about her plans with Simon. In fact, he'd just said, "Tell me if you two want to go to the beach later in the summer. A friend of mine from the war still has a house on the Jersey Shore. I bet his son would cut you a deal."

If they shocked the owners of the bed and breakfast, the owners did a good job of hiding it. The woman handed them their keys and showed them up to their room. She did a quick turn around the room, pointing out amenities, and then said, with a big smile, "You two have a good time, and let us know if there's anything we can help you with," before departing and shutting the door behind her.

Simon turned to her, grinning, and opened his mouth to say something.

Suzanne didn't really regret that he didn't get to say it.

As they lay tangled together on the floor (they hadn't made it to the bed), Simon, as he stroked her hair, said thoughtfully, "Did we make sure the door was locked?"

This was enough to get them both up and moving around. He shucked his jeans (which were around his ankles) and checked the door (not locked). She peeled out of her disarray of clothing (nothing entirely removed, just rearranged) and got into bed. He paused to pluck his water bottle out of his backpack (they were both thirsty), grab his small bag of toys (for the nightstand), and climbed in with her.

A while later, as the late afternoon June sunlight slanted across the room from the tall windows, Simon said, from somewhere between her breasts, "Do you think the city will still be there when we go back?"

"Oh, probably," Suzanne said, aimlessly running a hand over his shoulder and back, enjoying the drowsy serenity of it all. "It only ever went missing on me once before, and it was back by midnight."

"Wonder City has a midnight curfew?" Simon mumbled.

"Yep," Suzanne said, moving to drifting her fingertips over the back of his neck. "The world will not stop turning if you don't happen to be there for the latest emergency, dear heart."

"I just worry," Simon said.

"About who in specific?" Suzanne said.

"Well, there's Pacifica," Simon said, rolling to count on his fingers.

"She's got a lot of people worried about her, and keeping an eye on her," Suzanne said. "She'll be fine."

"Okay, then there's Megan." Simon counted a second finger.

"She's a big girl, in more than one way," Suzanne said. "And she can handle a broken leg."

"Oh, the leg's not the worry," Simon said. "G is moving out this weekend."

"Ah," Suzanne said. "Off on her European adventure, eh?"

"Moving most of her shit into storage," Simon said, letting his hands fall onto Suzanne's belly. "Actually, she already did most of it herself, moving it into the attic over the carriage house. Tomorrow morning's her plane."

"How's Megan taking it?" Suzanne said.

"Stoically," Simon said, drawing designs on her belly. "I think she's pretty much mad for Watson anyway -- and the feeling's mutual -- but they're both hung up on G in a lot of ways. So it's kind of sad to watch."

"But that means there's nothing for you to do," Suzanne said. "Besides, Megan and Watson can commiserate in their own way." She started to scratch Simon's upper back.

Usually, this put him into conniptions of ecstasy, but he was not so easily distracted. "Third," he said, though he paused to wriggle and hum with pleasure at the scratching, "Lizzie. She's still living at the damned Y, and now her parents know where she is."

Suzanne looked up at the stucco-textured ceiling, wondering Didn't that go out in the 80s? while saying, "Didn't one of the producers fess up that he'd called her dad and paid for his trip to try to bump up the drama or something?"

"Oh, yeah," Simon said, closing his eyes and sighing. "Now she's not on-screen, her parents may try something again."

"I don't know about that," Suzanne said. "Geographic cure and all, her dad probably can't afford the trip himself. And if he's a farmer, then he's got better things to be doing right now than trekking across the country to harass a girl who knows how to dial 911."

"I hope so," Simon said.

After a short silence, Suzanne said, "Anyone else?"

Simon pursed his lips in concentration, then shook his head.

"Not Jeshri or Tom?" Suzanne pursued. Simon shook his head. "Not Zoltan or Jack Hammer?" He shook his head again. "Not Ivy or Malik or Jasmine or the puppies or your mom?" He tilted his head to give her a strange look, but shook his head. "Or any of your buddies at Great Scot?" Still eyeing her, he shook his head. "Not the Equestrian?"

"Who in their right mind would be worried about the Equestrian?" he said finally.

"Ira is," Suzanne said. "Whenever she comes up, he sighs and shakes his head and says, 'Poor old Molly.'"

"That," Simon said with great precision, "is Ira's privilege, since he's known her forever. No one else worries about her."

"So, that means I have your complete and undivided attention again?" Suzanne said.

"Ma'am," he said, rolling over to lift himself on all fours over her, looking down into her face. "You can always have my undivided attention. You have but to ask."

She stroked him under the chin. "Exxxxcellent," she said in her best supervillain voice, grinning madly. "You may begin again, then, with your usual ministrations."

"Oh, ma'am," he said, showing his teeth, "I hope that my ministrations are anything but usual."


Note from the Author:

Because we all need something fluffy after that last episode, don't we?

The Rose & Bay Crowdfunding Award nominations are open (they close on 1/31), and I would love it if someone were to nominate Wonder City Stories. Take a look at the other categories, just in case there's something else you want to nominate for voting! Nominations are low compared to last year, so please go nominate!

And remember to vote for WCS!

wonder_city: (simoneyes)
Abiit, Excessit, Evasit, Erupit

Suzanne hurried out of the kitchen of the Stars 'n' Garters on Simon's heels. Simon, for his part, bolted out the cafe door after Nereid, speedy even on two legs. The Equestrian and Lady Justice were standing, looking after him.

"That sounded like a suboptimal result," Suzanne said, grimacing.

"Damn noisy kids!" the Damned Yankee exclaimed from behind his newspaper. "All on drugs, the lot of 'em!"

"I found out what I needed to find out," the Equestrian said, sighing and sitting down. "He arranged it all. I can check that little monster hunt off my to-do list."

"And you picked out some of the holes in the rest of his story," Lady Justice said, edging around the Equestrian to put an arm around Flo's shoulders.

"If he shows his face anywhere near me," Flo said through gritted teeth, "I will damn well shatter his bones and crush him to paste and wash the rest away into the sewers."

"I know, dear," Lady J said, her hand pat-patting Flo's very tense shoulder.

Suzanne poked her head back through the kitchen door curiously. Ebb was sitting on his stool next to the prep table, crumpling his little white cook's hat in his hands. He looked up at her bleakly. "Will she be all right?" he whispered.

She took a leaf from Lady J and patted him on the shoulder awkwardly. "Teenagers are very resilient," she said. "And she has her friends."

"I know Molly said it had to be done," he said, still in a low voice, "but I wish... I wish we could've warned her or something. It was just so brutal."

Suzanne hugged the man in a spontaneous rush of affection. He was a soft, round teddy bear of a man who smelled of fried food. "I really do think it will be all right, Ebb."

By silent agreement, everyone settled in to waiting for Simon, at least, to return. The Equestrian and Lady J fell to playing chess. Suzanne took over Madame Destiny's table with her laptop and wrote. Flo and Ebb went about the business of their cafe, dealing with a number of takeout customers as the dinner hour drew close. Damned Yankee cursed kids and drugs and the war several times. The Tinkerer never looked up, but continued to, as far as Suzanne could tell, disassemble and reassemble a pocket watch.

Molly got antsier and antsier as the hours drew on. She stood up and moved around restlessly, muttering to no one in particular that it was her responsibility to see this all the way through, and returning to her game.

It was dark by the time that Simon reappeared in the diner. "I caught up with her," he said, flopping down in the chair opposite Lady J. Suzanne got up and hugged him from behind. He gave her a tired smile over a sagging shoulder.

"Well?" the Equestrian said irritably.

"She was upset," he said, pausing to smile and thank Flo for the soda she brought him. "Obviously. He'd just vanished when he left -- I couldn't even track his scent."

"He learned a little something over there, then," Molly said. "Something for covering his tracks. Probably some other glamour too."

"Well, he did it pretty well," Simon said. "I got her to sit down and stop running around calling him and things. And then she cried a lot. But..." He stopped and looked perplexed while taking a long drink. "She didn't... like... leak at all. Usually she's so, um, soggy, you know?" He looked at the Equestrian and Flo, clearly baffled.

Lady Justice laughed without any trace of humor. "She's been learning control. Because she has to. Because she's killed someone."

"My poor girl," Ebb said from the doorway.

"She did what she had to do," Flo said, in his general direction, "and I'm proud of her for it."

Simon sighed. "She... felt different while we were talking. Anyway, she cried for a long while, and she was really angry with you guys. I don't think she'll be talking to you for at least a couple of days," he added with a twisted smile.

Lady J mirrored his smile, but Molly was on her feet again, pacing. "So what happened next? Did he show up?"

"No," Simon said. "I finally walked her back to her flat at the Cosmics. And... he'd tossed it. The whole place. Anything that wasn't nailed down and was reasonably portable, he took. Cash she had in a nightstand drawer, her laptop, her StarSeed, some jewelry -- that made her laugh in a way I'd never heard from her before -- even her clock-radio. Anything that looked like it might be expensive or pawnable, I guess, to him."

"Little bastard," Flo, Molly, and Suzanne all said simultaneously.

"Anyway, she cried some more, and I think she would've sat there on the floor in the mess, crying, if I hadn't started cleaning up." Simon finished his drink. "That was what really took so long. He made a thorough -- spiteful -- mess of the place."

"I wish she'd gotten a chance to throw him out," Lady J said. "It would've felt much better for her."

"How do we find him now?" Flo said.

"We don't," the Equestrian said, finally standing still. "It's over, except for the crying and other things. He's got Faerie magic to help him hide out, and some money. It'll be very difficult to track him."

"But surely...!" Flo said, turning to her angrily. After a short, silent staring match, Flo dropped her gaze. "He doesn't deserve to be able to do that to my daughter," she said, hunching her shoulders a bit. "Not and get away with it."

"I promise that if I encounter him," the Equestrian said, "I will deal with him accordingly."

"Flo, I understand," Lady J said, "but we all have better things to do than go on a manhunt for this... Aloysius."

"There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it," Suzanne quoted thoughtfully.

Simon let out a short bark of a laugh. "Well, in terms of people who do matter, I left Pacifica in an apartment that was much cleaner than she left it this afternoon, I daresay, with an impossibly cheerful android for company."

"You're a good man, Simon," Flo said with a sigh, stroking his cheek. "Thank you for taking care of her."

"Any time," Simon said, standing.

The gathering had started to become awkward, so Suzanne snatched up her purse and laptop and they departed in a flurry of farewells.

In the car, Simon closed his eyes and laid his head back against the headrest. "Jasmine could have handled all that better," he said wearily.

Suzanne started the car and looked over at him. "You handled it as it should be handled," she said. "You did the needful things. That's all anyone can do."

He opened his eyes and smiled at her. "You're the expert on that, love."


Note from the Author:

Here is the final episode for 2011. I expect it's just made y'all angrier at Aloysius, because he's a right little asshat. Still, Simon's getting a bit overworked in terms of helping resolve crap, poor guy.

See y'all in 2012!

Please remember to vote for WCS!

wonder_city: (Default)
The Grave of Your Deserving

The Wonderful House boards were crazy with the news.

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

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

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

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

WonderBlog: So will the funeral be televised?

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

WonderBlog: But no TV?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Surprise," Simon muttered.

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

"Drunk?" Jeshri said.

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

"Yugh," Jeshri said.

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

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

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

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

"Must I?" Simon said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hey, Mama," I said.

"Are you watching the funeral?" she said.

"Of course," I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What's up?" I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Note from the Author:

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

Please remember to vote for WCS!

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Habeas Corpus

Suzanne woke from her warm, comfortable doze with Simon reaching over her for his phone, which was vibrating on the nightstand. "Do you have to answer it?" she said drowsily.

"I just want to see who it is," he said, fumbling the phone around in his hands. "The hospital? What the hell?"

Suzanne blinked herself more awake as he flipped open the phone. She smiled vaguely, admiring the beauty of his hands.


She could hear the buzz of the person's voice on the other end, but couldn't hear the words. Of course his volume would be turned wayyy down.

"Speaking," he said, frowning.

Suzanne twisted around to see his face more clearly.

"You have got to be shitting me," he said to the person on the phone.

Simon was silent for a long moment, then he sat up and swung his legs out of bed. He started to fumble one-handed for the buckles of the harness at his hips, and Suzanne leaned over to help. She caught the assembly, as well as the Great Blue Willy, as he stood up and shook it loose. "All right, all right, I see," he said, reaching down to the floor to grab a shirt, a pair of underwear, and his jeans. "All right, I said, we'll be there as soon as we can." He flipped the phone shut against his hip.

Suzanne was sitting up in bed now, fastidiously cleaning the toys and watching him start to pull his clothes on. "What's up?" she said.

"You will not fucking believe this," Simon said, jumping up and down to fit into his tight jeans. "I don't think I fucking believe this."

"I can't tell you one way or the other unless you tell me," she said, tucking the toys into the cabinet at the head of the futon.

Simon looked at her, a little wild-eyed. "They want me to come claim Brandon's body."

She blinked. "What?"

"Yeah, they want me to claim his white boy ass and all the rest of him," Simon said, pulling a muscle-hugging t-shirt on over his head. "Because they can't reach either of his parents, and there's some law -- have you ever heard of it? -- called the Gold Stars Act."

"Oh, yes," Suzanne said, rolling out of bed and going in search of her own clothes. There was a trail leading back to the couch in the front part of the apartment. "If a para's body isn't claimed within two weeks, it reverts to government property and goes to the National Institute of Paranormal Research for... whatever research they want to do with it."

"The morgue crew at Wonder City General apparently don't like to see that happen," Simon said, stepping into his blue hightops. "Which does make me feel better about them, I guess. But since no one can reach the deJongs and no one knows of any other relatives, someone has to claim his body and 'make arrangments' within the next 12 hours or it goes to the NIPR."

"I'm appalled that no one has repealed the Gold Stars Act," Suzanne said, sliding into her underwear and slacks. "I always thought it had been. Repealed, I mean."

"Ask Ira about it." Simon came up behind her to fasten her bra. "You don't have to come with me, you know," he said. "I'm going to call the others. I figure if I've gotta suffer, so do they."

"I wouldn't miss it for the world," Suzanne said, turning to kiss him hard. "I'm a journalist, and you, my fine, fine object of lust, are news."

"I love it when you talk dirty pool," Simon purred against her shoulder.

While Suzanne drove them to the hospital, Simon called or texted the others from the Wonderful House.

They met Jeshri and Lizzie in the main lobby. Tom was on a truck run in Illinois, but told Simon to keep him in the loop.

"I can't believe they called you," Jeshri said, hugging Simon.

"Oh, hi!" Lizzie said, staring at Suzanne. "Mrs. Feldstein, right?"

"Please call me Suzanne," she said, shaking first Lizzie's hand, then Jeshri's. Both the young women shot Simon looks with raised eyebrows.

"She's, um, my, uh..." Simon said, a blush creeping up his neck to his ears, then forward into his face.

"Girlfriend," Suzanne supplied cheerfully. "Also, I'm a professional noseyparker. Win-win for me."

"That's right, you were there that night because of the blog thing," Jeshri said. "I... we didn't know Simon was involved with you." She gave Simon a knowing smirk that only made him blush more deeply.

"All right!" he said, rubbing his face, "we're here on the world's stupidest mission."

"Yeah," Lizzie said. "Doesn't he have parents somewhere?"

"I called the producers," Jeshri said. "Betty, the admin, told me his mom is in... Cambodia or someplace. Shedding white on the people, I suppose."

"Oh, right," Simon said, memory dawning. "He mentioned that she was a missionary once."

"No wonder he was such an asshole," Lizzie said. "What about his dad?"

Jeshri shrugged. "She said she'd given all the home info to the police. Maybe his dad is anti-para or something."

Lizzie sighed. "We shouldn't even be here. We hated him, remember? Let his corpse go off for research."

"I've been thinking about that too," Simon said.

Jeshri looked at the floor. "You guys don't have to stay, but i'm going to go claim his body."

Lizzie gave her a look that clearly said she thought Jeshri was unhinged. "Why?"

Jeshri shrugged again and didn't look up. "I guess because I hope that someone would show up for me if I... you know."

Simon and Lizzie traded shamefaced glances.

"Well," Simon said after an awkward silence, "Let's go. This will be festive."

It was very festive, Suzanne thought, for meanings of festive equating to "depressing as hell."

There was paperwork, and Simon, Jeshri, and Lizzie had to produce identification. Then they had to identify the body.

Brandon's blue eyes were closed and his blond hair was limp and dark against his clay-pale brow. He looked much younger than he ever had on television. His bare shoulders were bonier than Suzanne thought they would be, his muscles lax on his frame, his skin bloodless and gray. There were a few dark marks on his chest, contusions and punctures on his arms, and there was something not quite right about his ribcage, something unusually flat but lumpy.

Simon's hand trembled in Suzanne's. He reached out and took Jeshri's hand. The three of them stood together. Suzanne glanced at Lizzie, who stood a little apart, her face composed and emotionless.

"Yes," Lizzie said after a long moment, her voice flat and unlovely and practical. "That's him."

Simon and Jeshri both nodded, and the morgue staffer let the sheet fall back over the body's face. "We need the name of a funeral home to send him to," the staffer said.

The three young people exchanged baffled looks. Suzanne raised a questioning eyebrow at Simon, and he nodded. "Weinstein Funeral Home," she told the staffer, who dutifully wrote it down on her clipboard while walking away toward the office. In response to Lizzie and Jeshri's blank looks, Suzanne said, "They did my husband's funeral."

"Funeral," Lizzie said, staring at Suzanne, then cocking her head at Jeshri. "Funeral? What the hell are we going to do about that?"


Note from the Author:

Poor ol' dependable Simon.

Want to give Wonder City Stories a holiday gift this year? Rec or review Wonder City somewhere and link me there!

Please remember to vote for WCS!

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Resolving Powers

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

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

The wind blew itself apart and the gears stopped cold.

There was silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surely you're done? I said.

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

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

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

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

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


Note from the Author:

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

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

Remember to vote for WCS!

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What Your Shoulders May Refuse

A smoky indigo darkness like a tornado's phantom spun down out of the hole in the dome. It touched Sator and he laughed, spreading his hands wide so that the winds stretched out to the walls well before they reached the floor.

Nereid's arterial gout that had been, at least, distracting him a bit, was blasted around the room by the roaring wind. The air reeked of it. Everyone looked like they'd walked through a Hollywood slasher movie. Blood dripped off Nereid's nose and chin and she was badly nauseated from the smell. Everything felt cold and coagulated after the wind passed her on its way to the wall.

At least Sophie, being down on the floor now, seemed to be out of the range of the suction of the funnel, and being untouchable, wasn't covered in gore. She was moving around slowly, apparently confused by the information her spirit-senses were giving her. Nereid wondered why Renata hadn't pulled Sophie into the telepathic link.

Her mind's all slippery, Renata said. I tried.

Simon was a wolf again, leaping toward the magician and trying to lock his jaws into the man's calf muscle. Sator laughed at him and kicked him in the chest. Simon yelped and spun away, but said, in the link, I'm fine. I'm fine.

Nereid knew that Suzanne was out there, listening and watching, and kept looking away from Simon, hoping he was telling the truth.

The Equestrian was on Maelstrom's back, and they were in the air. The Equestrian said, Fuck me, fuck me, that wind is eroding the dimensional wall. He's trying to merge this world with Earth!

Maelstrom threw back his head and let out a shrill horse scream, which drew fire from nowhere to rain down on Sator and made the hair on the back of Nereid's neck stand up. The magician flinched as the flames struck him through his sorcerous shield, and then he gestured dramatically and a net of spinning, glowing barbs closed around Maelstrom and the Equestrian.

Sator flicked a hand at Nereid, and Nereid found herself sailing through the air. She tried to catch herself, knowing in the insanely dilated time as the wall came closer that she was about to hurt a lot, that she mustn't hit her head. Then she hit and felt sharp pains in her arm, her shoulder, and her chest as she crunched into the wall. But at least her head didn't hit. She slid down the wall to the floor, her costume and skin tearing on the sharp teeth of the spinning metal gears.

She looked up. Tam was crouching behind the remains of the control panel that Megan and Meteor had thrown. Sophie had stretched to life size and was crouched, staring around, not far from him, apparently bewildered. Nereid tried to get up. There were warning twinges in her right shoulder that told her: Not this arm. Try again later. She rolled to the other side and pushed herself up to her knees with her left arm. She weaved back and forth, then got her feet under her and stood up.

The world was weird and tinny and distant.

Sator had a moment of freedom while the Equestrian and Maelstrom were dealing with his snare, and he grinned down at Sophie. "Come, you'll seal my victory," he said, and reached out his hand.

Nereid -- her face weirdly numb and cold, her vision going dark around the edges, the voices in the room and in her head moving further and further away -- knew absolutely that she was going down. As Sophie's spirit stretched unwillingly toward Sator, Nereid slid to her knees and locked her gaze doggedly on Sator. There had to be something, anything she could do.

Keep away, keep away, KEEP AWAY FROM HER, she thought, or possibly shouted, her vision going black. She reached out desperately, dragging with all her might on the blood moving in his body to keep him from stalking after Sophie.


Note from the Author:

Possibly it's just as well you didn't have to wait till Tuesday for the resolution of this one. :) As before, 10 COMMENTERS gets you the next new episode on Thursday!

And remember to vote for WCS!


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