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

Everything Dies

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

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

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

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

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All Water Has a Perfect Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I don't remember," said Jennifer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Um, can I ask?" Nereid said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was pretty sure she meant it too.

END of Volume 2: Deep Freeze


Note from the Author:

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

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

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

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



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

And remember to vote for WCS at Top Webfiction!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Ira," he corrected me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sophie snorted at this description.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gogo spoke into her microphone again.

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

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

Sophie started laughing helplessly into her hands.

The music kicked up again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes," Marilyn said. She whipped a folder out from under her arm and extended it to Ruth. "It couldn't wait."

Gloria's thin form had risen up and arched in a predatory fashion, inclining very slightly toward Marilyn.

Ruth sighed and took the folder.
We'll come down like angels on Tokyo

And we don't need roads where we're going.

At the end of the world can you tell me where

And in what way the time is flowing?

I can build my friends but I can't build you

A place for opossums to call their own.

But don't look back, don't blink I'm telling you

It's dhoom again but we are flown!

A hero right through

Like flying snow in bamboo

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us heroes too!

Take my ansible call

'Cause it's for one and all

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us stand tall!

She won't be suppressed

Or sent into the West

She's the hero we need

Because we give her our best!

Gogo chose that moment to distract us all with another spoken piece.

We need a hero that's worth our while
Whether Wonder Woman or Trio-style
So put on your clothes, or dye your hair
And sing electric grandmother
From Alderaan to Whileaway
The winning move is not to play.
They tell us we're beyond the pale
Bionic-made or automail,
Whether you are you or me
Virtual or karakuri
Rise up and greet Red Dawn today
Like Nauscicaa we'll fly away;
To Iskandar we'll fly away;
On ships that sing we'll fly away.

And she then started singing again.

Ruth looked back down at the folder in her hands, heaved another sigh, and flipped it open.

I have never before seen Ruth stunned. I'm not sure anyone has. Her whole body jerked and her eyes went wide and she stared fixedly at the papers. Then her hands began to tremble, and Gloria snatched the folder away before those tiny muscular tremors could reduce what she was holding to paper pulp.

Sophie had moved to stand at Ruth's shoulder, and I noticed her giving Marilyn what I sensed was a conspiratorial and questioning look. Marilyn's smile widened incrementally.

The thing about Ruth is that she is the most powerful para in the world. And so the fact that none of us saw her move is just not that surprising. The look on Sophie's face changed to triumphant delight as Ruth threw her arms around her, though.

"You two!" Ruth roared, only locally drowning out Gogo's band. "You two!" she said again, apparently at a loss for other words.

"What's going on?" asked Imara, peering curiously over Gloria's shoulder.

Gloria said, mock-grumpily, "That girl finally pulled her head out of her ass is what's going on."

Sophie said, breathless with embarrassment and her mother's embrace, "My adoption papers. I signed them."
She's returned from the blue

And Zaha'dum too--

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us heroes too!

Dark Lords big and small

We will spit on them all

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us stand tall!

Stand tall, stand tall, stand tall

Stand tall, stand tall, stand tall

Stand tall, stand tall, stand tall...

Gogo's army of tiny flying robots, which looked, I noticed, like dragonflies, chose that moment to shower us with her new album.

Larentia caught one and so did I. The cover was a brown-skinned woman's arm, reaching up as if to pluck a fruit from a tree, but the fruit was a giant oval containing a twisty, maze-like structure. To give Ruth and Sophie a moment of pseudo-privacy, Larentia began to read from the cover. "'Mitochondrial Eve,'" she said. "I like the title."

I overheard some people passing nearby. One of them said, "I liked her second album the best, 'Amazon Women and the Space-Time Continuum'."

The other said, "Oh, I haven't heard of that one."

"It was back when she was Gogo and the Gadgettes," the first said, and they drifted out of hearing.

"'My Mother's Positronic Brain,'" Larentia read from the track list bemusedly. "'Dear Mr. Heisenberg.' 'Cyborg Manifesto'?"

I skimmed down the list myself. "'Bad Chemistry,' 'Soylent Blue,' 'Love Me and Despair'."

Gloria said, with a roll of the eyes, "Anyone else get the feeling that child is trying too hard?"

Nereid, who I had forgotten, said wistfully, "She looks like she's having fun."

On stage, Gogo had swung into her well-known song, "A Robot of One's Own."

The well-tailored Asian person to whom I really needed an introduction said, "There's a dance floor over there, Pacifica. Would you care to join me?"

Later, around the time that Sophie was finishing up her guitar-playing on-stage with Gogo (oh, yes, she'd just happened to have her guitar with her), I overheard Suzanne saying to Watson, "Is this your work? Remind me never to piss you off!"

I looked over and saw Suzanne showing Watson her StarPhone. Watson frowned down at it, clearly puzzled. "No," she said after a moment, "that's not my work."

Suzanne noticed Metro looking her way, so she turned the display toward me. "'Aloysius MacCready, legally 93 years old,'" I read aloud, "'has been arrested on a charge of second-degree murder and multiple charges of armed robbery, among other offenses. MacCready was processed for a temporal displacement grant upon his return to this dimension, and had disappeared from his stated address. More in-depth analysis of historical records found that in 1932, he participated in an armed robbery of a bank for African-Americans during which he pistol-whipped a bank teller. The teller, 26-year-old Norman Jefferson, later died of the head trauma.'"

"I know the statute of limitations doesn't expire for murder," Suzanne said. "And the temporal displacement laws extend the limitation for the armed robbery charges. But the witnesses must all be dead, so how can they prosecute?"

Watson skimmed more of the article. "They had eyewitnesses who knew MacCready by name and appearance, and who gave depositions identifying him. So with that in hand, they could use the Stefanopolous Laws."

Ana had looked over from her conversation when I started to read, and now she spoke up with, "I think I've heard of the Stefanopolous Laws, but I've never been sure what they're about."

Suzanne said, breezily, "Watson'll have to explain. I'm too drunk. But they involved a vampire."

Watson quirked a smile. "Andrei Stefanopolous was a vampire who was a repeat spree killer. He was notorious in Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and then he moved to New York City. They caught him after a rampage through an Italian and Greek neighborhood in the 1880s, but of course, there weren't para-ready prisons then, and he escaped to go underground again. He resurfaced in the same neighborhood 1952, and the grandchildren of the original people victimized went to the police with the photos from the 1800s and their own photos of him in the neighborhood, begging police to pick him up. They didn't -- all the original witnesses were dead and it seemed like too much trouble and besides, there weren't many people who actually believed in vampires at that point. So then he went on a much wider-spread killing spree."

"Oh, yes, the Vampire Murders," Ana said. "That's all in the college para history books."

"Yep," Watson said. "And after they caught him and the Gold Stars imprisoned him, the story broke that the police had refused to pick him up and why. So the Stefanopolous Laws were passed in a hurry to cope with immortal or temporally displaced violent offenders."

"Technically," a sleek, black-haired, white -- very white -- man said, sliding easily into the conversation and gently twirling his black parasol, "it is for the long of life, not the immortal. Because no one is truly immortal, yes?" He had an eastern European accent and what had to be a hand-tailored white linen suit. He was also the only person I'd ever seen wearing a Panama hat on whom it looked stylish.

Watson nodded and waved a hand of acknowledgement. "You're the authority there, Zoltan."

"Zoltan," Suzanne said in that floppy-headed drunk way some white women have, "it's night time. Why are you carrying that parasol?"

"Ah, dear lady," he said, "to protect against the bites of sharks."

"Oh," Suzanne said, blinking.

"Not to mention robots," he added, "and other undesirable things that fall from the sky."

"So what will happen to this MacCready anyway?" Ana pursued, having produced a StarPhone of her own and apparently searching for the article.

"He's being held in prison," Watson said. "Apparently some anonymous person provided the police with both his DNA and a single-use scanner to locate it, because he has para powers that enable him to avoid direct detection." She looked up and past the dance floor and nearest buffet table toward a line of well-occupied comfortable chairs.

I glanced in that direction and saw Sophie sitting there, with Nereid on her lap, chatting with Simon and Ivy.

"Who could've supplied a device like that?" Ana pondered, frowning at her phone.

Watson and I looked at each other, then back at Sophie. Sophie noticed our regard and gave us a smile and a little finger wave, as if she knew exactly what we were thinking.


Note from the Author:

Apologies if the table format didn't work well for you -- I optimized for what I thought would be a usual sort of view.

Gogo's song was written as a winter holiday present for me by my multiply-gifted, brilliant, beautiful, magnificent wife. I had been banging my head against how to do it, and then she volunteered. I don't think I've ever seen quite so many SF&F references packed into one place so effectively, and I think it also works beautifully as a pop song. (And yes, Lady Gaga DOES exist in the Wonder City universe, so Gogo IS in fact purposefully referencing her.) See this document (PDF) for most of the references.

Also, in case you're interested, the full track list for Gogo's new album, "Mitochondrial Eve", contains:
My Mother's Positronic Brain
Mitochondrial Eve
Dear Mr. Heisenberg
Cyborg Manifesto
Les Guérillères
Bad Chemistry
Soylent Blue
To Milton, Love, the Monster
Love Me and Despair
The Doom Song
I Can't Be Having With This
Bonus Track: Schoolhouse Rock Mashup (feat. "Sufferin' for Suffrage")


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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!

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Keep Your Knives Ever Sharp

"How's the leg?" Megan asked Simon as they stood in line in the January chill to get into the Unobtainium Chef Competition at the Wonder City Community Studios. It was a fundraiser for restoring the area of downtown that had taken the worst of the damage from Josh Feldstein's outburst, especially the women's shelter that had gotten wrecked a few blocks from the restaurants.

Simon stomped a boot experimentally, leaning on his cane. "It's still sore. Mom thinks it'll always tell me about the weather. After all, it's not really entirely regenerated, just... boosted a little."

"How did your mom keep hold of a device like that anyway?" Megan said, tossing the end of her rainbow-patterned scarf -- knitted for her by Zoltan on the general model of a certain very long scarf worn by a television character -- over her shoulder.

"She invented it specifically to only heal people with a certain combination of genes," Simon said, looking away. "Genes that only appear in people who are descended from her and who are able to shapechange. So it won't work on a couple of Jasmine's kids, for instance. It won't work on Dad. That sort of thing."

"And the government let her keep it without trying to tweak it to work on other people?" Megan said incredulously as they started to shuffle forward through the studio doors.

Simon shrugged with one shoulder, still looking away. "She has to come up with all sorts of dodges to keep most of her things out of government hands. Plus, the government has its own set of mad scientists. Mom isn't the be-all and end-all."

Megan said, "Huh," and took a goodie bag from the tired-looking production assistant at the door. "Thanks," she mumbled, ducking her head as she passed into the overheated interior.
Read more... )

From the author:

This extra super-sized episode of Wonder City Stories -- and cameo of Hanne Blank -- is brought to you by a generous donation to the Deb's Liver Lovers Auction, back in May.

I hope you enjoyed the Unobtanium Chef competition! Any errors in the food presentation are mine and mine alone, but I note that the composition of the various menus owe a great deal to my wife, whose food I am fortunate enough to eat on a regular basis and in whose brilliance I am fortunate enough to bask, and to Hanne's blog. The other chefs (Apricots and Aubergines and Stoatheart) are not based on any human being, and any resemblance you might see is entirely accidental.

Surprisingly, I seem to have more time to write with the busted arm, though I have to take breaks more frequently. Once I got off the percocet, writing was MUCH easier. :)

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction! Help us get back up the ratings! I'm sure that will make me feel better. :)

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The Voice Is a Wild Thing. It Can't Be Bred in Captivity.

ELLEN: We love it when our favorite paras can take time out of their schedules to come on the show. Please welcome Wonder City's cosmic diva, Olivia Valdes, the Fat Lady!

THE FAT LADY: (performance of "Recelaré siempre la canción del cuco")

ELLEN: I'm so happy you could... wow, that's an amazing dress! It swishes so much!

THE FAT LADY: I love these dresses. I wear them all the time. Want one? I'm sure they'd be willing to make it in your size. Half the fabric!

ELLEN: I don't know that I could rock it the way you do.


ELLEN: This is so great. You're about to go on tour, and you have only a couple of days before you're due in... where?

THE FAT LADY: Starting out in my favorite city, San Francisco!

AUDIENCE: (applause)
Read more... )

For Hanne.

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction! Please? We're falling down the ratings!

Also, it has turned into a surprise kind of lean month, so if you have ever thought about donating to Wonder City Stories and you happen to have the extra cash, it would be MUCH appreciated right now. And if you donate, you get to tell me what non-major character you'd like to see more of in Volume 2!

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Rescued from the Pool of Time

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

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

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

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

"I don't need your help!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That's my job," Lizzie said.

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

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

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

Megan nodded.

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

Megan gave her a perplexed look but nodded again.

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

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

The Fat Lady said, "Well, then."

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

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

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

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

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


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Keep On Trying Till You Run Out of Cake

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

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

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

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

She took a fraction of a second to be grateful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Slings and Arrows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He stared at her, apparently baffled.

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

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

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

She waved her hand at him emphatically.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Don't Seem the Same Since Cosmic Light

The Great Bird Restaurant was a pile of rubble, though the copper thunderbird somehow continued to perch atop the remains. Megan had watched Meteor scoop up people as they ran out the back door. Nereid had briefly attacked Josh, then paused to hold up the roof of the restaurant with pillars of water as the last people evacuated. Then she'd extracted her unconscious teammate and retreated out of sight. Probably to help Meteor.

Megan's brain kept coming to a screeching halt when she thought of Meteor, so she distracted herself. She had a lot of material to work with.

The Gold Stars had arrived. After Midnight Mask attempted to negotiate with Josh and gotten the ground blown out from under his feet, the heroes began to circle cautiously, trying different attacks but trying not to hit Suzanne. The attacks were shearing off some sort of field, something that was converting the incoming force and energy to outgoing force and energy, and somewhat enhancing it, making for more damage.

Josh was still gripping Suzanne by the hair and back of her neck. He kept her at arm's length now, since she had managed to tear herself loose once (losing a handful of hair), after he'd killed the new Bronze Guardian, and nailed him in the crotch with a hell of a good kick. It had just made him more angry and he'd blacked her eye with astonishing restraint. He hadn't been distracted enough to drop his shields.

Megan still cradled Simon's body. She'd summoned up the presence of mind to check him and he was breathing, just unconscious and somewhat broken. She couldn't think very clearly, which was unusual and irritated her. Some distant part of her brain suggested that she should think about first aid for Simon.

She was entirely distracted by her boss arriving on the scene. The Ultimate dropped down out of the sky like a dark comet, carrying the Fat Lady in her arms. She landed, released the Fat Lady -- who arrived gracefully on the broken pavement, despite her high heels -- and aimed a blow for Josh's head. He spun and blocked the blow with his free arm. The thunderous blast blew the front wall of the building Megan sat in flat. Fortunately, the window was already shattered and the wall dropped harmlessly around her and Simon. She could hear the roof and other walls crumbling behind her.

When she looked again, she was expecting Josh to be holding a bloody paste in lieu of Suzanne, but he must have shielded her. He dropped her, and she lay, dazed, at his feet. Most of the other heroes had been knocked away from the pair, though somehow the Fat Lady had held her ground, apparently unscathed.

The Ultimate, Steel Justice, Olympic, and Sekhmet closed in again. The Green Hood -- one of the broad-jawed white guys without powers who was always a media darling -- was trying to get closer, ducking under stray blows and blasts, though what he thought he would do with his trick arrows and pointy wit, Megan didn't know.

Josh was still standing, laughing sometimes, and otherwise unmarked.

Megan winced as he caught Steel Justice a surprise blow that knocked the man away in a high arc.


Megan's head snapped around to look at the pale-faced white girl with brown pigtails behind her. "You shouldn't be here..." she began to say.

The girl closed the distance between them. "Amazon, you have to get me in there. I can end this."

"I'm not the Amazon," Megan said. Then she recognized the girl. "And you work with Simon."

The girl --Lizzie -- nodded. Megan saw that her eyes were glowing yellow-white, and Megan had to restrain an urge to scoot backward.

"I'm vulnerable like this," Lizzie said, gesturing at herself in a frustrated way. "But I need to touch him to end this. You're the only one who can help me." She gestured at the other paras. "They're too busy."

Megan could recognize the inevitable force of Destiny when she had to. Cursing her mother silently, she gently set Simon down. "Stay right behind me," she told the girl, who nodded. Then she headed into the fray, Lizzie's hand gripping the waist of her jeans from behind.


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It Ain't Over Till...

Megan didn't think she'd ever been hurt this badly before. The problem with invulnerability, she reflected, fighting for breath and coughing agonizingly on the dust, is that one's pain threshold feels like it's a lot lower than other people's. Tears and dust stung her eyes. She spat out a mouthful of blood and grit, and prodded experimentally at her teeth with her tongue. Which was sore. Ow.

"Megan? Megan!" Tizemt's voice came through the rubble.

She tried to reply, but coughed instead, which brought fresh tears to her eyes. Something started to drip off her chin. Tizemt, however, peered at her through some splintered boards. "There you are. You look like hell, girl. Can you feel everything? Toes and feet and all?"

Megan nodded, wincing at the pain in neck and back. She thought about it for a moment, then decided it was entirely muscles -- strained, stretched, bruised, and battered muscles -- rather than bones.

"Okay," Tizemt said in an excellently calm voice. "Things are looking crumbly. Can you get yourself out?"

Megan caught more breath and reached for a relatively sturdy-looking piece of concrete. It crumbled as she tried to pull herself out from under the load of shattered building materials, and her movement settled more weight on her back, compressing her breathing space. She then, feeling a little like she did that one time she got confused about where up and down were in the deep end of the swimming pool. got both hands under her and tried to lift herself and everything atop her. The powdered sidewalk beneath her shifted and gave way like a snowdrift. She scrabbled a little, but she felt ominous creaking and shifting beneath her and lay still. Something settled atop her and something went crunchily painful in her side. Ah, ribs.

"No," she said in a voice so weak it didn't sound like her own.

"I'm not surprised," Tizemt said. "That blast looked like it would have made a thin red paste of me. Hang on. I'll see what I can do about levering some of this stuff off you."

There was a short-breathed forever before Megan felt some of the pressure on her ribcage relax, just a bit, just enough for the pain to ease and a little more air to come. Tizemt began cursing, colorfully -- in English -- and unintelligibly -- in another language. Finally, Tizemt called, "I can lever it up, but can't find a good way to keep it levered so I can come around and help you out."

"Can I help, gorgeous?" a deep, soft voice said.

"Uhm," Tizemt said. "Yes, please, ma'am? My friend's stuck under there."

"Sure thing," the contralto said. "Here, let me."

There was a brief shudder through the debris, and then it was steady. Tizemt came around to the porthole in the mess and laid herself down flat. "All right, I can come in about four feet and still have a grip on this lamppost with my legs. D'you think that'll be enough?"

It was enough, just. They both had long arms, though they had some reason to curse leaving the Zenobia spear behind at Copperhead's.

An incongruous vision greeted Megan when Tizemt helped her to her feet. There was a shallow crater full of powdered concrete, a pile of stuff that used to be a warehouse and its contents, dust in the air, and a complex bit of cobbled-together levering -- which mostly consisted of semi-intact structural members from the fallen building -- lifting the wreckage. On the end of the lever sat a large woman in a long, flowing black dress, her legs crossed sedately at the ankle. Her lustrous black hair was bound tightly in a bun at the nape of her neck, and she was examining the rich red of her lips in a small gold compact, which displayed her perfect red nails. She looked up as they emerged, and her smile was sunlike in the dusty twilight.

"You're on your feet!" Her voice rolled over them like velvet. "I called for an ambulance --" she displayed her phone "-- but I'm afraid they're all tied up now, what with the damage uptown and all. Most of the streets are blocked, too. I told them we'd manage somehow."

Tizemt leaned Megan against a half-destroyed stone bench, and Megan sank slowly down to it. "I think I've got some cracked ribs," Megan said, probing her sides gingerly.

Tizemt hurried over to lean on the lever. "Quit poking yourself. We'll get you to hospital soon."

The woman dexterously kept her dress from catching on the splinters of wood and other jagged projections as she hopped down. Her body was as lush and generous as her voice, all curves within and atop curves, round and soft and lovely, and her face had the sculpted beauty of a Roman matron's marble bust, with a gentle double chin and the faintest touches of crow's feet at the corners of her eyes. She walked over to Megan, produced a white handkerchief, dampened it with bottled water from her voluminous purse, and helped Megan get the dust and blood off her face.

"I don't think I've bled like this since I was five," Megan said, eyeing the reddened cloth, "when I decided I wanted to know if I could get something through my skin."

"Ow," the woman said, then leaned back to inspect Megan. "Well, you still look like hell, but scalp wounds bleed like the devil." Megan inhaled and noticed the amber resin scent rising from her benefactor's acres of cleavage. She looked up into the sympathetic liquid darkness of the woman's eyes, and instantly and thoroughly understood why Simon was so hung up on the Fat Lady.

The Fat Lady looked up at the enormous shadow over the city, pressed the handkerchief into Megan's hand, and opened her phone. "Hold pressure on that spot on your forehead." In the distance to the west, they could see another blue-white rain of plasma bolts and hear more crashes as they struck. In the fading twilight and lavender sunset, they could no longer see the tiny spandex heroes on high.

"Yes," she said into the phone, tones businesslike. "What? The fourth? Remote controlled -- have you confirmed that there are no lifeforms? Good. I've got a ten story building nearby, if you can send Meteor this way... yes. Pull everyone out."

Tizemt and Megan exchanged looks as she snapped the phone shut. "We'll have some transport in just a moment, darlin's."

Megan had caught her breath enough to say, "Thank you for your help."

The Fat Lady smiled and patted her -- very gently -- on the arm. "What're your names?"


"Megan Amazon."

"I'm glad to meet you both. I'm -- oh, here's our ride."

Meteor -- recognizable from the newspaper photos in her green tank suit and thigh-high boots and flaming red hair -- stepped over a nearby building. Megan and Tizemt stared up at her.

The Fat Lady said, in a voice of normal volume but unusual timbre, "Hello, there, Highpockets. I need some altitude -- can you please provide?"

When Meteor looked down at them, Megan realized that the Fat Lady had thrown her voice with her sonic powers so that Meteor could hear it, despite her rather large ear being about 80 feet above them. Meteor carefully lowered a handscape to ground level.

"Got some friends with me," the Fat Lady continued conversationally. "That building over there, I think," she added, pointing to the ten story building she'd mentioned before. She stepped firmly into the proffered palm, then paused to remove her narrow, high-heeled shoes for better balance. Tizemt helped Megan aboard, and Meteor lifted them to the building top.

The Fat Lady stepped off, dropping her shoes and sliding into them. "You two stay with Meteor. The three of you should be directly behind me, on the roof, but behind that chimney, I think." She smiled again and walked across the rooftop.

Meteor set the others down, took a grip on the edge of the roof, and began to shrink down. "She's got a LOT of control," she said, eight feet tall and hauling herself onto the roof, "but I suggest covering your ears. I've only ever heard about this, but I expect there's an area of effect or something."

They started to hear a resonant voice flying up and down broadening scales. Her voice echoed richly through the silent warehouse district, drowning out the explosions thirty blocks away.

Meteor spoke into the communicator in her collar. "She's warming up. Cue Santa Ana for impending cleanup."

"Affirmative," a tinny voice replied.

The voice got to the bottom of the scale and paused. Megan peered curiously around the corner of the chimney, hands clamped over her ears.

The Fat Lady stood silhouetted on the edge of the rooftop, spine straight, hands clasped under her abundant bosom. And then she sang again, and it was different from what came before: louder, harder, more insistent. She started at low C and belted up the scale one more time, higher and higher, every note distinct, reverberating through Megan's aching ribcage and skull.

Megan lost count of the notes, lost track of the octaves, and was suddenly aware of the peal of some immense choral high note, full of voices, piercing and awful and thunderous, held for an eternity of celestial madness.

The ship's ominous shadow shimmered, shuddered, and suddenly evaporated into a vast, spreading cloud.

Silence settled over Wonder City.

Nearby, in the aftermath of the aria, a lone window shattered its applause.

The winds rose abruptly, and the dust of the spacecraft was swept into a vortex high overhead and dragged away to the east.

The Fat Lady strode back to them across the roof. She was perspiring heavily, sodden hair curling tightly at her temples, shoulders drooping. "I hope I never have to do that again," she said, mopping her chin and nose and forehead carefully with her sleeve. "I've done it too often."

The Kosmic Klaxon sounded its all-is-well whoops.

The Fat Lady patted Megan -- not quite as gently as before -- on the shoulder. "Meteor can set you two down wherever you'd like to go, dears." She frowned and pulled something from the outer pocket of her purse. "And here, one for each of you."

Megan and Tizemt accepted a slip of paper each. Megan looked down, vaguely confused.

"Tickets, darlin'," the Fat Lady said with a tired smile. "I'm performing with my all-para troupe in Hera and Zeus. It's much nicer to hear me sing Hera than Götterdämmerung, I promise."


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Wonder City Stories

June 2017

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