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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Journey to the Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rabble Are Roused

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Things are starting to move along...

99 Red Balloons Go By

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

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

"Showtime," Nereid said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter the Dragon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

X nodded and sipped the drink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sophie raised her chin in a defiant look.

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

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

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

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

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Home From the Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Note from the Author:

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

Remember to vote for WCS!

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Table Scraps

"Why," Jet said plaintively, inspecting the rags that had, until an hour before, been the shirt of his costume, "do we deal with idiots like The Menagerie, while the Gold Stars get people like The Planetcrusher and Huxton Enterprises?" He, of course, looked fabulous with his dark skin and his well-earned musculature showing picturesquely through the rents and holes.

"God, I know," Vector said, looking down at her brown-splattered purple jumpsuit. "I have got to get out of this thing and get it into the laundry." Despite the additions, she still looked model-perfect with her short blonde hair and tiny body.

"Ye-ah," Mercury said, inspecting her with a grimace. His hair was always ideally rumpled despite his high-velocity combat style, and he flaunted it. "I think Macaque was aiming at you purposely."

Nereid kept putting one foot in front of the other. She'd been beat on by villains before, but this outing was particularly unpleasant. She felt like someone had taken a baseball bat to her legs and shoulders, which, she supposed, was a close enough equivalent to the Onager's hooves. There was still a lingering pain in her back where the Sloth had crept up on her and dragged her claws in a long, deep, downward blow. Tilt, Mercury's alien boyfriend and not actually a member of the team, had healed her, but she could feel the cool air against her bare skin there. She just hoped her underwear wasn't showing. She couldn't remember which pair she'd put on this morning. Surely not the grannies. Please not the grannies. Especially not the ones with the little flowers on.

She was painfully aware that she did not, in fact, look picturesque, fabulous, or perfect. She never did, but right now, she felt like she looked like a rat that had an unfortunate encounter with a steamroller.

Vector growled and glowered and stomped off into the building. Mercury followed her, manfully choking down his giggles as he whispered to Tilt. Jet rolled his eyes and trooped in too.

Wire rubbed her face tiredly. Her blue forelock was still weirdly bouyant and she'd kept her costume pristine. She and Brainchild had been quarreling since they'd received the call about the Menagerie. Wire and Mercury had decided to take the team out despite their missing heavy-hitter, Citizen Pain, who'd gone out an hour earlier and was out of touch. Brainchild had argued that the Menagerie was tough, if stupid, and going without Pay was dangerous. She'd been right, in a way, but also wrong (the Menagerie's heavy hitters were also absent), which made her temper flare. Wire was striding along as fast as she could to stay well ahead of Brainchild. She said, over her shoulder, "Sophie, no coming into the building until you get de-The-Skunk-ed."

Brainchild lifted her goggles and peered through bleary and streaming eyes at her vice-commander. "Yes, sir," she snarled. "Will you kindly provide me with the materials to build a shower out here, or do I slink into my doghouse and wait until it wears off?"

Wire sighed and looked skyward. "The 'bots can bring you your stuff. I'm off to have a soak. Getting trampled and gnawed on by the Capybara is always kind of traumatic." She didn't even look back as she nearly ran into the building after the others.

Brainchild was left standing in the courtyard, staring down at her feet, her mouth moving in some sort of internal conversation.

Nereid slowed her steps and watched for a moment. Finally, she took a deep breath and said, a little timidly, "Can I help?"

The resident inventor genius looked up, face changing from miserable to surprised to her habitual scornful expression in a matter of a second. "Well, I guess you can take the place of a water hose," Brainchild said, though it didn't really sound like her heart was in it.

"Sure," Nereid said, hoping she didn't sound too puppylike. "Can I get stuff for you?"

Brainchild stared at her hard. Finally, Brainchild wiped her eyes absently and said, "Yes, please," which startled Nereid. "I can order the 'bots to bring me the structural bits, but could you bring a couple of opaque shower curtains out?"

Nereid smiled, still hesitant. "Sure! I'll be right back!"

It was harder than she thought to find wherever the butler kept replacement shower curtains, and harder than usual to find the butler. She finally went to her own room and detached the inner plastic curtain and the outer decorative canvas curtain from her shower stall, looped them over her arm, grabbed the more tattered of her two bathrobes, and trotted back outside.

Brainchild was surrounded by a half dozen small 'bots and had already constructed most of the frame of a small, cylindrical shower stall, complete with hose and sprayer head and a square of linoleum for the floor. One 'bot with a cargo area that looked like the bed of a red child's wagon followed her around with several gallons of white vinegar in plastic jugs. Brainchild looked up when Nereid approached. "Oh. Thanks. I hadn't even thought about clothes yet."

Nereid shrugged and handed over the curtains, and Brainchild efficiently hung them on the circular pipe that was the top of her shower stall.

A few more minutes, during which Nereid shifted subtly upwind of the lemony-sharp eye-watering reek of Brainchild, finished the stall. Brainchild immediately stepped inside. "I can't stand the stink of myself any more."

Nereid blushed helplessly when she saw the pieces of Brainchild's costume tossed over the curtain onto the ground: the fingerless gloves, the faux-leather bomber jacket, the tight-fitting dark blue shirt with its sci-fi metal fastenings, the battered grey sports bra, the complicated black stompy boots, the spandex-and-pleather black pants...

She turned away before the final items came over the wall because she was afraid the blush would make her pass out by pulling all the blood from her brain.

"Okay," said Brainchild. "Screw the first gallon jug to the input valve, hold the jug upside-down, and start dumping water into the hose."

Nereid threw the bathrobe over her shoulder and fumbled her way through this process, not helped by the little red wagon 'bot that kept nudging against her ankle whenever she did something wrong. She heard Brainchild sigh impatiently, but only once.

Finally, water started coursing through the hose from Nereid's hand, working in some arcane way to pull vinegar from the jug along with it. Brainchild exclaimed when the water hit her. "Oh, hey, I was expecting it to be cold. Thanks for that."

Nereid opted not to mention that the water always came out at body temperature.

The jug emptied. Brainchild leaned out to grab a bottle of liquid soap off a newly-arrived 'bot, and Nereid had to look away again. She fumbled the empty jug spectacularly, so that it ended up about fifteen feet away, and the little red wagon 'bot beeped irritably. She attached a full jug to the valve and the 'bot beeped again and went after the empty.

"All right," Brainchild said. "I'm soaped. Flush away."

There were several iterations of this as they worked their way through the bottles of vinegar.

"God, I hope this does it," Brainchild said. "I'm freezing, and all I want is dinner. Will you come have a sniff? I can't smell anything right now. My nose is a mess."

Nereid said, "Um, sure," and hesitantly approached the terrifying bastion of nudity. She stood just outside and sniffed loudly. "I can't smell anything."

Brainchild parted the curtains. "Come closer and check. I don't want snide comments when I get inside."

Nereid really did think she was going to pass out then. Before she managed to avert her eyes down to the safety of Brainchild's feet, she'd seen everything. Everything. And her brain had somehow managed to retain all of it, and was analyzing it, and...

Brainchild stepped closer and shoved her head under Nereid's nose. "Have I got it out of my hair?"

Nereid inhaled obediently, and felt her stomach go a little wobbly with proximity. "There's... I think it's pretty much all gone. But there's a little whiff still."

Brainchild stepped back. "Well, maybe Mommy will let me in the house, and I can take yet another shower with my shampoo and stuff."

Nereid hurriedly retreated a few steps, fixing her gaze on the red wagon 'bot. "I think so. I mean, I don't really smell much on you. Um. Here!" She pulled the bathrobe from her shoulder and thrust it at Brainchild.

She heard the rustle of cloth.

"You can look now," Brainchild said, her voice regaining more of its accustomed tone. "Guess I'm pretty hideous," she added.

"No!" Nereid exclaimed. "I mean, you're not! I mean! Augh!" She had turned to look, but Brainchild hadn't belted the robe, and the view sent Nereid into a panic and another blush.

"Sorry," Brainchild said, though there wasn't a lot of contrition there. "Wire does say I've got a mean streak. Come on, let's go inside and get warm. Looks like you could do with a change of clothes too."

Nereid opened to her mouth to speak and emitted a squeak instead of the cool, suave comment she'd vaguely planned. She turned and trailed after Brainchild.

The others, it turned out, had already had supper, prepared by the butler, and were relaxing in the hot tub, watching television and laughing uproariously at something. Nereid glanced at Brainchild's face, as was surprised by the bitterness there.

Brainchild said, "When you've changed, come on to my room. I'll order pizza."

Nereid's stomach did a small flip-flop. "Oh, sure!" she said, a little too eagerly. She dragged herself back into line. "Should I stop by the kitchen and grab some drinks?"

Brainchild had started down the hall. "No, don't bother. I've got beer."

Nereid fled to her room. Part of her knew that Brainchild was being nice to her out of spite for Wire, but she was grateful for what crumbs of kindness she could get.


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Wonder City Stories

June 2017

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