209 - Human Resources

“You know, an operator like Achilles Chin could probably infiltrate AEGIS.”

Alex Gemini Shelby looks up from their computer and peers at Emma Agney, aka “Hot Mess”. The two are hanging out in Hermosillo, conveniently near the SATMEX control center that runs Alex’s current conduit to the electronic world, Eutelsat 117 West B. So far discussion has been limited to Alex talking excitedly about the bird and what they can get it to do, and Hot Mess rolling her eyes and drinking expensive-looking drinks that Alex is pretty sure are alcoholic. So, this kind of announcement is uncharacteristic.

“Uh, probably, I guess?”

Emma takes this as permission to continue, which it is. “Alright. AEGIS works with all these brilliant people, but doesn’t really hire them, right?”

Alex thinks this over. Are they a super-genius? Not really… I mean, there’s computers, but that’s not really the same thing, is it. Did Waters say anything about it?

“Uhhh. Yeah, guess not. If I had to guess, it’s because geniuses are hard to plug into hierarchical decision-making systems? If you’re smart, you think you know best how to do everything, yeah?”

Emma nods. “But sometimes they really do know best. Definition of genius, right? And Chin had it on the ball, running a huge world-wide organization. Shit, the boss thinks he has it good micromanaging 10 city blocks where he’s at.”

“So you’re thinking, AEGIS’s deal is dealing with supervillain shit, Chin sees that as a threat, he’s gonna do what people do, which is infiltrate and suborn it?”

“Yeah.” Emma shrugs. “I mean, it’s a locust of power, or whatever.”

“Locus.” Alex smirks a bit. “L-O-C-U-S.”

“Whatever!” Emma scowls. “Point is, he’s got the means and motive.”

Alex nods along. “Fine, counterpoint though. Alycia Chin came in from the cold, and the first thing she did was narc on all his shit. So AEGIS has to be prepared for Chin and his moves. Hell, we got sent on this mission to begin with because AEGIS picked up Chin-type activity, and lo and behold that paid off.”

Emma is annoyingly prepared for this. “She apparently missed that she’s got a sibling, brick-brain. What else doesn’t she know? For that matter, who’s to say all that activity wasn’t just a huge trap to get her down to this one place where they could get at her?”

Alex wants to laugh this off, but finds themselves mentally reeling at the possibility that it might just be right. But they rally, and sit up straighter - almost spilling their own drink on the all-important laptop in front of them. “Well thankfully for us, we’re not using any AEGIS resources right now. It’s just a bunch of us doing things our way. And anyway, what qualifies you to talk about all this shit like you’re some kind of cold master-class villain? You’ve been operating for like a year.”

Emma shrugs, and smiles in a strange way that worries Alex. “I was gonna be valedictorian before I got in a car accident. Pretty traumatizing, yeah. The boss took me in, helped me out, taught me how to be a proper villain.” She slides her sunglasses down her nose to stare at the hacker. “But before that, when I was just a regular high schooler? I wasn’t a good person even then, Alex. I knew how to hurt people, how to manipulate them, and you know what stopped me?”

Alex assumes the pause is a call for an answer, but doesn’t know what to say.

Apparently, Emma doesn’t either, because she shrugs it away. “Anyway. I’ve found my true calling. I don’t have a genius brain like the Chins. But when it comes to doing bad things for good reasons, I’m the best.” She glances down at the laptop. “So get back to work, find us a lead.”

Alex rallies, back in their element. “Already did. Just pulling in some extra data.”


“Well, Nono’s insight was right, the people in the lab were staying in the town nearby, and the sheriff was being paid to look the other way. Thing is, those people were brought in from all over the place for their chemistry expertise. And they all have a few things in common. How they paid for their trip to Mexico, for example. I’m working my way through FinCEN files to follow the leads back.”

“Oh, like JPMorgan? Yeah, those guys move money for the Ukrainians. Samir knows some of that shit.”

Alex looks up in surprise. “Oh. Yeah. Duh. I guess I should be asking you about this.”

Emma flashes the biggest shit-eating smirk Alex has ever seen. “Yeah. You should.”

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Nono Rodriguez wasn’t sure how to feel, at first. On the other hand, she got accepted to the Vyortovian New University - that means she got to skip a whole grade of high school, and finally get into some real research! On the other hand, she already went from one school to another, and that was two Halcyon high schools. That adjustment had been terrifying. This new deal meant going to a college, and one that was run by people who had just been enemies pretty recently.

Now that she’s actually been through the orientation, watched her new friends go through the same process she has, it’s a lot less scary. And, best of all, there’s no class schedule! She has all the time she wants for spy stuff. It’s all her now. She gets to decide how to spend her time.

It’s the scariest thing she can imagine.

These thoughts occupy her during a satellite phone call with Emma. “Listen, we tracked down one of the people in that Chin chemistry lab. He’s a Polish national. The Poles tipped off the Mexican authorities awhile back, and they happened to catch him trying to get out of the country. They did an extradition deal with the Poles, so he’s not going anywhere unless Chin intervenes directly. We need you to talk to him, once we nab him, to understand what was being made in the lab.”

Nono is baffled. “But I don’t speak Polish…”

“You speak chemistry. And if he doesn’t speak English, we’ll find a translator or something.” Emma sounds impatient. “Just be ready to move in four days. That’s when the extradition is happening.”

This will be Nono’s second outing as a secret agent with the group, and she feels like an old pro. “Pack my stuff, come up with a cover story like a school trip or something, got it.” A thought comes to her. “Wait, where will we be going?”

Emma sounds even more annoyed, if that’s possible. “Don’t know yet. Big Brain Big Mouth hasn’t come up with a plan yet.”

“Well, umm… Hey, can I ask some questions about this?”

The voice on the other end of the phone sounds staticky. “Go ahead?”

Nono tries to think of what to ask first. There’s so much she doesn’t understand. “Why… didn’t we just, y’know, go to the Mexican authorities ourselves? The drug cartels are criminals, right?”

“There’s cartels everywhere,” Emma explains through the static. “Crime families and Mafiosi in the United States and Canada. Asian gangs in the ports across the Pacific Rim. The cops who aren’t too busy busting ethnic minorities are either on the take, or don’t just want to take down a few of the current bad guys, because there’s always new bad guys who’ll take up the old positions. They move the way boxers fight, just sparring and dodging until they can land a knockout punch. The cartel middle manager whose house we hit? I guarantee you the local police chief knew just who was there, but whether he made social calls or not, I dunno. Anyway, point being, if you think law enforcement is here to help anyone like us, dispel that illusion right fuckin’ now.”

Nono doesn’t know what to say to any of this. “I mean… but … how can everything be so dirty?”

“Human nature, hon. Next question.”

“Well, well, um, so, how… how do we fix it?”

That gets a laugh from Emma. “What do you do when your phone is broke?”

“I get a new one?” Nono isn’t sure what answer she’s looking for here.

“You get a new one. Supers, vigilantes, independently owned and operated secret agencies like us. Whatever it takes. You startin’ to understand some of the stuff I talk about around villainy?”

“I guess…” Nono knows she has a bad opinion of supervillains thanks to a lifetime of heroes being promoted as the people to cheer for. What does this say about super-spies? About AEGIS? About her? She’s not sure what to think, and she doesn’t think she likes what she’s thinking.

The static grows worse. “Listen, we’re losin’ the bird so I gotta hang up. I’ll be in touch when we’re ready to move, okay? Stay safe, kiddo.”

“Stay safe, Emma.”

Nono hangs up the call and stares at the phone in her hand. It feels like I’m doing the right thing, but why does it feel like I’m doing it with the wrong people?

The team has two days to go. On the conference call, Alycia Chin lays out the problem. “We have precious few leads. We know the lab techs we’re after were nearby the lab, but there’s no digital records to trace. We know one such person has been picked up by the Mexican Ministerial Federal Police, or PFM. He’s being extradited to Poland under heavy guard, but low publicity. He’s going to be secured en route to the airport, and probably when the plane lands.”

“Other than that, we have some Ukrainian HUMINT sources we can track down.” Alycia doesn’t say it, and doesn’t really want to give Hot Mess something else to gloat over, but has to admit it’s the best thing they’ve got going on right now. “So, we’re going to pick this guy up, get him to talk, then head to Asia.”

Alex is the first to talk. “There’s five of us. Two with meaningful powers in a fight. The National Guard will probably be running the actual mission, not exactly the elite, but even so we’re risking attracting the attention of two countries here. Plus risking our guy if there’s a firefight. What’s our play?”

I have no idea. But for right now, I need to project confidence. Alycia clears her throat. “I’m working on the specifics of that. I don’t think the opposing force will make a move on him until he leaves Mexico. It’d tip the Mexicans off that something is going on. Once he’s in Poland, though, it’s not hard to make him disappear. We have until then.”

Alycia is a little surprised to hear Nono speak. The girl’s initial enthusiasm about the Great Game has definitely been tempered by her more recent experiences, but she’s still naive and enthusiastic at times. “Can’t you um, sneak aboard the plane, get him out somehow, like hidden parachutes or a gizmo?”

Alex pipes up. “I can definitely hack some plane tickets, but that might also arouse suspicion if the PFM are watching last-minute roster changes. I would. More importantly, you need some crackerjack timing to parachute multiple people onto either land or a waiting ship. They’re flying Cancún to Zurich to Warsaw, so your options there are France or the Atlantic.”

“I could do it.” This from SNOWMAN. “Sneak onto the plane before takeoff, take out the security during the flight, wrap him up and drop out over France.”

Alycia has to admit this sounds clean and tidy. “Okay, let’s–”

“Or they could blow the plane up.” Alex sounds very casual about it. “Or cause an engine failure, make it look like an accident, frame someone they don’t like, whatever. We know about this guy. The Double Chin have to know. Do they care about him talking?”

Alycia pales. It’s a loose end, easy to tie off. “Yes. Yes, they might.”

“Do we care about that possibility?” Emma asks.

Damn damn damn damn DAMN. “We can’t just put someone on the plane, can we,” Alycia concludes. “We need air support.”

“The C-130 will stick out like a sore thumb,” says Emma. “Plus it probably can’t do anything useful.”

Alycia rifles through her mental files. Friendly flying superheroes - no, no, too many questions, too willing to cooperate with the authorities. Jason - god no, for purely personal reasons which she’s too busy to even try and rationalize as logical right now. Tech caches - all compromised, thanks to her deal with AEGIS. And the ones she held back don’t have what she needs.

She glances at the call, thinking maybe she can ask the team. She looks at SNOWMAN’s face. Leo Snow’s younger brother. Leo Snow. His inventions–

She hates it, but it should work. And she’s got the key that will open this particular lock.

“I need to make a phone call. SNOWMAN, you and I are going on a trip.”

A call to Summer Newman gets Alycia what she wants. Leo invented the “Phoenix”, a self-replicating machine that can function as an aerospace vehicle. Alycia actually rode in the original, and remembers the experience with some trepidation. Since then, more have sprung up.

Alycia and SNOWMAN rendezvous in the Parque la Valentina, near the Mexican-American border. According to Summer, Otto Newman directed “Ducky” - his nickname for a particular Phoenix - to come here. Alycia really isn’t sure how much she trusts Summer, or Otto, or a Phoenix, with the matters at hand. But a new part of her also recognizes that maybe, just maybe, it’s okay to trust just a little bit right now.

“It’s supposed to be in the lake,” Alycia says, and SNOWMAN nods. They reach the shore line and the android dives under the water.

A few minutes pass, and he surfaces. “I got its attention. It’s coming up.”

The Phoenix itself does indeed appear to the two human figures. Alycia remembers encountering the original Phoenix on a runway, configured like a jet plane. It was big, weird tech, but sort of familiar. This time she’s staring up at the face of a huge artificial bird.

What’s the protocol here? She realizes she just asked Summer to send one over, not how to proceed. She knows from experience that she can’t just remote-operate the bird-machine, that it has a mind if not consciousness of its own, and that it can be as willful and stubborn as its maker. So she defers to him, or his closest available substitute. “SNOWMAN, go talk to it.”

The android is a little in awe. “I built this?” he asks quietly.

“A Leo from your future…” Alycia doesn’t like the complications that come with this Newman identity business, and gets right to what’s important. “What’s in there, as far as I understand it, is like you as an animal. A smart horse. Go befriend it.”

SNOWMAN shrugs, and steps forward. “Hey. Uh, Ducky. It’s… uh, it’s me, but not me.”

The Phoenix swipes with a huge claw. Oh fuck that is fast, thinks Alycia, able to watch it but only barely. It doesn’t connect with SNOWMAN but it’s not intended to. She recognizes the behavior. It’s a display of territoriality and hostility, like a cat swiping at a presumptuous owner.

If it won’t respond to a simulacrum of its maker, this may have all been for nothing.

SNOWMAN backs off, standing next to Alycia again. “You try,” he says, glancing at her.


She’s never liked the Phoenix, never really trusted it, never trusted the Utopian intentions of its maker, never thought his dreams really had a chance. Alycia Chin and Leo Snow are ideological rivals. But she also knows that when the two of them have interacted, it’s been respectful. They disagree on a lot of things, but has there ever been a time when they couldn’t talk about those things honestly?

She steps forward. The Phoenix watches her.

“So… ‘Ducky’… here’s the situation. There’s a man, a chemist, that we need to get ahold of. Doing so will help me deal with my father’s revitalized criminal empire. And there’s people on an airplane with him, people that might be at risk if we don’t get him away from them. If something happens, we have to save them from my father. We need your help. Will you help us?”

She’s pretty sure the creature can’t understand language as such. Will it respond to the feeling of need she’s experiencing?

After a moment, the Phoenix bows its head. It crawls entirely out of the lake, and transforms into a sleek jet aircraft.

“Okay then,” says SNOWMAN. “Guess it likes you. Someone had to.”

Alycia rolls her eyes. “Fat lot of good you were.”

The physical cockpit looks too simple for Alycia. Where’s all the controls, gauges, avionics? She supposes the Phoenix flies itself, and the most the pilots do is provide intent. There’s sticks and pedals for manual operation, and some kind of eye-tracking system.

SNOWMAN is in the rear seat. “Oh, this is my HUD system! I know this. Alright, you fly, I’ll handle ops.”

Alycia takes hold of the controls. She takes a breath.

The vagaries of humanity were what my father despised, and a tool he used. But maybe he feared humanity too. Friendship, trust, empathy. Maybe he knew they would be his downfall.

Thrusters ignite, and Ducky takes to the skies.

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Edeiweiss Air has 10 Airbus A320-200s in service. None of them could be considered “secure”. The fact that the authorities are taking a risk by moving a High-Value Target via civilian airlines, and the fact that it’s taking days instead of weeks or months, strengthens Alycia’s conviction that the Poles - or someone using them - want their man pretty badly.

The man in question, Borys Bazar, graduated from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan. He showed an early willingness to get paid signing off on industrial pollution or risky but profitable processes, which got him in trouble with European regulators. He’s the sort of man the drug cartels themselves would love to recruit. All the more reason for the Mexicans to want him gone.

As for the other people who worked in the lab, Alycia reasons that as long as they don’t attract attention, they’ll be moved somewhere else in the Chin organization. They’re useful and they know enough to either be repurposed or killed. Her very preliminary read on her father’s new empire is that it can’t afford to just put a room full of talented chemists in a mass grave somewhere. Not yet. So she doesn’t have to feel guilty about not rescuing them.

Everyone is in position. Nono and Agent 1337 are remote, for safety and because they aren’t needed. Hot Mess will be responsible for body-guarding Bazar, and is setting up a safehouse in France for doing so. And Alycia and SNOWMAN are in the cockpit of Ducky, an artificially intelligent jet-bird-thing.

The experience is unlike anything Alycia has previously had. The jet can easily reach Mach 12, at accelerations that would cause any pilot to black out. Its engines are a mixture of levitation tech and variable-geometry self-igniting hydrogen-powered scramjets. There’s enough spare electricity in the system to crack atmospheric water vapor into hydrogen and oxygen, or the Phoenix can just drink regular water to refuel itself. Like from a lake in a Mexican park.

If dealing with Leo wasn’t so problematic, I’d get him to build more of these. This is everything I’d want in a black-ops toolkit.

Right now, they’re cruising at 75,000 feet, well above the range of civilian radar sets. The jet can transform, and its carbon composition may change how it shows up on military radar. Either way, nobody’s fired a missile at them yet.

“GPS reports we’re just over EDW24’s current position,” reports SNOWMAN from the back seat, naming the flight they’re after. “Descend to 37,000 and get a mile ahead.”

“Roger.” Alycia pushes forward on the yoke, adjusts the throttle, watches the Phoenix process her intent, watches the world rush toward her as the hunting bird descends on its prey.

Half a mile above the Edelweiss Airbus, and a mile ahead of it, the Phoenix flips over. The cockpit opens downward and SNOWMAN drops out of the jet with a jaunty salute, leaving Alycia and Ducky behind.

Why didn’t the Phoenix accept me?

He’s got a few seconds of time to think about this. His jets are flaring - not to slow his descent, but to steer, so he can match the Airbus’s direction exactly.

SNOWMAN feels very mature indeed. He built a robot car! He built a robot girlfriend! He’s an unappreciated genius, used by the people he trusted to entrap his evil father. And the reward for being used like this was to be separated from his family. Who can say they’ve done so much, suffered so much, by 15?

Well, Alycia Chin probably. And Jason. And Leo Snow.

This thought annoys him.

Did the biological Leo Snow do so much growing up, so much maturing, in the time that SNOWMAN missed? That can’t be it. But there’s not much else it could be.

Snow and I didn’t get along. The Phoenix is Snow, distilled down to his essence. My essence.

He sees the Airbus growing larger and larger.

I… really don’t like myself very much, do I.

His grapples lash out, his jets re-angle, and he’s abruptly yanked along with an airplane, bucking in the Gulf Stream, moving close to 550 mph.

Borys Bazar isn’t wearing handcuffs. There’s nowhere to go on an airplane in flight, right? The burly men to his left and right are just here for the transfer on and off the aircraft. He’s lucky if he can go to the bathroom–

There’s a faint thumping noise, and the two Mexican security men slump forward slightly. Bazar looks up to see an intense young man, smiling the way a hungry wolf might smile at its prey. He has seen this face among criminals and thugs, and suddenly worries because he’s not supposed to see it here.

“Hey bro,” says the stranger, in an accent Bazar recognizes as American. “Friend of mine recognized you from school. Adam Mickiewicz University yeah? Chemistry?”

“Y… yes.” Bazar does not like where this is going. The two guards are clearly knocked out. If this is to end badly for him, he has no recourse. “Does your friend have a name?”

The conversation is interrupted as one of the Airbus engines catches fire.

“That is seriously fucked up timing,” complains Agent 1337 over comms. “Pretty sure there’s some kinda bug on the plane that saw you and notified a handler to blow the thing early.”

“That’s not helpful,” says Alycia, gritting her teeth. “SNOWMAN, status.”

“Escorting HVT to back of the plane,” she hears. “He’s uncooperative.”

“That’s your problem,” Alycia retorts. Keeping this jet up is apparently mine.

The Phoenix is short on gadgets. Alycia remembers that there’s a molecular lathe on board, but that’s not useful right now. All it can do is fly, and transform. But how…?

She stops, and dispassionately analyzes what she’s got here. It’s a pre-sentient but intelligent machine lifeform. It knows its own capabilities better than she does. What she needs to do is convey priorities, and perhaps tactics, and let it exercise its abilities on her behalf.

What do I know that it doesn’t?

She eyeballs the flaming engine, manipulating the controls to tag a red DANGER marker on there. Engines on fire are bad. Just in case, she tags the other engine as SAFE.

The Phoenix is supposedly empathic. Alycia gets an idea. She rolls the jet onto its side, flies it parallel to the stricken Airbus, and engages optical zoom on the cameras. She pans across the windows on EDW24’s fuselage, letting the camera capture face after face of terrified passenger, each looking out to understand what’s at stake for them.

Learn, you dumb bird, learn.

The Phoenix shrieks, and yanks the controls away from her. It rolls, transforms in midair, and stretches out its claws to clamp hold of the wounded wing. Jets flare, and Alycia feels Ducky picking up the slack for the Airbus. She lets out a relieved sigh.

“SNOWMAN, everything’s just Ducky. You may have some difficulty getting back on board,” she reports. “Also, I’m upside down.”

A few minutes pass. Alycia hears the grappling lines sink onto the exterior of the Phoenix, feels the sudden intensity of the wind at high altitudes, notes the impact of SNOWMAN sliding into the back seat. She glances over her shoulder and sees him in his armored form.

“Where’s the HVT?”

SNOWMAN’s armored visor slides up to reveal a terrified Borys Bazar.

“Ah. Mr. Bazar. The last few minutes have probably been a shock to you. Let me state that our intentions are peaceful, and we’ll release you if you cooperate–”

Agent 1337 interrupts her via comms. “Hey, uh, Charade. ASIST reports that a European super responded to the Mayday. They’re about to show up.”

Great. Just great.

“Unknown aircraft, this is Charles the Hammer. Identify yourself and state your intention.” This isn’t in English, but in crisp Occitan French. The speaker seems to be a flying superhero, dressed in what to Alycia is an ostentatious outfit, complete with costume in the colors of the French flag, dramatically billowing cape, and hammer-and-crown symbol on his chest. He’s keeping up with an Airbus in cruise, so it’s not all show.

“Charles the Hammer, this is the Interesting Times Gang.” Alycia is flashing back to her prep. The ASIST app would send footage back to Jason, eventually. He’d recognize the Phoenix. Alycia is wearing a flight helmet, so he’s not going to see her face, even if this interloper points his camera right at the cockpit. She just needed a name that didn’t tip anyone off immediately.

“Interesting Times Gang… Never heard of you. I’ll take over.”

Oh, it’s going to be one of these guys.

The guy’s a douche. But they’ve already got their HVT aboard. This is the perfect time to bail–

The pilots of the Airbus have been calling in their situation. Now they get on the ASIST channel too. “Negative, Hammer. The jet has us stabilized, we don’t want to risk any further damage to the wing.”

God. Dammit.

“Uh, EDW24, this is Interesting Times Gang… Uh, we’re happy to transfer over to this Charles guy,” Alycia calls over the radio.

“We can’t force you to stay. But we’d really feel better if you stay put,” the pilot comes back.

Alycia realizes something else - the choice may not be hers. The Phoenix may not want to let go, now that she’s made it realize there’s people to protect inside the airplane.

She feels a headache coming on.

“Interesting Times Gang acknowledges,” she says through gritted teeth. “We’ll stay put.”

“Very well. I will supervise your emergency landing,” announces Charles the Hammer.

This is going to be a long, long flight.

Two hours later, Alycia has propped her head up on one balled fist, elbow resting on part of the console. SNOWMAN and the HVT have apparently bonded over chemistry. The android is explaining what he’s done with carbon allotropes, and Bazar is talking about organic polymer chains. In any other situation, the science talk might be interesting. But right here, right now, it’s not helping her blood pressure.

To be sure, the goal of any interviewer - the polite way of saying “interrogator” - is to build a rapport with the target. That’s being done effectively. And Alycia is learning, or relearning, that while Leo Snow is an inventive genius, he’s still pretty specialized. Bazar knows things SNOWMAN doesn’t when it comes to organic chemistry.

What about Nono? Alycia has been keeping her on the team mostly as leverage to keep Hot Mess cooperative. As a secret agent, she’s only a little better than a civilian. She learns fast, but she’s got a lot to learn. But she’s got her own form of chemistry genius. Alycia finds herself trying to survive the conversation and the oppressive presence of Charles the Hammer by evaluating Nono.

What does she know about the girl? Not enough, she realizes. Nono hasn’t really invented anything, hasn’t published anything Alycia has read, hasn’t done anything that would really indicate her true proficiency. Is she operating in secret? Or has she just not had an opportunity to exploit what talent she has?

Maybe I should stop mentoring her in spycraft, and start pushing her into chemistry. Or does that push her away emotionally, and lose me two teammates?

Alycia remembers walking through the halls of her father’s fortresses, saluting and receiving salutes in return from obedient subordinates. She remembers giving orders and having them obeyed. Grown men lived and died on her orders when she was old enough to attend middle school. At the time, she felt so secure, so sure of how everything was supposed to work. Now, having to run a team, to think about their feelings and needs, she wonders how much of that was just her being subordinate to her father. Here, there’s no adult to punish the uncooperative. It’s all on her.

How soon before I start making the “necessary sacrifices” and “realistic compromises” I hate so much? How soon before leadership turns me into what I hate?

She wonders if that’s why she’s avoided it for so long. And she wonders if she’s found the one challenge she not only can’t handle, but is afraid to even try.

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The Interesting Times Gang does not stick around for long once on French soil. Authorities complain about young people joyriding in a hyper-tech jet without asking for flight clearances, but on the other hand an Airbus full of South American tourists landed safely at Brest Bretagne Airport and will be treated to the full complement of French hospitality (billed to the airline), so little indiscretions like that can be overlooked.

Charles the Hammer, of course, takes over the rescue operations. He doesn’t actually do much, except inspire scared passengers via his heroic presence, and often that’s enough.

“Change of plan,” announces Alycia. “We got a lot of curious eyes on us now. Agent M moves from current location to Nice. 1337, provide logistics for the move. SNOWMAN and I will take the jet out to sea, get off radar and satellite optics, then rendezvous with you when it’s safe.”

“I should point out that I need to relieve myself,” the Polish chemist points out. “Soon.”

“I don’t,” announces SNOWMAN, smugly.

Alycia wants to scream at them both. Instead, she takes a breath. “There’ll be plenty of time, just… just be patient.”

Alycia and SNOWMAN said goodbye to Ducky in the Baie des Anges and swam the remaining few hundred meters. Now they’re resting in a relatively comfortable hotel room. The buildings on the street outside are cream-colored, with occasional reds. Window shutters tend toward darker blues and violets.

Alycia has a laptop and camera set up, and Agent 1337 is operating it remotely and coordinating the connection with Nono. SNOWMAN and Hot Mess are playing bodyguard. Once everything is ready, they get down to business.

Alycia puts on her game face. “Mr. Borys Bazar. We’re not the police. We’re not with your former employer. Think of us as, ah, an interested third party. We’re going to talk about what you were doing in that drug lab near Mactun. Cooperate with us, and we’ll put you anywhere on the planet you want, with some cash to keep you going. If you don’t cooperate, well, you’re still a wanted man in Poland.”

Bazar nods, and licks his lips in apprehension. “I understand.”

Alycia knows he’s been through a lot. They’ll be lucky to get anything actionable out of him without some work. But it’s work that needs to be done.

Hot Mess presciently secured a whiteboard and markers earlier, and Bazar starts drawing on them. “The chemical process we are using is very experimental. A new drug. The basics of ΔFosB overexpression in addiction is understood, but addiction to what? The stimulus is…”

The writing on the whiteboard grows like kudzu. Nono, on her end, is taking notes - Alycia can’t see it (because nobody wants Bazar seeing her), but can hear it in her voice, and from the occasional noises that come across the satellite audio hookup. More and more she asks questions. When she doesn’t know enough, SNOWMAN intervenes, guiding Bazar through an explanation using his own mastery of the brain.

For her part, Alycia understands enough to formulate hypotheses, and to ask intelligent questions if she needs specifics that are beyond her. Shockingly, she recognizes what’s happening here.

“Agent M, secure Bazar in another room. We need to have a talk here.”

With the chemist gone, she slumps down on one of the hotel beds and exhales in long-suppressed agitation.

“He said they took existing neurotransmitter distributions. Found ways to synthesize them, get the same effect. And then make it addictive, in pill form. But I know where they’re from. The Menagerie called it the Sepiaverse.”

Alycia looks at SNOWMAN, and at the camera where Nono and Alex are watching. “My father. He’s taken the absolute intrinsic hopelessness of another dimension, the place the Vyortovians are from, and he’s weaponized it. He’s created a drug that addicts you to despair.”

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We’re gonna wrap this episode up on that bombshell, and check in with whatever readers are left. How is the Agents of AEGIS series going? What do we think of the plot, the characterization, the whatever?

For what it’s worth, I’m kind of structuring these stories the way I’d frame a Disney+ miniseries. Throw some characters together, have them explore an arc, see some personal growth and status quo revisions come out of it. Hopefully this is an interesting format. I don’t expect an actual comic book to ever come out of this, but you never know.

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I kind of feel bad that all I have is generic praise to heap on the story because “this good, want more” and “I like reading this” seems so unhelpful, but then I remind myself encouragement is important for creative endeavors so I try to do so anyway.

I’m been really enjoying the story so far. The details from other concurrent stories popping up (an ASIST hero showing up) are fun without being overbearing. The character dynamics and their character arcs are great (particularly Nono and Snowman). The pacing of the story has been good. I really want to know what happens next because things only get better as the story goes on. :+1:


Apologies for being so behind, but the punishment is clearly that I didn’t get to enjoy this sooner. All good, fun stuff, which, like Mike, feels horribly generic to say.

I feel best qualified to speak to Alycia, and I think you are doing well with her. Command is something she’d shy away from on a number of levels – her father’s model, her own past failures, her difficulty in trusting (trusting not to be betrayed, as well as trusting that a delegate can do as good a job as she thinks she could).

If I have any criticism of the above, literarily, is that it all goes way too smoothly. Ducky quickly goes along. SNOWMAN gets to his man with few difficulties. The disabled engine is quickly dealt with. Charles Martel goes along with things. The prisoner goes along with things, too. Just a thought.

Want to read moar. Fortunately for me …


“The Dark Knight” had Batman pull Lau out of a building in Hong Kong, and it requires a fair amount of buildup for our hero to pull off. But by the time we reach “The Dark Knight Rises”, a midair kidnapping is basically how you introduce a new guy.

I feel our team of super-spies earned a little bit of show-off, and I was more interested in getting us to the scary or personal stuff. Getting people addicted to despair. How do you even stop that? The growing problems of leading this team. All that stuff. Things do get a bit tougher in the next one :smiley:

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Fair enough. Like in game, if you know the characters are gonna do it, no need to roll dice.

(The flip side to that, if this was a draft novel for publication, is, well, if there was no doubt, no need to show it, either, aside from the glimpses of both Alycia and SNOWMAN’s insecurities. Which is a second draft concern. :slight_smile: )