229 - The Hidden Fortress

What saves Jason and Alycia is their relationship.

Both of them concluded the same thing. If Pyrrhus is based on their minds, he’ll know how they act. He’ll predict them to act as themselves. So, having been together for a year, watching each other perform in the field, training together, they swap move sets.

Jason evades with Alycia’s fluid, balletic ballistics. Alycia uses Jason’s style of leg and core muscle control to duck and weave. The bullets graze them both, but that’s okay.

The two of them got as far as “blow up the drug supply” in their silent planning, orchestrated by eye movements and facial microexpressions. There’s no escape strategy, but now it’s too late for that. Someone’s got to see the work gets done.

The graceful dance of battle happens faster than spoken orders can be understood, especially by the living zombies Pyrrhus has surrounded himself with. He’s still barking orders when Jason and Alycia simultaneously grab grenades from the tactical webbing of his soldiers and throw them at the cargo trucks.

Pyrrhus draws a second gun, and as they throw more grenades he opens fire - but not at them. His accuracy is good enough to hit some of the grenades as they spiral in mid-air. The pair are already tossing more, body-checking the soldiers in the process to keep them from interfering.

Sudden pains in thelr limbs bring Jason and Alycia to their knees. Someone threw knives at them - and subtly enough to avoid their awareness of the attack.

But, on the other hand, dropping to the ground is good because the trucks explode.

The moments of chaos are over. Pyrrhus’ soldiers are pinning the pair’s limbs firmly to the ground, and Pyrrhus is standing over them, pistols aimed at their heads.

Beside him, one of the Atlantean ninjas unmasks himself and collects his thrown knives.

The cargo is destroyed. That much is clear. Pyrrhus turns to the Atlantean delegation. “It will take time to create more–”

The unmasked ninja waves a hand. “I am Senior Commander Saito. I am your client.”

Pyrrhus pauses, taking stock. “How would you like to proceed, Senior Commander?” he asks curiously.

“Clearly these two are capable individuals,” Saito comments. “I assume you underestimated them in this moment as an exception, rather than the rule. However, they are allies of a spy which has given us some difficulty. He is close to both of them. In lieu of the drug, which we cannot wait to replace, I would like them as hostages.”

Pyrrus considers this. “I shall take charge of them, with the proper levels of caution. I know them better than anyone.”

Saito nods. “With the understanding that we can take possession of them as circumstances demand. We will not make such requests lightly. I am not interested in wasting your time or trying your patience.”

Pyrrhus nods in turn. “Very well. We may discuss the other aspects of our arrangement privately, at a later time.”

As Saito retreats back to his people, Pyrrhus turns his attention to Jason and Alycia. “Children. Children… you know how bad it is to disappoint daddy, don’t you.”

The pistols’ aim drops from their heads to their guts, and he fires, twice in quick succession.

The pain is unbearable. No - any pain is bearable, if that’s all you do.

Pyrrhus kneels between them. “Now. Jason. Why would I do that?”

Jason’s teeth are gritted, and his eyes are squeezed shut. His mind is in shock, but he can form thoughts, and words, with effort. “To… keep us… from escaping…”

“Good! Wonderful. Alycia, your turn, my dear child. Haven’t I condemned you to a slow death with this? Sepsis, you know.”

“You’ve got nanotech,” Alycia manages through equally clenched teeth. Unlike Jason, she’s staring rigidly upward at the sky. “You can… restore the damage…”

Pyrrhus holsters his pistols and claps in approval. “Bravo, both of you. And if I’m not mistaken, you’re both going to lose consciousness, right… about…”

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SNOWMAN is back in Hong Kong. Without Alycia to restrain him, he’s approved Nono’s use of the modified patches. And under Alex’s supervision, he and Emma serve as Nono’s partners for an intense few days of spycraft and combat training.

Unfortunately, without Alycia the team is also without the driving force it’s become accustomed to. Everyone had their role, and hers was to compel them all forward, to unravel the mystery of the new Chin empire. Alex and Emma are talented in their fields, but neither are interested in leadership. SNOWMAN has Leo Snow’s force of will, but it hasn’t yet been tempered with compassion and the sacrifices that love demands. Nono has the heart, and perhaps the brains, but not the iron and not - yet - the training.

This conflict hangs over the team until the time when Alex gets a ping on their laptop. They study it, mouth agape, and then report to the group.

“Hey gang. Parker dropped a note in my office inbox. Leo Snow has a package for us. Wants a voice call to talk about it.”

The secure line is established, and Leo comes on the call. There’s no preamble - he just jumps in. SNOWMAN grimaces at hearing his voice, but says nothing.

“Jason Quill dropped a load of data on a shared server we’ve been using to collaborate. Some kind of ultra-fishy satellite uplink from a Russian military network. I think you lot should have a look at it.”

Alex looks at the others, then speaks up. “Sure, we can arrange receipt. Why us?”

“Because he sent a ton of encrypted data that I can’t access, and one big blob that I recognize. He sent me a connectome. I recognize the neural signature. This is Alycia Chin. He’s got a digital recording of Alycia.”

SNOWMAN speaks up. “Leo. It’s John Black.”

There’s a pause on the other end. “Yeah?”

John grimaces, but speaks through his clear discomfort. “Hey. Send me specs on the Heart Factory. We’ve got enough stuff to build another one here. I can analyze the connectome.”

“I dunno, man.”

John’s fists clench, and he takes a breath. Exhaling releases his anger too, and he draws another, calmer breath. What he says in words makes no sense to his team, but mean everything to the man he addresses.

“I’m Faulkner, I get it.”

I’m someone close to you, a neighbor. You don’t know if you can trust me, and you don’t like me, but you can’t escape or deny that closeness.

“But Faulkner got a plate.”

At the Washington family’s cookouts, it was protocol to share what you had with people who came, because the act of social bonding is more important than our personal feelings. Everyone shares similar needs, and it’s up to us to meet the needs of others when we can.

“Even scrap’ll hold if the weld’s good.”

We’re joined right now by common purpose. It’s strong and important, enough to overcome our differences.

“I’m not gonna Big Mally on you.”

I won’t disappoint you. I understand how much this means to you.

The pause at the other end is longer. But Leo speaks. “Alright, mate. I’ll zip the software. But I want to hear you say it.”

John nods, then speaks in a solemn tone. “Before the omnipotent witness, I swear to use this power only for good.”

Alex works out a way for Leo to send the files, and the call disconnects. Only then does the hacker turn to John with raised eyebrows. “Personal code, huh? Shared experiences as an unbreakable cryptographic encoding mechanism?”

John casually shrugs, but his eyes are fierce and intense. “That Heart Factory zip? You give it to me. You don’t archive it. You don’t slip a copy to AEGIS. You treat this with respect.”

Alex holds up their hands. “I gotcha, buddy. No shenanigans this time.”


Nono is on the ground - or rather on the pads the team has put down for training. Emma is standing over her, arms folded.

The girl rises, already sore. She lunges again, and Emma grabs her arms and tosses her back to the mat in a Judo throw.


The practice continues. Nono isn’t learning how to fight - that comes later. Right now, Emma is teaching her to fall.

Nono isn’t complaining. She’s just doing the routine, coming in and getting thrown, over and over again.

Emma is honestly a little worried about it. They’ve been doing this awhile, but the other girl hasn’t said anything.

“Okay, enough.”

Nono frowns. “I can keep going.”

“You think you can. Your body hasn’t told you otherwise yet. It will. Now go do your warm-down and get showered.”


After Nono’s gone, Emma flops down in a corner and buries her head in her hands.

I thought I was gonna be an honors student. Then that flamed out, ha ha ha. I thought I was gonna be an amazing supervillain, but that turned really weird. I assemble a squad of hard-hitting henchmen, and they betray me. I started working with heroes, and now I’m training the goodiest of do-gooders.

I know what I want to be. I just can’t fucking do it. Nono knows too, but she’s on her way. Finally, finally, she’s not complaining about it, she’s sticking to it.

What the hell is wrong with me?

Early the next morning, there’s a polite but loud knock at the door.

This shouldn’t happen. Everyone mobilizes. Nono isn’t armed, Emma and John don’t need guns, and Alex isn’t a front-line fighter by choice. Nevertheless, they feel ready for action. SNOWMAN answers the door.

There’s only one person outside. She’s on the short side, wearing a rumpled coat, with spiky black hair and a lopsided smile. “You are Leo Snow? Or his replica?”

“Who the fuck are you?” SNOWMAN asks.

The woman produces a badge. “Inspector Lee Yan. INTERPOL. May I come in?”

Silent glances are exchanged, eventual responsibility falls on Alex’s shoulders, and they shrug. “Yeah. Hey, welcome to the Wild Side.”

The others stare at them. “What? Satellite o’ Love was an MST3k thing, but the name came from a Lou Reed song. Take a Walk on the Wild Side? No? Buncha cultural philistines you are.”

“What are you here for?” Emma interjects.

“Well I’m not here to arrest you.” The Inspector steps into the building and John shuts the door behind her. “I’m here to ask you lot some questions, actually.”

“Who do you think we are?” Emma asks.

Lee points from person to person. “A robotic replica of the American superhero Link. Hot Mess, apprentice supervillain to Mr. Big. Nono Rodriguez, American schoolgirl.” She falls short with Alex. “You, I have no idea about.”

“Let’s keep it that way,” grins Alex. “I’ve got a reputation–”

Emma cuts them off with a wave. “Questions, fine. First one’s ours. How did you find us?”

Lee smiles. “May we sit down? Is there tea?”

Nono nods. “I’ll make some.”

Emma turns and scowls. “Hey! She’s a cop. ACAB.”

Nono doesn’t stop, only calls over her shoulder. “No reason for us to be rude!”

“I tracked your team as far as Cairo,” Lee Yan explains. “You disappeared after that, but for a handful of things. First, Cairo reported a luxury jet missing. I suspected that was your team, leaving the area. But where? Second, a group of cryptocurrency miners contacted a local triad, to avenge them on some - if you’ll forgive the terms - pushy outsiders and gwailou. The triad roughed them up and sent them on their way. Third, assuming that they’d been betrayed by their political patron, they came to the police and offered information. Their descriptions of their attackers matched your team.”

The group look at each other, then back to the Inspector.

“Okay, so… what’s your questions for us?” John asks.

The Inspector smiles. “What is your team’s relationship to Alycia Chin?”

“Oh, she’s the worst,” Alex says immediately. “So bossy.”

“She’s kinda pushy and arrogant, but I think we’ve got a working relationship,” John admits.

“I’m still trying to figure her out, but she’s helped me a lot,” Nono confesses.

Emma scowls. “You fucking dingbats, she’s asking, is Alycia with us or against us?”

Everyone ‘ohs’ quietly. Emma takes charge of the conversation. “Look, she’s not a supervillain terrorist or anything. Well, not now. Whatever else she is, I don’t know if we can talk about that with you, I ain’t gonna narc. But we’re working with her on something important, something that’ll promote the public good.”

Lee Yan nods. “Interesting. So the rumors were true. And that means…” She gestures at Alex. “You’re with AEGIS.”

Alex throws up their hands. “Does everyone know who we are, or just you?”

Lee grins. “Just me. Everyone else thinks I’m a lunatic for following this case.”

“Okay, well, now what?” Emma asks. “Like, if we think you’re gonna report us to the Man, we’re gonna fuck up your shit. Even if you have all of HKPF out there waiting for us, it’s not gonna go well. Half of us are bulletproof. The other half–”

Lee forestalls further boasting by holding up her hands. “Nothing of the sort is going to happen. I’m not here to enforce the law. I’m here in the service of what the law is supposed to serve. I’m here on behalf of public safety. And the public needs to know - are they in danger from the daughter of Doctor Chin? You want me to believe that they aren’t. I’m willing to be convinced. Now I ask you for evidence.”

Nono is quiet, and confused, but speaks her mind regardless. “I’m sorry, but isn’t that wrong? Haven’t we done some awful things? We stole a jet, we fought a lot of people. Oh my god, so many people… There was the airliner–”

“I suspected that was you in Link’s robot jet, the flight from Mexico to France,” Lee smiles. “Were you going to add kidnapping to your list of crimes, Ms. Rodriguez?”

“I mean yeah? So… aren’t we the bad guys?”

Lee smiles gently, and leans forward. “I watched an American remake of the Sherlock Holmes character. Someone asked this question. The Watson character gave this answer. ‘There aren’t evil guys and innocent guys. There’s just a bunch of guys.’ I thought it was a wonderful answer to a difficult problem. The Christians have a saying as well. ‘You shall know them by their fruits.’”

“So you have lied, stolen, fought. All things the law condemns. If it meant arrest, would you have done it again?”

Nono pauses. “I mean, we have to, don’t we? To stop - uh, to stop the bad guys. I mean, the guys. Guy? I dunno. But serious bad things. So, yes. I’d do it again if I had to. It’s been terrifying and weird, but…” She tightens her hands into fists. “We’re bad guys doing good guy things, I guess.”

Lee nods, then turns her attention to Alex. “I assume you’ll be packing up and leaving this place soon. I’m here, so you’ve been compromised, et cetera. I’d like to stay until you finish your business, at least. You’ll have a hostage if the police invade, but more importantly, I want to know more about this business. Is that acceptable?”

Alex looks to their teammates, then back to the INTERPOL Inspector. “Can ya cook?”

“Rice omelets, spaghetti, and char siu,” Lee admits.

“You’re hired.”

It takes two hours to perform the analysis. Against their better judgement, Alex invited Lee Yan to have a look, and the Inspector’s ability to form connections out of raw data has been a positive benefit. At the end of it, Alex present their findings to the team and its guest.

“The BBEG’s lair - sorry, Big Bad Evil Guy, it’s a D&D thing - Anyway! The villain’s lair is here, buried under Antarctica. There’s hidden entrances. There’s a lot of active nanotech going on here, so I’m speculating they’re holed up here to deal with the inevitable heat problems that come with nanotech. We got a whole lot of access codes, schematics, patrol schedules, automated sentry system overrides, the works. This is the fuckin’ master key to unlocking this place. Jason Quill really came through.”

John Black goes next. “The connectome is an Alycia Chin, but not the one we’ve worked with. Someone forked her.”

Emma giggles, with a perverted leer on her face.

“Forked, not-- Jesus.” SNOWMAN throws up his hands. “Okay, I’ll explain. A connectome is a digital map of a human brain’s internal wiring. The one we have here is like, at some point in the past, someone got a hold of a copy of her brain, and then created a clone of Alycia recently from that copy.” He illustrates with two fingers together, then separating. “Like a fork in the road. This is what we’ve got ahold of. This is probably the work of our villain.”

“You can just say ‘Doctor Chin’,” Lee Yan announces blandly. “No need to tiptoe around it on my behalf.”

“It may not be Doctor Chin himself,” SNOWMAN replies. “Like this Alycia, it might be a copy or clone or duplicate. We’re still not sure.”

“Well can you like, bring this Alycia to life and ask her?” Emma asks.

“I’m not going to do that,” SNOWMAN says firmly.

“Yeah, but then how–”


“Fine. Then what’s our play?”

Alex chimes in. “Alycia hasn’t reported in. That’s in-character for her, but it’s also fair to ask if we think she’s been captured or killed or whatever. So we could just go down there. We could wait to hear from her, and hope for the best.”

Everyone is quiet.

Nono’s voice is subdued, but there’s nothing else to drown it out. “We should go down there, and stop this for good.”

“Not really the smart move, hon,” Emma answers softly.

Nono looks up, eyes harder than Emma’s ever seen them. “The smart move is to go home. Stop doing all this nonsense. Let Doctor Chin do his evil. Leave his victims to their fate, like those people at the mine. I don’t care what’s smart, Emma. I want to do what’s right.”

Emma backs down with a shrug and a smile. “Fine. How we getting down there?”

John’s voice is quiet, like Emma’s, and his eyes are similarly set. “I’ll get us a Phoenix.”

Alex shrugs. “Alrighty, well, guess that’s a thing. Everyone dress for cool weather. So hey, uh, Inspector, what happens now?”

Lee Yan smiles and rises. “Now I return to my superiors. In a few days, I tell them what I’ve found, and that regrettably you left Hong Kong before I could make an arrest. But I’ll have enough to convince them that the Alycia Chin problem is being handled by AEGIS, that things will be calm in the settlement, and I think we can leave it at that.”

“Nice, enigmatic, makes you look good - I approve.” Alex thumbs-ups.

The Inspector is halfway to the door before she turns. “Oh, there’s just one more little thing…”

Alex blinks. “Yeah?”

“The next time your team comes to China, I expect you to tell me. Professional courtesy.”

Then she’s out the door, leaving the team to their collective thoughts.


On one level, this is such a cliche. But it is because it make sense, and here it makes a special amount of sense, given the characters involved.

Goddammit, I hate it when the bad guys are reasonable people who figure out how to work together.

Jason and Alycia are in so many ways similar, I always enjoy their contrasts, even when to the same end.


Overall, good stuff. I mean, all the stuff with Lee Yan probably needs some expansion, fleshing out, but for purposes of getting through the story, it’s fine and entertaining.

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Alycia regains consciousness in what’s clearly a holding cell. It’s a well-lit cube with white-gray walls made of some kind of seamless plastic. The usual appliances are here to tend to a prisoner’s physical needs, including the bed on which she’s laying.

She reaches down instinctively, feeling at where Pyrrhus shot her. The skin is unbroken. She takes a few breaths as she presses down. The flesh is tender, and she feels a warm pulse of pain. The damage must have been rebuilt recently.

She sits up, turning her attention to the details of herself and the cell. She’s dressed in a loose-fitting bodysuit made of something resembling PVC, but much lighter. There are seams for dressing and undressing, but no zippers or Velcro. Custom clothing, designed to resist being torn up for use as tools? The cell, too, has no visible seams, even around the bed and such. They’re as much a physical part of the cell as the walls. The impression she gets is a prison cell printed in some gigantic 3D printer. The light, too, isn’t emitted from any kind of bulb or LED apparatus she could get at, but via high-efficiency fiberoptic cables that terminate behind transparent sections of the plastic.

There’s a gentle air current, running from floor to ceiling. Alycia finds small gaps there, designed to admit air, but doesn’t hear the characteristic noise of a ventilation system. Some kind of bladeless, solid-state fan? Clearly, steps have been taken to make a cell that would resist most forms of escape. The gaps in the floor are narrow enough to keep her fingers from getting a grip, but strong enough to resist even a hard experimental punch.

She assumes she’s being monitored. There’s no sign of regular security cameras, but the fiber-optics that transmit light into the room can just as easily work in reverse, carrying an image of the cell back to some central system. She decides it can’t hurt to talk while she considers her situation.

“Pyrrhus. Clearly you can create new sub-personalities, like the Doctor Chin impersonation, and a convincing replica of a brother for me. And that Mirror Alycia in Cairo. Is that all for my benefit? Or has the Chin side won over the Quill side in your mind?”

There’s no answer, and she didn’t really expect one. But speaking helps crystallize her thoughts about her situation, and there’s the tiniest of chances she’ll get a response that gives her additional information.

“I wonder how that would make my father feel. A victory over Byron Quill would have served his goals. But would doing it this way really satisfy him? And Jason and I aren’t enemies in the same way. What of their contributions to this gestalt?”

Silently, to avoid giving away her conclusions, she evaluates her assets. The bodysuit she wears. One plastic bed, sources of running water, but all immobile - there’s no jamming a bed up against a door, for example.

For that matter, there’s no door. Logical, really. Any tech able to weave a cell like this could be used to unweave a portion of it on demand. At other times, why would you want even the chance of a prisoner breaking out - or another one breaking in?

She briefly evaluates, then discards, suicide gambits. What the Atlanteans didn’t seem to appreciate was that Pyrrhus can just create a Mirror Alycia, or a Mirror Jason, whatever it takes to satisfy their request for a hostage. That means she can’t use her own life as leverage.

“But if you don’t need us alive, why are we?” she muses out loud.

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John Black dials a number he knows by heart. If his palms could sweat, they would be.

“Otto Newman, superhero at large, go Panthers. Whatcha need?”

The android fitfully forms words. “Otto. It’s John Black.”

There’s a long gap before the car’s voice comes again. “Hey John. Things okay?”

“Things are fine. Listen, uh, we need to get to Antarctica. Is there a Phoenix you can send my way?”

“Can do. Oh hey, gonna see Alycia soon?”

What a question. What prompted that?

“It’s a rescue mission. So I hope so.”

Otto rumbles over the phone. “Cool. Summer gave me a care package to send along if it came to that. I’ll send that too. And hey, wanna do something for me in turn?”

John blinks. “Of course, dude. What do you need?”

“Don’t be a stranger. I got room for two little bros.”

He smiles, and a shiver runs through him, in spite of his artificial construction. “Yeah. Sorry. Things have been touchy.”

“Totally get it. I’ll send ya Loosie Goosey. Where to?”

“Hong Kong.”

True to Lee Yan’s prediction, the team has chosen to abandon the crypto mining facility. They’ve moved into a Golden Dragon XML6701J18, a former public mini-bus or “van-ette” converted into a food truck. Emma explains that it’s a gift from some of her triad contacts, in thanks for unspecified but undoubtedly illegal services rendered against some of their local rivals. What happened to the former owners is left unaddressed.

Nono teaches the group about making birria tacos with local ingredients. Alex handles the customer interactions, being the only speaker of Hong Kong Cantonese in the group at the moment. Emma, much to her chagrin, is left to do the cooking. They can’t afford to keep a range top fueled, but her pyrokinetic powers serve just as well. It’s a half-assed cover, but they’ll only need it for the few days it’ll take John to make contact.

John himself makes the trip to one of the sub-peaks of Tai Mo Shan, the highest mountain in the area. There’s an army base and an observatory nearby, and he’s not interested in being spotted by anyone in authority. He spends the time hiking, climbing, sometimes just leaping, up and up and up the tricky, green-covered slopes. The mountain system is volcanic, and sometimes he encounters what the locals call “dragon’s breath” - heated air from vents leading all the way to the mantle of the Earth, escaping into the cold mountainside atmosphere.

He finds the enormous synthetic bird coiled up in a crater near the top, clearly roosting near some of the geothermal heat of the mountain. He finishes climbing through the foliage and hops down onto the rocky floor of the crater. Man and bird regard each other warily.

The last time he tried to tame a Phoenix, it didn’t go well. God damn Alycia Chin did better.

Yeah, but now I know what’s wrong with me.

He’s not supposed to exist. He shouldn’t have woken up. He’s the living antithesis of his self/creator’s sworn vow to never weaponize this technology. But he’s here now, and Hell take anyone who wants to put him back in a box and forget about him.

“Loosie Goosey, huh? Hey. I’m John Black.”

The bird turns and tilts its head, more like an owl than the predatory hawk from which it was modeled.

“Some bad stuff is gonna happen to some good people, unless me and my friends get to Antarctica. We need you to get us down there.”

He takes a dive into Leo’s memories, understanding what this creature actually is, and who it’s based on. “We didn’t always fight for the right reasons, did we, buddy. But this is different. Right now there’s a parent bullying their child. We gotta stop that. I need you with me on this one.”

He reaches out an arm, uncertain of what else must be done.

Loosie Goosey watches, and blinks owlishly. Then it reaches forward, and grabs hold of his arm in its beak.

It’s not an attack, John realizes after a feverish few seconds. The bird throws him bodily into the air, then launches upward. John lands in a crouch on its back, balancing himself against the rocking motion.

Loosie Goosey lets cry a rousing shriek, and takes to the sky.

In the closed-up interior of the food truck, two girls and one hacker are playing a local card game called Big Two. Alex is reading instructions off a website, while Emma deals.

Suddenly, the truck rocks, and there’s a lurching as it’s carried into the air.

“What the fuck?” Emma shouts.

Alex goes for their phone immediately, and notices an unread text message from John. “He says he’s getting this order to go. Ha ha ha.”

Nono glances out the window to see Hong Kong disappearing beneath them. Above them, a giant robotic bird has the truck in its clutches. And on its back, she can see a human silhouette.

“Guess we’re going to Antarctica,” Alex remarks. “Usually the game would ask you, hey, are you sure? This is the very definitely final dungeon.”

Nono swallows, then eeps as a bit of turbulence sends a jolt through the truck.

“This is the most undignified option,” sniffs Emma. “This is what we’re gonna go fight Pyrrhus with? A robot turkey and a taco truck?”

She’s surprised to get an answer, from Nono of all people. The girl has a big grin on her face. But it’s not the enthusiastic, sloppy, doggy-grin of a fanfic writer that she’s shown before. It’s… confident?

“We’re going to go rescue our teammate and stop the villain. What got us this far wasn’t our gear, it was us, taking risks to help each other. It doesn’t matter if it’s undignified. It’s gonna have to do.”

Emma takes this in dubiously, but at last a smile breaks out on her face. “Fine. Lock down the condiments, in case they go flying.” She starts rifling through the playing cards. “This time, we’re playing strip poker.”

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Alycia Chin’s first visitor is Byron Quill. Bearded, slightly paunchy rather than the ruggedly fit man her father battled, he looks like what she thinks of as the typical American father. He emerges from the walls of her bespoke prison, assembled atom by atom by nanotechnology. When he’s fully emerged, he squats down on the ground near her.

“Alycia! I realize my son has talked to you more than I have, but I thought this was a golden opportunity for us to talk.”

“You’re Pyrrhus. You’re wearing this mask to manipulate me. I’m not going to cooperate.” Her voice is level, dispassionate, resigned.

The Mirror Byron shrugs and grins lopsidedly. “Byron Quill is a part of Pyrrhus. I’m as legitimate as any other representation of the man. Besides, what else is there to do? I seem to remember you get agitated without regular activity.”

“If it will get you to leave faster, then speak your mind.”

Quill laughs. “My son would tell you I never shut up. But I’ll keep this brief. First, I suppose the topic of the nanobots in Jason’s head has stayed with you. The modifications I did to him. The chemical changes Achilles did to you. Not quite the same, mind you. But I’ve realized that there’s some parallels. So let’s talk about those.”

He changes positions, legs folded, hands resting on his knees. “Jason was always a handful. His mother - well, that’s really a story all its own. But let’s skip to the part where he was born, and I started taking care of him. You know what it’s like for a hyper-genius to change diapers? To have defense contracts at age 20, to be able to calculate the Simone Fraction in your head, to be able to build revolutionary technology, and to be holding a dirty baby down while you do your work?” He lets out a belly laugh. “Now picture old Achilles doing that. I mean, I know for a fact he did it himself, rather than handing it off to an underling. But just picture that overblown megalomaniac wiping a kid’s ass. Haw haw haw!”

Alycia is outwardly unmoved, whatever her private feelings about this extremely weird turn of topic. “I thought Dr. Quill had more dignity than this.”

The Mirror blinks, and grins again. “Maybe I’ve mellowed since the acquisition. Maybe I’ve just had a well-guarded private life. You don’t know me. But that’s what I’m here to correct. So let me stay on topic, because I’m going somewhere with this.”

“Very well.”

“Anyway. Jason’s a handful. My boy had the spark, the talent, maybe not the same passion or drive for things the way I did. It’s my fault for not seeing the signs sooner, for not listening to him more. But as his father at the time, we went places and did things, things no other boy would ever get to experience. He got quite a thrill ride. He’d take chances he shouldn’t have. And you, my girl, are a very big and very risky chance to a boy like Jason.”

Alycia blinks. “At ten years old?”

Byron tsks. “Part of my job is to see the future. Puberty isn’t so far off, and girls - or boys, or whatever - follow very shortly after that. When you live your life on an adrenaline rush, it’s easy to confuse one kind of excitement for another. As Jason did.”

This makes Alycia tilt her head in curiosity. “Did you actually believe that Jason had no interest in me except as a vehicle for adolescent passion?”

The Mirror laughs again. “I had some notion that he might be infected with Chin’s particular obsessions, through you as a vector. After all, your father instilled some very specific ideals in your head, while Jason absorbed mine mostly through exposure. And Pyrrhus knows what Byron didn’t at that age. But at the time? Yes, that was a consideration.”

“And so you psychically gelded him, through your ‘gift’ of the nanomachines.”

The nanotech Byron winces. “Well, that’s certainly not a metaphor that feels good! My own fault, for bringing up diaper management, I suppose. But yes, the nanomachines. Very versatile. Do you know why I invented them, by the way?”

Alycia shakes her head. She doubts Pyrrhus will give her any actionable intelligence here, but perhaps there’s something to be learned nevertheless.

“You see, around the time Jason came into my life, I was already in conflict with Achilles Chin. Intelligence from the authorities made it sound like he was preparing some sort of mycotech weapon - a fungus that could spread and depopulate whole cities if unchecked. That turned out to be wildly untrue - hoo boy! I’ll let Achilles tell you that story, if he ever feels like it. But at the time, the intel was very credible.”

He shifts on the ground, unfolding his legs. “I’d already started researching nanotechnology. I was convinced it was going to be the future foundation for my science. We had all this amazing tech, made out of these complex alloys, like the Dragonfly Mark Zero. It could do things nothing else could. But it was so difficult to repair everything. Annoying, but necessary. Like changing a diaper. I’d thought, what if we could have machines repair the machines? Nanotech solved the issue. But it could do more than that. A lot more.”

“I repurposed it to target specific biosignals, like invasive fungi. I was ready to deploy the stuff - pour it over an infected city, if necessary. The nanomachines would be able to consume the fungi to produce more of themselves. Very neat design, actually.”

Alycia listens. This does sound credible enough. There’s nothing here indicating a secret weakness of the nanotech, as expected. But it’s insight she lacked.

“I realized something else. It could repair machines. It could interact with living things. So, why not let it repair the meat robots we call human beings? If Jason’s mental integrity was threatened by his lifestyle, why couldn’t nanotech repair that damage?”

Alycia actually laughs. “You classify interactions with me as damage? I’m flattered, Doctor Quill.”

The Mirror raises his hands in an apologetic shrug. “Byron was short-sighted back then. I’ve gained much more insight since those days. But back to business. I suppose you’ve figured out why Pyrrhus has kept you alive.”

She hasn’t, actually. But why expose weakness?

Byron watches her face for long moments, then flashes one of his silly grins again and rises to his feet. “I see not. Well! I’ll leave you a clue. What can the nanobots taketh away, but not giveth?”

With a jaunty wave, he dissolves back into the wall, leaving Alycia alone with her thoughts.

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The Phoenix cannot travel at supersonic speeds while carrying a food truck.

The team estimates it’ll take about 20 hours to reach Antarctica at their subsonic cruising speed. The Phoenix cockpit has two seats. After some teasing from Alex that they can sit in John’s lap, John announcing he’d rather ride outside, and some back-of-the-napkin calculations (using clean napkins from the truck’s own stock), the team decides they can eat the day’s worth of travel time.

Nor can the Phoenix fly at its usual high altitudes, since the food truck isn’t pressurized. As a result, the team gets barely a glimpse of the Vietnamese coastline, but a great view of the islands of Borneo and Java as they overfly both. Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia all have controlled airspaces, but the Phoenix’s instincts are enough to get through. They also see the occasional flying individuals, who mostly wave at them in recognition of their mutual places in the superhuman world.

“Y’all know that movie? ‘Krakatoa, East of Java’?” Alex asks at one point. “It’s actually west of Java, they just liked the sound of east better.”

“Nobody cares,” Emma growls.

“I thought you’d be into volcanoes,” grins Alex.

The trip is long, and everyone gets tired sooner or later. Alex wakes Nono and Emma up in time to catch sight of the western coast of Australia, hours after leaving the Java Sea and Asia behind them.

The girls spend a few minutes admiring the sight. Alex, cooking up scrambled eggs for breakfast, deflates them with a cheerful smile and bad news. “That’s our halfway mark! Another ten hours to go.”

The team isn’t entirely unprepared. During the days they waited for John to bring back the Phoenix, they acquired cold-weather gear and clothing. Alex made sure they had enough electronics and radio kit to make use of the access codes they’ve got.

As the Phoenix glides over the ice sheet surrounding the Antarctic continent, Alex is warming up their gear. “Basically, we need to broadcast an IFF so the outer layers of defenses don’t flag us,” they explain. “There’s no way to get this bird completely invisible, a ground trek would take weeks, and there’s no freakin’ way the taco truck is gonna drive this shit.”

The radio set activates, and Alex closely monitors. After an hour, they report IFF pings. “If nobody shoots a missile at us in the next few minutes, I think we’re golden,” they announce.

A tense few minutes pass. No missile approaches.

The Phoenix sets down on an apparently empty patch of snow, at a high altitude. Emma has been using her powers for temperature regulation since the team passed into Antarctica, and even she seems to be laboring. Everyone is dressed for the cold, but it’s not enough.

There is one detail here - some kind of tower, sticking out of the snow.

“Is that part of the base?” Nono asks.

“Nah. That’s the meteorological tower,” Alex explains. “This used to be Plateau Station. 79 degrees south, 40 degrees east, elevation 11,900 feet. They closed it down in '69. Nobody’s been here since. 'Cept the occasional science team, I guess.”

They point out a spot on the ice. “We gotta melt through that bit.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Emma grumbles.

John, meanwhile, has asked the Phoenix to let go of the food truck. “Hey, what about our ride?”

“Tell it to wait up here,” Alex suggests. “We could go in the big vehicle entrance, but that’ll tip off everyone and be super obvious. That’s when we call in the cavalry. Think your bird can grasp that?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” John mumbles.

Emma’s careful powers demand her concentration, leaving Alex and Nono shivering despite their full-coverage clothing. Only John Black, still dressed in casual clothing from Hong Kong, is unaffected. When the cold finally gets too much, Emma withdraws to take over heating the team, and John steps up to break through the ice and snow with sledgehammer-strong fists.

The interior of Plateau Station is fully snow-bound. John literally plows a path into the interior, letting Alex and Nono take shelter from the cold outside. Once done, Emma is again free to start clearing the snow.

The revealed interior of the station is chilling in multiple ways. Decades old, constructed and minimally decorated in the fashion of the time, and lit only by the flashlights the team brought, it feels like a frosty time capsule - or tomb. Nono finds herself shivering, and shakes her head when Emma asks about the temperature.

“I looked this place up in AEGIS records,” Alex explains in a hushed voice. “In '66 there was some kind of huge snowquake. It’s like, water gets into the earth, freezes, and expands. The pressure creates a quake. Whole place dropped by a couple feet. This was originally supposed to be a research station for meteorology - that’s what that tower is doing out there - but they quickly repurposed it once they found out what was down there.”

John Black has uncovered a huge hatch, already fractured from repeated freezing and thawing.

“They sunk a borehole,” whispers Alex. “They found some kinda city down there. Byron Quill got involved. His favorite good buddy Achilles Chin got involved. The two of them came down here, had some kinda rollicking family-friendly adventure, I guess, bad enough that everyone sealed up the records and nobody ever talked about this place ever again.”

John experimentally extends and retracts his recently repaired grappling hooks. “I should be able to lower us down,” he reports.

“Well what are we waiting for?” Emma asks. She gestures at the hatch and glances archly at John. “You gonna break it or am I?”

The android responds by physically prying the thing open. It cracks in the process, sending fragments spilling into the utter blackness of the bore-hole it once covered.

“Right!” announces Nono, with more confidence than she really has. “Time to, um, uhhhh…” She thinks about it for a moment. “Extinguish Pyrrhus?”

The others grin at her and give thumbs-up or approving nods.

John begins grappling the walls of the borehole. With the others clinging tightly to him, he gradually lowers himself down via the cables, then finds new purchases. The team, protected only by their feeble light and remaining courage, vanishes into the depths of the Antarctic continent, beneath the frozen ghost of Plateau Station.

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Alycia Chin’s second visitor is Amir Quill.

Like Byron before him, Amir separates from the walls, molecule by molecule. Like the real Amir, he’s dressed comfortably but practically, representing his native Morocco through his choice of attire.

The young man seats himself cross-legged and nods in greeting.

“This is ghoulish,” Alycia announces through gritted teeth. “Whether you absorbed the Sepiaverse’s Amir Quill, or are just wearing his face to amuse yourself.”

“This mask serves my purpose,” the Mirror Amir answers equitably. “He lives in Byron’s and Jason’s memories, which Pyrrhus has. Think of me as an experiment in projecting memories outward.”

Alycia thinks back to her understanding of how Leo Snow created his robots, and her distaste for the process - even after she’s interacted with the results. “Imagined people aren’t people,” she counters.

“Then call me a ghost, a casualty of a war that should never have been fought.” Amir smiles. “Or the voice of the fallen who deserved more life. How many lives have you cut short, Daughter of Doctor Chin?”

She doesn’t want to rise to the bait, doesn’t want to relive that part of her life, but her genius betrays her. Words associate with memories, and her brain cannot help but render the information it thinks she will need, in full and immaculate detail.

Amir watches curiously.

“You know,” she says at last. “If you possess my memories, you know. And how much of that have you justified to yourself? The way I no longer do.”

“Touché,” the Mirror answers. “You never interacted very much with Amir Quill, did you.”

“No,” she says quietly. It wasn’t by choice. Jason just, every time–

“Jason held your interest much more strongly,” Amir fills in her unspoken thought.

“Yes,” she admits.

“I don’t take it personally,” he says, smiling. “My step-brother and step-father became family after I lost my original parents. Perhaps Jason told you the story by now. Perhaps not.”

She shakes her head.

The Mirror shrugs it away. “In deference to your feelings about this incarnation of me, I’ll let him do it. If he ever chooses to. If you ever ask. You can have it from the voice of the living, not from a ghost.”

“Are you here to make me feel uncomfortable, or is there a purpose to this visit?” Alycia demands.

He shrugs again. “I thought you’d benefit from a deeper interaction with Amir Quill.”

Alycia stands. “How can you say that? You have no deeper understanding of him than his family did, which can be shallow indeed. You lack his memories or his feelings. You don’t know his dreams. You don’t know what he hid from his family. What he wanted. This is insulting.”

Amir sits unperturbed by the outburst. “There are things to know about him that aren’t such lofty transcendental ideals. He likes Taylor Swift and the Beastie Boys. He’s a talented Magic: the Gathering player, but hates collecting the cards because they’re so expensive. He always orders the same thing at Captain Burger. He thinks ketchup is terrible but loves tomatoes.”

The Mirror points at Alycia’s head. “There’s an Amir Quill that lives in your mind too. Your collected memories of him. And perhaps regrets? Things you left unsaid? For example, how about that bullet wound in Tanzania?”

“I shot knowing it would be a flesh wound, and force Jason to stop and tend to Amir,” Alycia counters, reflexively. “He was in no danger.”

“And the odds that you’d miss, that there’d be a complication, that first aid was ineffective?”

Alycia thinks. “The shot had a 96.5% chance of effectiveness,” she announces at last.

Amir laughs at this, in his high, tinkling laughter. She’s only heard it a few times. It’s like the sound of watching a cool waterfall fill up a spring. And this nanobot abomination has reproduced it faithfully.

“How do you come up with these wonderfully precise percentages, anyway?”

“At the time, my shooting accuracy for non-lethal limb shots was 89%,” Alycia answers. “This was established under the regular near-live-fire trials administered by my father as training. This includes transient environmental conditions like air quality, wind, light levels, and so on. Father also noted an 8% increase in personal awareness and proprioception when Jason Quill was involved, factors which he attributed to youthful attraction. These various factors correlate with accuracy in firing between 5 and 100 meters - CQB conditions. 108% of 89% is 96.5%.”

“Jason just makes his up to sound clever,” smirks Amir.

“He does not,” Alycia frowns. “He actually puts thought into it.”

“Well, that’s fair. But Amir thought it was all hogwash.”

Alycia sits down on her plastic prison bed and looks at the artificial boy. “I think I know what you want to hear. Did I think he was a tagalong, a hindrance? Yes. Because he lacked hyper-genius. Everyone else involved - Jason and myself, and our fathers - had some flavor of superhuman brilliance. But not Amir. I looked down on him. I felt bad for him. I knew how easy it would be to hurt him - or worse. Even accidentally. I held back, for Jason’s sake.”

Amir nods. “Yes. You did. And now?”

Alycia thinks. What is the angle here? She tries to anticipate it. “I’ve learned to see the brilliance - and the wisdom - of people without that gift. People with other superhuman abilities. Or just people with heart, and guts, and imagination. It takes diversity of thought, of origin, of purpose, to synthesize solutions to large problems. Father made the mistake of assuming his singular spark would carry him through all such difficulties - and when he lacked time or expertise, he’d delegate to a lesser. But never to a partner, or a friend.”

“Was that what I was to Jason?” Amir asks curiously. “A partner, who complemented his genius with some other positive quality?”

“I… don’t know,” she admits. She hadn’t thought about it much until now. She’d trusted Jason to manage his relationship with his family. When this world’s Amir disappeared with Drs. Quill and Chin in Washington, D.C., she’d considered it a regrettable byproduct of the conflict between the two families. Even the news of the survival of an alternate Amir hadn’t strongly motivated her.

Because deep down, I wanted him safe from what we hypergeniuses could do?

“Keeping your distance from Amir kept him safe from you,” he says, again not-quite reading her thoughts. “But Jason felt their bond was more important than the danger.”

Alycia forces herself into emotional restraint. Her tone grows acerbic. “Well, thank you very much, Doctor, for your psychiatric assistance.”

The Mirror Amir rises to his feet and smiles. “The Sepiaverse Amir is somewhere nearby. Be mindful of his safety, should you start planning anything too clever.”

Alycia’s mouth opens, but the visitor merges with the cell wall before she can muster words.

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The borehole emerges into a larger cavern. As they descend, the team flashes its lights around, spotting little in the way of details or features at first. The reflected light suggests a damp natural cave.

“Look below,” Alex whispers. “Water.”

Flashlights aim downward. The cave floor is under a foot or so of water by the look of it.

“We’re not walking around in that,” Emma mumbles. “Well, I’m not.”

“Over that way,” John calls, and starts grappling via the roof of the cave. He lands himself and the group on what he spotted - a metal framework, with a distinctive “Q” pattern embossed in on metal plates serving as an elevated floor, and again on the plastic crates set up here. The team has found the Quill expedition’s old base camp by the look of it.

A quick search of the crates finds watertight survival suits. Plateau Station was 100 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. It’s still cold down here, but bearably so, and so the team elect to change suits.

There are some heavy-duty lamps and lights still packed away. The batteries have long since discharged, but there’s a few tools and Alex uses them to rig a patch between John’s internal power supply and the charger.

Half an hour after descending, the team feels ready to explore their surroundings. The extra power from their lights helps. For example, what they assumed was a natural cave is really a polyhedron, carved out of the rock. Significant chunks of the ceiling and walls have been dislodged by snowquakes and now lie as rubble in the water. Of the few exits out of the room, most are blocked.

Alex consults their tablet, containing the downloaded Mirror Alycia data. “We’re not in Pyrrhus’ base itself,” they announce. “We’re in the outskirts of the… the city, I guess. Follow me.”

The rooms they’ve traversed feel like an endless maze. Each tunnel is a cylinder, bored through the rock of Antarctica. Each tunnel leads to another toroidal or polyhedral chamber - each one with a different number of faces. The chambers themselves are easily 40 to 60 feet high or larger, and even the tunnels are a reliable 37 feet in diameter.

Closer inspection of the walls reveal shallow niches, of all shapes and sizes. Perhaps they served as shelves, or attachment points for equipment. But nothing has survived to indicate what.

Splashing through a foot of water grows tiring very quickly for everyone but John. They finally find a room with niches big enough to sit in, and the team takes a break.

“Think whoever or whatever did all this was pretty tall?” Alex asks with a weak grin.

“Pretty old, too,” Nono adds. “There’s no spiderwebs, no fish, no fungus, no sign of life at all. Still water like this would attract cyanobacteria or algae or something over time, but there’s just no sign of that at all. But there’s breathable oxygen here, all this distance underground. It’s like everything down here is just… dead.”

“Break time’s over, let’s move,” Emma announces with a grimace. Alex and Nono grumble at that, but perhaps it’s better to have something else to do than to dwell on that morbid observation.

“Picking up IFF pings,” Alex announces, checking their radio kit. “We’re inside Pyrrhus’ security perimeter now.”

“What is that gizmo telling the base that we are?” John asks curiously.

“Some kinda independent, autonomous drone unit. I get the feeling they’ve got units like that on patrol around here and they just come and go as they like.”

“We haven’t seen one,” Emma points out.

“Doesn’t mean they aren’t there,” Alex replies, ominously.

The team finds a chamber where sheets of striated plastic have blocked off the water, leaving dry ground in the tunnel beyond. “It’s like a synthetic resin,” Nono announces after a quick inspection. “But there’s so much of it, I don’t think the Quill team could have brought enough supplies to make all of this.”

“Then this is the official boundary of Pyrrhus’ domain,” Alex concludes.

The chambers beyond are likewise dry. Fungus farms, rows of cots, and artificial lights all indicate the presence of human habitation.

Three times, the team encounters a pair of human figures marching in lockstep, armed with rifles. Their faces are covered by masks, and their uniforms show no insignia. Each time, Alex shouts a pass-phrase at them as they raise their rifles. Upon hearing it, the troops lower their weapons and return to their patrol route.

“That’s super creepy,” Nono whispers. “They didn’t even say anything.”

“Programmed people,” mutters John. “Addicted to the despair drug. Given orders by Pyrrhus. They won’t show any initiative because their ability to care is gone.”

“All it’s gonna take is for Pyrrhus to give orders like ‘shoot anyone not wearing a uniform’,” Alex comments worriedly. “We’re gonna have to deal with a lot of those guys really fast if anything goes wrong.”

John turns. “We can’t kill them and we can’t abandon them,” he says with icy determination. “These people aren’t here of their own free will.”

“You gonna do all the fighting then, space cowboy?” Emma asks sarcastically.

“If I have to.”

“Fine with me.”

“Enough. We need to find the funicular,” Alex interjects.

Emma cocks her head. “The fun-what-ular?”


“Is that a sex toy?”

Alex sighs. “Y’all are culturally illiterate. A funicular is one of those anime elevators that’s like at a 45 degree angle, it’s like a big platform that goes down a rail system at a diagonal. As opposed to a paternoster, which is like a double-sided elevator system that’s on a big bike chain. Then there’s a–”

“Fine, we go look for the sideways elevator,” John says, cutting them off. “Just tell us where to go.”

The group arrives in another toroidal chamber, this one walled off by more plastic due to the foot of water filling it. At the center is a slab of plastic, with buoyant pontoons attached on every side. The chamber has one additional tunnel, starting with a hole in the roof and leading upward at an angle.

“Now what?” Emma asks.

“Now we get on the thing,” Alex says, and climbs aboard the plastic slab. “John, see that big globe of rock over there? Yeah. That one. Hit that guy with a grappling hook.”

Once everyone’s aboard, John does so. The water level begins to rise, but it’s not clear from where all the excess comes. Nor is it at all clear why it doesn’t just spill over the plastic dams and flood the rest of the complex.

“Pretty sure Pyrrhus did not build this part,” Alex muses.

The plastic raft is a rough ride, even with the pontoons stabilizing it. The others grab hold of John, who grapples the raft and anchors himself on it like a cowboy astride a bucking bull.

The ride ends at another chamber. The water stabilizes, and the passengers disembark.

Alex glances at the ground, walks a circuit around the raft, and shrugs. “Guys, this is solid rock. But we came up this way. I’m absolutely fucking sure we just came through what is now solid rock.”

John shrugs and starts walking for one of the exits. Emma and Nono follow.

“Wait a minute, I’m serious.” Alex runs after the group, protesting all the way. “That’s not supposed to happen. There’s laws of physics and stuff…”

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Alycia’s third visitor is Jason Quill.

He doesn’t come through the wall like the others. Instead, she only hears his voice, rough and staticky as though over a bad intercom system.

“'Lycia? You there? This is a secure channel - I think.”

She’s humored the last two masks Pyrrhus has worn, and learned a trifle more than she knew. Why not?

“You’ve reached the Alycia Chin residence. The number you have reached has been disconnected–”

“Be serious,” comes Jason’s voice. “Is this actually you? It should be, I just need to be sure.”

“How would you propose that I be sure of you you are?” she asks, somewhat acidly.

There’s silence for a moment. “Okay, I see your point. Pyrrhus can copy or emulate us.”

“Just so. Plus, it’s very possible he can acquire new knowledge through direct contact. I don’t foresee a mutual authentication protocol or shibboleth emerging between Alice and Bob when Carol can read minds. Do you?”

She hears Jason’s voice mumbling, perhaps to himself, perhaps to someone else. If Pyrrhus creates duplicates of them, are they separate entities which he must then talk to? Or was it he, himself, who was physically in these cells? It’s an interesting question, but one she’s doubtful she can answer with the data available.

“Okay. I’m going to try something here…”

The lights in her cell blink out entirely.

Alycia rolls her eyes. “I’m as in the dark as you are, apparently.”

“Shit. Well, no, this was good. No light means no observation. Alright, presto change-o rearrange-o…”

Alycia feels a slight breeze. “What did you do this time?” she asks casually.

“Opened the cell door.”

This is a new twist to Pyrrhus’ mind games. “Congratulations on your achievement,” she says, voice as dry as the Sahara.

She can see faint lights. Moving her head slightly, she determines through parallax that they cannot be located inside the cell. Is this genuine?

“Once you leave, we’ll be out of touch again. So I need you to–”

She cuts him off. “Jason. At the risk of invoking the cliché, I’ll add ‘if that is your real name’. I’m done playing these games. Pyrrhus has threatened Amir, spun riddles, and tried to ingratiate himself via familiar faces. I tolerated it for a bit, but it grows tiresome. Pyrrhus needs to simply make his demands, so that I can refuse them officially.”

The voice grows intense. “'Lycia, this is Jason. I’m the real thing.”

“Prove it to my satisfaction.”

“I opened the cell door.”

“Pyrrhus could do that.”

“Why would he?” Jason asks.

She shrugs. “I don’t know. Why would he come in here as Byron Quill to tell me about how he changed Jason’s diapers?”

“He said what? Holy shit.”

She waits, tapping her fingernails against her knee in the darkness.

“Okay. Well how about this. How would you characterize Pyrrhus from what you’ve seen so far?”

This puts Alycia on firmer ground - criticizing others’ faults. “He’s mentally unstable. Logically, because he’s a fusion of four very different identities. He’s the worst of all of us, in a sense. My father’s megalomania. Your father’s bland indifference to other peoples’ feelings. Your self-indulgence. My ability to compartmentalize my conscience in pursuit of a mission.”


“You asked.”

Jason chuckles over the intercom. “I did. Okay, what else?”

“I’m not sure what you’re looking for.”

The voice comes back immediately. “He went on some kind of tangent about a great mission. But it wasn’t that great, was it. Eradicating free will, or reducing it, or however he’s justifying all this. Using despair and programming to remake the human race into living robots. There’s nothing positive about any of it. Even your father had grand dreams. Sure, his omelets would break every egg in the carton, but he was trying to go somewhere. This guy just feels like, I dunno, like he wants to tear everything down and stew in the ashes.”

Alycia snorts. “Why ask me to analyze him, when you’ve done such a thorough job of it?”

“Alright! So would you say that the Mirrors you’ve interacted with are all sort of tainted by that, I dunno, that same Sepiaverse vibe? He feels like he’s obsessed with that place.”

This makes her think back to the previous two conversations. The Mirror Byron left her with a riddle about the nanobots, and some casually insensitive background details. The Mirror Amir had asked her to empathize with Jason’s brother, then went on to threaten him. It was a possibility.

Jason seemingly senses his victory, because he keeps talking. “So I’m gonna assert that any clone or copy he makes is going to be like that. Some kind of sad-sack Eeyore version of the real person. Someone trapped in a quicksand of despair.”

Alycia thinks about this too. “Let’s accept your hypothesis for purposes of this argument.”

“So it follows if I’m also one of his Mirrors, I’ll be affected the same way, yes?”


“Well I am about to blow your mind.” Jason’s voice sounds positively giddy.

“I eagerly await your demonstration,” Alycia replies with only a moderate amount of sarcasm, given the circumstances.

“The Jason that went into the merge - and so into Pyrrhus - was on the edge of despair. The Alycia of that time was afraid of her new team falling apart. You told me - got angry at me, really - when I said I was quitting the Menagerie. But the truth is, I want more than anything to go on more adventures with you. Together. Not as a rival, but just as a partner. I want to see the world with you. We can go see the places we met, see how folks are doing. We can chase down rumors of lost cities and forgotten fortresses. Take my father’s prized collection of relics back to their rightful owners. I do love you, Alycia Chin, but you know what? I also just really like you! I love when you tease me, and then show me how something’s done. I love that pouty face you don’t think you make when I do something right in return. How you compete with me on all the small things, but then cooperate with me on the big ones. I want more of that. I hunger for it!”

Alycia wipes her eyes in the dark, now grateful there’s no light by which she can be seen.

But Jason isn’t done. “I know, I know, the Foundation needs me. But right now, you and me? We have all the time in the world. I didn’t ever think it’d be like this. I thought I’d end up some kind of gibbering beast in the sewers, or dead, or something. But now I have hope. I want to see that hope through, with you. Whatever we end up being to each other, I just want to spend that time with you.”

She sniffles, and struggles to control herself. “And I suppose all I have to do is trust this mysterious voice, and step outside into the unknown.”

“You can,” agrees Jason. “Or just wait there. My cell is 143 paces from yours, I can just come there if that’s easier.”

Tears stream down her cheeks. She has no idea how he did it. But she’s willing to believe he did it. “How about we both go on the count of 3. Winner is whoever is closer to the other’s cell when we find each other.”

“You’re on. 1… 2… 3!”

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The big conclusion to the Agents of AEGIS storyline will come soon, as everyone meets up again and there’s a big showdown with Pyrrhus. But will a handful of agents be enough to defeat the nanotech monster?
How do we feel about what’s happened so far? What unanswered questions do we have?


Dammit, Pyrrhus.

Ironic note here that, with sufficient removal from particulars, Chin’s obsessions and Byron Quill’s are not all that dissimilar. Benefiting the greater good. Freedom from tyranny. Learning the nature of the universe. The Devil’s greatest trick was persuading folk that there was only one way to defeat him.

  1. “Lifestyle.” That word has done tremendous heavy lifting.

  2. While Alycia kind of laughs this off, in reality it’s another parallel to Achilles Chin, who was quite interested in how to deal with “flawed” mental integrity.


As someone who carries that bit of trivia around in his head (and gets little reason to trot it out given the obscurity of the 1968 film), I feel for Alex here.

I was waiting for Cyclopean Antarctic City (can’t recall the name I had for it, fwiw) to show up again. Bravo.

I’m drawing a blank as to whether we ever encountered him (I don’t think so in the original, but don’t recall in this version). It makes no difference, but the reference made me blink.

(Several paragraphs later.) Oh. Wait. Was “our” Amir from the Sepiaverse? I just remember, at this point, it going back and forth as to whether he was killed, or just crippled, during the DC Event. Anyway, carry on.

Interesting. Okay, that’s a gap I never really considered. Amir drops out of the timeline as an active participant after the DC Incident. But, honest to goodness, I never considered him in flashbacks earlier than that. Wow.

These are delightful bits of dialog.

But, hmmmm … Rusty.

Oh dear.

That’s not creepy at all.

My own rendition of the Cyclopean City was pretty sparing in details, but fairly crude, sort of akin to Mayan or Incan architecture. I like the weirdness being put in here.

The sort of thing people would expect Achilles Chin to do. And … he might, if it were the only clear course forward, but would be very cranky about the necessity, as it is the antithesis of his ideal.

Okay, a water-based funicular is … cool and creepy.


Ayup. Nice.

No. But up to 87.3% of the eggs being broken would be considered an acceptable loss for the redemption of the remaining 12.7%. Populations can be rebuilt.



I love this whole concluding bit, because it shows that Jason, for all his grievous flaws and insecurities, has both grown beyond them and remains aware of them. And his word merge exactly into Alycia’s own gaps and despairs.



My memory from the side-stuff around issue 22 is that the Amir Jason & Summer interacted with was the Sepiaverse Amir, and this universe’s Amir was lost during the DC incident.

One of my objectives in introducing the Mirrors was for Alycia to be able to interact with Amir and acknowledge the history they must have had. As for Rusty, I think that Alycia was really comparing herself with the other “kids”, and the “adults” were on another tier altogether, and may be giving Rusty a pass because of his own staggering competence in his particular field.

Three-quarters of Pyrrus is made up of people who thought the worst of Achilles Chin. In this case there’s another reason, which we’ll learn in the next issue.

This is also why writing Pyrrhus is always a challenge - even the Mirrors, who are supposedly single-personality extracts, have some of the entire gestalt in them, and I’ve done my best to have that come through. Everyone who interacted with a Mirror noted they were “off” somehow, someone’s idea of that person rather than the real thing.