235 - Epilogue

Harry Gale calls a meeting of the Halcyon Heroes League. His announcement isn’t well received.

“I’m changing how things are done on this team,” he says.

“Kid, you’re good, but you’re not taking over the League–”

Harry’s voice cuts through the opposition. “I didn’t say I’m taking over. I said I’m changing how things are done.”

The mismatch gets their attention. The assumption of hierarchy, of dominance, is part of the problem here. A few leaders rule the League. The League rules Halcyon’s superhero world. Their goal is to get to the top of the pyramid. Harry is here to tear the pyramid down.

He looks from face to face. “We’ve forgotten what we’re supposed to be doing. The goal isn’t to be the paragons of the city. We’re not idols. We’re protectors.”

“Listen, it’s not that simple, Harry–”

Harry pounds his fist on the table. “It is that simple. We get out there, and we help people. Hopefully they’re cooperative. It’s great if they’re grateful. If glory is your goal, Georgia is giving big tax credits to filmmakers, you can go use your powers and be a star. But the perks of this job are not the point. It’s time for us to stop being kings.”

“We stop having secret Star Chamber meetings. We talk to the public about what we’re doing. We earn their trust. And most importantly, we stop hiding things from each other. We talk openly about what bothers us, even if it’s going to hurt relationships. The cliques and the grudges and the posturing have to stop.”

A new question emerges from the background grumbling. “Why should we listen to you?”

Harry’s voice takes on a deadly seriousness. “Because when I look at this group, I don’t see anyone who isn’t ashamed of themselves. Including myself.”

A hush falls over the room.

“I get why half of us went to space,” he says into the silence. “It’s an easy redemption story. But we’re here, now, and we’re needed. People have to trust us. Right now, I gotta say, people, they just don’t. ASIST is eating HHL’s lunch. But there’s so much potential here too, so much experience, so much skill and power. It would be a terrible waste if we didn’t use that.”

He looks around, but few in the room will actually meet his eyes.

“It’s time to feel better about ourselves. It’s time to take it back to simple. You were all out there when the Atlanteans were attacking. It felt good, didn’t it. Just doing the work.”

A few murmurs or nodding heads tell Harry he’s got a chance here.

“It can be like that every day. We just get out there and do the work. We start over, we help people, we become what the city really needs. It really, really needs some people to look up to. Let’s try to earn that title, together.”

Adam waits until dinner is wrapped up and the family is in the living room to bring up what he needs to say.

“Mom, Dad, I know you were wondering about Jordan and the Shard she has. I want to tell you more about what’s going on there.”

Nassir and Khamala stop what they’re doing, and turn in their seats to listen. Jordan, who was lazily scribbling dinosaur sketches in a sketchbook, tosses it to the side and sits up, interested.

Adam clears his throat and focuses on what he wants to say, doing his best to tune out his fears about how it’ll be received.

“I said before I wasn’t sure what could be done about the Shard. It turns out that I do have the power to work with it. I can transfer Shards to other people. I’ve done it once.”

His parents look at each other. “So you’re going to remove it?” Nassir says at last.

“That’s what I want to talk to you about.”

Adam rallies his courage.

“I don’t think the Shard is a bad thing. I don’t think it’s going to hurt her to have it, with some limits. I’ll do what you both decide. But I want to make a case for letting her keep it.”

“When she was Princess Peri, I think Jordan was doing everything that would make both of you proud of her. She was doing her best to help people, like she’s seen both of you do at your jobs. She went out of her way to keep people safe. She was as responsible as anyone her age could be.”

“I placed ahead in my classes. I think Jordan has the same gift. And this is really important, but the Shard won’t mesh with someone who doesn’t have the Virtues in their heart.”

Adam can see his dad’s objections, and raises a hand. “I know you’re going to say she’s untrained. I mean, I understand that really well. Part of the job of the Shard is to be the instructor. It’s one-on-one training on how to use the power.”

He says the thing he worries about the most. “And, also, you’re both really busy, and Jordan worries about you, dad. And it’d be nice if she had someone to talk to. The Shard can listen and advise. And it can be set to keep both of you informed about stuff.”

Khamala lays a hand on her husband’s knee, and goes first. “Adam, I think you understand that we both find this disturbing. Both of our children are playing host to these alien forces, with powers that nobody really understands. You said yourself you only realized you could do something with these, these ‘Shards’. Your father and I both know that you’ve done a lot of good with that power. But it’s also cost you, and Jordan, something that we as your parents have wanted so much to safeguard.” She leans forward. “Your peace of mind, your childhoods, your safety. I can see how this life has worn on you. Do you really want to do that to your sister?”

Nassir feels his opening, and takes it. “Adam, Jordan might be excited about this.”

As though confirming his statement, Adam can see Jordan sitting upright, excited at the possibility of becoming a princess once again.

Adam’s father goes on. “I accept that she’s got a good heart, and that she did good before. That doesn’t mean she’s old enough to consciously consent to these risks. We have a responsibility as parents to take care of both of you. Sometimes that means saying no, even when you’re convinced we should say yes.”

Adam hangs his head. At least he tried.

He feels his parents’ hands on his shoulders. “But we might also be wrong,” his mother says. “And there’s someone we haven’t heard from yet.”

They look at Jordan, and Adam does too.

“Jordan, you understand we need to keep you safe,” Nassir says. “Do you think that’s possible, if we let you keep this Shard?”

Jordan, to her credit, thinks about this for a bit. “Bein’ a princess was fun, but Anty said I could be a princess without the power, an’ I think that’s good too. And bein’ growed up was fun, but I didn’t like the glitchin’ part.”

She kicks her legs idly. “I talk to Anty alla time,” she confesses. “Anty can’t talk back but I know it’s listening. It always had time for me. It was always lookin’ out for me. I guess…” She hesitates at first, sounding like she’s surrendering somehow. 'If ya gotta take it away 'cause you’re worried, I understand. I don’t wanna upset anyone. But if I can say goodbye, I’d like that."

Nassir and Khamala nod to each other, and look back at Adam. “Let’s talk more about what you said, where you can put limits on the Shard,” his mother says.

“I don’t mind if she has a pet,” concurs Nassir. “I don’t know if ‘pet’ is right, but… well, I don’t want my daughter to feel lonely either.”

Adam feels a knot in his throat. He’s not sure what the right thing is here, not really. But Sol, Tau, Anty, and Princess Peri all deserve their chance.

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Doctor Faraja Kariuki shuts off the monitor and smiles at Aria.

“It’s very unusual for a psychiatrist to literally see into the patient’s mind. This experience has been quite a miracle for me,” she says.

They both look at Leo, lying quietly on the bed. An induction cable runs from the back of his neck, connecting to his neurochip, and into a bank of computers that process his brain scans.

“I’m versed in neurology and related fields,” Aria says. “But not in the therapeutic side. Maybe it’s time to learn.”

Her tone shifts, becoming earnest and pleading. “What can you tell me?”

The doctor finishes compiling her notes, and reads the summary. “Our patient experienced severe torture, but was physically restored to health. Without knowing more, phantom limb pain might be indicated, which we would treat with vibration therapy, mirror boxes, and similar techniques. However, the ‘homeschooling’ you described suggests a reawakening of prior trauma. This can greatly complicate the prognosis. I’m grateful to your friend Otto for his notes on how he handled that time in Mr. Snow’s life.”

“The psychological needs of hypergenius individuals is not well understood in the literature. Part of this may be that hypergenius individuals sometimes engage in self-treatment, or successfully incorporate their pathologies into an integrated personality. So what I say now is very speculative, and should be treated as such.”

“Mr. Snow may have retreated into a state of tightly bounded rationality. The work of Kahneman and Tversky suggest, very roughly, that human choices tend toward the satisfactory, rather than the optimal. In this case, that is to say that he will act in ways reinforced by his particular breed of hypergenius - robotics, neurotech, and physical combat, if I understand you correctly. In other aspects of life, he will follow the lead of those he trusts, but not initiate action beyond his instinctual needs. Hunger, sleep, and so on.”

This is a lot to take in, emotionally, but Aria rallies and nods. “I suppose asking about the chances of a successful treatment, or any kind of timetable, are out of the question.”

Dr. Kariuki smiles. “This is where his neurotech comes into play. I can’t tell you, but I can show you the charts. Here, have a look.”

She pulls up a display on her laptop, and Aria peeks over her shoulder.

“Here. Look at the dorsal premotor cortex and the primary motor cortex. You can probably read this yourself, can’t you.”

Aria nods absently, absorbed in the delta between the earliest readings and the current state of Leo’s brain. “It’s healing. The acoustic neuroma we saw are down by…” She does some quick mental calculations. “12%. If that trend line continues, we should see meaningful recovery in…” More math. “Four months.”

Fear takes over, for a moment, as she looks at some of the deviations and spikes. “These are cancerous, though. What if they grow? What if he doesn’t come back from this? What if he never starts talking again?”

“From what I see, that chip itself is correcting the problem,” the doctor says with a smile. “It’s regulating neurotransmitters. If we go above the 630 line, there’s also brain surgery.”

She writes something on a prescription pad, tears off the note, and hands it to Aria. “We can test my theory. He’s receptive to the things his brain is most wired for. Be close, be calm, and tell him this.”

Aria looks at what’s written, and nods. She walks to the bed, kneels next to it, and leans close to Leo.

“I need to hear that you love me, Leo.”

Leo’s head turns. His eyes focus and defocus, and his lips part. A hoarse voice is barely heard.

“Love… you… Ar…i…a…”

Aria blinks away tears and smiles down at him, reaching out a hand. When he doesn’t show signs of resistance, she strokes his hair.

“You’re going to come back to me soon. You were there for me. Now it’s my turn.”

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Charlotte is staying in Vyortovia as a student. It’s a rare personal visit, and so it’s unusual for someone to knock at her door. Curiosity compels her to answer it.

At first there’s nobody there, but then she realizes it’s Resister. He’s still in costume, of course.

“Come in, good sir. May I offer you refreshment, or do your habiliments preclude hospitality?”

The mysterious hero enters the little room, navigating between piles of books, and shrugs winsomely. “I’m about to unmask, so perhaps we will enjoy coffee at a later time?”

The implications reach Charlotte immediately. “Your mother will remember you,” she says, politely inviting elaboration.

“With the removal of the Hidden Family, my need for secrecy is at an end. I pray my mother will understand the price I’ve paid - and made her pay - as a result of my methods.”

“You seem assured of your course of action,” Charlotte observes. “May I ask, then, the purpose of your visit here?”

“I wanted to hear more about what you’ve learned,” Resister explains.

Charlotte invites him to take a seat, and sits at her writing desk. Her half-written book is still open in front of her. She begins reading aloud.

“The Hidden Family experienced generational trauma caused by a catastrophic natural disaster. An organization that was devoted to protecting the lives of its people became twisted into a cult seeking mastery over death, and the eternal resurrection of the souls it lost. They sought to make me the instrument of their plans, and with close friends I was able to escape this fate.”

“I believe that I gave the Hidden Family of the Vyortovian Throne their final goal. While traveling in time, I informed them about the Concordance’s vault of unexpressed negative emotion. Hundreds of years later, they sought to unleash it on the world, by overloading it with the horrors of a world war. Theorists call this sort of thing a ‘Stable Time Loop’.”

She puts down the book and smiles. “Doctor Infinity is gone. The Hidden Family are gone. And the Magus is gone. Perhaps it’s for the best. I’m learning how fraught power can be. Even yours.”

Resister nods. He makes an adjustment to the mechanisms of his costume, and there’s a momentary humming sound. Then he pulls his mask off, revealing a young man’s features.

“Right now my mother will be remembering my existence. She will remember that she has not remembered until now. She will frantically be giving orders to locate me. I should go. But I wanted to say thank you. Without you, I would never have succeeded at my mission.”

Charlotte smiles. “Without your diligence, my team and myself would not have succeeded either. We are all indebted to you.”

The young man’s smile turns pensive. “Do you think my mother will understand?”

Charlotte thinks about that. “I would hope so,” she says at last. “I can’t imagine any mother not wanting her child returned to her, before anything else.”

The former hero smiles, and rises. “Then I should go assuage her fears. Goodbye, Charlotte Palmer. I will see you again soon.”

“Goodbye, … ahh. I don’t think I ever received a proper introduction from you, sir.”

The Vyortovian grins. “I’ll be sure to deliver one next time, when I learn whether I am still a prince. Good day to you.”

He departs, leaving Charlotte to her thoughts and her book.

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“What is she doing here?” the Mirror Alycia demands.

Jason, standing next to the hologram of the Mirror, is looking at the Conversation Pit where Jenny Byrne is lounging, and snacking on some of his Hostess Zingers.

“I’m eating your food. Honestly, what kind of question is that?” Jenny asks innocently. “‘What is she doing here.’ As if you didn’t have eyes.”

“How did you get into my house?” Jason asks, going further into debt on his supply of tact.

The girl shrugs, and takes another bite of Zinger. “The usual way. I bypassed your security system.”

“How did you do that?”

Jenny takes a decidedly saucy lick of the icing on top of the snack. “You have security people who maintain those systems. Some of them are amenable to the blandishments of a charming red-headed girl. And, well, the nanobot brain-scanning did the rest.”

“Jason, tell her to leave,” the Mirror insists.

“And you’re one to say such a thing!” Jenny cries out archly. “Aren’t you the fiend that was sent to attack Mr. Quill, and caused him such troubles? And now you’re freeloading in his very own home! I’m merely here as a visitor.”

Jason raises his hands. “Ladies. Please. Circumstances are complicated. Jenny, if you intend to visit, I insist that you do so by asking to visit next time. Alycia, you are also a guest, until such time as I can gauge your intentions, I’m keeping an eye on you.”

The notification pings Jason’s phone. He checks it briefly, sees the name, and sighs. “Please excuse me. This looks like government business, which neither of you should be privy to.”


The call is from an American four-star general, but it’s anything but business. The video call syncs up, and General Houston starts to speak.

“Mr. Quill. Jason. I hope a social call is alright.”

Jason grins. “Honestly, sir, you saved me from a bit of a situation. What can I do for you?”

The general sits back in his armchair on the other end of the call. “You handled things very well during the Atlantean incident. Much like your father in that. But your methods were very much not his.”

Jason feels himself tensing up, uncertain about how this will go.

General Houston clasps his hands in his lap. “Your father would have taken well-meaning and expedient courses of action. He would have reasons for what he did, and they’d sound well thought out. But after that call, I realized how, well, how heartless he could be, if you’ll forgive me for saying so.”

Jason nods, in spite of himself.

The general leans forward again, hands opening. “I want to give you some advice, if you’ll hear it. Man to man.”

The emphasis on the last three words isn’t lost. This is an acceptance. “Yes, sir, I’d be honored.”

“Men and women like me, Jason, we’ve seen and done a lot of things. As you pointed out. As you well know yourself. And as you pointed out, you’re still a young man. We look at you and see a new boot with a good idea fairy perched on his shoulder. And we’ll push our chest candy in your face until you choke on the ribbons, because we’re old and we’ve seen it all and that means we know best.”

The general leans into his words. “Your elders aren’t your betters, Mr. Quill. Don’t let us intimidate you into wanting to impress us. Stick to your guns, the ones you showed during that meeting. Don’t give up on yourself.”

Jason can’t contain his smile, and he sighs in relief. “Sir, I can’t tell you how hard it’s been to be myself. But my team has been helpful in making that happen. I’ll be sure to keep listening to them, and to you folks. I’ll listen to my heart about what to do, and then to my head on how to make it happen.”

“Then I’ll be proud to work with you again,” General Houston says with a smile. He doesn’t offer a formal salute, but he makes a gesture that tells Jason the respect he has.

The call clicks off.

Jason can hear the Mirror and Jenny arguing in the Conversation Pit.

Lord, if only someone else would invade right now.

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Alycia Chin and Daphne Palin are watching middle school soccer practice. Daph is there because she’s coaching. Alycia is there because she needs coaching.

“It is ironic to me that we’re friends,” Alycia remarks, as the next match begins. “You’re affiliated with a god dedicated to vengeance. I feel like the whole world wants to take vengeance on me, for all the wrongs I’ve committed.”

“That’s not irony. That’s… I dunno, appropriate, somehow,” Daph says. She takes a swig from her water bottle and shouts toward the field. “Go get 'em, tigers!”

“Appropriate?” Alycia asks, with a raised eyebrow.

“Sure.” The big girl thinks about what she just said, and what she should say, and comes up with something after a moment. “Look, I might be a priestess, but I ain’t a priest. I won’t tell you to say Hail Mary 42 times and then absolve you of your sins. But the thing is, the people who seem to do the worst things in this world? They think they’re justified, you know? You got dictators and supervillains and jerks who cut you off in traffic, and they all think, ‘hey, it’s me, I deserve to get away with this’. But you don’t. You did some really awful things, and now you’re taking some heavy responsibility for it. What can I do to you that you aren’t already doing to yourself?”

Alycia mulls that over. “I suppose. But part of vengeance is satisfaction for the aggrieved, isn’t it. It’s my duty to help bring peace to my victims. And perhaps your duty too?”

Daph shrugs. “Maybe. But y’know, I guess I’m saying it’s okay for us to be friends because I got nothing I need to do to you. I think you’re on a good trajectory from a really bad place. That’s from what little I know, mind you.”

“Thank you. That’s hard to accept, but I’m grateful all the same that you’d say it.”

Daph shoulder-checks Alycia from where she sits. “You’re so moody, girl! Part of turning yourself around is letting yourself do regular things. Watch a movie. Host a tea party. Go skiing. Get laid. Keep a diary. Coach soccer. Whatever does it for you.”

Alycia is feeling a little more than she’s comfortable dealing with at the moment, and changes tacks. “You know, the rest of the world calls this football.”

Daph guffaws at this. “God, don’t get me started! The proper name for ‘football’ should be ‘hand-egg’ according to some people, but this is 'Murica. We’re the last holdout of the Imperial measurement system. We invent the boringest sports in the world. We celebrate games where the association covers up concussions in its players. So of course we have to call it something else. But I gotta call it what the parents want, so soccer it is.”

“I wouldn’t let this go. I suppose I’d make a terrible soccer coach,” Alycia muses.

Daph shrugs. “We can’t be good at everything. Not even the overachievers.”

“You think I’m an overachiever?” Alycia asks curiously.

Daph rolls her eyes. “Well I wasn’t thinking of you specifically, but since you called yourself out, sure, yeah, you are. You’re not a tryhard and you’re the farthest thing from a braggart, but yeah, you probably go harder than you should. It’s okay to dial it down. And you’re allowed suck at stuff. So what are you bad at?”

Alycia realizes she feels far more comfortable with a question like this than she ever has in her life. It’s a strange feeling, being allowed to fail. She struggles for words.

“Um, I’m bad at… interpersonal relationships. Or romantic relationships. I’m bad at… dancing. Except the tango. Don’t ask. Team sports. I am not a good cook, if I’m trying to make something pleasant rather than merely nutritious. I’m bad at casual conversation.”

“And you totally suck at talking about your feelings,” Daph prompts.

Alycia hangs her head. “Yes. That is true. Summer is trying to help me, but…”

Daph laughs lightly. “Shit, I don’t know anyone who is good at that. And you don’t either. I mean, yeah, Summer, but she’s just not normal no matter how ya look at it. And neither are we. We’re all a bunch of weirdos trying to navigate our way through Regular World, only Regular World is the weirdest thing ever. You have permission to be lousy at feelings.”

“I’m lousiest at them when they’re mine,” Alycia concedes. “I think I do okay when I can dispassionately analyze someone else’s situation.”

Daph rolls her eyes. “Great, a matchmaker. Fine, want to take a shot at analyzing me and Marion?”

Alycia sits up. “Is something going on between you two?”

She can see Daphne brighten up in self-satisfaction. “Oh, we’re actually getting on just fine, actually. You know, I realized why I like him so much.”

Alycia isn’t sure she’s actually that interested in hearing about Marion, and yet she’s very interested in hearing about Daph. Friendship wins out. “Do tell.”

“He’s… you know, authentic. The most authentic guy I know. He acts goofy and he’s a dope a lot of the time, but y’know, it’s not like he’s wearing a mask to hide some kind of agenda. People aren’t just toys or amusements to him. When you talk to him, you get raw, unfiltered Marion.”

“I personally wish he had a few filters,” Alycia admits acerbically.

Daph laughs this off. “He’s an acquired taste.” She licks her lips. “But I like the taste just fine.”

“Gods, please refrain from any further details,” Alycia begs, hands up in a defensive gesture.

In response, Daph elbows her. “Hey, I’m sure you have similar feelings about ya boy, Mr. Jason Quill. You can say you’re bad at relationships, but aren’t you two still together?”

“Well…” Alycia isn’t sure how much to say. “Yes. I mean, we both want to be. The relationship is, well, rocky right now, because of our mutual issues, but we’re negotiating it.”

“Good! That’s good.” Daph claps Alycia on the back. She pauses to stand up and yell out at the field. “Halftime, kids! Take a break. And hydrate!”

After sitting down, she grins. “I heard Colin and Summer split up, by the way. He went off to California for college and they’re not doing an LDR. You thinking of meddling with that?”

Alycia rolls her eyes. “I shouldn’t. But Summer becomes so mopey and maudlin when she doesn’t have someone to love. I’d get her a dog, if it wouldn’t keep our other roommate Leslie awake. And if she doesn’t have someone upon which to shower affection, she’ll target me.”

“And you’re the worst at having someone care about you,” Daph grins.

“She gets very… uh, huggy,” Alycia admits. “Perhaps I should do something about that after all…”

“Well, consider this my vengeance upon Summer for her sins.”

Alycia laughs. And by an entirely unexpected impulse, she finds herself rising from the bleachers and shouting at a pair of kids practicing during the break. “Good kick! Good job!”

She sits down, deeply confused and mortified, only to have Daph smile and pat her on the back.

1 Like

The video call comes in at a time when Leslie is asleep. Summer texts that she’ll have to call back, and starts thinking about where she can go that affords privacy. She settles for 3,000 feet in the air above the house. This call has to happen.

Colin’s face fills her screen, and Summer smiles at him.

“How is college going?”

The boy beams. “Good. Really good. I found an academic mentor and I’ve started working on the model. Right now I have CARD. Communication, Anticipation, Reflection, and Differentiation. We’re writing test cases for all the known sentients humanity recognizes, to see if the model works on our knowns, and then we’ll start looking outward for our unknowns.”

“That’s really exciting!” Summer enthuses. “I notice you didn’t include emotions or intelligence in there. Aren’t those central to personhood?”

“I don’t think so,” Colin says. “I have to think about people with alexithymia, anhedonia, and so on. Or beings without emotions. Or with emotions, but not our emotions. And adding some kind of intelligence metric means bringing back racism, like in ‘The Bell Curve’. People deserve respect no matter how smart they aren’t, because how we measure ‘smart’ is always culturally tainted.”

Summer smiles at the turn of phrase. “You’ve done marvelous work in such a short time, Colin. I really look forward to hearing how it develops.”

“I couldn’t have done it without you,” the young man admits. “And I mean that. I don’t want you thinking I’m not grateful, for all the time we spent together.”

“It’s okay, Colin. Halcyon is where my family is, and I can’t leave them. But UC Berkeley has the best program for your kind of work, and you made the right choice going there.”

Colin smiles strangely. “That’s true, but, honestly, I think we kind of went our own ways without really talking about why. And I wanted to talk to you about it.”

Summer feels her emotions in turmoil, but nods. “I think it’s good to share feelings. Go ahead.”

She can see Colin’s own struggle, as he pushes past his reluctance. “I think if I was around you while doing this work, I’d be too dependent on you. I’d kind of see you like an oracle or goddess, and just defer to whatever you said. It’s really important to listen, but I think I wouldn’t be critically listening, if that makes sense.”

Summer swallows a lump and nods. “It does.”

“And as much as you mean to me - meant to me? I mean, I still have… anyway. As much as that relationship was a strength, I don’t think you want to be put on that kind of pedestal. And as much as this sounds unflattering, if I had to choose between honestly, an amazing girlfriend, and this work, I had to choose the work.”

The lump comes back, and Summer smiles tearfully. “That is honestly the best thing you could say to me, Colin. And I want to tell you part of the reason why.”

Colin, relieved that his revelation has gone so well so far, nods in invitation.

“We fought the Atlanteans recently. I mean, my team, but like, everybody too, you know. We’re going to be treating them like the enemy for a long time. We’re going to be making jokes like ‘gone fishing’ or whatever. We’ll be… well, not dehumanizing them, but depersonalizing them. The work you do won’t just help sentient robots. It’ll help all sentients, everywhere, get recognition as people. It’ll help transform hate into acceptance. And that’s really important to me, because um, because of a decision I made recently.”

“What decision?”

Summer takes a breath. “I’m going to be living openly as a robot. I’ll keep my human appearance, but I’m going to stop deceiving people. I’ll tell people at work, because I think they deserve to know. And if I meet new people, I’ll try to introduce myself in a way that makes it clear.”

Colin takes this in slowly, and the implications dawn on him one by one. “If anyone gives you grief, you let me know and I’ll fly back out and take care of it,” he offers.

Summer laughs at this, but it warms her heart. “I have a long list of people ready to stab or run over miscreants on my behalf, as you know. But I’ll let you know.”

“It feels really weird to be part of that group, now that we-- now that… you know,” he says, fumblingly. “But you’re worth the world, Summer. You deserve to be treated like a princess.”

“I’ll settle for being treated with all the respect I deserve. But you always managed that.”

“It was my honor. Tell me how it goes, and I’ll tell you how CARD is going.”

She can feel Colin has reached the end of his emotional rope. “I will. I should let you go, though, shouldn’t I.”

“Don’t put it that way. How about, let’s talk again later,” he grins.

She wants to say love you, but she settles for something else. “Good luck with everything, Colin. Stay in touch.”

The call ends, and Summer sighs to herself.

Lonely again.

She stares at the phone in her hand, and smiles in warm recollection.

I can do this. He believes in me. I’m gonna make him proud.

As a side note, this is Colin’s list of CARD criteria!

  • Communication: the willingness to exchange information with others (note: willingness, not ability)
  • Anticipation: a sense of the world around it and the ability to model proposed actions via that sense
  • Reflection: a consideration of its actions and existence which may lead to behavioral changes
  • Differentiation: distinguishing oneself in appearance, behavior, position, etc. from others of its kind

And now onward with the epilogue

Nono has never been inside a real, proper, supervillain lair before. Well, once before, but that feels different somehow. She helped blow that one up.

It’s not what she expected. She kind of thought there’d be more, well, death rays and holding cells and torture devices and all that. But it’s just a bunch of those big shipping bricks they carry on cargo ships and trucks, emptied out and filled with cheap furnishings.

The real supervillain is here though. Nono has read about him. He doesn’t really hurt people, not usually, but the authorities have been after him forever. He’s big, sure enough, and bald, and covered in what look like tattoos. He’s reclining in what looks like a very comfortable La-Z-Boy chair.

“You must be Nono. I’m Mr. Big. If Hot Mess vouches for you, then you’re entitled to hospitality and protection here.”

Nono would have been terrified a year ago. Now? Now it just feels like another of those unreal things that kind of happens to her, you know, every day. “Pleased to meet you, sir.”

“Hey, that’s kinda what I came to ask you about, boss,” Emma says. “We’ve been globetrotting for awhile, living out of hotel rooms and such. But uh, what’s the skinny on settling down? I know the basics - bases are meant to be expendable and all that - but like, any contacts I can lift from you? People in the area I can get the shipping containers from for cash, that kinda thing?”

Mr. Big flashes a big grin. “Sure, I’ll hook you up. Oh hey. Heard anything from Samir and his gang?”

Emma growls. “Fuckers sold me out. I’m gonna get them, first time I hear a peep. But they were reliable for awhile.”

The villain nods knowingly. “‘Wise are they who have learned these truths: Trouble is temporary. Time is tonic. Tribulation is a test tube.’ William Arthur Ward, author. What did you learn from the experience?”

Emma is still scowling, but has a ready answer. “Henchmen get paid. But anyone can pay henchmen. I don’t buy loyalty, I buy time.”

“You got it. Anyone working for money is working for money, not for you.” Mr. Big’s smile is wide and proud. “Now what else? You didn’t drag your girlfriend all the way up here just for that.”

“You’re right.” Emma rubs her hands together. “Hey, uh, so I’ve been working with AEGIS people here and there, like, well, a lot. And a superhero. Well, quite a few superheroes. I’m worried I’m losing my villain cred. I just kinda want to know where I stand.”

“You doing what you feel like doing, for your own reasons, public opinion be damned?” asks Mr. Big.

“Always, boss.”

“You proud of the work you’re doing, anyone else’s preference be damned?”

Emma pauses, and nods her head quickly. “Yeah, I am.”

Mr. Big hops out of the chair and procures a baseball bat, leaning up against one wall. Nono is suddenly very worried, but Emma doesn’t seem to be. So she rides out her fears, and watches.

The villain taps one shoulder, then the other, with the tip of the baseball bat. “Well in the name of God, Saint Michael, and Saint George, I dub thee a proper supervillain. Go do whatever the fuck you want, with whoever you want, Hot Mess.”

Nono can see Emma almost vibrating with excitement and joy as the baseball bat gets tossed back in the corner. “About that, boss–”

“Hey, no more ‘boss’. We’re equals now. Respect.”

“Okay. Uh, Mr. Big. I was thinking about a new code name. I feel like…” Emma turns and smiles warmly at Nono, before looking back at her mentor with determined eyes. “I ain’t so much of a mess any more.”

“Got anything in mind?” the man asks.

“Not yet.”

Mr. Big nods. “Well when you pick something out, let me know. I’ll spread the word in the community.”

Impulsively, Emma rushes forward and hugs the big man. He returns the gesture, careful not to squeeze too hard, and grins down at her. “You done good, kid. You made me proud.”


Emma and Nono are passing time at an arcade in the city. Emma is operating the claw machine, while Nono is nearby, collecting tickets from an old skee-ball game. Her aim is dramatically better with all the training she’s been undergoing, and she marvels at the ease with which she’s doing something she’d have thought impossible a year ago.

“How about you?” Emma asks absently.

“How about me what?”

“Code name.”

“What’s wrong with Agent R?”

“Sounds like Agent Orange.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s an old poison gas thing.” Emma shrugs. “The Americans dropped it on Vietnam. A million people got sick.”

“I think that’s an accent thing,” Nono says. “You say arr-ange. I say o-range.”

“Whatever. Come up with something better.”

Nono lobs the ball into the ring, getting another 100 points. Tickets obligingly pour out of the machine. “You’re stalling. You can’t think of anything clever, so you want to leech off my good ideas.”

“Yeah. So?” Emma kicks the crane machine, and drops another quarter into it. “Nothing wrong with stealing, all good supervillains do it.”

“Good supervillains have clever ideas. And you’re a good supervillain. So come on. Who are you?”

Emma sighs. “Who I am is annoyed. But fine. Must strike terror into the hearts of law enforcement. Must be short and phonetic and easy to say over radio. Must be exceedingly witty so the news fawns over my cleverness and ignores my numerous war crimes and human rights violations.”

“Must mention your powers?” prompts Nono.

“Actually, no. A lot of good names are about your philosophy or your goal or your history. Think about our team. Charade. SNOWMAN. Tells you nothing about their powers.”

“Okay, okay. So…?”

“Stop hounding me,” Emma mutters, and misses her target in the crane game again. “Dammit.”

“‘Dammit’ is a terrible code name.”

Emma sighs and throws up her hands. “Were you drinking? Did you order anything at the bar upstairs?”

“Maybe a little,” Nono admits, and giggles.

“Okay, fine. Listen. I have a pick. I just don’t know how I feel about it. So promise you won’t laugh. Or I’ll burn this place down.”

“Hit me.”

“Firebrand.”

Nono pauses, and looks it up on her phone. “One who creates unrest or strife (as in aggressively promoting a cause). Agitator.” She grins. “Yeah, sounds totally like you.”

“You skipped over the first definition which was ‘piece of burning wood’.”

Nono shrugs. “I knew what you meant. It’s a good name. Why don’t you like it?”

Emma sighs. She abandons the crane game, and drops a quarter into a nearby Capcom vs. machine. “It sounds like a superhero name, kinda.”

Nono gives up on skee-ball and contributes her own quarter, joining as Player 2. “You can be my hero, and everyone else’s villain, Firebrand.”

“I’m gonna kick your ass for calling me a hero.”

“Yeah, by cheesing Morrigan.”

“You know what they call cheese melted at high heat? Fondue.”

“How about you fon-don’t.”

“That was good, Nono. Now die horribly at the hands of my succubus.”

The match begins, and both girls take the controls with deliriously happy grins.

Alex Gemini Shelby is camped out in Plateau Station, deep in the Antarctic. The ice has been melted out, the water drained, and heat and power restored. Predictably, they’ve got their laptop up and running.

Otto is parked outside, his engine connected to the station and providing the juice.

Miles away, Big Bill and Mo are working on excavating Pyrrhus Chin’s former base. Stone by stone, rock by rock, Mo’s crane configuration lifts rubble out of the collapsed base. There’s a radio link connecting the four, and Alex is DJing some music in the background to keep everyone from getting bored out of their mind.

“Fuckin’ Stone Builders,” Otto comments, out of the blue.

“What?” Alex is missing something.

“The Atlanteans. They said there’s some dudes called the Stone Builders from a million years ago. The Atlanteans inherited their tech. And this city down here was made by them.”

“Huh. So like, they could manipulate stone and stuff? We saw some crazy shit in this base.”

“Sounds like it. Be nice if we had that. It’d make this job go a lot faster.”

Alex thinks about that. They don’t think too hard - it would distract from the vitally necessary task they’re on right now. Alex knows where the EMP bombs were planted back on that day. They know that John Black must have set one off manually - close enough to touch. They know, roughly, the layout of the base. They were monitoring seismic activity when it all went down. That means it should be possible to place John’s last position. That’ll go faster than just digging the entire base out, which would take a lifetime.

I gotta be smarter I gotta be smarter I gotta be smarter. I can do this I can do this I can do this.

Presently, Big Bill comes on the radio. “Dumping ground’s gettin’ full. I’m going to move some of this rubble out to make room.”

“Roger,” confirms Otto.

Alex finds themselves growing increasingly agitated. Finally they push the laptop away and reach for a thermos of coffee, ready at hand. One sip and they put it back - this isn’t what they need.

What they need is to say something.

“Hey, gang. Can I ask you guys about yourselves?”

Big Bill is first to answer. “Why sure, what do you wanna know?”

“Like. You’re all not really mental clones, but you share some wiring right? I mean metaphorically.”

“Yeah,” says Otto. “We’re all a remix. New composition, same starting ingredients. There’s gonna be some similarities.”

Alex presses forward before fear catches up. “So like, you’d know what John is really like.”

Otto laughs over the radio. “Oh sure. He’s a direct mental clone of the boss. No remix, just younger and rougher.”

Alex rubs their hands together in growing apprehension. “Like, he talks about Pneuma all the god damn time. I met both of them - Aria and Summer, right? The twins? Like, he knows they’re separate people right?”

“That’s a complicated situation,” Otto says. “They weren’t when he was imprinted. He’s still carrying a torch, but he hasn’t quite learned lessons that Leo had to. So mostly that’s his regret and frustration talking, I’d say.”

“So, like, uh. Um. Is he ever, y’know, gonna find someone else, maybe?”

There’s a pause, and Otto comes back on the line, his tone a little more knowing. “You volunteering?”

“Ye-- I mean, I’m just asking, hypothetically.”

Otto laughs. “Don’t ask hypothetically. Say what you mean.”

Alex sighs. “I’ve known John for awhile. We broke into Rook Industries, we were on a team with Charade, we did all this wild superspy stuff. And I guess, uh… yeah, I wouldn’t kick him out of the server room if he wanted to colocate.”

“And you want to know if you got a shot.”

“I guess.” Alex hangs their head. This is humiliating beyond measure. The burning of their cheeks could thaw the continent.

“Well, ask him.”

“What?”

Otto repeats himself. “Ask him. Leo Snow appreciates directness. He’s really empathetic but he’s also wired pretty weird, and he can miss details. Shit, even Alycia Chin had a bit of a thing for him. I never told nobody that.”

Alex is gobsmacked. “Are you fucking with me?”

“Nope. She’s got Jason Quill, good for her, J-Bear’s good people, but I could tell there was a little bit of something there. But the boss will never ever figure it out. So you gotta say your piece, because otherwise your guy is just gonna coast through life blissfully ignorant.”

“What if he’s not interested?”

Mo comes on the line for the first time in hours. “Then suck it up.”

Big Bill chimes in. “What my brother means to say is, not everything is guaranteed to work out.”

“Pretty sure he meant to say ‘suck it up’,” Otto remarks. “But that’s the more polite version, for sure. Seriously, Leo and Aria and Summer are all pretty love starved when they don’t have someone, and John won’t be any different. Take your shot, we’ll back ya up if ya need.”

“What brought this on anyhow?” asks Big Bill.

Alex is ready to go back to the laptop, but can answer this while working. “I guess, uh, I’m getting tired of just being the team hacker-bot, whether that’s for AEGIS or Charade. I want a life again. On my own terms. Maybe that means a relationship, maybe that means a place to live that’s mine. Some kind of thing to do that isn’t just staring at screens and dismantling poor security and forging SAML assertions, you know?”

“I actually don’t know what SAML assertions are, but I get the idea.” Otto rumbles over the radio. “You want what the boys and I have, which is the Garage, the superhero rescue gig we got going on, a thing that’s ours and just ours.”

“Yeah.”

“Well tell ya what. You help us, we’ll help you with that.”

Alex perks up. “How can I help?”

“Hire us a housekeeper. The whole place went to shit when ninja attacked. And you got us on this job, so we don’t have time to clean anything up. Also, doing dishes sucks.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

The work in progress for Vyortovia’s New University is informed by the team’s ordeals. But it feels good to put lessons learned into some kind of concrete form.

Harry’s contribution is insight into team dynamics. The most important thing, he says, is enthusiastic willingness to communicate. He cites work done at MIT, research from the ASIST program, and his own experiences. “Everything - like leadership and hierarchies and all that - comes out of a team that communicates,” he writes.

Charlotte contributes copies of her book, both to the proctor and to the Vyortovian library. It is, as far as she knows, the most complete summary of the Hidden Family of the Vyortovian Throne. And she is exceedingly grateful when the Dread Queen offers her a copy in return, autographed by herself and her son, crown prince Gunnhvatr Azurblárson.

Jason’s suggested curriculum for studying the exchanges of power between governments and corporations is dense, lush with details, elaborately footnoted, and has immaculate citations. But it starts with a quote from the film “Metropolis”: “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart.” Philo Pemberton is present, but his dominant superior Jackson Frost isn’t.

But it’s Annette Worthington’s contribution - a mysterious document from the mysterious girl - that really sparks his interest. “There’s a lot of emphasis on measurable metrics here,” he says, reading over the draft. “This is a very technocratic approach. I don’t mean that as criticism, but do you think that’s essential?”

“When you’re the priestess of the Cybergod, I suppose your perspective must be skewed.”

The what?

Alycia learns to her great surprise that the mystery teammate, Resister, is the Crown Prince of Vyortovia. She and Daph worked together on their contribution, and find his to be easy to integrate. The curriculum discusses learned charisma, both to democratize the power to influence people and to inoculate people against influence from others, by letting them recognize the signs of its use. Daph’s particular contribution is about understanding power disparities, and recognizing ways to rebalance relationships, and Alycia is proud of her friend when she sees Prince Gunnhvatr nodding in approval as he reads it.

Leo isn’t in shape to add to the work right now, but Aria has taken his notes on bootstrapping micro-societies, and designed a model. Summer’s report on the underwater city of Tranquility inspired her. What if they could replicate that sort of thing here? Take the Leviathan habitat modules, blow them way the hell up? What if you built a city that was basically a huge mechanical squid? It could happen. Underwater living spaces, located in international waters, would allow for a great deal of independence. The Leviathan fabrication line Jason put together is already there. They’d just need to make some adjustments…

Colin dropped out of the program to go to UC Berkeley. Adam frets about this when he and Summer meet to discuss their assignment, but Summer’s smile puts him at ease immediately. “What you said that day - about people who don’t know talking over people who do - was a good thing, Adam. It got Colin thinking about how much he knew, or didn’t know. So instead of creating a curriculum here, he’s learning more. He made the right choice. And you helped me too, when you said people would listen to Radiance. You helped me figure out a path forward.”

“But you guys separated,” Adam protests.

“Sometimes that’s the right thing to do,” Summer says softly. “Aria got back with Leo, but that could never have happened if Pneuma hadn’t left him in the first place. That doesn’t mean I’ll get back with Colin. It does mean our time together was good for both of us.”

“As long as it was your choice, I guess.” Adam is still uncertain, but Summer lays a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“There’s a thing the robot hero of an old cartoon said. ‘Freedom is the right of all sentient beings.’ I have my freedom. And I have you to thank for it.”

The group convenes for lunch. This time, nobody suggests Icelandic cuisine. Vyortovia has helpfully brought in more outside restaurants, to everyone’s profound relief.

The team exchanges stories and banter. Everyone feels a little older, a little wearier, and not much wiser. But they all feel more assured of themselves than they did when first coming here. Maybe that’s what growing up is really about.

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Rosa Rook is running a meeting. In attendance are the department heads of her current initiative. Annika de Groot is present, to her own moderate surprise.

“We’re here to review the HCRP, the Halcyon City Reclamation Project,” Rook announces briskly.

Printouts are distributed to the executives. Each of them read, and understand. Some gasp. Others nod in grim affirmation.

“To be very blunt, as usual, we are taking over the city,” Rook says.

“The Atlanteans, per our agreement, destroyed official records of all kinds. That includes state and local property ownership. As we held many of the offsite backups used by the relevant government agencies and private businesses, we are able to manipulate those documents. Rook will have legal title to 68.3% of Halcyon properties.”

One executive speaks up. “But many people know they own their own land! How will we handle that?”

Another, from the legal team, answers. “Those cases will go to trial, of course. Those trials will be assigned to our judges. When they aren’t, our attorneys can tie the cases up for years - long enough to bankrupt all but the most stubborn and well-heeled litigant.”

“How are we shielding ourselves from liability?” another asks.

Rook nods in acknowledgement. “That’s not part of the handout, for obvious reasons.”

She operates her laptop, and the screen behind her lights up. The executives can see some kind of biomedical tank, in which is floating a haphazardly formed humanoid figure.

“Atlantean bioscience. We didn’t get all of it - they capitulated to the military far too quickly, based on our projections. But we got enough.”

Rook clicks through more displays on the big screen. “The Atlantean ‘Blood’ process showed great promise for blending the best of both worlds - human and non-human, even merging human DNA with creatures that aren’t remotely close in the evolutionary tree.”

More slides. “We sent our team to Dinosaur Island to retrieve genetic samples. They brought back the King.”

A picture of a Tyrannosaurus appears. “Superior sight, hearing, and smell, comparable to hawks and hunting dogs. The largest brain of non-avian dinosaurs. Pack instincts - but a willingness to turn on their own if necessary.”

An org chart comes on screen. “I present to you the legal owners of future Halcyon City. Tyran Enterprises, led by our creation in progress, Rex Tyran.”

Rook’s eyes narrow. “Previous executives made bold promises, failed us, and paid the price. But they were only human. This time, we’re doing better.”

She looks from face to face, reading their support for this endeavor. “This time, there’ll be nobody to stop us.”

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And that is it for the epilogue, and for Phase 2 as a whole :smiley:

Oh my, so many stories to wrap things up.

Ahh, the whole Radiance Rebirth project makes sense now. Very interesting. That said…

Why do I feel like this is setting something up in that wheelhouse? :thinking:

Oh, a new name for Hot Mess. Fun. And now I can have fun with Hot Mess being a target in one deck (say and environment) and Firebrand as the hero deck.

Plus I get the fun of putting something like “I used to be a Mess but ” as a quote to act like a jokey callback to her first name. :slight_smile:

Happy Jeremy Renner GIF

…I see what you did there.

A huge floating city in the sea? It’d never work. :stuck_out_tongue:

Jeez, I was curious about the canon-ness of the Pidgeverse and then you make Dinosaur Island a major plot point for Phase 3.

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It’s a mystery. Why would I, a software guy, want to introduce an enigmatic being called the Cybergod into fiction I’m writing for my mechanical heroes to interact with? :thinking:

This has been in the cards since I originally pitched Rex Tyran. I knew I had to get away from Rosa Rook in the story, but at the same time she wasn’t the sort of character to just go quietly into the night. So having her literally create her legally distinct replacement as a successor made perfect sense.

the rock maui GIF

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