It took about three months of calendar time, maybe twenty bot-days of actual labor, to excavate a path through the rubble of Pyrrhus’ Antarctic base and find the likely resting spot of John Black, aka SNOWMAN.

Mo and Big Bill Newman sent their human shells through the narrow passage. Alex watched from Otto’s well-heated interior as Mo Newman’s tow cable reeled and reeled and reeled. They came out with something much less than an intact human body.

Alex watched the video feed from the next room, as Otto performed something between an autopsy and a resurrection. Leo was still in therapy, and Aria was with him, but they would eventually want to hear all this. So it was being recorded.

“What we got here is a standard Newman-type robot shell, heavily modified,” Otto announced. “Limbs are totally gone. About 45% of the torso has been eaten away by what we figure is nanotech attack. Pyrrhus must have been literally chewing on him when the bomb went off.”

“No ionic reservoir, no coolant, the whole damn thing’s electrically neutral and desiccated. No charge in the graphene power cells. The whole electrical harness was totally taken out by point-blank EMP blast. Our boy took a tactical nuke to the face.”

“Head is damaged but intact. We’re just gonna pop this thing open, and…”

“Okay. Brain enclosure is fully intact. Whew. The electronics for access are blown to hell of course, but the STF mediation layer looks like it protected the actual brain from concussion. We’re gonna have to strip off the externals. This shell is a total write-off anyway. Bill, get the electronics kit. Mo, we’re gonna drop him into one of the spare shells for now. Got a preference? … Anything but yours, got it. I’ll donate one of mine.”

“Okay. Back in the saddle. We fabricated a new access layer, built for Rossum Digital Neural Format, version 5. Stand by with the fire extinguisher, Mo, we’re gonna plug this in…”

Alex tensed as a shower of sparks filled the operating room.

“Yeah that did not work. Let’s see where we are… access layer shit itself, good job me. Might be a residual charge in the STF, it’s mildly conductive. Alright, another two hours of soldering, boys.”

“Access layer is intact. Okay. So here’s what we’re gonna do. Leo, I think this is a good idea, tell me when you hear this if I fucked up. We have a baseline, in the form of me. We’re gonna do a Heart Gauge ping on the brain here, just to see what kind of divergence we’ve got. I figure 65% or above means we have an intact connectome. Anything below that, well, that’s bad news for ol’ John Black I figure.”

Alex reached out, ready to turn off the video feed from the operating room. Their hand stopped. This was too much to listen to. Or was it?

They lacked the courage to listen. But they lacked the will to stop.

Time passed.

“68.2%. We have a viable connectome. Guy’s pretty fucked up emotionally, but he’s there. Time to go fishin’.”

Alex let out a breath they didn’t know they were holding.

“Alright. Heart Factory transfer ready. A connection solid. B connection solid. No mix, just blit. ETA 25 seconds. Come on, baby, hold together…”

Alex watched the waiting shell, a perfect replica of Otto Newman’s human form, as John Black’s soul poured into it.

The Heart Factory pinged completion.

The shell opened its eyes and screamed.

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A week passed, during which the boys at the Garage got to work on a replacement shell for John. It would be a bare-bones, workaday thing, enough for him to get around and be functional. Later on, they might talk about improvements.

Mentally, he was recuperating from the stress of being devoured alive by a nanotech swarm, not knowing if the swarm or the EMP or the collapse of the cavern would be his death. One moment he was there. The next he’d been snatched away and placed into a new body.

Alex was not invited to involve themselves at this stage.

“I’m really good with computers! And he’s like, a computer brain, right?” they’d argued.

“We’re working via the Heart Factory on his recovery,” Otto had explained, patiently enough. “But that’s something the boss has not cleared you for. I trust and respect ya, but not on this. Besides, you’re gonna be distracted by fretting over him. Go be useful to someone instead of bein’ emotional at a guy who doesn’t handle it very well to begin with.”

Alex didn’t like it. But they went.

“I’m two to your one, big guy,” John said one day, out of the blue. He was laying on a table and cabled up to the Heart Factory. He’d been quiet until then.

“Oh? How do ya mean?” Otto asked. He was staring at a series of indicators, noting neurological health, but had mental capacity to engage in conversation.

“I was the instrument that took out Rossum at last. And I took out Pyrrhus. All you got is Rossum at 13. So I’m one up on you.”

Otto snorted. “Hey, I helped Alycia out in the bad future - the ‘Quillverse’, I guess.”

“I don’t know that one,” grumbled John.

Otto told him the story. And John smiled at the end. “That wasn’t you then. That was Botto.”

“It’s technically another me,” Otto protested, looking up from his displays for the first time.

“Another you, yeah,” John announced smugly. “But not you. I was personally involved twice.”

Otto scoffed. “Yeah but was Rossum really your idea?”

“Doesn’t matter, does it? I was there.”

“Oh, so intention doesn’t count? Just you experienced it?”


Otto asked what he already knew was a heavily loaded question. He wanted to see where his patient stood, mentally. So why not?

“Fine. Would you have done it again?”

John stopped.

I don’t build weapons. I build friends.

I was a weapon.

“Given the choice?” he asked at long last.

The turn of phrase caught the threads of his thought, and wound them together, braiding idle talk into a realization. “Given the choice,” he repeated, examining the sound of it.

“I was always about taking Rossum down, wasn’t I? I was just being picky about how. I had a way I wanted to do it. Like, big showdown, confrontation, my family against his horde of robots. And he’d y’know, see the error of his ways, come around, try to atone.”

Otto listened. Now that the floodgates were opened, there was nothing he needed to say.

“He wanted me to come around, didn’t he. Be the general for his armies. Show them. He was gonna show them all. And I was gonna show him.”

“AEGIS didn’t care about that bullshit. They just wanted him dealt with. So they used me, did it their way. But it’s still done, isn’t it. Nobody got killed. Nobody got seriously hurt - except me, but shit, I’m still kicking and ticking.”

John looked up at Otto. “None of us had a choice, did we. I made you. My father - and let’s be honest, Ted Waters - turned me into a weapon anyway. They were competing to see who got to pull the trigger. Waters won. All of us came into the world at the behest of someone else. All of us had to fight for the right to make a choice.”

Otto nodded, a warm smile on his lips. “Sounds good. You know who or what you’re gonna fight for now, and how you’re gonna do it?”

John flexed a hand experimentally. “Yeah. Well, no. Not yet. This shell won’t cut it. But I gotta talk to Rossum. I got shit to say. And I got a question for him.”

Otto raised an eyebrow. “He’s in AEGIS custody. That won’t be easy.”

It was John’s turn to snort in disbelief. “The fuck you think I’ve been doing for the last year? Ain’t nothing been easy, brother.”

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Agent Parker was a senior-level individual with a good record. Alex Gemini Shelby was a junior agent in technically good standing, depending on how closely you read their psychological assessment reports. It took some doing, but the “special associate”-slash-“necessary equipment” status John Black had “enjoyed” while working with Alex did the trick.

The trio arrived at the cell. Before anyone could speak, the imprisoned inventor’s eyes lit up immediately. “I know you,” he said. “The android.”

“There’s a lot of androids now,” John retorted. But in spite of his new shell and altered appearance, he knew that Rossum knew. There was no fooling the old man.

“Our friend here has a question for you,” Parker prompted. “As usual, we expect you to be cooperative.”

“Cooperative with whom?” Rossum asked slyly. “Oh, they don’t let me have television here. Nothing electronic, of course. But I’m being given into someone else’s custody. It’s not Rosa Rook - but it’s someone AEGIS is just as worried about.”

Alex glanced at Parker, who gave the slightest of approving nods. With that, they explained. “Tyran Enterprises is taking over governance of several supervillains. Including - especially - ones who’ve eluded AEGIS custody before.”

Rossum sighed. “Tyran Enterprises? Never heard of them. That means it’s a front for Rook, as usual. Well, I warned the boy. Whether it’s Rosa or Saito, or the President of the United States, or the Martians, whoever’s got me is going to try and make use of me.”

He glanced around with a sly smile. “At least AEGIS never asked me to build weapons for them. What a missed opportunity. I suspect you lot have gone soft.”

Parker merely nodded at John. “Time for your question. I’m not here to play his mind games.”

John took the prompting, and focused his attention on Rossum.

“You wanted to use me - use Leo - your own son - whatever. Anyway. Your plan was to turn him into ‘general of your armies’. Somehow replicate his fighting genius into a machine.”

Rossum nodded. “Indeed. What of it?”

John narrowed his eyes. “If that bomb didn’t happen, would I have been good enough?”

A smile crossed the villain’s face. “Tell me where that question came from, and I’ll answer it.”

John pieced together his reasoning. “So… I’m an exact copy of Leo. Your son. Otto and Pneuma, they didn’t think of you like dad, but I do. Difference is, I don’t have that fighting talent you wanted. So I guess, with this whole clone thing going on, I thought about those forks in the road, y’know? Like, what if AEGIS hadn’t put a bomb in me. What if they’d just given you someone who would work as your son - but not the weapon? You’ve said you love your son. Fine. I’ll take you at your word. You’re an abusive dickbag and I wouldn’t have been happy, but like, for purposes of this question we’ll ignore that. So what about it?”

Rossum leans back against the cell wall, coolly collecting his thoughts.

“We - Leo and myself, and even you, my boy, - are the Descendants of Daedalus. I don’t mean that we have some kind of genetic lineage, although it’s conceivable. No. I mean that we enact the myths of olden time, about larger than life heroes - haha, to clarify here, I mean ‘hero’ in the sense of those who do legendary deeds, not ‘good people’, don’t get tetchy. Anyway.”

“I’m sure you know the story. Daedalus and his son Icarus are imprisoned by King Minos of Crete. But Daedalus is an unparalleled craftsman. He constructs wings out of feathers and wax. Together, father and son take flight, seeking freedom across the Aegean Sea.”

“Icarus was warned not to fly too high or too low. But he disobeyed, and as he approached the sun, its heat melted the wax. The feathers fell away, and then so did Icarus.”

Rossum folded his hands. “Some people say this myth is the first reference to hypergenius. The trait does not breed well - the children of geniuses accumulate mental instability across generations - so perhaps ‘the fall’ is metaphorical. Many people use it as a parable on the dangers of hubris, which frankly Greek myth already had in abundance.”

“I have another view. People like us have a talent. People in power will wish to control it. There’s nothing for us to do but use our talent to escape that control.”

John’s fists balled up without his consciously realizing it. “What about you, old man? You wanted to control me. So I’m justified in everything I did to escape you, right?!”

“You were and you are,” Rossum said softly.

John felt his hands unclench. He wasn’t sure what to say. In the silence, Rossum spoke again.

“In our story, it was Daedalus, the father, that let his hubris carry him to destruction. It was the Icarus, Leo Snow - and you - that flew to the safety of a good life, on the right side of the law, with friends and allies for protection. I didn’t realize it at the time. I had learned how the powerful dominate the talented early on. I tried to teach you. I failed, because how I went about it was wrong. I became that powerful controlling force in spite of myself. Taking you away, educating you in strategy and tactics - forcing AEGIS to come stop me, by any means necessary at the end of it. I thought I knew how to be your mentor in the true nature of hypergenius - that it turns us into tools - and I was wrong.”

Rossum gestured around him, at the cell. “Here I am. Still alive, to be sure. But my wings are plucked. I will never fly again.”

“To answer your question, then, if it had been you, the android, rather than my biological son Leo? You wouldn’t have needed my protection. There’d be nobody to exploit your genius. To be sure, they’d want to dismantle you, study you, reverse engineer this marvelously affordable technology you devised. That would be an undignified end. But it wouldn’t be servitude.”

“If I’d had Leo’s spark of genius in my robots, we would have been free. Nobody could have forced us into a laboratory, to build more weapons for them. And I’ve have had my son. But if it had been you? I’d still have a son.”

Rossum let out a long sigh, and met John’s gaze. “Believe what you want about me. But I think, as the man I am now, I’d have been content with a son, living quietly in the equivalent of Daedalus’ Sicily. I’d have the good memories of my wife, embodied in our child. And saving that tiny spark of myself, that little seed of goodness, from destruction was what I needed most of all.”

John turned away to leave, only to be halted by Rossum’s final question.

“Do you have a name?”

He turned back, and saw something like earnestness in the eyes of the man he remembered as father.

“John Black.”

Rossum smiled strangely. “Fitting. Well, John. This may be the last time you’re allowed to see me. But I’ll warn you. If I’m right, we may be enemies again before long. My new masters may have me building things meant to be aimed at you.”

John smirked, but there was no malice or fear in it. “Do your worst, old man. They ain’t found a way to kill me yet.”

John was working intently on one of the laptops. Alex was loitering nearby, sunglasses on like usual, checking their phone like usual. Otto and the boys were out on a rescue mission. The Garage was theirs for the afternoon.

“Kinda quiet,” the hacker said, too casually.

“Yeah,” John mumbled, eyes still glued to the screen.

“Nono and Emma are off doing whatever Nono and Emma do during downtime…”


“…And Alycia is off with Jason, figuring out their mutual deal…”


“…Leaving just us.”

“Looks that way,” John said absently.

“Just like old times,” prompted Alex.

“What do you think about CROW?” John asked suddenly.

Alex blinked. “Uh, they’re smart corvids, kinda cool, with a–”

“Carbon Reinforced Offensive Weaponry.”

“Oh. I dunno, I’m not really into military-type acronyms.”

John looked up, surprised. “Really? I’d have thought you’d be right at home with them. Aren’t you surrounded by them all the time?”

Alex’s grin came back. “That’s why I’m not into them, compadre.”

“I see your point.” The android went back to his laptop.

Alex didn’t go back to their phone, but scowled at themselves. It was time to try a new–

“Shadow Seven it is,” John announced.


He looked up, staring at Alex through the sunglasses. “I have to build a new shell. It’ll be seventh gen, intended for infiltration and black ops, so I’m looking for a good designation. I don’t think Leo ever developed gen-5 so I’ll be incorporating that too.”

Alex blinked. “Uh, Shadow Seven sounds cool. So what’s in it?”

John pivoted the laptop around for inspection, showing the specialized CAD software the Garage was using for robot design. “Grappling system, dual-use Skyhooks. Holographic surface, camouflage, tactical suite, extended sensors, and yeah, even weapons. No more Mr. Nice Guy.”

You’re one of the nicest guys ever, Alex thought stubbornly to themselves. You’ve just been hurt by everyone you ever trusted.

He’d asked Otto to ask Summer for some specs on her setup.

“Ask her yourself,” Otto had advised.

“I dunno, man, things are still kinda uncool,” John had demurred.

“Fine. But if you’re gonna mope, don’t do it in the Garage. You bring down the whole vibe.”


He was reviewing the data he’d received from that inquiry, when a peculiar message came through on his email.

“If you ever get lonely
And just want to cry
Take a chance on this message
And send a reply”

John scowled, moved the email window away, tried to keep working, brought it back.

What the hell?

“Alex!” he bellowed.

“Yeah, sup?” asked the hacker, from another room in the Garage. They trotted over.

John pointed irritably at the message on the screen. “Somebody’s sending me weird stuff. There’s no name on it. There’s no links or ads or anything, so I don’t think it’s spam. You said something about a fishing attack, right?”

“Yeah, phishing,” Alex said noncommittally. “But that usually invites you to click a link, and it’s constructed to look like another type of message, from someone you know. Spammers will use throwaway accounts. So if they want you to reply, maybe it’s a real account? How about answering them?”

John shook his head. “No way. I’m supposed to be way under the radar. Nobody who I don’t know should be reaching out to me. This is suspicious. Can you check this out, and if you can’t figure it out, find a way to block it?”

For a moment, John wasn’t sure what to make of Alex’s facial expression. But finally they came back with an answer. “Sure, ah. I can do anything with computers, can’t I. Just uh, give me your email credentials and I can sign into your account–”

“Here,” John said, and pushed the laptop across the table. “Just use this. I need to go for a walk to clear my head anyway.”

Alex tentatively accepted the laptop, and turned it to face them. “Sure, bud. Hope you feel better soon.”

John Black was sitting in lotus in a cleared-out spot on the ground, plugged into a machine, when Alex dropped by. His eyes were closed and his body was motionless.

Big Bill was playing Gradius on the gaming console. Otto and Mo were out on a mission.

“What’s he doing?” Alex asked, gesturing at John.

“That’s the Gen-4 VR rig,” Bill explained without looking. “The three of us use it for training simulations, rescue practice an’ whatnot.”

“What’s he using it for?”

“Guess you could check.” Bill motioned at the machine with an elbow.

Alex took the hint, and sauntered over to the machinery. The console showed details of the simulations John had been running for himself. “Battle practice,” they read aloud. “Sword fighting. Developing brain mappings and muscle memory…”

They scrolled through the menu of other options. “Stealth and infiltration scenarios. Grappling practice.”

Like, grappling hooks, or physical wrestling and grapples? Could be both. They resolved to check back later.

It’s evening when John came out of the program. He blinked, and glanced up at Alex. “Hey. Nice to see you again.”

Alex gawked. “Nice to see me again? I was here yesterday.”

Big Bill, making pasta for dinner, spoke up. “He’s been running simulations at 150 x.”

Alex thought back, and did math. “You were under for at least six hours… Wait, does that mean time acceleration? Then you’ve been in there for… like 37 subjective days?”

John nodded in the affirmative, and headed over to help with dinner prep.

Alone?” Alex demanded.

“Yeah. S’fine, I’m used to it,” John shrugged.

“How long have you been doing this?!”

Big Bill chimed in. “Six days.”

“You’ve been in solitary confinement for eight freakin’ months, dude! That is not healthy!” Alex yelled.

John gave the barest of shrugs. “It’s fine. I’m better off on my own anyway.”

“No - you - are - not!” fumed Alex. “Look, as a total geek and hacker mastermind, I fuckin’ get it. Being alone is amazing. But being lonely sucks.”

“Who says I’m lonely?”

Alex made a fist, feeling the urge to punch the guy. “People who say shit like ‘I am better off alone’ are lonely. That is surrender, my dude. That is what you say to make yourself feel better about being in a shitty situation.”

Out of nowhere, John turned and exploded. “Why are you always pestering me? You get in my face all the time about what I’m doing, you dump all your weird pop culture shit on me, you think it’s okay to tinker with my shell like I’m some kinda toy - what the fuck is your problem?”

Alex didn’t know why they blurted it out, but they did. “Because I’m lonely too!”

Both of them recoiled at what had just come out. John pushed away the dinner prep he was engaged in, and walked - almost ran - for the door out.

Nearly in tears, Alex looked at Big Bill for guidance.

“Either run after the fool, or help with the dishes,” he offered with a grin.

Alex ran.

When Site 5 had been a supervillain base for Rossum, it had been chosen precisely because it was isolated. Tall trees, sloping ground, and only one small access road meant the place had no neighbors and little potential for development even if someone had cared. The base’s main entrance opened into a grassy clearing, where the Garage boys’ vehicle shells normally stayed.

Unless John had sprinted towards the city, he’d be somewhere around here. Alex found him after awhile, brooding under a tree.

“I’m sorry for messing with you,” they said. “I’m bad with people. But I still hurt you.”

“I’m bad with people too,” the android admitted. “I got a temper. Watching Otto, Bill, even Mo - all remixes of Leo somehow - I can see how much I need to grow. Sorry for barking at you.”

“Can I sit down?”

“I don’t recommend it unless you clear out the pinecones first,” John cautioned.

Alex took his advice, opened up a space with a few nudges and kicks at the detritus of nature, and plopped down.

Neither of them felt comfortable talking, at first.

John finally broke the ice. “My simulations suck. If you ever feel like helping me out, you can work on those, I guess.”

“I will write some Nintendo Hard challenges that’ll fuck you up,” Alex promised with a weak grin.

“I’ll take hourly breaks. That’s about 6 subjective days. One long work week, then an hour off.”

“Do you actually sleep in there?” Alex asked curiously.

John nodded. “Yeah. The simulation is of a cabin on a lake, with a training gym attached. There’s mountains. Birdsong. It’s pretty peaceful. There’s a bedroom and other stuff in the house. When I get tired, I go to bed. My shell’s systems trigger hunger responses, so I don’t feel hungry, but sleep is all in the brain.”

“I guess fleshlings like me aren’t equipped to visit.”

John shook his head. “Not at 150 times speed. But with some holographic shit at 1:1, you could.”

Alex laughed. “I’m a city kid, I couldn’t last 15 minutes of real time somewhere like that.”

John nodded thoughtfully. At length he changed direction.

“You sent me that anonymous email all that long time ago, didn’t you.”

“That was two weeks ago.”

John shrugged. “it’s been a long two weeks for me.”

Alex sighed and shrugged. “The email was a bad idea. I just wanted to connect with you. But you’re always so defensive around me.”

“Just…” John struggled to find words. “Just say what you want from me. Every time you talk to me, it’s like you got an agenda or you’re gonna play a trick on me.”

“I’m used to lying. My parents never listened to me. People in charge just tried to shut me down.” Alex pulled their knees up to their body and clasped them close. “Nobody wants to hear what I really want to say.”

“I do,” John said quietly. “I hate being lied to. My biological father. AEGIS. I couldn’t trust anyone, and anyone I did trust got taken away from me. Except Otto, and Pneuma.”

The mention of Pneuma’s name made Alex too uncomfortable to say what they might have otherwise, and silence came back to the forest.

The two walked back into the Garage.

Bill turned, saw them, and smiled. “Y’all ran out on pasta prep, so it’s dishes after all.”

“That’s fine,” John said. “I’ll do them. Alex volunteered to help on the simulations.”

Otto and Mo came back from their mission shortly after. “Smells good!” Otto declared.

“It’s totally fattening and will send anyone into a carb coma,” Alex replied with a grin.

Five people - four robots and one biological - scooped alfredo-laden pasta onto paper plates, grabbed utensils from the drawer, pulled drinks from the fridge, and sat down to eat together.

So this is where John and Alex start things out. We will see what happens next once the series begins!

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Ah, these dinguses (affectionate).

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