309 - Burn Notice

The city was different, and not just because of Rex Tyran’s New Tomorrow initiative. In the past, Nono Rodriguez would have been out because of her parents and friends. This time she was out on the city on her own. After seeing closure after closure while driving around for other purposes, she had started to worry about how many of her old hangouts and which of the Pony haunts were still open.

The city was different, but it felt like she was seeing with new eyes as well.

This is what growing up is like. This is what maturity is like. I guess?

She was walking out of the old cake shop when Emma pulled up in the parking lot, driving a well-worn but sleek-looking electric sports car. It was a convertible model, and the top was down. Emma pushed a pair of expensive-looking sunglasses down her nose and grinned. “Hop in, you tall drink o’ water, we’re going hot-rodding.”

I guess we’re all done growing up, Nono realized in bemusement.

“You stole this car,” Nono concluded, deadpan.

“I paid for it with stolen cash,” Emma shrugged. “Get in.”

Reluctantly, Nono put the bag of cake boxes in the back, climbed in the passenger’s seat, and belted herself in.

Once the car was underway, Emma grinned. “Yeah, I stole it.”

Nono sighed at the predictability of this announcement, and punched Emma hard in the arm. “Why are you like this?”

Behind them, the sound of sirens alerted Nono.

“Mask on,” Emma said tersely, and handed over a balaclava. Nono instinctively took it, pulled off her glasses, pulled the mask over her head, and adjusted it. With her glasses back on, she could take time to look behind the car.

What she saw were two Tyran-type security robots, built like tanks with a humanoid torso on top. They had treads and armor and everything. They were maneuvering with dangerous speed and grace through the traffic behind the stolen car, and both had sirens out and flashing.

“Pull - Over - Immediately,” the nearest robot announced via loudspeaker.

“I’m like this because we’re gathering intel on Tyran Enterprises,” Emma answered. “Now pay close attention. We’re learning how the bots operate.”

The electric car accelerated sharply, thanks to the Annadyne T-36 engine under the hood. The bots sped up in turn.

Nono felt a lump, moved around in the seat, and fished up a paper bag. Peeking inside, she found prescription bottles and pharmacy paperwork. “Someone was picking up their stuff when you stole their car,” she growled at Emma. “They’re gonna need this back. Peoples’ medication is really important!”

“Don’t pay attention to that, pay attention to the robots,” Emma said through gritted teeth, and yanked on the steering wheel. The car swerved sharply to the right, and Nono’s seatbelt pressed painfully against her skin.

Behind them, the chatter of gunfire could be heard. The robots had just missed.

“What did we just learn?” Emma yelled.

Thoughts ran rapidly through Nono’s head, sped up by the sudden escalation in danger. “They shot at us. They shot at us in a stolen car. They shot at the car? Um, um… they don’t really care about returning the car unharmed to the owner!”

Her triumphant finish earned her a thumbs-up from Emma, who used her other hand to jink the car left and right. “And what does that tell you?”

“I don’t know?” Nono said, uncertainly.

Overhead, they heard a new voice. Nono looked up and recognized a member of the Chosen - Kinetica. The young hero was flying above them.

“Want to pull it over before the Tyran toys take you out?” she asked, and Nono wasn’t sure if her tone was sarcastic or scared.

“If we surrender, they’ll find out about our Pyrrhic activities. We’ll be put away for life,” Emma cautioned Nono, as quietly as she could in the middle of a car chase. “That old civilian life you remember is burned up. It’s gone.”

Nono thought very fast. She turned back to Kinetica. “Uh, listen, we can’t surrender for complicated reasons. But listen. Someone got their prescription. Can you take it back to them?”

“Sure. After I stop some car thieves with a bad comedy routine,” Kinetica shouted back, and dived for the vehicle.

“Take over,” Emma shouted, and gestured at the wheel.

Nono unbuckled and slid over. Emma climbed into the backseat, making room, and began to weave a curtain of flame to keep Kinetica at bay.

Once in the driver’s seat, Nono’s foot went for the accelerator. She slid one hand into her purse and came out with a flow patch, and slapped it on her bare arm. If she was going to be driving dangerously, she’d need it.

The change in drivers allowed the robots to get closer. Nono could see them in the side-view mirror. The rear-view mirror was taken up by Emma’s rear view. Without the ability to see threats clearly, Nono could only guess where they were. Well, she’d just have to improvise.

“Brace yourself!” Nono shouted, and pulled hard at the wheel. The car veered into opposing traffic, and Nono had a heart-racing few moments dodging oncoming cars. But she could see clearly in both side mirrors. Okay…

“Maybe I should let the robots have you!” Kinetica shouted.

“We’re not hurting anyone!” Nono called back.

“Yeah, buzz off!” Emma yelled.

“Wait! Don’t buzz off!” Nono remembered the medication. “Uh - uh - Firebrand! The prescription!”

Emma let out a long, exasperated sigh.

“Just do it! It’s important to me!” Nono insisted.

With exaggerated weariness, Emma scooped up the paper bag and held it out toward Kinetica, still flying some distance behind them. “Two choices, hero! Take this bag to its proper owner, and leave us to the robots. Or come at me, and get barbecued!”

The halo of flame surrounding her and the car intensified and pulsed for emphasis.

“Are you serious?” demanded Kinetica.

“Look just take the fucking bag,” Emma begged.

The negotiations were interrupted as Nono swerved and swung around a semi-trailer.

At last, Kinetica shrugged and grinned. “Fine. I’m coming down. Flag of truce.”

Emma nodded. “Fine.”

The flying hero touched down, with some effort, on the jerkily moving car. Emma handed over the bag. Kinetica peeked in, saw the contents, and nodded. “Good luck, joy-riders,” she grinned, and launched into the sky.

That just left the robots, who as though reminding the girls of their presence, launched a volley of micro-missiles. Emma’s fire-screen disposed of them in a cataclysmic explosion.

“I can’t get a clear shot at them with all this traffic,” she told Nono.

“I’ll get on the Interstate,” Nono said.

“That’s behind us. Where the robots are.”

“I know.”

Nono, feeling the rush of her flow patch, did a move she’d seen on television, and had worked out in her head via physics. She yanked the wheel and went for the emergency brake. The car spun. She heard and felt Emma fall into the back seat with a loud “oof!”

She put her foot on the accelerator, hard, and let off the brake. The car’s tire traction was good enough to launch it, rather than spin out as she’d feared.

“I realized what it means!” she shouted into the back seat, hoping Emma would hear.

The electric car zoomed past the robots. Their tank treads couldn’t pivot the way car wheels could, but their torsos could rotate, and did. Weapon fire filled the air.

Nono could see the security cameras lining the streets, up on buildings and stoplights. She could see the pedestrians on the sidewalks, watching the scene or ducking out of the way. She could see people holding up their phones, collecting footage.

“Human heroes would never go this hard on us. Before the invasion, people wouldn’t have accepted this. But now they do. So the Tyran people think they can use that.”

Her foot was on the accelerator like a lead weight. Her left hand steered, and her right held down the horn to get people out of the way. The car sped up the ramp and onto the Interstate, catching a few inches of air in the process. It landed roughly.

Nono laid off the horn. She could see Emma sitting up from the back seat, looking behind them.

“It means New Tomorrow is going to be a pretty bad place for regular people.”

“And the cost to learn this was one stolen car,” Emma said.

The robots burst onto the Interstate.

“When I say brake, hit the brakes hard,” Emma commanded.

“Wilco.”

The pyrokinetic watched, and gauged, and shouted. “Brake!”

Nono slammed on the brakes. The car decelerated savagely. The robots, already going at top speed, drew alarmingly close–

Emma threw out her hands, and tremendous gouts of flame erupted. The security bots were engulfed in the blast.

“Drive! Now!” Emma shouted, and Nono obeyed.

Behind them, an ammo cookoff caused the robots to explode.

“Now we ditch the car,” Emma grinned, and hopped back into the front seat.


The pair got some distance from their stolen ride, by taking a route through buildings and sewers and elevators.

Finally, Nono smiled. “Stealing a car is against the law. But you stole it to figure out what they were like. You didn’t just do it to gratify yourself.”

“If I want to gratify myself, I have a hot girlfriend,” Emma smirked. “But, yeah… I lecture you a lot about villains, and how the powerful are above the law, don’t I. But I listen to you too. I’m getting better about respecting people, aren’t I.”

“You are. And I’m proud of you,” Nono said with a smile, watching her partner with wide eyes.

It felt really nice, to be listened to, appreciated, cared about. This, Nono realized, was the feeling she wanted from being “Agent R”. Not the fighting and infiltration and gadgets. She’d had all that. But she was starting to figure out how the world really worked, and make a difference, and belong to something and someone. It was a scary life, but it was a life where she had a place.

All it had taken was a run-in with a supervillain.

Nono kept looking at Emma as the other girl kept talking.

This is what I want. This is who I want. It’s scary…

She remembered the sounds of her parents arguing. She remembered the hopelessness, the helplessness, the isolation, the anxiety.

But life was scary before.

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The cake had survived the car chase. Emma and Nono sat outside Constantine Park, looking down at the distant airport, slowly piercing bits of cake with plastic forks in the lulls in their conversation.

“Did I ever tell you how I became a supervillain?” asked Emma.

“Couple times. Car crash. Burned. You never really go into it much,” said Nono, hesitantly.

“I wanna tell you. Because it’s important to me.”

“Okay.”


Emma Agney was tops in her classes. She was on her way to valedictorian. Thanks to her ancestry, she had an appearance that some kids called “exotic” and others called “weird”, and it drew more attention, good and bad, than she wanted. Love her or hate her, nobody ignored her.

She was the alpha bitch at her school, and knew it, and savored it. Manipulating people became her way of fighting back, taking control over how people judged her. If she was an ultra-snarky, ultra-cruel princess, they wouldn’t tease her about their grades or her looks.

All of this meant that going to parties was a dicey proposition. She had to - it was how she maintained control - but it also meant anything from pushy boys to jealous girls to disapproving parents. She wasn’t really interested in any of it. She just wanted to get out, graduate with good grades, use this emotional hellhole to propel her towards something actually interesting. She was thinking about finance. Something like banking. She had a good head for numbers, and she could manage people well enough. Why not?

The party was at the Collier’s house. They were gone for the weekend - a classic party setup. The thing had started as something Steven Collier would do for the rest of the football team after a particularly successful game, but word spread, as it does. There would be beer, very unofficially paid for by the coach. As long as nobody called the cops, everything would be hunky dory.

Emma was part of the second round of invitees. The cheerleaders were going to be there, of course. Contrary to stereotypes, they weren’t all dating the quarterback. It was more of a team spirit thing. Someone had invited Emma, knowing that a couple of cheerleaders had beef with her and wanted to stir the pot. Emma figured, but why not? She could hold court, dole out rewards and punishments, play her games.

She’d strolled in, haughty and controlling. Within an hour things had gone as she’d expected. There had been a near-fight, with some hair-pulling and drink-tossing, and Steven Collier had intervened before anything important got broken. But Emma had come out on top, with the cheerleader girl (what was her name? Dez. Desdemona? Who cares) losing her shit and running for the bathroom to cry. That was a victory.

Two hours in, Emma experienced what she had not counted on, which was five drunken football boys approaching her as a pack. She’d realized her mistake quickly. The cheerleaders weren’t here as eye candy or girlfriends, but as teammates, and she’d picked on one of their own. But she could read the mood. They were going to solve this the way boys take care of troublesome girls. It wouldn’t happen immediately, of course. They’d encircle her, pretend like they were talking to her, and then haul her off somewhere. The next day, the pictures and videos would circulate.

She was not going to let that happen.

She ran for her car. They followed.

She’d driven out into the night, a few beers in her already, and they’d followed in one of those obscenely large pickup trucks people liked to drive around here.

She thought things were okay until the car was jolted. She could make out the truck, headlights turned off behind her. They’d gone dark and rammed her, trying to knock her off the road!

There was no way her uncle’s hand-me-down commuter brick was going to over-power a big muscular American pickup. It was only a matter of time.

She tried to lose them, but clipped an RV in the middle lane, and spun out across the highway.

She wound up in a passenger’s side collision. The car’s crumple zone, designed to absorb hits from the front, did nothing. The impact crunched the car’s frame, jamming the doors shut. And the violence of the hit sparked an engine fire.

As the flames consumed the car, she could see the big truck stop, assess the accident, and pull away.

She didn’t remember much about the next seventeen hours.

There were moments of clarity. Being unable to force open the car door. Fighting the seat belt. Trying to break the glass. The feeling of ignition, of being on fire, of having her powers violently awaken. Seeing skin burn, blacken, char, and regrow.

It was the Hell that pastors in the valley had been preaching. A lake of fire to torment the wicked.

She found out later that the boys had called 911. They’d said there was a car fire, but they’d gotten the occupant out.

That’s why no help came.


“Mr. Big came for me. Got me into therapy. Taught me healthier ways to take out my aggression.” Emma shoveled cake into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully.

Nono was silent. She was listening, and would sometimes wipe tears from her eyes. But she didn’t know what to say.

Emma did. With a smile, she turned. “You were an introvert and a loner in school, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Emma smiled weakly, but there was a powerful sadness in her eyes. “Before the accident, I’d never have been friends with someone like you, Nono.”

She speared the last bit of cake in her box and held it out. After a hesitant moment, Nono opened her mouth and took it.

“I’d have missed out on everything good in my life. Being with you, being a villain, going my own way, all that. So I’m not gonna rub villainy in your face or say what a great thing it is. I wanted to tell you this story…”

Emma paused, and looked at the other girl with a newly reborn smile. “To say thank you.”

The two girls hugged, as the sound of airplanes taking to the skies echoed from the distance.

After weeks of silence, both girls got a message from Alex. It was just an address to an office building downtown, a suite number, and the combination for a keypad entry system.

With nothing more compelling to do, they checked it out.

The sign next to the door read “Modern Intelligence Analytics”. There was indeed a keypad attached to the lock. Nono entered the combination, and was rewarded by the faint click of the lock releasing.

There was a barely-appointed front office inside, with a bored-looking admin working at a cheap computer hooked up to a second-hand monitor. He saw the two girls and waved them in, and silently pointed them at the door to the back office before they could say a word.

The space beyond the front office was open, and full of half-opened boxes, shipping cartons, and other signs of recent arrival. Desks and chairs had been set up, with laptops and monitors and the attendant electrical and networking cables arranged haphazardly. In the corner, some kind of actual record player was playing actual vinyl records out of actual analog speakers.

The only two people Nono recognized were Alex Gemini Shelby and John Black. Alex spotted the pair and waved them over. “Introductions!” they exclaimed.

There were a dozen people in total here. One man, middle-aged still muscular despite his girth, didn’t stand up when the girls arrive. The similarly aged woman near him, however, did.

“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” Alex grinned. “Sergeant Stronghold himself. Later Senator Craig Costigan. Later head of AEGIS. Recently finding himself between opportunities, he’s started up this private little company, of which you two ladies are invited to be a part of.”

Alex gestured to the woman next. “Elizabeth Parker. You may know her better as Charade’s handler and substitute stepmom.”

Parker snorted derisively at this description. “‘Handler’ will suffice, 1337.”

“Ah-ah-ah, I’m not an agent! I’m not your marionette any more, I’m a real boy!” Alex crowed. They turned back to Nono and Emma. “Oh yeah. And let me perform the most important introduction, moi!”

They spun in place, ending the pirouette on one knee, arms outstretched in a gloriously theatrical gesture. “Call me… Comrade X!”

“Hey, Comrade X-Cuses,” called John. “When you’re done showing off, fix the god damn firewall already. I’m waiting to push this policy out onto the LAN.”

Alex gestured helplessly in John’s direction, flashing a pout at Emma and Nono in a silent plea for sympathy. But they got going.

In their place, Costigan spoke up. “Nono Rodriguez. The anomaly. I’m glad to finally meet you.”

He shifted his attention to Emma. “Hot Mess, is it? Emma Agney. A year ago, I might have hauled you in. Now here we are.”

“Like you could have caught me,” Emma sniffed.

“You and your mentor never escalated your threat level to the point where we’d have to test that assertion,” Costigan demurred.

“What do you mean ‘anomaly’, sir?” Nono asked.

“It’s very unusual for someone to graduate to field work without formal training in the craft,” Costigan said. “There were plenty of examples in World War II. French partisans, British patriots, American adventurers, all kinds of people. They’d get a bug in their head that they had to do something, and they turned out to be awful good at it.”

He sniffed. “Course, you don’t hear about the ones who weren’t good at it. They’d just get killed. But you did it during putative peacetime, and survived.”

“I see.” Nono smiled strangely. It sounded like praise, even if the man’s tone was gruff.

“So what’s the deal here?” Emma asked, gesturing at the office as a whole.

“Director Costigan’s position at AEGIS became… untenable,” Parker explained. “It’s clear there was some kind of mole inside, highly placed, that allowed Rex Tyran and his mistress to discredit the agency’s handling of supervillain-related matters. I merely suggested that we take our expertise private, and continue the work we were really performing - keeping the public safe.”

Costigan grunted. “In 1934, the Wall Street Putsch tried to take over the United States. Brigadier General Butler would have none of it and called out the plotters. But this kind of creeping fascism is nothing new. It goes hand in hand with every other kind of hate - white nationalism, anti-super sentiment, the so-called ‘pro-human’ movement, even attacks on LGBTQ+ folk. I saw plenty of the same as a Senator. I’m sorry to say I couldn’t stop it in time here. The best we can say is that it’s local, and the best we can do for now is keep it from spreading.”

“And we…?” Emma prompted.

“You keep doing what you’ve been doing, assuming you’re interested. Take assignments from Charade. Follow the leads, run down perpetrators, save the world.” The big man shrugged. “The work you’ve been doing before I asked you to do it.”

“And Charade takes orders from you?” Emma asked, half-sarcastically.

Parker just laughed. “She’s very bad about taking orders from anybody.”

The woman grew more serious. “What I’ve learned to appreciate about Ms. Chin is that her upbringing and experiences have endowed her with a singular dedication. She doesn’t need to be ordered to help people. She just needs to be fed - intelligence, assets, and support. Her conscience will spur her harder than I ever could. Her own history is the most effective handler she’ll ever have.”

Emma smirked. “And you can trust a supervillain like me the same way, huh?”

“Looks that way, doesn’t it,” said Costigan, levelly. Emma met his eyes for a few seconds, but looked away quickly.

Parker went on. “In the meantime, we’ll be Modern Intelligence Analytics, a private think-tank. We’ll do research, write policy papers, denounce hawks or doves in Congress, the normal sort of thing think-tanks do. There are plenty of people who want to pay for the political and military insights of someone like Director - excuse me, sir - Mr. Costigan.”

“And we’ll be what we’ve always been,” realized Nono aloud. “Rogue agents working undercover.”

“Precisely,” Parker smiled thinly. “SNOWMAN, Agent 1337 and Charade were deeply buried secrets even at AEGIS. Now they’re missing in action. We filed reports explaining how a reconnaissance operation in Mexico went awry. You two are just, pardon the term, statistical blips in the intel. The next director of AEGIS will have quite a time puzzling out your team’s activities.”

“Course when that happens, we might encounter AEGIS people who’ll be under orders to kill us!” called Alex cheerfully from their laptop. “Now come get your network credentials and show me you can login successfully. Then we’ll take badge photos.”

Emma turned and looked at Nono with a bright grin. “Congratulations, Agent R. You’ve made it into the big leagues.”

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One floor of the office building’s underground parking had been cordoned off. Emma and Nono were escorted down by Alex and John, shiny new badges in hand, and tested them out by passing through the security checkpoint successfully.

They found Alycia there, tapping her fingernails against her forearms. “What do you mean I’m giving up my hoverbike?” she demanded immediately, looking at John.

The robot held up his hands. “Chill, you’re gonna like this.”

He unsealed several shipping containers, and flung open the doors.

Inside, the team could see an arsenal. There were several varieties of the armored clothing, using Leo Snow’s carbon tech. There were a range of firearms based on Nono’s non-lethal chemical design. And there were five identical vehicles that looked like sleek one-person jet aircraft, wings folded up for storage, their exterior a night-black void and almost painful to look at directly.

John wheeled one of the jets out and began to explain. “I’ve received a brain extension that restores the hypergenius I had as Leo. I’ve decided to become the team armorer. Most of us have some kind of genius - mine happens to include robotics as a specialty. That said, I ain’t proud, and I expect to collaborate with everyone on fulfilling the team’s goals. But this is where we’re starting from.”

“This guy here is CHIMERA. It’s a specific model of what Otto and his boys at the Garage are calling CARTEX - Carbon Allotropic Robot Transforming Exosuits.”

Alycia rolled her eyes, but said nothing.

John spotted it and grimaced. “Critics are welcome to come up with a better name. In the meantime, what we got here is a supersonic private jet, capable of meeting and beating the U2 spy plane’s flight profile. The unit can also transform into two other modes…”

After making sure people were clear of the unit, he pulled out a handheld device, and touched some options. Abruptly, the jet’s ‘wings’ collapsed into some kind of hover skirt.

“We got a ground effect mode here for when you need more maneuverability, and the emission profile is hella low so it’s stealthier. And finally…”

More controls. The frame split open, disgorging what looked like an ordinary motorcycle. Unusually, it stayed up and balanced despite having only two wheels.

“Gyro-stabilized street bike for civilian situations. The wheels have a modified version of the V-type hover tech. We can’t just go around with their military hoverbikes without raising suspicion, so I reverse-engineered that shit. Anyway, you can ride this thing like a motorcycle or flip the wheels into hover mode, letting you traverse rough ground, go up walls, whatever the fuck.”

John snapped his fingers and swept his arms wide. “Pretty cool, huh?” he gloated.

“That remains to be seen,” Alycia said sharply. “What about autonomy?”

“Standard DARPA 2018 self-driving package,” Alex chimed in. “You have full autonomy, full driver control, and a trainee mode where it’ll let you drive right up until you’d crash, and then takes over.”

“I noticed during the Pyrrhus mission that we were doing a lot of vehicle stealing and shit,” John explained. “Thought it’d be nice to have something we could ride no matter where we were. We can still use local vehicles if we have to. Just feels nicer to have something to rely on, yannow?”

“Agreed,” Alycia conceded.

Nono spoke up. “Oh! Um, we stayed at hotels and stuff too. Are we gonna have some kinda flying secret base where we deploy from too, or do we keep doing that?”

John and Alycia looked at each other, and both shrugged. “I can see about cooking something up,” the android said finally.

“I’m surprised you didn’t get us matching uniforms,” sniffed Emma, glancing back at the clothing in the armory containers.

“Nah. Wear your 37 pieces of individual flair all you like,” Alex grinned. “Literally nobody here wants to dress up Hugo Boss style. Hey, JB, can we paint our Chimeras and stuff too?”

John blinked. “You can try, I guess? The exterior’s a 99.95% absorbent carbon composite that’ll eat radar for breakfast. It’s not invisible but it’s damn close. If you really want to customize anything, do the bike mode, or the interior.”

“Ejection and life support are covered, I assume?” Alycia asked.

John confidently puffed himself up. “The bike mode doubles as the ejection seat for the main craft. Hover mode is enough to slow descent. The armored clothing has temperature management and oxygen. You should be able to take a missile at 80,000 feet and soft-land. Assuming you don’t decide to just outrun the missile.”

“Fine. Hopefully we’ll learn of any shortcomings the easy way.” Alycia walked around the Chimera unit, inspecting it carefully. “Okay. I’m willing to give it a try. Any objections?”

Nobody objected.


For safety and security, John had the Chimeras repackaged in their containers, and shipped outside the city. Nono’s first opportunity to try the craft out happened in a dusty valley, far away from prying eyes. John was there to supervise, and everyone else but Alycia had shown up to try things out.

The armored clothing had been used once before, but this version of it had been significantly improved. Nono found it comfortable to wear, and practiced with the life support system until she felt confident that she could switch it on in an emergency. The others went through similar orientation, with John helping out here and there, and finally declaring them ready.

The next step was climbing into the cockpit of the Chimera. It was like stepping into a black hole, only to find a tiny little cockpit at the center of it. Nono watched the hatch seal up around her, and the afternoon light of the valley gave way to the harsh glow of electronics, monitors, and HUDs.

A panoramic view of the valley snapped to life in the cockpit, and she jumped in surprise. A minute of moving her head around made her realize what was happening. The Chimera wasn’t transparent. It was projecting the surroundings onto the interior, and tracking the position of her eyes to give the illusion of transparency.

Already she was feeling inadequate. What cool thing had she done for the team that was anything like this?

John’s voice came over the radio. “Alright, team. There’s two control grips, basically the motorcycle’s handlebars in reverse. Just take hold of those. They’ve got six degrees of freedom. In general, just make the motion you want the craft to make, and it’ll be smart enough to figure it out. Alright, everyone belted in and comfortable? First, we’re going to…”


The experience of actually flying was exhilarating. Nono could twist her craft this way and that, trusting it to figure out what she meant. It was the feeling of control without the attendant terror of fucking up and crashing in a fiery ball, and it was perfect.

She even heard Emma yahooing over the radio once or twice. She’d never ever tease Emma about it. It was too precious a thing to ruin like that.

John had led the team through basic exercises. He had given them an assignment. “Use the controls to go anywhere you want. Fly wherever you like. Be back at the valley right at sunset. Anyone who gets there after the sun goes down, or wimps out and gets back early, buys dinner for the rest of us.”

Now it was just her, and Emma, and the sky.

The two of them had chosen to fly together, going west toward the Rockies. They stayed well above the clouds to avoid being spotted from the ground, and below typical aviation altitudes so airline pilots wouldn’t call them in as a UFO or something.

Along the way, Nono experimentally rolled her Chimera upside down. She swung it round and round Emma’s craft, flying alternately above and below it, until she was upside down, her cockpit only feet away from Emma’s.

She couldn’t see Emma. But she could imagine her smiling, and grinning in that competitive challenging way she did. And sure enough, Emma’s Chimera began to roll too.

The two craft spun around each other, lazily spiraling as their pilots guessed what the other was doing and worked to match it.

Emma would pull ahead, and Nono would follow. Then Nono would dart forward, taking the lead in a burst of speed, and Emma would play catch-up.

They realized they only had an hour left by the time they reached the Rocky Mountains.

“We should hurry back,” Nono said nervously.

“Why? Don’t like hanging out with me like this?” Emma asked through the radio.

“It’s not that. It’s just…”

“Just what, Nono?”

Nono sighed. “I’m not sure? I don’t wanna disappoint anyone.”

“You’re not a disappointment, girl,” came Emma’s gentle voice. “You’re part of this team. You worked to get here, and that work paid off. You’re as much one of us as any of us.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure. Let’s turn around, sure. But there’s no rush. I got a few more dance moves I wanna try on you in this thing.”

Nono beamed inside her cockpit. “Okay. You’re on!”

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Several rooms in the MIA suite had yet to be given a purpose. Some were to become private offices. Others would store supplies. For now, they had been designated as changing rooms for the field team.

Nono found herself in one, after suiting up with the latest iteration of John’s armored clothing. This version was something like a skintight spy catsuit, over which the wearer would don ordinary clothes. It was snug, and felt weird, but something about looking like a bad-ass secret agent got Nono excited about it.

The suit included an “invisible holster” - smart patches where the team’s chemical guns could be attached and detached. Nono was practicing fast-draws with the weapon, the way she’d seen on TV.

Something in her brain clicked, a memory about Emma. Instead of some kind of cowboy talk or tough monologue, she pulled out her piece in a smooth motion and said, “tremble and obey, hero!”

The incongruity of supervillain play startled her, and she looked at the gun in her hand. For a moment, she was back at high school, doing chemistry across from Leo Snow. Now she was gun-fighting alongside his android duplicate.

It was dizzying, to think how different things were now.

She heard a knock at the door, and heard Emma’s voice. “Meeting time, kiddo.”

Her blood froze when a followup comment came a moment later. “And ‘tremble and obey’ is my line. Get your own.”


The field team - Charade, Comrade X, SNOWMAN, Agent R, and Firebrand - were assembled. Costigan had asked them to come as a group. He had something to say, or something to ask, it sounded like.

He got right to the point.

“Before I give the five of you the sales pitch and send-off, I want you all to tell me one thing. Why are you here, listening to me? Why not scatter to the four winds, go independent, whatever? I wanna hear what fire got lit under your asses to make you listen to this old warhorse.”

He sat back, and waited.

SNOWMAN went first. “Leo Snow had a rough relationship with AEGIS. All his life, the agency used him as bait, molded him into a weapon to fight his dad, and let him think it was his own idea. I think I got one of the most personal reasons to leave. But this ain’t AEGIS.”

“I’m a product of that manipulation too. Fine, I’m a weapon. I will be the one that wields it. And as long as you keep doing what AEGIS was supposed to do - keep the world from burning down - that’s where I’m at. Hypergenius inventor villains are still bad news, no matter how shitty their opponents have been.”

Charade nodded. “Coming from the other side of that struggle, I agree that the dangers of tech in the wrong hands outweighs certain other considerations. That said, my reasons are personal in an unrelated way.”

She looked at Costigan, then Parker, then SNOWMAN. “I… I lost three people. Brainwashed loyalists to my father. People who saw me as his heir and would have devoted their lives to me. No - to their idea of me. People willing to give those lives for a cause I no longer believed in. A close friend told me that I was wrong to try and bring them in by myself. I knew she was right, but… I didn’t take her advice to heart fast enough.”

She sighed. “I need people to keep a check on me. I’ve been told all my life that I was destined for leadership. Leadership means listening. I need all of you to tell me when I’m wrong and believe in yourselves strongly enough to stand up to me about it.”

Comrade X went next. “I guess I gotta retire the name ‘Alex Gemini Shelby’ because that’s a whole-ass AEGIS call out,” they shrugged. “But seriously. I always wanted to get cut loose from AEGIS and now that I have been, I dunno, I think my destiny is to be a thorn in the side of smug bad guys wherever I find them. This New Tomorrow shit is gonna be connected to whatever we chase after, I think. And I don’t know anyone smugger.”

They smiled strangely. “Maybe this sounds weird to the rest of y’all, but I also just wanna settle down somewhere and be goofy and put up anime posters and listen to Sovietwave. I want that kinda quiet life, but I feel like I haven’t earned it. I’m not comfortable being anything but myself, but who is that? I guess I’m still finding out. So, y’know, journey of discovery, doing the right thing as a dashing agent of fortune, all that sorta thing. Just…”

Finally the truth came out. “I just wanna do what’s right. Y’all are my best shot at doing that.”

Firebrand looked at Nono, gauging her readiness to speak, and went ahead after seeing her reluctance. “I’ve given y’all my villain spiel, I do what I want, yadda yadda. Well, not today. Today it’s Emma talking.”

She took a deep breath, and steadied herself. “I’m not well. I’m not good. I’ve never been good. Mr. Big put me on a path to recovery the way he knew how. Now you could say my soul is in the crucible, and it’s gonna be tempered with incredible heat, because that’s my thing, funny funny Emma. No. I mean… y’all force me to be a better person, while not judging me for being a sadistic and cruel bitch. So, y’know, that’s the kind of friends I need.”

Nono knew it was her turn. The others had talked, giving her time to think about her own answer. But she still wasn’t sure. All she could do was give the best answer she had.

“I had a silly idea in my head that I could be this secret agent for real, like the fanfic I wrote about. Well, it turned out that I could, but it came with costs I never dreamed of. You know, in my stories, when Agent R isn’t doing spy stuff, what does she do? We just fade to black, or have downtime, or skip over it. The story doesn’t say. But this is the real world. I can’t just skip the parts where I have to find a place to sleep, or something to eat, or keep myself from flipping out from boredom, or whatever. I have to live every second of my life. And now that my dream has transform my life, I have to figure out how to do that all over again.”

She smiled. “I’ve got myself into this mess and I need friends like you to survive it.”

Costigan had paid attention to everyone’s story. Now he pulled himself together, standing ramrod straight and composing his face into a stern look that commanded attention. “I’m just over a hundred years old,” he announced. “When I say I’ve seen it all, I’m more right than wrong. We’ve seen people like Rex Tyran before. Strongmen, plotters, capitalists who aren’t interested in playing by the rules of society - it’s nothing new to me. The techniques may change, but the seed of darkness in mankind’s heart is always there, waiting to grow.”

He looked from face to face. “Each of you bears that darkness, or has been the victim of it. You all know it must be fought, better than most. So I’m not going to give you orders, now or ever. MIA is here to give you what you need - the tools to fight that good fight.”

“Throwing your old lives away came at a cost. I understand. I promise I do. But making you all disappear will save you from the new masters of AEGIS. The people who betrayed its principles and allowed Tyran to take over. MIA is more than just a few old codgers playing at spy games and sending you young folk into the field in our place. I want it to be a chance for you all to get a fresh start.”

The others nodded. Nono did too, in gratitude and relief. Sure, she’d gone from ordinary schoolgirl to spy on the run in a couple of years’ time. Sure, it was what she’d wanted, and it was awful and frightening. But she had people who got that, people like her, and that made it all worthwhile.

We’re going to make the world a better place, even if the world never knows it was us.

With that, MIA is formally launched, both as a think-tank and as a comic book in Phase 3. We’ll hear about the team’s adventures once the series really starts.

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Good job, Bill. I love this cast, I love the supporting cast, I like the vague hints are what is to come.

MIA certainly has a head start due to being what my work would call “a durable team of proven assets” while the rest of the Phase Three books involve new character dynamics we’ve only seen bits and pieces of so far, so while those stories excite me for all the possibilities they present, this one excites me because I know I’m getting to see more of a team I already love.

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