403 - All Heroes Must Die!

The book that influenced Alycia Chin most in her current project isn’t “The Glass Bead Game”, as she’d told Summer. It’s a short story by J.R.R. Tolkien, called “Leaf By Niggle”.

The story is about someone who puts off creating something beautiful - in Niggle’s case, painting - for things he thinks are more important. In spite of meaning well, he doesn’t do well, until it’s almost too late. A journey, implied to be death, awaits him, and in the undiscovered country where he arrives, he finds the work he did - starting with painting a single leaf - has blossomed into a tree, and a forest.

The balm of the soul is often to be found in trivial tasks. Alycia has learned this from her time with Summer and her other friends. Like Niggle, who first thought his neighbor Parish was a hindrance and later realized he was his most important collaborator, Alycia once thought her rivalry with Jason Quill was a distraction from obeying her father’s will. Now, she realizes that his presence has been a lifeline, helping save her from the life she’d lived. It’s important to take advantage of what she’s been given, before it’s too late for her too.

A dog-eared copy of Tolkien’s short stories sits on a wooden stool, placed in one corner of the workspace where the two are busy. Jason is working on a grand painting of a snow-covered line of mountains. Alycia is sculpting a life-sized model of a vicuña, a relative of the llama and alpaca, often found above the tree line in such mountains. From the right perspective, the two separate pieces of art blend together, giving the impression of an animal grazing in its native habitat.

They don’t work in complete silence, but what they say is simple and focused. “Can you bring me more paint while you’re over there?” “The ears are looking good.” “Let’s turn on the ventilator, let some of the paint fumes out.”

At the end of the work period, they sit back, drink water from vacuum-cooled bottles, and contemplate their progress. Both of them have done grand, meaningful deeds. Somehow, it feels better right now to have done this small, lovely thing.

It’s only after the pair leave the workspace and lock up that Alycia notices the messages on her phone.

“Business or pleasure?” Jason asks with a smile.

“Costigan,” Alycia answers with a sour frown.

“Off to save the world for Sergeant Stronghold? A lot of people would envy you,” Jason says with a grin.

“If they knew what it meant facing, they wouldn’t envy me for long.”

Alycia and her team meet at the MIA offices. Some, like Alex, were already there. Others, like Emma, wander in when they’re good and ready. Alycia is surprised to see Nono arrive, not with Emma, but with the android John Black.

Costigan, predictably, has manila folders full of paperwork ready to hand out.

“How many trees did this cost ya, boss?” Alex asks cheerfully.

“We partnered with a charity that plants a tree every time you crack wise,” Costigan snaps back, and Alex subsides.

Alycia thumbs through the folder, speed-reading and then doubling back to read for comprehension. “The Beauty Boyz. Australia’s team of villains turned superheroes. Active during the Atlantean invasion. They’ve been suffering accidents that aren’t accidents, when there’s been this many. Someone’s targeting them.”

“And nobody knows who or why,” Costigan says. “But there’s lethal intent there.”

The roster of attempts is fascinating. The team evacuated civilians off a damaged bridge, only for the cars to start blowing up. Collapsing buildings collapsed in just the right way, at the right moment, to nearly kill team members. Villains escape into train tunnels that inexplicably fill with poison gas, when the villain lacks the expertise to set up such a trap themselves. Some of the Boyz have already been hospitalized, and further attempts on their lives were made at those facilities. Now the hurt heroes are in highly-protected and anonymous facilities, under strict guard and observation."

“Doesn’t this just mean someone doesn’t like them?” Nono asks. “And, not to sound too ignorant here, but don’t villains try to kill heroes anyway?”

“I got this,” Emma says, holding up a hand to the rest of the group, and clears her throat in an obvious preamble to a smug explanation.

“No, I’ve got this,” says Costigan. Emma shrugs slightly and backs off.

“In 1978, Executive Order 11905 banned political assassination by the United States. Officially, anyway.” Costigan takes a puff on his cigar and exhales a smooth stream of smoke, but at least does not aim it at the young people watching him.

“We recognize that if you just take out people you don’t like, people high up, things get out of hand - fast. Kill one leader, and the next one will likely escalate whatever grievance you had with their predecessor. And you open the door to reciprocity. If we can kill theirs, why couldn’t they kill ours? It’s a recipe for instability.”

“The military, in law enforcement, and the superhuman world share a few things in common. Members risk their lives, take risks, and do deeds society doesn’t sanction. Sometimes for the benefit of it, sometimes to its detriment. Well, when folks are forced to stand apart like that, they come together with each other. Two soldiers on opposite sides of a battlefield can have more in common with each other than with the civilians who sent them into battle. That fraternal feeling means if you come for one of us, we all come for you. And that gets messy.”

Emma huffs. “Yeah, well, I coulda said that,” she mumbles.

Costigan frowns. “Whoever is going after the Boyz means business. But the Boyz are ex-villains. They’re not going to take this lying down. So I need to know two things.”

“First. Who’s doing this. Second. Are they going to target anyone else. Taking them down is strictly optional - act on what’s possible first and on your collective discretion. Maybe this is just a vendetta against one team on one continent. Maybe it’s more. But if someone’s going to destabilize the world order, and they’re just starting small, I have to know.”

While Costigan works on his cigar and takes a drink of coffee to go with it, Parker directs the team’s attention to other parts of their handouts. “Our budget is, shall we say, more limited under the current regime, so you will need to make your own travel arrangements. You’ve proven resourceful in the past, so I’m sure you don’t need our help. Nevertheless you’ll find identification papers and the like. If you must, you can use those to establish yourselves with the Australian authorities. Consider that a very distant Plan B, but better that than prison.”

Alycia nods, and turns to Alex and John. “Can I count on you two for the logistics of travel, as before?”

John grins and nods in Nono’s direction. “You can count on us instead. Come on, we got something to show you.”

In the western part of the state, where the Appalachians cut through the United States, 480 million years of geology has created numerous valleys among the forbidding mountains. The team land their Chimeras in one such. They see a large cave nearby, and a series of camouflaged shelters and buildings. The Chimeras get rolled under the camo, and John leads the way into the cave.

Although it’s far from finished, the team can see the start of an airframe. John Black is building a jet airplane, out here in the wilderness.

“Based on Big Bill Newman’s construction and notes,” he explains. “It’ll use the same radar-resistant skin as the Chimeras, and be big enough to carry those around, as well as other gear. It’ll be rated for outer space, and can stay in the air pretty much forever.”

“There’s value in traveling light,” Alycia says with a frown. “But I can see the merits of having this as an option at least. But as it’s not complete, what is your immediate plan?”

John draws the team’s attention to another, smaller project. It looks like a larger, lumpier version of their Chimera craft. “This guy right here is for field-testing the navigational AI that’ll go into the big fella.”

Alycia looks at him sharply. “Are you creating another… person?”

John laughs. “No. It’d be easier on me if I did. This is strictly conventional expert systems, so I’m learning something new. And Nono’s been shadowing me on carbon chemistry, learning what I know about building armor and tech, so she’s learning too. In fact she’s responsible for the little guy.”

“I called it Spike!” Nono says excitedly. “Because it’s like the helper dragon from My Little Pony that follows the others around and–”

Alycia holds up her hands. She means to say “it’s okay to call it what you want,” or something along those lines. What comes out of her mouth is, “I know Spike from My Little Pony.”

Literally everyone’s eyebrows go up at that revelation.

Furiously hoping the burning in her cheeks isn’t showing, Alycia clears her throat. “Right. Let’s just get to Australia. Everyone get prepped and saddle up.”

The team flies in a high suborbital arc across the globe. They’re nearly invisible to radar and visual detection, and this high up, even their supersonic footprint won’t be picked up by international defense listening stations.

To Nono, it’s a strange experience, going from day to night, one season to another, in a matter of a few hours. But she can’t share her observations with anyone over the radio, for fear of giving away the team’s position. So she looks out through the cockpit cameras, and marvels.

The team comes down in the Australian interior, and fly overland toward Perth. They land in the darkness, and detach the motorcycle units from the Chimeras, and ride the rest of the way.

“South of here is Fremantle Harbour,” Alycia remarks. “There’s a considerable naval presence. In fact, this is where Pyrrhus’ soldiers were taken for treatment, after the base collapsed.”

“Huh. How did that work out?” John asks.

“I didn’t follow up,” Alycia admits. “I was more interested in tracking the mastermind than the henchmen. If interviewing them for data on Pyrrhus yielded any actionable intelligence, I am not aware of it, but it seems unlikely they’d know anything. They were merely programmed drones.”

“So now that we’re here, where do we start, boss?” Alex asks.

“We check the Boyz’ headquarters,” Alycia answers. “Anyone targeting them will have reconnoitered the base already. We’ll try to learn what they learned, to anticipate the enemy’s eventual moves, and perhaps glean evidence of their own recon work. Following that, we shadow the Boyz during their hero work, and try to catch the enemy in the act. Barring that, we assist them discreetly if necessary. Even if we learn nothing, perhaps we can save some lives.”

“Roger that,” Alex responds.

“What if the Boyz notice a bunch of foreign weirdos creeping around their shit, decide we’re the enemy that’s been targeting them, take offense, and go after us?” Emma asks casually.

“I don’t have a good answer for that,” Alycia admits. “So be discreet. And if they do pick a fight with us and we can’t run away, we do what we always do.”

“What’s that?”

Alycia flashes a feral grin under her helmet. “We win.”


The Beauty Boyz have taken over a building outside of Perth. Informally called the “Tower of Power”, rising above the trees of the Mundaring State Forest , it has traditionally been a supervillain base. When one villain would fall, another would often take up residence there. Perth previously lacked enough of a superhero presence to dedicate a full-time watch staff to its security, and there was a mountain of evidence and gadgetry inside to make demolishing it undesirable.

Thanks to their electric motors, the motorcycles are as quiet as they are dark. The team wind their way like shadows up Topher Road, and pull over when Alycia gives the signal that they’ve arrived.

Alex has their drones, for aerial surveillance. John will be going tree to tree via his grapples. Alycia is going on foot, looking for tracks or other signs of passage.

“What about us?” Emma asks, gesturing to Nono and herself.

“Don’t step on anything, or go off the road,” Alycia warns. “Be ready to analyze anything we bring back.”

But nobody brings anything back, and Emma begins to get impatient.

“Nono, let’s do some brainstorming,” she says, and Nono nods enthusiastically.

Emma pulls out one of Alex’s spare tablets, opens a map of the area, and starts looking. “First, we don’t know who is pulling this job, right? Could be a villain, could be a hero, a secret spy organization, disgruntled postal workers, whatevs. Point is, who is doing it influences how they do it, because… why?”

Nono thinks for a moment. “Because… their training is different. What they can do.” She processes this point further. “And so if we figure out how they did it, that tells us more about who they are?”

“Right. So we got Alex and Alycia doing this spy style. John’s doing whatever the fuck John does. Where does that leave us?”

Nono understands, and pounds a fist into an open palm. “You’re a supervillain. You’ll do this villain style.”

Emma exults. “Correct-a-mundo! Villains aren’t gonna skulk around in the forest. We’re gonna scope out other options. Like how this used to be a villain’s lair.”

She turns now to Alex. “Hey, Doctor Nerdenstein. You actually doing anything on those drones or are you playing games?”

Alex doesn’t even look up from the laptop. “Playing games,” they admit without shame. “Whatcha need?”

Emma walks over. “Get online. I got an address for you.”

Nono follows, curious, and watches the pair exchange arcane information. Finally a web page comes up.

Alex explains for her benefit. “The Dark Web. Traffic goes through a series of anonymizing hosts, like playing a game of gossip where everyone is forced to tell the truth. The message gets through but nobody knows the source. This Dark Web site looks like some kinda villain message board…”

Emma enters some credentials. “Port Royal. Thing is, you have to login to use it. And it’s by invitation only, so there’s no plebes allowed. If anyone’s been nosing around this place, maybe someone in the local villain community has noticed.”

By the time John and Alycia return, the trio have done their best to scour the forums for information. Emma had to respond to a message from the system administrator, who’d noticed their activity, and gave her bona fides as a villain in good standing.

“There’s nothing out there,” Alycia says, and John nods.

“We found some potential leads, but they mean talking to some Western Australian supervillains,” Alex explains. “Where to next?”

Alycia frowns. “The accident sites. They’ve probably been gone over thoroughly by now, but it’s our best lead at the moment.”

Another thought is given voice. “It’s strange, in a way. I used to be on the other side of this chase… leaving false trails, hiding evidence, and now…” She trails off, and smiles hesitantly. “Mount up.”

The first time Nono did chemical analysis for the team, she was woefully unprepared. This time, she took Alycia’s advice to heart, and packed the proper equipment aboard Spike. With her portable chem lab at the ready, she studies the samples coming in from the rest of the team.

Alycia has snuck into the police impound, where cars on the blown-up bridge were towed. John has samples of the poison gas from the train tunnel. Emma has samples from the building that went down.

She doesn’t have Alycia Chin’s encyclopedic knowledge of explosives, but she has Alex and their access to the Internet. And when the others finally conclude their collection runs, she has some preliminary findings.

“There were definitely explosives at work. The um, the taggants? Yes, the taggants look like they were military?” She glances at Alycia, who in turn glances at her chemistry notes and nods in confirmation.

“The Australian Defence Force would have been notified, and probably begun an internal investigation and inventory,” Alex says. “So I’ve started trying to crack that nut.”

“The gas in the tunnel is also military,” Nono says. “As for the bridge incident, there’s two things at work. Explosives were used to blow up the bridge itself. The same kind as used to bring the building down. But the cars…”

“The cars blew up because of land mines,” Alycia says. “I saw the signs immediately. Someone mined the bridge beforehand.”

“That’s pretty elaborate,” John remarks. “Hey, what about the villain who led the Boyz into the tunnel to begin with? There’s no way that’s coincidence.”

“Sam the Slag, aka the Bloody Runt, or rather something that rhymes with Runt,” Alex says. “A former associate of the Boyz back when they were villains. Also one of the guys we learned about from searching on Port Royal.”

“He’s a pyrokinetic. Well, lavakinetic. It’s not clear.” Emma shrugs. “Nobody who’d tangle with the ADF. But work with someone who could? Maybe.”

“Time to go lean on Sam,” Alycia announces.

Sam the Slag isn’t too hard to run down. Honestly, he was pretty run down already.

Emma is the one who locates his lair, based on a canny study of his recent attacks. He’s built a base into the side of a hill and camouflaged the entrance with bushes and trees. The team meets outside, and stealthily approaches.

John, as the toughest member of the team, is the one who kicks in the door. The villain looks up, startled, from handling a handful of stolen jewelry. He unleashes a gout of lava - super-heated flecks of rock and dust, gathered up from the cave around him - but Nono is ready. Her chem-guns are out and she fires rounds into the stream. There’s a flash and a gout of steam, and suddenly solidified rock drops to the floor.

Alycia’s own guns are out as well. In a flash, she nails the team’s target with a stun round, and he goes down with a shocked look on his face.

“Yeah!” shouts Nono. “Chemistry, bitch!”

Suddenly self-aware, she looks around at the team. “Sorry,” she says, very quietly.

Emma claps her hard on the back. “No way! That was perfect!”

“Powers as advertised,” Alycia says with a smile. “I think we’ve found our man.”

The team really knows they’ve found their man, though, when a trio of rocket-propelled grenades come streaking from outside, through the door, and toward them and their quarry.

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Alycia pivots immediately and opens fire, purely on instinct. Her guns are still loaded with stun rounds, but the impact is enough to set off the fuse on a single grenade.

In the confined space of the villain’s lair, the pressure of the explosion knocks everyone off their feet. Nono lands hard, and feels a sudden sharp pain in her left arm. Emma crashes against a wall. Alycia tucks up, taking the impact as safely as anyone can. Alex, furthest away from the blast, is merely bowled over. John, closest to it, takes the brunt of the blast but is unharmed by it.

Everyone’s ears are ringing, and smoke fills the room. Alycia, taking stock of her team, realizes John is her only immediate asset. He’s already looking to her for guidance - good. She gestures harshly at him, then makes a gesture toward the open entrance - keep them from getting in. He moves to comply.

Alycia’s eyes scan the landing spots of her teammates next, performing triage. Nono Rodriguez is the most injured - she can tell that immediately. She stumbles to her feet and moves to administer first aid.

Outside, Alycia gets a glimpse of John taking a headshot, and hears the tinny ricochet sound of a heavy-duty anti-materiel rifle firing. He goes down, but after a moment, she sees an arm sticking up from the ground, forming a middle finger for the shooter’s benefit.

Smartass, she thinks to herself.

Now for Nono. The arm is probably broken. Alycia can splint it easily enough, but the problem of getting out of the base remains.

Emma is sitting up, blinking owlishly through the dust, and looking around for Nono as well. Alycia immediately gives her a cautioning hand. “She’s alive,” she says, over the ringing of her own ears.

Emma, to her credit, is very quick on the uptake. “Villains… always have a second way out,” she shouts. Alycia can’t make it out entirely by sound, but can read lips just fine.

Sam the Slag is definitely down for the count - the stun rounds saw to that. But she has another way to figure this out. Although she’s not the biggest fan of the team’s assorted code names, she is a big fan of opsec, and she’ll respect it now. “Comrade X, status,” she barks, looking at Alex.

“Bluescreened but rebooting,” Alex reports weakly.

“Any drones still working? We need to find another route out of here.”

“I’m on it.” Alex weakly levers themselves into a sitting position, and starts assessing their electronic gear.

Outside, Alycia can see John moving back toward the entrance. She’s not sure what he’s doing, not until he tosses something in through the open door. Then he lashes out with his grapples, and brings down a ton of rocky rubble over the entrance.

It’s that bad out there, huh?

But for all she knows, the strike team outside could be just a distraction, with an even bigger force parked at the back door of the base.

She picks up the object he threw. Sure enough, it’s a bullet, flattened on impact with his invulnerable robot skull. Enough to identify the weapon, and then perhaps the shooters. She grins with pride.

Without prompting, Emma has located a first aid kit. Alycia reaches for it, but Emma shakes her head. “I’ll do it.” She pauses, and nods toward the entrance. “You got a problem here. Go solve it.”

She can see Emma visibly bleeding, but the girl doesn’t seem bothered by it. Alycia knows her power package includes some kind of regenerative capability. Regardless, Emma is right. She nods curtly, rises to her feet, and heads toward where Alex is sitting cross-legged.

The drones have already flown off, into the interior of the base, performing a semi-automated search. “Looks like there’s an underground cave system,” Alex reports. “I found the exit. Want me to send the kids outside?”

Alycia thinks for a moment. This question matters. If there’s other forces there, they might be covering that exit, and shoot at the drones. That would give her a sense of the opposition. But the drones leaving the exit would definitely alert those forces to expect her team. On the other hand, she doesn’t have a stellar exit strategy anyway.

Her thinking branches out into the possibilities she’s been running on a side band. The team wasn’t followed here - she can be reasonably sure of that. That either means some kind of super-power, like ESP or precognition, or a very well camouflaged strike team already here. There just wasn’t enough time between their arrival and the strike for people to come from somewhere else.

The more she thinks about it, the more she thinks there must have been a concealed team already here. But she didn’t spot any sign of it on the way in. That spoke highly of their skills. A team like that could definitely get explosives and weapons from ADF stockpiles - but why would they? Anyone well established would have their own logistics, and wouldn’t want to attract the military’s scrutiny if they intended to operate for long periods. Their program of attack on the Beauty Boyz seemed to suggest a medium-duration campaign, not a one-and-done strike. And if someone in the ADF were responsible, they’d outsource the materiel to avoid oversight.

Who would have the skills of a soldier, but not the infrastructure to support one?

The ADF has a presence south of Perth. That port is where Pyrrhus’ soldiers - the brainwashed Mongolian miners among them - were brought last year. Miners and other ordinary folk who were somehow given the skills of soldiers by nanotechnology. Programmed the way Pyrrhus would program them…

Alycia realizes she made the gravely erroneous assumption that the government could and would handle the situation. If those people had somehow got loose, and nobody knew about it…

She curses herself for being trusting. For relying on anyone but her own training paranoia to see a job done thoroughly. No more.

“They’ll be at the back entrance,” she says aloud. “Get the Chimeras and remote them down. We’ll evacuate by air. Are the motorcycles out front still there?”

Alex checks their computer. “Looks like they’ve been knocked around, but intact. Someone probably lobbed some grenades into them. I dunno how operational they still are.”

“Fine. Get our rides,” Alycia says. She checks back on Emma and Nono.

Nono is breathing fast, and is pale and sweating. But she’s splinted up, and Alycia approves of the job after eyeballing it for a few seconds.

“The two of you, down the tunnel. X is bringing in a Chimera. Get in, get out. X and I will follow.”

“I’m getting revenge, yeah?” Emma growls.

“Yeah. Not now, but yeah,” Alycia promises. “Now move.”

Emma carefully helps Nono to unsteady feet, and takes the lead.

Alycia checks comms. “SNOWMAN, status.”

“They tried to wreck the bikes,” John reports via radio. “They’ve figured out I’m bulletproof and have given up shooting me, but that means I can’t find them in the foliage. What’s that fucking thing snipers wear for camo?”

“Ghillie suits,” Alycia prompts.

“Yeah, they must have some of those on. Blocks infrared too. Orders?”

“We’re getting out via the back door. Fly up, spot the Chimera coming down, and cover us,” Alycia orders.


The first Chimera descends. The usual system to hook onto the motorcycle won’t work with no motorcycle, but there’s straps that Emma and Nono can hook into. The vehicle takes some sporadic fire, including another rocket-propelled grenade that rocks the craft but doesn’t even scuff the night-black hull.

As soon as the first Chimera is away, Alex remotes the second down.

“I’ll go last,” Alycia informs them. “I’ll get Sam out of here too.”

“Think he’s gonna cooperate, now that his good buddies started shooting up his base?” Alex grins.

“I expect so. But I won’t be relying on just him.”

Alycia lugs the unconscious villain into a fireman’s carry. “There’s no point in waiting to follow the team outside back to their base. They’d lure us into a trap, or wait us out. No, there’s only one way to know where they’ve holed up.”

“What’s that?”

“Track them from their starting point,” Alycia responds grimly. “We’ve got to infiltrate a naval base.”

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“I’ve let myself get soft,” Alycia tells her team, once they’re in a secure location.

“Part of that is because some of you are new to covert operations work. Despite your inexperience, you’ve shown potential and achieved successes. I am withdrawing the consideration I’ve shown for those circumstances. I will expect nothing less than professional behavior from everyone on this team. And I will spare no mercy for anyone who falls short of that standard.”

She takes a deep breath. “I will start with myself. I have a lifetime of experience. I should know better. So:”

“We entered an unknown situation together, without posting anyone outside as a backup or observer. I gave the area a brief visual inspection, but did not follow through with more thorough reconnaissance. In doing so, I made the same mistake as the Beauty Boyz. I allowed Sam the Slag to lead my team into an ambush situation. That we escaped does not absolve me of the blame for that. I resolve to be mindful of leading people into traps and ambushes.”

She looks to Alex. “How goes your search?”

Alex looks up from their laptop. “There are two hospitals in Perth with bio-reactors able to treat broken limbs. I’ve arranged for time on one with our cooked IDs. Nono should be out within a day.”

Alycia nods. “And you’ve remote piloted the motorcycles back as I directed?”

Alex nods again. “They’re on their way to that hospital. We’ll rendezvous there, then head to Fremantle Harbour.”

Alycia smiles. “Good. Then I have instructions for all of you…”

A taxi drops off Nono at the hospital’s receiving desk. Everything is in order, according to the computer. The girl will receive the new (and expensive) bio-reactor treatment, where surgical microbots repair damage. They can set limbs, treat burns, even reconnect severed nerves in the limbs. There are still limits to what can be done, but something like a broken arm is eminently doable.

Nono is kept sedated for the operation itself, both to keep her from moving around while the microbots do their work, and to keep her from freaking out at the experience (as many patients have done in the past).

The next phase of the process is recovery. She’s on an intravenous drip, thanks to a plastic tube that winds from the drip bag on a stand, and beneath the bed sheet into her arm. It’s introducing antibiotics into her system to stave off infection. Her arm is wrapped in thermal pads, to draw off the excess heat caused by the microbots’ intense activity. But she’s conscious, and can recognize what’s going on around her.

The man in the doctor’s white jacket enters, tablet in hand. He consults her file, smiles, and puts the tablet down on a table beside her bed. “Miss Olivia Jackson. A humerus shaft fracture. Internal bleeding staunched. Had some excitement, hmm?”

Nono can barely muster a nod. She’s still exhausted, but not able to sleep. It’s a groggy lucidity, like mental quicksand, and she hates it.

“Oh, doctor–” Nono hears a female voice, just outside. She can hear the exchange of medical terms, the educated Latin or Greek words that signal both speakers knows their business.

Once the nurse is gone, the man withdraws a syringe from a pocket, uncaps the plastic cover from the needle, and squirts the substance inside into the IV drip. He peeks under the covers for just a moment, making sure the IV is hooked up, then puts the covers back. “I’m delighted you’re making such a quick recovery. That will help the truth serum be most effective.”

The covers pinch and shift as Nono clenches her fists beneath them. “You’re… not a doctor.”

“I am today,” the man responds with a smile.

After a minute of waiting for his serum to take effect, the man continues. “We were expecting the Beauty Boyz to send someone after Sam the Slag. That, or the Navy. You’re just a girl. Who are you with?”

“I’m… not with them,” Nono says weakly. “Independent…”

“You work independently? I see. What is your real name?”

Nono’s voice is soft, barely a whisper. “Jackie Oliver…”

“And who do you work for, Jackie?”

The story Nono tells is like the one she’s really been living. She got recruited into an American spy agency. She’s been traveling around the world. She’s under-trained and feeling the pressure. She wants to be good at this, wants to not disappoint her coworkers and superiors, but it’s so hard…

The story’s been rehearsed, of course. The team didn’t have time to cook up a serious cover, but between Nono’s flow patches and Alycia’s experience, they managed to get quite a lot of plausible sounding untruth into her head. And under the bed sheet, her hand tightly clenches the plastic tube, keeping the truth serum from flowing into her veins.

The man concludes his visit with a surprising offer. “What if I could give you the training you wanted, overnight?” he asks. “What if there was a way to master all the skills you need, instantly, and let you live this dream of yours?”

Nono struggles for words. Her throat is, legitimately, dry. “I don’t know…”

The man drops a business card from his coat pocket onto the table next to the bed. There’s an Australian phone number on it. “We can make your dreams come true, Jackie. Think about it.”

The taxi drops Nono off at an apartment complex on Goderich Street, East Perth. She buzzes in, is admitted, and takes the elevator.

At the top of the building, she goes to an apartment. The door is unlocked. The room is furnished but unoccupied. Inside the chest of drawers, taped to the back of one drawer, is a phone.

Nono extracts it, dials a number, and waits. “Stay where you are until dark,” a voice says. “Then make your way to the roof.”

Once night falls, a jet-black Chimera lands on the roof. Nono is waiting, and climbs aboard.

Only once she’s safely inside the vehicle does Alycia Chin make contact.

“Agent R. Report.”

“It went pretty much the way you predicted,” Nono says. “A man tried to drug me, and asked me some questions.”

“What did you get from him?”

The card is resting in Nono’s pocket.

The offer lingers in her mind. From what she understands of Pyrrhus’ former forces, it’s possible. They have some way of instantly educating people in any kind of skill. The man at the hospital was able to convincingly play a doctor.

She could be anything she wanted. She could be everything she dreamed about.

“Nothing definite,” she says at last. “I’m still tired. Can we talk about this after I get some sleep?”

Alycia pauses. “That’s fine. We’ll see you soon.”

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Emma and Nono are on standby, waiting in their Chimeras. Alex and John are making their way into Fremantle’s naval station. If they need an evacuation, the rest of the team will be ready. Alycia is on comms, taking a break from her interrogation of Sam the Slag. Nobody else on the team really wants the details on how that’s going.

While they wait, Nono asks yet another question. “How did you know what was going to happen in the hospital? It was like you were reading their minds.”

Alycia is tempted to explain, then turns the question around. “First, you tell me where we stand with the opposition. Get as far in your reasoning as you can toward the hospital operation. And no cheating.”

“Cheating” here means use of the flow patches. Nono can accept that restriction. She stammers a few times, then starts talking aloud over the comm system.

“So… islands of intelligence, right? Intelligence flows like water unless dammed… What we know, what we don’t know. They’re on an island too. They don’t know about us - or do they? Well, how would they know? We got sent here - hey, how openly can I talk about this?”

Alycia smiles appreciatively. “The Chimera comms met with my approval. It’s secure. Go ahead.”

Nono goes on. “So Mr. Costigan sent us here. Unless there’s a leak in his organization - but how could there be?”

“There can always be leaks,” chides Alycia. “But go ahead. Let’s assume there’s not for the moment.”

“Right. So… the opposing force doesn’t know about us, but they expected someone. Why? Because um, because they used the ADF’s bombs and gas and stuff. We know they did. Anyone who examined the forensic evidence will know they did. So word would get back to the ADF. And probably to the Beauty Boyz, because they’re a recognized superhero team. Right?”

“Go on,” says Alycia, carefully neutral.

“Right, ummm…” Nono stammers a bit more. “Sooo… the investigation into the bombs and gas and stuff, people knew the villain who the Boyz chased into the train tunnel - Sam. So anyone interested in the case would try to find Sam… Which was us. But the opposition doesn’t know it’s us us. They just know it’s… someone they didn’t expect.”


Nono sounds excited. “So they’re in the spot we are - or were? I guess? Anyway. They know there’s an opposing force. We know it’s us, but they don’t. So they wanna find out who we are. Oh! That’s why you had the motorcycles go to the hospital! I was wondering about that!”

Alycia nods. “I wanted to give them a trail to follow. And… well, why the hospital? Why not let them trail us somewhere else?”

“Oh! Because… uh, because…” Nono almost stumbles, but regains her train of thought. “They shot those rocket thingies into Sam’s base. It’s logical to guess some of us were hurt. We immediately evacuated, rather than fighting back. So… if some of our stuff goes to a hospital, one or more of us is going there too. And hurt people are vulnerable. Right?”

“Exactly. So now you’re caught up.” This is high praise from Alycia, at the moment.

“But why not follow that fake doctor? Surely he’d check in?” Nono asks curiously.

“Firebrand?” Alycia prompts.

Emma explains. “Alex traced the number to a forwarding service. It goes to a voice-mail box. Anyone in the world could call into it, from a burner phone. The doctor can leave a message and then disappear for days. While you were in the hospital, Alycia had me tail him, just in case. Nothing interesting. There’s five of us. There’s like a hundred of them. They’ve got the resources to do something like that, just dedicate a guy to a job like this.”

“Oh.” Nono frowns.

“That’s the reason we didn’t try to follow the strike team at Sam’s base either,” Alycia admits. “They’ll disappear until needed again.”

Her voice grows more rigid, as her fears come to the surface. “Agent R, this is a difficult situation. Someone like me has the skills of an operator, a soldier, and a spy thanks to a lifetime of diligent training and hard-won experience. This team defers to my experience when appropriate. Now, we’re up against perhaps hundreds of people with instant access to that same training, thanks to the Poppet System. Any of them can be the ultra-competent one. When talent is equal, charisma will predominate. That a chunk of these people have an objective - the Beauty Boyz - tells us there’s some kind of core leadership. We have to get to them, and stop them. With luck, the others will fall away, before anyone else is seriously hurt.”

Alex and John have gotten into the base. So far so good. Now they need to move openly. The pair are dressed in American military uniforms, fabricated from the molecular lathe aboard Spike. Their IDs are in the system. But it’s not going to be that easy.

“This is my best hack yet,” Alex confides to John, as the pair wait for the door to open.

“Either that, or we’re about to be arrested,” they add after a moment. John struggles to maintain his composure, and hold that passive face he’s seen on soldiers before.

The door opens and they’re confronted by a trio of officers in the Royal Australian Navy, or the RAN. John is a little surprised that two of them are women, wearing the same type of uniform as their male colleagues.

Alex, catching the rank insignias a half-second before John does, snaps out a salute. John follows, hurriedly.

“We’re here about the COTS systems aboard the Virginia boats? Integrating with the BQQ-10 data pipeline?”

The women look at each other. “We only filed a report about that today,” one says.

Logical, because Alex had only introduced the fault that morning.

“Well, this deal is important, right?” Alex grins. “We want to make sure you’re happy.”

The women look at each other again, and nod. “Okay,” says the senior officer. “Just need to make a call. Authorization, you know. We can’t be too careful. Sorry.”

As they move to make the call, Alex nods subtly after them. “This is it.”

“What did you do?” whispers John.

“They’re calling one of the senior officers up the chain of command from us. I created an audio deepfake of his voice, and intercepted the calls going out of this office to go to my system. Wasn’t easy.”

John sighs. “You’re gonna get us both killed one of these days.”

Alex snorts. “Please. As if you could die.”

The senior comes back and nods. “Alright, you’re cleared. Come on in and get plugged in.”

Alex hefts their laptop and grins.

The RAN officers get bored of watching the two Americans, especially with Alex’s incessant and aggressively technical chatter. With them elsewhere in the complex, the two are free to talk more about the plan as it progresses.

“So you could fake a general’s voice–”

“Lieutenant Commander,” Alex corrects.

“Lieutenant Commander. Whatever. And you can’t hack the systems to get at what you really need here?” John sounds incredulous.

“It’s all about perimeters of security,” Alex explains. “The towed sonar thing, that’s on a much less secure system than, say, reports about theft of munitions from their stockpile. Or the Military Police investigation into that theft. Or, say, the disposition of like 305 individuals brought here from Antarctica. We got through the weaker perimeter to get in here, inside the stronger perimeter.”

John sighs. “And now that we’re here, you’re set, right?”

Alex snorts. “Oh yeah, that took three minutes. Right now I’m just wasting time.”

“Could you not? Can we just get out of here?” hisses John.

“They’d get suspicious! We’re supposed to be doing some delicate technical operations–”

Alex hears the door open, glances behind them, and suddenly turns back. “Oh my god.”


“It’s him.”

“Him who?” whispers John.

“The Lieutenant Commander.”

“The one whose voice you stole?”


The American officer approaches them. “Hi, excuse me. I’m looking for Warrant Officers Spillman and Kenner. I got word they were on the ball solving a computer problem and wanted to check in.”

Alex turns and salutes. In their best Australian accent - which isn’t great - they talk fast. “Right, Spillman and Kenner. Too right they did a proper job. We’re just going over their work right now. I think you’ll find them…”

“…We sent them out to take a break,” John says, filling in as Alex’s bullshit peters out. “I’m sure they’ll be back soon.”

The officer grins and nods. “Well I’ll just wait, if that’s okay.”


John slaps Alex’s shoulder and gestures toward the door as subtly as he can. Alex nods discreetly in agreement.

The American officer waves as they leave. Once the door is closed, John glares at Alex. “We are outta here. Right now.”


They’re ninety seconds from their exfiltration route when the alarm goes off.

Nono and Emma perk up immediately when they detect the base alarms.

“Comrade X, SNOWMAN, come in,” Nono says urgently into the comm system. “Do you need backup?”

“No, we’re fine, standby,” comes Alex’s confident-sounding response.

The pair are sprinting through the submarine docks.

“We’re not fine,” John says.

“We got this,” Alex says, puffing with the physical exertion. “Besides, Firebrand’s gonna set the place on fire if she intervenes.”

“I heard that,” comes Emma’s voice.

“I can hear this too,” Alycia calls in.

Alex belatedly thumbs off their communicator’s send function. “Okay, okay, uhhh… What’s the plan, amigo?”

John thinks. “I can enclose you in armor, and we dive for it.”

“They’ve almost certainly got anti-Atlantean high-rez sonar here,” Alex points out between gulping inhales of air. “Probably the harbor nets too.”

The pair turn a corner at top speed. A spotlight snaps to life in the distance, and the beam starts hunting them. John aims a hand at it, and an implanted micro-dart launcher takes out the light with a shower of sparks.

“I can cut through nets.”

“That’ll attract the micro-torpedoes…”

John’s scowl deepens. “You have really got to tell me more about this Atlantean thing someday.”

Alex thumps the side of their head. “I know! Wrap me up, cling to the bottom of a truck going out of the base…”

“They won’t let anything out during a lockdown,” John points out.

“Come up with a plan or I will come up with one for you,” interjects Alycia over comms.

Faced with that ultimatum, John grabs Alex’s laptop from them, then transforms into an armored shell around them.

Grappling lines lash out, and the armored figure ascends buildings and starts heading for the base’s perimeter. Automatic rifle fire follows, but to no real effect.

Alycia closes her eyes.

She misses the peace of working on the art project with Jason. Oh, sure, nothing they did would win any kind of national or international prize - it wasn’t daring or challenging enough. It was competently executed, to be sure. But that wasn’t the point.

The point wasn’t the art, but the artist. The pieces they were making together had to harmonize with each other, complement each other, mesh well together. While Alycia worked, she had to be mindful of what Jason was doing, and thinking. She had to peek over at him every so often, read his mood, gauge his progress. She had to consider him as a person, and think about where he was with his work and where he might go next. It was like a very slow, very meditative dance.

She opens her eyes, and sees her team assembled at their current safe-house. Everyone is sitting on the couches and chairs that came with the place, except her. She’s standing, to more effectively project her presence.

“First, you’ll tell me what mistakes you made,” she says. “Then I will evaluate and expand upon your answers. Comrade X, go.”

“Uhh, we got caught?” Alex answers, with their usual nonsense grin. It withers under Alycia’s intense stare, and they try again.

“Okay, okay, so. Uh. My usual approach of hack it and strut didn’t work because uh, there was a lot more of a, I guess personal touch involved? People were interacting. I didn’t really anticipate the people I was imitating would, like, show up?”

Alycia makes a rolling gesture with one hand, inviting them to continue.

Alex fidgets. “So really, it woulda been better not to… uh, I dunno.”

“When all you have is a hammer…” prompts Alycia.

“…Yeah, you nailed it. I tried to hack something that’s not really hackable. People.” Alex hangs their head. “I just…”

“You just what?”

Alex finally fesses up. “I just wanted to not be the hacker-bot for once. I wanted to go into the field, do cool fun things. Overwatch is… I dunno.”

Alycia fills in for them. “Boring, familiar, and often necessary.”


Alycia turns to John. “SNOWMAN. What did you do wrong?”

“I coulda done the mission without Al-- without Comrade X along. They could have given me a remote hacking dingus, and I could have planted it. We’ve done that kind of thing before.”

Alycia turns to Alex. “Is that accurate? Would that have satisfied the mission goals?”

“Yeah, I guess?”

Back to SNOWMAN. “Then, why didn’t you tell your teammate about your reservations?” Alycia asks.

“Because they don’t really listen to me?” SNOWMAN says, glancing at Alex to gauge their reaction.

“And what have you done to remedy that?” Alycia asks. “Shouldn’t teammates communicate with each other?”

“I dunno.” John shrugs. “I thought… I dunno, I didn’t think, I guess. It’s just exhausting, because… Anyway, I get where they’re coming from. But I get where you’re coming from too. Infiltrating a Naval base is maybe the wrong time to stretch your legs, role-wise.”

“And why does it matter?” Alex protests. “It’s just the Navy. SNOWMAN kept me safe, we got out with the intel, everything’s hunky dory.”

“Stand up,” commands Alycia. “Everyone.”

Everyone does.

“Look under the cushions of your seats,” she orders.

They lift the cushions. Underneath each one is some kind of explosive device. There’s visible timers. They’re counting down.

When they look back to Alycia, she’s drawn a gun and casually rests it against her shoulder. “Who here felt in danger until this moment?” she asks.

The team look at each other, and back at her.

Her voice grows more serious, and more chilly. “I cannot afford to lose any of you. You all mean too much to me. If something were to happen, I… well. And I will not allow something to happen based on your carelessness or selfishness. So. You will disarm the devices. You will use every asset available to you as a team. If you attempt to leave the room, you will be shot. If SNOWMAN decides to leave in particular, or attempts to disable me, he will discover reasons to regret that decision.”

Emma throws her seat cushion on the floor. “Hey, why do I have to get roped into their bullshit?” she demands.

Alycia turns her gaze on the pyrokinetic. “Because we are a team. Stand or fall, live or die, we do it together. The others have had to pay for your mistakes in the past.”

“This is bullshit,” Emma growls under her breath, and turns away. But she doesn’t try to leave.

The team spends a few minutes noodling over the bomb problem. Emma sits it out at first, but eventually starts making comments when people discuss ignition temperatures or other areas of her expertise. Nono spends it listening. Alex is doing searches through obscure military databases and analyzing the circuit wiring. John is acting as their eyes and ears, prodding at the device as carefully as possible while gathering the information Alex wants.

Finally Alex stands up. “Okay. My plan is for John to internalize the bombs, and set them off,” they announce.

“Do what you like,” Alycia says calmly.

Nono holds up a hand. “Hey, just a second.”

She turns to Alycia. “You said any asset available to the team. You’re on the team, right?”

“I am.”

“So you’re an asset.”

“That’s correct.”

Nono grins widely. “So as the person who set the bombs, probably, you could disarm them.”

Without another word, Alycia produces a pair of wire cutters. One by one, she clips a few key wires. The timers halt, then dim out.

After everyone’s breathed a sigh of relief, she finally addresses Alex. “I don’t object to you getting more active in field work, when called for. If you need to be the one doing overwatch, that’s what you will do. But I’m fine respecting your wishes.”

Alex pumps their fist. “Yeah. About time.” They glance at SNOWMAN. “Guess this means you and me–”

Alycia interrupts. “You’ll be taking orders from Agent R when in the field.”

Alex looks shocked. “Agent R?! But she’s–”

Alycia stares sternly at her teammate, ignoring Nono’s suddenly hurt expression.

Alex stammers, sighs, and turns to Nono. “Sorry,” they say. “You’re pretty good. Really good, actually. I can’t really be smug about things either. I’m only like a year and a half of professional training ahead of where you are now.”

“More to the point, she’s able to think laterally, as we just saw, and she knows her limitations,” Alycia points out. “She possesses the traits which you need to acquire.”

She turns again to John. “As for you, I’m partnering you with Firebrand for the time being. She’s more arrogant than Comrade X, but has less history with you for you to be annoyed about. So if either of you spot a mistake during operations, I expect you’ll bring it to the other’s attention.”

Emma and John let out simultaneous sighs of aggravation.

Alycia grins, shark-like, at their response. “And with that sorted, we’ll now discuss our respective intelligence gathering…”

Alycia summarizes what she learned from interrogating Sam the Slag, the villain who’d been working with the secret new force the team is chasing.

“They offered him a deal. Cooperation in exchange for protection as they execute their plans. Those plans seem to consist of attacking hero teams to destabilize the hero-villain balance in a region, then to extort the villains. Unlike heroes, who will generally cooperate with the authorities, these newcomers seem willing and able to eliminate anyone in their way, including any villains who aren’t interested in becoming loyal lackeys.”

“They have Sam the Slag’s credentials for the Dark Web site that Firebrand showed us - Port Royal. I expect they’ll be harvesting more as they work their way through other villains. They’ll use that site, and others like it, to track villain activities - and extract secrets about heroes.”

“So that’s one of our first long-term objectives. We can’t lock them out on our own. So we either secure the cooperation of Port Royal’s mysterious administrators, or we find a way to shut the site itself down.”

She moves to her next point. “The Poppet System. Disabling it will be the key to defeating these people in the long run. Presumably it can be surgically extracted, but my experience with forcibly removing Quill-type nanotechnology is, hmm, fraught.”

“That leaves us to deal with its inventor. Or rather for me. Well, perhaps for Jason Quill to do so.”

She lets out a long, weary sigh. "I’ll handle that discussion. For now, we’ll have to try inventing new rounds for the chemical guns.

She nods in Nono’s direction. “I’ll leave you to perform that research. I’ll give you the specs for Quill nanotech’s tolerance to EMP effects. See what you can do with it. Consult with SNOWMAN about graphene power capacitance systems.”

“Understood,” the girl says with emphatic sincerity. John nods along with her.

Alycia gestures to Alex. “Next. What did we get from the Navy?”

Alex is all business after the earlier conversation. “Right. The Navy received the survivors of Pyrrhus’ base here. A total of 305 individuals of widely varied ethnicity and gender. The ADF did not feel equipped to process them, and so requested the assistance of the Western Australian government. At the same time, it was recognized that they were essentially private soldiers or mercenaries, trained by and presumably loyal to a non-state actor with hostile designs on–”

“Get to the point,” prompts Alycia.

Alex coughs briefly. “Right. Short answer is, nobody wanted them, so the ADF got stuck with them and asked the WA legislature for cash and support, which they provided very grudgingly. The prison camps they built to hold Atlantean soldiers are still up, so they put our guys in there.”

Alycia curses. “I neglected them. It led them to this. Like the lost lambs… Summer, you were right. In matters of my father’s empire, I cannot be trusted to make wise decisions.”

She collects herself. “Very well. What next?”

Alex nods. “Well, they were all depressed as fuck, obvs. They had to be weaned as a group off their addiction to Cháwǎn, the despair drug. They made really remarkable process. A little too remarkable. Like, early cases would start helping the other soldiers, using the same professional techniques the government therapists were using.”

Alycia hmms. “The Poppet System. They were already using it to acquire new skills. Why didn’t the ADF or the WA government contact Jason for help with the nanotech?”

“Oh, they had an expert they brought in already,” Alex says. “A doctor Sonya Makarova. Here’s her file photo and bio. It doesn’t say she’s with the Quill Foundation, but do you know her?”

Alycia stares at the picture in disbelief. “That’s Jenny Byrne. God dammit.”

She turns her attention back to Alex. “This is very important. What is the disposition of these 305 soldiers?”

Alex slides through a spreadsheet of collected results. “Well, that’s the thing, boss… According to the records, Dr. Makarova - Jenny Byrne - helped get several of them back to their homes. But that’s the records. If someone like me doctored them, anything’s possible. So I guess you could follow up on their individual cases, see if they’re where it says they are.”

Alycia curses even more vehemently. “That’s a task for days or weeks. And it won’t tell us if Jenny Byrne is helping them return to civilian lives - or planting the seeds of an organization around the world. It does mean we cannot afford to tip her off that we’re on the trail of these people. We’ll have to handle their neutralization ourselves.”

She straightens up and regains her self-control. In a cold voice, she continues. “What isn’t indicated in any of these - but correct me if I am mistaken - is anything approaching a motive to attack the Beauty Boyz specifically. We have a very incomplete psychological profile of the group as a whole. I assume you were not able to access the case notes from their recovery, and if you were I would expect them to be absolutely unreliable.”

“Yeah, the Navy’s got nothing on that,” Alex shrugs. “I can try hacking the WA government, I guess.”

Alycia nods. “Do it. However compromised the data, months of case notes on 305 individuals would be hard to falsify as a whole. Our clue to the leader or leaders of this movement may be in those files. In the mean time, it may be time for us to report in.”

The team gets their biggest shock when they put through a call to the MIA offices.

Parker takes the call, and opens with the biggest revelation. “The United States sold three Virginia class submarines to the Australian military. One of them was stolen.”

Alex and John look at each other in recognition when the date and time is announced. “That’s when we were there!” Alex exclaims.

“No wonder there was a big lock-down,” John muses. “Sure hope it’s a coincidence though. I’d hate to think they knew we were coming, and used us as a distraction.”

“That would be deeply concerning,” concurs Alycia. “I would be very interested to know how they knew of our movements. As a coincidence, it’s suspicious.”

She turns her attention back to Parker. “Did the thieves release a statement?”

“They did.” Parker cuts the transmitted file into the stream, and the team listens as an electronically distorted voice begins to speak.







Alycia slumps down into one of the chairs of the safe-house. “I did this,” she murmurs, half to herself. “I let it come to this.”

Parker comes back on the call. “Miss Chin, I request that you pull yourself together. Your team has provided us with valuable intelligence on these people, along with their motives and methods. You’ve completed the assignment set for you. At this time, unless you have a specific course of action, I suggest you all return, and concern yourselves with the next assignment.”

Alycia looks up, frowning, and rubs at her eyes. “We have nothing concrete upon which to act at this time.”

Parker’s mouth softens into a smile, if only for a moment. “Then I expect you all by tea-time.”

The screen shuts off, and the members of the team look at each other.

“Sure doesn’t feel like we won anything,” Emma says into the silence. “And that’s bullshit. Why don’t I get to steal submarines?”

“We’ll definitely be seeing those guys again,” Alex says in resignation.

“We’ll get 'em,” announces John, smacking a fist into an open palm with determination.

Only Nono is silent.

Our first foray into super-powered spy action has wrapped up, and with it we’ve been introduced to a new enemy force: the Grasscutters. How can our team hope to cope with perhaps hundreds of super-spies, each as capable as any one of them?

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Alycia was always taught, directly and indirectly, that everything was Dire and must be Prioritized for the Greater Good – that dedication and sacrifice to the Great Mission and all its corollaries meant the soul was not likely to be bebalmed, and, indeed, to look for balm was a sign of weakness, of selfishness, of lack of dedication to the Cause.

That Summer et al. have broken that mindset in her (at least when she thinks about it) is probably the greatest services they’ve done for her (or, perhaps, the world).

“Especially,” Alycia commented, dryly, “because it’s always easier to kill than to protect, especially if the weapon doesn’t prioritize its own survival. And since the top targets would be the ones in a position to set a policy about assassination, they were incented to do mark themselves as off-limits. Which still largely means in practical terms, ‘Don’t get caught,’ or even ‘Caesar’s assassination bureau must be beyond reproach.’”

That is, she would have commented, but it wasn’t her briefing, and she’d learned Costigan didn’t appreciate lectures he wasn’t giving.



Also ha!

It’s easy to forget, with Emma as the resident “super-villain,” that Alycia was once considered a world-class menace, and not just for bank robberies. This group, in particular, might not have that perspective on her.

Indeed, much to her dismay, if she were aware of it, they probably see her as the grizzled master sarge, long depth of experience and practical advice and don’t ask questions, from a primordial time before any of them were born. Untrue, in a lot of ways, but she is sort of a previous generation here, even if of a comparable age.

Actually, she may kind of feel that way. “Kids these days.”

You can’t really mine a bridge, using mines in a traditional sense. Some sort of IED-like directed kinetic device.

“You mean, a land mine,” Emma said.
“No, some sort of military, IED-like, directed kinetic device.”
“Car go boom from bomb. Got it. Think we all understand.”

Even Alycia’s “combat time” can’t beat a bullet. But RPGs don’t travel as fast as bullets, and they do make a sound, a disturbance in the air that she can begin to react to, mind outracing body and cursing her finite ability to protect her team, even as she begins to tuck up against the impending explosion.

And kicks herself for not considering it. “I’m out of practice at this.”

There’s our Alycia!

While I will never object to hearing Alycia talking, esp. when it’s to self-critique (old habits die hard), I’d be kind of curious here to get some reaction from the rest of the team – agreement, disagreement, self-assessment, etc. It doesn’t have to be a conversation, but I’d expect reactions.

Emma – is she pissed at herself for not being smarter (along the same lines as Alycia), or pissed at Alycia for letting Nono get hurt.

Nono – how much hero worship does she have in different directions, and how has this shake it, if at all.

John – does he feel he should have detected the ambush himself? Is he happy with his performance? Does he blame Alycia for getting them into this?

Alex, ditto.


Alycia: “We have to assume the possibility of capture and interrogation.”
Emma: “And not immediately incinerating the parties involved.”
Alycia: “Hold that thought.”

Because the hospital room was, of course, bugged.

But … a nice twist for Nono.

“… and physical, emotional, and biochemical torture-slash-abuse-slash-incentivizing.”

This is a great and funny, except … aren’t they in American uniforms?


“I can still hear this,” Alycia says over the supposedly-cut-off channel.

Like I said …

Though, if they had a second to think, they’d realize that Alycia would only say that if there was an obvious plan for them to consider. Otherwise she would come up with a plan for them.

This is lovely.



It’s good to see Alycia once again pivoting – “I am the only competent one here.” “I don’t dare be in charge because I am untrusted and thus untrustworthy.” “I am in charge, but I don’t trust anyone on the team.” “I trust the team, but I don’t trust myself, so I will be in charge but depend on myself and just worry about the others and hope they don’t make mistakes.” “Taking charge is not about asserting my superiority but about intelligently using the talents of my team as force multipliers and doing my damnedest, in the way I know best, to keep them safe.”


I’m not sure she’d say that aloud, but she’d definitely say it. Nicely done.


The fact this sounds like something her father would have put out …

Overall … great stuff. The team performed competently … and was outmaneuvered and anticipated at each hop.

Alycia is taking a lot of this personally. Her personal claim to fame is utter competence and hyperintelligence. Not only is she being out-thought, but if her value is exceeded by others, what does she have left as a reason to live? (I mean, she’s still kind of thinking that way.)

Looking forward to more.

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Yes, which is one reason the alarms go off seconds later, and why Alycia assigns Alex to report to Nono later. Right now, Alex’s biggest weakness is that they’re a performer and show off. They have a lifetime of having to hide who they are, and they don’t want to do that any more. We’ll see more of this come next story.

This is a big weakness of my current writing system, which is to visualize like a comic book or tv show, but write a narrative. I can miss strictly visual details, like facial expressions responding to dialogue.

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