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