413 - City of Clones

I’m coming out of hiding
I’m dreamin’ on, dreamin’ on
Whatever lies you’re hidin’
Keep movin’ on, keep moving on

The team, minus John Black, are assembled at MIA headquarters. John is back at his mountain hangout, working on more vehicles and gadgets.

Probably avoiding more human contact, Alex thinks.

Costigan and some of his staff are on another video call. There’s generals and advisors and other important people in politics and the military and the intelligence world. The team doesn’t get to participate in these - and shouldn’t, given who leads it.

Alex understands the basic idea. Costigan is selling his expertise to people who still need it, even after he was unofficially ousted from AEGIS. A few key people, like Parker, came with Costigan to this new venture, and they formed the nucleus of this new business - acting as an intelligence think-tank, a sort of independent broker for information, the sort of deniable cutout that government agencies like the CIA can go to.

Right now they’re talking about Project Plato, the Navy’s new underwater aircraft carrier design, the thing meant to take war to the Atlanteans if it comes to that. They’ve talked about the Grasscutters and their own stolen submarine. They’ve talked about a dozen other brushfire wars, global hotspots, assassination attempts, and other matters, but none of those are things where Alex and the team have been involved.

Alex, meanwhile, is the IT czar of the new outfit. And they’d be able to enjoy tinkering with the network in interesting ways, if Emma wasn’t constantly interrupting them.

“I need new insults,” she says.

“You’re ugly and you smell funny,” Alex suggests. “Oh, you mean to use on other people.”

Emma scowls. “I’d break your face for that, but nobody could tell the difference.”

“I’d kick your ass but I don’t know which end is which,” Alex says coolly, running some commands on their terminal without slowing down.

Just as smoothly, Emma launches into the next part of her interruption. “You’re supposed to be smart. So instead of asking you to come up with anything original, god forbid, here’s a question. Do you think a dim bulb is gonna be insulted as much by something that isn’t a proper insult, as long as it sounds insulting?”

Alex is only mildly distracted by this line of reasoning. “I’d need an example. You’ve supplied the dim bulb, now give me something that’s not a proper insult.”

Emma is ready, and Alex tries not to laugh at her proposal.

“Dipthong. Hey, stop smirking, there’s actual logic here. Dipshit is an insult with a long established pedigree. Dipstick is the Rated G version. Fine. A dipthong is a gliding vowel. But say you meet someone who doesn’t know that, but has heard dipshit and dipstick. Are they gonna make the association and feel insulted by this new word?”

Alex doesn’t reply, because of an alarm that’s going off, that should never ever ever go off.

They pop a message up on the viewscreen, something only Costigan and Parker and others in the MIA office will see - TERMINATE LINK HIGH EMERGENCY - and run a short command that will commence a few critical steps very rapidly.

Alycia Chin, loitering nearby with arms folded, has been listening intently to the video call. But she picks up on the sudden distress of one of her teammates, and approaches Alex’s desk immediately.

Costigan, seeing the message, has excused himself from the call and turns as well to see what’s going on.

“Unauthorized data dump,” Alex reports tersely. “Desk 5.”

All heads turn to look at Desk 5. Nono Rodriguez is sitting at it, finishing up something on the computer there. She turns, and the expression on her face tells everyone she isn’t really Nono right now.

Without hesitation, Alycia draws one of her guns, loaded with stun gas, and fires. Nono expertly dodges the first round, but Alycia is ready with a second shot, and catches the girl mid-dodge.

Nono slumps down. Alycia rushes to the Desk 5 computer to assess matters. She turns back to look at Alex. “What was being dumped?”

“Everything AEGIS and MIA ever knew about Alycia Chin - including where she is right now.”

Alycia wants to bark orders - but she restrains herself, and looks to Costigan.

It takes the World War II hero only a few moments to consider the implications thoroughly. “Alex, wipe everything electronic. Parker, get the office and intel folks out of here. Unmarked vehicles. Alycia - get your team to whatever safehouse you have. Emergency plan Baker-2.”

his words fill the floor of the office high-rise MIA used to call home. “Move it, people!”

Alycia is leading the way down the building staircase. She’s carrying an unconscious Nono over her shoulder, and grunting, and grumbling just quietly enough that people know it’s happening, but not what she’s saying.

Emma is behind her, and Alex is bringing up the rear.

Purging the MIA’s computer systems isn’t quite the loss it might have been. Alex has been thorough in maintaining secure off-site backups. But who would have guessed that something like this could happen?

I guessed, Alex smugly tells themselves. My alarm picked it up immediately.

Unfortunately, wiping the computers also wiped the evidence of what Nono - or whoever or whatever influenced her - was up to, or where she was sending data.

The trio reach the parking garage at the base of the building. They find, predictably, a squad of security robots sent by Tyran Enterprises parked outside the entrance. The robots have blocked off the street and are rerouting traffic. They’re also keeping Parker and her intel team from driving their black Escalades out of the building.

“Ol’ Tex-Mex Tyran is curious about you, huh?” Alex asks, but Alycia is too busy to respond to the comment. Alex has learned to recognize when Alycia is processing a lot of data, and they can see it happening now.

Finally she breaks out of the momentary trance, and looks around for her teammates. “We shoot our way out,” she decides.

Emma smirks. “Subtle. I like it.”

The pyrokinetic rushes forward. She shouts loud, getting the robots’ attention. “Hey! Hot Mess here! Now renamed to Firebrand! Well known supervillain, happens all the time in this city, you fucks! Come get me!”

She unleashes a wall of flame that washes over the robots. In the smoke and confusion, Alycia darts out, gun in one hand, Nono stabilized with the other. She launches shot after crack shot, aiming for the robots’ sensors. Alex follows, firing EMP rounds at the robots that seem most ready to act.

As the trio fan out onto the street, the robots turn to track them. This is all Parker needs. Her SUV leaves the parking garage at high speed, plowing through the hapless Tyran security bots. An emergency-brake skid lines her up with the street and she takes off. The others follow.

“Sewers,” Alycia reports. “We’ll get to the Chimeras and get out of the city.”

Ever since the Invisible Invasion, the sewers of the city have been set up to monitor Atlanteans trying to get in. Fortunately for the team, that apparatus was set up by the military and in cooperation with interested parties - like MIA. Alex can make them invisible for their trip, but probably can’t use this magic incantation again. Still, you don’t really want to use the sewers too many times in your life.

The team are halfway to their destination when Nono groggily regains conscious. Rather than waste time explaining or risking that she’s still co-opted, Alycia tosses her down, stuns her again with a few careful shots, and shoulders her once again.

Alex wants to check their phone. Does the world know about MIA? About the team? Was the leak public? Curiosity is a thirsty bitch, but it’s not getting satisfaction, not now. Phones can be traced, and while Alex might think themselves the world’s best hacker, even they know they aren’t the world’s only hacker.

The team stops at a junction. Emma raps Alycia on the shoulder with her knuckles. “Gimme,” she orders, nodding to Nono.

“Keep her under,” is Alycia’s order. But she grudgingly hands over her payload.

The team arrive at the outskirts of the city, and the spot where the ultra-stealthy Chimera craft are concealed. Emma lugs Nono into the one she’ll be flying. Alex sets the spares on autopilot, then climbs in and takes off in their own craft. Behind them, Alycia boards and flies, ever watchful of her team’s safety.

It’s going to be a long trip to John’s workshop in the Appalachians.

John Black is in a cave, working on the stealth jet he’s been building. When the Chimeras land, he walks out to greet the team, still wearing grease-stained coveralls and carrying power tools.

“I got a thing saying don’t use my phone,” he yells over the sound of the craft touching down. “What the fuck’s going on?”

Alycia composes herself. She’s holding back some kind of strong emotion - Alex can tell that much.

“I - we - are burned. A data dump on me was released. We don’t know the scope. But we should assume that would-be attackers know everything.”

She looks at John’s projects, then back at the man himself. “If the plane can fly, we’re leaving on it. Regardless, everything here should be considered compromised and must be destroyed.”

“How long we got?” John asks.

“I’ll give you 30 minutes,” Alycia says coldly.

The next half hour is spent hauling everything possible into the back of the jumbo jet. Everything else - mostly the tools and raw materials, stuff John can easily replace - go into a big pile. Alycia has stockpiled enough explosives here to make a big satisfying boom, scattering the evidence of John’s work across a half-acre of mountainous terrain.

Nono once again starts to wake up during the loading, and Emma puts her down with stun gas, a look of worry and regret on her face. She glances at Alycia reflexively, expecting to see a look of something - condemnation, iron determination, something - but what she sees, and Alex spots, is a look of sadness.

The hull of the jet isn’t fully sealed. John piles everyone else into the cockpit, the only safe place for people to be at the moment while the thing is in flight.

“Controls aren’t that different from the CHIMERA,” he explains. “Two pilot stations and one operator. I’ll be in back - I can handle the low pressure. Where we goin’?”

“Wherever we can find safety,” Alycia says.

“Where’s that?”

The girl takes hold of the controls, and pushes the jet into a hard acceleration and take-off.

“I wish I knew.”

Alex, naturally, took over the operator station. Now, they work on their laptop - the jet has yet to be outfitted with anything but the most essential systems - and with John’s help, point a satellite dish at a bird Alex knows can be used anonymously. Unfortunately, the plane’s movement means John has to continuously adjust the dish, so he’s now clamped to the outside of the jet.

“Over a degree,” Alex calls through comms. “Okay…”

Emma takes over piloting. She’s no expert, but she can hold a stick steady. Alycia, thus freed, unbuckles from the pilot’s seat and moves back to look over Alex’s shoulder.

“I need to know how bad this is,” she says.

“I’m looking, I’m looking…”

It’s been 3 hours, 47 minutes, and 23 seconds since the leak.

The search starts from news sites and the public Internet, and moves into more exclusive digital strongholds to which Alex has access - supervillain forums, Discord servers known for leaking sensitive military information, and so on. Finally they’ve got enough to report on - but they don’t feel “ready” by any stretch.

“This was a selective, targeted leak. The world doesn’t know anything - not yet, but that may be a matter of time. But enough people know.”

Alycia scans the list of sources that received the intel, and Alex can sense the wheels turning. Finally she nods.

“This was an attempt to get me taken in, by anyone with the muscle to try. Someone wanted me off the table. The public leak will happen in time, of course. It always does. The Cairo incident put me on the map. But this may be the one that really does it.”

Alycia gestures to where Nono is thoroughly tied up in a corner of the cockpit. “Keep an eye on her. If she wakes up, that’s fine - don’t stun her any longer. I need to do some thinking.”

Alycia, sitting in the pilot’s seat again, is belted in and secure. Emma is still operating the craft, leaving Alycia to her thoughts.

Most of all, she’s doing her best not to cry.

Her eyes are shut. Her breathing is carefully regulated. She’s cocooned herself into a meditative isolation. And within the boundaries she’s raised between her body and mind, thoughts run free.

Hanging out at coffee shops and cheap restaurants with Summer. Her occasional visits with Daph, while the girl is busy coaching or hiking or whatever thirty-seven other things she does to keep busy.

The art project with Jason.


It’s all gone.

This is the end. There’s no retirement no, no living under an assumed name, no “Alice Chan” cover that will fool the collective intelligence agencies of the world.

She can’t count on the protection of AEGIS. Rex Tyran saw to that, by systematically discrediting its leadership and casting doubt on its abilities.

There’s no nation that would take her in, no country whose neutrality would be enough to shield her.

Sure, she can evade the strike teams, she can run from the hounds, but she’s doing that now.

She hoped that maybe… maybe somehow… there would be a way out.

The last she heard, even the Newmen are persona non grata in the United States, thanks to the State Department. All for the high crime of helping refugees - an assignment she’d given them.

I am cursed to be alone. Everyone close to me is cursed to suffer.

She feels the old self-hatred, the bitter rationalization of her father’s indoctrination, rising. It would be better if she were alone. She doesn’t deserve to be around people. There’s no existence for her as a person, just as an operator, a tool, a weapon.

She tries to push it away, tries to assert self-control, but she doesn’t have the strength.

She could bail out of the plane. Assuming John packed parachutes.

John - he’d follow her. Like he did in Mexico.

The thread of memory comes back. How the team formed. How they supported her.

I should leave them behind, a part of her says.

They would never allow that, says another part.

A sudden surge of wild emotion makes her want to attack people in the jet - knock them out - take one of the Chimeras in the back - just leave, just fly - so they wouldn’t have the choice of following her.

Even as bad off as she is, she recognizes this impulse as unhealthy.

The Baker-2 protocol specifies a way for MIA personnel to reconnect with each other.

Yes. She can wait, wait until a message comes in, wait for instructions.

Those are her orders.

Right now, she can be an instrument of someone else’s will, whether that be her long-lost father or Craig Costigan.

Right now, she doesn’t have to feel these emotions.

Yes. That would be easier.

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I could try to bring you home
Back to a life where you belong
You’re wandering out alone
Wandering on your own

Nono Rodriguez is crying, and it’s not because she’s tied up in the cockpit of the jet.

Emma spends several minutes getting her to focus. Fire has some kind of calming effect on Nono, and the pyrokinetic is an expert at wielding it to help her partner relax. Soon, she’s in good enough shape for questioning, and Alycia wastes no time.

She kneels next to the girl. Her hand is on a pistol, but it’s not drawn. She’s just ready. “What did you do, Nono?”

“I don’t remember,” the girl says between sniffles. “I don’t know…”

Alycia reviews her interrogation strategy.

Whoever or whatever just took over Nono might be gone. Or it might have restored control, but be lurking in the background, listening. Or this might be acting.

Could Nono have gone rogue of her own volition?

Do I actually think this random American schoolgirl could have fooled me for long enough to make that pay off? Alycia finds herself wondering. But Nono has made great strides at spycraft. The danger could be legitimate.

Maybe it was a mistake to train her.

No. The source is most probably the unknown of the Poppet System - the objective of their mission in Panama. Some preprogrammed command left over, maybe?

Being hijacked like that would have been stressful. The key to getting answers isn’t to confront that trauma head-on, but to work around it.

“What were you two doing yesterday?” she asks Emma.

“The usual,” the other girl shrugs. “Coney Island style hot dogs, I knocked over a jewelry store, I took Nono to the therapist I’ve been seeing, oh and there was the mind-blowing sex–”

With Emma, any or all of these could be true, or lies to relieve considerable mental stress. Alycia decides to take them at face value. “Therapist. They know who you are?”


Alycia’s voice remains calm and level. “You need to stop seeing them. We’re cutting ties with everyone for right now.”

“She and Nono were making progress,” Emma protests weakly.

“Too bad. We’ll make other arrangements. What about this morning? What were you two doing?”

“We came to MIA to hang out in case the boring-ass meeting turned interesting.”

Alycia nods. She turns back to Nono. “You remember that? Coming to MIA in the morning? How did you get there? What was Emma wearing?”

Nono sniffles. Her voice cracks, but she’s able to answer. “Took the… the 34 line… Emma was … she’s… the um… that punk leather jacket… ‘Total Chaos’…”

Alycia glances at the back of Emma’s jacket, which does indeed read “Total Chaos” in bold red letters. She nods. “And then…?”

A careful conversation follows. Nono remains tied up, despite seemingly free of the foreign influence. John Black is flying the plane, but can spare glances backward. Alex is at the ops station. Emma remains hovering protectively over Nono.

At the end of it, Alycia is reasonably certain of what happened, and briefs the team on her conclusions.

“Nono was searching the Poppet System for expertise to help her understand a reference to a particular event. Doing so activated a personality - not just a skill set, but an embedded personality - in the Poppet System. It took stock of its surroundings, saw an opportunity, and took it. Then it de-activated itself.”

Alycia looks at her team, one face after another. “It has become more urgent than ever to find a way to remove the Poppet System, not just from Nono, but from all the Grasscutters.”

“Yo, on that note, a message came in from Jason Quill while you were talkin’,” Alex says.

“It’s a trick. Do not answer,” Alycia says curtly.

Alex looks baffled for just a moment. “But, like, Jason Quill is the nanotech guy. Isn’t he–”

“I said it’s a trick, and don’t answer.” Alycia realizes too late that her voice cracked, and with it her mask of poise and self-confidence.

The others look at her with renewed concern, and it makes her want to hide away somewhere, or run for the cockpit door of the plane, or grab her gun and–

Emma is the first to read the impulse toward violence, and puts her own hand firmly on Alycia’s arm. “Easy there, chief. If you need to take a break, you go sit down.”

Alycia almost flinches, almost grabs the hand and throws Emma, but her self-control reasserts itself. “Baker-2,” she says at last, in a voice held by an iron grip. “Observe the Baker-2 protocol for external contact. Do not respond to any other messages.”

The Baker-2 protocol is a series of broadcasts that will be made. It doesn’t matter where, it only matters that they are made. The broadcasts will encode a means of making contact. The key used to encrypt the message is to be used one time, and then discarded. Events requiring Baker-2 are not expected to commonly occur.

The airplane is flying over a moonlit Pacific Ocean when the message comes in. Alex, Emma, and Nono are asleep. Alycia and John are still awake.

Alycia rouses herself from the copilot’s seat, and crawls her way aft. She pushes Alex’s sleeping body aside to get at their laptop, and acknowledge the message.

“Broadcast this,” she tells John, who gets on the plane’s radio immediately.

A few minutes and some crypto key exchanges later, the rest of the team wakes up to hear Craig Costigan’s voice, muffled and garbled over the heavily encrypted channel.

“Everyone’s alive and well,” he reports gruffly. “A little bird tells me I’ll be in closed-door Congressional subcommittee meetings for a few months. They’ll probably want Parker too. The rest of the worker bees will be safe enough - none of them know much about our field work - so they’re getting furloughed for that time. Now. What do you folks need from us?”

“We need–” Alycia wants to say ‘Jason Quill’ and isn’t sure her vocal control will faithfully serve her just at the moment. “We need expertise in nanotechnology. The source of the compromise was an unexpected Trojan in the Poppet System. We need it removed.”

There’s a pause on the line. Costigan comes back, less confidently. “Jason Quill’s rounded up a group of nanotech experts to help Mercury - your teammate, Harry Gale. He’s got some kind of nanotech virus in his system. Ordinarily I’d say you have the best shot with them. But I suspect you don’t want to be within a mile of such a high-profile business right now.”

“Correct, sir,” Alycia says carefully. “There is another possibility. The designer of the Poppet System. Alias ‘Jenny Byrne’. A product of the ANTIBODY program.”

“Russian neutralization assets, made to order. I remember.” Costigan sighs. “And Byrne is suspected to be in charge of the Grasscutters now. If there’s any successor to ANTIBODY - anonymous soldiers created to take down the powerful - it feels like it’s them.”

“Maybe.” Alycia taps her chin in thought. “Ever since his visit to Russia, Jenny Byrne would periodically visit–”

She still has trouble saying his name without expressing undesirable emotion. She sidesteps.

“–the Quill compound. She may still be doing so.”

The thought irritates her, but she continues regardless. “That stolen submarine is a logical mobile base. I would have expected a director of operations to be there. They could surface to remotely direct their hijacked assets, such as the recent attack on the HHL, then dive to avoid detection and pursuit. And you said a gathering of nanotechnology experts…”

Alycia perks up suddenly. “Byrne might be at the Quill compound right now, anonymously, to blend into this meeting and learn more. My understanding is that she’s still trying to acquire the secrets of Byron Quill’s technology. Where better to attempt that than at Byron Quill’s own home, among fellow experts in her field?”

“But Jason would recognize her,” Costigan says. “Does she have a credible disguise?”

“She might. I wouldn’t put it past her. But we…”

Alycia turns her attention to the radio. “Director. I’m sorry, but maybe it’s better if you don’t know what we’re doing.”

“I don’t need to know what you do, Charade,” she hears him say. “I know why you do it. That’s good enough.”

As the call ends, Alycia’s cheeks puff as she exhales with relief and confusion. She turns to John Black. “Newman-type robots can pass for human beings, yes? Past what point?”

“Around second base,” John drawls.

Alex almost chokes and Emma smirks. In the corner, still tied up, Nono sighs a little. But Alycia presses on.

“Can you create face masks that can disguise one or more of us, but still pass for human on close and prolonged inspection? Perspiration - hair - blush responses - but enough to conceal us?”

“Probably,” John shrugs.

Alycia points at him. “Get on it. If you can’t manage it, we’ll do it the low-tech way.”

She turns to the others. “Alex, falsify records for as many of us as you can manage. Emma, our files have a partial readout on the Quill compound and its defenses. I’ll fill in the gaps for you. Make plans for infiltration and exfiltration. I’ll review them.”

“What will you be doing?” Alex asks.

“Learning everything there is to know about nanotechnology.”

Alycia hunkers down in front of Nono, and looks her eye to eye, up close and personal. “You will be too, Nono,” she says in a soft voice, cold as ice. Her emotions are still turbulent within her, but she must master them. “If the system activates again, I’ll do my best to take you down non-lethally. But if this personality wakes up and fights back, I make no promises. Do you understand?”

Nono is visibly fearful, and doing her best to hold back her own panic. But she nods, quickly, like a hunted animal diving for its den when a predator appears. “I - I understand.”

“We’ve broken into a few places. Finally time to raid a friendly, huh?” grins Alex, perhaps in an attempt to break up the tension.

Alycia, having untied Nono in the few seconds that question took, rises and turns sharply. “For the duration of this mission, nobody is ‘friendly.’”

John remembers how he did synthetic skin originally. He’s wearing it. He can’t benefit from any subsequent improvements - calling the Newmen is off limits - but he’s able to put together a program in the plane’s molecular lathe that will do the trick.

“Biomimetic adhesive keeps the prosthetic on your real skin,” he explains. “The pores are actually much wider than they seem, and they’ll pull sweat right through. What I got here will suck if you want to impersonate anyone the target knows, but we’re going in as random researchers.”

Nono has concocted a chemical companion, using advice from a trick Alycia used once. “When you drink this, it will adjust your voice for several hours. Drink enough of it and it will give you violent indigestion, so please using it sparingly.”

Emma is on deck next, with routes into and out of the compound. Alex has forged credentials that should pass muster with the Quill computer system.

Alycia briefs the team on their covers. “Our host will have personally vetted all the primary attendees. Our cover story is that one of them forwarded the invitation to a few colleagues and we showed up. We will be suitably apologetic about the mix-up, but since we’re here, perhaps we could help…?”

John puts the plane onto a course toward the Arctic, at extreme elevation. The team pile into their Chimeras and launch, bound for that most dangerous of exotic destinations, their home town.

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Getting to the door is the easy part.

The symposium Jason organized has been running for weeks. The meeting at the compound has been going on for days. Harry Gale is a big deal, and experts in the field are coming and going all the time to conference with their fellows and review new data. More people showing up won’t raise any eyebrows.

There are DNA-detecting laser scanners on the property, snooping for specific individuals or familiar genetic patterns such as Atlantean ninja, but John’s prosthetics will tend to prevent theirs from being picked up. And the scanners aren’t smart enough to notice someone who isn’t producing enough of a sample to register.

An unfortunate security flaw, Alycia muses. She can’t gloat too much - she had a hand in its creation, and so she shares in the blame for this oversight.

Their credentials are some of Alex’s best work, and that’s saying something. The hacker even thoughtfully provided a phone and email tap, in case somebody tries to forward a message to the real people they’re emulating. And so it is that Doctors So-and-So and What’s-Her-Face, joined by three undergraduates, Forgettable Face Guy, Bored Being Here Bitch, and Obsessive Data Nerd, are buzzed through without incident.

The hard part will be inside, where the people are. But isn’t that always the case?

Past the front door, Alycia glances around, taking in the sights, playing the part of bedazzled outsider when visiting the Quill compound for the first time. Specific eye movements, specifically timed, will convey the impression of newness. There will be people to fool later, some of them hypergeniuses, but the facade must be kept up at all times.

She’s reasonably sure that of the others, only Nono and Alex have any working knowledge of the compound - Alex from spying on the Menagerie for almost a year, Nono from her fiction. She thinks she can trust Alex’s general insolence to excuse the lack of interest in their surroundings, and Nono’s generally wide-eyed enthusiasm at anything spy-related. But there’s still plenty of reason to keep a close eye on them, especially Nono.

Speaking of hypergeniuses - there’s one, Herr Doktor Uhrwerk from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Alycia offers felicitous congratulations for a recent paper, and the scientist’s pride at recognition blinds him just long enough for her to move on. This is the first test of the prosthetics and voice adjustments - will they attract the attention of someone with a superhuman intellect? She’ll know in a few minutes.

She’s greeted by someone from the staff, no doubt summoned by the door’s computer. At least it’s not Jason - thank god, he’s probably too busy to play host right now. She gives the cover story. The woman - Barbara, Alycia thinks - frowns, and Alycia springs her prepared anecdote about a similar incident. The incident itself was real enough, based on something from her father’s work, but the plausibility of it serves to erode Barbara’s doubts.

“Well, it’s for a good cause,” the woman says at last. “Just please introduce yourself to Mr. Quill and explain the situation.”

“Thank you, I will do so,” Alycia says with a smile.

There’s another problem, still unsolved. How does Jenny Byrne keep getting in here?

Unless Jason has been engaging in deliberate trysts with the spy - a recurring thought that her anxiety has gifted her, despite literal years of evidence to the contrary - it’s unlikely that she has some kind of backdoor into the Quill security system. Alycia knows Jason has been through the system a dozen times or more, methodically scrubbing out anything he finds that doesn’t belong. Even Jason himself was locked out at one point, when he enacted his so-called Sewer Lizard protocol. Alycia is still not quite certain how that name came to be, nor what it entails, but it was something he’d had prepared since at least the time of the original Menagerie.

She’s already thought of another option. Jenny Byrne was co-opted into working for Pyrrhus, through Doctor Achilles Chin’s subordinate, Dr. Sidorov. But Pyrrhus, as a mental fusion of the Quill and Chin families, would know everything both Byron and Jason knew. What if Pyrrhus granted Jenny some sort of extra-secret backdoor, something that would elude Jason’s routine sweeps? It was in character for Byron Quill to keep secrets from his son, and to enforce his will over Jason through technology.

The man was a pig. What was done to him was right and just, Alycia tells herself, in a moment of bitter recollection.

She performs another of her routine checks on her team. Nono, to her credit, is playing her part well. She’s bossing the “undergrads” around, and her body language and tone of voice are those of a superior.

The prosthetics are visible to her senses, keyed up as they are by a lifetime of training, and Alycia feels a sinking feeling. These disguises will fool most people, but anyone raised like me - him, for example - they’ll see through it.

It’s just as well. She has no intention of facing Jason Quill tonight.

If Jenny is getting in, she isn’t doing it through the front door, or within range of the scanners. Alycia is reasonably certain Jason has DNA traces of her from prior visits - “or other sources,” her anxiety tells her - and has probably programmed the laser scanners already. Those are a new system, not likely to fall over if presented with some hypothetical Byronic backdoor.

Emma’s infil-exfil plan (“heist planning”, she’d called it) had highlighted a few other ways in, ways that a trained acrobat and spy could use. Thanks to the Poppet System, Jenny Byrne could be all of those things. But those ways exited into the compound at specific locations. If she was using a backdoor access code, plus one of these poorly-covered entry points, she could make it in.

Alycia is confident Jenny won’t be here tonight - that would be too convenient. But she’s equally confident that she can plant sensors at these points. If someone sneaks in or out, she’ll be notified. All the team has to do is litter the house with the sensors, then get out.

Other team members have their own assignments. Alex will do their best to tap the Quill house’s computer with what they describe as a “fiendishly well designed gadget” that should help the team track Jenny’s movements if she trips the house’s sensors. Emma is in charge of making sure the team has a route out of the house. John is here as muscle, in case the team triggers a security response. Alycia isn’t sure if Jason and Leo have ever really gone head-to-head technologically, and she privately admits some curiosity how it would play out.

Nono is here to do the one thing Alycia can’t. The whole reason for this meeting is to help Harry Gale. Even though nanotechnology isn’t her specialty, Alycia still feels guilty for not at least trying to help a teammate and friend. Nono is an authentic but underappreciated chemistry genius with a knack for looking at problems from a fresh perspective. Maybe–


She hears a voice behind her say, “hello hero”.

God dammit.

She turns, to find Jason smiling at her. He’s got a drink in his hand, and he extends it. Alycia accepts, knowing it would break character to refuse.

“That’s what a friend of mine would say to me in greeting,” Jason says, smiling. “Those words. ‘Hello hero’. You know, I always wondered if she was being sarcastic. I was a hero on television, but I never felt like one in real life. I thought, maybe she could see through me, see the real me. Would it be better to be seen as who you really are? Or to be taken as the person you were pretending to be?”

Alycia realizes, with a rush of gratitude, that Jason is playing along despite seeing through her. But she must play along as well, so as not to alert the suspicion of anyone who overhears them in passing.

“I would hope your friend meant it sincerely, Mr. Quill. I think of you as a hero.”

Jason’s smile is lopsided, and tinged with emotions Alycia struggles to read. “That means a lot.”

He clasps his hands and smiles brightly, now the perfect host. “So! I think you are facing a very difficult problem here. What do you think of it?”

She knows it’s her exposure that he means, but manages a sage nod, the sort any academic here would offer to an essentially intellectual problem. “It is a perplexing business, Mr. Quill. I simply do not see a way forward at the present time.”

“As organizer, it’s my duty to facilitate your work in any way that I can. Please feel free to reach out to me.”

Alycia risks opening her hand for just a moment, in which rests one of the sensors, and mouths the letters “J B”. To the best of her knowledge, nobody is near enough to pick up on it - but she’s remembering that she must mistrust what she thinks she knows, and rely only on what she knows.

Jason, to his credit, picks up on the idea and immediately runs with it. “For example, maybe you are interested in locating a collaborator for a piece of research.”

Emotions are welling up in her heart, and she feels a growing headache and a tightening in her chest as they threaten to express themselves. She wants to confess her fears and doubts to him, tell him goodbye, tell him something that will let her run away into the darkness forever the way she must–

“I’ve put out some feelers, and perhaps can continue doing so here at your home,” she says smoothly.

Jason simply smiles and nods. “Then I’ll leave you to it.”

The ingrained training of her upbringing tells her to shoot him, silence him, keep him from leaking her existence here. This is an infiltration - she was blown - by all rights, she should–

She plants the next sensor, holding herself in check with a will of rapidly rusting iron.

Exfiltration was as easy as infiltration.

“Quill spotted me,” Alycia admits, when the team is back aboard the plane. “Motives currently unknown, but I will continue monitoring. If he becomes a liability…”

The others shuffle uncertainly in their positions.

“Report,” Alycia barks, a little more loudly than she wanted to. But what else can she do to prevent them from pitying her, or fearing her, right now?

Nono goes first. “Umm, Mr. Gale is suffering from some kinda nanotech infection. The most promising theory I heard from the group was that it was from the future.”

Alycia’s head snaps up at that, as a memory intrudes. Future tech in the Conversation Pit was something she experienced when first joining the Menagerie, all those years ago. But no - this wouldn’t be the same thing.

She takes a breath, and forces a smile. “Thank you. Resume reports.”

Alex is up next. “I couldn’t tap the Quill main computer, but I got my Poke’monitor plugged into an ancillary system and will continue forcing my attentions on the main system until it gives it all up.”

John follows. “Nothing to report, 'cause nobody started shooting at y’all. I want to hear about how the prosthetics worked out later, in case we do this again.”

“We will,” Alycia affirms. “That was useful technology.”

She turns to Emma.

The girl is ready, and shows off a handful of loose screws. “Found these near a vent. Big enough for a delicate Irish waif to get through.”

She looks around at the doubtful faces. “Hey, it ain’t just a thing on television. Ted Bundy did it.”

“Anyway, I put a sensor on there. Just in case she repeats routes. If she does. Fuckin thick as a brick if she does, in my opinion.”

Alycia nods. “Alright. Well. Good work, everyone. We’ll continue to plan for other contingencies. I’ll take a Chimera out to follow up on something. John, please make the arrangements to deploy.”

Once aboard her personal craft, Alycia departs the jet through the cargo hatch. The Chimera drops to a lower altitude, and she sets a random autopilot destination.

Once sure that radios and other communication devices are quite definitely offline, she rests her head against the back of the tiny craft and begins to cry.


Falling from the heights
Sink into the mud
Falling from the skies
You’d catch me if you could, you could

It takes two days for Jenny Byrne - or an intruder using her M.O. - to make an appearance. When she does, Alycia and the team are ready.

John Black is in position. He’s coated his armored mode with the same stuff as the Chimeras, and as such is now a night-black ninja, able to hide in any sort of shadow. While Jenny Byrne may be able to emulate any human skill, the android is super-human. As a result, he’s able to follow guidance from Alycia and Alex as they monitor the Russian spy’s departure from the Quill compound.

The list of destinations narrows, until it’s certain that Jenny is heading for a multi-story parking garage.

Jenny is walking toward a rental car, parked on the top deck of the garage, when John lands lightly on the car’s roof and crouches, like an animal ready to pounce.

Jenny spins, ready to flee, only to see four strange craft, darker than darkness itself, disgorge ultra-tech motorcycles. Alycia Chin is aboard one.

“Jenny Byrne,” she announces coldly. “It is long past time we had a conversation.”

Like Nono before her, the spy being kept in the jet’s cockpit, tied up and closely watched.

Alycia is about to start the interrogation when there’s a slight thump, resonating through the hull. Alycia glances at John quickly - “check it.”

But before he can make a move, the team notices someone peeking in through the cockpit window. It’s Jason Quill.

Alycia exhales, in a bid to keep herself from screaming.

In a minute, Jason’s inside with the rest of the team, making for a cramped cockpit.

“How did you find us?” Alycia demands.

“Nanotech tracers on the glass at the house,” Jason grins.

Alycia rolls her eyes. “Of course. You identified me and you couldn’t leave well enough alone. Couldn’t trust that I was there for a good reason.”

“You infiltrated my house in disguise,” Jason points out. “And you haven’t been returning my calls.”

“Ooh, what a delightful domestic,” Jenny observes slyly, turning on the lilt at full tilt.

“You keep out of this,” Alycia barks.

“Should uh, should we leave the three of you alone?” Emma asks, raising an eyebrow, and smirking like it’s going out of style.

Alycia and Jason turn. “No,” they say in unison, just as Jenny says, “yes.”

Emma nudges Nono, and glances at Alex and John. “Come on, gang, we’ve got Chimera maintenance to do.”

Alycia can feel her blood pressure elevating as the others pile out.

“Oh, I stuck my Q-Disc to the hull,” Jason says to John. “Do you mind hauling stowing it?”

“Gonna throw me the keys like I’m your fucking valet?” the android retorts. “Park it yourself.”

Then the cockpit door closes, leaving the three of them.

Alycia sighs, and turns back to Jenny. “You’re the leader of the Grasscutters, and we’re putting a stop to your organization.”

The lilt is now entirely gone. “I did my best to help those people,” the girl says softly. “They’d been through so much. Anyone who discovered Pyrrhus’ operation, or got in the way of it - well, they got addicted to his drug, then outfitted with a gadget. My gadget.”

She looks up, looking at Alycia and Jason and back again. “I had a responsibility! It was my invention. It was supposed to be useful. Maybe not for some ‘greater good’ as the two of you seem to aspire to. But it was something I could do. Something I hadn’t been programmed to do, or be, something that marked me as a person worthy of respect. And then Pyrrhus twisted it–”

“Why should I believe any of this?” Alycia cuts in.

Jenny’s expression quavers. “I’ve spent days thinking about how to answer that question. How could I make anyone trust me? And I can’t answer it. I can’t. I’m sorry. I thought, maybe I could get close to Jason, like you did. Make him see the real me. Earn his trust in time. But I reached too high in my ambition and paid the price. I’m not even a real person. I don’t deserve that, I’m too late for it…”

“Spare me your self-pity,” Alycia scowls.

But Jason holds up a hand. “Artificial beings have a good track record of earning my trust. Emphasis on ‘earning’. Right now you’re not giving us anything beyond ‘woe is me’. The Grasscutters are a real problem. If you want to earn that trust, you can help us solve it.”

Alycia jumps in. “You need to do more than that. We acquired one of their Poppet Systems. It’s attached to one of my teammates. I want it removed - and I need to know how to neutralize it on the Grasscutters.”

Tears are forming at the edge of Jenny’s eyes. Alycia knows at least four ways to do that without external aids - it doesn’t mean anything, as far as she knows. But Jenny’s words are more convincing. “I’ll give you all of that. But we have to go to where the systems were developed to do it. To зимняя колыбель - the Winter Cradle.”

“Why can’t you just tell us?” Jason asks.

“Sidorov did more work for Pyrrhus. He took my design, made changes, made it transferable. I’m not a hypergenius. I can’t explain what was done.”

Alycia frowns.

“I think you both will want to know about it anyway,” adds Jenny quietly. “It is where they are making more people like me. More Antibodies, designed to neutralize heroes, politicians, activists, influencers - anyone the state deemed a threat. Next to them, next to our potential, the Grasscutters are amateurs.”

There is a short argument, which Jason wins, about how many people will be coming on the mission. There is another argument, which Alycia wins, about how short a leash Jenny Byrne will be kept on.

“If you could track me, you can and will track her,” she told Jason, and that sounded reasonable. Jason concocted a nanotech tracker that could be mixed with water and drank. Jenny made a comment about “swallowing anything you give me, Mr. Quill”, and Alycia cold-cocked her. But the tracking solution could be administered to an unconscious person, so it all worked out.

The Winter Cradle is located in the Kamchatka Peninsula. The region is in the far eastern part of Russia. It’s a frigid, lifeless expanse of snow-capped mountains and fitfully sleeping volcanoes. It’s the perfect place to build a base you don’t want anybody to find.

The team’s jet lands not far from the coordinates Jenny provided. It takes less than half an hour to set up a base camp, cover the jet with a winter camouflage net, and ready the Chimeras for deployment.

Everyone is unhappy and out of sorts. Alycia knows her stress is leaking out of her mask, despite her impressive self-control. She knows that being on the run is not easy, but the attack on MIA’s headquarters made it feel a lot more real. Jason tries to lighten the mood by demonstrating that even here in the show and ice, there’s flowering plants and edible berries to be found. Despite supplying the team with a fresh meal, the effort falls flat emotionally. Jason has what nobody else has at the moment - a nice warm house to go back to - and that creates a distance that only deepens the gloom.

Finally, Alycia has had enough. She draws a gun - not one of the non-lethal chemical guns, but a simple firearm - and gestures with it in Jenny’s direction. “You will brief the team on what to expect.”

Jenny is all business, and doesn’t waste time looking to anyone for sympathy. “First. What I know about the Cradle, I know only from overhearing Sidorov talk about it. I have not been here. I will not be responsible for things I can’t know about. So be cautious.”

“It is… a city. There are clones. Automata. Officers overseeing the activities. I will be playing that role, since none of you know the pass-words or procedures. When we are confronted, follow my lead.”

Alycia tilts her head. “Put in you charge? You must be joking.”

“Only to speak to the overseers,” Jenny says, scowling. “Unless you want to be hunted in two countries.”

“We’ll see what happens,” Jason suggests. “What do we need to do to blend in?”

Jenny smiles strangely. “Just be yourselves.”

She gets the business end of Alycia’s pistol placed against the back of her head for her trouble. “I don’t like vague declarations like that,” the girl murmurs in Jenny’s ear. “Why don’t you be more explicit.”

Jenny is silent. Prodding from the pistol gets her to speak. “I can’t say any more. I can’t explain it. You must see it for yourself to understand what Kovačević has done.”

The team have parked their Chimeras out of sight, and John pushed snow over them for concealment. Alycia and Jason both spotted an accessible sewer pipe at the same time, and the team scouted it out and took it.

They emerge from a manhole, one by one, and find themselves in an alley. They step out into the street. There are few passersby, and none of them give the team any acknowledgement. Without any clearer idea of a destination, they begin walking.

The city is Soviet-era brutalism at its best. The residences are clone-stamped rectangles of concrete. Civic services are found in buildings that look more like stories-tall headstones than proper offices. The architects’ idea of decorative and imaginative construction look like blocks stacked up by a hyperactive child.

John Black is the first to observe something. “Some of these people are Rossum-type robots.”

“You mean Rossum is involved in this?” Alycia asks.

“No. Well kind of. I mean… his designs were copied by the Russians and the Chinese. Big surprise. It always irked him. He was gonna do something about it sooner or later, he said.”

John doesn’t point, but a brief inclination of his head is enough to indicate a couple of people, walking together. “There’s little signs, but they stand out once you look. Get two of them together and they automatically coordinate their walking gait, to keep up with each other. The hair will bounce too much too. Dear old dad never cared about getting the little details right. He just wanted something that could pass for human long enough.”

Further into the city, Jason sees something that makes him draw breath sharply. Alycia catches the sound and follows the line of his gaze. She inhales too.

The quartet looks ordinary to anyone who doesn’t know the history of their families. But there, real as life, are Byron Quill and his son Jason, walking alongside Achilles Chin and his daughter Alycia.

Two pairs of eyes drop to their legs. They’re walking in exact unison.

“Robots,” breathes Jason, perhaps relieved that they aren’t living clones.

“That’s why you won’t need disguises here,” Jenny whispers. “Do you understand now? This is the training ground of the Antibodies. This is where they are tested against their targets. The masters of this place sow the seeds that will destroy the world.”

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There ain’t no love, in a concrete kingdom
Ain’t much light
Ain’t no life in a concrete kingdom
I hear the cries tonight - I hear, I hear

“What’s our plan?” Jason asks quietly, as the group walks.

Alycia’s conviction is firm. Right now, she has nothing else to hold onto. “Find the nanotechnology lab. Destroy this abomination of a city.”

Jason smiles. “That second one smacks of mission creep, but I’m of a mind to do the same.”

Alycia turns to her team. All of them read as some mixture of horrified and determined, which tells her what she needs to know. They feel what she feels.

“Fine. Antibody. ‘Jenny Byrne’. If you walk us into a trap, I’ll see to it that you don’t walk out. But you’ll take point during interactions with people here.”

Jenny smiles brightly. “Very well. Just in case anyone is uncertain about me - who speaks fluent Russian?”

Alycia, Jason, and Alex put their hands up. Emma wobbles her hand. Nono taps her index fingers together and looks embarrassed. John shrugs slightly.

“Very well. Non-speakers, practice this phrase. Я отрицательный. Я здесь для обновленного обучения. It means ‘I am negative. I am here for updated training.’ If you are confronted, say it. This marks you as a failed Antibody, like me. You are here to learn a new skill. Then the officer will ask you a question. This is for your identification number. Tell him any eight digits that come to mind.”

“And then what?” Nono asks, mentally taking notes.

Jenny’s smile brightens. “Then the officer will call it in. Then you will kill him while he is distracted, and our mission is over, and we must all flee or be killed.”

The first encounter comes less than twenty minutes later.

Alycia sees the signs of an overseer from body language. He’s scrutinizing his surroundings. He’s walking with a military gait. His shoes are polished. He’s dressed like a businessman, out for a stroll, but it’s not enough to disguise the reality.

She turns to her team. “Friendly faces, everyone, so stay relaxed,” she says with a false smile. But they get the message.

“Good day,” the officer says in English.

“Good day!” Jenny says, practically bouncing with enthusiasm.

“Quite an assorted group you have here,” the officer says. “Is there a city event I missed out on?”

Jenny shakes her head. “Nothing I know of.”

The man switches to Russian. “I recognize the Chin and the Quill units. Identify yourself.”

John, Emma, and Nono can’t follow the language. But Alycia’s hands are folded behind her back, and she uses them out of sight of the officer to subtly signal that things are under control. With this done, they stay as relaxed and smiling as they possibly can at the moment.

Jenny’s brightness diminishes, and she adopts the same professional tone. “I’m negative. 67292941, reassigned to Sidorov. I’m escorting some other negatives to new assignments.”

The officer nods, and addresses himself to the others. Still in Russian, he asks, “you negatives. Your numbers, please?”

Jenny’s face reveals that she hadn’t quite planned on this. She switches to English. “I’m so sorry, we got a little carried away. But isn’t it nice to practice speaking a foreign language with someone else?”

Alycia gets it, and Jason gets it, and both recognize immediately that the other did so. The mask the city wears is “always on”. Antibodies are here to learn to act naturally. To do that, they have to stay in character.

Alycia speaks up. “My apologies. Our friends are new here and don’t understand how things are done.”

Jason smoothly steps in, matching Alycia’s cadence. He turns to the team. “Can each of you tell this gentleman something about the most important person in your life?”

Please god, please let them catch on.

Alex jumps in. They heard the conversation and understand the context. “Hi! My name’s Shelby. The person I want to get closest to in the world is the speedster, Harry Gale, 'cause he’s sooo cool.”

They rattle off a few pretty specific observations about Harry - enough to remind Alycia that Alex, as “Agent 1337”, was once assigned to spy on the Menagerie. But it does the trick, as the officer seems mildly impressed.

Nono has caught on. “Me! I’m Nana. I got transferred to the same school as Mr. Quill and I was studying in his classes with him. I even spoke to him a few times, and later I got to visit his house, and even work for him!”

She too rattles off some fairly personal details about Jason Quill, and Alycia is reminded that Nono did not spy on the Menagerie - she just wrote reams of spicy Jason fan fiction. While she’s happiest not dwelling on that, Alycia takes a little pleasure at Jason’s well-concealed but intense discomfort.

John has it easiest. “I’m a robot duplicate of Leo Newman nee Snow, aka the American superhero Link,” he says flatly. To prove it, he transforms part of his hand into one of his many weapon systems. This, more than anything, catches the officer quite by surprise.

Emma wraps it up. “Kid Kelvin. Halcyon’s coolest hero. I’m gonna make him notice me.” She, too, has a surprising command of her chosen nemesis’ biography. Alycia understands some of this - as “Hot Mess”, Emma had targeted the hero, and ended up working with him in an underhanded way to expose corrupt corporations, cops on the take, and the like.

The overseer has been subtly checking a device in his hand during the conversation. Alycia spotted the moment he got a reply on it. He turns back to Jenny. “Your number checks out. The new negatives stayed in character, but while they are here, they need to respond to commands. Instill this in them during their reorientation.”

“I’ll see to it, sir,” Jenny replies.

“You can go about your business.”

The man walks away, and only after he’s long gone does anyone breathe a sigh of relief.

Alycia finally makes a comment. “If it were me, I’d have insisted on numbers from all of you, in spite of those cover stories.”

“Glad you aren’t in charge of this facility,” Jason jokes.

A memory reminds Alycia that should her life have gone only slightly differently, she very well might have been.

The team has been on the run for hours. Everyone is scared, uncertain, and wary. The jet’s cockpit was cramped and hot. The Chimeras are not particularly fun to sit in. Every new indignity, however small, has grown increasingly hard to handle. Now, as they walk, the tension mounts.

It’s Alex who breaks first, though via a rational argument. “Listen, this is a fake city, like the AWTC in Virginia the military ran, I get that. But this all has to be functional to some degree, right? Water runs, there’s restaurants and refrigerators and snacks. What I’m getting at is, can we just like, stop somewhere and clean up, take a break? We’re all under stress. Getting to chill for a bit will help us stay in character.”

Alycia wants to say something like “there’s important things to do here, press on” and deny the request.

Some part of her asks a question. Isn’t that just “mission first” with more words?

Is “mission first” just an excuse for me to run away from my thoughts and feelings?

Hasn’t it always been?

Another part of her, a part wearing her father’s face and speaking with his voice, reminds her of the reality. “You’re in the stronghold of the enemy. The world knows you exist. Everyone is chasing you. Everything is on your shoulders. You can’t show weakness or hesitation.”

She feels a reassuring hand on her shoulder and wants to brush it off. She almost does - but she looks up, and sees Jason’s blue eyes looking at her.

He knows, she realizes. He knows what I’m going through. After all these years, he’s finally able to see me.

She takes a breath to drown out the whirlwind of conflicted feelings, and nods. “Fine. Split into pairs. Russian speakers with non-speakers. We’ll find unoccupied buildings.”

“A word of warning,” John says, before they do so. “It’s about the robots.”

A frown crosses his face. “I know about them because of past experience. Homeschooling.”

Alycia has heard Leo use the term, and knows it’s significant to him - and hence to John, effectively a version of Leo two years closer to the events. But she doesn’t yet know what it entailed.

“They look human,” John explains. “More importantly, they act human, within their parameters. Rossum figured out expressiveness. I hate to admit it, but how the Newmans are so able to emote came from that research. Like how cats can trigger the parenting instinct in human beings by looking like babies, big eyes and crying, that kind of thing. The robots appeal to your human empathy.”

He looks around, from teammate to teammate, intent on impressing a point upon them. “Do not fall for it. Do not let these things deceive you.”

Current comfort levels dictated only one set of pairings. Alex and John have worked together, and despite their bickering, Alycia is confident in them as a team. Pairing Nono with Jason right now would be immensely awkward. That leaves Jason and Emma, and Alycia and Nono.

“I’ve been seeing some of the same people, over and over,” Alycia tells Nono, as they walk the streets of the snow-covered city.

“I did too!” the other girl exclaims. “I think - I think they’re AUs.”

The term doesn’t resolve at first, and Nono clarifies. “Alternate Universes? Um, different versions of the same character, like uh, those movies with a multiverse. Like there’s the family AU that we saw, and maybe some other robot copies they made of you and Jason? Like someone wrote a fic where you’re in school, or where you’re working at an office, or–”

Alycia interrupts. “I get the idea.”

She realizes she was more abrupt than she intended, and composes herself. “It’s - not the term I would have used. But your assessment matches my own. No doubt the intention is to let Antibodies interact with their quarries in a variety of circumstances. The robots of this city might look like people, but they could hardly emulate the richness of the human experience. One workaround would be to create several robotic duplicates, then program them to emulate only a single facet.”

Nono nods, a serious look on her face. “Flanderization. I get it.”

Alycia sighs, and keeps walking.

The pair spot a house - a rarity amongst the concrete apartments - and Alycia gestures. “That one.”

“How can you tell?” Nono asks.

Alycia gestures to a sign in one of the windows, bearing Chinese characters. “The text there is ah, family motto of sorts. One of the, hmm. One of the ‘AU Alycias’ must live here.”

The pair try the door, finding it unlocked.

Inside, however, they find four people. One Jason Quill, dressed in a cardigan sweater and slacks. One Alycia Chin, dressed in Chinese hanfu. Two children with mixed features inherited from their presumed parents.

Alycia halts, slack-jawed.

The AU Jason is the first to speak. “Hello there, you two! We weren’t expecting visitors, were we dear?”

The AU Alycia beams. “We weren’t! May we introduce ourselves. This is–”

“I know who you are,” Alycia says.

The robots pause, and look at each other.

Alycia realizes she’s breaking character, which might be the worst thing to do in this city of robots. “I apologize. I am - having difficulties. Please. You were introducing yourselves?”

“Quite so, quite so,” the AU Jason says, clearly back on track with his program. “Mr. Jason Quill, esquire. May I present my charming and beautiful wife, Alycia Quill. And our children, Ben and Jerry.”

Alycia nearly chokes. “Pleasure to meet you. My name is, ah, Alice Chan. This is Nana. I’m sorry to have disturbed your - your lovely family - but - my companion and I need - need a place to clean ourselves up. Perhaps you have a - washroom or bathroom we can use?”

The AU Alycia smiles lovingly up at her husband. The AU Jason Quill likewise smiles broadly. “Of course, of course! Come this way. In fact, young lady, I suspect my wife’s clothing may be your size, if you need a change.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Alycia manages.

Inside the bathroom, Alycia clicks the door lock. She gestures to Nono to run the shower. “Hot water will be in limited supply. Don’t run it too long,” she instructs.

Once the sound of the water fills the room, she continues. “The noise should fool listening devices. I don’t have long. Listen. I am having a very hard time. I have difficulties with robots, owing to a childhood incident I shan’t relate right now, but I assure you is still with me. Now we are in a city full of them. You - or something that possessed you - compromised me and led me here.”

Alycia draws a breath, amidst the steam of the shower. “So, Ms. Nono Rodriguez, please understand that right now, I both am very dependent on your support as a teammate, and am very close to trying to kill you.”

Seacraft carrier?

In fact, she needed the first shot to miss to guarantee the second shot hit.

It helps that it’s in an ancient Chinese dialect, contemporaneous with the Khanate.

It’s always a bit disturbing because Alex knows that she’s also keeping track of her surroundings, but with a lot less fine control than usual. Which means that anyone who might be interpreted as a threat is likely to be so interpreted, with abrupt results.

She has no doubt that, given the opportunity, Parker will be able to slip off the grid with professional ease.

Her transformation from lone wolf to mama hen (with inch-long talons) continues to bemuse.

Which begs the question of what data about her is in those files that might not be known by some of the others. (Grabs popcorn.)

But not that there was something there, and an explosion will scatter a lot, mangle much, but destroy little. It just turns the site into a big puzzle. Something a bit more self-destructish – collapsing the cave area into the limestone cave system running beneath it – would be neater. Transmatting the contents into the sun (or even near Earth orbit) would be even moreso.

Alycia wouldn’t appreciate being called a girl.

The cost of building those relationships. Letting her guard down. Being with others. Yeah, those are all things that can be (or at least she thinks can be, from her experience) taken away. Or used to hurt her (and, more importantly, strangely enough, those others).

I’ve not read enough recently to have a sense of to what extent that might have been done specifically to this result. But as part of the reason it might have been done … yeah.

Which actually is a sign of remarkable growth for her.

Yup. And, given her questionable (internal fears and insecurities directly hit with a cattle prod) judgment about this so far, probably safer. For now.

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That’s … interesting.

It says something about the situation that neither Nono nor Alycia react overtly to this.

That she desperately wants, even with where they are right now, to be able to turn to Jason and rely on him to help solve this …

Go, Emma! Some growth there, too.

Nice. Maybe she’ll take that to heart.


Alycia’s got her groove back. At least on the surface. Because she has a mission.

My first thought is that Alycia knows of a lot of routes into and out of the Quill Compound, from days gone by.

But, of course, she’d be foolish to assume that any of them still exist unchanged.

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That she didn’t actually leave a back door is laudable.

Though, in retrospect, shortsighted.

Hmmm. Hard in different ways. Less predictable. But also more manipulatable. Humans are always the weakest surface of any security system, but also the most likely to surprise, and the most flexible to detect and act.

That might vary with their particular intellectual and hyperintellectual kink.or strength or weakness. Her father could tell things about people she never mastered. But she has insights into possibilities, topographic and emotional, that he never had.

Oh, yeah.

As I always answer in those “Who would win, Comic Book Character A, or Comic Book Character B,” the answer is always, “Whomever the writer wants to win.”

Which is maybe the difference between fiction and reality.

I never dwelt on it as Jason, but I can imagine some ways that the nanobots could give Newman tech a very bad day. And vice versa.


Okay, Jason is being a lot more subtle than folk wouild give him credit for.

Love this.

And, of course they would. Both.

Okay, and now, having spent several minutes reading that … fun times.

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Option 1: Jenny is filled with genuine remorse.
Option 2: Jenny is running back old Alycia records to get sympathy from Jason and/or Alycia.
Option 3: Maybe both?

Alycia, of course, refuses to be played. Which may cause her to miss an opportunity or two.


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Heck, an “Alycia” might be.

That’s loaded with about a dozen implications. About himself. About the Newmen. About Jenny. And about the bots they meet here, of course.

Makes me wonder why she chose that place, given the likelihood of something like this.

Crikey. I forgot about that aspect.

“And guess which one would come more naturally.”

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Normally I’d hold comments until the end of the story but since Dave’s already started this interlude, of course the first AU Alycia runs into is Spy × Family Jalycia. :laughing:

One of us! One of us!


Alycia Chin did not have the capacity to deal with Jenny Byrne. She certainly did not want her around Jason. That means Jenny has been assigned to the pairing of Alex and John.

“Do not let her out of your sight,” Alycia had instructed them quietly. “SNOWMAN. You in particular will be able to apprehend her if she flees. Comrade X, you will look for signs of signaling from her to the opposition.”

The pair had understood the assignment: keep an eye on a dangerous unknown, who may or may not be the head of a powerful mercenary organization. Neither of them had anticipated her personality.

Once the others are out of sight, Jenny glomps onto John, tracing circles with a fingertip on his chest. “Wirra wirra, it’s me in a city full of clones and robots and Russian agents. But you’re so strong and fast, aren’t you. An android, yes? You’ll protect me.”

“They’re clones like you and Russians like you,” John says flatly. “Touch me with that finger one more time and I’ll break it off.”

Jenny withdraws the finger, but still clings to John’s arm. “Now, now. Surely you can’t fault a girl for wishing to stay safe.”

Alex is running short on patience. “You’re probably safer here than anywhere else in the world. Maybe find your off switch before my buddy here tries some percussive maintenance.”

“None of the robots here seem very interesting,” Jenny demurs. “Besides, isn’t this young man a duplicate of Mr. Jason Quill’s biggest rival on the Menagerie team? Isn’t he so charming, and handsome, and daring? Don’t you find that just as intriguing as I do?”

Alex rolls their eyes. “John, if she gets roughed up and Alycia bawls you out for letting it happen, I got your back. We’ll cook up an airtight alibi.”

“Perhaps we should find a place to relax and recuperate,” Jenny suggests. She’s finally taking the hint, it seems.

The trio pick one of the many identical apartment complexes. John easily forces the lock with robot strength, and they walk door to door until Alex points one out. “There’s no name here.”

They enter the apartment, only to find nothing at all - no furniture, no utility hookups, nothing.

Alex sighs in realization. “Of course. They aren’t renting to newcomers. They know everyone in the city, and they’d only stock the apartments that would be in use.”

Jenny’s tone is teasing. “You who chided me for invading someone’s personal space? You’re now going to break into someone else’s apartment? My my.”

Alex loses all patience. They whirl on Jenny. “Listen. I don’t know if this is your like, counter-agent programming, or if you’re just really committed to this bit, but it gets old fast. We are tired and scared.”

Jenny begins to speak. “Such a temper. I just–”

John Black abruptly kicks an apartment door off its hinges, revealing a frightened grandmother and two children inside.

The sudden violence seems to finally get Jenny’s attention. “It’s a tactic, for assessing people,” she admits, in a more neutral tone of voice. “I’m scared too. You’re as much of an unknown to me as I am to you.”

Alex, meanwhile, has stepped across the fallen door and is holding up hands in reassurance. “Just a routine activity,” they tell the inhabitants in Russian. “The building superintendant will repair your door soon. In the meantime, we wish to use your bathroom and kitchen.”

The grandmother wordlessly points left, toward a hallway.

Inside the kitchen, John and Jenny are working on food prep. Alex is showering.

“Robots,” John remarks out of nowhere. “A city for clones to train against robots. Overseen by soulless state apparatchiks or whatever. Not a god damn shred of humanity anywhere in the program.”

Jenny works beside him, but doesn’t seem ready to talk. John shrugs a little, and goes on.

“My dad put me through something like this. A place like this. Tried to brainwash me into becoming general for an army of robots. Now look at me.”

He turns to look at Jenny. “There’s some people whose constant fuckery pushes them past the point of redemption. There’s people who talk so much shit, it just becomes impossible to trust them any longer. I don’t know where your loyalties lie, or what your plan really is. One minute, you’re giving us directions here, knowing we’ll try to shut it down. The next, you’re putting your act back on. To me, you’re just like these robots, because I don’t see you doing what I did. Fighting the programming.”

“You don’t know me!” Jenny protests. “You don’t know what I’ve been through.”

John turns to look at her. “Yeah. And your constant ongoing bullshit is convincing me that doing so will never be worthwhile.”

The sound of the shower is still running, but they see Alex in the hallway, clothes still slightly damp and hair up in a towel. “The hot water takes a billion years to ramp up if I turn it off,” they say quietly. “One of you better go next.”

Jenny disappears down the hall, and Alex takes over her position in the food prep pipeline.

“How long were you spying?” John asks calmly.

Alex sighs. “I’m offended that you’d accuse me of such a blah blah blah about two minutes,” they deadpan.

“How come you aren’t making sure she doesn’t escape?” John asks, gesturing with a kitchen knife toward the bathroom.

“You’d have to be half an Olsen Twin to get through the window, and she’s not, by a country mile,” Alex points out. “Of course you don’t notice these things, being the stern brooding figure you are.”

“No, I don’t,” John says gruffly. But he softens after a moment. “I’m still carrying a torch for someone who’s moved on. On the plus side, that means there’s no chance she’s going to turn my head and use me to get away.”

“Well that’s a relief.” Alex’s voice isn’t super sarcastic, but there’s undercurrents. “She’s like if Irish Spring bath soap and Spanish Fly had a child.”

“She’s gotta be a lot like me, actually,” John says thoughtfully, and Alex raises a surprised eyebrow as he explains. “Made to be a weapon. Launched, fired - and missed, right? She was targeting Jason Quill. But he’s still alive, and so is she. So she’s gotta figure out, like, what to do next, where to go next. Waters gave me a whole buffet of families to learn normal life from. All she’s got is this horned-up redhead personality I assume they gave her, and whatever she can build from what little she’s seen of regular people.”

Alex shrugs slightly. “Or she’s decided to take out her frustration on the world and leads the Grasscutters in a vendetta against heroes and villains alike, because all she knows is to undermine and destroy.”

The hacker looks at John sideways. “You wish you could trust her, you’re sympathetic but scared, because there’s someone who clearly could use your help but their antics keep you at a distance.”

“About the size of it,” John admits.

“Funny.” Alex smiles strangely. “That’s you and me, isn’t it.”

It’s finally John’s turn for the shower. He may be a robot, he explains, but his sweat is still organic coolant carrying contaminants out of his components and a shower still helps.

“Too much information,” Alex announces, and shoos him off.

Once he’s gone, they turn to Jenny. “So. The old lady and the kids are robots.”

“Yep.” Jenny is chopping the sandwiches into neat diagonals, and not looking anywhere else.

Alex gestures around them. “But there’s edible food in the kitchen.”

“Soy substitutes, for the most part,” Jenny explains. “You noticed how everything was vacuum-sealed and refrigerated?”

“Yeah…” Alex sighs. “As long as this isn’t some weird Soylent Green thing.”

“I don’t understand the reference,” Jenny says brightly. “But I promise you. These people, who have figured out how to force-grow a human clone in months, will have no trouble accelerating soybean production.”

Alex’s tone is still conversational, but they’re watching Jenny like a hawk. “And that’s what you are. A human soybean. You can be flavored for anything.”

“That’s correct.”

“And you built this Poppet System so you could pick your own flavor.”

Jenny finally looks up at Alex. Her smile has changed. “Self-determination. I could have new use to the people that made me. And I could choose what to be.”

“And the Grasscutters? What choice did you give them?”

The smile darkens. “They were miners, police, drifters - anyone on the fringes of society. Anyone who stumbled across a Pyrrhus operation would get taken in and fitted with a system. Then they stumble into the light, with no idea how to proceed.”

The girl straightens up, takes a breath, and grows more confrontational. “Listen. I did help some of them. How many of them joined the Grasscutters, and how many stayed behind to rebuild their lives?”

“About a third,” Alex says carefully. “I’ll give you that much. Or, that’s how many you could recruit. How can we know for sure?”

Jenny has no answer for that. Alex switches to another angle. “Do you hate Jason Quill? I can’t imagine you being able to love your target. And that’s what he was, wasn’t he. A target.”

Jenny stuffs a wedge of sandwich into her mouth and washes it down with a glass of water. “You love your favorite foods, don’t you. You’d put out effort to have them. You enjoy the experience. But at the end of the day, you eat them, and they’re delicious, and that’s that,” she says with a quiet smile.

Jenny Byrne, Russian cities, hostile robots,” Jason remarks conversationally. He and Emma are walking through the streets of the Winter Cradle, and he nods politely to the occasional passerby.

Emma flashes smirk #37 from her extensive collection. “So, like, are you an actual cartoon character brought to life, or what?”

Jason’s smile is crooked, but warm in a way. “I’m a failed science experiment. Can a father whose coping skills and self-deception make him think he’s perfectly normal raise a son to be just like him? Early data was encouraging, but it looks like I’m going to be nothing like him after all.”

Emma rolls her eyes. “God. Do any of you superheroes have a good relationship with their parents?”

Jason laughs at that. “We talked about that a few times within the Menagerie. But yeah, there are some.”

“Gonna make a new cartoon?” Emma’s voice is teasing.

Jason laughs again, as amusement lands sharp and hard in his soul. “It’d have to include Charade, and she’d never give permission for that to happen.”

Emma holds up her hands and grimaces. “She’s got no sense of humor. So how about this amusement park? Who d’you suppose dreamed all this up?”

“I don’t know.” Jason shakes his head. “I do think it’s working. I saw a few familiar faces. Not anyone I know personally, aside from the uh, the family earlier - well, that was pretty weird, I admit. But Federal prosecutors. Politicians. People who’ve been wrapped up in scandals recently, back in the States and elsewhere.”

A thought comes to him. “Say, you still call yourself a villain, right? Hot Mess?”

“It’s Firebrand now,” Emma says. “But yes.”

“That’s not bad. But alright. The scuttlebutt is that you teamed up with Kid Kelvin to go after corrupt corporations, organizations, and the like. You’d break into their warehouse, Kid Kelvin would show up, you’d have a big knock-down drag-out brawl that would conveniently expose some kind of damning evidence, and when the police came, all would be revealed, etc.”

Emma sniffs. “Maybe. Let’s accept this as a hypothetical and go on.”

“What makes him a hero and you a villain?”

Emma is absolutely ready for this question. “The boss taught me that villains do what they want, that villainy is a label people impose on you. And heroes are the people who yoke themselves to the state, instead of doing what they really want.”

Jason nods. “Okay. What makes that hero-villain team-up work is that even for big corporations, there’s a government above them who will enforce the law with guns and bombs and so on. The government may do awful things, but it still has to do the right thing most of the time.”

Jason gestures around him. “Places like this exist because, well, there’s nothing above governments doing the same thing. If the US airdropped troops in here and said, ‘hey Russia, what the fuck’, the Russians would just shrug and rebuild elsewhere.”

Emma is with it. “Right. There’s just impotent shit like the UN and the Hague, and the US prosecuting Nazis but not getting prosecuted for their own war crimes.”

Jason nods. “But even so, not every nation sinks to the same lows. There’s brutal, ends-justify-means, practicality-first programs the US has engaged in. But I don’t think they’ll ever beat the Russians for sadism or callousness, nor the Chinese for the sheer efficiency of dominating a population. I don’t think that excuses the US’s actions. But more often, people like me are gonna come to places like this, where the worst of it can be found. There’s not a missile gap like in the Cold War, where US military planners worried how many birds were in the silos in Kansas.”

Something tugs Jason’s head downward, some weight of thought. “What we got here is a cruelty gap. And people will try to close it.”

He smiles back at Emma. “Whoever runs this place, we can’t let them win. Because if they do, if you care about others, if you try to do the right thing, that’ll be enough for people to brand you a villain.”

They find an apartment, furnished but unoccupied, after a few trials.

Emma has no problem using her powers to accelerate the heating process for the water, and before long is yelling down the hallway at Jason. “No peeking. I know you got a supervillain fetish.”

“I’m thoroughly spoken for,” Jason calls back. “And so are you.”

He and Emma swap places, and by the time he’s cleaned up and dressed again, he finds she’s figured out a stir-fry from the sealed meal packs in the apartment. “I couldn’t figure out the controls on the stove, so I just used pyrokinesis,” she explains.

They eat in silence for a time.

Emma finally speaks up. “I don’t know how you do it. I’m scared outta my wits being in a place like this. It’s just - it’s so much bigger than I’m used to handling.”

Jason collects dishes for the sink. “A lifetime of practice. But if it helps, I’m scared too.”

“We should get back to the others,” Emma suggests.

Five people return to the prearranged meeting site, adjacent to a park and within sight of a clock tower. They exchange the prearranged passwords to ensure - well, encourage - that nobody has been taken over or replaced.

Emma, Jason, Alex, John, and Jenny look at each other.

The question of who has seen Alycia and/or Nono comes up. Nobody has.

“They might be delayed,” Alex suggests.

“Could Charade have run off?” John asks.

Jason thinks about it. “It’s within the bounds of possibility. She’s under intense pressure. She’s accustomed to working solo. But then where is Agent R?”

That question has no good answers.


Leo took down Old Jason, but he specifically prepped for that fight and had Concord’s help in setting it up. It was a one-time deal.

Pyrrhus vs. SNOWMAN was a curb-stomp fight in favor of the nanotech. Pyrrhus literally ate John alive, and was only stopped by John setting off his own EMP bombs in his face.

Now I’m tempted to start a “who would win” thread, similar to “who could wield it” :smiley:

Jenny’s allegiances are supposed to be hard to read right now so I’m glad that’s coming through :slight_smile:

A combination of emotional reaction (she’s under high stress and wanted something familiar) and logic (she’d seen a Byron/Achilles family outing earlier, and it was logical to suppose the house might be unoccupied because people do that).

In your place, I’d be more worried about her calling Nono by her real name while in the field.


Time passes. The team grows impatient, and they can tell the others are growing impatient as well. Another overseer could come by any time - or one might already be watching.

Finally Jason gives voice to the fear. “Security here might be slow, based on the size and complexity of this operation, but it’s going to hit us like a tidal wave sooner or later.”

He looks around. “Let’s review. Data, hypotheses, observations, whatever you have.”

The team recaps what they know, or think. They’re in an artificially constructed city. The population consists of Rossum-type robots programmed to pass for humans, cloned Antibodies living false lives, and the Russian overseers of the program. Food, hot and cold running water, and other services are available. They’d need to be maintained - supplies restocked, damage fixed, and so on - but that might be days of waiting. Any operations or command center will be buried deep - except for the mobile devices the overseers are using, which must communicate with some kind of tower.

“I’ve got just enough kit to tap into a tower, if we can find it,” Alex says. “If I can get to the hard lines, I can find us a door inside.”

“My construction means I’m naturally sensitive to EM,” John says. “I picked up a few hot spots while walking around, I think I can drill in on them.”

Emma frowns. “Someone’s gotta stick around if Agent R and Charade show up. I’ll find a stakeout spot.”

Jason nods. “Jenny and I will keep eyes out for anything suspicious. Let’s rendezvous in 30 minutes.”

A tense half hour passes.

“They’re definitely onto us,” Jason reports, when the team meets up again. “There’s more overseers. We were able to dodge them without breaking character, for now.”

Emma’s report is simply a shrug. There’s been no sign of the missing teammates.

Alex has the most promising report. “I found a list of entrances but the names don’t mean anything.” They rattle off a series of words in Russian.

Jason and Jenny laugh simultaneously. Jenny looks to Jason, but he gestures in chivalry for her to do the honors.

“The words are the names of hotels used by the KGB,” Jenny explains. “Often patronized by foreigners. Of course there will be nobody here who needs a hotel room. It is likely the overseers work from there. Therefore they will have routes into the secret command center.”

Alex sighs. “Glad at least one of these fuckers had a sense of humor.”

“Hold on, chief.” Emma raises a hand. “What about our missing teammates?”

Jason sighs. “On the one hand, I really want to go looking, as much as you do, probably for similar reasons as you. But on the other, I also realized that Charade may have come across something we don’t know about, and is operating on her own plan, along with Agent R. And if they were captured - well, wouldn’t they be taken to the place we want to go?”

The logic doesn’t do much to cover over the team’s assorted apprehensions, but it’s something.

The Viru, unlike its Estonian namesake, is a small hotel on the outskirts of the city. The team is able to locate it, and start walking.

“Incoming,” Jason remarks, just as casually as though he were pointing out a favorite restaurant to friends.

The team can’t walk any faster than the overseer without really giving themselves away, and the man eventually catches up with them after a short, brisk jog.

“Identify yourselves,” he says in Russian - no masquerade, no friendly chatter, nothing.

Jenny starts reciting her ID, but the overseer cuts her off. “You are not authorized to be operating in this complex. You and your companions will return with me to operations.”

Jenny glances at Jason - maybe we want to go with them? - but Jason shakes his head, just enough for her and the team to catch it.

While the overseer begins talking into his communications device, no doubt to call for backup, Jason spins and drives an elbow deep into the man’s solar plexus. He crumples, and Jason snatches up the device as he goes down.

It’s eerie beyond description, to see 90% of the people within a few city blocks suddenly turn and look directly at you, all at once.

But what about the other 10%, who catch on and turn as individuals to look? They aren’t robots - these are the secret agents of the program. These are the people trained to take down the great and the good. These are the Antibodies. Every one of them must be as capable as Jenny Byrne, thanks to her invention.

The streets are like any ordinary city. As such, they come with fire hydrants, spaced at regular intervals. John shouts one word - “steam” - at Emma. His grapples lash out, tearing the hydrants from their moorings. Geysers of water come pouring forth.

Emma is on the ball. Her pyrokinetic power goes into overdrive, turning the water into rolling clouds of ultra-hot steam. It spreads rapidly - except where the team happens to be, thanks to her fine control - and creates a corridor for the team to make their escape.

The team runs, and runs, unable to see what might be happening on the other side of the steam wall, praying nobody on the other side can follow them.

They emerge on a street that should be a few blocks from the hotel. Nearby, a garage door rolls up on its own, and a massive golden shape emerges. Jason is the first to recognize it.

“Well, well, this guy again,” he mutters, as the TALOS unit emerges and extends itself into its massive humanoid outline.

Then more garages open, and more store fronts slide away, and more and more TALOS units emerge.

“Fuuuuuuuuck,” Jason growls. “Run, gang, run right now.”

They’re almost to the hotel when three TALOS drop out of the air, blocking their path.

“Come on, you yellow fucks, you know who you’re dealing with?” John screams at them. “Let’s fuckin go!”

He leaps - and is thrown backward as a surge of magnetism sweeps outward from the TALOS. While his carbon construction isn’t magnetic, the ionic fluid that delivers power to his systems, and the graphene batteries brimming with electricity, are both susceptible to the TALOS’ intense fields.

“Guess they do,” quips Emma. She draws on her power, sending a scorching wave of heat at the units. The heat seems to hold them at bay - but isn’t doing much visible damage.

John has been knocked into the side of a building, and crawls out of the SNOWMAN-shaped hole he created. “Yo, JQ, options?” he shouts.

“Grapple the team off the street!” Jason shouts. “I’ll keep them busy.”

Alex tucks themselves into a ball, knowing what to expect. John’s grapples lash out, Alex grabs hold of them tightly, and the android swings his partner up and over the TALOS in a high arc. It ends with John catching Alex in his arms on the roof of their target hotel.

Jason and Jenny are both using tactics similar to what Jason himself used to evade the original TALOS - letting the machines commit to a trajectory, then dodging. Emma isn’t as fast or naturally athletic, but she’s able to threaten the robots with overheating when one comes too close. She’s the next recipient of John Black’s grappling hook express.

Jason looks at Jenny and grins. “On three, make a break for it. 1… 2… 3!”

The pair duck and roll underneath a pair of crushing fists, as the TALOS try to strike them down. They come up in a pair of perfect stances, and sprint toward the hotel.

“Evade!” shouts John from the rooftop, able to see what they can’t.

Jason jinks right, Jenny jinks left, and a Russian-made automobile lands with a crash in the space they had both just occupied.

They sprint for the doors of the hotel. Those doors open, as several robots - dressed as staff, but not acting like it now - rush outward. Before Jason or Jenny can act, SNOWMAN has dropped from the rooftop into the middle of the group. Sword blades extend from his arms, and in a few flashing motions the robots fall to sparking pieces.

Above, Emma melts the doorknob off the roof access door. She and Alex head inside.

“The elevator,” Jason directs. He and Jenny pass through the lobby and toward the elevators, with John Black behind them.

They find Emma and Alex already inside the elevator itself, having climbed down the cable and through the ceiling access panel.

“The magnetism fried my kit,” Alex grouses. “I got nothing to hack this thing with.”

“No need.” John’s grapples hook onto the ceiling, and he cuts a hole in the elevator floor. Almost too late, everyone realizes what he’s doing, and grabs hold of him.

The floor falls away - far further than it would if this were merely a hotel. John lowers the gang down the shaft, where they find a subterranean access tunnel, harshly lit and labeled with signs in Russian. Jason translates: “Corridor 94 - Hotel Access.”

He smiles at the others. “Come on. This is it.”

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Alycia has been feeling her world shrink down to nothing over the last few hours. Helping MIA, to somehow make up for her sins - effectively gone. Her failure to avoid Jason at his own home, a task that should have been elementary for her. Coming to the Winter Cradle without a plan of action. Walking into a house just because it looked familiar, not realizing its occupants might actually be home after all.

She’s struggling with the most basic of tasks - keeping her panic under control, keeping her breathing regular, preventing her muscles from locking up as tension takes hold. She has to be ready at every moment to act, and she is not ready at all.

Now she has nothing but some vague notion of shutting down an entire city, and no direction to go. She’s trapped with her own thoughts and doubts, without the lifeline of a mission to carry her to safety.

She wants to break the things around her, end the people, erase all of her shame and fear, maybe disappear into the mountains and live like a hermit. Primitive existence would be too demanding for her to really sink into her depression.

It could work.

What tears through this speculation, and what forces her to swim to the surface of an ocean of self-doubt, is a girl’s voice giving her a command.

“In the field you will address me as Agent R.”

She blinks, and focuses.

It’s Nono Rodriguez. No - she’s right. It’s Agent R.

The girl is staring at her.

OPSEC. The word asserts itself. Operational security.

I’m on a team.

“You’re right,” she says, after a moment to collect her wits. “Agent R. Status report and proposed plan of action.”

Agent R gestures behind her, at the bathroom window. Steam is building up from the shower, fogging it, but unlike the apartments, the house has windows big enough to escape through. “We need to leave. We need to rendezvous with the others–”

“I can’t,” Alycia manages. “I mean. Listen. Right now–”

“Window,” Agent R prompts, and Alycia nods.

The two girls slide it open as quietly as possible, then slip out. Crouched, they stalk through the snow-covered back streets and across the lawns and parks of the Winter Cradle.

Finally, Alycia finds a spot where she can regain a measure of comfort and poise.

“I made a mistake,” Alycia admits. It’s one of the hardest thing for her to say.

“We all do.” Nono leans in. “But listen. I’m also your friend. If you want. And you’re going through something I go through all the time. So what is it that helps you refocus? For me, it’s fire.”

“There’s… there’s a tunnel.” Alycia takes a few experimental breaths, steadying herself. “I’m walking out of it. There’s a light at the far end. I’m far away from it, but I’m still walking. There are things in my way, and sometimes I trip over them. But I keep walking. Right now, that tunnel is… it’s… it’s collapsed. I can’t find my way.”

Nono catches on. “But listen. There’s other people, at the other end of the tunnel. There’s more of them than you. They can do things you can’t. They can help dig out the collapse, can’t they. Your friends, and your teammates, right?”

“Yeah. But I…” Alycia sighs. “I should be enough. I was raised to be enough. But I’m not.”

A thought comes to Nono. “Raised by your dad? Achilles Chin?”

Alycia nods.

Nono smiles. “Well, he wasn’t enough by himself either, was he? That’s why he needed you.”

A rush of emotions flow through her heart. Nono doesn’t know her inner life, or her father, or their relationship. She’s just trying to be comforting.

Alycia wants to reject it, because of that ignorance, because of her suspicion of comfort, because of the fear that lives inside her. But in her heart, she knows the fear isn’t the only thing.

There’s what her father tried to make her into. There’s all the training, and cunning, he instilled into her.

But there in her heart is the raw material he tried to use. Tried, and ultimately failed.

There is her.

Others may be digging their way through the tunnel to reach her. Right now, she must do whatever it takes to help them.

Alycia takes a breath, and looks at her friend and teammate. “Is your chemistry kit intact? Can you synthesize something?”

Agent R checks, and nods. Alycia gives her the formula and dosage. The tiny molecular lathe inside Nono’s armored bag processes it, and a gelatin capsule emerges.

“Now swallow it,” Alycia directs. The other girl looks confused, but does as directed.

“Do you trust me?” Alycia asks.

“I guess I do, I’m swallowing weird chemicals on your instructions,” grins Agent R.

Alycia smiles.

For the next few minutes, there’s silence.

Presently, Alycia begins reciting something. It’s the briefing from the MIA office, from the video call, the morning when Nono’s personality was overridden. Facts, figures, names, dates, places and times.

Finally, as she says a pair of names together, ordinary names from the briefing, Nono’s demeanor and body language shift.

Alycia smiles. “I deduced that the Poppet System had a contingency. A trigger condition that would activate this dormant sub-personality. It would be the only way for you to infiltrate our offices, shielded as they were from outside broadcasts. You had your Grasscutters carry out an operation in a way that would make the news, and have us talk about those names.”

The person using Nono’s voice responds groggily. “Clever.”

The person looking through Nono’s eyes glances up and around, taking in the scenery. “Then you’ve fallen into my trap… Surrounded by robots… and a rival for Jason Quill’s affections… isolated from your friends at MIA… the stress must be gnawing at you… Have you also deduced what the Winter Cradle is? Heh heh… this city is an Antibody. It is an Antibody designed… to destroy… Alycia Chin…”

Alycia smiles. “You’ve gone to a great deal of effort. I’m flattered. But this sub-personality occupies a biological brain. One which, right about now, is suffering from the onset of a drug code named SP-125. It was used by the First Directorate of the KGB as a sedative and hypnotic.”

She leans close to Nono’s face, and looks at the entity hiding behind her eyes. “Which means I look forward to you being exceptionally forthcoming as we continue this conversation.”

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Lot of that going around.

Jason has matured a lot these past years.

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And all this running around
Searching for something that was found
Is it any wonder why you came
Trying to tear my family’s name

“There’s too many… J’s… on this team,” grunts Alex, through the exertion of running.

Jason grunts. “Opsec. No real names.” He too is running, but he’s better at managing his breathing and pace than the more sedentary hacker.

SNOWMAN is behind them. For him, breathing is merely a formality. “Jason doesn’t have a code name. Jenny Byrne is a code name. That’s still two J’s.”

We are about to die and this is how you’re spending your time,” Firebrand complains loudly.

Behind them, the first of the TALOS units starts smashing its way down the elevator shaft. It can’t physically fit, but that isn’t stopping it from trying.

“More speed,” Jenny suggests. Although she can master any skill, those skills don’t come with the attendant physical fitness. She’s in good shape, but not equal to Jason.

They emerge into an open chamber, at the crossroads of several hallways similar to the one they just ran through. There are people here, and they raise their weapons. SNOWMAN peels open and engulfs Comrade X in a moment, protecting them from a sudden hail of gunfire. Jason and Jenny dodge instantly, thanks to their tuned-up reflexes. Firebrand’s pyrokinesis snaps on hard, liquefying bullets that come her way.

“Left! This way!” Jason points at another door, after the briefest of glances at the Cyrillic writing above it. Firebrand extends her shield to cover Jason and Jenny, and the team rush through it.

Another hallway, with an L shape, made of the same lifeless gray concrete bricks as the rest of the base. As the team rounds the bend, flakes of concrete explode off the wall as the hail of gunfire follows them.

Another room, but only one person - a man in a Russian military uniform. Firebrand grabs one of her guns and hits the guy with a knockout shot.

Jason holds up the mobile device he grabbed from the overseer above. “Do what you can!” he shouts to Comrade X, currently riding around inside SNOWMAN. The android disgorges his passenger, and Jason tosses the device over.

Behind them, the sound of gunfire resumes. Jason picks another door and sprints. Firebrand leads the way, with her pyrokinetic barrier at the ready, with SNOWMAN at the rear, blocking any shots with his invulnerable robot body. Between them, Comrade X is furiously thumbing through the device’s menus.

“Freight elevator,” calls Jenny, pointing, but Jason shakes his head. “TALOS can come down those. The narrow rooms are safer for us.”

“That may not be an option.” Comrade X has spotted an emergency exit map on another wall. Everybody but Emma can read the label on the biggest, widest space on the map - “central command”.

The team fight their way through room after room. SNOWMAN uses his grapples to pull furniture and appliances - mostly metal filing cabinets, wooden desks, and old iron chairs with decaying springs - into the hallways, and Emma pushes her pyrokinesis to flash-weld the mass together as a barrier. But Jason can tell the effort is wearying her.

“Why aren’t you using your nanobots?” Jenny asks as they run.

Jason gestures around him. “The TALOS. I’m worried about their magnetism knocking the bots out.”

His worries are justified, as the team emerges into the “central command” room - a hemisphere of concrete, one or more football fields in diameter. It seems to have many purposes, as there are corridors big enough to accommodate a truck leading away from it, as well as a podium and chairs for giving presentations. A booth is affixed to the ceiling and dominates the view of the room - no doubt where the masters of the Winter Cradle reside.

Half a dozen TALOS units, several squads of armed soldiers, plus a number of people in civilian garb - presumably Antibodies, the cloned infiltrators the city serves - are all here.

“Hold your fire,” comes an imperious male voice from a PA system - presumably from someone up in the booth. Jason can see shadows and silhouettes moving behind the glass windows.

The troopers and TALOS units stand down. The Antibodies, on the other hand, seem ready for a fight. Jason can see them adopting fighting stances - as their Poppet Systems come online, he realizes.

He counts twenty-two such people. Twenty-two opponents whose reflexes are as good as Jenny Byrne’s - and she gave him a challenge.

“I hope you’ve got some innovative way to threaten us,” Jason quips aloud. “I’ve heard an awful lot of threats, and it would be pleasant to hear something original.”

The voice continues in English. “There is no need of such things, Mr. Quill. I am General Andrey Kovačević. I am the master of this facility. Inasmuch as I have your party surrounded and outgunned, threats would be superfluous. Instead, we shall talk about what you shall do for us.”

“You could clean the assholes of a Texas Chili judges’ panel with your tongue,” Emma suggests loudly.

“Americans,” sighs the General’s voice. “Mr. Quill, where is Alycia Chin and the other member of your party?”

“They’re at your house fucking your–” Emma begins, but Jason holds up a hand to halt the rest of the vulgarity.

“Are you in charge of the Grasscutters?” he calls.

“The mercenary group that is misusing the Poppet System? No, Mr. Quill. They are independent of us. In fact, I should like them disposed of. But that will come in time.”

Jason smiles. “Well. Just as you can’t account for the Grasscutters, I can’t account for the location of anyone you don’t see here with me. But you know, the people you’re looking for are pretty slippery.”

“Chin has been found before. She will be found again. And dealt with. As for you, I am not Sidorov. You will find me harder to escape.”

Jason looks around him, at the gleaming bronze robots. “You don’t seem reluctant to use his creations.”

“It is how one uses a tool that distinguishes a good strategist from a fool, Mr. Quill.”

Jason spots Alex, hands behind back, fidgeting. But what they’re fidgeting with - the overseer’s communication device - interests him. A fact comes to him, from the original encounter with the TALOS.

“Kovačević, how did you wrest control of the TALOS from Sidorov anyway? My understanding was that they were voice controlled.”

“They are, Mr. Quill. They are simply controlled by my voice.”

Jason, gratified, sees Alex’s eyes light up.

They’re onto something. I just need to buy them some time.

He continues aloud. “Interesting. And are you interested in my nanotechnology, like Sidorov was?”

“No, Mr. Quill. I am more interested in your genetics. Specifically, in our capacity to clone you, and Ms. Chin.”

A cold chill runs through Jason, as he remembers what Pyrrhus had said, almost offhand, about having clones of the two of them - “True, true, I do. Good luck handling that!” - in the Antarctic base.

Thoughts flow through his head, and he begins speaking out loud to try and process them. “You don’t have our DNA. You needed it. You sent Jenny Byrne to lure one or both of us here, on Pyrrhus’ orders. The way Pyrrhus lured us in.”

He turns to look at Jenny. “Did you arrange the data leak? Or did you just take advantage of it?”

Jenny’s face undergoes a transformation, from worried companion to gently smiling turncoat. “I’m afraid I arranged it.”

Jason tries to hide his disappointment, and knows he’s failing. “Then you are leading the Grasscutters after all.”

Jenny makes the gentlest of shrugs. “Every Poppet System comes with contingencies and back-doors, including the ability to awaken an implanted personality when triggering conditions are met.”

She pats her abdomen gently, touching the place where the Poppet System is implanted. “Even mine.”

Jason suddenly remembers. “The first time I met Pyrrhus, you were there,” he tells her. “You stiffened up for some reason, like you had been taken over. I was too busy to parse it at the time. But that was Pyrrhus, taking you over. Why? If you were working for him, you’d have helped him without the need for such a thing.”

He squints at the redhead. “Whose side are you really on?”

Jenny lowers her eyes, unable to meet Jason’s gaze.

Alex speaks up. “Hey, uh, sorry, General, I’m gonna totally mangle your name if I try it. I’m terrible with Slavic surnames.”

“Kovačević. I apologize that I do not know your name, child.”

“No, it’s all good,” Alex smiles. “I’m uh, kind of an intelligence analyst, staying anonymous is what I do. But I’d like to introduce you to a pal of mine.”

They gesture at John. “This is SNOWMAN. SNOWMAN, meet, uh, Ko-va-che-vich. While Mr. Quill is debating giving you his DNA, I wanna just say that he’s got some pretty neat robot tech of his own. Maybe even stuff that could replace the what - TELOS system?”

“TALOS,” Kovačević corrects, sounding progressively wearier. “I will of course be interrogating all members of your party in due course. If you follow instructions and comply with commands, your remaining days may be pleasant.”

Alex nods along. “Marvelous. Hey, my friend will be upset if you don’t say his name.”

“SNOWMAN, was it?” Kovačević says at last. “Yes. We will speak in due course about your potential for advancing our robotics research. Now, Mr. Quill, will you please–”

Alex cuts him off by shouting. “Kovačević! Hey! One more important thing!”

“What is it, child?” the general asks in an increasingly impatient voice.

“I figured out the walkie talkie function on your gizmos,” Alex says with a grin, holding up the overseer’s mobile device. “And I made a sound board.”

As events unfold in the next few seconds, Jason realizes just what happened. The hacker has been recording the sound of Kovačević’s voice, using the Russian-made device in their hand. Now, the device is used for one of its functions - broadcasting through the PA system. What comes out is a spliced-up mess of sounds clipped from the General’s statements.

“TALOS - Kovačević - commands - follow - SNOWMAN”

The TALOS units mobilize. SNOWMAN blinks.

“Fly you fool!” Alex yells at him, in their best Gandalf impersonation. Comprehension dawns on the robot’s face, along with a big shark-like grin, and he runs for one of the truck-sized corridors. The TALOS units thunder along behind him.

The General’s voice is furious, and he speaks rapidly. “TALOS - countermand previous order!”

The units halt.

Alex pushes a button on the device.

“TALOS - Kovačević - commands - follow - SNOWMAN”

The TALOS units begin running.

The Antibodies realize first that the situation is becoming unstable, and a few of them raise their weapons. The soldiers around them are slower on the uptake, but do the same.

Jason, however, is ready. His nanobots are online and ready, and they deploy a barrier against the sudden barrage of gunfire. With the TALOS units and their magnetic barriers temporarily distracted by the ping-ponging of conflicting commands, he has no worries about them suddenly failing on him.

“Tactical retreat,” he advises the group, and they begin withdrawing toward the tunnel. He notices to his surprise and consternation that Jenny is hiding behind his barrier, and retreating with the team.

“Dudes back there are still back there,” Emma points out, with her own pyrokinetic shield ready for any attacks from the hallway.

“Better than the dudes up here.”

The Antibodies have given up on using their guns. They’re spreading out in a wide circle, charging at Jason’s shield from all sides. They’re letting the soldiers’ fire keep Jason occupied, and from the look of it they plan to swarm the rest of the group while he’s occupied.

Alex is distracted, keeping the TALOS units distracted. Emma is focused on the hallway, and the sound of booted feet running toward their position. Jason reaches down, grabs Emma’s guns off her hips, and begins firing at the onrushing Antibodies.

They’re nimble, with the same ability to dodge bullets he has. But they’re predictable. It’s the same set of movements, copied from the same sources. It’s like enemies in a video game, Jason realizes. Once you know the pattern, you can spot it.

Shoot - to force one of them to dodge - shoot again, knowing where they’ll dodge to.

The chemical stun rounds are effective. But Jason simply doesn’t have time to get them all before they’re on top of the group.

He’s keeping Jenny in his field of view. She isn’t taking action - not yet.

Kovačević can get DNA from a corpse, Jason thinks mirthlessly. But at least I’m going out surrounded by friends.

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In a way, Jason thinks, this is a very Russian battle.

He’s concentrating on keeping his nanobot barrier up, against the gunfire of the soldiers. He’s firing with two hands at incoming Antibodies. The passing of a whole second of time is a momentous occasion for him right now.

Somehow, he has time for this thought.

His nanobots are scraping concrete from the floor, breaking it into individual atoms, rebuilding those atoms into new nanobots. Meanwhile, more of the bots are sacrificing themselves to absorb the kinetic energy of the bullets. Those nanobots will eventually fall to earth (eventually - air resistance is like a cushion for them), and be recycled by the surviving bots.

On the Russian side, spent brass is ejecting from the soldiers’ guns at a prodigious pace. They have bullets enough to kill the party several times over, if they can get through his wall. But it’s a battle of attrition - who can throw more matter at the problem.

They’d run out of bullets before he ran out of bots, of course. But that leaves the Antibodies. Jason’s mind is taking in their faces as he aims and fires. They aren’t anyone he knows - anyone anyone knows, really. They’re custom people, made to target the enemies of the ANTIBODY program and its masters. What is being done to them now is monstrous.

To her credit, Jason thinks, Firebrand isn’t roasting them alive. She easily could. Her forbearance might cost them this battle, but he could accept a loss on those terms, even if it meant his life. These people deserve better. But she’s also hesitating because of it. That’s not good.

The Antibodies are in melee. There’s twelve of them left standing of the original twenty-two.

In the chaos of the melee, Jason sees Jenny Byrne run off. The soldiers don’t fire at her, and the Antibodies don’t intercept her, which tells him everything he needs to know.

In her place, the Antibodies split up - four for Emma, four for Alex, and four for Jason.

Alex is no fighter, and they run toward Emma for protection. She now faces a choice - open a path through the thin barrier of superheated air she’s holding around her and let a teammate in, but also risk that one or more Antibodies will get inside. Jason can see the weariness of exerting her powers growing on her face. And he watches as she chooses. She doesn’t even have time to apologize.

Alex scowls for just a moment. Then the Antibodies are on them, with vicious disabling blows that send the hacker to the deck, unconscious. They fall to Jason’s stun shots, but he in turn has to dodge as more come for him.

To their credit, these Antibodies are fighting intelligently, as are the soldiers. Their automatic weapons tie up his nanobots. The Antibodies, meanwhile, are fighting with a variety of martial arts, from the silat of Southeast Asia to modern military styles like Krav Maga and Sambo. It’s a struggle for Jason to read their moves and keep the barrier up.

“Leave the soldiers to me,” Emma growls. Jason glances at her, unsure of how to interpret her plan, but nods. She passes him, untouchable by the all-too-mortal Antibodies, and flares out her power to take over for the nanobots. Jason shifts them into new configurations, creating shields and guards to even out the odds against the 10-to-1 numbers the Antibodies have on him.

In the melee, a couple of the Antibodies kneel and grab for Alex, perhaps hoping for a hostage. Jason makes them regret it with a prime pair of stun shots.

Whatever hope he had of this tactical turnaround vanishes, when he hears the thunder of TALOS units running back along the tunnel. On the other hand, SNOWMAN is on the way as well, rocketing overhead. Without Alex cooking up new voice tricks, Kovačević must have reasserted control.

Jason knows from experience that nobody on the team can reasonably hold off the TALOS. “SNOWMAN!” he shouts over the din of melee. “Comrade X is down! We’re evacuating!”

“Roger!” the android shouts back, and in seconds has landed and scooped up the unconscious hacker, enclosing them in his own armored exterior. Once done, he leaps into melee, using robot strength against the Antibodies. Jason’s nanobots push them back, and John grabs and throws them.

With this moment in time secured, Jason turns his bots to another purpose - drilling through the concrete floor beneath them. It takes precious seconds - he feels them ticking away as the nanobots laboriously crawl through layer after layer of concrete, wiring, thermal insulation, pipes, and other infrastructure sandwiched between the floors.

Then a whole wedge of floor opens up, and he falls through, landing and rolling to absorb the force of the fall. SNOWMAN drops through as easily.

Firebrand falls backward, finally exhausted, and SNOWMAN catches her in his arms.

“Bitch broke up with you?” John Black asks, looking around and seeing no sign of Jenny Byrne.

“She couldn’t resist a man in uniform,” Jason quips. “Let’s move.”

They bolt for the corridor leading out of this room, while above them, the TALOS begin pounding their way through the floor to give pursuit.

There’s no such thing as “truth serum”. Alycia knows this. There are, however, chemicals that put the human brain into a relaxed, suggestible state. “Friendly drunks”, people on certain restricted drugs, and even those who use naturally occurring plants, all exhibit this behavior. Unfortunately, such states make people poor communicators. It takes a skilled interrogator to get something valuable out of them. And Alycia is a very skilled interrogator indeed.

As a result, she and Nono have been able to enter the underground complex with much less fanfare than Jason’s team - though she doesn’t know that until they’re already inside, and Kovačević is announcing over the complex’s PA system to apprehend Jason Quill and to continue the search for Alycia Chin. They are currently running through the corridors, making their way down to the guts of the base. Occasionally they will encounter someone, individually or in a squad, and some brief shooting and/or kung fu ensues.

Nono has recovered from the drugging, though she’s a little groggy. The Poppet personality, once the drug began to wear off, had realized what happened and shut itself down. But Alycia knows she is now its master, and if it has a memory between awakenings, it knows too.

She’s starting to regain her wits, though, at least enough to ask questions. “Where are we going?”

“This facility must have its own power plant,” Alycia explains. “The most likely options are a nuclear reactor or a geothermal plant. The only difference between them for my purposes is the type of sabotage required, and the timetable for evacuating the base. They may even have a repurposed fission reactor, which would be ideal.”

“I thought we transitioned from those dirty plants to fusion in the 2010s,” Nono says. “That’s what they said in school.”

Alycia smiles inwardly as she runs. While Nono is taking to her lessons, her ongoing naivete in other areas is sometimes charming - as long as it’s not a threat to the mission. “Some sites did. But ideals lose in a clash against economic or political resistance. And international monitoring of fusion plant components would make it difficult to construct a new one here. It’s possible they took a decommissioned SMR from another installation and took it here. We shall see.”

They reach the power plant. To Alycia’s delight, it is indeed an array of second-hand SMRs - Small Modular Reactor. There’s a bookshelf full of Rosenergoatom technical manuals. Alycia has seen this type of reactor two other times in her life, and has only sabotaged it once before.

“I need 35 minutes,” she announces. “We don’t have time to study the patrol routes, so just shoot anyone who comes. They won’t automatically open fire in here.”

Nono is still slightly dopey, but she understands the assignment. “35 minutes. You got it.”

SNOWMAN is holding Alex internally, and carrying a groggy Emma. “Hope you got a plan, Jason,” he says darkly, as the two of them run through the lower level.

Jason consults something for a moment, then smiles. “Good news. I got trackers on both Charade and Jenny Byrne. And they’re both in the complex.”

“Well then, who do we chase? The missus or the ex?” John asks.

Jason rolls his eyes, just a bit. “You are all overstating the kind of relationship I have, or had, with that girl. Please, can we focus?”

SNOWMAN is armored up, but the shit-eating grin Leo would be wearing now comes to Jason’s mind, and this guy is basically his - what - younger brother? He returns to the question. “Charade is moving, but within a small boundary. I bet she’s working on something. I think she’s safe.”

His tone grows icier. “That means we go after Jenny.”

“Won’t she just be hanging out with General Cokehead?”

“She’s not in the booth… I’m not sure what she’s up to,” Jason admits.

SNOWMAN nods. “A’ight. You think you got this? If so, I’ll look after Bluescreen and Overheated here, and kinda follow along behind you.”

Jason smiles. “I got this. Alright, up this way.”

It takes a few shootouts to make any progress. Kovačević is indeed the strategist he claims to be, and has deployed his troops, and some of the Antibodies, at key junctions throughout the base. Jason, on the other hand, can use his nanobots to bore holes in walls and ceilings, bypassing the natural chokepoints. Still, this takes time, and the Russian General’s micromanagement of his troops shows an attention to detail that Jason has to respect.

Jason is also running short of the team’s stun rounds, even when trading out one set of borrowed guns for another. SNOWMAN can shoot too, but they both agree that using rounds sparingly means relying on Jason’s far superior shooting accuracy.

“Really principled team of black ops assholes we got here,” the android remarks during one exchange of fire. “We’ll infil your base and blow it to space, but we won’t kill your hired goons or even professional soldiers.”

Jason, leaning around the corner periodically to take snap shots, grins at that. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

They make it to one of the upper levels of the base, with more soldiers not far behind.

“30 meters this way,” Jason says, and runs. SNOWMAN follows. A few stray bullets actually plink off his armored back, and he hugs Emma’s limbs closer to him so a shot doesn’t hit an arm or leg.

“I’m awake, you handsy asshole,” the pyrokinetic announces, in a decidedly half-asleep voice.

“Shoot over my shoulder,” SNOWMAN directs. Emma grabs one of his pistols, peeks up and over, draws a bead, and fires.

“Missed by a country mile, didn’t ya,” he says.

“Yeah… that took a lot out of me, earlier,” she finally admits.

“No worries,” John says reassuringly. “Comrade X hasn’t woken up and so can’t give you any grief about that.”

“Wanna bet?” comes a voice from inside him.

The room the team emerge into is labeled “Nanotechnology Lab”. Jason’s eyes light up - this is what Jenny must have been after. And it must be where she is, because that’s where his tracking nanobots say…

He finds a vial where the bots have been extracted, next to a machine for extracting nanobots. It’s a giant MRI machine, basically, but exerts forces with much greater precision. Jason himself has one at the Quill Compound, and tried it - unsuccessfully - to treat Mercury’s own nano-virus infection.

There’s something else here, though. A laptop is open, and there’s a note with a distinct lipstick shape on it taped to the laptop’s screen.

“Guard the door,” Jason tells SNOWMAN. While the robot releases Alex and sets Emma down against one wall, he approaches the laptop.

There’s a video message waiting for him, made by recording with the laptop’s own camera and microphone, right in this room. It’s Jenny, as she undergoes the procedure to remove the tracking nanobots. As a result, she’s sometimes out of frame and sometimes undressed as she gets into the apparatus. It’s frustrating, not to be able to read the emotions on her face, because what she says is interesting enough.

“In case you find this, m’dear, think of it as a going-away gift. You’ll find what your team is looking for on this laptop. Pinocchio Protocol. You can use it to interface with the Poppet System. It will remove the contingencies and back doors and leave the system intact and installed - or it will detach the System entirely from its wearer, with no ill effect. You’ll need to use your nanobots to connect to somebody’s Poppet System to do this.”

Only at the end of the video, as she’s dressing again, can Jason see her face, and recognize the guilt and conflict there. “Do whatever you need to do with the Grasscutters. The truth is… they don’t work for me. They work for themselves. Their cause is their own.”

“But I beg you. The others - the other people with the System, who didn’t join them. They’re still in care in Australia and elsewhere. And the Antibodies here. If you take their System away, leave them with something. Some kind of life, some sort of hope. My creation did this to them, and I - we - owe them that.”

“I’ve already spiked the details of the Poppet System from the computers here. Kovačević would have to do a deal with Sidorov to get back into production again, and I feel strongly that some bridges have been burned there. ANTIBODY will live again. Until one of us stops it for good.”

“You asked who I’m working for,” Jenny says, as the video concludes. “I’m working for myself. And other people like me. Created people. Fake people. If both of us are lucky, my sweet Mr. Quill, we’ll never see each other again.”

Jason begins downloading the file she left behind on the laptop. He’s able to transfer it directly to his nanobots - after thoroughly vetting it, naturally. Even now, Jenny Byrne is a far ways from having earned his trust.

Pinocchio Protocol comes online. There’s a menu of options for Jason to choose. He opts for “shut down Poppet Systems in physical contact” as a safe default setting. Nobody he’s likely to encounter either wants the system, or deserves to keep it, he thinks.

As the download finishes, he hears another voice come over the PA - a very familiar one.

“This is Alycia Chin. This is a message for General Kovačević or whoever is currently in charge. In three hours, your type KLT-90 nuclear reactors will go critical. At that time, life within this facility will become untenable. In addition, the heating systems which keep the Winter Cradle within safe human temperature ranges will cease to operate. You will be forced to evacuate the site, at which time NATO spy satellites will take note of the activity here, prompting an investigation. It is highly inadvisable to try and reverse the sabotage done to the reactors, as secondary explosives and other contingencies have been introduced to the machinery.”

“I repeat. You have three hours to evacuate this facility. Failure to do so means your life.”

Kovačević’s voice comes over the PA. “TALOS units are already taking up positions at every conceivable exit point. Soldiers and Antibodies are free to leave. You are not. Once that is done, you will find it a very uncomfortable prison for the short amount of time it takes me to release nerve gas into the ventilation system.”

SNOWMAN glances up. “Can we do that? We’ve conducted ourselves like gentlemen so far.”

Jason snorts at the joke. “I’m afraid Charade has escalated matters. We’ve broken the sacred rules of hospitality, my fellow adventurers.”

The robot nods. “Well, can you drill your way up to the surface? I can remote the Chimeras down here - assuming a TALOS isn’t up there waiting for us. Which it probably is.”

Jason nods. “I’ll get to work on that.”

He glances at Alex, who’s recovering from the brief but intense beating the Antibodies administered, and gestures toward the waiting laptop. “We’ve got you some new kit. Are you in shape to get on the PA system and notify Charade where we are?”

Alex stands, supporting themselves with a hand against the wall, just in case they overestimated their abilities. “Yeah, think I can do that. We just running?”

“We got what we came for,” Jason explains. “Kovačević has some home court advantage, but he’ll be losing power here shortly from the sound of it.”

It took a minute, but they finally hear a reply to the General’s challenge. The voice is cold and hard like a glacier slowly rolling over anything before it. “Your threats are hollow, General. I will give you one warning about underestimating me, which I expect you to heed. I am Alycia Chin, and I am in control here.”

While Alycia conducts her sabotage, Nono finds moments of peace between incoming patrols to ask questions. Alycia, knee-deep in the guts of the reactor and with technical manuals open next to her, still has enough focus to respond to them.

“Like, I heard stuff, like, ‘Siberian gulags’ as a bad place. And the idea of Siberia as like the really cold part of Russia. Is that where we are?”

“Russia is broadly divided into the Russian plain, to the west - where Moscow is - and the Siberian plateau, to the east. Between them are the Ural Mountains. It’s not a former vassal of the USSR, like Kazakhstan or Lithuania, but a geographic region.”

Nono nods. “And we’re… hmm, are we north… east… of Mongolia? I really liked it there.”

“That’s approximately correct. I’m glad to see that the wretched American education system hasn’t dampened your enthusiasm for geography.”

Nono smiles a little. “Well, I had to do research for writing Agent R stuff. I liked getting details right. The reader really connects with stuff when it has verisimilitude.”

“Most lies work like that, and fiction is a consensual lie,” Alycia responds.

There’s a moment of silence, and Alycia’s voice grows somewhat softer. “Forgive a personal question. Please omit specifics. But… you don’t get along with your parents, do you.”

Nono shakes her head. “I have some distance from - from that situation now. But… yeah. It was never good.”

Alycia nods. “I realize that for all that I’ve said about, well, my father, that your parents must have had a strong influence on you as well.”

The other girl tilts her head curiously. “I guess so… I don’t think it was a good one though.”

“Perhaps not. But your upbringing has made you - I will admit - a good protege. Now come here. I want to show you how to build an ANFO bomb. I’ll keep an eye on the door for you. I can do this blindfolded.”

The girls finish up their sabotage efforts. Alycia leads the way to a command sub-station, and the pair have a brief but intense shootout with the soldiers posted there. She takes up the microphone, inhales, and begins her broadcast.

A few minutes later, the pair are on the move when Jason’s voice comes over the PA. “Charade, we are proceeding with extraction. Top level of the facility, I’ve got eyes on you.”

Alycia curses. “That lazy–”

She turns to Nono. “He could have come and retrieved us. But no. Naturally it falls to us to fight our way through a heavily fortified, well-populated fortress of professional soldiers.”

Nono reloads her weapons with a smile. “Well, let’s get started then.”

Alycia realizes Jason’s trick when she unexpectedly sees him. Several soldiers and a couple of Antibodies have located the pair, and have them pinned down. The soldiers drop unexpectedly from stun rounds fired from the other direction.

When the Antibodies turn to engage, they’re faced with Jason Quill rushing them, nanobots out. As he makes contact, Alycia can see chunks of silvery metal fall from beneath their shirts - the Poppet System.

“I needed you on the move to lure them out,” Jason says cheerfully. “Pinocchio Protocol, courtesy of Jenny Byrne. This is the key to neutralizing the Grasscutters.”

Alycia’s demeanor turns icy. “I’m gratified by the success of the mission. Please understand that if I see that woman again, I will kill her for what she did to me. I hold her responsible for that data leak.”

Jason shrugs. “I think she’s got a little plus and a lot of minus on her ledger right now, and I’m not gonna defend her on this. So let’s focus on the positives, and find us some more Antibodies.”

He looks past Alycia and waves. “Agent R. Glad you made it through this. You want your system off too, or are you using it?”

Nono shakes her head. “I’m not going to use that system, now or ever,” she declares vehemently. “I’m going to make it on my own merits.”

Alycia nods approvingly, but doesn’t say what she wants to - “I’m proud of you”. She does watch Jason rather more warily than she wants to as Nono tugs up her shirt for the nanobot contact, but is happy enough to finally see Nono free of the Poppet System.

As the trio resume running, Alycia turns her head to Jason.

“How’s my team?” she demands. “Have you been taking good care of them?”

“Relax, they’re in good hands. SNOWMAN’s watching out for Comrade X and Firebrand. The two of them took some hits but nothing serious.”

“I thought you said they were in good hands,” Alycia grouses, but Jason can hear she doesn’t really mean anything by it.

“Maybe you’d like to have yourself cloned here,” Jason suggests in a teasing tone. “That way you can look after everybody, no matter how many times the team splits up.”

“I can stun you and carry your insensate body the rest of the way to the extraction point,” Alycia warns him.

Jason smirks. “Unfortunately for you, I’m the way out. I’ll be drilling a hole in the facility’s outer walls.”

“Making you the team drill sergeant?” Nono suggests meekly, from behind them.

Jason and Alycia glance at each other. It’s not their usual banter.

But after a moment, and to Nono’s immense relief, they both laugh.

They fight their way through more encounters, with Jason neutralizing Antibodies as they come, and Alycia and Nono shooting down the soldiers.

SNOWMAN is surrounded by a large number of bodies - soldiers, groaning or unconscious, and even a few Antibodies - when they meet up at the Nanotech Lab. Evidently he’s been busy too.

“I’ll fuck up those magnetic motherfuckers too, once I figure out how,” he boasts, miming cracking his knuckles. “We doing this?”

Alex reports back from the laptop. “More soundboard shenanigans,” they report. “I can’t puppet the TALOS any more - he put in some kinda password that can’t be countermanded. But I’ve been splicing together the radio traffic, the commanders reporting our position and stuff. I’m ready to send General Failure some highly misleading intel on our movements through the facility. Hopefully he’ll redirect his dudes elsewhere.”

Emma seems to be back on her feet. “Pilot light’s still hot. I’ll soften up the concrete for ya. Just don’t be too boring, chief.”

Alycia nods toward Nono. “Agent R and I will cover the exits, in case someone interrupts.”

Jason looks at his comrades, at the team coming together around him. “Okay. SNOWMAN, clear the area of debris. Grapples once there’s a clear passage. Firebrand, when you’re ready.”

The drilling trio get to work, moving like clockwork on the vital task of finding an escape from this underground base. Alycia and Nono stand guard. Alex gets to work on the laptop, spinning lie after lie about a team of invincible operators moving through the complex.

Minute after minute go by. More than once, Jason must halt operations to patch up a hole in a water main, or seal off a sparking electrical cable. But finally, he breaks through.

SNOWMAN rockets up the hole that was made, and after a few moments they hear him call down. “Some kinda basement. Clear out, grapples coming down.”

The lines shoot out and down. One by one, the team grab hold, and John hauls them up. Alycia is the last to leave.

The team find themselves in the basement of one of the apartment complexes. After careful surveillance, they exit and find themselves on the upper end of the Winter Cradle.

TALOS are patrolling the skies, held aloft by their prodigious magnetic fields, but their patrol patterns are regular and hence predictable.

Since there’s no need to remote the Chimeras for a quick evacuation, they opt to go back the way they came - the sewer system.

It’s a long and smelly trek, but every part of it is an enormous relief after all that’s happened. It falls to Alycia to metaphorically whip some discipline into everyone. “No slacking off,” she snaps from time to time. “They might still find us. No surprises.”

They exit, and find the Chimeras concealed where they expected them to be. The snow John piled over the machines is still there, but there’s fresh footprints nearby. Evidently, the General was canny enough to realize the team had to reach the Winter Cradle somehow, and had sent soldiers to find their route.

The flight back to the concealed jet plane is uneventful.

Once on board, Alycia establishes the Baker-2 protocol for contacting MIA.

Parker’s voice comes on the radio. “Charade. Report.”

“Ma’am. It’s good to hear your voice.” Alycia allows herself that moment, and continues in a more subdued voice. “We located a secret facility in the far eastern portion of Russian territory. Please ask your contacts in NATO and other western countries to aim spy satellites at this location over the next few hours. Events of interest should transpire. I’ll transmit the coordinates.”

After doing so, she resumes. “We succeeded at our primary mission. We’ve obtained a sort of nanotech passkey, the ‘Pinocchio Protocol’, which can remove the Poppet System from people in direct physical contact.”

She tries to recap what she understands about the situation. “In the end, it seems like Jenny Byrne - an Antibody, and product of the facility - used us to get access to Pinocchio for her own purposes, to neutralize a security vulnerability in her own Poppet System. She was operating under orders to lure us there, but seems to have betrayed those orders in a way that give her plausible deniability with her superiors.”

“In the meantime, I believe our strategic objective now is to locate Grasscutters and neutralize them as circumstances permit.”

Costigan’s voice comes on. “Roger, and I concur. Shut them down, however and wherever you can. Is there anything else?”

During this time, Jason has been writing an extended note. He now holds it up for inspection. Alycia gawks when she processes what’s written there.

She mouths, “are you sure?” at him.

He nods, solemnly.

After a moment of deep concern and furrowed eyebrows, Alycia resumes. “Regret to inform you - for dissemination to appropriate parties at your discretion - that Jason Quill has been killed by Jenny Byrne.”

There’s a long pause on the other end. Finally Costigan comes back. “Is this accurate intel? Has it been verified?”

Alycia glances at Jason, who shrugs in that irritatingly uncaring way he does. She makes an executive decision.

“Sir… you should report that as fact to uh, to appropriate parties. But I encourage you to remember my code name and its meaning.”

The silence on the radio implies an understanding. Costigan’s voice is much calmer when he speaks next. “Roger, Charade. I’m sure if Mister Quill were still with us, he’d want to know that I’ll see to it people are told the truth about him. Stay safe. Costigan out.”

As the radio clicks off, Alycia wheels and stares at Jason. “Why?”

The young man is fully ready with an answer. Alycia can practically hear the bullet points in his presentation. “First, Pinocchio needs nanotech to work. My nanotech. I’m vital to your, ah, ‘strategic objective’. And I wouldn’t let you do this without me anyway.”

“Second. I retired from the Menagerie, and I wanted to do good in the world in other ways, and I proved to myself that I didn’t have to be, you know, how I was.” He gestures around him, at the occupants of the plane. “But this kind of stuff is in my blood. I couldn’t stay retired for too long. So I’ll join your team - if you’ll have me, and with your collective permission.”

“We will discuss that momentarily,” Alycia tells him. “Continue.”

“Third. It’s a low-impact move. You know, I’ve been preparing for my own death for awhile. Those preparations are still good. The Quill Compound will function without me. The staff will keep getting paid. The gadgets in the warehouse will have other caretakers.”

Alycia narrows her eyes. “And that digital copy of me in your computer? ‘Mirage’, was it?”

Jason grins. “Also taken care of. The HHL member Vigil vouches for her, and he’ll be keeping an eye on her. He’s one of the good ones.”

“I don’t like it, but I will accept your logic,” Alycia concedes. “But…”

She hesitates, not sure how much she wants to talk about this, especially in front of her team. “You’d be giving up your life, at least for awhile. I expect you’ll inevitably want to be resurrected. But until then…”

She lets out a sigh. “It’s not easy, Jason. Not having a home to go back to.”

Jason’s grin widens, and his blue eyes sparkle - god dammit, Alycia thinks to herself.

“We left our art project behind. I promised you a new life, a new relationship. Not bound up in our past violence, but our future as creators. So, how’d you like to go to that Antarctic city with me?”

Alycia feels her cheeks flame red. “What? What are you–?” she sputters.

Jason grins. “The city! The Stone Builders! That enigmatic technology that Pyrrhus built his base around. It’s our mystery to solve. We could analyze their elemental manipulation tech. We could learn about their culture. We could - eventually - tell the world about these people. Hell, Atlantis is still using their tech to make their cities habitable, and they don’t know much about it. It’s a mystery - it’s an adventure - and nobody has to get hurt, nobody has to suffer, nobody has to lose.”

He glances up at the jet they’re flying inside. “Plus, it’d make a great base. I’m sure this jet will fit into the hangar I remember down there, once we pull the rubble out.”

SNOWMAN pipes up. “Otto and the boys did some of that already, getting me outta there. Pretty sure I can rig up some stuff to do the rest.”

Jason aims his hands at SNOWMAN and grins at Alycia, as though saying “see? see?”

Alycia isn’t sure what to say, not at first. The audacity of it, at least, impresses her.

“What do you think, team? Do you want to live in a secret Antarctic base?”

Emma flashes a thumbs up. “We can get anywhere in the world. And I got lots of advice from Mr. Big on how to build a proper villain lair. Leave construction to me.”

John Black smirks. “My code name is literally SNOWMAN.”

Alex thinks. “Tough to get a satellite uplink from down there,” they say at last. “But I think I can do it. Mostly I wanna know how you’re gonna get food and snacks down there.”

Jason nods. “Sure, sure, logistics will be a challenge. But I think I have a few ideas.”

Alycia turns to the one person who hasn’t spoken yet. “Nono? How would you feel living, so far away from a normal life?”

Nono’s smile is gentle, with only the faint hints of regret and worry. “Bold of you to think anyone here has ever had a normal life. But if we’re on the run, one place is as good as another. Why not go somewhere with a hint of hope for us to make something new?”

Jason nods. “Then it’s decided. A new life, a new base of operations for an international black ops team, and a new hope of achieving world peace. At least for today.”

Alycia smiles. “Welcome to the team, Mr. Quill.”

The others share their feelings about this announcement. “Hear hear.” “He starts at the bottom and is on KP duty.” “Better not mess with my stuff, newbie.”

Alycia can’t say what she most wants to say. Once, she felt like she’d been making the sacrifices for Jason - being the hunted outsider, forced to surrender to AEGIS and live under their watchful eyes, while he continued to live his indulgent American life with nary a care. But now?

He’s willing to give all that up, for a very indefinite amount of time.

For this.

For me.

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City of Clones wraps up with that, and with the team equipped with the Pinocchio Protocol. Jenny Byrne got away, and the ANTIBODY program might somehow continue, but both it and the Grasscutters have been dealt a serious setback. What do we think?

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