YOU KNOW WHERE THE KEY IS
Alycia has just enough consciousness to recognize the feeling. It’s like being drugged, a combination of a truth serum and euphoric. She’ll do whatever someone says, and she’ll feel like a deliriously happy idiot in the process. She recognizes that she ought to be afraid of this arrangement. She recognizes that she’s not. She recognizes she should be afraid of that, too.
WHERE IS THE KEY
She knows what she’s being asked for. Comet King brought back something to Earth, some sort of space artifact or egg. He buried it in the Halcyon City park to keep it safe from his adversaries at the time. Oh. So that’s what they were digging for at Refract.
Alycia recognizes it from the information filling her mind. Oh, that thing. Yes, Comet King realized that it needed a caretaker. Byron Quill was happy to buy it, keep it safe, put it somewhere. The Quill Foundation storage facility. Where Alycia worked.
WE ARE FREE
Alycia has memories that aren’t her own. A curious worker touching the egg, the fear parasite taking control of her. She had been helped by a kindly doctor when she was young. She always feared being ungrateful. She gave it to him, as a gift.
Alycia is aware of the doctor’s greatest fear, being unable to help the children he works with. One after another, he shared the power of the parasite with them. It cured their fear, but it changed them. After the first kid, it became easier and easier.
WE ARE INCOMPLETE
If an entity with this much power is incomplete, what will happen if it’s returned to the rest of itself and powers up? Alycia dearly wants to be afraid.
Around her, the shadow wings its way toward the Quill compound.
Colin has subscribed to KAPE’s alerts for Halcyon City superhero incidents. He doesn’t admit to himself why, and he’s not sure what good it does him, but he does it anyway. When the late-night alert comes in, his phone wakes him up. Some kind of disruption in a high-class residential neighborhood. Winged shape taking to the skies, superhero “Radiance” of the Menagerie team in pursuit.
A phone call from an unknown number hijacks his screen, and he angrily hangs it up to go back to reading the alert again. But a pair of headlights flash through his window, and the call comes in again.
He answers, suddenly wary of the timing. “Hello?”
“She sent me to check up on ya. Everything okay?”
Colin hunches over, holding the phone close. “Is Summer okay?”
“That’s you outside, in the car? Hey, can you take me to where she is?” He realizes the request is ludicrous - why would he do that? What could he possibly contribute?
“Sure. Probably the best way to keep ya safe, actually.”
He throws on clothes and runs out, only to find a super-car waiting for him. The passenger side door cracks open, and he slides in. He recognizes this car… “Otto?”
“The one and only.” Tires spin up, and traction launches Otto forward, pushing Colin against the seat. Then the rockets kick in, and the two are airborne.
There’s a big hole in the roof of the Quill warehouse when Radiance arrives. The building has recessed turrets and launcher hardpoints, equipped with state of the art weapons for defending against air attacks. It looks like they’ve been bypassed, disabled, or destroyed. Radiance drops through the hole.
Power is out. There’s an emergency lighting system, some kind of luminous paint, but it’s mostly there to direct human occupants to the emergency exits, not to light up the whole facility. Summer can’t see in the dark much better than anyone else, but she has options. She holds out her hands, and a swarm of butterfly drones launch from her hardpoints and scatter. She can see the dots of light disappear into the gloom, borne on tiny gold-white wings.
Immediately the drones’ sensors pick up movement, and onboard software assembles their perception into map in her field of vision. She starts running, and the drones converge on her destination.
There’s a stack of stuff - boxes, crates, storage devices of all kind - randomly piled into an open area. A number of mechanical humanoids are methodically sorting through the pile, or adding new items to it from elsewhere in the warehouse. Each of them has cables connected to the backs of their necks, and their limbs. The cables snake across the top of the pile, and converge in a shadowed spot.
No - it’s not just a lack of light. As her drones come to hover around the pile, Summer can see the black miasma for what it is. It’s grown to colossal proportions, and its ebony wings hover protectively over the whole mass. A black dragon, presiding over its hoard, pulling the strings of an army of robot puppets.
One of the puppets turns and approaches, and the dragon’s reptilian-feline face snakes forward as well. Summer can’t see much of Alycia in the monster’s features, but the robo-puppet is all too familiar. It’s like a cheap mechanical facsimile of Dr. Achilles Chin, Alycia’s father.
“Ah! Summer! How wonderful,” the dragon purrs. “We love these robot creations. You’ve made us appreciate robots more, and now we get to play with the technology. It’s truly fascinating. They can be made out of anything. Autonomous automata. No will of their own, no self to harm, no ego to enslave. The perfect tool.”
“Yes, my child, yes!” crows the Chinbot. “I’m so proud of you.”
The dragon extends a talon, a foot long, and affectionately strokes the cheek of the Chinbot. “Thank you, father.” Its eyes flicker back to Summer. “The Key is close. We are incomplete without it. Soon it will free us.”
“Free you to… do what?” Summer asks warily. Around her, the butterflies flicker and flit, taking up different defensive postures, ready to cast up barriers or holograms as needed. But she still doesn’t have a strategy.
“To heal the world of fear. To empower everyone to overcome their weakness.” The dragon’s voice is silky, crooning. “The doctor feared that he wasn’t able to reach his patients, or treat their anxieties. We gave him the means to do it. The space-man feared he wouldn’t make it home in his rocket. Before them, there were others. After us, there will be more.” The Chinbot nods enthusiastically.
Keep it talking. “You can’t just change people like that,” Summer protests.
“Why not?” The dragon’s question is seductive in its simplicity. Yes, why not?
“Because… because…” I know why. “Because sometimes we need fear. Fear keeps us safe. I’m afraid of people learning I’m a robot, but my caution lets me have the normal life I want at school and work. Fear is what keeps Leo Snow from taking over the world with his tech - fear of becoming his father, fear of depriving anyone of their life and agency. Fear is what led my sister to resolve her feelings for him.”
The Chinbot speaks up. “Fear holds humans back! Fear makes them weak! Fear causes hatred, incites violence.” The dragon says nothing.
“Yes.” Summer has to admit there’s a point there. But she’s not done. “We humans don’t just feel fear. We feel other things, too. Love, hope, anger, surprise, disgust, amusement… If you take fear away from us, you lessen us. We don’t become better. We become…” What did the creature say? “…incomplete. Do you know what that feels like?”
The dragon has no reply. The Chinbot rallies in its place, but there’s hesitation. “You will be happier!”
“We’ll only be happier because there’s less of anything else for us to be,” Summer counters.
The dragon speaks now. “We wish we could make you understand, Summer. It’s so liberating to be free of the fear. To play with these toys, to have fun with robots, to make our father understand us at last, to make him safe, like we want him to be. To make him happy.”
She’s still in there. It’s her, doing what she’s been held back from doing. But would she do the unthinkable…? Summer tries an experiment. Her drones lash out with their holo-projected wings, severing the cables of several of the puppets. The dragon doesn’t stir. The cables writhe for a moment, then snake back to the mechanical men and reconnect themselves.
Summer knows what she has in mind is a risk. But she has faith in Alycia. She severs one of the cables again, then grabs for it before it can reattach itself to the dragon’s puppets. She holds it to her own forehead. “Well that sounds great. I guess you need another hand finding your Key, huh?”
She felt the cable thrashing for her, and still does. Only now she feels a tug from the other direction. The dragon is trying to draw it back. “No, that will not be necessary.”
“Why not?” Summer demands. “That’s what you’re talking about doing! Take away my fear and you change who I am! What am I supposed to be then? I guess you’re in charge of deciding that! So why wait?”
“We… we don’t want to change you,” the dragon insists. “We want…”
“What do you want?” Summer inches the cable closer to her head. It’s still snapping at her, but the tension has increased. She thinks - hopes - the parasite is fine with taking her over, and that Alycia is fighting it.
She better be fighting it. Because I don’t have any other ideas.
“We want…. To go home…. The Key will complete us…. We want to erase fear… Transform it….”
“But you can’t, because you’re afraid of hurting me, aren’t you, Alycia.” Summer’s voice grows softer. “And there’s some things even this monster can’t make you do.”
The dragon’s body shudders. The puppets dance wildly on their strings, then collapse. And with a scream that starts as one voice and ends as two, the miasma erupts into a cloud that fills the warehouse. When it clears, Summer can see Alycia, prone, at the top of the heap of boxes. Her drones swoop in, scoop her up, and convey her down. The cable in Summer’s hand has gone limp, so she drops it in favor of catching and cradling her roommate and friend.
The Charade costume is mostly intact. Summer pulls the mask off to check Alycia’s vitals. She’s sweaty and panting from the strain, and seems conscious but disoriented. “No… Summer… don’t let it…”
“It’s okay,” Summer whispers. “Alycia, you’re safe. I’m here. It’s okay.”
The other girl’s eyes focus, and turn to her. Alycia doesn’t say anything, only throw her arms around Summer and hug tightly. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“You did your best. You beat it. You won. You’re in control again.”
Two vehicles drop through the hole in the ceiling at almost the same time: Jason’s Q-disc and Otto, in robot form, with Colin on his shoulder. Otto immediately deposits Colin on the ground and strikes a fighting pose. “Come on, ya monsters, I’m ready for ya!” But there’s nothing to fight. The puppets have collapsed, and the miasma is dispersing.
Jason vaults the railing of his Q-disc and rushes toward Alycia. Summer hands her off immediately, and Alycia doesn’t quite resist having her boyfriend taking her roommate’s place in the hug.
“I thought you were in Mozambique,” Alycia manages blearily.
“Fuck Mozambique. Summer said you needed me.” Jason grins in his own inimitable way. And all Alycia can do is bury her face in his chest.
Things seem to have worked out. But Summer isn’t convinced. She knows her caution was correct when a black shadow, like a three-dimensional silhouette of Alycia, steps into view. “We are not done with you,” it hisses.
“You can be beaten. We won’t let you take us over any longer.” Summer steps up, readying her butterflies for battle, if that’s what is left.
“How do you… Conquer fear?” the creature asks. It’s no longer hostile. It sounds curious, like a child. It sounds afraid.
Summer notices Colin approaching her, standing beside her. What is he doing here? It’s dangerous!
Oh. He’s here because it’s dangerous.
He’s worried about me.
She remembers Liljenquist’s question. “How do you defeat any fear?” It wasn’t a question. It was an answer.
“We don’t defeat it. We confront it,” she says. “We control it. We use it. Embrace it, when we need. When we don’t, we use courage to overcome it.”
“Show us this courage,” the creature says.
Summer knows everyone is watching her, waiting to see what happens next. How did this become my show?
“I don’t know if–”
She hears Colin next to her. “I can show you courage,” he says.
The miasma loses its humanoid shape, flowing to surround Colin. Not to possess him, Summer guesses - hopes. He turns to her, still seemingly himself, and smiles. “Hey.”
“You asked me to give you more time. I will. But here’s how I feel.” Colin leans in, and before Summer can do anything, he kisses her.
His mouth is warm. She can feel his breath on her face. He’s not a great kisser - but how would she know? But he’s earnest. She closes her eyes, and gives into it.
When the pair separate, Summer can see Jason looking away in embarrassment, Otto smirking, and Alycia smiling tiredly, but proudly. She herself blushes and dares to look back to Colin. “I… Message received, loud and clear. Let’s talk, real soon, okay?”
“Okay.” His own shyness is back, and he steps away. But the miasma separates from him, and combines into a humanoid shape again. This time, it’s a silhouette of Colin.
“We… We felt fear. We felt Colin overcome it, all on his own. This is courage?”
Three more figures come through the hole in the roof, touching down effortlessly. It’s the Concordance trio. The one Summer recognizes as Courage steps forward. “It is.”
The other, Truth, turns to Summer and the others. “This entity is known to us. We recognized its awakening signal and homed in on it. It is a Concordance emotional training device. It is used to examine and expunge the negative virtues. Deceit. Hatred. Fear. In the wrong hands, it is dangerous, as I am sure you have all seen. We shall dispose of it.”
Colin steps forward, placing himself between the Concordance agents and the parasite. “Wait, uh, wait a minute. You’re just going to kill it? Him? Her? Uh…” He glances over his shoulder at the parasite, now presenting as male by virtue of being him.
“It is a device, nothing more,” Truth states flatly.
Summer shakes her head. This isn’t right. It had a presence. Goals. Curiosity. And she recognizes that she, herself, has been neglectful. Jason’s AIs. The fear parasite. They may not have human brains, and perhaps not human minds. But are they people?
Colin is willing to give them a chance. She chooses to as well.
“Wait.” Summer turns to the parasite. “You can’t fight us all. You can’t win. Is there… you weren’t from Earth, originally. Do you… Do you have a home to go back to?”
The shadow speaks. “We cannot.”
“But why? You were able to give powers to people that let them teleport. Is there a range limit, or–”
"We are…. " The parasite struggles for words. “We are afraid. To return is to be alone again.”
Summer looks up, finding the Concordance agents’ faces. She can’t read them, the way Leo was able to read Concord’s face with some practice.
She finally decides what she must do, and faces them again. “If you can take it home, make sure it’s not alone, great. But you can’t abandon it. And you can’t destroy it. Not if it’s a person.” She smiles at Colin, just a moment, then grows serious again. “And it seems like it is.”
The three agents confer amongst themselves. “This is a highly unusual situation,” Truth finally says. “However, on Earth, highly unusual situations are statistically the norm according to our records. We will… pursue the matter, with our superiors. In the interim, we will take responsibility for the entity in toto. We assure you it will not be destroyed unless it presents a danger to life.”
Summer feels Colin’s hand taking hers, his fingers closing fast. “Thank you,” he whispers.
She could say that it’s a deal. But if it’s a person, it’s not her right to speak. She turns to the parasite, and watches it expectantly.
“To face risk with the chance of reward… is courage. I accept your offer,” it announces.
Alycia has recovered, although the experience has been traumatic for her. Although Jason didn’t disclose how much his deal in Mozambique would have been worth had he stayed, Alycia infers a number and insists on making it up to him. “I can oversee repairing and re-organizing the warehouse cheaper than any contractor,” she offers. She’s as good as her word, even when a girl named Cosmos Jones recognizes her as Alice Chan, and brings her nearly (nearly!) to tears with some fresh-baked cupcakes. And of course, it’s more optimal to stay in the Quill compound - in a separate bedroom, naturally - to be closer to the work. At least for a couple weeks. No promises.
She’s surprised to get a visit from Colin Jones, who looks haggard. “I need your help,” he says.
“Well…” He’s embarrassed, and Alycia waits patiently. Finally: “Uh, some kind of physical training or gym workout. People said you’d be a merciless taskmaster and stuff, which sounded mean, but maybe that’s what I need.”
“Are you trying to participate in sports? The martial arts? I can teach fighting.” Alycia cracks her knuckles, mentally preparing a menu of exercises and diet options.
“I uh, just need more, y’know, endurance.” Finally the dam gives way, and he really starts talking. “So it’s like this. Y’know how, uh, people get tired, worn out, and stuff? Robots don’t. They have unlimited stamina. They just keep uh… Y’know, they…”
Alycia resolutely blocks off whatever thoughts this revelation might have brought with it. “I see.”
“And, uh, it’s like… Well, you know how like when a kitten crawls into your lap, and curls up, and it’s really cute and adorable and you don’t want to move, and your legs get tired but you don’t want it to be disturbed, because it’s really … y’know? It’s like a–”
Alycia rolls her eyes a bit. But a memory brings a grin to her face. “A clingy Terminator. She can’t be bargained with, can’t be reasoned with, and will not stop until someone is loved.”
Relief spreads across Colin’s face. “Yeah. Haha, that’s kinda funny. But um, yes.”
Alycia makes her decision. “Right! I’ll help you. I’m mostly doing this for Summer, though. I want her to be happy. And if you fail in your responsibility… You’ll regret it. Do I make myself clear?”
Colin startles. “Yes ma’am!”
“Good. Let’s start by having you haul some crates. And when that’s done… Why not take a coffee break, over at Blintzkrieg?”
“You got it, boss!”