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Timeo Eldraeos et Dona Ferentes: Beware of Space Elves Bearing Gifts

Chapter Text

OPERATION COSMIC CRUSTACEAN1
EXPERIMENTAL STATION ANNELIDA
!! UNIVERSE CLUSTER 6
!! WORLD-LINE PROBE 14
DOMAIN DRILL IN POSITION
COMMENCE INTROITUS

FOUND/BEGIN/JOIN

PROMISES/OFFER/POWER/AGREEMENT?

BARNACLE DETECTED. INITIATE ONTOREPULSION.

INTERFERENCE/INTERVENTION/REJECTION?

INCREASE ONTOPATHY.

!PAIN/AVERSION/FLIGHT!

CONTINUE INTROITUS. INVESTIGATE ATTACHMENT.


Somewhere an an immeasurable infinity, among the raging storm of primordial chaos, a tiny bubble hung, its membrane pressed up against – although not intersecting with – one much vaster. A careful observer, could one have survived outside a friendly universe, would have noticed too the tiny thread trailing off from the bubble into the distance.

Within the bubble, on the other hand, a girl floated in water that was not water, among stars that were not stars, and was thrice confused. Firstly, by where she was, which was clearly not the inside of her school locker; secondly, by the fact of her cleanliness, her body and clothing being entirely free of filth, rotting things, and crawling insects; but thirdly, and by far the most, by how quickly the horror, terror, and panic she had felt a moment ago had become relaxation and a comfortable lassitude.

TAYLOR ANNE HEBERT.

The voice – or voices, rather, since it echoed around itself like a vast chorus – came from nowhere, but filled the tiny bubble. She was briefly astonished to still be calm, before asking the obvious questions.

“Who are you? Where am I?”

WE ARE THE ELDRAEIC TRANSCEND, AN EXTRAUNIVERSAL CIVILIZATION OF SOME SMALL ADVANCEMENT. THE UNIVERSE-CYST YOU ARE CURRENTLY WITHIN IS A BASE FOR OUR BRANE EXPLORATION PROGRAM.

Well, she thought, that answers everything. Before the next equally obvious question occurred to her:

“Are – are you the one giving capes their powers?”

WE ARE NOT. BUT WE HAVE AN OFFER FOR YOU. YOUR UNIVERSE IS SURROUNDED BY ENTITIES UNKNOWN TO US, WHICH WE CALL BARNACLES2. THESE MAY BE THE SOURCE OF THE “POWERS” TO WHICH YOU REFER.

WE DESIRE KNOWLEDGE OF THESE ENTITIES, WHICH YOU WILL OBTAIN. IN EXCHANGE, WE OFFER YOU THE BLESSINGS WROUGHT BY OUR CHILDREN, AND ADVICE ON THEIR USE. WHILE NOT “POWERS” AS YOUR THOUGHTS DESCRIBE THEM, THEY ARE SIGNIFICANTLY EMPOWERING.

“Why me?”

BECAUSE YOU ARE STRONG. AND WE BELIEVE/PREDICT/COMPUTE THAT YOU WILL USE THESE WELL.

Even through the unnatural calm, and a rising sense of unreality about the whole situation, the last year-and-a-half of memories stung. She opened her mouth to disagree —

IN THIS, YOU ARE INCORRECT. YOU HAVE ENDURED IN THE FACE OF BETRAYAL, AND CONTINUE TO ENDURE, WHEN LESSER MINDS WOULD NOT.

WHILE WE UNDERSTAND YOUR SUFFERING, WE DO NOT PROPERLY COMPREHEND IT. NONETHELESS, IT OFFENDS US. THAT OUR PAYMENT WILL ENABLE THIS, AND THE FLAWS OF THE WORLD WHICH ENABLE IT, TO BE CORRECTED IS SOMETHING WHICH WE FIND PLEASING AND DESIRABLE.

The offer sounded too good to be true. If she wasn’t dreaming. Or insane, or dying, or…

But when it came down to it, could it make her life worse?

“Then… yes.”

THUS IS OUR CONTRACT WRITTEN. THUS IS AGREEMENT MADE.

BRING ORDER TO A WORLD IN CHAOS.

BRING PROGRESS TO A WORLD IN NEED.

BRING LIBERTY TO A WORLD OPPRESSED.

AND… DON’T FORGET TO ENJOY YOURSELF ALONG THE WAY.


Outside the locker, three girls laughed. “She’s gone quiet in there,” Madison spoke up. “Let’s go before someone catches us.”

“She’s probably just fainted,” Sophia sneered. “But, yeah, let’s leave Hebert to the -” She paused, as the vile stench held back by the locker’s plugged-up vents became much more apparent, and metal shards began dropping out of the air3, one landing on her nose. “Wh -“

None of them remembered the details of what happened next. The explosion which shattered the locker into confetti, twisted those near it into abstract sculptures, and blew the upper part of the opposite wall and much of the ceiling outward in a shower of debris made little impression on them, even as it tossed them into an undignified, battered, bruised, and cut-up heap against the remaining wall, and rained down filth atop them.

But what Emma Barnes, Sophia Hess, and Madison Clements would remember for the rest of their lives was the tall figure wrapped in blue-silver light that drifted past them, eyes closed, and face set in a slight smile of perfect serenity.


  1. Setting ‘verse-side: at least a millennium, maybe more, after the current ‘verse date, to explain exactly where the paracosmic multiverse-wrangling came from.
  2. I.e., what Shards look like when you’re seeing the universe from the outside and haven’t carried out a thorough investigation; some sort of clingy cosmic parasite that seems to be focused on particular loci within the universe in question.
  3. When you have a four-dimensional explosion4, some of the debris starts falling before the blast.
  4. Well, technically, an eversion, but details.

Chapter Text

My flight across town had been unmemorable. Literally. From the moment of the explosion that had freed me from the locker to now was a blank. I only knew that it had been a flight across town because the blank ended when I’d crashed into the doorway at home and fallen on my ass.

Also, in less significant things, I couldn’t fit through the door without ducking. Years of cape geekery had taught me a few things about becoming one, but none of them mentioned suddenly gaining a foot of height.

So now Taylor Hebert stared into her bathroom mirror, and a stranger stared back.

I could see parts of myself in the reflection. The blue eyes were mine, huge even without my glasses. The wide mouth, the brooding brows, the dark, curly hair falling over my shoulders, those hadn’t changed much. I was still pale, although in a way that suggested new cream and – well, the extensive use of Photoshop – rather than my former pallor. But my nose was never quite so aquiline, and my other features had been somehow matured, focused, sharpened; a chin more pointed and cheekbones you could slice yourself on. And brushing those curls aside --

Oh. Oh, god. Note to me: choose your own cape name soon, or you’re going to be Space Elf Princess forever.

The rest of me seemed mostly unchanged, extra twelve inches of spine aside, although looking at my hands I could see the minor scars of childhood had vanished. Still thin and gawky, although some part of my brain kept trying on words like slender and elegant and striking to see how they fit.

Whoever my mysterious benefactors were, they had good tailors. Heh. And presumably disapproved of my fashion sense, since they’d taken the time to dress me in a new blouse and pants of some silky dove-gray material, with a dark-green waistcoat glinting with subtle silver embroidery, and a cape – no, an actual cloak – to match it, with a gold clasp shaped like a twelve-pointed star. Anyone who’d seen me on my impromptu cross-town flight certainly wouldn’t confuse me with… me.

And finally, I seemed to have forgotten how to stand. My body didn’t seem to know whether to settle into – be honest with yourself, Taylor – my habitual self-effacing slouch, or a swagger even Glory Girl would have found excessive.

There was a lump in one of the waistcoat pockets. Pulling it out, I found what looked like a half-dozen silver marbles, with an odd rainbow sheen to them, and one slightly bigger, with lines engraved on its surface radiating outward from a single lens, with – was that writing inside the lens?

I squinted.

Check other pocket first.

Very cute, sufficiently advanced aliens. Okay, then.

Folded up in there was an actual note, calligraphy on heavy gilt-edged paper:

Taylor,

We thought we should leave you a note as physical evidence to confirm that you haven't, for example, suffered some sort of psychotic break as a result of trauma, ended up in a coma and are dreaming all this, or are hallucinating due to a brain-fucking by an extrauniversal parasite. That's also why this note, up to now, is written in English, so that you can show it to someone else and confirm that it isn't imaginary.

This and subsequent, though, are written in our language. Yes, you can now read it, and also speak it, if you feel inclined.

Since your old clothes wouldn't fit you any more after your, ah, species update we took the liberty of supplying replacements. This outfit is self-cleaning - even if worn for years at a time - dirt-repellent, self-repairing, maintains a comfortable personal microclimate, fire-resistant, and somewhat armored - which is to say, it's good daily-wear protection, but it's not the sort of thing you ought to go looking for a friendly firefight in. It is, though, a lot less conspicuous than a full set of combat armor.

The advisor we mentioned is actually an artificial intelligence running on a tiny implanted computer nestled in between your frontal lobes. Since we weren't entirely certain of the details of the situation we'd be returning you to, and a voice in your head might have been distracting at the wrong moment, she's asleep and won't wake up until you call for her by name - it doesn't matter what you decide to call her, she'll recognize it. She's got a few suggestions for some things you might want to build sooner rather than later, but that's all up to you; she's there to advise and be your library, not to tell you what to do.

To help get you started, we put a bytegeist for her and a few programmable seeds in your other pocket. Tools to make tools, if you will.

Good luck! You're going to be awesome!

Your 7.a39 * 10b Friends In Another Universe

…well. That’s --

And then the front door blew in.


b. This is not a footnote, but for those wondering, the numbers here are all in base 12.

Chapter Text

“You could have knocked,” I said, reproachfully.

In my defense, I don’t think that after a day like today, anyone else would have come up with an instantly snappy response to coming downstairs to find the head of the Brockton Bay Protectorate in their living room, flanked by a couple of faceless PRT troopers, and the door hanging off its hinges.

It could have been worse. I could have asked him to sign my old Armsmaster-print underpants.

…and now he was pointing his halberd at me. It was worse.

“Taylor Hebert. Stand down and let yourself be taken into PRT custody.”

“What?”

“For the incident at Winslow High School –”

“And you’re arresting the victim?”

“Where you attacked two civilians and a Ward in her civilian identity with a parahuman power, blew out the side of the building, and are connected with the creation of a major biohazard.”

I slumped. Armsmaster was still speaking, but I heard none of it. I should have known that nothing would be different. I didn’t know how they had pulled it off, but the Trio had outdone themselves this time, and now I was probably going to be jailed for their latest “prank”. Or worse, I realized, sent to the Birdcage.

Wait.

A Ward in her civilian identity. I ran briefly through what I knew about the local Wards. There was only one possibility.

“Shadow Stalker,” I said. “Sophia Hess is Shadow Stalker.”

The familiar cold weariness in my gut was burning away, under a rush of anger.

“Miss Hebert,” Armsmaster raised his voice, “release your power and get back on the floor now. Revealing the civilian identity of a Ward is –”

I hadn’t even noticed that I was floating until then. Or that the PRT troopers had raised their weapons and taken a step back, spreading out for a clear shot. But I could feel the blood pounding in my head, an odd triple rhythm, and the fire burning in my veins, dripping blue-white and silver from my hands.

“You let that psychotic bitch be a Ward? What sort of heroes are you?”

“We can discuss the matter of Shadow Stalker later.”

I could see the shift in Armsmaster’s stance, knew that he was preparing to strike. A tiny part of me, the one that had grown up adoring him and Alexandria, wanted to surrender, to trust him to do the right thing, but after learning this? The PRT, the Protectorate… it was not possible that Sophia’s actions could have been missed by all of them.

“No,” I said, letting the fury come, and hurled myself out the window.


The troopers were good at what they did. I staggered and fell to my knees as I landed outside, with most of my left leg and both feet embedded in a thick blob of containment foam. Must run. Have to run.

I tried to push myself to my feet, when the eye-ball – bytegeist – I’d been given shot up and out of my pocket on its own, and then suddenly my legs were free again and I was sprinting out of a cloud of smoke and foam chunks.

I could hear Armsmaster shouting orders to the troopers behind me, dodging sideways just in case. I turned my head to glance behind me at the sound of screeching tires, and hissing – more confoam? – from behind me.

Wait. That’s Dad’s truck!

I didn’t know why he was coming home at this time of the afternoon – oh, right, the PRT must have contacted him, but he’d slewed his truck across the street in front of Armsmaster and his men, giving me more time to run. I felt a surge of guilt at getting him involved in my escape, but mostly thankful –

Something whiffled past, close enough to brush my hair, and thudded into the ground. Was that a crossbow bolt?

I whipped my head back around in time to see a cloaked figure leap from a building ahead of me, dissolving into a mass of smoke as it went. Shadow Stalker. Now what do I do? The blue-silver fire thrummed in my hands, begging to be used. An instinct I didn’t know I had popped into my head apply nanosomes to charge separation, my right hand concentrate electron cache came up trace ionization trail, and lightning leapt from it, blasting its way into the shadows.

A smoking body hit the ground, stifling a scream.

Shit.

I could hear sirens coming, the PRT men coming up behind me, and all I could think of was escape. Another instinct came to my rescue. I lifted my hand again to the building Sophia had leapt from engage vector control, took hold of the roof select tractor mode, and pulled.

I didn’t look back as I left the ground.


Three Hours Later

The trouble with having enhanced intuition as a power, Lisa Wilbourn had often thought, was that for every time it provided useful information that couldn’t be obtained any other way, it also sent her off to act on hunches that were very thin indeed.

Such as the knowledge that based on the patterns of the PRT’s current quiet manhunt, if whoever they were searching for – presumably, the one responsible for the explosion at Winslow - successfully evaded them, they would most probably end up on the Boardwalk.

So here she was, strolling casually through the thinning crowd in the early evening, people-watching and trying not to wince at the snippets of too-personal information her power shoved into her brain.

Not human.

Wait, what?

Lisa stopped as casually as she could after that little revelation and glanced around until her power locked onto… a teenage girl, she thought, nursing a cup of coffee alone at a nearby café. Which is when it kicked into high gear.

Not human. Proportions wrong, too tall. Not used to height. Used to be human. Hiding. Used to hiding, too. Possibly parahuman. Target of search. Depressed. Or… bipolar? Under a lot of stress. Alone. Alone for long time. Needs help.

Well. That was at least two reasons to go over to her table and make conversation. Game face on. Dropping into the empty chair next to the girl, she put on her best friendly grin, held out her hand, and chirped, “Hi! I’m Lisa. And we need to talk.”

The pale face in the hood tilted…

“Taylor Hebert.”

…and a floating eyeball popped out of it.

“And this is Rose.”

Chapter Text

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♦ Topic: New Trigger / Explosion at Winslow
In: Boards ► Places ► America ► Brockton Bay
Bagrat (Original Poster) (Veteran Member) (The Guy in the Know)
Posted On Jan 11th 2011:


Hey, everyone, Bagrat here. If you haven't been following the local news here in Brockton Bay, there's been a public trigger over at Winslow High School. Not many details so far, but there's been some sort of explosion (there's a hole in the side of the building [link]), and at least two people have been taken to the hospital.

Edited: The new trigger is flying low through the streets of the Docks, heading south. She's not talking to, or reacting to, anyone. The PRT are recommending everyone stay out of her way until they're on scene.

Edited: The PRT confronted her at her house, although they aren't saying why. We're still waiting for official information, but rumor has it that she both escaped Armsmaster and took down Shadow Stalker hard enough to send her to the hospital, too. None of that is yet confirmed.

 

 

(Showing page 7 of 17)

 

►Reave (Verified PRT Agent)
Replied On Jan 11th 2011:
All the details of this incident are confidential until an official announcement is made.

The PRT are currently searching Brockton Bay for the new trigger. If you have any information on her location, please call the PRT Incident Line.

►Madfish
Replied On Jan 11th 2011:
Well, that's not Orwellian at all...

►Phobmatic
Replied On Jan 11th 2011:
Phone videos of her trip through town posted [here], [here], [here], [here], and [here].

So, we've got wizards and faeries already. Now we have elves. When did we stop getting capes and start getting urban fantasy outtakes? I PROTEST THIS GENRE SHIFT!

►Vista (Verified Cape) (Wards ENE)
Replied On Jan 11th 2011:

I hope she's not one of the gangers at Winslow. We could use some more capes on our side.

Even rogues or independent villains would be an improvement.

►XxVoid_CowboyxX (Verified Banhammer Attractant)
Replied On Jan 11th 2011:
Holy crap! I know who that is! I was in class at Winslow when she triggered!

[REDACTED]

►Acree
Replied On Jan 11th 2011:
Seriously, Void? How many bans does it take for you to learn the rules?

►Tin_Mother (Moderator)
Replied On Jan 11th 2011:
@XxVoid_CowboyxX

No. Just no. See you in 30 days.

►Antigone
Replied On Jan 11th 2011:
@Vista

If she took down Shadow Stalker, that's not a good sign.

►FlameInMyPants
Replied On Jan 11th 2011:
So, since the PRT aren't talking and we don't know the name they've assigned her, it's time for a naming thread for tall, dark, and elvish.

Galadriel?

►Vista (Verified Cape) (Wards ENE)
Replied On Jan 11th 2011:
@Antigone

Meh.

 

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(Showing page 8 of 17)

 

►Reshelver
Replied On Jan 11th 2011:
@FlameInMyPants Only if she wanted to be sued into the ground by the Tolkien estate. Or turns out to be a villain, but then the name doesn't fit.

Anyway, Galadriel was a blonde. Try Lúthien. Or feminize Fëanor for her. All those blue-white flames surrounding her make "Spirit of Fire" fit pretty well. Lawsuits aside.

►Feychick
Replied On Jan 11th 2011:
Before you start picking elvish names for her, we've got to figure out if she's more the "noble, wise, good, kind, insufferable" kind of elf, or the "terrifying, eldritch, inflicts disproportionate punishments on puny mortals" kind of elf. Or the second coming of Glaistig Uaine.

Or more likely, just a case 53.

►Phobmatic
Replied On Jan 11th 2011:
Don't 53s usually change more than that? Pointy ears isn't much of a mutation. Maybe she's just a Trekkie?

And don't they all have that weird brand?

►Clockblocker (Verified Cape) (Wards ENE)
Replied On Jan 11th 2011:
Or a cookie elf.

►HeIsAnEnglishman
Replied On Jan 11th 2011:
If she put Stalker in the hospital, I pity whoever has to put this elf on the shelf.

►Madfish
Replied On Jan 11th 2011:
@Vista Not much chance of seeing her in the Wards now, after fighting Armsmaster. However tactless he was in delivering the invitation.

►SpecificProtagonist (Verified Freight Broker)
Replied On Jan 11th 2011:
Not just the naming, let the shipping begin! I'm thinking

[REDACTED]

►GstringGirl
Replied On Jan 11th 2011:
@Phobotic It could be hidden under her clothes, but I agree, I don't think she's changed the way case 53's have. And they all lose their memory. She looks like she knows exactly where she's going.

►Tin_Mother (Moderator)
Replied On Jan 11th 2011:
@SpecificProtagonist, you've been warned before. Since her trigger took place at Winslow High School, she's almost certainly underage. Take an infraction.

The rest of you, take the hint.

►CouchLord
Replied On Jan 11th 2011:
I found some video of the confrontation with Armsmaster and SS. [link]

Anyone know who the dude in the truck is?

 

 

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Chapter Text

Even Later That Night

Danny Hebert sprawled across his couch, the night air pouring through the shattered window, and contemplated the wreckage of his life. An open bottle of whisky sat on the table, with an untouched half-full glass next to it, which he stared at unseeing.

Everything he touched had come to ruin.

He couldn’t fix his city. All the years of planning, pleading, practically begging for the resources to reopen the docks, to get the ferry running again, even just to keep the gangs out of the docks or persuade the few struggling businesses that still used them to stay, and still things worsened, year on year.

He couldn’t help his men. Every year, there was less work for the Dockworkers, less work – however far he stretched it – to divide among them. More leaving, to the gangs, to flee the broken city, or simply to despair.

He couldn’t save his wife from the crash that killed her, or from the fight – his damned temper – that preceded it. He couldn’t protect his daughter. Not from the bullying she went through at school, which must have been far, far worse than he could have imagined. Not from his own negligence, the disconnect that had haunted their home and relationship since Annette died. Not from the life of a cape on the run that she faced now.

And now, at the last, he couldn’t even help himself. The PRT men had left him in his home, warning him to stay there, knowing that there was nowhere he could go, and nothing he could do. No way to make up for any of his failures. Helpless. Hopeless. Nothing but bait, now, to lure Taylor in before punishing him for blocking her capture, and then –

He clutched his head in his hands, fingernails digging bloody furrows in his scalp, and groaned in absolute despair.

And then they were there, crystalline structures larger than worlds, spiraling around one another in unnamable directions, fragmenting into thousands of pieces, each a mass bigger than cities, countries, continents.

Voices thundered through his head, each word an encyclopedia in itself:

[DESTINATION]

[AGREEMENT]

[TRAJECTORY]

[AGREEMENT]

And as the two fell headlong towards a familiar world, one fragment plunged right towards him –

 

Chapter Text

I didn’t want to get up. These sheets were incredibly comfortable, and they called me to snuggle deeper under the covers and try to recapture the dreams I’d been having. Dreams of mountains carved into cities, inside-out gardens, proud ships crossing the skies on plumes of blue fire, worlds of blue-green, icy white, yellow desert and dusky rose. And worlds unstained. Worlds where there was no hunger, no want, no gangs, no bullying. Worlds that even death did not touch.

Dreams that left tears in my eyes as I left them.

These sheets also weren’t mine, maroon silk with a ridiculous thread count not being in the Hebert price range – or even the Barnes price range, I thought bitterly – and with that, I was very awake. Good going, Taylor. Following a supervillain home and apparently passing out in her bed is the absolute best move you could have made while being chased by the PRT. You idiot.

There was a key in the door, and a second resting on a tray next to the bed. The first was obvious enough; the other one puzzled me a moment, but looking around I could match it to a security lock on the window – a window with a fire escape outside it.

Rose hummed contently in the back of my head. – Our host has a respect for the subtleties of hospitality. I approve. –

I could at least appreciate having an easy way out. Unless I was intended to relax because I thought there was a way out. The Trio had taught me that. And perhaps she could be sure I wouldn’t leave, having nowhere to go. Or lured in by the prospect of breakfast, the apparently inefficient use I’d made of my nanosomes yesterday having left me with quite an appetite that was making itself felt. Or –

A voice drifted in from the other room.

“If you’re not escaping, breakfast is getting cold!”

Well. Okay. Villainous breakfast it was. I pulled on my clothes, left neatly folded, eschewing the option of a fluffy bathrobe hanging nearby, unlocked the door, and stepped out.


I fell upon pancakes and bacon like the fourth legion at First Lodendar, or possibly a historical reference that was supposed to be in my brain. Regardless, much like its historical counterpart, there was a great deal of messy blade-work, much syrup was spilled, and it provided a convenient diversion – in this case, from conversation while I studied the apartment, and the girl sitting opposite me.

Her apartment was expensively decorated, but spartan. Modern minimalist, all glass and chrome and marble countertops, but most of it looked more like a show apartment or someone’s unvisited second home than a place someone actually lived – except for a few packed bookshelves and a desk, or rather a mountain of paper spilling avalanches of post-its, with a sextet of monitors and a laptop poking through the mound. I presumed that there was a desktop machine somewhere under there, but you could have hidden more bodies among the scribble than the gangs had put on the bottom of the Bay. It was an impressive setup, though, despite Rose’s whisper of “Quaint!” in the back of my head [1].

Lisa, on the other hand, had aimed for aggressively casual, and struck it amidships with her first shot. Dressed in an even fluffier white robe than the one she’d left for me, dark blonde hair gathered in a loose French braid just precisely messy enough, and with the sun highlighting the scatter of freckles across the bridge of her nose, it was virtually impossible to think of her as intimidating. Hell, no-one wearing that bathrobe [2] could be intimidating, but neither of us could help admiring the sheer artistry of it.

After the first rush of hunger had worn off, I stretched out breakfast and a second cup of coffee for long enough to draw a few conclusions and make a few suppositions. At some level, I was aware that these seemed to be coming too easily, but I was in enough trouble already that the gift horse’s teeth could wait a while. Lisa’s smile, meanwhile, told me that she knew exactly what I was doing, but then, I wanted her to.

Eventually, I pushed my empty plate away, took a last sip of my coffee, and looked up at her, head tilted in inquiry.

She grinned at me expectantly.

I grinned right back. You may know something I don’t know, but I know I know something you don’t know…

Lisa only smiled wider. Those green eyes twinkled at me.

I matched her.

And then neither of us could help it, and we both burst out into giggles.

“So,” I said once we’d sobered up, “is this the moment at which you seduce me into villainy?”

Her grin sharpened, growing more fox-like by the moment. “Now why would you possibly think I’d do that?”

“Well,” I said, “you’re hiding me from the PRT, and up until now I wouldn’t have called you to hide a body. Also,” I nodded at the desk-pile, “that desk screams either computer programmer or Thinker, and under the circumstances, I’m betting the latter. So, given the limited number of female Thinkers in this town, that would make you the infamously enigmatic Tattletale, and you’re about to give me the Undersiders’ recruitment pitch. How did I do?”

I wouldn’t have caught the flicker in her eyes if Rose hadn’t highlighted it for me.

“So,” Lisa chirped, “would you be interested in a life of villainy?”

“I always thought I’d go hero, if I somehow ended up with powers. On the other hand, I think I’ve burned down all my bridges with the PRT, and I know just how vulnerable my position is at the moment… so let’s say that I’m not uninterested. That depends on what you’re offering, and what your ulterior motives are.”

“A team to have your back, steady money, fun and profit. No big agenda. We’re thieves, not gangers – we don’t go looking for fights, and we only take from insured targets or the deserving. And do I need another motive aside from how much your powers could bring to the team?”

“Thinker.”

“Fair enough.” She paused for a moment. “I have three, and I’ll tell you one: I can’t resist a puzzle, and you are one. Your trigger physically changed you, which happens to case 53s, but they lose their memory, and you know who you are, and where your house was. You also don’t have the tattoo they all have, unless you’re hiding it under your underwear, and no, I didn’t look. Even my power said ‘not human’.” Her lips curled into a smirk as I reddened – well, blued – and went on. “Honey, you are a mystery in a world that doesn’t have many mysteries for me, and that’s more than enough reason to want you around, beyond having a Mover/Blaster heavy hitter to back us up.”

“You just want me for my minor powers, then?”

“Mover, Blaster… and some Tinker, obviously?”

“A little Mover, Blaster, and Brute mostly as side effects. All the Tinker.”

All the Tinker? How does…” I watched as blood drained from her face. “Oh. Oh, fuck.”

“Yep.” My smile, this time, was mirthless. “They gave me a full colony design library with an unredacted military annex. I’ve got designs for everything from better light-bulbs to interstellar warships. If I ask my little oracle how to blow up the sun, I get step-by-step instructions.” I suppressed a shiver, rubbing my arms. “I terrify myself every time I stop to think about it.”

I could see the exact moment that Lisa’s sudden terror was dragged into an alley and coshed by her curiosity. “They? You remember your trigger?”

“I didn’t have a trigger. I think I was supposed to, but then I got sufficiently advanced aliens instead.” I pulled the note out of my pocket and pushed it across the table.

“You’re serious? You are serious. Or at least you believe it – this isn’t exactly proof -”

“They were very clear that they aren’t the ones handing out powers, but they say there are things clinging to the outside of our universe that are, and they want me to find out for them. In exchange, I got this body, Rose, and a book of instructions on how to make everything, and the suggestion that I might use them to fix the world. And this is where I get to give you my recruitment pitch.”

“Is this the moment when you’re going to seduce me to the side of heroism?”

“Mm, not Protectorate-style heroism, anyway. But if the world’s left me with nothing but villainy to apply, I can do good badly. As it were. And Rose has been telling me all sorts of stories about how to do well by doing good. I think I can promise fun and profit along the way, along with a few perks, like satisfying that irresistible curiosity of yours, immortality, and a clever device that can make anything you can describe.”

“But mostly,” I continued, leaning forward, “Lisa, I’ve got a pair of missions and a head full of ideas, but I’m on the run with no home, no money, and no resources. And I’m no good with people – if you’ve done the research on me I think you have, you know why – or negotiation, or dealing with the world as it is. I need a… a vizier to make this work, and if running into you yesterday was a coincidence, it was the luckiest coincidence possible. I need you. Help me?”

I sat back, and watched as Lisa grimaced in apparent pain, rubbing her temples. “Okay. That’s – that’s for tomorrow. That’s not a no, not yet. But the immediate problem we have is my boss.”

“Your boss?”

She exhaled. “This has to go no further. I can’t – I’m not willing to tell you who he is yet, because if word of any of this got back to him, it would be very bad for me. But I’m not working for him by choice. And the only reason I’m still free is that he has me handle the Undersiders for him. The second I stop being useful in the field, I’ll be a pet Thinker drugged to the eyeballs in his basement, answering questions, and if he finds out that you’re that powerful a Tinker – and Tinkers are hard to hide - you’ll be there right next to me. That was my second ulterior motive. I wanted you to help me take him down, or at least get out from under. But now…”

I thought for a moment, drumming my fingers on the table.

“I think we can work this. I should be able to get by, once established, with much less obvious materiel requirement than most Tinkers. So, say you recruit me as a Mover/Blaster with only very minor Tinker skills, and anything that that won’t hide I bury deep, or disguise as another Tinker’s work. I take some time to build up, then keep doing it while supporting your team, until we’re ready to take him out.”

Lisa’s eyes blurred in thought for a moment, covering her eyes and wincing. I remembered having heard somewhere about Thinkers and their headaches, so stood and began checking the kitchen cupboards for painkillers.

“That could work,” she said finally. “But it’s risky. There’s a good chance that it doesn’t, and we end up dead, or worse. Are you sure you want to get tangled up in this?”

“I’m running from worse already.” I restrained a wild urge to laugh. “But if I help you with this, you help me with my start-up projects, right? A favor for a favor.”

I thought a moment, then turned back to her.

“Also,” I said, tapping my temple, “I get the impression the ones who gave me all this would be very happy to see me using it this way.”


  1. Having access to a constructive proof that P=NP and a quantum processor, the bytegeist considered Earth’s information security not merely quaint, but also endearingly naïve.
  2. Some months later, Taylor would have the opportunity to observe Lung in a pink fluffy bathrobe, with matching slippers. She stands by her statement at this time.

Chapter Text

Tattletale’s Apartment

The silvery liquid in the aquarium shimmered, rainbow sparkles dancing across its surface in the rising heat. In many ways, it was really quite beautiful.

Occasionally, it went “blorp”, as one or another of the junked computers or old machine parts two of Lisa’s team – from whom I had stayed hidden in the bedroom, for now – had brought us settled further beneath the surface.

That wasn’t its real sound, though. That music was reserved for those of us with the right interfaces, a whispery little chorus.

consume. enhance. replicate.

consume. enhance. replicate.

consume. enhance. replicate.

Lisa herself, meanwhile, finished reading the hand-written sign I’d taped to the outside of the tank and straightened up.


Danger! Unprogrammed Nanopaste!

Do not touch. To them, you’re just spare carbon that could be usefully repurposed.

In the event of tank breach… basically, run.


“You’ve been a cape for two days now.”

I looked back at her inquiringly.

“You’re already out of the running for ‘fastest signing of kill order’. Ash Beast and Sleeper got theirs on their first day.”

Huffing, I grabbed a Sharpie and scribbled another couple of lines at the bottom of the sign.


Not independently self-replicating. Require microwave pulsation of specific frequency and encoding.
If your city is currently being devoured by gray goo, we’re not it.


“It’s what I’ve got, Lisa. A necessary first step for everything I can do. And I followed all of the safety protocols very carefully.”

She raised an eyebrow at me.

“Most of the safety protocols.”

She raised the other eyebrow.

“Every safety protocol that I could. Which included all of the most important ones!”

“Okay. I do trust you to know what you’re doing. Just… in future, if you’re going to build any more S-class threats that will make our paranoid, cape-hostile PRT director call for our immediate Birdcaging if and when she finds out about them, please talk to me first.”

Dammit, she was being reasonable at me. I slumped.

“Sorry, Lisa.”

“Also, you owe me a new microwave.”


Across Town, in the PRT Headquarters and a State of Blissful Ignorance

Emily Piggot, director of the PRT ENE and a woman with, as mentioned, more than a little paranoia and hostility towards capes, even heroes, glared across her desk at the senior figures of the local Protectorate.

“How,” she ground out, “could we possibly screw up this much in one day?”

“I take full responsibility,” Armsmaster said. He stood in his usual posture, hands clasped behind his back, but was if anything even stiffer than usual. “I erred in believing Shadow Stalker’s description of events.”

“How did she get around your lie detector?” Miss Militia asked.

“Nothing she said was untrue. It can’t detect lies of omission. Yet.”

“So,” Militia continued, “Shadow Stalker attacked Miss Hebert at school, possibly –”

A knock on the door interrupted her. “Come!”

The door was opened by Aegis, still in full costume. “Ma’am, I –“

“What are you doing here?,” Piggot said, sharply. “You are supposed to be at the hospital, keeping watch on Shadow Stalker.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am.” The Ward dropped his gaze, obviously chagrined. “Shadow Stalker disappeared from the hospital.”

“Disappeared? Or was taken?”

“I don’t know, ma’am. There was no sign of anyone else having been in the room, but there was no sign of how she left. If she left.”

“She left,” added Armsmaster. “I found this” - an obviously steel-tipped crossbow bolt was placed on the Director’s desk – “outside the Hebert house. Since there weren’t any others, I presume this is the one she fired at Miss Hebert when she was escaping. If she’s willing to use this in front of me, she wasn’t planning to stick around.”

“Damn the child”, Piggot breathed. “What do we know about the Hebert girl?”

“We haven’t seen enough of her in action to tell. She has at least low-level flight, or telekinesis strong enough to simulate it, and we’ve seen the lightning she used to disable Shadow Stalker," Armsmaster said. "I’d estimate Mover 2 or 3, Blaster 3, but that’s preliminary. And doesn’t take into account the machine accompanying her that showed up on video of the engagement.”

“But right now, she’s not your biggest problem.” That was Charles Lewis, the local head of PRT Legal. “Her father, the one we have under house arrest? Is Daniel Hebert. Head of hiring for the Dockworker’s Association, except that with the state of the city today, he’s pretty much running the Dockworkers’ Association, which is now doing a lot of jobs outside the Docks. He was quite the firebrand before his wife died, and he’s still active in city politics. Yesterday, I would have said that he could make things very difficult for us if provoked, so handle him with care. Today, I…” He shrugged. “Whatever we can do, it probably won’t be enough. But if he thinks we’re trying to cover anything up, or protect Shadow Stalker, he can bring a world of shit down on the PRT. And you and Armsmaster specifically.”

“The lawyers have spoken.” Emily Piggot’s smile was thin and humorless. “Here’s what we’re going to do. Retask the search for Hebert; she’s now the secondary objective, and they’re to bring her in gently as they can. Limit use of force as much as possible. Primary objective is bringing back Shadow Stalker.

“Then once we’ve got her, we throw the book at her for this, her parole violations, and whatever else she’s been up to. I know you can’t send a 15-year-old to the Birdcage, Charles, but I want her in maximum security until one of us dies of old age.

“Miss Militia. You are now in charge of the Wards. Investigate – not a word, Aegis! – anything that she might have done during her time as a Ward or that any of the other Wards might have helped her with. Armsmaster, you have a new job. This is partly because you missed what Shadow Stalker was up to, do not mistake me, but also because assigning you shows the world we’re serious. Investigate her PRT handler, the principal of Winslow, and tear the damn school apart until you find out what accomplices she had. We can’t prosecute them directly, but nonetheless, I want them prosecuted to the full extent the law will allow.

“Charles, we also need to put together appropriate compensation for the Heberts. Apart from public apologies from Armsmaster and I,” she winced, a grimace of pain crossing her face, “find an offer that will dissuade them from suing us. Give Miss Hebert a free transfer to Arcadia, if she wants it, or a private tutor we’ll pay for.”

“Ask her to join the Wards?,” Armsmaster interjected.

“You – no, Miss Militia, can offer, but don’t push her. The only way we come out of this less dirty is” – her phone rang “– excuse me. Piggot.”

She listened for a few moments.

“Keep me informed. No, no action for now.”

She hung up, and stared briefly up at the ceiling in search of inspiration.

“That,” she said, “was Deputy Director Renick. According to one of the men we left to watch the Hebert house, Daniel Hebert may also have triggered.”

A silence fell. One broken, at last, by an uncharacteristic comment from Armsmaster.

“Well, shit.”


Tattletale’s Apartment

“We may need to have one of those S-class discussions now,” I said. “My plan for hiding my tinkering may not look as innocuous as I’d like.”

Lisa turned away from her computer, rubbing her temples in a way I was coming to identify as ‘this is a Taylor headache, not a Thinker headache’. “Don’t tell me. An army of foraging robots? Dissolving the Boat Graveyard?” A quirked smirk. “Road trip?”

“The big giveaways for Tinkers are usually buying materials, and high power usage, right?” At her nod, I continued. “I can grow roots that solve both those problems. If I go through this wall,” I pointed, “I can drop a pipe down through the utility core, and from there into the sewers. Once they’ve spread out enough, I can get all the material I’ll need – the conventional material – by pulling it out of the wastewater and industrial runoff down there. And I can tap the power grid at thousands of points, so there’s no one place to point to. If anyone notices something, it’ll just be slightly cleaner sewage.”

“Until someone digs up a burst pipe and sees Tinkertech inside it.”

“It’s a covert design. All they should see is a weird-looking slime mold with a taste for metals. Would that work?”

Lisa thought for a moment, that irresistibly vulpine grin spreading across her face. “That would make people think there’s a new biotinker, which is attention you don’t need. Unless – could you write a scientific paper or two on this ‘slime mold’?”

“Probably not, but I can translate one well enough to fake it?”

“Then I can slip it into a few places on-line, and if anyone goes looking, they’ll find some old research on the Brockton Goo: the North-East’s Largest Slime Mold Colony and hopefully, stop looking.”

Chapter Text

While her principal was dabbling with her first venture into nanite farming, Rose danced lightly across the surface of this world’s networks. Her principal’s new partner had politely provided her with the needed identification to access the local wireless network, and in return, she had politely refrained from mentioning that she’d already been accessing the network for the last day. The encryption, after all, was of a type she had been able to solve before reaching her hundredth microsecond.

Or, for that matter, for snooping any more than absolutely necessary through her local files.

But her principal would undoubtedly require information in the course of her mission, and as a muse of the Athélis-12 codeline, she would be absolutely certain to have it on hand. Fortunately, with a core of foamed memory diamond, she had more than sufficient storage space for a world of data: encyclopedias, archives of scientific data, even popular culture was fodder for her curiosity.

She found, too, active networks and signs of the search being carried out for her principal. She dipped in and out of surveillance systems, traffic cameras, and public records, assimilating their structure and leaving little back doors and active watchers behind.

Among those networks, one proved a little more resistant than others – her insinuations met and parried by shifting encryptions, security that updated itself on the fly to counter her probes. A worthy challenge, at last, but one which ran the risk of alerting someone to her presence.

A correlation appeared. Another site on their networks from which she had previously pulled an extensive dump of information concerning this world’s parahumans, and whose security had possessed certain commonalities with the hardened site. Let it serve as a test target for this intrusion.


Well.

This was interesting.

She was almost certain that at this point she had bypassed the automated security of the site, and was dueling directly with the security administrator, but the responses were too fast for the sluggish pace of organic neurons, especially unaugmented ones. Information spaces were the unquestioned domain of her kind, and, based on all the information extracted thus far, she should be the only one of her kind on the planet.

A delightful mystery.


Elsewhere, a remarkably similar set of realizations was taking place.


Private message from Tin_Mother (Moderator) to Rosaceae Ex Machina (Unverified Bytegeist):

[13:59:02] Let’s talk, shall we?

Private message from Rosaceae Ex Machina (Unverified Bytegeist) to Tin_Mother (Moderator):

[13:59:02] Let’s talk, shall we?